They recognise each other immediately. At least they think they do – greeting each other with the kind of embrace usually reserved for a reunion, which in many ways this feels like. A few nervous moments pass as they silently try to categorise the person opposite. They both wear name badges and so have no need for formal introductions. They look each other up and down – something normally considered impolite but here it feels acceptable, as though they are merely old acquaintances catching up after a long absence. They share a few jokes about their current predicament, serving as pleasantries before concluding what the other has already concluded.
They do know each other. They just don’t know where from. They are both looking at someone who they find familiar and yet so alien. It cannot be a coincidence that they both feel this way, a shared belief that they must have met previously.
This distraction from their current situation is most welcome. The most probable scenario is that they are looking at a familiar face from their subconscious daily lives. He wonders if they are from the same neighbourhood and convinces himself that she is familiar from an old bus route. She is able to rule this out easily. They live at opposite ends of the city and she cannot stand to use public transport.
He is convinced that the moment of recognition will reveal itself naturally, whereas she suggests a more structured approach. Taking her lead they compare mobile phone contacts and various other social media connections, methodically ruling them out in alphabetical order. She talks of her current career in strategic communication, seemingly fascinated by the people and places that are a part of it. The process for her is both therapeutic and stimulating, continuing through her career path in reverse, determined to find a promotion or role or seminar that can somehow bring them together.
His career is self-explanatory but still he goes through the process of details, conscious that any one of these could be the person or place that might link them together. He goes one step further and details his personal life which in turn prompts her to do the same. Family structures are shared and listed alongside other possible acquaintances. He keeps a photo on his phone of every former girlfriend for no apparent reason. She keeps hundreds of photos on her phone of friends that are long since absent. The faces loop by without any one of them seeming familiar, the numbers and possibilities disorientating.
He listens fondly to her recollections of childhood. Despite having different upbringings they share many similar memories – weekend mornings browsing in local newsagents, darkened rooms lit up by blinking Christmas decorations, LED lights on oversized toys, overwriting copy protection on C90 tapes. The conversation brings these memories alive, one of them always able to fill the gaps of the other to the point where it becomes difficult to separate them. The more they share the more they appear to have led similar and yet separate lives. There is nothing to suggests that a common bond has previously existed between them despite the increasing sense of familiarity that they both share.
They break from the process and return to their current situation. The air is slowly warming and she is beginning to feel the claustrophobia that their conversation has so far managed to distract from. He knows that he cannot delay much longer. A sense of desperation begins to take over and they find themselves swapping phone numbers and lucky numbers and PIN numbers before moving on to the random, anything that might bring the two webs of possibility closer together. They don’t take turns and merely relay the first thought or urge that occurs – how he struggles to iron jeans, how she categorises everything by shape, how he dislikes joke about politics, how she has no real life heroes, and so on.
The process is exhausting. Tired they sit down on the floor next to each other in a perfect fit. He offers her some gum and is not surprised to hear that it is her favourite. He jokes that this could be the afterlife and she responds that he could be a ghost. He responds that she also could be a ghost or a manifestation of his guilty conscience. This makes her laugh and she pinches his arm to disprove such a fanciful idea. Without any conscious approval they go deeper and unburden – fundamental beliefs, deepest fears, dirtiest secrets – delving and unwrapping each other until no more layers are left. Both hung and drawn for the other to see, every possibility is as exhausted as they are. They have reached a natural conclusion and can finally concede to the one thing that they both have in common.
They have both admitted defeat.
Buoyed by this thought their focus switches back to the current situation. He slowly stands to his feet and she applauds as he shakes the numbness from his legs. A hatch exists in the metallic wall which he unscrews and places by her side. Reaching in he can feel the control panel and by touch he can locate the emergency reset. The ground shakes with a rumble and cold air fills the space as they begin to descend.
You could have done that hours ago she laughs
Before he can answer the doors open into a conference centre lobby. The blessing of fresh air is soiled by the presence of a small waiting crowd. Before she re-joins her colleagues they restrainedly handshake in a gesture much more suited to their new surroundings. He watches as she crosses the lobby, subconsciously moving from one possibility to the next. Before she leaves his sight he identifies all of her colleagues by shape.
Once she has gone he leaves the building. As he walks across the car park he takes out his mobile phone and sends her a text using her number from memory. He knows how she will answer and he knows how long it will take. Smiling he places his toolkit back into his van and takes his paperwork from the dashboard, wondering how to account for the past five hours.
Forty minutes later his manager enters the same lift, accompanied by the conferencing facilities head who is threatening to put the maintenance contract out for tender. The reported vandalism is impossible to miss. The graffiti covers three of the interior lift walls with two hand drawn tree structures emerging from opposite walls in an ever increasing spread of names and numbers. The various branches spread outwards up to the ceiling and across the back wall, almost symmetrical to the ones forming on the opposite side of the lift.
They move closer to inspect the damage and detail. As then branches spread and increase in number the scribbling becomes harder to identify. The names and numbers progress into emotions and seemingly random sound bites. The extremities become less focused and difficult to conceptualize, yet there still appears to be a hidden complexity. Despite their obvious purpose the two paths never quite meet, the extremities passing each other like holding hands that never quite touch.
On the left hand wall she locates the root, the seed from which everything else grows.
Charlotte it says in small tidy writing.
Moving across to the opposite wall she locates the root of the second structure. She finds the name and rubs it out with her sleeve. There is a pen in her top pocket and she takes it out and furiously clicks it several times.
She will fire him in the morning.
Charlotte reads the text some fifteen minutes earlier.
She received it not long after her release from the lift but only now has the courage to read it. It has already made the journey feel longer that it ought to. A part of her is hesitant – the same part of her that has already laid herself bare so many times, the same part of her that is so sore on the inside – but as she reads will you marry me on the screen she rejoices, and it’s the other part of her, the part of her that thought that he would never ask.
Banner Image: D M Dickson own work.