“The bomb is timed to detonate in one hour’s time,” said Jacob, staring ahead, jabbering excitedly, with a wild stare in his eyes.
Rushing towards the lift when it was just about to leave, I had jammed my fingers between the doors so they opened again and allowed me to get inside.
It was the worst decision I could possibly have made.
I did a double-take when I saw who my companions in the metal box were. And as it travelled downwards, to my horror all the lights suddenly went out and we stopped between floors.
Nothing could make us move. The power seemed to have been cut, for pressing every button produced no results and the only relief from the sudden pitch dark was the illumination from Jenny’s mobile phone. We soon found that none of our phones had a signal either, something to do with the design of the lift shaft itself.
“So there’s a good chance we’ll be blown to kingdom come?”
Tony’s voice was sad and weary. My ex-boss was a middle-aged man with a spreading girth, no hair and a lugubrious face like that of an Irish wolfhound. Earlier today we had had a tremendous row and he had fired me. I had only just managed to stop myself punching him in the face.
The other occupant of our little box was Jenny, the girl I’d been working with for six months, with whom I had fallen in love, without receiving much encouragement from her. This morning I had finally plucked up the courage to invite out to dinner, but she had said, “No, I don’t think so, Tom. I’m sorry, but I don’t want to go out with you. It wouldn’t be a good idea.”
I felt as if I’d been slapped in the face, and actually welcomed the fact that since Tony had sacked me I would never have to see her again, and relive the cringing embarrassment and humiliation every time I saw her.
“So tell me, why did you plant a bomb on the fourth floor of this office block?” Tony asked Jacob, as he slid down the wall and sat on the floor, apparently resigned to our fate. “You don’t even work here, do you? So how the hell did you get into the building, anyway?”
Jacob was a very tall and muscular black man of around thirty who couldn’t keep still as he fidgeted all the time and tapped his feet on the floor. “I pretended I was delivering a parcel and sort of sneaked up when no one was looking. You see I did it because when I was a child, all my family were killed in an air attack by Western forces. I wanted to publicise the fact of the terrible things the British government is doing in the war in my country in Africa,” he explained. “I just wanted the world to know what’s happening. See it’s Friday evening, I knew everyone would have gone home – I didn’t intend to hurt anyone, just to destroy a building, so that at last people would know the truth.”
“But what the fuck are we going to do?” Jenny asked.
“We’re probably all going to die soon,” Tony said reasonably, producing a bottle of wine from the carrier bag he had been carrying. “So my suggestion is we get drunk. Nothing is ever quite as bad when you see it though a haze of alcohol.”
“How can you talk about drinking at a time like this?” I demanded.
“I suppose it’s because I think about drinking all the time,” Tony went on reasonably, as he unscrewed the cap of the wine and drank from the bottle. “You see I’ve been an alcoholic for over 5 years now, and that’s why my wife and kids left me. By the way, Tom, I’d like to apologise for all the terrible things I said to you, and for firing you. If we get out of this mess alive, I’d like you to forget what I said. When you told me I was an inefficient old tosser, you were quite right. I’ve always liked you, by the way. I hope you’ll accept my apology.”
“Sure,” I replied. “And since we’re all going to die, I might as well tell you that I’ve always liked you too, even if you are an inefficient old tosser. That’s why I felt I could be so honest with you today.”
“This is so terrible,” Jacob butted in. “It’s fine for me to die for my country. I’m a freedom fighter. But none of you deserve to die. I’m so so sorry!”
Jenny was also sitting on the floor now, and she had found some cardboard cups from her shopping bag and was holding out a couple of them for Tony to fill with wine.
“Well, since we’re sharing our secrets I might as well tell you mine,” Jenny said quietly. “Tom, you probably thought I was a rude ungracious cow today, when you asked me out, and I told you I wasn’t interested.”
“Truth is, I refused because I couldn’t tell you what was going on in my life. I was actually doing you a favour.” So saying, she pulled at her long blond hair and it slid straight off her head, revealing that she was completely and shockingly bald. “Some months ago I started the chemotherapy, and I just told everyone I was having a long holiday. They tell me I’ve got a good chance of beating this illness, but it’s going to be a hard uphill struggle. So when you gazed at my lovely hair, and at my lovely chest, sorry Tom, but they weren’t the real McCloy. It wasn’t fair to expect a man to share all that struggle before he even knows me, when we wouldn’t even be able to do what normal couples do. So that’s why I refused to go out on a date with you, Tom. If I was fighting fit, frankly there’s nothing I’d like better than to go out on a date with you, and to get to know you better. Truth is I’ve always fancied you, and ached for you to ask me out, but you were always so shy, as if you were holding something back about yourself all the time.”
I shook my head in disbelief. She was only around 30, and I pondered at the cruelty of life.
I didn’t say a word, but moved across and sat beside her, putting my hand on hers.
After another ten minutes we’d drunk the first bottle of wine and Tony had opened the second one.
Jacob was crying, hunched in the corner, large tears rolling down his cheeks.
Tony moved across and put his arm around his shoulders.
“Look here, my friend, I don’t know anything about the war in your country,” he told the distraught black man. “But your family were blown up in front of your eyes. That hasn’t happened to any of us, so how can we possibly criticise your actions?”
“Yes, mate,” I agreed. “Tony’s quite right. And let me tell you I’m no saint myself. I’m a killer. I had a fight with a guy three years ago. An unlucky punch knocked him out so his head hit the pavement and he died. I waited for the police, I did all the right things. They gave me a suspended sentence for manslaughter. But I tell you, I’d rather have gone inside for years than suffer the guilt I’ve felt ever since or seen the hatred in the eyes of his family in court. That’s something I can never forget. I moved to the other end of the country, got this job and never told anyone I have a criminal record. So I have no right to work here really. And certainly no right to criticise a freedom fighter.”
It’s a funny thing, but when you know you’re going to die there’s a strange kind of acceptance to it all. You’ll kick and fight to stay alive, of course you will, but once you know the decision is out of your hands nature kind of prepares you. The main thing is that you don’t want to be on your own.
“One thing to be said about me dying now,” Jenny said, already a bit drunk. “No more fucking chemotherapy!”
We all laughed at her joke, feeling the crazy relaxation that only inebriation can give.
So we went on drinking, going on to Tony’s fourth bottle of wine. And soon enough we looked at our watches.
“Well, this is it.” Tony said quietly. “It’s time.”
Without saying anything else, we all held hands in a circle and closed our eyes, waiting for the inevitable. I held Jenny’s hand tight in my own, and Jacob’s in my other hand.
Jacob was the first to open his eyes. He was beaming. “I must have made a mistake,” he said, laughing. “The detonator must have failed. Oh thank God!”
We were all laughing an crying at the same time.
Then, almost immediately, the lights came on and the lift descended to the floor below and the doors opened.
It was all over.
We had quite a reception committee. The security man had noticed the power failure and alerted the police and emergency services. Two men approached Jacob and led him away, explaining to us that he had escaped from the local mental hospital and that he fantasised about planting bombs – he’d done it many times before.
“Well, Tom, see you Monday?” Tony said, his words slurring.
“Yes, mate, see you Monday,” I told him. “Have you ever thought of trying to give it up?”
“Yes, I went to AA several times, but I can never stick to it.”
“Well if you want me to help – I’ll be at the end of the phone when you’re weakening, just let me know. I’ll come round and be with you. I mean it.”
“I appreciate that, Tom. Thank you.”
We did an embarrassing ‘man hug’, and when I looked around I saw that Jenny had gone.
I ran out into the night, but she was nowhere to be seen. Then I walked along the road, and saw her in the bus shelter, sitting on the seat. She was crying.
“I wish I hadn’t told you,” she snapped at me when I sat down beside her, pulling herself together. “I only did it because I thought we were all going to die. I don’t want your sympathy.”
“You haven’t got it.” I told her. “Listen to me. It’s not your hair or your tits that I love, it’s you yourself. If I’d got to know you before you were ill, and then you’d got the illness I would have stuck by you, helped you, I’d have been with you all the way. This has just happened out of order, that’s all it is. Look at it this way: Poor old Jacob’s mad as a bunch of frogs, Tony is an alcoholic and I’m a walking head case, racked with guilt. At least your illness if physical, and you’re going to get over it. I reckon in one way or another all four of us who were in that lift are damaged goods, and we’re all just muddling through, trying to make the best of our lives. And I don’t reckon I can make my life any better without you.”
“God, Tom, you do say some stupid things.”
“I mean it. I want to share your trouble, go with you to the appointments, pick you up from the treatment, listen to you snapping and snarling at me when you’re tired out and in pain, shouting at me and telling me you hate me. I don’t care about that. I’m prepared for that. I just want to be with you. They say for better or worse, don’t they? Well in our case the worse is happening before the better, that’s all.”
“Damaged goods,” she said, smiling once again. “Yeah, I like that. Maybe we’re not the only ones? Maybe everyone in the world is damaged goods?”
I had held her hand as she was saying it. The pressure eased as she let go and just sat there, staring ahead.
But then she took my hand again and squeezed tighter.
(Image by ally j from Pixabay)