Like the verger in Somerset Maughan’s brilliant short story of the same name, I too know exactly what I would have been if I hadn’t become an author. I would have been a liftman.
I left school at 17 with absolutely no desire to go to University. I’d had enough of education. I had a dream of becoming a comedy scriptwriter, but had no idea how you went about becoming one. The school’s career officer was no help. Comedy script writing wasn’t on his list of proper jobs. This was 1972 and Grammar School boys were groomed for University or banking or the civil service.
So, I left school and grabbed the first job going – selling menswear at the Plummer Roddis department store in Bournemouth. Now, I was a person who knew absolutely nothing about clothes – except that they should be garish and preferably purple. And the menswear department at Plummer Roddis was conservative, catering for the older man who liked his suits grey and his shirts white.
I lasted three weeks.
It was a memorable three weeks. The first memorable incident occurring when I tried to impress a female co-worker with how cool I was. There weren’t too many customers around so we started to chat, and I thought I’d go for a nonchalant look, leaning slightly to my right and resting my elbow on a head height glass shelf that was part of a central display. I hadn’t realised that the glass shelf was only resting on the metal supports. Until the near edge of the shelf dropped under the weight of my elbow, and the far edge – with the metal sign attached – rotated upwards and over and whacked me hard on the head. I fell down. It’s hard to look cool when you’re lying on the floor holding your head and everyone around you is doubled up with laughter.
My three-week stint in menswear came to an end after the incident with the leather coat. As stated earlier, I was 17 and had absolutely no idea about clothes. So when a customer asked me if a coat was genuine leather or artificial, I was stumped. And intrigued. How could you tell? This was a question that had never entered my strange teenage world. But I’ve never been a ‘shrug and give up’ kind of person. I’m a born problem solver, someone who loves to use his imagination, whatever the problem.
So, I stared at the coat, examining it from various angles … then pronounced that it had to be artificial.
‘Are you sure?’ asked the woman, ‘I can’t see a label.’
‘Positive,’ I replied. ‘I’ve never seen any animal that shape, so it’s got to be artificial.’
The sad thing about this story is that I wasn’t joking. I was young and in possession of a differently wired imagination – one, perhaps, not suited to interacting with the general public.
So I was moved to the lifts (elevators) where conversation with customers would be confined to simpler topics such as ‘which floor is soft furnishings on?’
I loved working on the lifts. I was given a Waygood Otis 6-person manual-control cage-door lift. Not one of your modern ‘press a button’ type of lifts but a real man’s lift with a lever for up, down and stop. One that you had to line up with the correct floor manually.
It was brilliant. Then it got even better. A relief lift man arrived to run the adjoining lift – there were two at our end of the store – and suddenly new horizons opened up to me. He wasn’t quiet. Or anonymous. He was a showman. He would stride from his lift at the ground floor and announce his lift as open for business, reeling off the floors and which departments they housed. Lower Ground: menswear, linenwear, soft furnishings, bedding. Ground Floor: jewellery, leather goods, make-up, perfume.
He joked, he bantered. He made travelling in his lift an experience to remember.
I joined in. This was better than guessing which species made up a coat. Then I added something of my own. I had the spiel, I had the lift, and no one was going to use the stairs if I could help it. So, if someone walked past my open lift door towards the stairs, I pursued them, extolling the virtues of my mighty Waygood Otis. Step this way, madam, you’ve never experienced a lift like it. And I had the banter. Occasionally, if someone asked if I was going up or down, I’d find myself saying ‘actually we’re going sideways. Hold on everybody, we’re off to Bright’s’ – which was the department store next door.
And I was occasionally psychic.
Instead of asking customers which floor they wanted to go to, I thought I’d use my psychic powers to tell them. The first person I tried this on was stunned.
‘How did you know?’ she asked.
‘I’m a liftman, ma’am. We’re trained to be psychic.’
I also ‘added value’ to the lift experience by borrowing one of the smaller armchairs from the furniture department. People could sit in comfort. Or I could sit and operate the lift with one foot on the lever.
But there was something that I could only aspire to. The ‘Big Lift.’ A mighty Waygood Otis 12 person lift that lived at the other end of the store. Only liftmen with 20 years experience were allowed to pilot her. I used to slip in at lunch times to travel in awe. One day…
And then I had a strange experience. I was piloting my small lift when a woman accosted me. ‘What have you done with Bill?’ she snapped, raising her handbag as if ready to lash out with it.
‘You know very well who! Bill. My husband. You’re in his lift. What have you done with him?’
‘He’s running the big lift,’ I answered.
‘No!’ she said, looking shocked. ‘He would have told me. He’s run this lift for twenty years. He wouldn’t move on without telling me!’
She actually threatened to call the police, but eventually I managed to persuade her that, perhaps, if she walked to the other end of the store she’d see him. Maybe he was keeping it as a surprise?
I was getting so good at my job that after four weeks they allowed me to train a relief liftman. As you can imagine, there’s not really a lot to master when it comes to running a lift. You have a lever that points up, down or stop. And you have a pair of cage doors to open. The only tricky bit is making sure you stop level with the floor. This, was something my trainee had great difficulty with. He’d overshoot, swing back up, undershoot, overshoot.
Each day when I finished my dinner in the staff canteen, I could always tell which lift he was in by looking down the two lift shafts and listening for the laughter. The 70s were a more laid back decade and a journey delayed by your lift bouncing up and down between floors was seen as an amusing interlude.
As was my career as a liftman. My lift suddenly became incredibly popular with career’s officers, former teachers and my family. They’d ‘accidentally’ pop in for a chat. ‘Just passing’ they’d say, and then extol the virtues of university. With my grades, it would be a waste for me not to go. Eventually I caved in and went off to college. But … I could have been a contender. I could have run that big lift. I know I could. If only I’d had the chance.
Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. His novel – Resonance (Baen) – can be downloaded for free here. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .
International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth. Forget Bruce Willis and his team of miners. Send for the kitties!