January 12th, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

The Liftman

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.

How do I know? Read on.

I was 17 years old, I'd just left school and I knew nothing about clothes. So I became a menswear salesman at Plummer Roddis, a department store in Bournemouth. A job which lasted exactly three weeks - i.e. up to the incident with the leather coat.

Now, as previously stated, I knew nothing about clothes. So when a customer asked me if a coat was genuine leather or artificial, I was stumped. How could you tell? This was a question that had never even knocked at the door of my strange teenage world. But I was not a shrug and give up kind of person. I was a person who'd bring the full weight of his differently-wired imagination to bear on any problem. And give the answer before thoroughly thinking it through.

So, I stared at the coat, examined it from various angles ... then pronounced. 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 this shape so it's got to be artificial.'

The sad thing about this story is that I wasn't joking. And the upshot was a swift move out of menswear to the lifts - or elevators for people of an American persuasion.

And this was a real job. 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 great. 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. He wasn't quiet. Or anonymous. Only speaking to ask which floor people wanted. He was a showman. He strode from his lift at the ground floor and announced his lift as open for business, reeling off the floors and which departments were on each. Lower Ground: menswear, linenwear, soft furnishings, bedding. He joked, he bantered. He made travelling in his lift an experience.

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. 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.' At the other end of the store was not two 6-person lifts but one top-of-the-line Waygood Otis 12 person lift. Only liftmen with 20 years experience were allowed to pilot her. I used to slip in at lunch times to watch 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 at me, raising her handbag.


'Bill. My husband. This is his lift. What have you done with him?'

'He's running the big lift,' I answered.

'No,' she said, looking into every corner of the cage. 'He would have told me. What have you done with him?'

She threatened to call the police but eventually I managed to persuade her I hadn't tied up her husband and usurped his lift. But it was touch and go.

As was my career as a liftman. Suddenly career's officers, former teachers and my family would 'accidentally' arrive at my lift for a chat. 'Just passing' they'd say and then extol the virtues of university. It would be a waste for me not to go. Eventually I gave in and went off to college. But ... I could have been a contender - for the big lift - I know I could. If only I'd had the chance.
International Kittens of Mystery

Nous Sommes Anglais - Part 5 - Die Hard 4: The trousers come off

Customs was not what I'd expected. There were no spot checks on the animals, no one tried to match the horses against their Identikit pictures or check to see if we’d smuggled a few extra ones into the back. The documents were collected, stamped, handed back and we were waved through.

Once on the ferry, our next problem was what to do with Gypsy. Animals weren't allowed to wander the car decks and I assumed the same went for the passenger decks. Shelagh volunteered to stay in the cab with Gypsy as she didn't want any breakfast but she'd have to go to the bathroom first, so could I hang on with Gypsy for a few minutes? No problem. I wanted to check on the bow doors anyway.

The car deck soon emptied. Just a few stragglers remained from a coach party behind us. I watched in the mirror as they walked to the side luggage storage area ... and started taking their trousers off.

“Oh. My. God,” I mouthed slowly as I sank lower in the cab, trying to drag Gypsy with me. Alone on a deserted car-deck with a coachload of trouserless Scotsmen!

Why did I say Scotsmen? I thought for a while. Something subliminal? I craned a look back through the mirror. Perhaps it was the large number of blue and white flags and 'SCOTLAND' written in giant letters all over the coach windows.

There were more of them now. All with blue jerseys and flapping kilts. Others were still changing.

That's when the penny slotted between the posts - rugby - Scotland were playing France at the Parc des Princes on Saturday. This must have been the advance guard of fanatical supporters sent on ahead to secure the bars.

And then we were alone again, not a kilt or a trouser in sight. Just acre after acre of cars and lorries.

It was desolate. There's something eerie about being alone in a giant car-park - so many signs of life having once existed but nothing to prove it still did. Like the aftermath of some terrible disaster, only luggage and children's toys left to be seen. Like the Marie Celeste.

I shuddered. Best think of something else. Something to take my mind off the emptiness.

I looked in the mirror again. It was looking brighter outside. Turning into one of those bright showery days with strong winds and intermittent downpours. I could even see the famous white cliffs of Dover, with a decent pair of binoculars I'd have probably been able to see Vera Lynn herself.

Why could I see the white cliffs of Dover?

I was in the car deck, looking through a side mirror. I shouldn't be able to see out. Should I?

Oh my God. The bow doors must be open!

My mind filled with ferry disasters - all neatly numbered and arranged in order of death toll. And was that really the white cliffs of Dover or an incoming iceberg?

I pulled down the window and craned my head outside. A coach full of discarded trousers was all that stood between me and the English Channel.

What should I do?

And where was Shelagh? It must have been ten minutes since she set off for the bathroom.

Unless she couldn't get back. The entire crew and upper decks held hostage by terrorists.

It was going to be Die Hard all over again. One lone man against a boat load of crazed gunmen, his only advantage the fact that they didn't know he was on board. That and his trusty puppy. And, of course, his training, his years in the computer industry. Give him a week and he'd have a ferry booking system designed, coded and up and running.

He was also having trouble with reality.

It was being left alone - it gave the brain too much space to play in. Imagine anyone failing to close the bow doors after all the publicity there'd been.

I could.

But the terrorists had begun to fade - so some progress was being made.

There was only one thing for it. I had to get out and check the bow doors. Just to be on the safe side.

I walked past the coach and looked out.

They weren't there.

Largely because I was looking aft. Thank God, I said to myself as I looked down at the bobbing sea, a considerable distance below me. It would take a tidal wave to swamp this deck.

I scanned the horizon for tidal waves. It could happen. An unexpected earthquake in the vicinity of Dover, the cliffs fall into the sea, a huge body of water displaced and ... tsunami. We'd have bodies everywhere, cars, lorries and floating trousers...

I walked back to the horsebox. Too much space again.

Better to think things through logically. I was alone in the car deck when I should have been having breakfast. Therefore it was Shelagh's fault. This was a much more promising line of thought - righteous indignation. I had been deprived of food - I looked at my watch - for twenty minutes. Was not the European Court of Human Rights created for just such an occurrence?

Gypsy gave me a lick. She understood all about food deprivation.

By the time Shelagh returned I was on my closing speech to the Convention at The Hague. They would show her no mercy.

Especially when they found out she'd stopped to have breakfast.

"You didn't want breakfast!"

"I know ... but Sue persuaded me. And it was free."

I met Sue just as she was coming out of the dining room. I was torn between the merits of extra sausages or fried bread when she stopped me.

"Oh, Chris, Shelagh forgot to pay me for her breakfast. It was £1.95."

I searched out the last of our English money and handed it over. There would be no breakfast for me that day. I turned and walked as far away from the smell of fried food as I could. Ending up at the bow, the bit with the doors.

I think they were closed.

(next instalment: Hello France, Goodbye roof)