chrisdolley (chrisdolley) wrote,

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.

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