As much as I enjoy spontaneous fire drills, running out of a not-burning building to the sound of a high-pitched alarm clock has never been on my list of things to do before I die. Why not? Because it made me feel like a school pupil again and frankly, I’d rather be fixing a paper jam. At least I’m beginning to get familiar with that territory. It wasn’t the spontaneous fire drill which shook me up this afternoon however; rather, it was the being trapped in an elevator for an hour with thirteen people. Some maintain that it was forty-five minutes, but I’m of the opinion that people start to sympathise with you more the longer you suffer. So yes, we were stuck for an hour.
Condensation was beginning to form on the mirror and the shiny steal interior. A few people started playing finger hangman to pass the time, to distract their thoughts from burning buildings and oxygen denial. Hysterical laughter filled the prison cage as screams pierced the increasingly humid interior of the elevator which juddered and swung, shaking the nerves of each passenger who held on tightly to his or her belongings. The air beneath our feet seemed to be dropping as the elevator fell and then jolted in a disturbing rhythm. Except we weren’t harnessed in, and we certainly hadn’t picked the ride.
It was like in those horror movies where everyone thinks they’re going to die; where hurried notes are written to relatives, endowing them the entirety of their will. Except we didn’t have Tom Cruise on our backs, ready to save the day. Some started banging on the doors, crying out for help as others fumbled with jumpers, coats and jackets as the heat began to rise, elbowing their neighbours in the process. Mobile phones with signal were swapped as frantic phone calls were exchanged with friends, colleagues and the fire brigade. Quiet sobs were heard coming from different corners of the elevator as the pain began to hit home. This was no longer a game – this was getting dangerous.
We were desperately looking for an escape access, hoping we’d be able to dismantle a hatch and climb into the elevator shaft towards safety. But there was no secluded exit route; no strategy we could employ to break out. Sweaty fingers attempted to ply open the doors of the elevator, but to no avail.
Half an hour passed and claustrophobic attacks ensued. Pearls of sweat dampened each forehead as pores bulged open in the heat. Breathing became coarser as the air thickened and became a haven of fear. Talking became louder and blaspheming commenced as the tension rose and faces grew panicked by the second. Was this really it for us? Had we reached the end? The elevator lights glared at us ominously, exposing us at our weakest moment.
I was envisaging tomorrow morning’s headline: “13 die in elevator as onlookers ignore persistent pleas for help”. “You have to let us out!” one man cried. There was no way that we’d be able to stay here much longer. We were headed in a downward spiral and there was no-one to reassure us of our fate. Anger mounted and nostrils flared as the fire brigade refused to help. We were stuck in time-lapse and the oxygen depraved air was beginning to take its toll. This was steadily becoming a perilous farce.
Suddenly, the elevator collapsed as the weight of its occupants shrouded its ability to move steadily. Five minutes went by and relief was mingled with panic. We had reached the ground floor, but were we still in this alone?
Slowly but surely the doors of the elevator which had previously eclipsed all day light began to move. As we stepped down into the reception, our breathing grew shallow and hungry as we consumed copious amounts of oxygen. Heads rolled in circles and we stood, as thirteen disoriented anglo- and francophones, desperately hoping we would never be denied access to the staircase again.
So I survived to tell the tale. This was not exactly how I’d imagined getting stuck in an elevator. There was no topless hunk to stare at to take my mind off the pain and there certainly wasn’t any air conditioning. I depressingly watched my hair inflate in the humidity. My beautifully straightened hair. Good thing I took out Insurance, I thought, because my brain needs rehab.
Talk about the Year Abroad as a character-building exercise.
Watch this space.