At my uncle’s holiday apartment in Salcombe, Devon, is a tiny service lift so cramped and claustrophobic that you only use it in extremis: when you have heavy bags to carry up from the car, say, or a pile of sodden wetsuits which need drying on the balcony.
At my uncle’s holiday apartment in Salcombe, Devon, is a tiny service lift so cramped and claustrophobic that you only use it in extremis: when you have heavy bags to carry up from the car, say, or a pile of sodden wetsuits which need drying on the balcony. Otherwise, it’s best avoided. Even the 40 seconds or so it takes to get from the bottom floor to the top are enough to give you the heebie-jeebies. You find yourself glancing at the emergency phone next to the floor buttons and thinking: ‘Jesus, I hope that works. Imagine if this thing ever broke down. It would be like the Black Hole of Calcutta.’
So we’re back from a day’s surfing at Bantham beach, the Fawn, Boy, Girl and I, and we’ve bought our cream tea, which we’ve got just enough time to eat before heading off to Kingsbridge to watch Super 8. Everything has gone smoothly, like a pre-Basra military operation. We’re squashed into the lift, wetsuits, heavy shopping, family of four, we’re whirring slowly upwards, when ‘Clunk!’, the lift stops.
‘Oh really,’ says the Fawn, mildly irritated, to the kids. ‘Did one of you knock a button?’ But I can see that they didn’t and that the button lights have all gone out. ‘No, I think it’s broken,’ I say, trying to keep the dread out of my voice and grabbing for the phone.
I dial the number. It is a recorded message, clearly designed for lift service engineers. It isn’t interested in the predicament of people like us, trapped in lifts. All it wants to know is the engineer’s job number or fault code or some such blithering irrelevance. Great. It’s like crash-landing in the sea and suddenly discovering that there isn’t, after all, a life vest under your seat.
Obviously I can’t let my fear show, not in front of the kids. But I can feel the panic rising from the pit of my stomach — and with reason. The apartment block is empty at this time of day, so even were we to bang or shout no one would hear us. We could be stuck in this awful, squashed, terrifying space for hours.
As a last desperate gesture, I try my mobile phone. The reception’s pretty dreadful in Salcombe, still worse inside a lift, but it’s got to be worth a shot. And yes, amazingly, miraculously, it works. I’m through to my uncle — not that he can do much to help, being miles away, but it seemed somehow a bit extreme just to plough in there and dial 999, because that’s for real emergencies, isn’t it?
When I end the call, I notice how much hotter it has got in just the few minutes we’ve been stuck here. More airless too. Girl is crying. She thinks we’re going to die. I know how she feels. It seriously is very squashed in here — just enough space for the four of us to stand upright. If you chose to let it get to you, you really could get very frightened. Suppose there were to be a fire. What then? I dial 999.
First time round, stupidly, I ask for the police. Then when I ring back about five minutes later to find out what’s happening, because it’s getting even hotter now, and still more airless, and still more claustrophobic, I ask for the fire brigade, only to discover — joy of joys — that they’re already on their way.
All told we’re stuck in that lift for 25 minutes, undoubtedly the least pleasant 25 minutes we’ve ever shared. You do what you can: taking off unnecessary clothes, squatting on your heels because down below the air is a bit cooler, forcing yourself to keep your breathing calm and steady, attempting the crossword. Even then, though, you’re only just keeping at bay the shrieking horror thoughts of how it would feel to asphyxiate slowly in this sweltering metal coffin. God, I think in my worst moments — just imagine how it must have been for the people stuck in elevators on 9/11; or for Jews in those cattle trucks on the way to the camps.
‘Hello? Hello? We’ve come to rescue you. Can you hear us?’ says a muffled, jolly voice at last. And our surge of collective joy is so intense that afterwards we all agree that it was almost worth the preceding horror just to experience the sublime relief of our salvation. Anyone who has ever been through something similar will know just what I mean. Whether it’s the firemen who’ve saved you or the police or an NHS cancer surgeon, you feel the most tremendous gratitude that you live in a country where, when the chips are down, your cherished ‘frontline services’ won’t fail you.
But for how much longer can this state last, I wonder? The government has no money. We are living on borrowed time. And to give you one example of just why this is so, consider this: last year, it was disclosed to an appalled Public Accounts Committee that the last government had blown £469 million on a scheme — the brainchild of John Prescott, it almost goes without saying — to merge 46 local fire control centres into nine ‘state of the art’ centres linked by ‘advanced IT systems’. Like the £11.7 billion NHS supercomputer, the scheme was a total flop, which greatly enriched all the corporate parasites who got in on the scam, but which benefited the taxpayer not one jot.
Prescott is now preening himself comfortably in the Lords; not one of the various civil servants on £150,000 a year or more and ringfenced pensions who oversaw the scheme lost his job. Something to think about hard when the day eventually comes when you’re stuck in the lift — and there’s no fire brigade there to save you.