The Secret

By Gabrielle Blondell

Harry saw the new building when he was a block away. It’s sleek reflective glass shone blue-grey, the colour of a serious sky. He had decided he wouldn’t be impressed. He’d seem too eager, too wide-eyed, when what he really needed to do was work on his confidence. Still, his eyes did go wide as he crossed the street. He imagined working there, walking into its glassiness every morning with all manner of other serious professionals. Perhaps he’d have a briefcase and a better suit. Grey, not brown.

“Down with Petersen!”

Harry was startled.

“Down with Petersen!”

Harry stopped and watched as a group of men approached the heavy glass entrance doors and were pushed back by two frightened looking security guards. Placards waved above their heads. POWER WORKERS UNITE! A lone policeman joined the guards.

“Down with Petersen!”

A man beside Harry in an enviable black overcoat muttered, “Bloody unions,” and walked purposefully toward the entrance. Harry hurried along behind him.

Another man with ginger stubble on his chin stepped in close. “Government stooge,” he hissed at Harry.

He ran to the elevator still in the wake of man with the enviable overcoat.

***

“So tell me Mr. Wainwright, why do you want to work for the government?”

Harry’s interviewer was an overly clean man, washed and bleached. Everything was scrubbed and polished right down to his perfectly manicured fingernails. He also had the closest shave Harry had ever seen.

“Mr Wainwright?”

“Oh yes,” Harry said scrabbling about for the answer he had prepared earlier. “I want something steady. Something I can work hard at with a possibility of promotion,” he said.

The man nodded. He seemed neither impressed nor unimpressed. “Do you have a girlfriend? We like our people to be the marrying kind.”

“Yes, sir, I do. Josie, Josie Vandervoss. I’ve been seeing her for almost a year.” Harry supposed he had marriage on his mind, after getting the job of course.  A wedding, a house, children maybe.

“Good,” the man said, making a note in the folder.

Harry sat still waiting, a ball of energy in his chest.

His interviewer put down his pen, half-rose and extended his hand across the desk. “Well, thank you for coming in, Mr Wainwright.”

Harry took the offered hand and shook it, expecting his verdict.

The clean man pulled back and sat again.  “You can go now, Mr Wainwright.”

“But I thought you’d tell me.”

“We have many applicants, son. We haven’t finished interviewing yet.”

The ball of energy in Harry’s chest drained away. “How many applicants?”

The man bent to his folder and located a piece of paper. “We have three hundred and twenty-three applicants for the position, son.”

***

Harry waited outside the elevator in a crowd of people. They chatted around him, while he stood boneless. He moved with them into the elevator. One man in a nice grey suit stood by the panel and pressed the buttons as people called them out to him.

“And you, son? What floor would you like?” he asked Harry.

“Ground floor,” Harry muttered.

“Ground floor, it is!”

As people left the lift, Harry found the back wall and leaned against it. He felt so stupid, he wanted to cry. Three hundred and twenty three people. He hadn’t a chance. He watched the numbers above the door glow and then fade again as the elevator sunk to the street. He thought of Josie Vandervoss. He thought of the life he had so quickly designed for them in his head.

Most of the people filed out of the elevator on floor ten and moved off down a hall still laughing and joking. Harry caught a glimpse of the Main Roads Department logo on the wall before the doors closed. Except for a woman who stood resolutely watching the glowing numbers track their downward progress, the elevator was quite empty. That was when it stopped, bounced once and the lights went out.

***

“Young man? Where are you?”

“I’m over here,” Harry said. He felt a movement of air within the small space and the click of a high heel. He had to imagine her approach along the wall of the elevator for there was no light, no up, no down, no horizon. He felt the touch of her hand on his and he froze. Her fingers navigated his palm, orientated themselves and gripped his hand. He felt the length of her nails in his palm. He was careful not to squeeze it. He simply allowed her to hold on. They stood that way for a time, until the lights flickered and then settled into a kind of half-light. Immediately, the woman released his hand.

“I’ll just go to the panel over there,” Harry said, pointing unnecessarily to the buttons near the doors. “We might be able to contact someone.”

“Yes,” she said, urging him on. “Good.”

Harry found a small sprung door in the panel, which opened when he pushed on it. Inside was a telephone.

“Hello?” he said into the receiver.

A voice immediately replied, which was unexpectedly unexpected. “Hello sir. How can I help.”

“I’d like to report that the elevator has stopped and we are trapped inside,” Harry said.

“Well, that can’t be the case,” the voice said.

Harry looked across at the woman, who was still leaning against the rear wall. She nodded to him and her long fingernails fluttered across her chest.

“It is certainly the case that we are trapped in the elevator, sir,” he said.

“Listen, I don’t know who you are young man, but pranks like this are not at all funny,” the voice said.

“I am not pulling a prank, mister. Me and a lady are really stuck in a lift in the new government building in the city, and so I think you better get someone down here to get us out, okay?” Harry said.

The voice was oily and sarcastic, the way Harry’s dad’s could be when he’d come in late from the pub. “You know how I know you’re lying, mate? Those lifts were shut down at the first whiff of the power strike.”

“They bloody were not, MATE! You know how I know that? I’m in one!” Harry had never yelled at an adult and he waited nervously for the outcome. He heard muttering, as if a consultation was in progress. The muttering was rounded out with one distinct sentence. “Mitchell, you are complete idiot!”

“What’s happening?” asked the woman. She had moved around the wall until she was standing very near Harry. He could smell her floral scent.

“Hello sir.” It was another voice now. “My name is Ray and I’m the head of security for the building. I do apologise for my colleague. I will be communicating with you from this point on. Could I have your name please sir?”

“It’s Harry. Harry Wainwright.”

“May I call you Harry?” Ray asked.

“Yes.”

“Ok Harry, we can see that the elevators were not shut down when they were supposed to be. We are working to rectify the problem as we speak.”

“Thank you,” Harry said smiling encouragingly at the woman.

“Now, I need to know exactly how many people are in the elevator with you,” Ray asked.

“Just one other. A woman,” Harry answered.

“Right. Now are both of you physically okay?”

“I think so.” Harry looked across at the woman, who had pulled a cigarette out of her handbag and was lighting it.

“Good. Good. Just hold tight and we will have you out of there as soon as possible.”

“Thanks.” Harry replied and hung up. “I don’t think you are supposed to smoke in here”, he said to the woman.

The woman exhaled a long stream of smoke into the air. “I don’t think lifts are supposed to stop either, so today is an unusual day, is it not?”

***

Harry slid down the wall near the control panel and waited. The woman did likewise directly across from him, arranging her skirt over her legs as he’d seen women do. He tried to focus on the spaces around her, so as not to offend, but still he watched her. Every so often she took a deep draw on her cigarette until there was nothing left of it. He placed her in her forties somewhere. Younger than his mother, but not that much. She was certainly more stylish. She wore a light pink suit and elegant white shoes with high heels. These were not the kind of shoes his mother would wear, nor Josie, who got about in sand-shoes with peace signs hand-painted on them in opposition to the Vietnam War. Beside her was an large plastic-coated carry bag and a smaller handbag, white, like her shoes.

“I’m Irene.”

Harry’s gaze snapped from the bags to the woman’s face. She was examining him openly.

“Harry,” Harry said, meaning to rise. The woman waved him down.

“So why are you here Harry?” she asked, one eyebrow rising high.

“I came for a job interview on the twenty-first floor. Clerk in the Main Roads Department,” he said.

“Did you get the job?” she asked.

“I doubt it,” Harry said.

“Why?”

“There were over three hundred applicants. I haven’t got a chance,” he said.

“Maybe you do. I heard how you handled yourself on the phone just before. I thought you said what was necessary.”

“Thanks.” Harry blushed and looked away. “I think they will call us back soon,” he said, focussing on the control panel and telephone receiver in its little cavity with the door left ajar. Surprisingly, it rang then.

“Hello?”

“Hello Harry. This is Ray again.”

“Hi Ray.”

“Look Harry. It’s taking longer than what we thought. This rolling strike is playing havoc with our fail-safes and we need to get the chief engineer in to sort it out.” There was more muttering to a third party and Harry waited.

“Harry….Harry?”

“Yes, I’m still here.”

“I have to go right now. Something has come up, but I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. Okay?”

A shudder passed through Harry. “Ray?” he called into the receiver, but Ray was gone. He looked directly into Irene’s eyes. They were rounded and brown, a very deep brown.

“What is happening?” she asked, and he could hear her concern.

“I don’t know,” he said without thinking. “No, its nothing. We just need to wait a little longer that is all…..for the chief engineer.”

Irene relaxed against the wall again. “Would you like a cigarette?” she asked. “I don’t really smoke,” Harry said. She raised her impossible eyebrow again.

***

Harry was dozing when he felt someone shaking his shoulder. He opened his eyes to find himself still in the elevator with Irene leaning over him.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” she said, “but I have a pressing problem and I didn’t want you to wake at an inopportune moment.”

“How can I help?” Harry asked.

“You can avert your eyes,” Irene said.

Harry looked at her in some confusion, but then he understood. “Oh yes, oh sorry. Of course.” He stood and turned into a corner, leaning his forehead against the junction of the walls.

Irene’s voice floated to him. “It might help if you hum,” she said.

“Yes, yes,” Harry said, but the first and only song which came to him was a latest hit, You Can’t Always Get What You Want. He persisted with it, humming loudly about Mr Jimmy and closed his ears to all else.

“Thank you, Harry. That was kind,” Irene said.

Harry turned and Irene was once again sitting down with her back against the wall a little way along from him with what he assumed to be the contents of one of her bags placed neatly beside her. In the far corner, was her plastic-coated carry bag, now covered with a scarf. He looked away quickly and he caught her watching him.

“It was the best I could do under the circumstances,” Irene said, indicated the bag. “I’m very sorry.”

“No, no. That’s okay, really.”

“Thank you, Harry.”

Harry nodded. “That’s alright ma’am.”

“Call me, Irene, please Harry,” she said with a small smile. “I think the situation demands it, don’t you?”

“I do, Irene,” Harry said, returning her smile.

They sat for a time in a friendly fashion, but as the silence drew thin, Harry began to surreptitiously study the items Irene had taken from her bag. There was a paperback novel with what looked like a receipt placed in the pages as a marker. There was a small box of tissues, a cloth bag with a zipper, which Harry imagined carried lipsticks and powders and perhaps a small bottle of the floral scent. There was also a buff manila folder with official-looking papers peaking out of it. Placed on top of this was a small ceramic dog.

***

Irene chose this moment to pick up the small dog and hold it in the middle of her palm. “It belonged to an old friend of mine,” she said in a dreamy kind of voice. “I wanted to return it to him one day, but he is gone now.”

“Gone?” Harry asked.

She returned the dog carefully to the top of the buff folder.  “He died.” She said this as though she couldn’t believe it.

Harry sat very still. “How did you meet him?” he asked.

“I was very little. Five years-old, I think,” she said. “Ernest pulled me out of the pond at our neighbour’s house. He was the gardener’s son.” Irene paused and looked at the little dog, but she didn’t pick it up this time. “It was years before I saw him again. I was twelve, I think, and at another party next door. I saw the pond, you see, and I remembered it. I saw flashes of me falling, the bubbles in the water, and when I turned he was there again. He was a young man this time about your age, I suppose.” She smiled across at Harry and shook her head. “It was so strange. I had not thought of him, had not remembered any of it until then and there he was. What would you have done, Harry? Would you have taken it as a sign?” Irene looked over at him, but then her eyes slid away again.

Harry was not one for signs. He’d had very little experience of them, but it didn’t matter because Irene was soon speaking again.

“I thought on it for days after, but I forgot again. I seem good at that. I touch things, I hold things, but when I put them down they are forgotten.”

“You haven’t forgotten that, though.” Harry motioned to the dog.

“No,” she said. “I can’t forget now. Sometimes I wish I could.” Irene stopped then. She studied her white shoes and then looked searchingly at him. “Do you have a secret yet, Harry? One you can’t tell?”

Harry shook his head.

“You may one day,” Irene said.

They stared at each other openly now. The telephone in its little metal cupboard rang.

***

Harry put the receiver to his ear. “Yes?”

“Harry, its Ray. How are things going?”

Harry looked across to Irene. She was looking her shoes again. “We are okay. What’s happening?”

“Well, we’ve hit a snag, mate,” Ray said.

“What kind of snag?” Harry asked. Irene did not look up.

“It seems some new fail-safe has been triggered and we will need to contact the manufacturer in Chicago and that’s presenting a bit of a problem with the time zones as you can imagine,” Ray said.

“Right,” said Harry. “So its going to take a while longer?”

“Yeah, sorry mate,” Ray said. “How are you going for water?” he asked.

“We don’t have any water,” Harry answered.

“But we do have brandy,” said Irene, behind him. She was opening the little cloth bag and withdrew from it a small flask.

“We have brandy,” Harry repeated to Ray.

“Okay then. Can I ring anyone for either of you? Just to tell them you might be a bit late, that’s all.”

Harry thought of his mother or Josie, but decided against both.

“Not for me, thanks, but just hang on a minute,” Harry said, turning to Irene.  “Is there someone you want them to contact to say you will be late?” Harry asked. Irene shook her head.

They sat quietly for some time. Harry thought about this day, then the day before and as far back as he could remember. He searched for signs and found none. No secrets, either. “My life is too boring for secrets,” he told Irene.

“Be grateful for that,” Irene said, offering him the flask.

Harry took a larger mouthful than he intended and felt his throat burn and the top of his head tingle.

Irene smiled. “You know, I didn’t see Ernest again, until I was engaged to be married. It’s funny how life plays its little pranks, isn’t it?”

Harry said nothing.

“Ernest was taller, well-muscled, the way men are when they work outside. I was eighteen then. My father had hired him after our gardener had retired,” Irene said. “It was strange to see him at the roses under my window or out on the driveway clipping at hedges. I couldn’t keep my eyes off him. My mother chastised me more than once for it. ‘Reenie, you are soon to be a married woman and married women need only have eyes for their husbands,’ she would say.” Irene looked directly at Harry. “The closer it got to the wedding the more I saw him,” she said. “We took to smiling at each other when no one else was looking.”

Irene watched Harry still and he knew he couldn’t look away.

“Then one day, there was a terrible storm,” she said. “I was out in the glass house with the orchids when a large tree fell. Glass went everywhere. I felt it in my hair and on my face. I was bare-footed and the floor was covered in shards. Just when I thought I would need to risk my feet, he walked through the door straight up to me and I was in his arms. I kissed him then and he kissed me. We found shelter in the garden shed and we loved each other there. A week later I married Walter as if nothing had happened.”

“Why?” The question was out of Harry’s mouth before he could stop it and it shocked him. “I’m sorry,” he said too loudly into the small space.

Irene shook her head at him. “It was expected of me, Harry, and, even worse, I expected it of me.”

“But why?” Harry asked more quietly.

“It did not occur to me to do otherwise. Making a good marriage is what girls like me did.”

***

Harry sat quietly for a while, but he was thinking furiously. He thought of Josie Vandervoss and the home he had imagined for them. He thought of the job at the Main Road Department and the glass building where he sat presently. He thought of brown suits and grey suits and black overcoats and when he looked up at Irene, she was watching him again.

“So what happened next?” he asked her. “Did you see him again?”

Irene nodded. “I’m ashamed to say I did from time to time. Ernest and I would meet. We would sleep together. We couldn’t not.”

Harry didn’t expect to understand such things, not really. He had held one of Josie’s breasts in the palm of his hand once but that was all.

“He enlisted,” Irene told him, suddenly. “Ernest did. He said it was to get away from me and I am sorry to say I was excited by his need.” Does that make me a bad person, Harry?”

“No,” Harry said too quickly. He felt his own surging need then. He imagined lips and grasping hands.

But then, Irene was speaking again. “My life went on. I had a child, my daughter, Sasha. Walter became a force in banking.” Irene opened her hands which had been clasped before her and looked surprised to find them empty. “Wars are expensive, Harry. Bankers become important.  I would go to tea with their wives and all the while I was enjoying my secret.”  Irene paused then, her eyes distant.  “I was in the city at a luncheon when I saw him.” Her voice grew very quiet as if there was someone might overhear. “He’d seen me first and was standing not twenty feet away, leaning on a door jamb looking at me. I cannot tell you how happy I was.”

Irene’s eyes glittered and Harry decided this was what love looked like.

“I did not do a very good job of disguising it,” Irene said. “Marg Reynolds saw enough to ask me who he was. I lied, of course, and told her I had no idea. She let it go because as Walter had risen, so had I. I was inviolate, Harry. No one would dare question me.”

Harry frowned.

Irene shifted her position until her legs were tucked under her like Josie’s were from time to time. She looked about to speak again when the telephone rang.

It was Ray. “I have some good news, mate,” he said. “We got on to the bloke in the States and he’s told us how to get the elevator moving again.”

“That’s good,” Harry said.

“Yes, it is. A technician is making his way down the shaft toward you and you will hear some moving about on the roof of the elevator. Don’t be alarmed. We just need to reset and check some things and then we will have you out of there.”

“Right,” said Harry.

***

Harry pushed himself away from the control panel and sat beside Irene on the floor. “They will be here soon,” he said. He wanted all of her secret before she was gone from him.

She nodded as if she understood, but then said nothing.

Harry reached out and took possession of the little ceramic dog. It was a hostage of sorts.

“You can have it, if you want it,” Irene said misunderstanding him.

They heard the creaking of footsteps on the roof of the elevator. There was a loud clang of metal on metal.

“How did he die?” Harry asked.

Irene lowered her gaze from the ceiling to Harry’s face, but said nothing. She was already moving on.

Harry tried again. “How did Ernest die, Irene?”

Her voice came to him from down the years. “I wanted to grow old with him. I always thought I would once Walter was gone, but Walter survived him.”

Harry placed the little dog down on the buff folder and took her hand.

“A car hit Ernest on the corner of George and Queen three weeks ago. Nothing could be done,” she said.

They sat hand in hand, both of them staring at the opposite wall.  “I’m sorry,” Harry said.

The elevator jolted and hummed, the numbered lights counting down the floors once more.

Irene squeezed his hand.  “Whatever happens, Harry.  Be fearless,” she said.

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