Plus de Peur que de Mal
"Are you OK, sir?"
"Yes, I am. Thank you for saving my life."
"Don't panic. Breathe deeply. We’ll get to you very shortly."
Summer in 1987 was exceptionally sultry. But this did not discourage me from staying in
England to complete my MA. I really wanted a mental break after a hectic academic year, but my limited budget and a job to start back home straight after graduation made me decide otherwise. It was only a few days since I moved from an off-campus flat to the top floor of a university tower, vacated by undergraduates leaving for the summer vacation. My main idea was to experience campus life and be close to academic facilities like my department and the Albert Sloman Library.
My experience with lifts at that time was very limited. I had always shunned them, and for superstitious reasons. So strong were these that I preferred the time and exhaustion of climbing hundreds of stairs to lift claustrophobia and risks I was unsure I could handle. It was never easy to explain my strange behaviour to friends and casual acquaintances, but whenever possible—meaning rarely—I used the pretext of exercise. Lifts surely were for the elderly, invalids, and the sick. Not for healthy people like me. Invited to take a descending lift, I would always mock my companion(s): "Don’t they call it a 'lift,' or an 'elevator' in American English? Surely that means it’s for people going up, not down!" But few were prepared to suspend disbelief and give me the benefit of the doubt!
However, it took me only three weeks to give up my daily "exercise" and try the lift. My knees were sore from a thousand stairs and the sweltering heat had made the task even more excruciating. I could hardly walk now like an ordinary human or flex the muscles I once bragged about to my friends. I was returning to my room after a long day in the library, starved and weary. Mercifully, things began smoothly. Indeed, this pioneering experience seemed like an old routine. Inside the lift, I felt reassured and soon overcame my nerves. I pressed the button for the seventh floor. The door immediately closed. And the lift started moving. It felt awkwardly strange, yet this novel situation exuded détente and relaxation. I realized how misguided I’d been about lifts. But positive reflection was soon sharply interrupted by echoes of a new expression I’d learnt that day while reading in the library: "Murphy's Law." Suddenly my thoughts and feelings switched from exhilaration at being in a lift to a pathological feeling of danger and entrapment. I had to act fast. Unaware of its irrationality and consequences, I started wildly pressing the stop button hoping to force the lift to a halt and leave it instantly though I knew I was only half way between the ground floor and the seventh. The lift stopped. But the door refused to open. After an arduous struggle, in which technology eventually seemed to succumb to biology, I forced the doors apart only to realize I was standing before a dark block of concrete. I was trapped between two floors!
Inexplicably, the light in the lift started to grow dim, but I could still see the "alarm" button and the instructions on how to call for assistance. I immediately pressed the relevant button, closed my eyes, and engaged in sombre reflections about my life—its missed opportunities, its faux pas, its moments of loss and grief, its suspended future, and the betrayal of my family's hopes. I thought especially of my mother and the shocking effect news of my death would have on her. I also thought of my siblings. When I had left for postgraduate studies two years before, they had all taken the trouble to accompany me to the airport, their faces aglow with jubilation and pride—I was the first family member to leave
Morocco for further studies. I also thought about how I might unwittingly provide the next day's tabloids with free, sensational material. I started seeing front-page lurid headlines: "Death in University Lift," "Mysterious Death: Overseas Essex University Student Suffocates in Lift," "Suffocation or Suicide? Essex University Student Found Dead in Lift," "Moroccan Student at Essex University Dies Tragically in Campus Lift," among other catchy titles.
With my macabre ruminations reaching their peak, and as I awaited the moment of reckoning—for I saw not a glimmer of hope—I was suddenly awakened by an official-sounding voice that I soon deduced belonged to a sturdy middle-aged man: "Are you OK, sir?" It was undoubtedly real, not the product of wishful thinking. I responded at once, though not sure my words were as articulate and courteous as an official would expect: "Yes, I am," I said, "Thank you for saving my life." He formally announced himself as a university security officer and then stiffly dictated instructions on which I mechanically acted. This was the first time in my life I had thought of a security officer as a Samaritan, not simply as a dim-witted "cop," a dummy, or an agent of harassment. Brought up to respect and fear authority, complacency had soon given way to hatred and rejection. I recalled how I once erased, with the help of correction fluid, the entire dictionary entry for "policeman" and replaced it with "a devil in ugly uniform, otherwise known as blood sucker." My heart began beating vigorously and again I felt my life was suspended. Then a deep sigh, which I interpreted as the officer's cry of victory, reassured me of my deliverance. The door opened and the security officer expressed his pleasure with a grin. But I could not tell if it was an act of jubilation for having saved a life or performed a routine task so impeccably!
All rights belong to its author. It was published on e-Stories.org by demand of Jamal En-nehas.
Published on e-Stories.org on 07/02/2009.