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U3A Writing: Up The Pole

…“My floor next,” Marek said trying to ease the tension. We were too close for comfort as the saying goes. As he said the words, the struggling lift shuddered to a stop. We were two feet short of floor two.’’…

Derek McQueen’s spooky story involves a situation we all dread.

To read more of Derek’s tales please type his name in the search box on this page.

The Victoria Hotel is just across the road from the main gates of Hyde Park in London, near the Lancaster Gate headquarters of the Football Association. When the TV people are filming at the FA, you can just see part of the Victoria Hotel on the telly. White fronted, with blue canopies hanging over ten huge Georgian windows, the hotel looks very inviting. In every respect but one, it was.

The Victoria was originally built in 1850 as three private houses in a new terrace of elegant family homes in Bayswater. The area had become extremely fashionable through it’s proximity to St. James Palace and the Houses of Parliament. Today a ghost is said to make his way very slowly up the stairs from the wine cellars of house No 3. Nobody knows why, but the man, dressed in clothes of the time, walks only on the second floor corridors. Thankfully we were on the third floor but did wonder if he had anything to do with what happened to us later in the week.

The Italian Gardens, Peter Pan statue and Diane’s Memorial Fountain are just a few minutes away from the hotel, across Bayswater Road. Our decision to book three nights in one of the Victoria’s best rooms was a fortunate choice, to say the least.

The weather was fine and sunny, if a little cold. Walks in the park, before hitting the galleries and museums, would be perfect.

We were uncomfortable with the lift from the start. Bundling our luggage up the steps from the black cab, we checked in without a hitch. The reception lounge was small but comfortable looking and the traditionally furnished ‘Camellia’ dining room appeared to be just to our left. Our room was to be 333 on the third floor.

“The lift is just around the corner, back through the hall,” the smiling receptionist said. “Would you like assistance with your cases?” The Polish accent was a delight.

“No thank you,” I said. “We only have these two. I’m sure we can manage.”

The lift was old. That was obvious. A ‘floor indicator’, above the lift doorway, had once been a moving, clock type, finger. It was next to a row of ancient servants call bells, in a dark mahogany box, high on the adjacent wall.

Ater a few moments, the lobby bell ‘pinged’ and the door slowly opened. Remarkably the lift was only three feet square. ‘Maximum 3 persons’, the sign read unnecessarily. Our two cases and the hand luggage went in without difficulty. It seemed likely that one of us would need to climb three flights to 333.

“If you squeeze in there,” I said, “I can just about move behind there, next to the panel.”

Mirrors, in need of re-silvering, lined the upper sides of the lift, slightly lessening the feeling of claustrophobia. After more shuffling and rearranging of the contents, the door closed and the tired lift slowly creaked and groaned its way from ‘L’ to ‘3’ on the display. I said nothing but noted the position of the alarm bell above button number 4.

*

‘From Russia’, the blockbuster exhibition at The Royal Academy, Piccadilly, was as stunning as the publicity claimed. Amazing that Schukin and other great Russian art collectors were investing in paintings by Matisse, Monet, Cezanne, Gaugin & Renoir in the early 1900’s. Russian artists also turned to Paris for inspiration, spawning the work of Kandinsky, Malevich and others and the birth of ‘abstraction’. The rich mixture of treasures from Russia’s great state collections in St Petersburg and Moscow was pulling in massive crowds. We had difficulty getting round the galleries. Coffee in the RA Friends room was an oasis.

Back to the Victoria via Fortnum and Masons, St James Palace and the park, there were more treats in store – or so we thought.

A young man followed us into the lift. It turned out he was also Polish, but his English was perfect.

“Do you mind if I squeeze in?” he said. “I’m only going up to two.”

“Not at all,” we chorused. “Not a problem,” I went on, ramming myself to the wall to avoid any embarrassing intimacy. “Do you mind doing the buttons?’ My arms were confined to my sides.

Marek - he gave us his name later - pressed the ‘2’ button and the lift jerked upwards. We could put up with this for a couple more minutes surely.

‘First floor’ came up on the panel lights as the lift groaned and scraped its way upwards.

“My floor next,” Marek said trying to ease the tension. We were too close for comfort as the saying goes. As he said the words, the struggling lift shuddered to a stop. We were two feet short of floor two.

The lights flickered and then went out. Only a battery emergency light glowed around the alarm button.

“Just press the ‘2’ button,” I said. “Surely we can’t be stuck.” My anxiety level was rising fast. Marek pressed the button again, then again. In fact he pushed all the buttons as realisation set in. The lift was stuck between floors and we couldn’t get out. It had been grim in there before, now it was panic stations.

Suddenly there was no air.

Marek hit the alarm button and a bell responded in the distance somewhere.

“Someone will be here in a minute won’t they?” Anne said.

The three of us listened for some sign of rescue. Nothing.

“Hit the damn thing again Marek,” I said. “ Keep pushing until somebody responds. This isn’t bloody funny now.”

There was knocking from above our heads, seemingly on one of the lift doors on the upper floors.

“Thank God,” Anne said. We could breathe normally again.

“Someone’s shouting instructions to us I think,” Marek said, straining to hear the muffled message. He was right.

“Reach up and push the trapdoor in the lift ceiling. Just push it to one side,” the disembodied voice went on.

“I’ll do it,” Marek said. “Give me a leg up and I can reach it.”

In a cloud of falling dust he shifted the trapdoor and welcome fresh air rushed into the tiny space. The filthy lift shaft with its ropes and wires was now in full view.

“One of you will have to climb out and stand on top of the lift, but be very careful.”

The unpalatable message was both louder and clearer.

“When one of you is on top, I can lower a rope ladder for you to get to the top of the lift shaft. OK?’’

‘Thank God for Marek,’ I thought. ‘There’s no bloody way Anne or I could get on the lift roof, let alone climb a rope ladder for sixty feet.’

“I’ll do it,” Marek said. “I’m the youngest, but how will my friends get out? They can’t climb.”

He spared us by not yelling our ages up into the eerie void above.

“The lift has stopped because it’s slightly overloaded,” the voice said. “It’s weight sensitive you see.”

“What with three bloody people in it,” I yelled, loosing my rag.
“It’s a hotel lift, not a dumb waiter.”

“Sorry,” the voice said. “It doesn’t happen very often. Watch out!” he went on, as the rope ladder whipped down the shaft.

We hoisted Marek through the opening.

“I think he’s saying that the lift will be OK when there’s just you two in it,’’ he said, grabbing the ladder.

“For goodness sake be careful,” Anne said. Marek had become our friend and possible saviour in the fifteen minutes we’d known him.

Stopping for a breather every few minutes, Marek made his painful and dangerous climb to the top. Dust showered down on us as the rope ladder swung from side to side.

“OK, I’m at the top,” he yelled and disappeared from our view.

After a few minutes, the lift shuddered and started to move. We pressed button 3 and remarkably the lift took us there as if nothing had happened.

The ‘voice’ knocked on the door of 333 a little later to apologise and check that we were none the worse for the experience. There would be a free drink for us in the ‘Camellia’ bar.

Of our Polish hero Marek, there was no sign. We hoped he enjoyed the champagne we sent to his room on floor two.

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