The red wood tables sit with angular indifference in the fifth floor restaurant. The setting’s spines and surfaces mark out the avenues of movement between the opposite bar and entrance to the kitchen as the staff glide gracefully between them. Waiters and waitresses in perfect white garments pulse from chef to customer and back again like snowflakes on the breath of some great beast. The thick windows show the distance to the world beyond and madness of the busy street below as a reminder that this place, ‘The Cellar Door’ is sanctuary. The heavy chairs shift, slide and scrape over the black tile floor, beneath the black tile ceiling making the only accidental sounds to shutter out over the personal whisperings of customers. The space is dark, lit only by dull lamps and candle lanterns with fire that twists and whips orange over blue in the windless room as it would have a thousand years ago. Countless single beacons of glitter and sparkle reflect around the restaurant in the sharpened knives, polished stemware and extravagant hanging jewellery of the guests all dressed in their finest formal attire. Invisible speakers play forgotten orchestra with the thin whine of the violin holding dominance over the low strong drone of a cello.
In the middle of this perfectly groomed eatery sits the hairy man.
He’s silent in the centre with a thick beard so dense that nothing below his nose can be properly washed and the hair from the top of his head is so long it’s tucked into the back of his shirt to hide the extent of his dishevelled appearance. His glass it empty, his plate is bare and he squeezes his elbows in tightly to his ribs to ensure he touches nothing like a frightened flightless bird. No single patron or party glances in his direction unless it’s accidental. No waiter approaches.
“No more!” He screams into the empty space around him and bangs his hands on the table. All eyes watch the disturbance and somewhere a startled socialite drops her red wine. The only sound to accompany the hairy man as he charges out of the restaurant is the shattering of glass. Somehow even the music knows to cease.
“A little too much whisky perhaps?” The tall, thin manager suggests loud enough for everyone to hear as he swoops into the focal point with a grin so sharp it seems to cut his cheeks. Some chuckle and all return their attention to their tables. The barman watches with the obedience of a soldiering dog as the manager pursues the hairy man out the front door.
A minute passes before everyone with any kind of instinct happens to glace up and see the thing fall. A heavy ball of fur drops outside the window like a shag carpet or a haggard wild pony has been tossed from the roof above. A moment of confusion constricts the room and everyone who saw, or think they saw, is crippled by the fear that their acknowledgement of this plummeting figure might make it real.
“What was that?” A man finally asks the nearest waiter.
“What was what?” The waiter replies.
“Something fell, outside.” He continues and the waiter realizes that he’s answering to the entire congregation as all eyes look to him.
“Fell? I’m sorry but that’s impossible, the windows of this building are all sealed.”
“I saw it too.” A woman insists.
“I’m very sorry but nothing can fall from this building. The windows cannot be opened. We’ve had a few…” he pauses.
“Incidences. You must be mistaken.” He finishes.
“Both of us? Mistaken?” The man argues.
“There’s no need for alarm. Now, as I was saying, the rioja is lovely.” The waiter continues but no one cares about the menu any more. The people sitting by the window press their foreheads to the glass but the angle doesn’t allow a view of the side walk directly beside the building.
Within seconds a circus of blue and red flashing lights invade the ambiance through the windows like some kind of colour coordinated alien raid and it’s obvious that there’s a need for emergency vehicles outside. A kind of excited fear creeps into the restaurant and the only people to deny it seem to be staff.
The room is filled with chatter. The polite guests who had previously ignored the other strangers sitting at nearby tables are shouting and barking to one another with speculation and assumptions until the manager returns.
“Everyone quiet down, please, there is no need for alarm.” He asks and all obey out of habit, or perhaps dread.
“I disagree.” A voice follows the manager into the room and with it march five policemen. They stand in a triangle with a confident older man at the pinnacle moving to the table where the hairy man once sat, the only empty table in the room. He stands for a moment and regards its loneliness. He silently sweeps the room with his leer, making eye contact with every patron individually as if questioning without words.
“There has been a suicide, or worse. No one may leave this building until further notice.” He finishes the announcement as two waiters with three meals each bounce through the swinging doors to the kitchen in unison. They ignore the awkward hush in the room and fly past the inspector to deliver the beautiful meals of lamb and beef to a table on the far wall. The trimmed bone and red meat soaking in its own juices adds an inviting aroma to the soundless congregation. When their task is complete they turn, courteously smile and look back at the police. Everyone is stunned by their apathy but the law man continues.
“What’s through there?” He asks no one in particular.
“The kitchen. Would you like to see?” The manager replies. The inspector doesn’t answer, he just charges through like a starving hound. The manager follows.
Suddenly the room is selfish. Spouses tell their partners how early they need to be up the next day, children tell their parents that they’re tired and everyone asks everyone else how long they think this will take.
The manager returns, alone. As he slinks over to the bar people notice his reappearance and wait for him to comment on the situation. He says something to the barman, a secret whisper before turning.
“Well, that’s a little too much excitement for me.” He jokes.
“Unfortunately the police are insisting that no one leave.” He continues. The guests all glance back to the front doors to try and lay some blame on someone they can see, but the policemen are gone. There’s no one left to hold responsible.
“The officers are searching the rest of the building.” The manager explains.
“But, this doesn’t mean we have to have a dull evening. A free drink for everyone! Champagne, beer, lemonade or whatever.” He continues and with this the diners relax a little.
The barman and the manager share an imperceptible nod as the waiters and waitresses begin memorizing each and every person’s favourite beverage. Soon they’re all drinking happily and either waiting for their meals or reading the menu again. No one mentions the slight iron taste to every drink. No one mentions and no one understands.
Time passes. People eat entrees, mains and desserts with practised civility as their bellies bolster and roll out over waistbands. More time passes until the famished anticipation of feasting is replaced by the full and bloated reality of gluttony.
“Please excuse me.” Veronica announces as she removes the cloth serviette from her lap and places it daintily on the table of four.
“I’ll come too.” Mary declares. The two men with them stand out of obligation like diplomats acknowledging a dying tradition.
The pair stroll out of the sanctuary of the crowded eatery into the building beyond. The fluorescent light shocks them and they squint like women waking from a dream. They continue. The carpet below them silences their footsteps and the twists and turns in the corridor hide everything more than a meter ahead or behind. They feel like captors in the silent and tiny winding space. Each corner, each new booth is a fresh cell. A fresh cage.
“I thought the police were out here?” Veronica says. Mary doesn’t answer. The door to the lady’s room finally arrives like a promise they thought had been broken. They enter together.
Now they chatter as they rush the mirrored wall and dip their painted nails into their purses.
“Do you like mark?” Mary asks as she pulls a stick of lip gloss from her bag and begins poking habitually at her face with it.
“Yeah, he’s alright. I know you like David.” Veronica replies through a taught mouth as she stretches her cheeks to dab shaded powder on them.
“Just because I’ve slept with him doesn’t mean I like him.”
They giggle and the echo in the hard space is refreshing. The sound of their own words bouncing back at them off the porcelain is relaxing. It’s comforting, like being the member of a mob. Anonymous and safe.
Then without reason or warning every light globe in the ceiling fails. The pair fall quiet in the darkness. There’s no moonlight or stars to soften the sinister gloom. Just black. An empty cavern five storeys above the earth. A blank place suspended somewhere in the middle of what has been and what will come. Purgatory.
As they reach out and touch each other with tentative terror in the horrible nothingness a rich red light explodes around them. They can see again, but not well. The room is bathed in a peculiar crimson like the emergency hue on a nuclear submarine hiding deep in the bowels of some ditch beneath the sea.
“Well, I can’t do my makeup in this. Let’s just be quick and get back to the table.” Veronica announces as she slips into a stall.
“Yeah.” Mary answers. She stares up at the roof and searches for the origin of the peculiar light. No globes or bulbs. Nothing.
Mary moves to the line of cubicles. The stalls stand tall like alabaster coffins waiting to be filled. She decides to pick the nearest one, use it as quickly as she can without seeming foolish in front of Veronica and run back to The Cellar Door.
She stops. She stares down the line of cubicles in the empty room and feels a new kind of dread reach down to scrape the surface of her sanity. They’re all occupied.
“Ronny.” She whimpers.
“Ronny.” She whimpers a little louder.
“Yeah babe, what’s wrong?” Her friend answers from behind the first door.
“Let me in.”
“Let me in. Now. Now. Open the door, please just open the door.”
“Alright relax.” Veronica agrees as she opens the door. She begins to step back out into the communal space when Mary leaps into the tiny box and slams the door shut again, snapping the lock with a flick of her wrist.
Veronica begins to protest.
“Shut up!” Mary commands.
“We’re not alone.” She stops. They listen.
“Don’t be a baby.” Veronica taunts.
“Every stall is occupied. Every one.” Mary reasons.
Veronica pauses a moment.
“Well, where they like that when we came in? Maybe they’re broken. Maybe the cleaners only left one unlocked so we couldn’t mess the place up too much.” She suggests. A look of embarrassed relief crosses Mary’s face.
“Let’s just look.” Veronica says and she bends to peek under the wooden barrier into the next block.
SNAP! As Veronica’s head nears the threshold the unmistakable sound of a lock turning rings out. The echo radiates as if the room laughed with a mechanical rattle. The women stand dead upright, afraid to move. They stare into each other’s eyes as if waiting for something.
The sounds of creaking bathroom doors scream into the ears of the two doomed souls like a murderous song. Not a single door, but a few. Many. A choir.
Something, some things begin to move on the tiles outside. Mary begins to cry.
Back in the restaurant the manager’s grin grinds into view and the patrons who watch him feel a little unexpected chill in the firelight.
“The bill please.” An old man asks a young waitress.
“Certainly sir.” She replies and in a moment a small part of his retirement fund sits in the leather payment folder and a receipt is stuffed into his pocket.
“Thank you.” He announces as he begins to stand. First he rolls his weight onto his left side and drives upwards. His right knee isn’t strong enough anymore when that leg is bent. Then he shifts his centre of gravity, laying his palms flat on the table and pushing down to help. His left hip isn’t strong enough anymore when that leg is straight. He snatches up his plain wooden cane with both hands and falls onto it for support like he’s been doing for years. Like a vulture falling from flight to the earth, gracefully awkward in his rehearsed shortcomings.
“Thank you”. He repeats as he begins to limp toward the door.
“Sir.” The waitress calls.
“Do you intend to leave us? I believe the police require us all to stay put.”
“Yes.” He confirms without looking at her or slowing his shambolic hobble. He waggles from one side to the other and juggles his walking stick to wherever it’s needed.
“Whatever they think is happening, surely they don’t suspect me. What crime could I commit?” He stumbles a little.
“It would be a crime to hold an old man without reason.” He finishes. The waitress forms a sentence in her mind and prepares to argue when the manager appears. He arrives from behind her and places a calming palm on her shoulder. His absurdly long fingers curl down towards her breast and goose bumps prickle up over her neck. She freezes.
“Let him go. If the police have a problem they may speak to him on the street.” He commands and they smile together.
“Enjoy your evening Stanley, it’s been a pleasure.” The manager calls to him with a bow.
Stanley leaves the restaurant and pauses for a moment to allow his ancient pupils an extra second to adjust to the fresh light. He leans on the wall to rest. Then Stanley pushes forward. He reaches the elevator. As he calls it a little green circle lights up around the button and he hears the gears inside begin to churn.
“Ding”. A pleasant bell chimes to signal the lift’s arrival and the cold steel doors shunt open. He enters and the doors close with a rattle.
The three solid walls of the elevator are mirrored and as Stanley leans on one to reach out with his cane and press the little ‘G’ button his image is reflected a billion times around that space. His strange figure bounces between surfaces in waves as if his outline rippled and resonated out from itself through all time and space. Some kind of never ending impact on the world.
“Ding”. After a few seconds the bell sounds again and the doors open to reveal a plain room bathed in a rich red glow. There are no fluorescent lights, only a deep crimson barely perceptible in the eyes of the old man. Stanley limps out onto the carpet of the main building once again.
“Turn the lights on.” He calls out. No one and nothing answers.
“Ding”. The bell repeats as the doors close and the elevator is called away.
Stanley looks around to find nothing there except for a sign reading ‘second floor’ standing on a thin pole.
“Who pressed the button? Who’s there?” He shouts. Silence.
Stanley turns and calls the elevator again. This time nothing changes. No green light, no mechanical sounds. He presses the button again. Again nothing.
“Damn it!” he barks, this time only to himself. The top of the stairs beckons the old man. It calls to him like a distress beacon, drawing him in. The only other way back to ground level. Stanley shuffles over.
Each step depends on faith and muscles which have proven to be faulty. The staircase spirals around the elevator shaft and each little platform is a triangle, turning like a wooden whirlpool.
Stanley grabs the outside hand rail and leans on it with his elbow. With his free hand he places the base of the walking stick down a step. He leans, he shuffles, he goes. He succeeds with a jerking wobble and smiles at the little victory. Again he copies the movement. One more, another and again. In a minute he can’t see the platform where he began this perilous journey. He only sees the few steps behind and the few below. Just a little further. Just a little further, Stanley tells himself after a few more minutes and many more steps.
His knee is getting sore. His hip is getting weaker. After another minute Stanley’s pride in his own independence is replaced by uncertainty. How far to the next floor? How far has he already come? He counts the stairs he can see below. One, two, three, four and five. It could be no more than fifteen between levels. He shuffles on another five. No change. Uncertainty turns to fear.
“Help.” He whispers, too proud to shout. Nothing new appears and he realises nothing new has appeared since he left the safety of flat ground. This spiral he’s caught up in is repeating itself. Over and over. Wrapping around the elevator in an endless coil the way the mirrors inside that vessel reflected endlessly.
“Help!” He screams. There is no answer. Dead space above and below.
“Help!” Again he cries out.
“For the love of god, please help!” Once more and he puts all his weight onto the hand rail to bang at the borders of his new world with the cane.
“Tap, crack, snap.” It screams for him as it bounces from surface to surface. He grips the walking aid with all the might his fist can muster but it falls. He drops the stick.
“No.” Stanley wails after it as the wooden cane bounces out of sight. He listens. He hears the sound of the bouncing continue, but it doesn’t stop. It just taps on into eternity like a mocking metronome. The ticking of a clock dampened only by the frailty of the receiving ears.
Stanley looks to his free hand to see his fingers hanging like dead snakes. He tries to move them, tries to clench a fist. He fails. The digits just stare back at him defiantly, refusing to obey. He holds the hand in front of his face, begging it without words to please, please work. Then his arm drops to his side as if the ailment were spreading. Stanley whimpers, not understanding. His many years and battles and victories could never prepare him for this.
He stands on stiff legs, wondering what will become of him in this madness place.
Stanley turns his head to look at his other arm. To stare at the support of the wall as if he knows what will come next. Then the arm flops from the steel barrier to his side and his legs straighten to hold his weight, a final stand against whatever evil torments him. His whole body jerks and shakes as each muscle fails one by one like they’re being taken from him.
His crippled figure buckling, an example of life and time and death.
He stands crooked and wounded in the centre of whatever this place is. His arms hang down at peculiar angles. They’re owned by someone else and only held by Stanley.
“Cowards! Whatever else you are, only a coward steals the fight from a man and leaves him only with his weakness!” He bellows to the sky and the earth and whatever in between might be able to hear him.
Now Stanley falls. Collapses in on himself and shatters on the stairs like a thin bottle. Rolling down, trailing his cane. Chasing it into the unknown until the unknown devours him like some terrible sickness or drug.
There’s no reply to Stanley’s screams. Whatever takes him only knows how to steal. To maim. How to harm and imprison the things we need. The things we love.
Back in the world of real things the customers of The Cellar Door sit and converse quietly about everyday topics like sport and relatives. They gripe a little as they peek at expensive watches and mumble with discontent at the lack of information they’re being fed.
“I need a cigarette.” A young man announces.
“Now Chris? You can’t wait?” His mother asks.
“I thought you quit.” His father adds.
“I quit and then I start again sometimes. Who cares, someone just jumped off the roof. I don’t think my bad habits are a huge deal right now.”
“They won’t let you downstairs.” His mother continues.
“Some fresh air sir?” The manager’s voice joins the conversation as he creeps up to where the family is sitting.
“Um, yes. Please.” The young man answers.
“There’s a little fire escape the chefs step out onto sometimes. You’re welcome to join them. It’s just through the kitchen.” Them manager advises.
“Won’t the police have an issue with that?” The father asks.
“I doubt it. As long as you don’t use the fire escape to actually escape.” The manager chuckles.
After sharing an awkward laugh the young man leaves.
“David, do you really think he should be wandering around? You know, with all this going on?” The mother asks.
“He’s twenty three now Lana. He can make his own decisions. He has to.” David answers.
They both look around the room and note the growing number of empty chairs.
“Well, I still think we should go with him. This situation is a little different.” Lana urges. She sees the decision turning in the mind of her husband.
“Why don’t we just go out there and see if we can find a policeman. Then we can make sure everything’s safe.” She suggests.
David takes a deep breath. Pondering.
“That’s not a bad idea. Someone needs to get some answers or we’ll be here all night.” He agrees.
They stand and stroll towards the kitchen. They swing the heavy doors aside to find a tiled walkway leading them from the eatery to whatever staff quarters lay beyond. They continue.
The married couple hears no sound but the breathing and footsteps of each other. They look around but there’s nothing to see. Freshly sanitised walls and tiles. The smell of lemon cleanser. It isn’t long before they reach another door labelled ‘kitchen’. They stand together for a moment and imagine the other side. Arguing chefs and flames roasting meat. They think of small men scrubbing pots and water boiling with evaporative urgency. They think of knives and dirty jokes and quick laughter. Then they enter.
The shock of baron space hits them as they look out over clean and polished steel table tops. Bare workspaces. The pots and pans all hang motionless from little hooks near cold grills. There’s no activity or occupation. No people at all.
They move through the room expecting to find a fryer still turned on or a chopping board left messy to explain how the restaurant is still operational.
“David, I don’t understand.” Lana says.
“David we just ate. I couldn’t clean our kitchen at home this quickly.”
“Let’s just find Chris.” David says as he notices a few mops in the corner, all bone dry.
They move a little quicker now, leaving the emptiness behind as they cross the room and exit through a back door. Lana bites her lip and her nails intermittently with less care as more time passes. David feels the same but strives not to show it. They find the fire escape and charge onto the platform.
Nothing. No one. Just the mocking faces of the stars staring down on them.
“Look” Lana points to a lone ember burning on the end of a fresh cigarette far above. It dangles near the roof and calls to them as a single distant light calls to a lost child in the dark. They can’t see the smoker through the midnight shadows.
“Chris?” David shouts again as they both stumble upwards. They charge forward and scream out in between the sound of their heavy footprints on steel steps. Finally, the ember burns away and they reach a hatch.
A little invitation is scrawled neatly in cursive on the lid. ‘Cellar Door. All Welcome.’
David throws the door open and Lana leaps upwards behind him. They scramble through, running and chasing as they snatch at the air. An age seems to pass with nothing gained. Soon they tire. Motivation leaves them and they forget. Their legs no longer work and their minds no longer worry. They drift. Gravity ignores them and they rise from the world like souls delivered to peace.
They glide mindlessly. Like children returned to the womb they cascade calmly through the emptiness. They can’t see each other but they hear another heartbeat and feel tiny fingers on their skin. Thousands of tiny whispers caress them.
“Welcome.” A voice rattles them from their trance. The first thing they see is the manager. David and Lana are suspended above as he looks up to them with the same vindictive grin he’s always worn so proudly. They hover still and stiff.
They can twist a little and turn to see the pestilent place around them. Far below is some sort of distorted image of the world. Like they lay far beyond any real thing.
Above is something new. Something terrible. A thick gash in reality. A hole of madness and torture dragging the pleasure from all things with flaming tentacles. It pulls them closer to their end. It takes them further from their truth. It sucks the glee from existence. It drinks the love from life and spews back failure as if this burning space was a living, hating thing. A terrible punishment waiting for a reason to inflict an eternity of anguish. A golden hell burning in the sky instead of the kingdom of glory as if nothing we ever did or ever could do would be enough to save us. As if reality was a lie and all choices, all achievements lead here. A reckoning without the possibility of kindness or mercy.
Then they see the hairy man. He exists a short distance from them in a psychopathic spell. He floats in the hollow land and his hair reaches from him like the branches of a tree. It stretches into the bare open air and spindles of the tiny fibres reach out and hold the married couple. The stuff is all around them. It twists and crawls over them with savage loathing. It tares into their hides like worms in the earth or worms in the flesh of dead men. It holds their souls to torture.
They scream as they realise they no longer have control. They cry as they realise that somehow this foreign hairy beast, the man who began their night of torment still straps them to this maniacal place.
The manager laughs and his thin tongue flaps tauntingly between sharpened teeth.
They look away from him to the belly of malevolence where the hair of their hangman holds two women, an old man, a smorgasbord of officers and their child. All are dragged kicking and screaming. All hung, pulled, strangled, throttled and garrotted intermittently by the pelt of the anonymous enemy.
Around the suspended corpses roams every manner of nightmare ever conjured up by the depravity of the human mind. Creatures with misshapen horns and limbs like road kill awoken. Warped beasts with strange teeth like something undiscovered in the horrors of the deepest ocean. Towering giants taking handfuls of happiness and thousands of tiny beings no bigger than insects fighting over the scraps of sanity.
Helplessness and doom.
“Don’t be alarmed!” The manager cries out to the amusement of every demon present and they all move deeper into madness.