by Judy Darley
‘The elevator was invented by a woman in 1852,’ I tell my father when he pauses writing his newspaper article and asks me what I’ve learnt at school today. ‘Her name was Elisha Graves Otis, and she founded the Otis Elevator Company. See, women can do anything men can.’
He looks at me over his laptop screen, his eyebrows doing that weird pinch in, thrust out move that means he’s not sure what to correct you on first.
‘That’s not quite right,’ he says, and I scowl. ‘A version of the elevator, as you call it, was invented more than a thousand years before that, by a man called Archimedes.’ He grabs one of my braids and tugs it lightly. ‘And we know it as a lift, dear. You’ve been watching too much American telly.’
I’m scowling so hard my lips are quivering.
Mum pinches him on the arm. ‘Apologize to your daughter for upsetting her,’ she hisses. I’ve heard them argue about this before – she tells him everyone deserves to feel like a hero, if only momentarily. He believes truth is better, fairer, even to an eight-year-old like me.
He snorts and Mum glares at him. ‘Sorry to upset you, love, but I’m trying to equip you to deal with the world. We can’t always be right, can we?’
I wonder if he’s using the type of ‘we’ that only refers to me.
I want to prove him wrong, so after tea I go online and check Wikipedia. It doesn’t mention the Archimedes bloke Dad was on about, but it does reveal something far worse. If facial hair is to be believed, Elisha Graves Otis was a man.
My heart breaks, just a little.
I look at the black and white photo, and I make a decision, choosing what angle to take on the story I plan to share.
Dad’s in the living room, re-reading his column.
‘Dad, Elisha Graves Otis may not have invented the elevator, but she did invent a special safety brake that stops people dying in them, which is at least as important,’ I declare. I turn around, preparing to storm from the room after my final delivery. ‘And she could grow an amazing beard and moustache! Women can do anything.’
After being made redundant from the paper, Dad stops correcting me on every little thing. I find I miss his pickiness. He says he’s freelance now, which seems to mean he does a lot of writing for free. He calls this writing ‘on spec.’
I stomp downstairs on a weekday morning and find him sitting at the kitchen table, laptop open.
‘Did you know that the First World War began because the band Franz Ferdinand insulted some Austrian duke in 1914?’ I ask, mangling the truth so badly I’m sure he won’t be able to resist feeding me the facts. I pour cereal into a bowl and contemplate it before adding milk. ‘And TV serials are named that because the episodes cram together like breakfast cereal in a bowl.’
He raises his eyes and looks at me briefly. ‘Is that so?’
I stare at him, a shiver going through me so that milk sloshes onto the countertop.
‘Careful!’ he says, but his tone is distracted. I think about spilling some milk closer to him, maybe even splashing his keyboard a bit.
Mum comes in, wearing a smile-lie to hide her concern. ‘All right, love?’ She runs one hand down Dad’s cheek where his sideburns are turning grey. ‘Busy day planned?’
‘Mmm,’ he says, ‘Very. Beth’s coming over. We’re going to work on that feature pitch.’ His eyebrows pinch out and down. I don’t know how to read that expression.
Beth got made redundant in the same wave of cuts as Dad. She saunters into our kitchen with her hair trailing and her breath full of smoke, bracelets clattering. Leaning so close to Dad that her breasts are almost in his face, she scans the pitch Dad has drafted and trills that he’s her hero.
I see Mum’s mouth purse over her cup of coffee and wonder if she remembers her line about us all needing to feel like heroes, if only for a moment. I wonder if she was using the type of ‘we’ that only referred to me.
After school I head over to Dad and Beth’s flat. They’re on the 8th floor of their building. The elevator is an ancient metal cylinder that Beth calls ‘the beast.’ If she’s with me when the doors slide closed, she does a little squeak and pretends we’ve been swallowed. I smile-lie and bite back the urge to remind her I’m 14, not four.
I prefer to ride the elevator alone and think of Elisha Graves Otis. In my head, I paint her with the beard in the Wikipedia photo, but she’s very much the woman I first imagined her as. I envision her running her company, standing at the head of a boardroom telling all her engineers how they’re going to create the device she’s designed.
The elevator doors ping open.
‘It’s me!’ I yell, fake-cheerful, as I let myself into the flat. I go straight into the kitchen and open the fridge door, blocking my view to the living room. That way Dad will have time to get from couch to bedroom and pull on proper clothes if he’s still in his pajamas.
There are cherry tomatoes wizening in the salad drawer, and a Peach Melba yogurt only one day past its sell-by-date. I grab it.
‘All right, love?’ Dad asks, sidling into the room.
‘How’s the writing going?’ I ask, spooning a small orange mountain into my mouth.
‘Oh, great, making real progress.’ Dad’s eyebrows pinch outwards and down.
I used to think that movement showed he was lying, but I’ve come to understand it means he’s trying to convince himself that what he’s saying is true. A subtle difference.
‘How’s school? What did you learn today?’ he asks.
I think for a moment. ‘That the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989 because of an unexpectedly mild autumn. The wall defrosted and all the bricks melted.’
He laughs. ‘End of the Cold War, eh? Clever girl. Gonna to ace those history exams!’
‘In a couple of years, yeah.’ He doesn’t seem to mind my correction.
He looks tired, I think. His grey hair is thinning; I can see his scalp shining through. Mum would have told him it looks distinguished – one of her elevated truths. I wonder if he misses living with us.
I’m still thinking about that when I step into the elevator and press the G that will deposit me at ground level. I watch each floor pass by. Seven, six, five…
On impulse I hit the emergency stop button, sending a silent prayer up to the ghost of Elisha Graves Otis.
She works her magic. The elevator jolts and sways, but slides safely to a halt. It dangles in the lift shaft, awaiting my next instruction.
I type into my phone quickly. ‘Dad! Stuck in lift! Help!!’
I press send and picture the text message zinging in: Dad scanning the screen and jolting upright with urgency. Rushing to save me, his only daughter. Being a hero, if just for a moment.
Judy Darley is a British fiction writer, poet and journalist whose work appears in magazines and anthologies and in her debut short story collection Remember Me To The Bees. Sky Light Rain, her second collection, will be published by Valley Press in 2019. Judy has shared her stories on BBC radio, as well as in cafés, caves, an artist’s studio and a disused church.
Judy blogs at http://www.skylightrain.com, and tweets @JudyDarley.