What could possibly go wrong? After all, Mitch’s idea is quite a simple one. And innocent too. The shopping mall in his town is vast: five floors of bright lights, chrome, glass; acres of products from candles to candelabra, from jumpers to jackets, music to toys. It is also filled with escalators – they too are brightly lit, shinning. They cross-cross between the floors, gluing the whole place together, allowing it to function.
And that’s Mitch’s idea. Most people would take one or two escalators, just the ones they needed to get from A to B. But what if the escalators were made the most important thing in the mall? What if someone chose to go to the mall, ignoring the shops, just to ride them? Could you really ride them all in one session, just once each, no duplicates, no cheating, adhering to ‘the rules’?
That’s the goal. But what starts out as a challenge of one sort soon turns into something much more strange and sinister – and Mitch suddenly finds himself and his new-found friends Suzi and Mr Lee in all sorts of danger…
He had been sitting in the cafe between H&M and the Apple store, overlooking the main atrium of the mall, when the idea came to him.
‘How long do you think it would take to ride all the escalators in the mall?’, he asked Chek as they sat at the bar of “The Inflatable Frog” later. Buried invisibly in the black décor of the walls and ceiling, ageing speakers offered up a stream of old 80s’ and 90s’ music in a bid to invest some kind of atmosphere in the place. It was an environment most people either loved or hated. Mitch hadn’t made up his mind yet, even after all this time. That it was convenient was the best attribute he could currently come up with, sitting as it did half way between where he and Chek worked. Not quite on the way home for either of them, it had still become a haunt they used perhaps two or three times a week. Often their conversation contributed nothing to their well-being or progression through life, especially after a few drinks.
‘What?’ Chek put down a lemon-infused beer and stared at Mitch incredulously.
‘The escalators,’ Mitch repeated. ‘How long to ride them all? In one go?’
‘No; I’m serious! How long?’
Watching the shoppers cross his line of sight, travelling diagonally floor to floor, had been mesmerising. Pale Caucasians looking out of place in their t-shirts and shorts (except for those who had been there years and simply looked like prunes past their “sell by” date), their shapes generally not in step with the slimmer, more compact locals, whose variations on straight dark hair and flat faces marked out their origins for the informed observer. Mitch was equally comfortable – or uncomfortable – with both; an Asian Mother and European Father had blessed him equally, and his breadth of geographical experience had given him what others might have considered an “edge”.
‘There are loads of them. As I sat in the coffee shop today, I could see eight just from where I was – you know, that little row of bench seats right against the glass? Had to crane my neck for the two down near M&S, but there were definitely eight. And that’s just in that section of the mall.’
‘But why? Why the hell do you want to waste your time going up and down in a bloody mall? What’s the point? If it was to pick up girls, then that might be different – in fact I might just join you! – but it isn’t, is it? Can’t be.’
‘Because it’s you, dimwit!’
– * –
At night time the mall is eerily quiet. The only sounds come from the constant ultra-low hum of the cooling systems and refrigeration units as they ensure equilibrium ready for the morning. Most of the shops are in darkness, though a few choose to waste money by burning some of their window lights and signage, as if they might be surprised by a sudden coach-load of shoppers at 4 a.m. and didn’t want to be caught with their pants down. Regularly – perhaps once every thirty minutes in any one location, and at every minute somewhere – the footsteps of the night watchmen, the guards who patrol the subdued mall with their flashlights and batons, just in case.
Occasionally there will the sudden roar from a lift shaft as a guard traverses between floors, though many prefer the automated escalators, now still and silent but always waiting for the footfall that will set them going.
It seems twice the size at night; the definition it is normally awarded is removed by the absence of blazing neon. Shadows are more vague, edges less well defined, and despite the hardness of everything – the floors, the walls, the glass, the frames of doors and furniture and general hardware – it is a softer place; a place where the rigidity of rules is no longer sacrosanct. It becomes, for a short while, a place for ghosts, uncertain images, and memories and dreams. It could almost be a place of escape.
Around five thirty the cleaners arrive, armed with their polishing machines and dusters and mops; and gradually the mall is brought back to life by the injection of light and sound. And voices begin to echo again, and occasionally laughter. At first distinct – a call on level five can reverberate and echo all the way down to a different lobby on level three! – these sounds themselves then blur and become absorbed into the overall thrum.
Yet when the first shoppers arrive as the doors open at ten o’clock, they marvel at the peace and serenity of the place, unaware that in this relative quiet the pulse of the mall has been beating loudly for the last four hours or so.