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by Oli Jacobs.
If there is a Hell, then no better is it defined that the attempt to buy Xmas gifts for a family of 5 – alone – within one of the busiest shopping precincts in human history.
A week prior to the festive event.
And yet, despite the knowledge of this infernal nightmare, Peter Shaw decided to endure this task. He entered his Toyota Corolla armed with a credit card, gritted teeth, and determination, all of which were maxed out within the hour.
Marketlands wasn’t just a shopping centre; it was a town in itself. 5 storeys, almost a mile wide, with maze like boulevards and walkways taking you past every brand, business, and purchasery ever created or considered. From the behemoths of trade, to the unique knack-knackers, everyone seemed to have a stake or stall within Marketlands. When it was built on the vast wastelands outside London, many thought it would just be another modern mall to blight the horizon.
It was so much more.
And now, Peter was reaching the end of his journey. Utilizing one of the many industrial sized trolleys to cart around the various presents he had acquired for his loves, his only goal now was to find some way to get to the multi-storey car park, load up, and hope that he would find the energy for a scotch on his return.
But there was one last twinkling temptation that would grab him before his escape. Conveniently placed – as everything was here – to catch the eye of weary consumers, Marketlands advertised their own ‘Santa Express’. While two young ladies dressed as elves smiled at passing wanderers, a team of gruffer sorts appeared and disappeared behind a red velvet curtain, carrying off huge piles of soon-to-be treats.
The advertising was alluring, not just because of the garish colour scheme; the Santa Express would take your purchases, gift wrap them, and deliver them to your door before the big day, saving you the hassle of loading and unloading at home. The fee was as you’d expect, but the load that this took off the shoppers’ back was worth almost double. Without even listening to the full patter, Peter had agreed, paid, and left his load with the relevant workers. He received his receipt, detailing when the delivery would be made and the full details, and breathed a sigh of relief as this burden was taken from him.
There was only one last thing to do now, and that was to go home.
Much like the main centre itself, Marketlands multi-storey car park was a landmass of itself. Without the correct knowledge and directional skills, one could easily spend hours jogging around its stretches of cars. Little icons signified the free spaces, and mini-treadmills such as the ones in airports took you to the furthest corners.
Peter had all this in mind as he waited for the lift. The Corolla was on Level 4, Blue Section, not even 2 minutes from where the lift dropped him off. As it arrived, and spewed forth more unsuspecting shoppers, he entered and settled back to its rear.
Of course, he then remembered that the lift did not yet read minds, and pressed the button for the 4th floor.
The joy of being alone in an elevator was a rare and shared one amongst many. Being presented now with this option, Peter took it upon himself to lean back once more, close his eyes, and allow a brief moment of Zen to wash over him before the inevitable anarchy of traffic. He thoughts of his wife at home, and his kids no doubt back from their last day of school before the holidays. That itself was a wash of chaos, but for now, he was alone and enjoying the silence.
With such serenity, soon comes something from the universe to shake you back to reality. This came in the form of the lift lurching for a moment, before jolting to a stop. As the doors juddered open – almost to resist doing so – the familiar muzak that accompanied your destination was warped and off-key. Peter was surprised that such an establishment such as Marketlands – which was elite in almost every way – would have such a stain as a dodgy elevator.
Still, with the confidence he was where he needed to be, he stepped out and readied himself for the journey ahead.
As the door creaked closed behind him, Peter took in the parking lot.
It was empty.
And very, very dark.
The latter was not unusual. One of the banes of being within the artificial world of the shopping centre was that day & night were merely concepts for the outside world. There was enough illumination within to trick you into thinking it was a summer’s day, so stepping out into the night was always a shock to the oculars. However, it almost seemed too dark, with far off areas of the parking lot shrouded in shadow.
That was ignoring the quite sizable elephant in the room – the lack of cars present. Peter knew, if lucky, he could see his car from here, but there was nothing. No haphazard vehicles littered between spaces, no other shoppers piling in their ways. Just row after row of empty spaces and green lights to signify their presence.
In these situations, one’s mind jumps to a variety of conclusions. The first would be that you were on the wrong floor, and to re-enter the lift and try again. But while the signage was scratched and disfigured, Peter was sure it did indeed say “4”. His next instinct was to look for his vehicle, but the pure fact that no vehicles were present only made this seem like a fools errand.
Instead, he did what most middle-class consumers would do in these situations.
He pressed the nearby button for assistance.
The circle of tiny dots representing the speaker squealed as he pressed the button, and Peter waited patiently for a response. After a notable second or two, a burst of static came forth, and the inkling of a voice responded.
“Zzzzzzzzz.. o?… zzzzzzzz.”
“Hi, I, um, appear to be unable to find my car.”
“Zzzzzz… ir… Zzzzzzz.. oor are y…Zzzzzzzz.”
“I’m sorry? I can’t quite make out what you’re saying?”
“Zzzzzzzz… Whi… zzzzzzzzzz… n an… zzzzzzzzz.. ten… Zzzzzzzzzz”
The voice made Peter jump, and as he turned around he saw a short, young man in a hi-vis jacket jogging toward him. He was smiling as brightly as people in service roles do, and his torch made bouncing slices through the darkness surrounding them.
“Sorry about that, had to come from the other side of the lot.”
Peter looked out to where the attendant was pointing, but only could only see shadows. It made the parking level seem to stretch on forever.
“So, understand you can’t find your car?”
As if to illustrate this, the attendant shone his torch over the empty lot to reveal the spaces present.
“Dean, by the way,” he said, going to flash a name badge before realising it wasn’t there. “Must have left in the office. Can I see your ticket?”
For a moment Peter was confused, letting Dean stand there gaping a plastered on smile in patience. He soon shook himself out of his stupor, and produced his parking ticket.
With a flash of his torch, Dean analysed the ticket and nodded knowingly. “I see what’s happened. Yeah, you’ve come out at the wrong bit. Happens to us all from time to time. Tell you what, follow me and I’ll get you back to where you need to be, ok?”
“Sure,” Peter said, and watched as Dean nodded his blonde little head, and beckoned him to follow.
It was amazing once away from the lifts, how deep the car park was. Dean cut his torch’s beam across the lot a number of times, but it only temporarily shone through the darkness. It was as if the whole place was wrapped up in a thick fog.
As it was weather-related, it seemed the perfect opportunity to engage in some small talk.
“Certainly gotten dark quick,” Peter said.
“Oh yes, always seems dark down here. Especially when the lights go out, like they’ve done now. Blooming things. I’ve reported it but, you know.”
Peter nodded that he did, indeed, know.
“No stars out tonight. Must be quite cloudy.”
Dean chuckled to himself. “Not much an astronomer myself. You could name me a constellation and I’d think you’re describing a type of pizza.”
There was an awkward silence before Dean followed it up with “Big dipper!”
Peter couldn’t help but smirk.
Jokes aside, they had still not come across the Corolla, and the more Peter stepped away from the well-lit lift area, the more nervous he felt. It got dark the further you mooched through the parking lot, and at times it felt like even Dean’s torch wasn’t enough to keep them illuminated. In fact, the only thing that did comfort Peter was the familiarity of the green sensor lights above him.
However, once a few feet had passed, they too had gone dark.
His concerns were broken by Dean’s deep sigh, as he stood there, torch pointed up, hands by his hips.
“Can I see your ticket again?”
“Sure,” Peter said. While Dean scrutinised it once more, he became frightfully aware of how vulnerable and alone the two men were. Aside from the empty parking spaces, all that surrounded them was black fog.
“We’re going the wrong way.”
“No, I’m sorry. Easy to get lost in a place like this. Reckon it would take you most of the day to chart the whole multi-storey. Although who’d want to?”
Peter just nodded, and started to feel like his guide wasn’t that good at all.
Then again, what other option did he have?
Dean had guided Peter back on themselves, heading in what seemed a parallel direction to where he’d arrived. Of course, it was impossible to tell, as the whole landscape was like drifting through oil.
In spite of the atmosphere, Dean’s enthusiasm never let up. He continued to make small talk, asking Peter about his job, his family, and the reasons he came to Marketlands.
“Well, you know, Xmas and all that.”
“Xmas? Of course! Xmas! Time to load up all the presents and head ho-ho-home.”
“Something like that.”
“Did you not get anything in the end?”
“Sorry? Oh, yes. No, I used the… what do you call it? Santa Express?”
This stopped Dean in his tracks. He spun round and shone the torch in Peter’s face, and then with an apology, moved it away so they could see each other.
Dean had a very cheeky, very creepy smile on his face.
“Did you use the Santa Express?”
It unnerved Peter as Dean just stood there smiling, before the words burst out of his mouth. “Excellent choice! I was there when they were coming up with that one. Was going to be an elf, but…”
He finished his sentence with a shrug, and motioned for them to keep moving.
“So how long you worked here, Dean?”
“Ooh now let’s see. Marketlands has been open now for… 5 years? Give or take a month? I started off doing your usual grunt work and have been down here as an attendant for…”
Dean silently counted before stopping again and sighing.
“3 years,” he said, turning to Peter.
“You bet! Now, if only I could…”
The sound of a can falling echoed through the car park. They still hadn’t seen any cars, but the noise was enough for Dean to sweep his torch over the shadows.
There was nothing there, but Peter caught on that they should carry on carefully.
Peter felt his breath halt for a moment as a small trickle of light bled out from their left. Dean had seen it too, and turned to reassure Peter with his trademark smile. He picked up the pace a bit more, and guided the two of them toward it.
In their enthusiasm, they didn’t hear further rummaging coming from the darkness.
“We’ll check where we are here, and get you back to your vehicle, sir.”
“Thank you, now…”
Again, Dean swept the car park with his torch, and this time something broke the beam. To their right, a few yards from the lift area they were approaching, were a group of 4 to 5 tramps in a circle. When the light hit them, they all reacted accordingly and gazed over at Peter & Dean.
“Just ignore them,” Dean said, scowling as he did so. “Best thing to do.”
Looking at the vagrants, Peter could tell they had been residents of the streets for years. Long hair and beards hung off gaunt faces, and layers upon layers of tattered clothes protected them from the elements. As the light of the torch moved away from them, they seem to retreat back into the inky fog that was so prevalent in the car park.
“Sorry, you were…”
As Dean’s beam swung back toward the lifts, a figure suddenly appeared before them. Peter saw it was a woman, dressed in the same worn clothing as the others tramps. Make-up smeared across her face, and he could not place whether she was a well looked after 50 year old, or the worst of a 30 year old.
“Can you help me? I’ve lost my car.”
“Nope, sorry. Can’t help,” Dean said, pushing past the woman and dragging Peter with him.
“Please. I just need to find it and then I can leave.”
“Well, you should have looked when you had the chance.”
“Please, please. I just want to go home.”
“Just look around, sure you’ll find it,” Dean said. They had reached the lift area and he was now desperately trying the button to summon.
But no numbers pinged, and the dimming of the lights suggested there was something wrong with the power.
“Should we do something?” Peter said, looking back as the woman dragged herself toward them.
“No. Tried to help before and they weren’t having it. Very rude. That’s the problem with some people, you offer them help and they tell you to buzz off. Soon enough, though, they come crawling back.”
“Believe me, sir, she’ll find her way soon. They always do. For now, let’s find your car.”
Sensing Peter wasn’t moving with the swiftness he’d like, Dean stopped, sighed, and lowered his torch.
“Unless you’d like to join this lady in finding her vehicle?”
For a moment, Peter considered it. The woman had stopped shuffling, looked desperately at him through sunken eyes, and seemed to reach out to him. She looked so withered, so frail, that he felt sorry for her.
But, ultimately, he chose to forget about her. It was a trick he’d horribly learnt, living in the city.
As he walked alongside Dean, the little attendant smiled.
“Good choice, sir.”
“No it isn’t.”
“Maybe not, but it is the right choice.”
“No it’s not.”
Dean went to speak again, but thought better of it.
Instead, he directed them in a new direction, as the clattering drew distant in the density behind them.
When the light hit, Peter gasped.
It was obscene, like something out of a film or exhibition. It certainly wasn’t like anything he had seen before.
“I know, sir. Terrible job some people have of parking. Always mean to have a word with upstairs.”
Before the two of them, after turning a corner Peter wasn’t aware of, was a sea of abandoned cars. Everything, from standard family cars to vans, littered the whole of the parking lot, meshed together in a neat and tidy pile-up.
While Dean scanned the area with his torch, Peter stood dumbfounded. There were no people in these cars, and seemingly no way they could have naturally found themselves in this position. It was as if once the first vehicle parked askew, the others followed in tightly packed measure. Where an SUV wouldn’t fit, a motorbike has slot itself in. There were not clear paths, just little gaps between doors and bumpers, allowing tight passage.
And, most bizarre of all to Peter, none were damaged. Just left there, quietly in a mess.
“This way, please.”
Dean hopped over the boot of a Focus, and beckoned Peter to join him, shining a light on where he needed to go.
“Best you keep close to me now. Don’t want you getting lost, eh?”
“I’ll have to live like those folk back there.”
The joke fell flat, until Dean provided the fakest laugh since Peter had attended his brother’s wedding.
Instead, he continued to clamber over vehicles behind Dean, following his beam as he was presented to him. Sometimes they’d manage to find some cars positioned neatly in rows, allowing a small corridor of space between them. Other times, they would find themselves perched on the rear bumper of a 4×4, using the roof to edge themselves along with.
Peter couldn’t help but feel how mad the whole thing was.
What was even more crazy, was the attendant named Dean. As they navigated through the maze of motors, he kept up the small talk about Marketlands. He spoke of where he’d recommend for lunch, which shops were his personal favourite, and, naturally for a man of his age, which of the shop assistants he liked.
“Of course, that sort of lifestyle is purely for those topside. Not for us grunts down in the lot.”
Dean chuckled to himself as Peter prepared to leap over two adjacent bonnets. Sliding over them, he looked up to see a faint light in the distance.
“Perfect,” Dean said.
Peter was just glad they were going somewhere. Taking part in an impromptu obstacle course in the dark was far worse than sitting in traffic, listening to the worst music of the year.
“So you said you have a family?”
“Yes. Wife and 3 children.”
“3! Wow, the perfect combination I bet?”
“Perfect for us. 2 girls, 1 boy.”
“Aw, that’s lovely. Bet they get spoilt rotten.”
Peter smiled. “We do what we can.”
“I bet you do, sir. I bet you do. I can tell. I can always tell who the good ones are. The ones who care, who go that extra little mile. Now they’re the ones you’ve got to look out for. Help unto others as you yourself would wish to be helped.”
“I’m not quite sure that’s the right phrase.”
“Well, it’s the right phrase for now, is it not?”
“I suppose so, Dean. I suppose so.”
“And as if by magic, here we are.”
Indeed, after turning around quite a sizable van, the glow of the lift area burnt Peter’s corneas once more. As he squinted, he caught the digital signage of the lift showing it was in full working order. With a sigh of relief, he dusted himself off, and turned to thank Dean.
Which was lucky, as he still had his parking ticket, tapping it with his torch with a smile.
“Yep, now I see,” he said, handing it back. “Wrong floor.”
“Really?” Peter said, looking at the ticket. “I could have sworn…”
“Trust me, you’re not the first, and you sure won’t be the last. So many people have…”
Dean turned and flashed his torch in the direction of the voice, and once again saw the woman from before.
“I told you, you need to find it yourself!”
“Can’t you help me? Please?”
“Press the button, sir. The lift should be here soon.”
Peter looked in the direction of the beam to see the woman had gone.
Her voice, had not.
“Just show me, please. I can’t find it.”
Dean looked agitated. He skirted the sea of cars to try and find her, but no luck.
“I’ve looked for so long now…”
“Don’t worry, sir. The lift will be here soon. I’ll go see what the fuss is about.”
And as Dean nodded his goodbyes, the lift pinged behind Peter.
As he got in, he looked back to see Dean had already gotten swallowed by the deep darkness that coated the car park. He regretted not saying goodbye properly, but chalked it off to one of those things and pressed the button for “4”.
As the lift doors closed, a set of fingers stopped them.
With a start, Peter saw that they belonged to the woman.
Just as she tried pulling them open and appealing to him once more, something pulled her away and allowed the doors to close. Before Peter could get his head around what had just happened, the lift pinged again, and opened to the familiar sight of where he parked his car, amongst other vehicles.
There were still a couple of shopping days before the big day, and shoppers were now made up of the last minute panic buyers who never seem to learn, but neither seem to care. Consumer sadists who look to pick the bones of stores dry before the discounts appear.
Through the maelstrom of panic buys and desperate searches, Peter Shaw strode through with a small card in hand. He almost revelled in being at peace while those around him lost their heads. He did not miss the combat and clambering, and even felt a pang of guilt against those loaded with bags like a pack mule.
As he walked to the Information Desk, he looked over to one of the points for the Santa Express, and felt like he should go over and thank them. The presents had arrived the day after his experience at Marketlands, all wrapped nicely and inventoried professionally to note which was which.
Instead, he had a more pressing matter to attend to. The last gift that he needed to give.
He approached the desk, and smiled at the young lady working it. After the usual pleasantries he produced the card, and lay it on the counter.
On it, was a name.
“I was wondering if you could get this to one of your colleagues?”
The girl looked at it, and creased her brow in thought.
“Do you have a surname?”
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
“It’s just we have a lot of Dean’s working here.”
“Oh no, of course. Well, if it helps, he works as a parking attendant?”
The girl sat back and racked her brains again, but no light was sparking behind the eyes. She put her smile back on, and motioned for Peter to wait.
“I’ll get the Centre Manager.”
As Peter stood there waiting, he looked over at all the people around him. Despite the carnage, and despite the terror that this year provokes in places such as Marketlands, he couldn’t help notice the good things. The excitement in children’s eyes, the pride of parents. The couples that feel that extra bit loved up, and the random pedestrians who are just swept up in the joy of the whole period.
It was the most wonderful time of the year, Peter thought.
Then he mentally admonished himself for how cheesy that sounded.
“Can I help you?”
The young lady was now accompanied by a not-so-young portly man in a suit. His badge told Peter he was Michael Forrest, and he was indeed the Centre Manager for Marketlands.
“Um, yes, if you could. I was wondering if you could somehow make sure this goes to the right fellow?”
Peter pushed the envelope forward.
Michael looked at it through his glasses, seemed to scowl, before facing Peter again with a big smile.
“Would it be this fellow you’re talking about, sir?”
From his left pocket, Michael produced an ID badge showing a bright, blonde young man beaming with pride in his hi-vis jacket.
Next to him, was the name DEAN.
Peter clicked his fingers in confirmation, and nodded.
“That’s the man. Really helped me out the other day.”
“Oh yeah. Would have been lost in that car park without him. Didn’t fancy spending it with the weirdoes down there, let me tell you.”
“But yeah, please pass it on. Really nice kid. I recommend a promotion.”
“Don’t you worry, sir. It has been noted.”
Peter was pleased to here this. After everything Dean had done, he deserved that little extra boost to his career. God knows he had the customer service skills.
For now, the credit on the gift card would have to do.
As Peter walked away, the girl turned to Michael.
“Who is that?” she said, pointing to the badge.
“No matter,” Michael said, taking the gift card and opening it before handing it back to the girl. “Please refund this back to the gentleman. Any questions, call Shirley. She knows the procedure.
The girl nodded and sat back at her desk, immediately calling Shirley about the procedure.
Michael walked to the back, looking at Dean’s ID in his hand. Every year this happened, and every year he’d produce the badge and be told how helpful the young man was down in the maze of the car park.
Rather sadly, he still hoped that, after 3 years, Dean himself would find his way out.