Harry wasn’t really supposed to be wandering around the hotel on his own, he knew. The likeliness of getting mobbed by screaming fangirls had only multiplied over the past few years. But he had had Hannah the makeup girl do her thing with the foundation and the contouring or whatever, and that combined with his hat and scarf wrapped around the bottom half of his face made him nearly unrecognisable.
Or at least, he thought so. Harry checked his reflection in the side of a vending machine as he ambled past. None of the staff around him, sweeping and carrying bags and the like, seemed to recognise him, so he figured he was okay.
The other guys hadn’t woken up yet. They’d been driven through the night across the channel to arrive in London this morning. Harry has woken up hours ago, lying there in the dark of the bus, listening to his four best friends breathe.
Or in Niall’s case, snore.
It felt good, the anonymity. Nobody pestering him to get back to the dressing rooms or fans wanting photographs or a signature or a hug. Honestly, he’d never tell any of them to leave him alone, but now that they were he was kind of enjoying it.
There were a couple of people walking around the hotel, mostly sleepy headed and dragging luggage.
Harry didn’t dare go down to the lobby – even being shepherded in at quarter past five in the morning there had been a screaming crowd there. Harry kind of grimaced at the thought of how much they seemed to inconvenience all the other guests in the hotels they visited. Still though, they were only here for five nights.
Five consecutive sold out nights in Wembley Stadium. Wow.
Harry grinned to himself and turned around a corner. There was a lift in front of him. He thought for a moment, walking towards it in the quiet of the hotel corridor. Maybe he’d go down to the gym, get a workout in before breakfast. Maybe go to the roof and stand on the balcony for a while. The view was supposed to be rather good.
He pushed the button with his thumb, calling the lift. There was a moment of silence. Then the sound of muffled but quite enthusiastic singing rising towards him. Harry stared at the lift doors.
What the actual hell-
There was someone in the lift, and they were singing. Quite heartily. Harry grinned into his scarf. It was a girl and, although he didn’t recognise the song, she had a strong voice.
A very good voice, in fact.
Okay, maybe an incredible voice.
She hit a powerful note just as the lift reached where Harry was standing, then span off down a scalic flourish as the lift doors opened.
Harry peered in, grinning a little. There was a girl standing in the back corner with earphones in, not looking at him. She was still singing under her breath, possibly unaware that he had heard her, possibly just unbothered.
Harry cheerfully stepped into the lift and clasped his hands behind his back, leaning on them and watching the girl curiously. The lift doors closed and he didn’t think to press a button.
“You have a great voice, y’know,” he said, after a moment of her staring down at her phone.
“What- sorry, excuse me – what?” She hooked one finger around and earphone and pulled it out, blinking up at him.
“Aahah, nothing. Just – you can keep singing if you want to,” he said, stomach fluttering a little bit. She wasn’t by any means the prettiest girl he’d ever seen – hanging around with various models and Kardashians and high-flying members of the music and film industry had kind of made Harry impervious to physical beauty, though. This girl was beautiful in the genuine, soul deep way: like her thoughts and temperament were the make-up which graced her features; habit and articulation supported her posture as well as any well-co-ordinated outfit.
After staring for a moment, she grinned at him wickedly and he realised that, very unusually, she wasn’t actually wearing any make up.
“Thanks,” she winked at him. Then put her earbud back in.
Harry found his mouth rising into a fascinated smile as he watched her eyelids fall over the tips of her irises and a sound fluttered up from her chest and through her mouth.
It wasn’t long before words shaped sound and she was singing again. With her whole heart and soul.
Harry found himself watching her face as she disappeared into the music. It was if she was physically retreating back into a world which he could only see through the window of her voice. Retreating was the wrong word though – she wasn’t retreating: she was running there, dancing there, reaching and spinning and soaring.
Harry had a good voice and he knew it. But he also knew that just like superficial beauty and an authentic gorgeousness, the difference between a good vocal performance and an incredible all-around performance was a little spirit.
And she had a lot of spirit.
What a weird thing to do though, to stand in a lift with a complete stranger and sing your heart out like that.
Harry nearly chuckled. What had he found here, he wondered.
He watched her some more.
He wondered what she was singing. It didn’t seem to be a regular song; there was a steady beat which she was tapping out with her fingers, but strange occasional breaks between verses. And the tune was an unsteady one – in the same way that a mountain stream is unsteady – young and ever drawing from a water-table for depth and formation as it cascades over a landscape.
And the lyrics – man, they were something else. Harry almost wanted to interrupt her and ask for the name of the artist. He had to have more of this.
But almost nothing would have made him stop her mid-flow.
There was an almighty jolt and both parties in the lift lurched and flailed, arms out and grabbing the sides of the lift as the box swung and smacked violently into the chute wall.
“Oh my God-“
The two of them breathed into silence, their initial yells of surprise ringing like an ugly curse in the hollow suspense that comes after an unexpected development.
Harry was staring in alarm at the floor. The silence stretched out. The lift seemed at a skewered angle.
“What the hell just happened...” he said through his scarf.
“You know, I think we’re-“ she pushed herself from the edge of the lift and took a step in. The entire lift juddered and swung. “God, yes, okay-“ she grabbed the edge again. “I think one of the cables has snapped-“
“Oh my God-“
“-We’re hanging on by a single thread hahaha-“ she slid carefully to the floor, pushing herself into the corner and sitting down, making herself comfortable.
“What should we do?” Harry said aloud, staring at her. She was tangling her earphones and tucking them into a pocket of her jean shorts.
“Uh, try not to upset the balance and wait for help,” she said, nodding at the floor. A gesture and an invitation, like she owned the floor and had saved a space for him.
“Huh,” he sat down. “You’re quite... unfazed by the whole thing...?”
She chuckled. “I am not afraid of a broken elevator...”
Harry stared at her. She’d just pulled a hairband out of her hair and was now shaking her fingers through it, pulling it apart and brushing it with a kind of understated abandon, evidently aware of their perilous position in the elevator shaft. Her hair looked quite knotty, but it didn’t detract from her gorgeousness.
If anything, in fact, it added to it. A kind of queen’s tiara of ruthless negligence about her head.
Harry let out a heavy breath. God, Paul would eat him alive. He stared glumly at the metallic doors on his left, struck as he ever was by the funny sense that chance and happening had absolutely no sense of status: this could happen to anybody.
Still though... there were worse people to be stuck in a lift with.
“Sorry, what’s your name?” Said Harry, swinging his mostly covered head back to the girl and her sky blue Lacoste.
She paused with her hands in her hair and caught his gaze. And then held his gaze. She wore knowledge like eye-shadow and lip gloss, and it had a more powerful illuminating effect than any brand Harry knew.
“Hi.” Harry wasn’t sure he was entirely comfortable in this kind of spotlight. There was too much of the poised leopard in her expression. He was about to reciprocate her bluntness with a simple question, but she suddenly asked.
“Do you know the words to Little Black Dress?”
“The lyrics. Little Black Dress. Recite them, please.”
Before he could quite react appropriately, Harry found himself singing his own song, distracted by the angle of her wrists, curving around her ankles. Then she held up one of those hands.
“That’ll do. Thanks, Harry, darling. You can take off the scarf and coat as well. You’re gonna boil.”
Harry stared at her. Then found himself grinning.
“Okay, how did you know it was me?” He gladly pulled off his needless disguise. She didn’t answer the question.
“You, my friend, are an exercise in brinksmanship. How far does one threaten to know you before one meets you? And how far does one retreat once knowing? Who knows. Maybe you should keep the hat on. Maybe I should keep my mouth shut and pretend to never have seen you before in my long eighteen years. Maybe God shouldn’t’ve cut the bloody elevator cables. Who knows,” she laughed and stretched her legs out into the middle of the lift, flattening herself along them.
Harry found his eyes were hardly a wide enough lens to bring into focus her every fantastic aspect. His whole mind could not capture her singular air and grace, every lyric of her body and tongue. He was not a person enough to grasp a character like this. Harry wondered if those earlier words had been anyone else’s after all, peering up through her breath-taking voice like water reeds in the Nile.
Harry was fascinated. He found himself almost terrifyingly longing to touch her bared forearms, stretched and elevated above her calves, folding her neatly into a gymnastic pose.
“So... who are you, Arabella? I like your name... like the Arctic Monkeys’ song...” He was hardly aware that his question was as abstract as her own speech, matching her obscurity for obscurity at a pace he could hardly sustain.
She threw back her lovely head at that and laughed. “Yes, like the Arctic Monkeys’ song-“ she started singing, piercing him with a steady eye contact.
He joined in.
“Arabella’s got a 70’s head – but she’s a modern lover – it’s an exploration – she’s made of outer space. And her lips are like the galaxy’s edge. And her kiss the colour of a constellation falling into space-“
Air guitar seemed as much her element as existing. She swung her hair and shoulders in a way that made the floor and walls shake, and Harry was thrilled again at the sight of something that could only be the embodiment of music. He found himself with a sort of sympathy for the ancient Greeks; here was a Goddess who carried her art in every curve of sound and physicality. A sort of sensuality that leaked from the unimaginable purity of expression that was stuck inside her.
What a body. What a voice.
How could Harry continue to doubt the existence of the soul – was he to mistrust his eyes? And how could any soul not gravitate towards another, when a hope of greatness lay in simple observation of her venerable existence? He found himself closer to worship and closer to burning than anything he’d ever understood before.
“My days end best when the sunset gets itself behind that little lady sitting on the passenger side- it’s much less picturesque without her catching the light. The horizon tries but it’s just not as kind on the eye.”
They finished the song together and closer than ever before. Some kind of tightness had entered the lift, like a binding was taking place, a soldering, a joining. Of what, Harry had no idea. But he hoped it wasn’t the elevator cables.
Not yet, anyway.
She laughed again, pushing her matted hair back out of her eyes. Okay it was knotted, but it looked healthy. In the way that wilderness does. Not sad and unattended, but populated – renowned.
“Who are you,” repeated Harry, silently, to her, stuck in a rut until her answer would be unveiled in mercy.
“I am... Arabella...” she mused, untying her shoes. She wore no socks beneath them. “I am an excellence, and I am an impending fatality of the clash between the menial and the predestined. I use too many definite articles and not enough discretion. I am a sort of secondary Jay Gatsby, raised on the powerful observations of better men and spoilt by the scaleless money of high-profile housewives. I am a self-aware Gatsby, standing in the dust and nodding like a forewarned priest who knows what lies inside Genesis 3:19.”
Harry raised his eyebrows. “And what is in Genesis 3:19?”
She smirked. “From dust we came, and to dust we will return.”
“Hrm... well that’s a cheerful comment on our mortality,”
She laughed, and Harry felt a sort of pride like he’d never known before at being buried at the root of her mirth. “Cheer comes in the patterns of the wind, Styles. Something as translucent as a breeze can match joy word for word when it tosses our ashes into indelible shapes.”
They both sat in silence for a moment. She was not looking at him, but he was looking at her.
The she chose to speak again. “Personally I prefer the subtleties of a certain translation of Ecclesiastes 3: ‘all are from the dust and all turn to dust again.’ It’s as if we are not citizens of this, death’s dream kingdom, but wanderers. Guests in the land of the living. We are on exodus from the domain of our ancestors, don’t you think.”
“I feel like that isn’t a question.” Harry’s chest constricted as he addressed her.
“Nor is that, darling,” she nodded to him, smiling gently.
Enraptured, Harry replied. Again and again and again he replied. All beyond the elevator walls was lost to him, for the whole universe sat by his side and here he was, in dialogue with the stars. Privilege swayed him to keep talking, despite the unenlightened shadow of his own contributions.
“No, but what did you mean – our ancestors – what does our past have to do with our futures?”
“Ah, you’ve adopted the collective. Good. We are at odds with each other on the space-time continuum, but I’m glad we can agree that dust is not dust when it differs from itself.” She curled back up again, knees beneath her chin. “I think our ancestors have everything to do with both the past and the future. And the present only remains unaffected insofar as it occupies a minute span of a century or so. D’you reckon we all live in the present our whole lives? Or were the Egyptians right to spend their lives fulfilling the cost of death.”
“Another non-question.” She smiled down at her bare feet, patting against the elevator floor. It was a bit grimy, a bit gritty. And yet the calluses on her soles were obvious to Harry even from a mile away. Harry tried to focus himself, and to think through the haze. “I don’t know, Arabella. I don’t think I understand you... And I know I don’t understand who you are. Give me a straight answer to my question, and I’ll give you a straight answer to yours.”
He left the demand swinging like a damper between them, absorbing all the instability and shock from the elevator, making their ground as steady as ever while the whole world spun around them.
Her eyes were hazelnuts: uncrackable.
“Are you looking for the boring parts, Harry? Because what I am now is a culmination of thus far achieved dreams. What I can be and what I intend to be is entirely more spectacular than who I am.”
“Well then... after you’ve told me the ‘boring parts’, you can tell me… what you are.”
“And then you can tell me whether you’d rather die into a gilded sarcophagus than live in a perpetual sandstorm.” Her smile was all cheek and no muscle. His was all joy and no gladness. She nodded once, a marker of control, out on the landing strip in the pouring rain, the only one holding the lights. “Right, well. I’m Arabella. I’m rich. I’m eighteen. On the periphery of adulthood and at the final destination of childhood. Except – I don’t know if you found this when you turned eighteen, or if you find this every year – that I have arrived at this borderland only to discover that my passport is invalid and that I’m entering into a land where nobody is of any nationality at all. People cling to dated documents as if it’s not enough to simply not have a clue. This seeking asylum in a land of no language – ach, it frustrates me endlessly,” she flicked her problems like a droplet from the ends of her fingers, and Harry did not doubt it.
She huffed, and the motion was superbly dismissive. “But enough about me. Now for what’s in me.” She scooted around to face him directly in their suspended box.
“Wait – you hardly said – what do you, um, do?” Harry, despite his fame and fortune, really held the mundane and commonplace safely in his grasp. He gained a disturbing sense that things like the dirt on school shoes was as alien to Arabella as her delicious piquant was to the regular palate of them that lived on bangers and mash.
“What do you mean?” She blinked a little.
“I mean – like, are you at school?”
“Ah. No. I dropped out of school as soon as I possibly could.” She said the sentence without due meaning.
“Why?” Harry’s curiosity probed depths that led to strange places. Places where Arabella could or could not go.
“Because it did not interest me. I escaped Academia, and I did not want a conventional job-“
“Aha I can believe that.” Harry was leaning ever further forward
“Hahah. Yeah. And I was born into both fame and fortune, and I want neither-“
“I don’t need them. I didn’t want school. I didn’t want education – in their way, at least – and I didn’t want a job. Harry, I found strange things in the green leaves.” His whole body gravitated towards her. The way she spoke his name, as if she was the one who had understood it first. As if she had always held it in her mouth, ready to say, to drop like a bomb into an ocean. A huge displacement of feeling. Unsteady inside. “I don’t know, perhaps the clawing of society at the limelight always made lemons more attractive to me. Sourness that is stronger than any flavour. Like I favour a sensation than a specific sub-type. Something of the darkness that surrounds the spotlight has always attracted me. Like the potential of every black part of space to be a dead star. I always say I have what I have because I do not want it… and so do you.”
Harry sat for a while, and many weaker things slipped past him. Many stronger thoughts stuck with him. Her presence was indoctrinating him with a kind of philosophy he had not considered before. Her richness was an oil slick on town water. Powerful and wealthy and all gloss and rainbows. Its only real value to ruin every living thought which had made its nest in Harry’s head over the course of his life. Tar and feathers.
He blew out through his lips. “I cannot get over the unpacked poetry of your statements.”
She grinned. “I once ate a whole jar of nutella just because I could.” They each sat and watched the other. She knew all eyes were on her every movement, and there was no privacy in his unsubtle mind. She acted with all the conspicuous intention of a weathered thespian. Her speech and motion were well tailored to his own personal understanding. She spoke of feelings within him and her, gently widening the overlap even as she did so. Her attitude and tendency leant itself to an analogous poker game. She was holding all the cards, and she had the face to match it.
“So what do you do then, Arabella?”
“I fulfil myself. This is what I am, you see. I do not want fame or success or money – I am inclined to call myself a culmination of my thus-far fulfilled dreams because that best describes my nature. I am what I do, and I do what I dream of. I am my dreams. Lived and real. Remembered as well as dreamt.”
“And those aren’t fame or money?”
“No. My dreams are sunsets stabbing through a Saharan rainfall. My dreams are a voice that can make man-made buildings weep with acoustic significance. My dreams are starlight flavoured milkshake on the night-lit streets of New York. My dreams may sound as if they require money, or necessitate fame, but I assure you, all they take is a little spirit.”
“Yeah, try telling that to people who can’t afford to go see the Saharan desert.”
“Ah Harry, I always say: chase the things that have already caught you. Leave be the unattainable and conquer what you’ve got. Remembering that all you’ve got is yourself. And your endless potential. Such a principal works for love as well, by the way. But then, that is what life is built on...”
“...That is the most fantastic things I have ever heard.”
“Oh, but I am, aren’t I.”
“I’ll tell you what you are: you are one long string of non-questions.”
“You know, I think you’re the first person who has ever gotten me right,” they looked at each other and, oh how they laughed and laughed, stuck in that elevator that wouldn’t go up.
They couldn’t go down, either, and they spoke on a plain, suspended in one narrow but infinite strip. Maybe their paths had crossed, but the point of intersection was an epicentre of powerful and plosive consequence.
As they spoke, Wembley stadium and the tour bus seemed further away to Harry than his own history. All that was his world sat here in the elevator with him, and he could not have more sold himself to his damned future than if he had married her there and then.
The two of them, unintentionally and intentionally contemptuous of fusional norms found themselves locked together as tightly as the poles with which the workmen came. Banging and yelling took place, people and things beyond the metal walls intruding on the space between the warped mirrors on the panels above them.
Harry found himself in awe also of Arabella’s deft replies to the bellowed inquiries of the rescue services. Steady and sure of herself, she contained her space-age grandness in simple sentences and conveyed meaning.
Her character became coloured with an inspiring efficiency, as if it were an achievement to interact across dimensions. As if that’s what she were achieving. Harry thought of her in the same terms as the ethereal. A Goddess of her own terms, she demanded sacrifice, though. And Harry gave it. He gave up every notion and principle in favour of her own constructed systems. He gave up friends and family for the sake of drinking in her acquaintance. For the most intensely concentrated lifetime of development, a wealth of time took place in a space barely small enough for more than the two of them.
Harry left much behind in the lift and Arabella took much with her, picking up his inconsistencies and faults even as he abandoned them to her. He took the time to divulge his spatial insecurities and she generously filled in the gaps. His perception of himself was as deeply manifest in his exulting of her character as his mentality was in his descriptions of his past actions. They regaled each other, serenading with a clarity of meaning that was unachieved by all the human race previously.
Harry did not understand anything by the end. Only that there was no concept larger or more elusive than her. Whatever love was, he gave it to her. He committed himself to her illusions and projections. In a zero-hour regeneration, the two emerged one behind the other from the lift four hours after it broke.
“Well, this is goodbye, Harry.”
“Does it have to be?”
She laughed breezily, stood with sure feet as the lift rose its final few measures. “Yes.”
“Arabella, I think I’m in love with you.”
She met his gaze evenly, and he felt all his earnest sincerity drain away in the face of broad adoration. He would never leave this lift. Never leave her side.
“I mean it. Are you just gonna walk out of my life forever?”
“No. I’ll remain in your life longer than anyone else, I suspect,” she winked at him. “But let’s have a transcendent relationship, Harry, darling. I will be your imaginary best friend, if you’ll have me, but I am not a participant in your daydreams. I am my own master and mine only. You obey who you will, won’t you? We’ll have marvellous fun together, Harry, marvellous fun,”
The lift doors open and she placed one lily-white hand on his arm in a final farewell.
“Wait! Does this mean I’ll never see you again?!”
She shook her fantastic head and made the worlds dance. “Oh no, you’ll see me every time you close your eyes, I can see.”
There were crowds of desperate old acquaintances and strangely familiar forgotten friends outside the lift doors. Harry called to her as she parted them. “But what does that mean?!”
“It means ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree. In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety…’”
He barely heard her voice with his ears: more perceived it like a translated feeling that came from internal quiescence and peace. Like he understood what she would say. And he did not understand what she had planted within him, but it made death impossible and living an unattractive shade of consciousness.
Hands could never hold what he found himself clinging onto, and he did indeed see her every time he closed his eyes.
The cold was bitter outside and his face was frozen in myriad portraits by the outside world. Yet it was not until their last night on stage in Wembley stadium that he truly understood why he felt so raw: he had left all his disguises on the lift floor.