Friday, 20 August 2010

The People Under the Stairs

There's a fire.

Well, if you trust the machines, there is.

The fire panel is telling me that an inferno is raging in "Area 16". It doesn't mention the word inferno, but I know it's thinking it. I'm checking on the map for Area 16, feeling like I'm playing "Resident Evil" or something, getting my bearings before ploughing on into another zombie-infested mission. The alarm is ringing in my ears. And outside them as well, obviously. I don't have a special inner-ear alarm connection or anything. Yet.

Area 16 is a small stairwell leading down from the Screen 5 fire exit. According to the all-knowing panel, the fire is on level one, meaning it will be right at the bottom of the stairwell, by the door to piss-alley. I hurry off, hoping I read the map right.

There are people in the screen, waiting for the show to kick off. If we don't find the problem, sort it, and reset the alarm within about two minutes, the film will not be starting. When a fire is detected, a silent alarm starts, along with a countdown to full alarm and evacuation. When those two minutes are up, a disembodied voice starts booming through the building like that of Jehovah himself, commanding "Attention please: a situation has arisen where we need to evacuate the building. Please RUN LIKE FUCK AND STAMP ON AS MANY CHILDREN AND DISABLEDS AS YOU CAN!" or summat.

So I trundle to the fire door in the screen, push the bar, swing it open... well, I'm sure you know how to open a door. As soon as I step through into the concrete stairwell, I can hear voices.

My first thought is "Holy shit, a TALKING FIRE!", and I prepare myself for some sort of religious experience. Peering over the bannister and down the stairwell, however, I can see what appears to be a sleeping bag splayed out on the concrete. The voices are still talking. At least three of them.

Someone's turned the fire-escape into a homeless shelter.

I sigh, and turn back to get help. There's no way I'm turfing a bunch of drifters out of the building single-handedly. What if they bite? Or have a bomb or something? That's what these homelesses are like, isn't it? Right?

So after quickly assembling an A-Team consisting of me and two of the popcorn-jockeys, we brave the stairwell again.

Descending the stairs, I start to use my big voice to order whoever's down there out of the building. This strategy hinges on the hope that they will hear the strange, commanding voice echoing down to them and it will strike an untold fear into their hearts, causing them to up sticks and bail before I actually get down there, thus saving me an uncomfortable, possibly dangerous and musty-smelling confrontation.

It kind of works.

When we reach the foot of the stairs, where the big piss-stain is, there are three hobos already halfway out of the fire door. I follow them, doing some sort of super-authoritative shooing motion with my hands, ignore their protests and shut the door behind them. Then we turn and survey the damage.

There are some bags and stuff lying around on the floor, and a quilt spread out under the stairs. I peer into the dark alcove at what looks like a bundle of clothes and bedding.

One of my elite homeless-evicting team points out that there is a man under there. That's why I picked him. Observant.

There certainly is a man under the stairs. Lying flat on his face, dead to the world, cleverly disguised as a bundle of clothes and bedding. Homeless people are known to adapt to their surroundings in order to blend in and hide from their natural enemies, such as the Police, projectionists and those gimps from "Bumfights".

I suddenly have a bad feeling. What if he is LITERALLY dead to the world? Who do you call to get rid of a dead homeless? He'd probably fit in the big industrial bins out the back, but that seems a bit inhumane. They are human beings after all, aren't they? I'm sure I heard that or read it in a pamphlet or something.

So I'm asking this body under the stairs if it's alive or dead, trying to get some sort of reaction, but getting nothing. I sit on the stairs and radio the manager to call the police. As soon as the word "POLICE" is uttered, a slurred, mangled voice emanates from under the stairs, imploring me not to get the fuzz involved.

The gentleman-formerly-suspected-of-being-a-corpse turns out to have just been enjoying a nice lie down. He emerges, informs me that they found the fire-door open the night before and the little alcove under the stairs looked too cosy to pass up. He also informs me that he and his friends are homeless, which seems a little redundant at this point. I mean, I didn't think they were on a camping holiday.

Trying to keep my distance incase he has needles for fingers or breathes fire or anything, I try to gently escort him out of the door. He keeps thanking me for some reason. At one point I think he's about to hug me. Then he fucks off.

The other two members of my team have performed an assessment and come to the conclusion that the door-lock has been jammed with a bit of metal off a cigarette lighter:

By this time, the building has been fully evacuated, even though there is no fire. The fire-point by the door has been activated, probably by one of the homelesses falling into it whilst having a trip from snorting marijuana or something, and we can't reset it.

A fireman comes. It's amazing how embarrassing it is to be unable to find the alarm-reset key and then, once it's found, be unable to work out how to use it properly, whilst under the disdainful gaze of a professional fire-fighter who is obviously thinking "If this was a real fire, you would be fucking toast, mate."

In all the confusion, the homeless types left the quilt behind. I couldn't help thinking that one of them would be damn cold that night.

I felt a little bad for having to be the one to move them on. You've got to admire the tenacity it takes to set up camp in a remote stairwell of a large, public building, and they had done it with some style. Truth be told, it was simple misfortune that betrayed them to us; if they hadn't triggered the alarm, there's no telling when we would've discovered them.

They fucked my day up no end, though. Making me run up and down stairs? Causing movies to be delayed and even CANCELLED? Inconveniencing members of the public and cinema staff just because you haven't got anywhere to sleep? Not on my watch, motherfucker. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, and I will shout at them with my big voice and shoo them out of the fire-exit.


  1. That's a brilliant bit of writing! Easily the funniest thing I've read this month at least. But shouldn't the Managers be doing pre-open and closing checks on all fire exits, thus discovering the hobo-shack before it became a problem??

  2. They probably should, Matt. That's not how it worked out, though.

  3. Thats very funny, and reminded me of a film I haven't seen for ages.

    Daddy !!!!!