All Souls Day

Entry by: chloe_eliza

6th November 2015
I want to tell you a strange story. It began almost a hundred years ago, although I only became aware of it some five years back. I had graduated from Harvard law school, and was doing what all law graduates dream of doing, making big bucks for a huge firm with blue chip clients. Rothberg and Kline was everything a prestigious law firm should be; 118 floors of monochromatic, expensively fitted offices, meeting rooms and break out areas, housed in an impressive building on 55East 53rd Street. It was slick, daunting and soulless. The fact that I spent most of my days in an airless room drafting illegible contracts that helped faceless corporations slip through loopholes hadn't yet taken the shine off my pay checks.

Tony, one of the security guards, talked to me most days. I wasn't special, he talked to everyone, and he had a lot to say; he'd been a security officer for the company that owned the building for 47 years. There was a man stuck in the elevator shaft, he told me. He'd been there 85 years. Apparently, he'd died in an accident during construction in the 1920's, and to this day, he haunted the elevator. It was a popular legend, lent weight by the undeniable fact that no matter how many times the elevator was repaired, it constantly went haywire. Often the temperature inside was unaccountably at odds with the rest of the building. It frequently went up and down of its own accord, stopping at floors that no one had requested. I didn't believe in ghosts. Few people with Harvard law degrees do.

One November 2nd, a day that then had little meaning to me - beyond the fun that my wife and I had had the previous weekend, dressing our 6 month old son as a pumpkin, to the delight of his adoring grandparents - I rode the elevator as usual to the 87th floor. What was almost unheard of, is that the other three young associates in there with me got out at the 40th floor, and no one else got in. It's rare, in a firm of 800 lawyers, to find yourself alone in the elevator. Somewhere around the 53rd floor, the elevator abruptly shuddered. Here we go, I thought, as I sensed a tingling sensation in my stomach in spite of myself.

Briefly, the lights went out. You won't believe me, but I swear the temperature plummeted. I wasn't sure if we were still moving, but suddenly I was cold. Not freezing, but it was as if the expensive heat and air control system had packed up weeks ago. The lift somehow smelt musty. The lights flickered and came on and I leapt at least 3 feet in the air. Lying on the floor in a broken heap was a man. He was face down, groaning, and he was clearly badly hurt. I wanted to talk or scream but my throat was as dry as sand and my vocal chords were tied in knots that produced little more than a strangled squeak. I watched in horror as he writhed and realised he was speaking. It was a funny accent, I thought at first it was British. His clothes were straight out of that poster, the famous one of all the workers on the sky scraper at the Rockefeller. I wanted to go closer but my muscles were about as much use as my vocal chords. Even as I stood frozen in the corner though, I began to understand his words. My family, he kept saying, my family need the money. I need my money. My family needs my money. He twisted his neck, although the move cost him and when I saw it, his face was contorted with agony. I stared him in the eyes and saw his anguish as I remained locked to the spot. And suddenly he was gone. The lights were back on, the air was normal, the elevator was moving. I stumbled out at my floor. Murphy, my boss was barking, you're late. Get in my office now.

That night, despite finishing work at 11 and knowing I'd have to be back by 6am the next day, I began trawling records, applying my lawyer's passion for research in a desperate bid to make sense of what the hell had happened to me. Maybe I had snapped. It happened, not infrequently, to us young, overworked and overstressed associates. I wasn't sure what was worse, realising I was mad - and was that even something one could realise? - or accepting what had happened in that elevator as fact. I finally dug out the employment records of the building company that had been contracted by the building owner to do the majority of the final construction work, which included installing the original elevator. It had gone bust decades ago, but with a bit more digging, I discovered a shady history of illegal immigrant workers, and a case that had gone on for almost a decade involving a handful of Irish labourers, who were attempting to sue the company for withholding pay and unsafe working conditions. The case had finally been settled and hushed up by the company, but not until after the death of one of the workers who had fallen down the elevator shaft. Trawling through newspaper and death records, I finally found him. His name was John William Murphy. His face, I recognised immediately recognised.

Every nerve prickling along the back of my spine, I went up to our attic, something I hadn't done since we bought the house and dumped a load of boxes up there. There it was, the old family album from my father's father - a man whom I'd never met, who'd died a hero in WW2. The old family narrative was rattling round my head like a set of false teeth. The Irish roots, the immigration, the great grandfather who'd died in a work accident. The brilliance of my own father, who won a scholarship and been the first person to go to college and pull his family out of poverty. And then I found him, my great great grandfather, a small, blurry picture in his hometown in Ireland, John William Murphy, surrounded by his long gone family in their strange clothes, expressions grim.

I stared at his picture and I told him, crazy as it sounds now - and believe me, it's taken me a long time to repeat this story, even to myself - I told him we're ok. His family are ok. We survived. We don't need the money. He can be peaceful now. I went back to work but something had changed. I half expected to see him again, but I didn't. The elevator didn't break down again though. Six months later, I left Rothberg and Kline. I just couldn't find it in me to keep writing those contracts. I started with one client, Juan Fillipe, a Mexican factory worker who lost a finger after working 12 days straight. Five years later I'm not making what I used to, but I'm getting by. Maybe John William Murphy didn't just find peace for his own soul. Maybe he saved mine.