I knew it was going to get dark and that the temperature would fall. I didn’t give in to it but I felt the panic rising. Like I couldn’t do.
I was exhausted. Numerous attempts to escape defeated by the sheer physical impossibility.
I was ten years old, and one bored Saturday summer’s afternoon I had fallen down between two walls, one redbrick Victorian wall, one post-war concrete and brick. It was the period just before my Grandmother died. I was exploring up towards where the new buildings, including the 60s redbrick estate I was on, abutted the old remaining Victorian buildings, left after Nazi bombs rained down on this corner of South East England.
It was the back of a derelict site, the 16ft chicken wire and cheap metal fence no match for a 10 year old monkey boy. Over in less than 30 secs, the place was full of old tires, mattresses, the stink of human urine and rats. Fascinating. Decidedly off-limits.
I jumped onto the high wall at the back, the only remains of the building that had once stood here, the rest of the site now foundations prepared, waiting for development, a blank stretch of white concrete with weeds. Running along the top, I quickly got out of sight of the road and possibly nosy adults, and I entered a more secret world, where foxes ran, and there was some mature bomb-plot Buddleia which arched over my small body as I slinked along the top of the wall to the corner of the plot.
I found myself looking down the space between two walls. Wow. It was deep, dark at the bottom, quite cold even on a warm day. Fabulous. I peered down, remembering Gollum, looking at what was down there. A surprising clean white bicycle mudguard (recent addition) – a lot of bottles.. an interesting bit of audio equipment… and some full-colour pages of a very explicit sex magazine.. Now, I figured, it’s an hour from teatime, when I would have to be back, maybe I have time to try and salvage some of this.
The gap between the walls was about as much as I could squeeze my slender frame into, maybe a foot and a half across, or less, and I reckoned I could chimney it, pushing my feet against the wall and carefully edging down to retrieve some choice objects.
I manoevred myself to the point where I had my arse on the ledge of the old wall, and prepared to descend into the abyss. It was pretty nerve-racking, but breathing steadily and balancing carefully I slowly wriggled downwards, pushing against the two walls, until I was at the point where my head was below the edge. It was a place the sun never saw, cold, especially after being on a bike in the sun all balmy afternoon. I could see my breath in the air as I pushed hard against both walls.
I descended. below the edge it got quite damp, and as I got nearer the bottom, I started to slip. My heart began to race, and then I looked down and realised that at the very bottom of the space now a few feet below me was a bunch of twisted rusting metal shards, the remains of some left-over fence posts, rising upwards to greet me like a dozen metal snakes tongues.
I froze and stopped descending, realising that I was being extremely stupid, and looked up. Top was ten feet above, and I was tired, I could feel my heart pounding in my chest, the taste of acid in my mouth, limbs suddenly aching and shaking. Shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit. This was not as easy as I had anticipated. I decided to abandon the mission.
Very very slowly I started to transfer the weight to my knees and arch my back to push up. I straightaway skidded vertically downwards as part of the surface of the wall came with me, showering my head in filth. I spat, choking and desperately flung out my hands and feet and miraculously stopped a foot or so above the metal spikes. I was really trapped. Bugger, bugger, fucking bugger.
I just wasn’t going to be able to get out. It really hit me. I grew very still. I didn’t have the physical strength to get out. I was eventually going to lose my ability to hold on and fall all the way down, be horribly injured, and then die. I was looking forward to Life. Damn.
My spirits plummeted. I was 5 minutes from home, but they would never find me here. I had to escape. I could shout but nobody would hear me from the road. I was trapped, and I would die here, to be found years later, a skeleton. Nobody would ever know where I had gone or why. I felt the agony of separation.
I was physically really tired, had been already pretty knackered before I ventured this way. I could only just about turn my head, by looking up and dragging my chin in a sem-circle. My neck was cricked and it really hurt. One of my nails had ripped when I skidded and fell and I was bleeding from both elbows and one knee. My ribs hurt from being dragged across brickwork. I had pulled muscles all over the place, and my chest was still thumping. I stank of something old and dead. Aside from the slippery surface and lack of foot and hand holds, the problem was that the gap was just too narrow to get enough leverage, a severe miscalculation.
I felt foolish and humiliated. I really didn’t want to die there. It must be possible to get out of this. I looked up again, and took stock, and tried to be calm. I knew I couldn’t afford to fall to the bottom of the gap, but there must be way out of here. Up was out of the question, maybe I could find a way out at either end.
I steadied my breathing and looked at my options. One way disappeared in to a mess of dark foliage sprouting upwards into the light, which meant possible handholds, but I couldn’t see myself pulling my way out using that, it was puny, it would just snap. Like me. The other way was to the right-angle where the two walls met the even taller wall at the back of the plot. I could see some rough unfinished bricks that way that I maybe would be able to use as leverage, so I started to move inch by painful inch sideways, desperate to avoid falling lower down.
It took forever. You read that, don’t you, but what really does take forever? In that time, which was the end of an afternoon, an hour or perhaps two, I watched my family attend my own funeral. I watched all my hopes and dreams vanish, like I had. I waved goodbye to my friends. My Mum. Nana and Grandad. My brothers and sister. The dog. The budgie. I pushed on and fought not to let the terrors eat my energy. It was as much as I could do to stop myself from falling further, and I was attempting a transverse move worthy of the Matterhorn.
Slowly I edged, making impossible stretches. I constantly thought I was not going to make it. False moves provoked real fear, and by the time I reached the end wall, which must have taken the best part of an hour, I was exhausted, bruised, knees and elbows bleeding, panting, soaked through with cold sweat, shivering. Using the 45-degree angle I gradually climbed out, and once my head and chest were over the edge again, and I knew I was really safe, and I was going to be alright, I just lay there, knowing I had this time cheated death, waiting to recover the strength to get back to my bike, stashed in the bushes.
I made up some shit about having an accident on the bike, got some maternal sympathy, and never told a soul.