There’s something suddenly prosaic in hanging by a thread… Penduleum, precarium, mausoleum. This was how Harry found himself – hanging by white-hot fingertips from the underbelly of a tower-crane, pendulous, precarious and in death’s doghouse. He’d been hanging for five minutes now and each minute burned bloody murder in the muscles and sinews screaming beneath his skin.
Right now Harry was thinking of his father, sour and bitter, a man who’d married too early and had children too late. The youngest of seven, Harry had never felt any love or affection or even interest from this moustachioed bellower who was already fifty-four by the time Harry had popped into the world from between the ageing legs of his tired mother. Of her, who died only three years after they’d towelled him dry and smacked his arse, Harry had only the vaguest of memories. Sometimes he would catch quick glimpses of her as he lay on the verge of sleep-a bald, cancerous skeleton, steeped in tar and nicotine, drowning in a mint-green paper smock and stuck with plastic tubes like some failed laboratory experiment. In those moments he could see her eyes which loved him utterly as she weakly brushed his cheek with quivering porcelain knuckles.
Harry had clear memories of his father. Growing old, ageing like an apple, shrinking into himself, away from his sackcloth skin, until it hung loose and bunched and wrinkled. Bruised and blotched, he became less and less appealing until finally he began to fester, contaminating everything close to him. Harry remembered the arguments that grew to involve everyone and everything until nobody in the family wanted anything to do with one another any longer. Harry rarely thought about his father but when he did it was through a confused lens of resentful compassion. One cannot live in the shadow of another without being somehow touched. Harry was remembering something his father had once said to him, one of his snide proverbs that he liked to wheel out whenever he was feeling particularly aggrieved at life.
‘When you fall, Harry, no one will catch you. And a man can’t catch himself.’
A light, pleasant summer breeze sprang up from the bay, fresh and cool, touching gently upon Harry’s hair and clothes as he sweated fire and his heart pumped battery acid through bulging blue veins and throbbing arteries. Harry felt totally alone now as the air blew a cool caress upon his torture three hundred feet above the ground.
Six minutes. Harry knew it was six minutes because when he’d fallen and snatched desperately at the rigging his loose shirt sleeves had slipped down his arms and he’d found himself looking straight at his wrist-watch. Now it taunted him with its seconds, destroyed him with its minutes. Harry wished he couldn’t see it. It was a measurement of his pain and an instrument of hope. A desperate hope.aJust another minute. Another thirty seconds and maybe help will come.
After the initial shock of falling Harry had presumed he could pull himself back up. Straining, joints popping, he tried to haul himself back into the main supports until, body trembling, his arms sagged and he hung limp, his head lolling upon his neck, the world a blur. Too many dinners, too many nights in the pub, no exercise but climbing ladders. Harry gulped air back into his lungs. He yelled at the boys below, hustling to get off the site and home for the weekend.
Even to Harry’s own ears his cry for help sounded high pitched, muffled, drained. His lungs stretched upwards, his chin buried in his chest; as he called down Harry knew he wouldn’t be heard. Looking to the sky, Harry bellowed again
Like so much in the city, Harry’s shouts were lost in the rushing torrents of trade and traffic, the grey washes of dust and dirt and concrete modernity. Harry tried calling out a few more times-four, maybe five, howling alone into the sky but if anyone heard him no-one saw as he hung, body stretched, toes pointed, an accidental gymnast amongst the rafters of the world.
Six and a half minutes and Harry could no longer feel his body but merely floated in a dream of pain.
Harry remembered his wife leaving him. She walked out the door with her coat on and he knew that she’d come back to him. But she didn’t. At first it had been like waiting for the punchline of a joke, only a joke that made his throat dry. Every morning waking up and expecting the laugh to come, anticipating it. Head craned forward, mouth half open, body coiled and ready. He remembered the feeling that filled him. A dazed awareness that came from within and without and from neither. A great weight of emptiness that made a sickness of living. She told him that things had ‘come to a head’. She said she could no longer continue waiting to see if things got better. She said enough was enough and she let go.
Seven minutes. Harry had never felt pain like this, every fibre of his body, wracked and rigid, was seared by the fire of his efforts. His joints were weaving webs of agony that crept in tight burning lines through every fleshy cell; through every ounce of bone. Each moment he thought it could get no worse it did. His lungs, a pair of suffering, mildewed, fireside bellows, fizzed and scraped inside his chest. His eyes, his mouth, his nostrils streamed-sweat, blood, snot, saliva. And still Harry thought: If I can make it to seven and a half minutes, maybe help will come.
Harry wondered what life might be like after an experience such as this. But he only wondered those words for his mind was beyond imagining. And then Harry thought that help might not come and that he’d suffered so much for nothing. He thought that now that he’d invested so much pain in surviving had he merely been postponing the inevitable.
Seven and a half minutes. Well, he’d made it this far, maybe he could make eight.
A single, lazy white cloud drifted in the dazzling canopy of blue as the sun spiralled and gleamed and set fire to the bay. And a single, lazy, white seabird rose up from the noise and stopped in silence upon a crane where a man was counting.