Thursday, July 01, 2004

True Grit... 

It's been quite a while since I posted anything for Ecotone. This offering is for the July 1st topic of "Courage and Place".

We sat uncomfortably on whatever horizontal surfaces we could find - mostly hard, angular, and the wrong shape and height - or stood and fidgeted uneasily. A dozen or so of us had taken the lift to the twelfth floor, then through a normally locked door and up a single flight of stairs to the very top level of the building, picking our way along unfrequented corridors, past office flotsam and jetsam abandoned and tossed here on the waves of successive office rearrangements. Through a heavy metal door we found ourselves in this confined space surrounded by machinery that from time to time would spring unexpectedly into whirring, clanking life - the lift machine room.

This particular odyssey had begun several weeks earlier. Posters had appeared in shop windows and public places around town, advertising a charity abseil event. Raise a minimum of £100 in sponsorship by daring to abseil from the top of the town's only high-rise building. At thirteen storeys including the uppermost services level, it may be a mere stump by city standards, but it's by far the tallest building in our little town and a well known landmark, sat squarely on the highest piece of land for miles around.

Those posters stirred different feelings in different people. For me, I’ll own up that my prime motivation wasn't to raise money for charity, or to face a personal challenge, it was simply to have fun and to see the town from a novel and usually inaccessible viewpoint. Others' feelings though may have been very different. The poster that appeared one day in the canteen at a small local factory attracted only limited casual interest. Bill, late middle aged but wiry and energetic, was attracted by the challenge, but it never occurred to Lottie, his colleague and close friend, that she might take part in such a daring event. At first she scoffed at the idea, but Bill was persistent; maybe he saw something in Lottie that she couldn't see herself, or maybe he was just throwing down a friendly gauntlet. But whatever was behind his challenge, to her own surprise, once she actually stopped to consider it Lottie found herself accepting, and as word spread around the factory her sponsorship total shot way past the minimum necessary, eventually reaching many times that amount.

We heard this story sitting together packed into that tiny room, breaking off every now and again as, behind it's safety cage, the lift machinery whirred into action. Lottie was full of excitement - nervous excitement to be sure; her words tumbled out, tripping over each other; a simple, almost superficial description of events in that canteen and the subsequent disbelief - shock almost - of her colleagues. But in her eyes was something much deeper and clearer - a pride in herself for what she was doing. Almost hidden under the words that seemed to be expressing fear and doubt was a voice also saying "Yes! I CAN do this!" Hearing her talk, seeing her determination and sensing the drive which propelled her, I had the impression of someone who was able to face this apparent adventure into the unknown because she saw that, beneath the alien paraphernalia of abseiling, really this was no more - and no less - of a challenge than those she faced daily as a mother, and as carer for her own ageing mother.

In the corner of the room a fixed ladder led up through a trapdoor onto the roof. Lottie struggled rather with the unfamiliar dependence on hand and arm strength needed to climb the vertical ladder and with the awkward sideways step off the ladder, over the high rim edging the void of the large trapdoor opening, down onto the roof. There were two abseil ropes fixed, allowing two people to descend at once. The instructors had asked her and Bill if they wanted to go down together but Lottie was adamant she didn't want that - I guess she was worried in case she flunked it, and felt she'd rather not have anyone she knew watching her that closely. So it happened that I followed Lottie out onto the roof. The view was stunning; unlike the flat two-dimensional view you'd get from a window at a similar height, the three-sixty degree panorama was intensely vivid, something real and present and involving. However there was little time to admire it - the organisers had several dozen people to get down during the morning, and there wasn't time to hang around, metaphorically or literally.

I had to wait for the person ahead to reach the ground, so Lottie was already some way down when I started down the rope a few feet to the side of her. She was letting herself down very slowly, inch by inch. As I caught up with her I could see the tension in her body – her shoulders hunched, arms drawn in, hands in heavy protective gloves gripping the rope tightly, the upper half of her body curled almost into a foetal crouch whilst her legs stretched straight out to maintain contact with the wall in front of her – the nearest equivalent in this vertical world of terra firma. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a look of intense concentration and determination on anyone’s face, every part of her being focused on following the instructions she'd been given when we practised on the ground. Eyes wide and staring intently at her hands on the rope inches from her face, lips drawn tight, illustrating perfectly why the adjective “grim” so often precedes “determination”. If she saw me at all as I drew level with her, she gave no sign, and I said nothing, sensing that any intrusion would be at best unwelcome, and at worst might destroy the focus on which she was probably depending to take her mind off the drop beneath her.

I reached the ground long before her and had to move out of the way to make room for the next participant, so I missed seeing her expression when she finally landed. In any case there were many of her friends and colleagues waiting to congratulate her, and a pat on the back from me, a stranger, would have gone unnoticed amongst so many. So I looked up, silently saluted her courage, and went on my way.

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