The Longest Climb

Andrew Collins, July 1999

Been a while, over a year, since my words graced the pages of TC, and quite a testing period of absence it has been. Ironically, though Jim’s output has been less productive than I was led to believe, indeed a gaping void of publication, he phoned me this week and gave me a deadline! After 13 months, I have a week left in which to produce this article! Slackness befalls me – I write like a drugged serpent. The phrase ‘Blood out of a Stone’ springs to mind. To be honest, writing has been at the distant back of my mind, as the perils of South London have taken over. Rent crisis! Attacked by gang in Peckham! Grifted by a whore in Brixton! Directionless night buses! Prevented from falling off stool in Fridge Bar, Brixton by girl after overdosing on absinthe! Surviving the hostilities and dope fumes of hard core Yardie pub off Coldharbour Lane! Gently ‘admiring’ a prostitute’s very attractive black lace top in a seriously dodgy club in central Soho! Oxford Circus, Saturday afternoon!

Incredible as it might seem, drinking exploits have slacked off this year. Something to do with being chucked out by that mad flatmate I was living with, more to do with bastard overpriced rent and several court cases. However, this is not to say I have been reduced to a dullness, boredom and tragedy evident in such persons as, perhaps, Jim Tavare, the ‘comedian’. Christ help us. Drink need not be imperative to and derivative of having auspicious moments of careless joy and reckless abandon. Er, well, it is, but the article tries to promise not to be the alcohol fuelled rhetoric of a semi-possessed man at odds with the rational Universe. So (sipping glass of highly toxic Cornish Haye Farm Cider) – what to write? Abusive? Vitriolic? Arcane? Or poignant?

Lambeth Towers: Reading Tom from Reading, UK, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

People falling/jumping off buildings seems to be a recent feature in my life. Working for….the….. council at the moment, evaluating properties. This lacklustre job has brought me into contact with various denominations, ethnics, fringe lunatics, cool dudes, angels, stricken artists, post-nuclear families and bewildered loners. On the fifth floor of a savagely depressing tower block, a 50’s architectural nightmare (Lambeth Towers for God’s sake), I sat talking to an affable couple about the state of the world.

“Anything terrible ever happen here?” I asked nonchalantly.

Small talk had just shrunk, humiliated, into the far corner, to try and creep off unnoticed. Not quite sure what I meant, the husband stared at me worryingly for a while. Then he giggled. “Well”, he started, “me and the wife were having breakfast one day…..”

“Yeah…..” I prompted. I was half expecting some awesomely amusing story about cereal and how she opened it the wrong way up to get the toy out ‘to give to the grandchildren’, only secretly, she wanted it for herself, having a persistent Peter Pan complex and a moulded plastic fetish, and then he had forgotten and picked it up the right way the next morning to have masses of wheaty crunchy goodness spill onto the table and his lap, prompting a curse which so offended the delicate sensibilites of his dear wife that she refused to let him watch the United match later that evening, condescending, later, to allow the last ten minutes of the Grand Prix (highlights). But it wasn’t to be.

“And then this body fell past the window” he smirked.
“Oh. Er, a body?”
“Yeah. We were a bit shocked of course.” Silence reigned supreme for a moment. The sublime tick of a grandfather click marked time. My little finger twitched in anticipation. I admit I was shocked too. “Anyone you knew?”
“Oh no” his wife piped up. “A stranger. Don’t know how he got in”
“Or got on the roof”, finished the husband. All this seemed a little academic, considering.
“Oh. So what happened next?” (alright, I made that up, but it carries the narrative quite well I think).
“Well, he hit the ground. And it made the most amazing sound.”

My stomach flipped just a little. Not knowing the plight of my intestines, he continued, a wry grin ebbing onto his features like a slow secret tide. “In the movies, it just makes a small thud. But it’s not like that at all. It made a massive noise! Like a bomb going off! All over the place!” My little finger was now fairly having a life of its own. “Er, right, that’s the lounge done then. Thanks for your time.”
“Alright. No problem.” He paused reflectively at the door, still sporting that worrying grin. “An almighty noise.”
“Like a bomb going off?” I confirmed.

His face lit up like a Christmas candle. “Yes! BANG! Mess everywhere!” Behind, grinning similarly, was his wife, seemingly inhabiting another plane of existence, almost awkwardly sharing his bizarre humour. The empty, souless corridor flanked me on both sides. The immensity of cruel concrete seemed to crush my spirit, and shadows cast by the pernicious neon lighting appeared to crawl towards me, tormented, lost. But you’ve got to laugh, eh?!

I did, in all fairness, say bodies. The next fallen man, not from a tower block this time, was from an altogether more wholesome estate, SE1. The couple (why is it couples that seem to witness these things?) were thankfully, rightfully grave and upset in the telling of their account. This ‘jumper’ landed on a roof of a warehouse which their small, tidy kitchen overlooked. Splat! I think he was a dusk rather than dawn ‘jumper’, so they were having dinner. Can’t remember what. They, too, remarked on the noise, but it seemed circumstances were suspicious. I was beginning to feel like Columbo, even to the point of developing a worrying squint in one of my eyes, though I didn’t have a wife to talk about relentlessly to confuse the ‘suspects’.

I asked to sit, whereupon they detailed the police investigation, the statements, and ‘the dangerous nut case upstairs’ who seemed implicated. Unfortunately, this ‘dangerous nut case’ was a tenant who I had to visit later on. I thought perhaps I should obtain bungee cord before calling, but was told that no proof of his complicity was found – he seemed, in the unwavering eyes of the law, innocent. Strangely, they too, mentioned the noise of impact – this seemed to be a point of annoyance vis a vis portrayal in films. They’ve got it wrong! Which brings me to the third and final falling body. Luckily, this time, it wasn’t real.

I was on terraced housing detail a week later – altogether more charming than urban monstrosities of upward housing, and (though it might seem pedantic to say so) the quality of tea is a lot better, more often than not PG pyramids, or Tetley draw strings. Two lovely cuppas later, and a slice of fruit cake (aptly), I was receiving more falling body information. Behind the tenants’ garden was an old disused cinema complex and an empty water tower. As the couple (same age as the other two – a new social trend? Suicides are more likely to be witnessed by couples in their mid-fifties. Check it out!) sat to breakfast – Weetabix judging by the gait of the man – they saw two chaps fighting atop the tower. Concerned, they watched the drama unfold in the distance. It should be empty!

Shocked, they saw one man pushed! He fell outrageously to his death. Their blood ran cold. Small explosions fired off in the courtyard. Yelling, gunshots. Had the Yardies taken Kennington by storm? Luckily not. It was a scene being shot for the excellent film Death Wish II, and Charlie had just offed another bad guy. And you thought it was all being slugged out in American bad lands!

Thus I can only record a body count of two so far in my employ, the dummy having to go down as a stupid stunt double (besides being out of date). So, as I said, not one bottle of Tequila mentioned! No drunken madness! No humiliation! Am I a reformed man? Of course not, just a little more controlled and contrived. I must add, as a passing foot note, that I tried to obtain access to all the roofs mentioned above, and found it impossible. They are usually guarded by dense, piss-stained sheet metal, graffiti-ridden doors, lurking like portals through to another dimension, strangely lonely. Locked off with formidable padlocks and prison bars. Perhaps the aging couples are right – it’s not the pointless, tragic waste of life, or the bomb-like noise on impact that primarily disturbs the soul following a roof jump suicide, but the prescient question of how the bloody hell did they get on the roof?