AND THE GLASS COLD AGAINST HIS FACE
Two men find themselves in a slow race against time as they hang 80 floors above ground in Thomas Chadwick’s short story. Illustration by Joseph William.
At 6.34am the scaffolding platform, from which Simon McNiven was cleaning windows, collapsed. Somehow, in the same instant that the lightweight aluminium platform fell from beneath his feet – taking his rags, bucket, squeegee and lunchbox hurtling down the glass front of the 85 storey building – Simon managed to force his hands into the 4cm crack in the glass that marked the threshold between the 79th and 80th floors. Quite how he did this Simon did not know but at the same moment as the aluminium frame crunched into the pavement below, Simon found himself hanging from the 80th floor with his arms stretching out above his head in the early morning sun.
There appeared to be two possible outcomes: either someone was going to spot Simon up there and arrange for him to be brought down before his fingers grew tired and slipped on the glass lip, or, Simon was going to fall down to the pavement, presumably to be spotted there by someone, even if being spotted no longer mattered. Glancing at his wrist watch, sitting just below the fingers that were taut inside the crack, 6.34am struck Simon as a little early. Anything after 8am would offer a far better chance of being seen; even 7.30am would be OK, but at this time the number of people walking along the pavement below the building would be slim. For reasons that Simon did not want to think about right now, his phone was left sitting on the table at his home.
Simon’s arms were already beginning to feel the strain. He was a fit and healthy man — 29-years-old, no medical history to speak of and athletic in build. It often seemed to Simon that he was a good deal more athletic than his job demanded, yet, hanging from a small crack in-between two enormous panes of glass seemed to be causing his arms to tremble and his fingers to grow a little red towards the tips. The possibility of Simon manoeuvring himself to somewhere where he might be a little more comfortable did not look good. For a start, Simon’s fingers and arms were straining so much that he did not dare release the pressure from one to shuffle across, lest it place so much pressure on the other that he would be forced to let go entirely. On top of that, Simon knew from cleaning the windows up there, that the crack in the glass simply wrapped around the building like a belt, only meeting another crack that ran down the building’s spine at the corners.
Simon swore out loud, loudly.
‘Isn’t it,’ a voice replied.
Very slowly, mindful not to disturb the pressure equilibrium between his arms and fingers, and noting that his watch now said 6.35am, Simon turned his head to look along the width of the building.
‘Hi,’ said the voice.
There, perhaps ten or fifteen metres across from Simon, hanging from the same crack in the glass, was another man.
‘How lucky are we?’ said the man.
Given that until a minute ago Simon had been separated from the 80-floor drop by a scaffolding platform which had somehow unbuckled or fractured to leave him hanging from his fingertips, Simon didn’t really see how luck came into it.
‘Would you call this lucky?’ he said.
‘Think about it, what are the chances of us both being up here today, and us both managing to grab onto this crack when the scaffold fell?’
It struck Simon that had this man not been so, as he put it, ‘lucky’ and fallen down with the scaffolding, the chances of Simon being spotted up here would have been significantly greater. It was, of course, possible that someone would still come across the buckled aluminium platform and look up and figure out what was going on, but there were huge amounts of building work going on in the area, and the pavements were regularly obstructed. Simon could only picture pedestrians stepping politely around the platform in a way that seemed a good deal less likely if that platform contained a crushed human being on it.
‘How long do you reckon we’ve got?’ asked the man.
Simon tried very hard to ignore the question. He couldn’t help but notice that his watch still said 6.35am, meaning that only a minute had elapsed since the platform fell. In all likelihood, dust was still settling on the pavement, but there were still 20-25 minutes to go before the chances of being spotted began to improve even slightly.
‘There’s no avoiding the fact that we’d be a lot better off had this happened at, say, 8am,’ said the voice. ‘Rush hour is our greatest hope. What do you say, a thousand people working in this building, many more working nearby? I can’t help thinking that it’s inevitable that someone will spot us at around eight.’
‘I suppose,’ said Simon, really regretting leaving his phone on the kitchen table.
‘Which means that all we can really do is wait until then.’
‘What else could we do?’ said Simon.
‘We might fall,’ said the man.
Those were the exact options Simon had established himself, but there was now, he realised, a third one. Were one of them to fall before the other, then the chances of that other one being spotted increased, just as they would have done had one of them not managed to cling on to the crack in the glass and fallen with the platform. Simon decided not to mention this. He pinched still tighter with his fingers and congratulated himself on having maintained that athletic physique into his late twenties. The other man was, from what Simon could see, older and perhaps a little more rotund. It was hard to be sure, but it looked like he had a little goatee beard pressing up against the glass: that had to be irritating to some degree.
‘Do you have a wife or girlfriend waiting down there?’ asked the man.
‘No!’ said Simon, ‘If I had someone waiting down there I’d like to think they’d be arranging our rescue right away.’
‘No, not down there on the ground, down there in general, out there in the city?’
Simon was unsure if he did or did not have a girlfriend right now. One of the other decisions he had made that morning was to prefer not to know, to not consider that for a day. Right now it felt like he could really use one – a girlfriend that is – but it seemed best not to lie.
‘No, not really.’
‘You know, my wife says I snore too much. Every morning I wake up and get told, Julius, you snored like an effing train last night, if you keep this up you’ll have to start sleeping in the spare room.’
Simon noticed that the time had finally ticked on to 6.36am. He worried that the increased strength of his grip that he squeezed for when he realised that it was less a case of hanging on until he was spotted and more a case of hanging on longer than this man – who might be called Julius – was in fact a mistake. There was a delicate balance of pressure and strain running through his fingers that was not in Simon’s best interests to disturb. It was also highly annoying listening to this man talk about his wife, but hopefully the more he talked, the less he would be thinking about the balance of stress in his fingers.
‘If I was to fall though, don’t you think that just a tiny bit of my wife might be glad? Every night, when she did get to sleep, she would sleep that little bit deeper.’
‘Yes, maybe,’ said Simon, determined to keep the man talking without really paying any attention to what he was saying.
Of course, as soon as Simon decided this, the man went strangely silent. It seemed that every decision Simon took up on the 80th floor, this man was determined to mess up. Suddenly Simon was worried that the man had decided to stop talking and devote his full and undivided attention to the balance of pressure that held his fingers and arms to the crack in the glass. Simon, meanwhile, was thinking only about the silence and worrying that the whole conversation about his wife was just a ploy to distract Simon from his own fingers. Simon realised that his watch now read 6.38am. This meant that the man had been silent for twice as long as he had spoken. Desperately, Simon focussed on his own grip. There were occasional gusts of wind that caused his arms and fingers to brace. Simon took the decision to keep his fingers tight but let his legs and torso sway slightly with the breeze. By swaying with the wind, not against it, energy and grip might be conserved. The other man was surely not going to think of that.
The silence, however, remained troubling. Simon began to wonder whether the man might silently have fallen off, whether he might in fact already be pressed against the pavement, his blood snaking down into the gutter, pedestrians screaming and dropping their takeaway coffee, before looking up at where the man had fallen from to see Simon hanging on still, delicately matching his body to the shape of the wind and the glass cold against his face.
Slowly, Simon turned his head to the right once more. It took perhaps thirty seconds to do it without disturbing his grip and each time a gust of wind picked up, he stopped turning his head and concentrated on swaying gently with it. When he finally got his head round, his watch read 6.38am and the man was still there.
‘Hello again,’ he said.
‘Hello,’ said Simon.
Simon’s fingers were going slightly blue.
‘Have you ever wondered how birds are able to sleep on their perches without falling off?’ the man asked.
‘Yes, I have,’ said Simon, ‘Isn’t it to do with their leg muscles?’
The other man ignored Simon and carried on.
‘Their leg muscles are at rest when their claws are –’
‘I know,’ shouted Simon. ‘I said I know this!’
Simon was now desperate for this man to be quiet. All he could think about was shutting this guy up.
‘All I was trying to suggest,’ said the man, sounding hurt, ‘was that if we were birds we would probably find it easier to relax up here.’
‘If we were birds,’ screamed Simon, ‘we would just fly away!’
The man began to laugh. ‘Yes! Yes, we would. How dumb of me, obviously we would just fly away.’
The man continued to laugh, long after he had finished speaking. Simon found he was able to focus on his grip despite the laughter. He hoped that the laughter might dislodge the man, and wondered if he might be able to get him to laugh again. His watch now read 6.39am.
‘Hey,’ said Simon. ‘I’ve just remembered a joke. Do you want to hear it?’
‘Sure,’ said the man. ‘Fire away.’
‘There are these two guys out in the jungle who come across a tiger and one of the men starts frantically strapping on running shoes. “What are you doing?” says his friend. “You can’t out run a tiger.” “I don’t have to,”” replies the first man, “all I’ve got to do is out run you.”’
There was total silence on the 80th floor. A small gust of wind caught Simon by surprise and he tensed. The fingers on his left hand squeezed hard with it and Simon felt them slide towards the lip of the crack only millimetres away from coming free entirely. Simon breathed in and out heavily. The joke did not appear to have gone down well. On reflection it was not necessarily the best joke to have told. Perhaps, given the context, it might not even have come across as much of a joke at all.
‘What I don’t get is why he would even have running shoes with him, if he was in the jungle?’
‘Sorry, why are you up here?’ Simon asked.
‘The same reason as you. The platform fell.’
‘No, why were you on the platform?’
‘I was looking for the window cleaner. I was sent to tell him to stop cleaning the windows as the wind was due to pick up and it was considered dangerous. We tried ringing him but couldn’t get through so I was sent up to find him.’
Simon closed his eyes and let his face press into the cold glass.
‘Why are you up here?’ asked the man.
‘I was cleaning windows.’
It was still 6.39am.
‘I’m sorry we weren’t able to get the message to you in time.’
‘No,’ said Simon. ‘I’m sorry I wasn’t able to pick it up.’
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