How does it feel when you know you’re going to die?
I found out on a cold drizzly autumn afternoon a couple of months ago.
I had ascended the front wall of the tall block of flats and I’d reached the top floor of Harblow House, with the wind in my hair and adrenaline coursing through my veins and kicking my heartbeat into orbit. This was the life. This was my ultimate buzz.
I was on top of the world.
Until I felt my foot slip. And then I lost my grip on the wall.
Goodness knows how, but by a pure fluke I managed to cling onto a windowsill to halt my downward slide. And in that shivering moment of hell, I knew that if by some miracle I got away with it, I would never take these risks again.
On twitter I’m known as @thehumanfly, because I’ve climbed so many buildings that were generally considered to be impossible to scale. I always film my exploits on a dashcam strapped to my helmet. I’ve got many thousands of followers who love my videos, vicariously sharing my thrills and near-misses, the fantastic views out over London, the terrifying views of the sky when I somersault backwards. It’s the awkward amateurishness of my filming that gets people, I think. They know the camera will shake, they’ll be crazy shots and unprofessional angles, but that’s cool, it really is. Because it proves that it’s genuine. And that I’m a daredevil, not a filmmaker. A daredevil who seeks thrills every weekend, even if it means breaking the law by climbing on private property, though I always try not to be a nuisance to anyone.
Sometimes I can even help: I once found a baby bird who’d fallen out of its nest, and I was able to put him back. Another time I found someone’s cash-packed wallet, and I was able to return it to him.
But, as I clung on for dear life on that slippery windowsill, and the wind roared in my ears and icy drizzle stabbed my face, I cried with fear. Because I knew I couldn’t hold on for much longer. No one knew I was there, and I had absolutely no idea how to get down from here. No handholds, no footholds, just sheer slippery concrete as far as I could see.
Climbing down is always the worst. Because your energy is already depleted. And it involves a heck of a lot of guesswork, instinct and blind trust.
And clinging on to that stonework near the top of that ten-storey block of flats, I knew that my instinct and trust had gone. Sheer blind terror had made me freeze. And if I didn’t do something soon I wouldn’t be able to hold on and I would simply drop like a stone. . .
Mercy of mercies, I noticed that the window above my trembling clinging-on fingers was open a crack. Carefully taking one hand away and holding on like grim death with the other, I managed to grab the corner edge and pull the side-opening window wide open.
It was just about wide enough to squeeze through.
But it was like a sick joke. No way could I reach up far enough to get a grip to pull myself upwards and through that beckoning open window.
And then out came the pair of hands that saved me. Tattooed knuckles, hairy forearms, clawing fingers reaching out like talons.
In a second I felt those hands reach down over my back and grip hard under my shoulders. And haul hard.
One inch. Then another. And then I was sliding up and across, and soon my head was inside the room. I was able to grip onto the inside sill and haul myself for the last stretch. Which was lucky, because as soon as my saviour had seen I was going to be okay, his hands soon vanished, and so did the rest of him, so that I never even saw his face.
And in one fell pull, I was over the sill and into the room, tumbling headfirst onto the carpet, crashing to the ground and laughing hysterically in delight that I wasn’t going to die. The small matter of scraping my forearm on the stone and leaving a trail of blood was neither here nor there.
I called out and there was no reply. I seemed to be alone in this bedroom, and the last of the daylight had dwindled and it seemed dark and eerie. There was a strange musty smell, and also something sweet and sickly.
I crossed to the open doorway in the corner, found myself in the living room and made straight for the main doorway and freedom.
The flat’s front door was swinging wide open, displaying the number 35. Yet the frame and door seemed to be festooned with locks and security bars. When I looked out into the long corridor I could just make out that the door marked ‘Stairs’ at the end was swinging shut.
Once out into the corridor, I made for the end, going through the door which I’d seen shutting just now.
When I got closer, I found a large unsealed envelope on the floor, with a stack of fifty-pound notes falling out of it.
Obviously I had interrupted a burglary, and the burglar, after saving my life, had run away, in his haste dropping the proceeds.
I picked up the money, then went through the doorway to the stairwell and made my way down.
As I passed the third floor I saw a woman on the stairs below me, walking quickly. She turned to look up at me, looked scared, and then she speeded up, whereupon I backed into the shadows, keen to allow her to go on her way, not wanting to have to answer any awkward questions.
With relief I reached the ground floor, and I gratefully exited into the night air, my trembling and racing heartbeat finally easing into normality.
I crashed out at home, then next day I deleted my twitter account, put my helmet and climbing gear into a builder’s skip I was passing, and knew that I’d done the right thing.
But I still had the envelope stuffed with money. And it had obviously been stolen from the person whose flat I had entered. The least I could do was try to return his property. So I went back to Harblow House.
To my surprise there were four police cars parked outside the building and a police tape across the main entrance. I joined the crowd of people standing watching what was going on.
“Are you a relative?” asked an eager-looking woman with dark pelmet-and-curtains hair and huge black spectacles, who was clutching a digital recorder and staring at me intently as she puffed on a cigarette.
“A relative of who?” I replied.
“The man who’s been murdered, of course! I’m Helen Frost, a reporter for the local paper. The damned police won’t let me inside, but read The Clarion tomorrow and you’ll know if I’ve got any more details than the police press office could release. What I can tell you is that Harry Prendergast was strangled to death in his flat, no 35, on the second to top floor, last night.”
“Who was he?” I asked.
“They called him a super super grass, because he was a career criminal who gave evidence against all his friends in return for a plea deal. He was a despicable character and by all accounts it looks like someone’s finally been able to shut his mouth for good.” She took a puff on her fag, then leaned closer so that I could smell the nicotine on her breath. “They say it looks as if the killer was a real brute.” She lowered her voice to a grizzly tone. “Apparently he used his bare hands to choke him.”
“Although the place was as burglar-proof as Fort Knox, the police found a window wide open, so they’re working on the assumption that the killer somehow managed to climb up the front of the building to get in – you’d hardly believe it was possible, would you?”
“Yes, they’re calling him the ‘strangling mountaineer’. They’re bound to get him in the end, because he cut himself and there’s blood on the windowsill and a witness saw him going down the stairs afterwards and gave them a pretty good description. But of course if they do catch him, he’ll be treated like royalty in jail. Harry Prendergast was a truly loathsome character so it seems.” She gave a low chuckle. “Everyone is delighted he’s dead.”
“Excuse me, sir,” said the policeman putting heavy hand on my forearm as I turned to leave. “Would you mind coming with me and answering a few questions?”
They say that killers always go back to the scene of the crime, and the woman who’d seen me on the stairs must have noticed the large scar on my cheek. My DNA was all over the windowsill, and I was holding a large wad of cash, perhaps for an amount that was the going rate for a contract killing? I’d have to tell them the truth, but would they believe me?
Although I had to get myself out of a jam, I resolved there and then to say nothing about the killer who had saved my life. He might have strangled a man to death, but those same hands had pulled me back from oblivion.
The police would surely believe that the killer had gone before I arrived.
I thought back to Helen’s words: “Prison won’t be much of a punishment. He’ll be treated like royalty.”
At least I wasn’t dead. . .
(image courtesy of S. Hermann and F. Richter from Pixabay)