My name is Cauldwell Hall – and I am a left-brained man. The left hemisphere of the brain controls logical thought, while the right controls the more esoteric.
At school, my lack of artistic skills, coupled with a voracious appetite for calculation, soon lead to my being advised to take up accounting as a career.
This certainly seemed logical – the World will always need number crunchers – so I set my sights in that direction. But I had a year to wait before I could get into Eastcote University, so I elected to go and explore the World, before resigning myself to an academic, then office-bound life.
Thus eventually, at age 28, I found myself working for Spurrier’s, a firm of chartered accountants who were based in a large office block, in a small town called Oakdene.
And work I did. Assumed by my boss, Mr Rathbone, to be a nerd with no private life – it usually fell to me to come in on Saturdays, to round up the week’s inventories. I did not really mind, as he was right – I had no private life. And I could always use the extra money.
One of the small inconsistencies in my life was my love of Heavy Metal music, which I generally had blaring away on my MP3 player – paradoxically, it helped me to concentrate on the boring figures.
Which is why I never heard the fire alarm.
My first indication something was amiss, was the distinctive smell of burning carpet. Walking out into the corridor of the empty building, I returned quickly – having been beaten back by the flames.
I later learned that one of the installers working on the new central heating system had absent-mindedly left a blowlamp on – then gone for lunch with his work-mates.
But at that moment, all I knew was – I was in deep shit. Alone in an office on the seventh floor of a blazing building – and the nearest fire station was ten miles away in Colvestone. I went to the window and looked out. The sixty foot drop yawned at me.
Then I got a break. Just below the window-sill, I noticed three thick, plastic-covered power lines, anchored to the outside wall. They stretched across the road to our parent building where they terminated, just below the parapet of its flat roof.
I looked around the room – then I got a second break. Piled against the opposite wall were several radiators, left there by the installers – and a number of ten-metre lengths of copper pipe.
Sighing – as I knew what I must do to save my life – I walked over, grasped four of the pipes and returned to the window. Propping their ends on the window-sill, I took off my shoes, tied the laces together and slung them around my neck.
Then I heaved myself over and still grasping the sill, tested the strength of the wires by jumping up and down on them. They held.
And so, with my back to the sill for support, I pulled the bunch of pipes out of the window and ran them through my hands. With my hands in the middle of the bunch, I lowered them across in front of myself and steadied my nerves.
Finally, I gingerly placed my right forefoot on the wire in front of my left, putting most of the weight onto it, then swiveled my ankle until my hindfoot – heel – was resting gently on the wire. Then I focussed all of my attention on my objective – the other end of the wire.
Slowly, I steadied the bunch of pipes – then, when I was as ready as I would ever be, I began to move forward. Away from the safety of the window-sill.
Placing one foot carefully in front of the other, I began to pace along the wire. I was aware of a tingling sensation in my feet, which I put down to the current it was carrying. Then I heard the crash of a fender-bender in the street below.
I could also hear the shouts of the watchers under me. When I was about half-way across, I saw Rathbone come bursting out of the rooftop door in front of me. He seemed about to say something then thought better of it – figuring I needed all my concentration on the job in hand.
He was not wrong. While being aware of the melee in the street below – and peripherally, Rathbone – my concentration was fixed on the end of the wire, as I mentally pictured my feet curling around it.
Pace by pace, my goal crawled towards me. Time was suspended. The noise below soon became drowned out by the rushing of blood in my ears.
Pace – pace – pace…
Then suddenly, I was there. Slowly raising the bunch of pipes, I threw them over the parapet and grabbed it for dear life. Rathbone grasped my wrists and pulled me to safety – landing both of us, panting, onto the ground.
“How the hell did you do that?” he exclaimed.
“Buy me a beer and I’ll tell you,” I replied, putting my shoes back on.
– – – – – – – – – – –
We made our way down to the ground floor and out through the main entrance, then turned left and headed for the watering hole most of our employees used. Just then, the fire engines began to arrive and I cast a look up to the window I had made my escape from.
A huge bar of fire was shooting out of it.
Once inside the Roundwood Arms, I collapsed into the warmth of one of its leather chairs. After a bit, Rathbone returned with two pints of beer. I downed most of mine in one go.
“Okay,’ said Rathbone, “I’ve heard of people gaining superhuman strength in a pinch, but I’ve never heard of anyone doing what you just did.”
“It came from my gap year,” I said. And then I told him what I had done during it…
Realising I would not need personal transport for a few years, I had sold my old banger to a friend and with the money in my bank and a Visa card in my pocket, had taken off across Europe.
Paris, Berlin, Vienna – I had had a fine time in all of them. But I needed more, so I continued to head east – Eastern Europe had begun to open up to Westerners by then. Eventually, I arrived in a little Românian village called Codlea.
Its backdrop was the Carpathian Mountains – Dracula country, then. But it was a sweet place – and the circus was in town.
Having never actually seen a circus in the flesh, I attended. It was a wonderful experience, but the highlight came at the end. A gorgeous young girl in a satin catsuit came out and climbed up a long ladder – almost disappearing into the gloomy top of the tent. Then a spotlight picked her up and she began to walk back and forth along a tightrope.
She did not appear too confident, wobbling alarmingly as she picked her way along. Then suddenly – disaster! She appeared to slip and as she hurtled down towards the centre of the ring, the audience – including me – screamed.
But then her descent slowed. And slowed. And finally, she came to a graceful halt, just a few inches off the ground. At which point, she twisted, stood up and unclipped a harness she had on underneath her costume. It was attached to a black rope.
The crowd went mental. They had never seen anything like it.
That night, in my small hotel room, I lay awake for hours. I could not get her out of my mind – and not just because of her spectacular trick, either.
The next day, I returned to the circus. They were just finishing bringing down the big top, in preparation for heading to their next engagement. Then I saw her. I ran up to her and began burbling my appreciation of her tightrope skills.
Then I stopped, realising she would not have understood anything I had just said. But I was wrong. In pretty good English, she thanked me for my kudos, told me her name was Helga and invited me to take coffee with her.
It turned out that having toured Europe for years, the whole circus company were fluent in all the Romance languages. We talked for hours. I was fascinated by her. She was about my age, but a generation wiser.
She asked what I was doing so far from home and I explained to her about my gap year – and said I still had about seven months left. Then she asked if I had ever considered a career in the circus.
Well, long story short, I joined the company, sharing Helga’s caravan – and bed.
But the problem was, my left-brained-ness meant that my aptitude for show-biz was limited. I coughed and nearly died when I tried fire-eating. So they began training me on the tightrope. If I had mastered that, I would probably still be there – but while I found doing it with a balancing pole was quite easy, take that away and I was useless.
Eventually, the clowns saved me. They had a routine where they would take a “volunteer” from the audience and totally humiliate him. In street clothes, he would be thrown around and end up soaked and plastered with custard pies.
The guy they had used for the bit had quit a few months before and unable to find another willing victim, they had dropped the routine from their act. Now, they decided to revive it – with me.
And so every night, I was put through the mill by these amiable lunatics. It was okay at first – but eventually, I began to see why the last guy had quit.
But even that was not the limit of my discomfort. In the circus, everyone is expected to muck in. And the less status you have, the muckier the jobs you get given. My status as clown-fodder meant I got the muckiest. Shovelling animal clouts, etc.
As the end of my gap year approached, so did the feeling that despite Helga’s charms, the end of my circus career was approaching too.
Thus, after a tearful goodbye (my tears – Helga was fine) I headed back to a life of academia, followed by a nice safe, warm office – except I had not expected it to get THAT warm.
Rathbone looked at me for a long while. “So you remembered how to tightrope walk,” he said.
“Like riding a bike,” I replied. “It’s easy with a pole.”
© JOHN BELLAMY 2010
Footnote: I do not usually DO fiction (and having read through the above, you can see why) but I had a little bet with myself that I could write a piece, working in EVERY ROAD-NAME where I had lived, during my life (except my current one – which is foreign – and twenty-one letters long).
I won my bet. In chronological order, they are Oakdene Road, Withipol Street, Roundwood Road, Cauldwell Hall Road, Rathbone Place, Colvestone Crescent, Spurriers, Eastcote Grove and Station Road (although granted, Withipol was a STRETCH – with a pole?)
Anyhoo, if you desire to wander through ANOTHER of my fictional ramblings (you must be weak in the head) check out “A Year To Remember”, in my bogroll – sorry, BLOGROLL – at the top right of this column.