A Stringed Instrument Ch. 05byBramblethorn©
Phoebe was sleeping soundly when my alarm went off on Wednesday morning. I slipped out of bed, showered, and was about to head for the train when she woke.
"Morning. I didn't want to wake you."
Phoebe gave an elaborate yawn. "Should get up anyway." She padded over to me in her PJs (blue with yellow hedgehogs, if you were wondering) and stood on tiptoes for a good-morning kiss. This close, I could see the bruises from last night. "Got a lot of rehearsal before tomorrow."
"Oh, yes. So what is this gig, anyway?
"We're supporting Jane Lamont." Seeing my blank look, she elaborated. "Scots new-wave folk singer. Did a few songs with Billy Bragg, that sort of thing, decided to do a one-woman tour out here. Derek got wind of it and managed to get us the support gig." Derek being their band's unofficial leader. "It's at the Black Sow, pub near St. Leonard's. I'll put your name on the list."
"Cheers. So, about tonight...?"
I waited, but Phoebe was being deliberately obtuse, so I went on. "What do you have in mind?"
"Well. Something an old boyfriend taught me at university. Maybe a little bit scary, but I think you'll enjoy it if you give it a try."
"Do I have to interrogate you to find out?"
"I don't know." She tilted her head, eyes adorably wide. "Do you?"
So I spent several minutes questioning her. It was very enjoyable but I can't honestly say that she gave me any information. Eventually I had to admit defeat — it was that or miss several hours of training, which would've been hard to justify on the company tab — so we parted, both rather hot and bothered.
After napping on the train, I spent a very slow morning trying to fake an interest in the collection and analysis of user metrics — not that it's inherently a dull subject, but the lecturer seemed to be running on decaf that day. When the session ended, half a dozen of us went for lunch together and we talked shop until an enthusiastic bearded puppy-dog of a man named Mark suggested we all get together in the evening at a nearby bowling alley. The others agreed, and attention turned to me.
"I'd love to, but I'm already booked." No, that sounded too stiff, unfriendly. "Date tonight."
"Oh!" Was that a hint of disappointment? "Who is he? I thought you were from Melbourne, not round here?"
"I am. We met at a Christmas party, she was down visiting family."
"Oh, I see."
I watched his face, counting in my head until I saw the flicker as he noticed the pronoun I'd used. But since I wasn't trying to discomfit the lad, I pretended not to notice.
After lunch we spent the afternoon coding, trying out some of the tricks we'd been learning. It was a hot day and the air-conditioning was struggling to keep up with a room full of computers; throw in a couple of sneaky bugs that took ages to discover, and it wasn't until half-past five that I finished up and made for the train.
I got off where Phoebe had said, a couple of stops before her station, and she met me on the platform. She was in a T-shirt and shorts — well, she had the legs for it — and carrying a gym bag.
"Hey there!" We hugged, and then I followed her down to the underpass and out to the street. As we walked I peppered her with guesses about where we were going.
"Is it a play?"
"No, though that's a nice idea."
"Opera. Ballet. "
"Around here? Dressed like this? Nope. I said rope, that should be a clue."
"No, I think that's in King's Cross. But there are knots involved."
"Scouts. You're a scout leader."
"Not quite, but warmer. And time's up!"
We'd arrived at a big old brick building that had once been a factory of some description. Now it had a small sign out the front: "Rockwall Climbing — Safe Fun For All Ages!"
"This is what I do for exercise. Ever been climbing?"
"Nope." I was trying not to let my feelings about heights show in my voice or my face, but I don't think I succeeded.
"You'll be fine. You've got a good build for it, better reach than me."
We signed in at the desk. Phoebe paid, I signed a lengthy waiver, and they fitted me with a safety harness and rubber-soled shoes that felt too tight for comfort; Phoebe assured me that this was the sign of a good fit. She pronounced my jeans and geek-slogan t-shirt acceptable for climbing, and once I'd crammed my feet into the shoes and tightened the harness to her satisfaction we stowed our bags and went over to the beginner class.
A scrawny guy with a "Rockwall Climbing" T-shirt explained how the gear worked: you have a rope that attaches to your harness and runs up above you to a pulley at the top of the wall, then down to your partner who's belaying from the ground. They use the belaying gear to take in the rope while you climb, brake it when you stop, then lower you to the ground when you're done.
If you come off the wall and they're not paying attention, well, the floor stops you. It's padded, but not enough to matter if you fall from twenty metres. With that cheerful thought I clipped myself in and tied my back-up knot, Phoebe and I checked one another's gear, and then I started to climb.
The beginners' wall was easy: great big handholds like jug handles, and lots of them. It was like climbing a five-metre ladder — but less wobbly, and with a safety rope — and I made it to the top easily enough. I tapped the pulley to show that I'd made it, like the other climbers were doing, and I heard Phoebe below me call out "Safe!"
I looked down to see her holding the rope securely in brake position. From here, I figured, I could probably survive a fall even without the rope. So I opened one hand, let go of the wall, grabbed the rope. Opened the other hand, let go of the wall, grabbed the rope and held on tight. Still no help at all if the rope failed me (or the pulley, or Phoebe at the other end) but it felt better holding on to something.
Without my hands keeping me on the wall, my centre of gravity shifted backward and I came away from the footholds to dangle in space, slowly revolving in the air. Phoebe paid out the rope she'd taken in, and soon my feet were on solid ground again.
"Not bad. Now you try belaying."
So we switched places. Belaying was harder than it looked; you have to take up the slack as your partner climbs, so they're not going to fall too far if they come off the wall. But you can't do that with the rope in brake position, so you have to be quick about it, returning to brake every time you change hands. Phoebe was climbing much faster than I had, and I had to discipline myself to stick to the five steps they'd shown me and not cut corners. Just a little inattention is all it would take.
She reached the top and slapped the pulley. I watched, waiting for her to do something more, and then remembered my line: "Safe!"
Without hesitation she came away from the wall and I felt the rope tighten. I thought: if I was distracted, not handling this properly, you'd be falling. But I had it safely locked, and once she had her feet positioned I fed the rope back out and she descended to the mat, bending at the waist to brace against the wall with her feet instead of spinning as I had done.
"Good work. I'll get you to leave me a little more slack next time, just so the rope doesn't pull me away from the wall, but you did fine."
The instructor marked me off as 'completed safety training', and then Phoebe and I went out to explore the room. The walls were studded with fake rocks, different colours for different climbs; some were big and juggy like the ones I'd used before, some were just large enough to hook a few fingers over, and some...
"People actually use those to climb?"
"They do. Bit past my abilities, but if you've got strong enough fingers you can pinch them tight enough to hang on."
"Good lord. I've held nipples that were bigger than that."
Phoebe snorted, then slapped me on the arm. "Behave. Do you want first go?"
"I — oh, the wall. Okay, sure. What do you recommend?"
"Let's start you on the blue five here, that should be nice and easy."
We clipped ourselves in, checked one another, and I started up the wall. Physically it wasn't much harder than the previous one, but it was a lot higher, about fifteen metres. I made it about a third of the way before I started to feel really uncomfortable about how far I was off the ground; I pushed myself to halfway, but by that stage it was getting too much for me. I looked down, and saw Phoebe looked up at me questioningly.
"Getting tired! Coming down now."
But I couldn't quite find the nerve to let go of the wall and trust to the rope. Instead I climbed all the way back down, one hold at a time. At least it was easier coming back, but I felt very sheepish by the time I got there. Phoebe was kind enough not to look judgemental.
"Not bad. One tip, let your legs do more of the work. Don't pull yourself up by the arms more than you have to, they'll tire much faster."
I nodded. "I was getting a bit tense up there. Just didn't want to fall. Shit, I get the shakes just climbing a ladder to change a light bulb."
She patted my arm as we unclipped. "Tell you a secret... I feel that way every time. Letting go of the wall isn't natural, it takes some getting used to, and it's much harder if you're not in the right state of mind. Tension makes you tire out much faster. Just do as much as you're comfortable with, don't push yourself."
I needed a couple of minutes before I was ready to belay again, so we stood back and chatted. Phoebe told me how she'd gotten into climbing: "Exercise bores me. I don't mind the work, it's just that swimming laps is so dull. But climbing, it uses the mind as much as the body. Figuring out what's the best way to reach a hold, learning just how far you can flex... the only problem is you can't do it solo."
I wasn't sure whether to ask, but I asked anyway. "Was Luke your climbing partner?"
"Sometimes, yeah. Him and a couple of our friends, but... they were his friends before they were mine. I don't think we're going to be climbing together again."
"Enh. It happens. Well, if they're done —" she pointed at a pair of climbers who'd just walked away from the wall "— I'm going to grab that one. Ready?"
I took in the rope as Phoebe went up a tricky-looking climb. For the middle stretch she had to make her way up an underhang, and I wasn't sure how she was supposed to do it; as far as I could tell her centre of gravity would be tipped back too far to stay on the toeholds she needed to use.
But she proved me wrong. I couldn't figure out all of what she was doing, but I could see enough to catch a trick here and there: working her toes behind a hold to pull her into the wall while her other foot found better purchase further up, switching from one foot to the other to get a different angle on the hand-hold she needed, reaching around a corner to use a hold she couldn't have seen from her position (had she picked it out from the ground?) By hook and by crook, she made past the underhang and continued to the top.
I took up the last of the slack I'd been leaving her. "Safe!"
Phoebe was still on the underhang, so as she peeled off the wall she swung backward and bobbled to and fro like a pendulum, until she managed to hook an ankle around my end of the rope and steady herself. I brought her down faster this time. She was panting a little, and she rested one sweaty hand on my shoulder for balance as she separated herself from the line.
"Whoof. Been a while since I did that one. Wasn't expecting to make it all the way."
"Nicely done. I didn't know you were that flexible."
"Heh. Comes with practice. Easier in shorts than jeans, but mine wouldn't fit you. Next time you can bring some."
We shared a bottle of water, and then it was my turn. We found another climb, same difficulty as my previous one, and geared. After Phoebe checked my knots she gave me a quick hug. "Remember, just do what you're comfortable with."
I did better this time. My muscles were a little tired from my previous climb, but my technique and confidence had improved under Phoebe's coaching. I didn't grip the holds quite as hard, and when I saw a foothold that seemed just out of reach I tried anyway; to my surprise I was able to make it after all, and that got me a couple more feet of height.
I was nearly halfway up when I reached a spot where I had two good footholds and decided to take the opportunity to rest my arms a little while. I called down to Phoebe: "Just resting a moment!"
But as I looked down, I saw two people standing under me, facing her. From the position and their stance, they had to have been talking to her. Not strangers. The climbing buddies she'd mentioned, then? Luke's friends?
It occurred to me that I'd left several rather obvious hickeys on Phoebe's neck. Her T-shirt wouldn't hide them in the slightest. Anybody who noticed them could hardly help coming to certain conclusions. If not about my role in things, then at least about Phoebe.
And as I rested, dependent on her to bring me back to the ground once I was done, I wondered how much that consideration might prey on her mind.
"Phoebe, I'm beat here! Coming down!"
"Okay, you're safe!"
But once again, I couldn't find it in me to let go of my handholds. I clambered down, and although I jumped off the wall near the end, it was an empty gesture; from that height, I could've done it without the rope, without risking so much as a twisted ankle. By the time I got there, the couple who'd been talking to Phoebe were nowhere to be seen.
"Feeling okay? Had enough?"
"Oh... not quite in the right mindset. I think I can do one more, in a bit."
We shared a bottle of water, and then I belayed her on another climb. This one was a straighter climb than the last, but with further between the holds. I could see she was having difficulty reaching, and she was pausing more and more as she planned her moves. On the wall, thinking time isn't free; the longer you hang there, weighing up your choices, the more fatigue builds in your muscles and your core and the harder those choices become.
Eventually, a few metres from the top, she stretched for a distant hold, slipped, and came off the wall. I felt the jolt at my end of the rope. She caught hold of the wall with one hand, turned, and yelled down. "Let me hang a minute!"
"Okay!" So I held her there as she shook out her arms and legs, tried to recover her strength, and then pulled herself back onto the wall. She attempted the same move again, and again she reached the hold, but didn't have the strength to keep it. After a few more minutes she shook her head.
"Nope. Bring me down!"
As she unclipped herself she looked tired, and frustrated. She'd come so close to the top, but not quite made it.
"Bleah. Okay, I think that's my last for the day. One more for you?"
"Yeah." I looked at a climb marked out in grey stones. It should have been easy, even easier than the last, but... "Sorry, give me a moment. Just really not coping well with heights."
"Uh-huh." She hugged me, sipped at her water. "Tell you what, there's something we could try."
"Okay, fire away."
She went off to where we'd stashed our bags and came back with a square of fabric: a large handkerchief. "Blindfold."
"You wear it, I'll call out the holds. But you don't have to if you're not comfortable."
I didn't see how blinding myself was supposed to help, but... at least if my courage failed again I'd have a better excuse. So I clipped myself in, we cross-checked, and then I turned to the wall and Phoebe tied the handkerchief snugly over my eyes. "Ready when you are."
I groped for two firm handholds, felt around with my foot until I located a foothold, and started.
"Bring your other foot up. Little bit more. Out to the right, there."
I planted my toes on it — I'd almost forgotten the discomfort of the shoes by that stage — and straightened my leg, pushing myself up. My other foot was now dangling in mid-air; I kicked around a bit but couldn't find anything.
"Move your hand up first, there's a good hold about a foot above you."
I found it. With both arms outstretched, I was making a sort of Y-shape.
"Now bring your foot up and out. Further out a bit, just a small one..."
It took me a few tries before I found the toehold she meant, but once I was there, I was able to brace off that foot and lift the other.
And so we continued. She called out holds to me, and I found them; occasionally I fumbled around and located my own before she could communicate where I was supposed to look next. To my surprise I discovered that the blindfold really was helping; unable to see what was above or below me, it left me with no option but to focus on the next hold, and then the next. But I knew I was getting higher because her voice was getting fainter.
The gym had music on, and the playlist had just rotated to Bob Marley. I wouldn't have thought of it as climbing music, but I guess "Iron, Lion, Zion" was more soothing than the "AAH! FUCK! I'M GONNA DIE!" that'd been running through my head earlier. The place would have been loud enough even without the music. The hard walls echoed every slam of body against walls, every call of "Coming down!" or "Safe!" and sooner than I'd expected, I reached a point where I couldn't understand what she was saying.
"... left ...!"
"Can't hear you!"
"Can't ... louder ... from here!"
So I went on alone, finding my handholds by touch. I could have taken off the blindfold, but I was doing okay by touch. A few of them felt like they might belong to a different route — maybe the smaller yellow ones I'd seen from the ground, in between the big grey lumps that were mine — but I wasn't going to fuss about that.
I pushed upwards one step at a time. The sounds around me had turned into a blur of noise, and the only meaningful contact I had with the ground was the occasional slight tug of the harness that reminded me I was still attached to a rope, and at the other end of the rope was Phoebe, my anchor.
But I was getting near the end of endurance. My arms were hurting, my fingers were weakening, sweat was trickling down my face. When I leaned on my right foot, I could feel my leg starting to shimmy. No way I was going to be able to climb back down this time...
"I'm done! Coming down!" And I steeled myself to let go of the wall. This time at least I'd be able to hold my head up; my body might have given out, but my courage hadn't.
Phoebe's voice, indistinct: "... you ...!"
I pushed the blindfold up with the back of my hand and looked up. Less than two metres from the top. Maybe three more holds. Oh, sod it.
First hold. Tried to pull myself up, sweaty fingers slipped, had to wipe them on my shirt and try again. On the second try, I barely clung on. The movement dislodged the blindfold from my head. I imagined it fluttering away, falling fifteen or twenty metres and touching down in silence.
I thought about how quickly a human body would fall, how hard I'd hit. What noise I'd make.
Second hold. Pushed up off my left leg, strained, grabbed with my left arm... fingers going to slide off, need more support! Drew my right leg up, scrabbled around desperately, found footing off to one side. High (good) but too high, bending my knee uncomfortably. Awkward, and the tremor there was getting worse. But taking some of the load off my arm for a moment.
Looked up at the last hold, just below the pulley and way out to the right. Stretched for it with my right hand, but it was a few inches out of reach. Need a plan, before energy runs out. Other people do this, how do they do it? Quick.