Monday, 30 March 2009

The rope.

I say that I remember, with complete clarity, how and where I stumbled over it. On a warm self-absorbed Saturday in April, I was on my knees in the Toc H bookshop near the Hythe Bridge, searching through a fourth or fifth box of tattered paperbacks with that special kind of tenderness that the book-lover reserves for the old and infirm.

(True romantics, of which I count myself one, can never pass up the untold possibilities of an old shoebox or orange crate parting at the seams with dozens of blanched dreaming spines, but they soon learn, as all romantics must, that care and caution are the real safeguards. All of us have at one time or another left most of a book’s cover adhering to its neighbour, or had a particularly thumbed specimen discorporate over one’s shoe. Suffice to say that if I ever do happen to make myself a paper doll... well, nevermind.)

I’ve found all manner of things, kneeling beneath trestle tables or at the feet of overstuffed bookshelves, breathing in that low-key dream smell of cheap paper, old ink, mould and spores. The Death Ship by B.L. Traven. Barrington Bayley. Gerald Kersh. Elisabeth Bowen. All messages in bottles, all drifting in the pale tide. It’s one reason to worship the moon, I’ll say that much, to be grateful for the tide.

A.L. Curtis was not a name that I recognised, but I never can resist someone who has the advantage of me, especially when his words come in cloth covers. The cloth had lost most of the title a long time before I’d gotten to it, so I eased his book free and laid it carefully in one palm. It opened a little too easily, and I shifted to steady myself. No sudden movements: very well. I turned the endpaper back. A.L. Curtis, it said, A Study of Recent Progress In Rope & Knot Magic. First printing. New York, 1926.

Sometimes one cannot help but recognise the hand of serendipity. Moments before it smacks you in the teeth is always a good time for this, so that as you stagger back spitting out blood and splintered enamel you can at least form the outline of a knowing smile. I had something like that smile on my face as I crossed the river. The book was wrapped in vinegar-paper under my arm, fat and weightless in the way that truly old books become.

But one of my main complaints with contemporary society, while I have your attention, is the simple poverty of expression afflicting many of our young people. People of A.L. Curtis’ generation had standards and reservations, what used to be called common courtesy. They did not parade the streets forcing unwelcome intimacies on strangers. They did not, as a rule, even drink to excess. But people these days, generally speaking, you understand, people these days just don’t know how to be nice. At the Toc H bookshop that was never a problem, I should clarify, but other places... other places I had come to feel less and less comfortable with.

Here is what A.L. Curtis had to say on the matter of other places:

It can be seen that even the most perilous entertainments developed by the American illusionists pale in their characteristically base impact when considered with the infamous so-called Rope Trick of the Indian fakirs, whose young male assistants are frequently dismembered or otherwise disappear without trace at the climax of this dubious entertainment, which, as I have found, is equalled only in its questionable taste by the conundrums it presents to the aspirant performer and by the numerous unreliable accounts of its exact proceedings. [Curtis’ emphasis. He continues:] Many Western spectators appear to have wilfully confused memories of what may, considering certain reports, be an intensely distressing spectacle.

This last passage had been underlined in pencil and marked approvingly: ‘Yes!’

I fancied I could detect the influence of imperialism here, but perhaps it was just the armchair. It was a high wing-backed thing that seemed to exert psychoactive influence over whatever I read while sat it. Once settled in this munificent work of furniture, books would read as if the sun had never set on the empire.

(At one point in Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino describes the emperor and his narrator settled peaceably in hammocks, conversing without speaking, as if each might only exist in the other’s imagination: what I am attempting to suggest is that this chair was clothed in the same cloth. (For all that I know, it still is.))

So, in any case, I got up and walked around the room. As I passed by the door for the second time, I picked up a large plastic bag with string handles, lifting it with some difficulty, and spilled its contents out onto the dining-table among all the maps and pamphlets.

Nothing that looks like rope looks should be quite so heavy. But rope does, or is, and in spite of my distrust--not helped by the braiding of royal blue and hot pink--I had been assured that this was, in italics, the quintessential stuff. I picked it up in one hand. It was wound in a fat figure-of-eight, sixty metres of it. Rope.

As anyone who has ever held a snake will tell you, holding rope of any kind feels nothing whatsoever like holding a snake. A snake feels alive--unless it is dead, that is--and beneath its scales, the thing will yield and shift about your touch without so much as your say-so. Snakes have their own agenda. Rope does none of these things, but there is something similarly uncanny about how it weighs in the hands, something that fouls the senses. I imagine one gets accustomed to it with regular exposure, fits of metaphysical introspection at 15,000 feet being unwelcome, but I have not, myself. And then--well, here is what happened:

At five o’clock the following morning, I locked the door behind me and climbed the stairs as lightly as I was able to the highest landing, where a small doorframe set into the wall admits the intrepid into the lower parts of the roof itself.

With care, one can almost stand up straight here, although I have never lost my terror of slipping from a joist and plunging one great clumsy hoof through the ceiling below. (At one time I had this recurring nightmare of falling a very great distance through space: losing my footing, I would find that the plaster and lath yielded not to a room but a great inky darkness through which I would continue to fall. After a matter of minutes I would crash through a tiled roof, into an attic, and just as quickly into darkness again. In my dream, this fall would last so long that I became able to mark birthdays since it began.) However, at the end of the building, where the roof descends to meet the floor in another meeting that makes the eye ache with wrongness, there is another door, a door fastened by a pin on a chain.

Outside the roof levels out for a few square feet at the end of the building. Friends of mine have used the place to get high before now, following some complex reasoning that the ideal environment for consuming intoxicants is the cold place spattered with bird shit that rewards the uncoordinated with an eighty foot drop onto pavement. A steel box resembling a newspaper dispenser holds a rope ladder, for emergency use. (It occurs to me, writing this, that I have no idea if it is still there: by now it may well have been used.)

In any case, I had brought my own rope. I'd loaded it into my wickerwork laundry basket and dragged it up here alongside me. It seemed to weigh as much as I did.

It occurred to me at or around this point that I had devoured A.L. Curtis' book, or the parts of it that interested me, in the space of a single weekend. By my standards, this counted as uncommonly swift.

Let me be clear: what I mean is that I had sat and read the twenty-one pages of his account and theory of the Indian rope trick, making thorough notes, and when I was quite satisfied that my preparations would be adequate, I had cut the pages from the binding of the book and methodically sliced them along the diagonal into thin regular strips.

(I have found that diagonal cuts are most effective at encouraging the fibres to separate, especially with older books. It is very important to ensure that all of the words are divided. It's a symbolic thing, I suppose, moreso than a practical consideration, although I cast a blind eye to the indefinite articles. A little too much like hard work, that. Betrays a lack of faith. Symbolic things.)

In the wreckage of my kitchen, I had then filled a stockpot with water and set it to boil. Once it was on a fine, rolling boil, I added two sliced onions and five tablespoons of vinegar before feeding the fragments of manuscript in a handful at at time, stirring slowly. By this time it was around two o'clock in the morning: there is an ovoid alarm clock with radium-green hands that sits on the kitchen counter which I inherited from my grandmother. I had figured that I would have around two hours remaining. It is important to keep stirring. After twenty minutes I saw that the fragments had begun to pulp and bloat, and I reduced the heat a little, putting a lid on the pot.

Over the next hour, I reviewed my notes and sat in my armchair, practicing knots. There are two in particular that Curtis emphasises, one being an implausible and seemingly pointless variation on the standard double sheet bend that he nonetheless is absolutely insistent about; I found that my hands kept deceiving me with vacant facility into tying the normal sheet bend, and so I kept practising it until I was quite certain of its movements. The second, he explained, should not be tied until the trick is underway, but I could see its movements clearly enough. It was an elegant thing: no arcana here. It didn't look especially dangerous.

Context is everything.

After another hour had passed, I had returned to the kitchen and inspected my word broth. The water ran thick and opaque now, and when I raised a forkful of fragments from it, I saw with satisfaction that they had become blank, flensed of whatever meaning my knife had left there.

I strained the contents of the pot into a bowl and set aside the pulped paper. It would harden and be spooned out into the waste disposal later, if I remembered. I laid a clean dishcloth over the bowl to draw out the worst of the steam. I couldn’t help but remember the first time. The memory caught at my chest like a boathook, and I had to sit down, at once, before I could die. At such times, gentle reader, it can be hard to maintain a sense of humour about one's past.

But it passed, as it always does, and when I returned to myself again, sitting by the empty litter tray among stunned clouds of newspaper, somehow I got up and carried the bowl in with me to sit at the dining table where I had left the rope. I sat back in the hard-backed chair and took a few deep breaths. The force of the memory had cowed me, and for a moment I felt like tipping the bowl out over the carpet, or emptying the thing from the window.

When I felt strong enough, I looked down into it. Whatever had existed of A.L. Curtis' thoughts on the rope trick gazed back up at me, swimming in its brave new ocean. In the words of that famous song, it was now or never.

I lifted the bowl up to my lips and drank it all, in steady patient gulps. When it has been prepared correctly, one doesn't taste the acids. They disappear. What you taste is just unlike anything else. It doesn't taste of paper, or ink, or any of the things you might expect. It's warm, and it's clear - well, fairly clear - but it's also heavy, but not in the way that honey is. It doesn't burn. It pushes its way into the body. It has the forceful weight of history. One might as well imagine what it feels like to swallow a month.

1926. Christ. I'd really done it this time.

And here I was, back in the now, still doing it, really doing it. As I stood and watched chalk lines were stealing out across the surface of the city, gable by gable, eave by eave. The Hythe shone brightly in the middle distance, refusing to belong. I felt unreal.

I zipped my jacket up across my chest and checked my feet. I'd worn the usual dusty trainers out onto the roof, but they had to go. I shoved them off one heel at a time and bent to pull up my stockings. Padded soles and arches. I rubbed a toe gingerly against the roof.

If everything was right, that is, if I had read and understood everything correctly, this should be fairly sensible. Esoteric, certainly, but perfectly straightforward in its own (hopelessly imprecise, perilous and unaccountable) fashion. What I couldn't entirely decide was why I was doing it. I seemed to move without motive.

I took a knife from my pocket and opened the basket. From the top of the coil I cut an arm-length, and then a second. These two I tied into an approximation of a loop - it had to be an approximation, Curtis had been very clear, not a loop itself - using the knot I had been told not to tie.

I closed my knife and studied the thing. It lay on my arm like nothing much in particular. I picked it up in one hand and swung it through the air; a cataclysmic event of staggering import did not happen. Very well.

I proceeded as planned. There was a tautness gathering in my stomach and my pelvis, but I took the severed lengths and tied them to the remainder of the rope. I had to stop myself halfway through, finding the usual knot beneath my fingers again, and undid it slowly, counting my steps. One, two. Three. I gave it a sound yank in both hands and set it down, satisfied, on the edge of the basket.

Curtis had mentioned that from the moment one completed this, it was important to be on one's guard for the unexpected. I did not remember this warning until several moments after I completed the knot, which is why I was not on guard when the end of the rope gave a jerk and shot straight up into the darkness, uncoiling from the basket so quickly that it crackled. Somewhere along its coiled length there must have been a hitch, as with a sudden choke the basket burst, most of it pinwheeling and sailing in splinters over the edge and into the empty road below.

The rushing stopped.

I looked up.

Curtis hadn't said anything about this.

The strange loop was now completely vanished from sight, not even a dot, while the remaining length of the rope described one long straight crawl up into the darkness. The other end trailed by my feet, hanging an inch or so above the roof.

(Once more, I found myself thinking that anything other than hot pink would have been a better choice.)

I looked around me. The city seemed darker now. I had barely heard the basket land, and I crept toward the edge just to see that it actually had, and had not simply acquired the taste for levitation from its contents. A sudden wave of vertigo rushed into me as I took the next step, and I felt an implacable push in the centre of my chest. No. I just couldn't take another step. It was the wrong direction. I could feel my stomach reaching for my mouth. I stepped back.

My head cleared with a few deep breaths, and it was a moment or two before I realised that I was leaning on the rope for support, one hand gripping it quite tightly. I looked down at where it rested, swaying lightly with my grip, and gave it a hard tug. It held.

I have never been scared of heights. When I was a young girl, for instance, I used to love to climb trees. Passionately, that is, and of course I wasn't supposed to. I'd fall out, now and then, and it would hurt - once I broke my thumb - but it was all so terribly worth it for that sensation of hanging in the higher branches with the swarm of life all about me, carried by the air like a spider. You can get a similar feeling in the water, swimming I mean, but it really isn't the same. Water has a certain quality to it, it has something akin to mass, one suspended in water is buoyant. Being in the air is really nothing like it, but most people have never had experience with it. Air will let you fall.

No sunlight where I was going. No swarm of life ecstatic. Or so I thought. I looked up again. It occurred to me then that predictions are fallible.

My jacket has deep pockets, and in one of them I had sealed a bottle of talcum powder and my gloves. I dusted and clapped my hands until they were ready, and strapped on the gloves. I tugged at my socks again and looked up. The boathook caught me again, blunt and deep. What was I doing?

For a certain amount of time I felt this deep, important ache push through my belly. I don't need to say that it felt like the summed total of every mistake, loss, frustration and disappointment that I'd bitten off and swallowed in my ridiculously brief life. I mean, people suffer, don't they? It just isn't news. It's not even especially meaningful. It's hardly, this is what I mean, it's hardly a matter of principle.

Oh, I thought, that, that’s what I’m doing, and reached out to grab hold of the rope. It swung just a little, enough to work with in any case, and I hauled my legs up off the roof and planted my feet against it.

There's nothing like it as a sensation, really. If you ever want to be assured that the material substance of your body is more plastic, heavier and far more separable than you ever supposed it should be, hanging from a rope is it.

I closed my eyes and reached up, inching as my feet struggled to seat themselves. You forget how, at first. This wave of panic settles in as you try to figure out how the hell to do it, choosing which limb to move at a time, which means choosing which limbs are left to hold you up in the air. It's painfully slow, and for a moment you are horribly tempted to look down, but you don't, because you don't want to see that you are all of four feet above the ground.

But this is it, you know. To a certain extent, that's how climbing works. You don't look down. You don't look up either, if you can help it. You merely dangle and climb as best you can, limb by limb, inch by inch if necessary. You understand that I make it sound easier than it is.

I won't try to explain what happened when I caught up with the loop. You'd never believe me, and besides, in the greater scheme of things nothing did happen: "I kept climbing, somehow." Things do drag at you. Even simple homesickness, looking down as one eventually can't help: all those sunlit dreaming streets, for instance, or the way the waters of the earth seem to lie still: it looks so whole, so benevolent, so detailed.

I could let go and give in at any time, should my spirit flag. As I have made my ascent, I have become quite blind, so that now I tell day from night by the warmth of the sun alone; but this much remains clear to me. The flesh can only do what it's told to, after all, and knowing in its chambers what we pretend we don't, it surrenders readily enough to the higher will.

This will be the lone achievement of my skill and knowledge, as a tree is the achievement of a seedling, and though I have long passed the point where I can see the world I leave behind, my memories seem to become clearer with every handhold. The air does not hold me aloft--it never will--but it does soothe. It's a condition to aspire to, which itself is something to do while waiting to die.

So I really do not exaggerate when I say that I can remember precisely how I fell forever through ceilings and rafters suspended in the darkness oceans of time apart; or that dear Marco's Venetian fables remain as vivid to me now as the unfortunate colours of the braid between my fingers; I do not even, as I have said, declaim to secure your attention when I tell you that I can remember with complete clarity how and where I stumbled across the book itself.

The book: I am sorry that I excised the pages, now. I am sorry, for that matter, that I left the kitchen in the state that it was in. When I say I am sorry, though, there is an abstraction at play here: it is not that it pains me to have done and not done these things. I suppose what I am saying is that I see simultaneously how they were necessary, in the immediate sense of the word, and not necessary, in the sense that a sense of perspective is not necessarily the same thing as a sense of scale. All of us go up the rope someday, of that I am certain: we all go climbing up to the moon.

I could have waited; but I was tired of waiting.