It started with the Theatre Royal when I was fifteen. If I’d been caught then maybe it would have stopped there. But I wasn’t. So it didn’t.
That first time, it was July and very hot. The entire gallery audience had slipped into narcolepsy. My mum would rouse for thirty seconds or so every ten minutes. I was a twitchy mess of teenage emotions that made any sleep difficult – never mind in a small plush chair while men in boaters shouted through French windows on the stage. So I slipped up to the bar. There were no staff and the little window was open. I stuck an arm out, then my head, shoulders, and then, driven by something I couldn’t resist, I slid my Converse onto the ledge outside and clambered up to the roof.
In those days, the starlings used to roost across Pavilion Gardens and New Road and the air was heavy with ammonia. The roof was crusty and feathered and I dared not sit down. I just breathed and waited. I couldn’t see the street below, because of a parapet, but the world of roofs was around me and the sky, blue and flecked with summer evening cloud. I wanted to stay, I wanted to find myself liberated into nothingness, or maybe just absorbed by a roof tile or piece of masonry. I wasn’t. So I had to make a choice. I clambered down, dropped back into the bar and went to the toilets to scrape off the worst of the guano from my trainers.
In the years since there have been dozens of those moments. The service stairs in the university department where I studied led to a doorway onto a flat roof. It was a pebble-dashed expanse that lent itself to hazardous running. But I stopped ten metres from the edge – every time. The Victorian Hospital, on another stifling summer night, where my baby was laid flat after his lumbar puncture, was a Mary Poppins’ world of ancient, soot-stained chimneys. The train, that night in the sidings, when I just couldn’t get off – that was a curve of possibility. I almost lay flat and waited for the morning to take me where it would. But I always got down. I always climbed back inside and made good any dishevelment and tried to look like I wasn’t that sort of a person.
So, now, the ladders up there are just too much of a temptation. Too much. It was constructed to the Biblical dimensions of Noah’s Ark, apparently. A Wagner-built edifice to remind those living in the long-cleared slums that God had his beady eye on their hopeless sinning. Tonight it’ll be me with my beady eye on the drug dealing, alley-fucking and girlfriend-slapping of the London Road area. I’m going up St. Bart’s.
There are confessionals. That’s unusual in a C of E church. I like them. In fact, I love them. I’ve always thought they were a fabulously kinky bit of drama. The idea of sitting in the gloom and confessing your filth through a grille to some breathy holy person – who could resist? But, even better as a hiding place. I can hear them stacking the chairs after the interminable planning meeting for the Advent Service. I peep out.
‘Jean! Come on! I want to catch the second Borgen!’
Keith is jangling keys at the front doors. He flicks the switches to darken the church and Jean rushes out of a side door from the kitchen.
‘Keith! I’ll break my bloody neck in here one night if you keep plunging me into darkness.’
The doors close. I hear the heavy lock turning. There’s the smell of church – wood, wax polish, the memory of candle smoke. Slowly my eyes adjust to the darkness. There’s a lot of gold and it’s picking up every trace of light to advertise its presence. I walk slowly, wary, wondering for a second about ghosts. I never wonder about God but I do about ghosts. And in churches especially. There must have been so much desperation in churches – so much panic at the altar, grief over coffins, lust in the pews. I can’t believe it doesn’t linger.
In the corner there is a locked door. I knew it would be locked but I’m prepared. I don’t like to be destructive, I really don’t. But sometimes we have to smash things slightly – in a measured sort of way. I use my full body weight against the lectern to shift it, rocking, onto the rim of its base and then, careful, slow, I walk it towards the locked door. I let it fall, that’s all, let it fall against the oak and there’s a crack. The gold head of the eagle has beaten through a panel. I lift him out and let him fall again a couple more times, breaking a hole large enough to clamber through.
The stairs are arranged in straight flights of eight – up, turn, up – more times than I can hold in my head. I am running each flight and pausing for three breaths because it’s possible, just possible, to keep going that way. By the final flight I’m sick with pain and there’s splashes of light in the darkness that I know are coming from my own head.
The door at the top is locked too but, somehow, I know to feel around the wood of the frame. There, in the whitewashed wall, a nail is driven in and my fingers find a key hanging – a heavy, fairy tale key.
The door opens inward and I’m hit by a wall of air. I hadn’t thought about the power of air so high above the city. As I step out, it takes the breath from my mouth. I wonder if this is survivable. I don’t stop. I can hear sirens. The sky is clear and the air cold. Stars. Orion. I look at my own boots and wait for a moment. Gloves. I did remember gloves. Holding on to the parapet, I walk the narrow, leaded walkway towards the front of the building – and then there they are, sloped on the grey slates – ladders lashed together, pointing up towards the cross.
I take one step and the wind wraps my body, slapping at my chest, almost flipping me sideways. I realise I will have to lie flat against roof, head turned against the slates between each rung – a cold kiss on my cheek – again – again.
I can take each step as the last. I’ve never been so high, in such turbulent air, but that I know. Imagine each step is the only one to take. And then, sudden emptiness. I am at the apex. There is nothing but night sky and my own reckless self. I let go of the ladder and make a grab for the outstretched arms of the cross. If there is a God, and she really does object to my lack of faith, then now is her moment. But it seems she’s merciful. Or, perhaps, the masons who worked the stone imagined that someone might need something firm to hold onto one day. Either way, my woollen fingers are wrapped tight and I am brave enough to step off the top rung and swing my leg over the roof.
That’s me. Above my city again. I’m telling you so you’ll know it’s possible – that’s all. I don’t want you all walking round looking up and bumping into each other. And the last thing I want is company. But, if you really need to, if it just seems necessary, then you can. Email me and I’ll give you every location – every unlocked door – every arch and ledge and salt-splattered stretch into the sky. Because when you need to, you really should.