Feeling the plank bending slightly under my weight, I crawled to the end, trying to avoid looking at the impossible drop beneath me. Although I had a good head for heights, I still felt queasy. My fingertips felt the surface, roughly planed and unfinished, whilst I smelt the scent of freshly worked wood. A mild, warm breeze blew on my face, and above, the yellow disk of the sun burned down on me.
Reaching the end, I closed my eyes and turned around on the plank by feel. Then I opened them again and looked back at Jessie, silhouetted against the top of the tall spire. I couldn’t see her face, just blonde hair blowing in the breeze, against the slate-grey tiles. She was stood on a platform close to the top of the steeple of St. Stephen’s church, Budhaven, one of the tallest in Britain. Above, on the very tip of the spire, a small but ornate metal cross surmounted a thick strip of copper lightning conductor which ran down the side of the steeple and ultimately into the earth.
“You OK, Ben?” she called.
I gave a thumbs-up sign. The plan was to photograph me for Facebook, standing at the end of a narrow plank with a four-hundred-foot drop below. Now, out here, the reality was a bit different. It was really quite breezy, it might be dangerous. I decided it would be safer just to dangle my legs over the sides. It would still look impressive.
Suddenly, a workman with a yellow hard hat appeared behind Jessie. Her father owned the firm undertaking reparations, that’s how we’d got access to the spire, although he would never have given us permission to do what we were doing, had he known.
The man walked quickly towards Jessie, his yellow hat pulled down at the front and his face in shadow. She heard his steps and began to turn around, though not in time to prevent him from shoving her hard in the back, sending her crashing onto a low barrier surrounding the platform. I heard her cry out in surprise. Before she’d had time to regain her balance, he bent down, took her by the legs, and hurled her out and over the edge. She didn’t make a sound and in total disbelief I watched her spiralling downwards, making an odd bounce before crashing onto a corner of the church roof with a distant, sickening, thud. I looked up and the man had gone.
Just then, I felt a sharp pain in my right hand. Ow! I looked to find a half-crushed wasp. I could see a dark mark at the base of my thumb where its sting had gone in. In a state of panic, I scraped it off and crawled back along the wooden plank to the platform, pulling myself over the barrier, oblivious to the pain. I needed to get down and get help. Jessie might still be alive.
The platform had been constructed using a huge crane and access to it was now via internal steps in the spire, then out through a door and up a specially erected ladder to a trapdoor in the platform. But, to my horror, the trapdoor wouldn’t lift. It appeared to be bolted shut from underneath!
With my hand throbbing from the sting, I looked around, nothing but a big wooden chest. Inside were a number of coveralls and hard hats, a large number of poles – about two feet in length – connected together with a type of elasticated rope, a roll of some kind of wire mesh, about the same width as the poles were long, about twenty pairs of thick socks and, of all things, a large flag of Bahrain. There was also a battered metal box that contained a few rudimentary tools. But even if I could somehow access the ladder beneath, I could imagine the spire door being locked.
I looked over the edge and saw two tiny distant dots beneath me. “Help, I shouted, waving frantically. Help!”
One of the dots turned pink, presumably someone looking up. Then I saw that they were waving back at me.
“No, you stupid idiots, get help!” I yelled at the top of my voice – but they got into a car and drove off.
There weren’t many people about, there being no ecclesiastical service and the church tea room having shut some time ago. Those that were, either ignored me, assuming they could hear me from so far above, or else waved back, unsuspecting that I was in dire straits. In the meantime, Jessie’s body lay, unmoving, far, far below.
I awoke to the deafening sound of rotors. I’d spent an uncomfortable and largely sleepless night on the cold, damp boards of the platform, trying to forget the fruitless hours of shouting and waving and the agony of my wasp-stung hand, the pain of which had now subsided, fortunately. Thank God I wasn’t susceptible to anaphylactic shock, or I’d have been a goner! It had rained in the night too, so even having donned a coverall and hard hat, I was wet and freezing. And, of course, there was poor Jessie. Tears of frustration filled my eyes. If only I could have got off this damned platform I could have summoned help. Now she was doubtless beyond it.
But now I was astonished to see a rope swinging down from a helicopter and at the end of it was something, which as the chopper moved in and the rope swung closer, turned out to be a harness affair. I looked up but could see no one, just the orange underbelly of the helicopter and the whirring blades. I unclipped the harness and, seeing how it worked, quickly put it on. Looking up again, I now saw someone waving. I clipped the harness to the end of the rope and gave them a thumbs-up sign, shortly feeling my feet lift off the platform. Thank God!
The chopper rose and the rope began to reel in. I was swinging around, looking down from maybe a thousand feet, but I felt so disoriented from an unprotected night on the platform that it all seemed surreal and I wasn’t nervous. Soon two men were taking my arms and helping me aboard.
“Hello, Ben.” It was Jessie’s father, Maurice McIntyre, of the McIntyre Corporation.
I sat down and unclipped the rope. With tears in my eyes and a trembling lip, I said, “Maurice, I’m so sorry, I’ve got some terrible news. Some crazy workman pushed Jessie off that platform. I think she’s dead.”
“Oh dear.” His face was sombre, then to my astonishment, it broke into a smile and then he began to chuckle. The chuckle turned into a laugh, and soon the other fellow joined in.
“What the …?”
Still laughing, he gestured to the front of the helicopter. The co-pilot removed a baseball cap and long blonde hair tumbled down. The airman turned and smiled. “Hello, darling!”
It was Jessie!
“Jessie! What the hell’s going on?! Is it really you?”
She came over and hugged and kissed me. Yes, it really was her.
So, it had turned out to be a bet, based on a stupid prank, organised by Jessie’s brother, Fred, who had a YouTube channel for practical jokes. A drone had filmed me and someone on the ground had misled any would-be rescuers, telling them I was in on the ‘joke.’ Fred had bet his uncle Xavier a substantial sum that I wouldn’t manage to escape, whereas Xavier, God bless him, although he was wrong, thought I had the initiative to somehow get down from the platform, unaided.
Seems they’d strung the church roof with a special kind of camouflage netting for Jessie to land on, complete with sound effects. She’d been a talented gymnast when younger. Then, when I’d been preoccupied with shouting and waving from the other side of the platform, she’d quickly climbed down and a dummy had been substituted. Thousands of YouTube viewers were no doubt chortling at my distress at this very moment!
I’d been fuming with anger but Jessie had been touched by how upset I was and mollified me by suggesting we get engaged, so now I’d be marrying into the McIntyre Corporation, no mean achievement! Fred, buoyed by the boost in viewings of his channel, and the subsequent potential increase in advertising revenue, had agreed, albeit reluctantly, to hand over half the wager, a not inconsiderable sum in my current circumstances. So, ‘All’s Well That Ends Well.’ Though just how I was supposed to escape, I never did find out!
Featured in the book and audiobook, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories
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