Creative Writing: Between a Rock and...Another Rock

Categories: Writing

Perhaps the description of the wall as a cliff isn't fair. I have seen few cliffs in my life that were quite that sheer. The sports centre's climbing wall, for one reason or another, was by the far the most interesting and expensive section of the whole building, which also happened to comprise two Olympic standard swimming pools, over twenty tennis courts and a gyroscopic exercise wheel. This was possibly the second most expensive piece of equipment, definitely the most useless - being somewhere between an oversize hamster wheel and a spinning top - and I used it twice a day.

If you know the experience of coming off a running machine, perhaps you could imagine that feeling of abject confusion acting in all 3 dimensions at once. This was all situated on four storeys, with a clear pyramid roof over the top. This was already very high, I thought as I walked through the sports hall entrance towards the stairs.

Of course, it wasn't quite high enough for the climbing wall.

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The wall actually extended underground for another few storeys. It was a simulated cliff face designed to replicate the environment you experienced if you took advantage of the excellent Alpine climbing faces in the local area, except that on the muddy brown rock were five different trails. The first three were made of green, red and blue prosthetic 'rocks', which varied in size, shape and distance apart from trail to trail. The next one was sprayed gold, with none of the moulded handprint hold sites that you would find on the upper side of the 'rocks' of the other trail, and the last one took up just over half of the width of the entire wall.

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The rocks were actually made of the same material of the wall face, and their colour made them almost indistinguishable from the rest of the wall. They were very far apart, and some of them were only intended the be reached by using natural low ridges in the wall to throw yourself up.

This wall was the pinnacle of climbing achievement for anyone who found themselves at the top of it, and it seemed strangely close from the bottom. At the top of the wall were two hooks set in a panel of cement, multi-coloured climbing cables swinging loose over them all the way back down to the ground, and above them was the goal. Daylight. A panel of open windows, through which the white sun and warm mountain winds came. All the trails snaked up to meet these windows, but only the natural trail would take you directly underneath them, so close that you could reach one hand outside into the cool air before abseiling back into the shadows. If you reached this window, you had completed the most advanced training course the climbing school could offer. I ached to reach that window from the moment I laid my hand on the first rough, blue block of the first trail.

A wall had seemed like an simple challenge before I started the course. I'd been climbing alone in the old silver quarries for a few days without any equipment - always down, of course - but eventually decided that it was probably too dangerous, and that I could end up falling to the piles of discarded white rock crystals. Perhaps the scenery would be less breath-taking in the interior of the sports centre, but I could always go back out in the quarry. When I arrived at my first lesson - late - the instructor gave me a wide grin. He was a very tall, well built and tanned French man in his mid-thirties, surrounded by a few French children, two or three years younger than me. There was a boy a few years older than me too, but he obviously too adept at climbing to require any harness or cable, never mind an instructor, and he was already half-way up the green trail without any safety equipment. I found myself watching this boy with a silent fascination and awe. I ignored the instructor completely until he hit me lightly on the shoulder.

'Parlez-vous Francais?' (Do you speak French?) He asked, still grinning. I attempted to smile back, but it quickly faded. His appeared to be fixed, and was more than slightly unnerving.

'Oui, mais je regrette, un petit peu seulement.' (Yes, but not much I'm afraid) I replied in my best attempt at a French accent, only slightly peeved that he had immediately deduced that I wasn't French. I felt I had made a considerable effort to blend in - I didn't carry a camera, wear sunglasses or speak at all unless it was absolutely necessary.

'Then it's a good thing that I speak very good English, then.' He replied, gesturing me into the group. I was extremely surprised. I had already been to an archery course in the morning, where the instructor had not spoken a single work of English, and his communication with me had been based entirely on two words - 'tirez' and 'tres bien', 'pull' (in reference to the bow) and 'very good' (in reference to some of my shots, and anything else that didn't fall under 'pull'). Within minutes I was strapped into a harness, connected to a purple cable, and was making my way up the first trail. As I abseiled down, all I could think about was the window. I watched it slowly disappearing from view as I descended into the shadows.

Over the next few days, I scaled all three of the artificial trails. On the day I scaled the fourth, my younger brother had decided to join me at the course. He'd been infected by my new-found enthusiasm - suitably demonstrated that morning when I had decided to tie my shoelaces in the 'figure-of-eight' knot I'd learned for the climbing cable. I hadn't yet managed to take them off. It was a terrible mistakes. Not only the shoelaces, but deciding to go to the course with my brother. Climbing anywhere requires three things - trust, confidence and courage, the three being inextricably linked. When my brother discovered that he did, in fact, have absolutely no talent for climbing and no will to listen the instructor, he took to shouting at me when I was climbing.

It was difficult to make it out from where I was on the wall on my last climb, but it was all along the lines of pointing out the fact that I could fall at any second. It didn't affect me at all until I reach the last few gold blocks, and whilst reaching for the next block and at the same precise moment he was in mid-sentence, my fingers slipped off the block, and I fell. I only fell about a foot - I managed to grip a pair of blocks before the cable stopped my ascent anyway - but it was enough to completely shatter my nerve. Blood pounded in my ears, and my vision suddenly became crystal clear. I could seen all the way down as I hung off the two rocks and my left trainer toe skidded across the wall, trying to find a foothold. I touched the top and abseiled down, but I couldn't look up at the window or down at the floor. I gripped with iron force every block that fell underneath my right hand, which I trailed down the surface all the way to the floor.

The next day, my brother had gone, but so had my trust, confidence and courage. Every rock of the gold trail, which I was warming up on as a pilot to the final challenge of the natural trail, seemed about to come away from the wall, and my trembling fingers slid over the surface leaving a trail of sweat. My mind replayed a scene where I was at the top, my feet slid off the gold blocks, the purple cable snapped, and I fell away from the light forever. I finished the gold course eventually, and stood at the foot of the natural trail. The course that day would be my last before I went back to England, and if I didn't finish the trail I wouldn't complete the section, but the light didn't have the attraction any more. I pulled myself onto the first block set, the starters, and looked up.

There was a reason it was the most advanced. You had to be given an extra few feet of loose cable to make the jumps to each block, and you were often left with only two blocks for one hand and one foot. I was also shorter than your average climber - the other children except for the older boy, who had already conquered the most difficult trail and moved on, never even got to use the gold trail. It was even further between rocks for me, and even the first move I would have to make would mean jumping from a position with one knee bent up to my chin and other leg stretched as far as possible down to the rock below to hang off a larger rock above my head. Already the smooth surface under my hands was slick with sweat. I touched my forehead to the cool rock and gave up. Slowly, I inched back down to earth.

'What's wrong?' Jean asked. I looked at my feet. As well as being the person closest in appearance to Arnold Schwarzenegger I had ever seen, Jean was also the gentlest and most kind-hearted. He always spoke quietly, and never once was anything but encouraging and complimentary to anybody in the group, even my brother.

'My brother.' I said quietly.

'The boy from yesterday? What about him? How can he stop you from climbing?'

'He told me I'd fall.' Even though I was only eleven years old, it sounded like a pathetic childish whine the moment it passed my lips. I was startled at myself. His expression suddenly turned quite serious. I looked at his pale blue eyes. I understood Bill Bryson when I read his description of the men who walk the Appalachian trails and can then look at the dying sunset with 'chipped granite eyes'. Jean had those chipped granite eyes. He looked sternly at me, ignoring the bruised arm I was gently scratching - after seeing the black stain on my inner arm where the bow string kept hitting, just out of reach of the pad that was supposed to prevent it, my archery instructor had added the word 'idiote' to his vocabulary list - and I looked back at him with wide, puppy-dog eyes. I thought I might cry. It seemed like the reasonable thing to do.

'Do you think I would let you fall?'

'No. Maybe. I don't know.' I squeaked.

'Who do you trust, me or your stupid little brother?' He asked. This made me break into a smile with childish awe at the use of the word 'stupid'. No adult except my parents had ever called my brother 'stupid'. I giggled, and Jean smiled again.

'So, are you going to try to climb that wall now?'

I nodded and walked back over to it. The light at the top once more fascinated me.

When I reached the top, the sunlight was dazzling. The wind played with my hair, and I clutched the window frame to look out. The sun was high over the mountains, and all I could se was green forest and grey rock, the small town was below me and behind me, out of sight. I closed my eyes, and reached one hand out under the window. Absolution.

Updated: Jun 05, 2020
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Creative Writing: Between a Rock and...Another Rock essay
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