Friday, 27 July 2012

127 Hours (actually, I think it was 12 minutes)

 I was just trapped in a lift.

That’s not accurate but I felt as though I was trapped in a lift because my bike was trapped in the lift.

I’ve had this bike in this lift 1,347 times but today,  as I stood in a reverie of how to solve act two of draft 11 of my play SIRENS,  the door opened slowly on the 9th floor, the back wheel of the bike caught, rose up with a deathly squeal and jammed.

I could see the wide, verdant world beyond, through the half-metre of open door. I could have slid out but sans bicyclette.

As those of you who own bicycles know, those of you who cycle your way through a happy, free-wheeling life, this was not an option. You do not leave your wounded comrade on the muddy field of Passchendaele; you don’t leave your bike in a lift.

Not if it seems remotely possible that you can get it out.

I will confess to you now, there were some very long moments – feeling like 127 hours and giving me a stab of almost unbearable sympathy for Aron Ralston who cut his own arm off rather than die in a remote crevice in the badlands of Utah – because, let’s face it, the decision was of precisely the same import – a bike, an arm, THE SAME, RIGHT?  - there were moments when I thought I could not get it out. When I believed my bike and the lift would remain in this fused state, like an abusive domestic relationship, for their rest of their physical lives.

The countdown to panic began.

I tried brute force for a while (three minutes). Just yanking the fucker as hard as I could in the hopes that it would lodge free.  I’m stronger than I realise. One vital tug, one painful screech later and I’d managed to push the lift door off its rails.

The automated voice began to speak.

‘This lift is out of service. Do not operate. This lift is out of service.’

She sounded calm. Not furious, not blaming me. Not saying ‘You slobbering moron, why were you worrying about the end of act two of draft 11 of SIRENS and leaning, unwittingly, against the handlebars as the lift door opened?’

I took comfort in her neutral tones and plotted my next move.

As I fiddled with the release bar on the back wheel, I couldn’t help noticing that the situation in which I found myself was, in fact, precisely where my characters had ended up at the end of act two. They were stuck in the virtual lift of their own neuroses and I had no idea how to get them out.

 I loosened the locknut and fed out the skewer. The back wheel didn’t budge. It was pushed into the body of the frame. I leaned on the frame, trying to jiggle it back and forth.

No jiggling happened. If Vesuvius had erupted and set the bike and lift door in stone there could not have been less movement.

I leaned against the mirrored back wall of the lift and sighed. And, because thinking about my bike wasn’t working, I thought about my play.

It had a history of feeling just like my bike looked.

Two years ago Chris and I had hosted a reading of SIRENS at a friend’s mansion in Connaught Square. We had invited friends and guests, asked someone to film and gathered under a chandelier to discover the script was nine drafts away from being ready for this kind of publicity. The audience, expecting a much more finished piece, were accurate in describing everything that didn’t work. ‘I was disappointed’ one of the actors said. ‘You have to ask yourself why bother?’ someone else said.

I realise I’d been heading for this. The company was only four weeks old and I wanted Chris and me to have a charming success on our hands.  I wanted the charming success more than I wanted a useful night for the play.

The notes came thick and fast and I felt like an anaconda swallowing a goat. I thanked everyone as best as I could and said it would take me a while to digest.

I went home and wept until 3am.

Two years later I was ten days away from the next public exposure of the story. Chris and I, wiser now, had booked only actors and a script editor.  We kept expectations low. There were no cameras, no chandeliers. Everyone knew it was a work in progress. I was writing eight hours a day, moving the story moment by moment to where the three main characters had lost faith in themselves, their desires and their ability to realise their dreams.

And I had no idea what to do next.

‘Do not operate’ my incorporeal buddy said. ‘This lift is out of service.’

I leaned on the door, seeing if I could ease it back on its rails. A huge gap extended between where the wheel was and where it should be. I was going to need 13 men, a winch and a hydraulic jack (what they used to remove the 800lb boulder and free the remains of Ralston’s arm) (it’s THE SAME, RIGHT??) to get it back on track.

‘What do I do?’ I said out loud. My voice was blanketed in a half-sob. ‘I don’t know what to do.’

‘You and your bike are going to be fine,’ a voice said. 

I looked up to see if it was coming from my automated friend. The words OUT OF SERVICE moved peaceably across the display screen. Nothing else. Silence.

‘It’s all going to be fine.’

I glanced to see if anyone stood in the lift door. No one was calling from the floor above. I was alone.

I realised, then, it was not an external voice.

This was Me. Talking to me.

I calmed down. And listened.

‘You’re getting out of here. Just imagine you’re out of here. Feel as calm as you’d feel if you were out of here. Then do something,’ I said to myself.

I felt even calmer. On purpose.

And I thought.

Perhaps there was more give in the loosened back wheel than I’d found. What if, counter-intuitive though it was, I pushed it closer to the frame?

I gently straddled the back wheel and put my hands against the tyre. I pushed.

There was a quiet ‘pop’ and the frame slid to the side.

I picked up the locknut and skewer, hoiked my bike on my shoulder and eased everything out of the half-metre of open door.

The air was sweet. I noticed the vibrant green of the summer trees. Constant rain in July had made London fresh.

A friend rang the service contractor – who was paid a yearly fee and always on call - I re-attached my bike wheel and knew what my characters needed to do.

They needed to ask for help and listen for the answer. They needed to be calm  - on purpose.


Addendum: We had the reading. Reactions from actors below:

I thoroughly enjoyed it and I really like the play..
..the lovely script to read, the splendid food and company.. I really enjoyed it and was sorry to leave

There's never enough time at these things but I could've quite happily told you 300 things that were good about it. There's so much good in there...

It was an absolute pleasure Stephanie, just glad to be of assistance. Really enjoy where you're going with this.

(As Chris and I share a collective sigh of relief..)


  1. Excellent! It reminds me of a story I heard in a pub in Ireland. Someone asked a famous writer how his novel is going. And he said, "Not well. Not well. I've got a fucker in a field and I can't get him out."

    Good on ya.

  2. 13 men, yourself or just ME!! I've waited 50 years for a damsel in distress, and this is what happens.

  3. Any woman who can vent her rage uninhibitedly enough to use the "f" word while retaining the historical sensibility to invoke Passchendaele (and then spell it correctly--be still, my pounding heart!) deserves nothing but success. Bless you as you revise "Sirens" into the hit it must soon be.