I couldn’t look to my left: that was the side with the sheer drop. To my right was Underdog slapping the cosh into his hand. If I concentrated on my feet I’d be too aware of the abyss screaming away an inch or so from my little toe. Straight ahead was somehow easier, even though I’d have to trust myself to walk in an utterly straight line. In the distance, Peckham maybe, the cherry and ice-blue stutter of police lights. Burglary in progress. Man down. More likely it was a couple of night-shifters bossing traffic so they could pick up their coffee and pastries. Use that, I thought. Focus on that.
I started to walk.
I’d never had a problem with heights when I was a kid. I could climb trees and leap from branch to branch fty feet above the ground, where squirrels fear to tread. And then something happened – I don’t know what – and I was afraid of heights, to the point where my mouth would turn tinder-dry and my knees would become crucibles of molten metal. Maybe it was as simple as becoming an adult; more likely it was because I became a father. It might have had something to do with the fight I had on top of the railway shed at St Pancras four months previously. That kind of behaviour does nothing for your sense of mortality, believe me.
But this was going well – as well as I could hope – to the extent that I was building up some speed. Get it over with. Get home. Get vodkaed. But of course it’s when you’re feeling at your most confident and comfortable that something comes along to welly you in the bollocks.
Part of the parapet shifted underfoot.
I felt myself sway sickeningly to the left and my hand instinctively reached out for a counterbalance that was not there. I heard, very clearly, Underdog say: ‘Shit.’
I knew I was dead if I didn’t move, and the only move I had was a jump, off my right foot. But because I was already tilting left, unbalanced, there was a strong chance I’d only propel myself into dead space. So I had to keep right, which meant launching from my left, which meant little purchase because there was hardly anything below my left foot any more but concrete dust. All of this went through my head in the time it took for that syllable to fly through Underdog’s teeth. I pistoned my foot down and the parapet collapsed completely…