On the Wonder of the World
We teased gravity, suspended above 100 feet of space on the Wonder of the World. One slip and we would taste eternity.
Everyone called it the Wonder of the World: a canal aqueduct that leaped in a massive single brick arch across a railway line that, at the same point, crossed a turgid brown river. The former towpath, strewn with a confetti of litter, ran alongside the canal as it crossed the aqueduct. Pedestrians were protected from the giddy drop to the railway line—disused, thanks to Beeching*—by an elegant but sturdy cast-iron parapet.
On that day we walked along the towpath onto the aqueduct, normal 9- or 10-year-olds engaged on business I can’t recall now. There were three of us: Gary, Joseph, and myself. My two pals lived in the same street but went to the Roman Catholic primary school, while I went to the non-denominational school just round the corner. But it was summer. School didn’t matter and was almost forgotten.
I can’t remember who, but someone—possibly even I—said, “Why don’t we cross the Wonder outside the railing?” It was a challenge with no sense to it whatsoever, except to other small boys; to them, it made perfect sense. It wasn’t offered as a dare, but it was accepted as one. No one would chicken out. We crept under the fence and edged along the wooded banking to the end of the parapet.
The first uprights were set in a firm, flat stone base. And so we took position, myself in the middle, facing in towards the canal, each of us placing our left foot into a gap between two uprights and our right foot into the next gap along, then reaching out with the left foot again and moving it forward a couple of gaps. Soon we were roughly halfway along, deep in the parapet’s concave curve, space yawning behind us and below us.
I don’t remember any fear. We chattered away constantly, but not about the affair in hand. Just about life, pals, football, the things that mattered to us. Passers-by on the walkway cast us curious, disapproving glances, but boys our age got a lot of those anyway. I recall being concerned about reaching the far end of the parapet—would it be as easy to come off as it had been to get on? But the dread of the consequences of a missed footing, a slip of the hand on the railing, a trip, a moment’s dizziness … no, there was none of that.
Perhaps, as I paused in the middle, I recalled a genuine moment of fear at the same place, though on the other side of the parapet, when I was very young. “There’s a train coming!” I was told, “Let’s get onto the bridge and see it go underneath!” I expected the smooth, snake-shape of a diesel passenger train, gently farting exhaust fumes, like those on which we travelled to Glasgow. But this was a steam-hauled goods train, and it noisily belched acrid fumes and steam that flew up to the parapet, like the hot breath of an angry living thing. There were tears.
Two more passers-by appeared on the towpath and this time we knew them: Joseph’s older cousin Eddie and one of his pals. They stopped and greeted us; there was no reproach, no astonishment, just a “How’s it gaun, then, youse yins?”
In this strange situation, between sky and earth, we chatted, and just as the conversation began to tail off naturally, Eddie’s pal—I can’t remember his name—asked, with studied casualness, “Youse want a lift ower tae this side?” We nodded in unison without conferring, without needing to. One by one he hooked his arms under ours, and we each briefly hung suspended over the expanse before being placed safely back on the towpath. Eddie and his pal said their cheerios and continued over to town. We went away, not to counselling or debriefing, but to whatever it was we’d been heading off to before.
A few times in the weeks and months that followed I crossed the aqueduct and the enormity of what we’d risked began to dawn on me. I looked at the end of the parapet and was struck by how far the stone base stood off from the banking, how tricky it would have been to dismount safely.
Gary and Joseph and I never spoke about the incident, and there was certainly never any suggestion of our trying it again. It’s only in adult years that the memory has returned in all its force, with a full realisation of the dangers we had run: a brief, backward flight through space, ending with a mangling on the hard, uneven, overgrown railway ballast. I never recall it without a shiver.
The experience has left its mark. Many years afterwards, I took up hillwalking, but to this day I stay away from steep cliff edges, never peering over them into the corrie depths below. I dislike exposure, hate air travel, and on one occasion, when I was one of the leaders of a group of Scripture Union youngsters abseiling from a disused railway viaduct, my head swirled with a terror that was rooted in that day back in 1970, and I asked to be excused from making the descent myself, with the consequent collapse of my credibility.
More than that, as I reflected on the attempt, I began to discover limits. The child’s disregard of risk became disciplined by an adult’s caution. Perhaps over-caution. There would be no more moments deliberately spent teetering on the edge of extinction.
In my more tortured recollections of that day, I wonder about different paths through time, roads not taken. Is there some alternative time-stream in which some lout sees us from the towpath and shoves his hand into each of our faces, pushing us off into oblivion? Or another where one of us slips, grabs pathetically at fresh air, and then plummets to instant jellification on the disused trackbed? And is there any possibility of these alternative realities short-circuiting, one of them becoming the main track, so that suddenly I’m no longer here?
I don’t know, but right now, I’m off to lie down in a dimly lit room.
David McVey lectures at New College Lanarkshire in Scotland. He has published over 120 short stories and a great deal of non-fiction that focuses on history and the outdoors. He enjoys hillwalking (i.e., hiking), visiting historic sites, reading, watching telly (i.e., TV), and supporting his home-town football (i.e., soccer) team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC.
* Programme of cuts to rail services from 1963 onwards that removed a third of the UK’s track mileage. The cuts largely followed the programme laid out in The Re-shaping of British Railways by Dr Richard Beeching.