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A True Story

True story: there I was, trapped under a five foot thick concrete beam, breathing in poisonous chlorine fumes, and receiving an electric shock…

Probably the worst physically hazardous situation I’ve ever been in, though the build-up to it is a little more prosaic.

In the 1980s, I was part of a volunteer organisation which operated out of an old six story building in downtown Sydney, Australia. For many years, they had had a rat problem: thousands upon thousands of these rodents appeared in the dead of each night and swarmed all over the place, eating refuse, munching on papers, chewing through wires. Nothing conventional had worked in the way of pest control, or even eradication: poison, traps, even sound-emitting devices seemed useless. So Project X was born.

Project X turned out to be one man and a stick with a big nail stuck through it. Or two men, once I showed up. But still only one stick. The plan, such as it was, was to wait up until the early hours of the morning and simply attack the ravenous hordes with our one stick - I grabbed a baseball bat so as not to feel entirely unarmed. But by 2:00 am, when we had neither seen nor heard a single rat, Max (not his real name) and I decided to retire and rethink.

We came up with a new strategy: if the rats would not come to us, we would have to go to them. We would have to get into those parts of the building not designed for humans - between ceilings and floors, behind walls, into crevices. There we would leave deadly chlorine as a means of removing rat-filth, dissolving any dead rats, and deterring rat passage. Our equipment for this daring escapade? Bottles of liquid chlorine and handkerchiefs. This was in the days before ‘Health & Safety’, and even pre-dated sanity, now I look at it all in retrospect. The idea was that we would crawl where no human was meant to crawl and douse whole areas with chlorine, ‘protecting’ ourselves from the fumes with handkerchiefs over our faces.

One advantage was that this plan didn’t depend on the rats making an appearance: we could be pro-active, and invade what we thought were their spaces during the daytime. Dressed in throwaway clothes, we clambered into confined spaces and made our way, floor by floor, through the structure.

It’s eye-opening to look at human constructions this way. There are spaces behind spaces and ‘non-spaces’ where light never reaches, all around us in our homes and workplaces. When we build a six-storey block, we think of it mainly as a set of lighted boxes, stacked on top of each other, connected by passageways - we tend not to imagine it as a web-like lattice of unlighted gaps, in-between areas, crooked and dark interstices, through which run cables and the skeleton of the building.

On the day in question, I lifted myself up through a ceiling panel into one of these spaces. It was about three feet from the artificial ceiling through which I’d climbed to the concrete underbelly of the floor above. Huge concrete beams stretched across it. Sprawled across the ceiling tiles below me was a mass of inter-connected wires, linked to the fluorescent lights beneath; fine grey concrete dust was everywhere. Around the perimeter of this particular space was the inner wall of the rooms underneath, then a gap a few inches wide, then the bricks of the outer wall. All of this I could only dimly see using a handheld torch which flickered a little. Forced to crouch and crawl by the bulk of the floor above me, I made my way around this area, about ten feet square, trying to leave more of the chlorine on the surfaces that I could find than was getting into my lungs. Evidence of rodent life could be seen from the rat faeces everywhere, and also from the chewed rubber insulation which exposed electrical wires here and there.

After a while, I considered that I was done - but my colleague pointed out to me that there was another, untouched area on the other side of the concrete beam ahead of me. Someone would have to get into it and give it the same treatment - but the gap between the ceiling below and the beam was only about eight inches. Only by getting down onto my belly and shoving my head into that gap could access be gained.

Did I mention my claustrophobia? I discovered that, by a simple effort of will, it was possible to set claustrophobia aside temporarily. In that gap, just wide enough for a human body to fit through, any thought of ‘being trapped’ was untenable. Only by using my fingers could I drag my whole body, inch by inch, forward under the beam - there was no room to move my legs. My face was smeared with concrete dust and who knows what else. The flickering torchlight was useless, there was no room to move my head to look at anything around me. Into my nostrils came the lethal traces of chlorine gas, insinuating themselves into my lungs almost like living things seeking a victim. Fingers stretched; gripped; fingers pulled. By tiny increments I was moving forward into the black area ahead.

Suddenly, I felt something bite my ankle. Having not seen a single rat so far, a chill washed over me - the beasts had arrived! They had sensed my plight and were taking advantage of it to feast! I could only move my ankle slightly, convulsively, kicking out at the unseen assailant. All was quiet, except for my dust-racked breathing through gritted teeth.

Helpless, I couldn’t even turn away as another bite jolted me. I kicked again, as much as I could, but could hear nothing, see nothing. The torch was pointing the wrong way anyway. Even though I was almost at the other side of the beam, I had to turn back, to defend myself. Inch by painful inch, I slithered my way back: fingers pushed, retracted, pushed. After what seemed like hours but was probably only a few minutes, I was back in the original cramped above-ceiling space, which now seemed a paradise of free motion to my spasming muscles. I flashed the torch around - no rats. I examined my leg as much as I could in the half-light - no evidence of bites. As my breathing calmed and I heard muffled voices in the room below, sanity and rationality slowly returned.

Then I saw the exposed wires nearby. They were the connecting cables for the lights directly beneath me. Two of them were raw, open to the dusty air. I realised what had happened: I hadn’t been bitten, I’d been electrocuted. Small discharges into my leg from the live wires, each time I had touched it, had felt like teeth sinking into flesh.

I snorted, almost with relief.

But I still had to get back under that concrete beam.

There was no point in ‘dusting myself off’. The whole place was choked with dust. Steering clear as much as I could of the exposed wires, I made my reluctant and slow way back under the beam, emerging at last into a cold, forsaken space which had probably never seen light since the building was erected decades before. Conscientiously, methodically, painstakingly, I spread the chlorine around and cleaned the place up as well as I could. Flashes came into my mind about how trapped I really was here: the ceiling below me was solid, no escape that way; the floor above me was concrete, with five floors above that, weighing down upon me in my imagination for an instant until I managed to force my attention back onto the task at hand. The only way out was the way I had come in: inching under the beam.

Eventually the job was done. I crawled back under the beam, descended from the ceiling and emerged into the light of an ordinary office, looking like an escaped convict or a dust-covered phantom from the night between floors. Project X was terminated soon afterwards and I moved on to other things. The rats - the unseen, unheard, unfelt rodent army - remained as elusive as ever: I hadn’t laid eyes on even one during the life of the project. In the end, after I had left, I heard that thousands of them had swarmed into the building’s garage, enough for something to click and a call to be made to professional exterminators.

What has this to do with writing? Very little, but it's my blog. Perhaps I could make a tenuous connection between the skeleton of a building and its unexplored spaces and the structure of stories. But a better link might be how real life can lend its weight to fiction. Whenever I think of hazardous careers and dangerous situations, I reflect that I can always truthfully tell of the time when I was trapped, simultaneously breathing poisonous fumes and being electrocuted.

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