Hold on tight

I felt an overwhelming giddiness; the vertical fall of some fifty feet sent a rush of blood to my head. I found myself suspended from a rope, hanging a few thousand feet over a deep valley high up in the Swiss Alps. Death was decidedly close at hand.


Our party of three had left early that morning to assault some particularly difficult rock face on the mountain range just above our hotel. We had decided to tackle high-altitude rock face training, rather than seeking the sensation of climbing to the top of a peak. We were all experienced mountaineers: my friend George was an alpinist instructor and Johnny and I had been together on many rock-climbing expeditions. The accident happened towards the middle of the morning.


We were ascending a vertical rock face towards a large ledge that protruded out at right angles. This particular part of the mountain represented the challenge we were looking for. To climb over the ledge meant placing our pitons carefully, followed by working our way across the underside of the ledge until we found the safety of the topside. After a heated discussion we agreed that Johnny would lead, followed by George, I would take up the rear acting as the anchorman. For the next two hours all one could hear was the metallic sound of a hammer striking the pitons into place, followed by grunts and groans as my friends moved forward.


As I looked across the underside of the ledge I could have sworn I saw two large spiders slowly crawling upside down as my companions moved on to the next piton. Finally I heard shouts that they had safely arrived on the top of the ledge and were in the process of securing the ropes. Two minutes later I heard an O.K. echoing around the valley. Carefully I moved forward along the rope traced across the underside of the ledge. To my horror I suddenly felt a tightening on the rope and saw the two pitons in front of me give way. I dropped 8 feet into mid air feeling a jolt from my harness as it cut into my under thighs. My weight must have set off a chain reaction as five more pitons popped, like champagne corks, sending me hurling down another 30 feet. Shaken, I looked up at the ledge above, all seemed to be quiet. I heard Johnny shouting.


“Are you all right?”


At that moment another two pitons popped. I must have fallen another twelve feet. Then there was silence. Again I looked up at the ledge. The remaining three pitons seemed to be holding.


I shouted back to my friends.


“I think the remaining pitons are holding. I am all right but definitely shaken up. My harness is slightly torn. Hurry.”


The reply echoed around the valley.


“Thank God you are all right, we’ll quickly make a rope ladder and throw it down. Give us 10 minutes. Hold on tight.”


“Hold on tight,” these three little words were magic to my ears, I heard from the distant past Miss Wainwright saying,


“Children, hold on tight, squeeze hard.”


As I dangled over the valley gripping tightly on to the rope I saw and heard the principal of my nursery school introducing the class to Miss Wainwright.


“Now children, pay attention, I want to introduce you to Miss Wainwright who will be replacing your mistress, Miss Sanderson, for the next four weeks.”

Twelve pairs of eyes looked up from their various activities in the direction of the voice. We were a small class of five boys and seven girls, all in the age group of four to five. My first impression of Miss Wainwright was one of doom and gloom. She was tall, with a bony, angular body. Her nose completely dominated her face, it had a broad base that tapered off into a thin, slightly turned up tip. Her hair was dark, cut in a pageboy style that gave her a strict no nonsense appearance. Her only redeeming feature were two sparkling blue eyes set back from her large nose. She was the exact opposite of our beloved Miss Sanderson who instead of giving the appearance of being hard and unapproachable was all round, soft and cuddly. Our little eyes turned from the principal and engaged in flashing consolatory messages across the room.

“Children, Miss Wainwright is on loan to us from a school in the far north of the country, so please behave and give her all your support. I know you will.” With this last remark she left the room.


Silence reigned in the class; our tiny fingers that only a few minutes ago had been busy just stopped all activity. We waited. Miss Wainwright bent down and picked up a large bag she had carried into the classroom. First she drew out several books, which she carefully placed on her desk. I remembered seeing a few mouths open in disgust. Our nursery class was passionately interested in constructing things and not at all interested in being told stories and learning to read. Then to everyone’s surprise Miss Wainwright pulled out of her bag a long dirty old rope. At one end of the rope was a large handle, designed no doubt, for the leader. Down each side of the rope, at well-spaced intervals, there were twelve handles, six to each side. The rope was well worn; the handles had experienced, no doubt, the grim and sweat of many tiny hands. Our temporary teacher carefully hung the rope on a hook she found placed just behind her desk. She again delved into the bag withdrawing a pair of bulky dark framed glasses. These she adjusted, with care, on her large nose. Apart from the occasional shuffling of feet the class remained silent. We just looked up and stared at this apparition before us. One could feel gloom descending on the room; a web of discontent around us.

Miss Wainwright finally stepped forward to address the class.


“Children, my name is Miss Wainwright; now I want each of you to stand up and introduce yourself, let’s start at the right of the class.”

Her spoken words captivated everyone’s attention. It was the voice: soft, soothing and comforting like the soft summer breezes that entice you to play outside. Her voice immediately changed my initial perception of her as being hard and angular. As she spoke her voice had a magnetic quality that enchanted the senses and propelled one towards her. Heads turned in her direction; the class sat to attention. Small, shy voices, little stutters were heard as the members of the class introduced themselves. When it came to my best friend Johnny’s turn he said he wasn’t sure what his name was. At home they called him Jonathan, Miss Sanderson called him John, and his friends called him Johnny. Everybody laughed. Miss Wainwright’s dulcet voice came wafting across the classroom.


“We will call you Johnny.” Once the introductions were finished our new teacher had one more thing to say.


“Children, no doubt you saw me hang the walking rope behind my desk. When the weather is fine I intend taking you into the park and telling you a story. This rope is old and very dear to my heart, so I ask you all not to touch it.” Given the ugly aspect of the rope none of us had the least intention of touching it. This ended our first impression of Miss Wainwright.


It must have been two days later when the weather was ideal for an outing to the park. Sure enough at 10 o’clock Miss Wainwright took down the rope and told us to get ready to go to the Park. Once outside the school she lined us up and told us to take a place on the rope. Twelve tiny hands grabbed a handle. Once we were all in place, our hands tightly gripping the rope, we all felt a gentle tickling up the arm. Without exception we all giggled. Miss Wainwright just smiled in that knowing sort of way.


“Ready children, let’s go! Hold on tight.” Came the seductive voice.

Like a wriggly caterpillar we made our way to the park. Once there our teacher found a grassy bank shaded by a large, magnificent oak tree. She made us sit down insisting that none of us stop gripping the rope.


“Now children I am going to tell you a story, but to enjoy it you must grip tightly on to the rope, in fact the harder you grip the more the story will come alive.


Twelve anguished faces looked towards her, the whites on the back of small knuckles started showing. Our mistress seeing our concern said.


“Two hands are allowed.”


We sat there in complete silence with our little hands tightly gripping the rope.”


“Dear ones, here is today’s story,” the soft, seductive tones of her voice sent a shiver through the grass we were sitting on. “Each time I tell you a story I will first introduce you to the main characters.


”First, we have the Prince Albert with his dog, Toby.”


There before us stood Prince Albert, dressed as befitting a noble, his costume glittered from its gold thread, at his side hung a sword. Toby was big, shaggy and adorable; he had the habit of drooling. I could have sworn a drop of Toby’s saliva dropped on little Mary’s leg.


“Our second character is the nasty wizard who lives in the forest. Children, look up in the tree.”


Sure enough perched on a branch was a creature all dressed in black, with a large cap slung round his shoulders. He glared down on us with piercing black eyes. Everybody moved a little closer to Miss Wainright. We saw the Prince touch the hilt of his sword. Toby pricked up his ears and moved forward into a position of attack. The boys gripped harder, the girls squeaked with delight.


“Now we come to the heroine, the beautiful Sophia who has been captured by the nasty wizard and is imprisoned in the forest.”


Our mistress’s voice paused so that we could all look up into the tree. On a branch higher up the giant oak tree sat Sophia. She had milk white skin and long flowing blond hair in sympathy with her multi-colored flowing garment..


“Now children, Prince Albert and Toby must rescue Sophia by midnight otherwise she will turn into a butterfly.”


It must have been the excitement of the moment, or fear of the future, but somebody let go of the rope. Disaster, all the images disappeared closing the curtain of our living theatre. Screams of despair could be heard throughout the park. Miss Wainwright’s voice quickly soothed our anguish.


“Hold on tight, if anybody lets go, you won’t be able to see the characters.”


Oh! For this joyous band of children that was the last time anybody let go.

Everybody grabbed the rope with two hands. The theatre became alive again, there before us was the Prince and his dog, up in the tree was the wizard and Sophia. So began the rescue of Sophia. The Prince called in his army. Toby jumped up into the tree. The wizard concocted diabolical defenses against the Prince’s forces. First he sent down an host of beautiful butterflies to lull the soldiers to sleep. Then he sent down an army of bees. Many of the soldiers were so badly stung they could not fight. The girls loved the butterflies, we boys thought them a bit tame, but the bees got plenty of support.

We all lay on our backs looking up into the tree. Many little legs could be seen kicking in the excitement of the moment. To any passerby we must have looked an odd sight.


Slowly the Prince and his army advanced towards the wizard. As they closed in the Captain of the guard handed the Prince a bow with a golden arrow. The Prince gave Toby the word; he charged to distract the Wizard’s attention. The Prince took careful aim and shot the arrow right into the heart of the nasty wizard. Sophia fell from her branch into the Prince’s arms.


“Children, here ends our first story.” The great tree fell silent. We could only see the leaves fluttering in the slight breeze that swept across the park. We all continued gripping the rope. Miss Wainright laughed.


“My dears, the magic of the rope only comes alive when I tell a story.”


None of us quite believed her. As we left the park we all tried to walk out backwards never taking our eyes off the great tree.


In the month that Miss Wainwright was our teacher we went to the park ten times. Her stories turned the tree’s great branches into a river where pirates lurked. Another time the tree became a forest where animals of strange forms and peculiar sounds fought over their territories. We met kings and queens, princes and princesses, captains, scarecrows that talked, pigs that flew, dogs that fished. The wonderful world of the magic rope created a kaleidoscope of surprises and pleasures. It fired our imagination and submerged us into the world of make believe. How we loved Miss Wainwright.


Then one day as we gathered for morning class we noticed the rope was no longer in its place. The gloom we experienced when the principal first introduced us to Miss Wainwright was now of a different nature. It was as if we had lost hundreds of friends in some terrible accident. Two of the girls were crying.


The door opened and Miss Sanderson walked in.


“Morning children. It’s good to be back. Have you missed me? Oh! Before I forget, Miss Wainwright asked me to say goodbye to you all, she told me she does not like saying good-byes; but she wanted me to leave you with this message. “Hold on tight. Believe in yourselves.”


Time and my present precarious predicament seemed to be of no importance as I drifted into the memories of that glorious month when I was five. A heavy tug on the rope brought me back to reality of the moment. I heard George shouting.


“We are sending down the rope ladder.”


Twenty minutes later, after huffing and puffing I finally stood before my friends.


“Thank God you’re all right,” said George.


I stood there exhausted collecting my thoughts. It had been a scary and exhausting experience, but those precious moments with the memory of our beloved Miss Wainwright had left me with a lingering taste of those innocent days.


“Johnny, do you remember Miss Wainwright?” I gave a little tug on the rope he was holding.


Johnny did not at first answer; but I felt his arm twitch. He sniggered. In a whispered voice I heard him say.


“ I just saw Toby drooling.”


- The End -

short stories
An Unusual Request
Bewitched and be wildered
A cry from the heart
Fate played a devilish hand
Frustration with a capital F
A roll of the dice
Living in the shadow of death
A lesson well learnt
The wedding
A pleasant ride, a pleasant talk
Sweet revenge
Drum beat, heartbeat
Skin deep
They came, they left no trace
The window cleaner
A delayed meeting
Hold on tight
In the name of my parents
Strange events
Sequel to Frustration with a capital F
A strange and beautiful love affair
The doll's dilemma, a chage of style
The poster hanger - It had to happen
They had nothing in common
A misplaced letter
Life's mysteries
An ode to cheese
The marshes
Waiting in vain
Day follows day
Sounds of the future
The dream of flight

writing in Paris, copyright 2005