Gravity and Graham

Graham Rodwell is at the top of the ladder, about 20 feet up. He is holding on to the ladder with one hand, and pulling at the ivy growing over the top of the wall with the other. The ivy will not quit its vice-like grip on the brickwork. Without pausing to assess the risk, Graham uses both hands to haul on the ivy.  It suddenly gives way. The ladder sways back from the wall, then slows to a vertical.
Freeze the frame there. Will gravity return Graham back to the wall and life?  Or will  it send him falling backwards to serious injury or oblivion?
One day, a few months before this ladder crisis, Graham had come into the bedroom from his morning shower and was about to get dressed. He was naked, and aware that his wife had lowered her book and was looking at him from the bed.
“I’m talking to you. Did you hear what I said?”
“Sorry?” he said.
”I said have you looked in the mirror lately?” she said, looking owlishly over her reading glasses.
“Just look at yourself, Graham.”
Graham knew that when his wife called him Graham instead of Gray she was about to say something unsettling. He moved over to the wardrobe mirror.
“OK, I’m looking at myself. All of me.”
“What do you see?”
“I see the man you married.”
“I wish you were.”
“Well, we’re both growing old.”
“Never mind me,” said his wife, emphasising each word with a smack on the duvet. “I’m talking about you. The way you look.”
“What, physically?”
“Yes, you’re getting….you know.”
“Well, hunched.”
Graham examined his mirror image more closely. “Hunched?” he said, turning side-on to the mirror, and straightening up.
“Yes. You seem to be losing the battle against gravity. It’s pulling you down. Just like your father when he was an old man.”
Graham tried to remember how his father had looked in his later years. He summoned up an image of a stooped old man whose rugged head had sunk so far down into his shoulders that his chin rested on his chest.
“But I’m not an old man. Not all that old anyway. Anyone would think I was Quasimodo”
“You’re growing tits.”
“I beg your pardon. No I’m not. Look.”
“That’s because you’re now standing up straight. They only show when you’re hunched.”
“Lots of men younger than me have man boobs. Look at that chap in Little Britain.”
“ Matt Lucas you mean. He’s just a bit chubby, that’s all.”
“Well, you can’t say I’m chubby,” said Graham, pulling in his midriff.
Graham started to dress, and his wife, Mary, went back into her book. Their cat, Homer, had curled up beside her on the bed. Graham pondered Mary’s remarks about gravity. At least he could still stand on one foot while putting his sock on the other. He imagined other men his age faint-heartedly avoiding this manoeuvre by sitting down to do it. Today, however, he was so unbalanced by his wife’s comments that he began to hop around the end of the bed as he tried to get his sock on. His hopping became wilder and wilder until finally he collapsed cursing on the bed holding his half-socked foot in the air above him.
“Why don’t you sit down and do it properly?” said his wife, looking up momentarily from her book.
Fully dressed, Graham set off downstairs carrying the tea tray. He knew that many people his age came to grief on their own staircases. As he slowly descended the two flights he leaned back slightly so that if he tripped he would fall on his bottom instead of being pitched head first to his doom. He had not noticed the cat. With three steps to go he tripped over Homer who had come downstairs with him. He crashed backwards. The cat yowled and fled. Milk, crockery and used tea bags shot noisily off the tray. The teapot shattered. Mary rushed down to him. She was relieved to see that he was sitting up.
“That damned cat,” he groaned.
“That was the teapot my mother left me,” she said.
Gravity 3 – Graham nil. It had not been a good start to the day.
Graham, fully erect, was a tall man who in his prime had stood at six feet two and a half inches. In adolescence he was shy of being so tall, and had adopted a slouched posture, which his father had tried to correct by frequently poking him in the back with two bony fingers, like a gun. Later, he began to enjoy his height. It was an advantage to be able to reach things that were too high for others, and to see over walls or hedges and over the heads of crowds or cinema audiences.  During his National Service in the army, when he was ordered to keep his shoulders back, head up and chin in, his mates and the NCOs had called him Lofty. He believed that women preferred taller men. His wife was a small woman. When they danced together he could rest his chin on the top of her head.
Since he retired some 15 years ago, Graham had somehow shrunk an inch or so. His oldest grandson was now, at the age of 17, taller than he was. And it was true that he had developed a marked stoop. The most disconcerting evidence of this was a set of holiday photographs his son had recently e-mailed to him. They included un-posed shots of Graham showing how hunched his figure had become. He was shocked when he saw them; he had no idea that his public image had become so warped by years of lounging, slouching, and crouching.
“Are you sure you’re all right now?” his Mary asked him over breakfast.
“ Just a bit shaken. Bum’s a bit sore. Thank goodness I was leaning back.”
Their cat Homer entered through the cat flap.
“You’re all right, aren’t you Homer?” said Mary brightly.
“He’s a menace when he tangles with your legs.” said Graham, watching Homer eating his rabbit- flavoured pellets.
“ We must be careful  about trips and falls. You know what happened to me last year. And did I tell you Jill’s husband had a fall and broke his hip the other day? Tripped over a paving stone.”
“What, in the street?”
“No, on his patio.”
Graham realised he had reached the age when people didn’t just fall over – they were said to have had a fall.  This was a phrase you usually applied to your tottery elderly mother. Everywhere, thought Graham, people my age are having falls – falling  down in the bathroom, falling out of bed, falling down stairs, falling off ladders, tripping over cats or paving stones, slipping on ice, mud or wet floors, breaking legs, hips, wrists, ribs and heads. Gravity was ready to ambush the unwary wherever they were, inflicting pain, disability and NHS overspends.
After breakfast, still stung by his wife’s bedroom observations, Graham made a quick survey of his physique in the bathroom mirror. Here he was, homo erectus, the product of thousands of years of evolution, from his quadruped ancestors to the vertical biped of today. He felt his loss of erectus was letting the species down. Gravity was acting on his face as well as his stoop.  His eyes were hooded by folds of skin that had slipped down over his eyelids. There were creased bags of skin sagging beneath his eyes. Below them, facial skin and flesh had been pulled down towards his neck, creating  an unsightly pair of fleshy lugs either side of his chin. This was the sort of condition that drove women to plastic surgery.
He decided he would have to live with his face, but not with his hump.  A saloon bar friend of his had told him about something called the Alexander Technique, in which he was currently taking a course. Graham decided to go for a taster session at the home of the practitioner, a stout, cheerful woman in her fifties who lived singly in a small house with a dog and a cat. She showed him into a living room where there were easy chairs, a sofa and a type of bed on a narrow raised platform. A framed certificate of professional competence hung on the wall.
After an introductory chat in which she assured him that he didn’t have to take any clothes off, she asked him to stand up, and walked slowly round him. She asked him to think about the gravity force that was anchoring his feet to the ground and about how his body was holding him up.
“Think about your head being supported by your spine, not by your neck. Remember that the spine goes up into your head to roughly the same level as your ears.”
This was news to Graham who had always assumed that the top of his spine ended somewhere around the back of his neck. Standing there quietly, he tried to imagine how his spine and head were joined together, with some sort of swivel bone at the top to allow him to turn his head. He was surprised when his instructor told him a few minutes later that he had actually grown about half an inch.
She gently placed her hands successively on his neck, shoulders and back.
“I’m just checking where your tensions are,” she said.
She asked him to sit in an armchair, and showed him how to get up in the Alexander way. Next, she got him to hop up on the platform and to lie down on his back.
“Let the muscles round your spine relax,” she said.
He remained in this position for some time, and then the hour’s session came to an end.
Graham’s battle against gravity had begun. For the next few weeks, when in the street, he would look at his reflection in shop windows to check on his posture as he strode past. He picked his feet up to avoid tripping, and checked that Homer was elsewhere before he took the tea tray downstairs. He lifted heavy objects by using the muscles in his legs instead of his back. As recommended by the Alexander technique, at home he had a daily 30-minute session lying down on his back and relaxing to soft music. He constantly reminded his head to sit on top of his spine and not to sag into his neck. Mary complimented him on his improved bearing. “Carry on like this,” she said, “and you will be more like the man I married.”
One fine summer’s day a few weeks later, Graham set his ladder against the high wall at the end of the garden. He recalled Mary’s stern injunction never to go up a ladder without another person holding it at the bottom. But today she was out and there was no one else about. Besides, like most older men who think they are still as agile as they were in the prime of youth, he was feeling confident that he could do this ivy-stripping job perfectly safely by himself.
So it was that Graham became prey to gravity. The ladder swung back from the wall to pause at the vertical. Then it fell backwards. The sky wheeled past his terrified eyes. He had a fleeting vision of himself with a broken spine. He let go of the ladder and went into a brief freefall. He braced himself against the coming impact. But instead of a bone-crunching crash he landed on something that hurled him back up into the air. He plunged down again – to land on the king-size trampoline he had installed in the garden for his grandchildren.
“Yippee!” he screamed as he bounced up with his arms outstretched in a Christ-like ascent. “I’m alive!”
Feb 2015