In the early 1970s, when I was a young, strapping lad, just dropped out of university and fresh out of cash, I took a job as a builder’s labourer at Kings Cross, not the most salubrious part of Sydney. The project in hand was the refurbishment of a run-down restaurant. It was a three-storey building. I’m not sure what had been upstairs, but it wouldn’t have been surprising if it had been a brothel, given the locale.
When I arrived on my first morning, the boss led me around to the back of the building, carrying a sledge-hammer and a wrench, and then up to the top landing of a rickety external timber staircase and told me to demolish it, from the top down. The procedure, he explained, was to use the wrench to remove the nuts off the bolts one by one and then use the sledge-hammer to knock out the timbers. He then walked back down the stairs and left me to it.
The nuts and bolts were exceedingly rusty, and it took a fair amount of effort to get the first nut off, on one of the handrails. That done, I hefted the sledge-hammer and gave the rail a solid thump. The timber came away, as planned, but accompanied by a cacophony of high-pitched squealing, snapping and grinding, the significance of which, at first, eluded me.
As I stood there on the top landing, suddenly it tore away from the wall, and the whole structure began to collapse under me! Now very alert indeed, I realised I couldn’t run down the stairs, which were buckling and splitting before my eyes.
From the first movement beneath me to the last piece of wood crashing and splintering to the ground took perhaps three to five seconds. But they were very slow seconds. The descent was very like riding a surfboard, taking off on a huge wave. I had been a board-rider, but never in a surf bigger than about three metres. A couple of years previously, though, I’d gone out bodysurfing in twenty foot waves and standing there on the falling staircase I was filled with the same heady mixture of fear and wild excitement as I’d experienced taking off on my first twenty foot wave.
I made a number of decisions in rapid succession, seemingly instantaneous, but I recall working through possible scenarios and the pros and cons of various actions.
My first decision was to get rid of the sledge-hammer, which I hurled as far as possible away from me.
Then I decided that I certainly didn’t want to be standing on the staircase when the top landing hit the concrete below.
The third decision followed, that I would have to jump off the landing. Fortunately, I’d succeeded in knocking out one safety rail with that first blow of the hammer. I realised that I couldn’t jump from the full height, or I’d certainly be injured, so I decided to ride the staircase down and jump from about two metres above ground.
While all of this was going through my head, the screaming complaint of splitting timber and snapping metal was building to a crescendo, as the staircase accelerated in its implosive descent, away from the wall and towards the pavement. The timbers of the landing on which I stood heaved and splintered under me, but didn’t disintegrate. My knees and hips flexed, I shifted my weight by reflex, to accommodate to the bucking motion and remain upright, like being on a steep, dumping wave.
I fixed my eyes on the concrete car-park below as it rushed to meet me, but still, it seemed, in slow motion, measuring the distance, until the moment came to abandon ship. I had been in a crouch and uncoiled into a kind of standing long-jump, outwards as far as possible from the jagged shards of broken treads , the heavy posts and bearers and the rubble that would imminently engulf me.
I landed feet first on the concrete and instinctively parlayed the impact into a tumbling roll. (No, I had though to do that, not to break my legs.) I rolled sideways over and over, coming to rest about five metres out from the wall.
Behind me was pandemonium. The shrieking timbers, the explosive sounds, the thud and crash of timber slabs on cement, the grinding, tearing and splintering came to an abrupt halt, and there was silence like the aftershock of an explosion. A dense cloud of choking dust hung in the air.
I began to hear frantic shouting and swearing as the other workers rushed to the back of the building. A woman was screaming. I could hear the men and see them heaving aside the timbers, shouting “Mate! Where are you mate? We’ll get you out!”
As the dust began to settle, I could make out the builder standing between me and the wreckage, and I heard him say “I can’t see him. He must must be at the bottom of it. He must be dead, poor bastard.”
Slowly I got to my feet, amazed not to find myself with shattered limbs or gaping wounds, amazed, frankly, to be alive. I walked over to the builder and tapped him on the shoulder from behind. He turned around and looked at me as if seeing a ghost! Dumbstruck, he looked me up and down, then found his voice.
“That didn’t take as long as I thought,” he said.
“Back to work!” he shouted to the men still scrabbling in the debris.
Turning to me, he said “Well, you’d better clean up that fucking mess then.”