Lindsay Rodden: The Lightning Conductor
The Lightning Conductor
By Lindsay Rodden
A wild Spring wind. Almost evening. Traffic, far below. This is Liverpool,
from ninety feet in the air.
Margo catches her breath.
Don’t look down, Margo.
Weather girl. Christ on a bike. You’re havin’ a laugh.
Margo is climbing.
You… are… bloody knackered. Hysterical. The colour of embarrassed beetroot.
You haven’t sweated this much since you thought you clocked Elvis Costello in
Marks and Spencer’s. Was actually your old Chemistry teacher. What can you
Hang on, hang on a sec.
A last effort, as she pulls herself up onto a ledge. The view takes her breath away.
I am… on a concrete ledge, a hundred feet above the ground.
I am – woo! Sugar butties! I am Still Not Swearing.
I am climbing up the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King. I’ve got a really
cold bum. I am almost halfway, which is ten times further than I ever expected,
and – this is very important, like – I am not, repeat not, looking down. I am Not
Looking Down. Oh whatevs, I’m looking down. Oh Mary Mother of God!
The wind is getting stronger.
Look, there’s a few things I need to tell you. But first of all, most pressing, if you like, is how I, the wallflower, the shrinking violet, the most librarian of librarians in the whole of Liverpool, how I, Margo Mouse McLean, came to be hanging off one of the most impressive examples of brutalist architecture in Europe, without me knickers.
I am Margo McLean and I am forty-three years old. And somehow, somehow, I have inched my slow and undignified way up the side of the Catholic cathedral in my home city. You might know it is as Paddy’s Wigwam, but we’ve never called it that. It’s class, it’s boss like, it’s like a giant round spaceship has landed at the top of the hill where Mount Pleasant meets Hope Street. With a massive glass funnel and a thorny crown on top. And it has these long, splayed concrete legs – like a spider, it is. A beautiful concrete spider. Buttresses, they’re called. That’s the easy bit – forty-five degrees to the body. And that’s where I am. Stage One complete. And thank goodness there’s something to hold onto, something to balance me freezing backside on, cos the next bit’s gonna be killer.
I dreamed of this, y’know.
Hark at her! If we met down there on the ground, right, you wouldn’t hear one word outa me. I don’t know what it is about being up high, lets me breathe, lets me think, lets me speak.
I’d do anything for a quiet life normally. ‘Cos working in a library is more social work than disappearing into the silence of a book. And coming from a family of banshees, and with the whirlwind of chaos that’s my Gracie, I find myself praying for a moment of peace.
Yeah, I’ve been dreaming of this.
I’ve been dreaming of mountains.
Suddenly, the sound of a bus, the doors opening, the screech of the brakes.
Every morning on the 82, as the bus cuts across and I automatically raise my head and look down Hope Street and I see it, the cathedral, yeah, and I think – alright, I’m havin’ that. Every day on me way to the library, tracing the shape in the steam on the window glass. Up. Down.
I took to, sort of, saluting it, from the bus. A tiny bow of, of… respect. The mountaineer greets the mountain. One day. One bloody day.
‘What you doin’, mam?’ says our Grace, the time we’re going shopping and I forget, for a sec, I’m not alone. ‘I love yer dead serious face, mam. Ey – are yer thinking about changing the world?’
Just like that. That’s how she goes on. Grace is eleven and awesome. Nothing like me. That’s her school, down there, St Nicholas. She thinks changing the world is something you do on your dinner break. She gets that from her Aunty Moll and her Granny Aggy, not me. I come from a long line of gabby women. Gobby cows if I’m being mean. I love em, like, I’m proud of them. That’s just my family. Loud women and quiet men. I dunno why I bolloxed up the pattern like, cos I came out just like me dad. We were the mice in a family of howling cats.
Well, this week, Grace stepped it up a gear. Made a speech in the school playground, about period poverty. Yeah. I know. She somehow got her hands on a loudhailer – ‘It’s a bloody disgrace!’ ‘Periods are not a luxury!’ My Gracie, eleven years old. She hung tampons off her ears like earrings. Clean ones, obvs. ‘Even the Holy Mary got the curse’. That’s probably when they rang me.
And what I should’ve done, what I wish I’d done, was march on in there and just tell her, my brilliant girl, how proud I was. But that’s not how it worked out. ‘Cos I was embarrassed. Scarlet. Somehow it was me and her in the head’s office, and all I could say was ‘Sorry. Sorry. I’ll have a word’. And we sat in silence on the bus together, the loudhailer on my knee, all the way home.
The weather on the radio said beautiful skies tonight. With a chance of thunder and lightning. There’s always a storm somewhere, isn’t there? A chance of lightning. Well I’ll chance it, I thought. Right Margo. You’re ready. You can do this. Got banana butties and two bourbon creams for the top. And I leave the house an hour earlier. So instead of heading straight for the school to pick Grace up from trampolining, I’m here. Come on Margie. Let’s make it for the sunset. Come on queen.
Margo starts to climb again. She begins to get into a slow, steady rhythm
with it. There’s the sound of a climbing wedge crunching into stone, a rope
being tested, as Margo climbs.
Don’t wanna be a big-head or anything, but, right, there’s an art to this. And I know no one would believe it –I used to tell me mam I go to aqua-aerobics on Wednesdays, but really, I was going to the climbing wall. Started three years ago, when they cut back our shifts at work. And I was good at it. Special, even. I’ve never been special before. I got stronger and stronger. Bought a bit of gear off the internet – cams and wedges, ropes and harness, chalk, gloves, shoes. Kept it all inside the tumble-dryer – an oh-so romantic birthday present from my now-ex-husband, never used.
She goes into the memory.
Lately I’ve been practising out the back of ours’, when Grace and me mam are in bed, when our street is lit by stars and fast asleep. Me, climbing up the back of our house from the yard, up and over onto the lean-to kitchen roof, inching past the bubble-glass of the bathroom window – I tell yer, the first time I tried it, didn’t the light go on just as I’m hanging off the ledge? Me mam, up for wee, and there’s me swinging from a rope past the windy in me day-glo helmet like a particularly safety-conscious cat burglar. But she didn’t see a thing. Not me. Silent as a shadow.
And I did it, right to the top, sitting up there on the slates, looking over all the terraces of Liverpool 8. Just me and the stars and the moon, and –
The miaowing of a cat.
Mo, our darling cat. The only one who let’s me finish a sentence. Who noticed the change in me. Who knew just what I was up to, and is brilliant at climbing too. Me and Mo and the moon and the stars.
The sound of distant traffic again – we are back in the city. Margo is out of breath, but she’s hitting her stride.
This, this is the hard bit. A near-vertical expanse of stained glass, but there’s a spine of stone, and chinks and gaps where you can make it grip, make it stick, get a rhythm going, keep it light, keep it quick, don’t look down, don’t look down, don’t look – wo-woah…
Margo almost falls.
Hold on, girl. You wanted this, remember? Not a lifetime of rustling paper and shuffling books, of shushing and sighing and saying nothing. You wanted to climb a mountain. Well, why didn’t I climb a bloody mountain, then? Ey, Margie? Why am I here, clinging on to the Catholic Cathedral when I haven’t been to mass since our Molly got slung out for praying too loudly aged nine and bold as brass? Me, two years older, silently furious and bright red. So what am I doing here, and with a freezing cold arse and all? Oh yeah, I never explained about me pants, did I? Don’t worry, I’m not showing me bare bum to the whole of Liverpool, I’ve got me leggings on, it’s just –
Suddenly someone shouts from down below, on the ground.
‘OI! WHAT YA DOING? YER CRACKERS!’
Oh no, no way, I don’t want an audience. Not yet. What do I – come on Margo, be more Molly, be more Gracie, be more Mam.
She shouts down.
Erm, err, I’m the cleaning woman! The cleaning woman!
The cleaning woman! The windows! I’m, I’m doing it for Jesus! For Jesus!!!
She stops. She talks to herself again.
Jesus. Is that what I’m doing it for? For Jesus?
We came here when Dad died. Molly kept calling it his ‘passing’. I hated that. He died. He died, and –
She is suddenly overcome. But she controls it.
And then, we don’t know what, do we? I know, I know he was thinker. I know he spoke in a whisper. I know he loved animals. I know he would have liked us lighting a penny candle for him, so we came here, to the cathedral, and we did. Mam wore a black lace mantilla, gloves, the works, swear down. She was devastated though. I know that, ‘cos she hardly said one word. This is a woman, Agnes McLean, who can turn the lack of Bird’s Custard in the Smithdown Asda into a three-act tragedy about Foodbank Britain in the Baking aisle. When she gets up for the karaoke on Saturday night, she gives a little speech about international solidarity and speaking truth to power before launching into Top of the World. Before I was born, Agnes was at Greenham Common. ‘You can’t kill the spirit, she is like a mountain…’ Yeah. Still hardly ever wears a bra. But that day, in the candle light, in the hush of the chapel, she picked at the wax and she turned to the wall and we remembered my dad, my lovely dad. And said nothing. Later, on the bus on the way home, with my Gracie on her knee, mam turned to me and said very quietly, “he died of a broken heart, y’know”. And it sounds melodramatic but, but she was right. He did.
The first time I came here was on a school trip. It’s incredible inside, when you see it for the first time, like nowhere else on earth. I know that now. Then, at ten, I felt it. A huge, perfect circle, the soft, purple-grey shadows on the concrete, and, looking up, the lantern roof in red, blue, yellow glass, channelling our voices to the heavens. Oh, I understood nothing then. But I felt it.
They gave us facts, like, it was built by subscription, by all the Catholics in the city putting together their pennies. I liked that. Then they said that it was built on the site of an old workhouse. I didn’t like that. We’d done Victorian Liverpool at school. I’d seen names like ours on the workhouse role. The fallen women. The children who died.
Well I will not be a fallen woman. I will not! I am climbing the cathedral, dear God. Not your cathedral. Ours.
And the sky from here! The clouds are racing, purple and grey, the last of the sun is angry and turning it all to fire. Is that rain? And somewhere, not far from here, maybe just down the road, the sky is falling.
The wind blows, there are spatters of rain. Margo keeps climbing.
Is that what I’m doing? Settling some score? Getting as close as I can to the Almighty so I can say “ey, Big Man – or Woman, who am I to say? – I wanna word with you”. Me that never picked a fight in me life. I split up with our Dave over text.
Every night I do the dishes listening to the news on the radio and, and I get that boiling feeling, that rage, pure rage rising from my heels to my stomach to chest, and I see me – there I am – reflected in the kitchen window, like I’m trapped, silent, in the dark yard – and I wanna shout, I wanna scream, I wanna let the rage out in pure noise. ‘Cos it’s always the same, these measured voices, talking in circles, droning from the radio. Not listening, no pause for breath, and all the while – the sky is falling in. The world is drowning, starving, burning. We are hanging by our fingers. Me dad, me lovely dad, broke and broken by trying to hold on. If you want to know the truth of it. Yes, the sky is falling in. And the people in charge, the ones who get to speak, they ask the wrong questions and don’t wait for answers. Well, what if I’ve got something to say? What if little mouse Margo has something to say now? Is anyone listening? Is anyone listening at all?
The rain is getting heavier, the wind is getting stronger.
And I’m nearly there, I’m reaching for it, the summit, the peak, the thorny crown… I am two hundred and seventy feet in the air… I am reaching, I’m grasping, I’m pulling myself, carrying my own weight, I am holding on for dear life, I am holding on, I am Margo McLean, I am there, I am here – oh! I am here! I did it! Come on! Thunder and lightning! I am not afraid!
As quickly as it came, the rain softens and dies. The wind calms. It is a
How’d ya like that, ey? All that fire turned to beauty. All the promise of storm returned to the sea. Hello, my beautiful city, pink and golden in the light. Hello streets. Hello river. Hello library. The docks, the shops, the theatres and cinemas and parks and – yes! There’s our house! Hiya Gracie! Hiya Molly! Hiya mam! Why not, hi Dave! Hello world. Hello everyone. Hello people. Having your tea, watching the telly, listening to the radio, going for a pint. Telling each other about your day. Talking and listening to your loved ones. To your cat. To your god. To the woman in the window doing the dishes – hi, I made it, it’s okay.
Almost a whisper.
Hello dad, wherever you are. I hope you can hear me. I just wanted to say – I am like you, aren’t I? I’m so proud of that. I should have told you. But I’m starting to think, maybe, just maybe, I might be a bit like the women in the family and all.
Look – there’s the school. The doors thrown open. The kids spilling out. Grace! Can you see me? Bloody hell, there’s a crowd down there. It’s alright, I’m okay!
Margo opens her backpack. She gets out Grace’s loudhailer, and speaks into it.
Hi – is that on? Hiya! Hello! Erm, I’ve got something I wanna say. Yeah, hi, I’m okay, sorry. But I’m not sorry, and it’s not okay. It’s not okay! To tell a little girl that she’s loud. That she’s too much, not lady-like, just ‘cos she stood on a box in the playground and spoke. It’s not alright to shut her up. It’s not okay to tell her to pipe down. Well I will not pipe down. And Grace – hi Grace! I’m waving at you darlin’ girl! I’m proud of you. That’s what I wanna say. I’m proud of you.
This is a city full of brave, loud women. I can see you all from up here. I had to climb all the way up here to say it – I’m proud to be one of you. We should never, ever pipe down.
A cheer from below. And Grace’s voice, indistinct, asking a question.
Yeah, I’m comin’ down. Hang on. What? Fish Fingers. Ice cream after, if you eat your peas.
Give me a minute, is that okay?
Margo puts the loudhailer away.
On the way here, I was thinking, when men conquer mountains they take up a
flag. And I never thought of that. How to mark it somehow, y’know? Say – I was
here. I was here! And then I had an idea, and I nipped into the bogs in the
Philharmonic pub, and I whipped off me undies, and stuck em in me backpack
and, well – here!
She pulls out her pants and waves them in the air, like a triumphant flag.
Here I am! And it might take me a while to get used to this voice, but it’s mine!
And I say knickers! Knickers! Knickers!
Suddenly, a cat miaows.
Mo! What are you doing here? Hiya lovely, come here, that’s my darling. Ah, am I
glad to see you. Yes I am! I am! Here, I’ve got sandwiches. Tea. What about that
sunset, ey? Sit with me.
Only thing is, Mo, how will we get down?
Image Credit: Deividas Toleikis