Escape Artistry




I described my first experience of being tied up in my previous story. When my mother agreed to tie my sister and me up, I'm sure that she thought this would be a one-off occurrence. However, rather than simply satisfying my curiosity about what it would be like to be tied up, the experience opened up a whole new vista of possibilities for games of make-believe.


My sister Karen and I frequently engaged in games of 'let's pretend'. These would start with some basic premise such as "Let's pretend we're explorers in the jungle". A vast and complex plot (which we made up as we went along) would then emerge from that simple beginning. If we (as the heroines of our tale, naturally) were to be captured by the imaginary villains of the piece, that added a satisfactory thrill to the proceedings.


Our younger brother Timothy rarely took part in our 'let's pretend' games. He regarded them as being 'girls' stuff' and wasn't really interested in the ramifications of a complex storyline. He either played somewhere else in the house by himself or followed our mother around as she was seeing to chores or, once he was aged about five, just went out to play with boys in the neighbourhood. We occasionally recruited him to play minor roles in our adventures, but this could usually only be achieved with a certain amount of coercion. Given that Karen and I were so close in age (she is only fifteen months older than me) and there was a three-year gap between my brother and me, he must have felt rather overshadowed by his two bossy big sisters when he was very young.


Being captured and tied up had always been a frequent part of our made-up adventures, but had consisted of sitting with our hands behind our backs, pretending they were tied and communicating in mumbles through pursed lips. The possibility of actually being tied-up opened up whole new dimension of realism.


I really can't remember what we were playing, but we might well have been jungle explorers, a favourite of ours. The turn in the plot would have been something like having our ancient treasure map stolen by a gang of criminals who had been trailing us through the jungle. They would, of course, leave us bound and gagged. We decided to make use of our mother's skills by asking her to tie us up. We explained the storyline and that we had been overpowered by desperate criminals and tied up and would she therefore tie us up please? I remember Mum being surprised but perfectly prepared to help us.


The first few times we asked our mother to tie us up, she followed basically the same procedure that she had used the first time she tied us. As this became a recurring request, Mum set aside some old socks and scarves that she didn't mind being maltreated in this way. She always began by tying our wrists behind our backs and entered into the spirit of the thing by pointing out that a real crook wouldn't want to have a spirited young heroine completely free while he was tying up her companion. We always put on mittens to protect our wrists (even if we were supposed to be in a hot steamy jungle) and Mum used an old pair of long socks, one sock for each of us, as wrist bindings. They were simply wrapped around our crossed wrists and knotted. Our ankles and knees were tied with short winter scarves. To finish the job off, our mother used two immensely long woollen scarves, which she had worn as a teenager in the 1930s, when they were last fashionable. We each had one of these monsters wrapped around our chest and upper arms and securely knotted. Our gags were simply cotton headscarves folded into bands and tied across our mouths detective style.


Part of the script for these games was that Mum would come back in half an hour or so in the role of our faithful native guide (or whatever) and free us. It was satisfyingly realistic to sit side by side struggling helplessly against our bonds. We knew that our gags didn't really do anything, but we were content to pretend that they did.


On occasions when our brother was feeling neglected by his two big sisters playing a game that rather excluded him, he would sabotage proceedings by untying Karen's or my hands long before we wanted to get loose. Of course, as we were tied up, there was almost nothing we could do to prevent him doing this. As he only untied one pair of hands, he had no problem making his getaway without any fear of immediate pursuit. Our mother threatened that if he persisted in doing this, she would have to tie him up too to stop him doing it, but he didn't take the threat too seriously and she never followed it through into action.


Karen is my big sister and (as big sisters do) took the lead in many things we did together. However, it was I who had been the instigator of getting our mother to tie us up and we both treated tie-ups as being largely 'my' game. I certainly seemed to derive more fun from being tied up than she did. I was also always the more enthusiastic struggler, really entering into the part of bound heroine with gusto. It was while mounting a hopeless (as I thought) struggle on one occasion that I discovered how to escape almost by accident. If I pulled with one arm and pushed with the other and wriggled my wrists in just the right way, I could eventually work my hands free. It didn't take long for me to teach Karen how to do this as well.


I remember how immensely proud we were of being able to mount a genuine escape from being securely bound by our mother and how much more like a real adventure that made the game. The first time we managed this, Mum's astonishment at seeing us unexpectedly free was very satisfying.


Tied up in the way that we routinely were, it didn't take us too long to hone our escape skills so that we could guarantee to be free within a few minutes of our mother tying us up. This put us back in almost the position we had been in before Mum started tying us up. Instead of pretending that we were tied up, we were now pretending that we couldn't escape.


We suggested to our mother that perhaps rope would be more secure than scarves for these games, but she flatly refused to countenance that, at least at that time. She did however reveal that she knew how to tie us a little more securely. We eagerly agreed to that suggestion.


Mum's solution turned out to be to cinch our wrist bindings. She still used the long socks to bind our wrists, but instead of winding the socks three times around our crossed wrists, she put our wrists parallel to each other, wound the socks twice around them and then cinched the remainder between them, pulling the binding snug. The result didn't feel quite as secure as having crossed wrists tied together; it was more like a pair of woolly handcuffs. Mum assured us that we would find it impossible to pull our wrists free from this arrangement and it proved to be so. Not knowing the term 'cinch', we called this arrangement 'around and between', which is probably an accurate enough description.


I think this method of tying worked about twice before Karen and I managed to escape. I immediately discovered that the new way of tying our wrists gave much more freedom of movement to my hands. In particular, it was possible to bring my hands together, which had been impossible with my wrists crossed. By shuffling ourselves back to back, as we had seen in a comic, I was able to get my hands to Karen's wrist binding. Once she realised what I was trying to do, Karen sat perfectly still and pushed her hands as far away from her back as she could to make it easier for me. With my mittens on, although I could feel the knot securing the sock tied around her wrists, I couldn't loosen it. After a few minutes, I gave up. Karen decided to try the same approach, so I sat still while she explored my bonds with her mitten-covered fingers. I don't know whether the knot on my wrist binding was more accessible or not as tightly tied as hers, or if she just worked out the technique more quickly than me, but it didn't take her long to discover that she could tease open a reef (or square) knot by pushing her thumb into the middle of it and then pulling at the second (and more vulnerable) of the two half-hitches that made up the knot with the limited grip her mittens allowed. Whatever she did worked quite effectively and I was soon able to untie the rest of my own bonds and then hers.


As before, we were immensely proud, but then frustrated at being able to escape whenever we wanted to. Once Mum realised how we were escaping, she modified the binding so that the final knot ended up on the side of the cinch between our bound wrists and our backs. An unexpected bonus of this new method of tying with a cinch was that it frustrated our brother's occasional attempts at sabotage. If we pressed our wrist bindings against our backs, he couldn't get at the knots to untie them.


Karen and I sensed that there was an undeclared and unspoken contest going on between our mother and us. The way to encourage her to apply more secure tie-ups seemed to be to develop our escape skills. The games of 'let's pretend' were still fun, but increasingly they were simply a means to an end to get our Mum to tie us up so that we could have fun trying to escape. We often didn't bother with any adventure scenario, but simply asked to be tied up so we could see if we could escape. Mum entered into the spirit of this with "Let's see you get out of that!" and similar traditional taunts.


It took Karen and me a while to realise that if we jettisoned our gags, we could work on each other's knots with our teeth. Gagged the way we were, it took little more than some stretching of our necks and nodding our heads from side to side to persuade the headscarves covering our mouths to slide down and hang loosely around our necks. (It took me slightly more effort than Karen as I have a significantly bigger chin than she does.) Working on knots with our teeth was easier than using mitten-covered fingers, not least because we could see what we were doing rather than working blindly behind our backs. Trying to get at each other's wrist bindings naturally entailed a lot of rather intimate nuzzling, but was reasonably straightforward once a suitable position had been found.


Mum attempted to stymie this method of escape by tying us back-to-back, winding the long scarves around both of us. Tied separately, we could never struggle free of these scarves unless our hands were already untied, but back-to-back, we had enough freedom to move independently of each other that with some minutes of co-ordinated squirming, we could worm our way out of them. After that, of course, we could easily free each other with our teeth.


Karen and I were slightly ahead of our mother in our ongoing competition when our Aunt Lizzie entered the picture. My mother worked from home as a freelance indexer of textbooks and, in consequence, sometimes had to make trips to London (only an hour away by train) to see various publishers. On occasions like that, Aunt Lizzie would sometimes arrange to be in our house when we came home from school, or alternatively, we might go to her house to do our homework and have our tea. Aunt Lizzie was our mother's older sister and took it for granted that part of the job description for an aunt was to be slightly subversive. She would sometimes conspire with us to allow us to do things that our mother might not wholly approve of. (It has to be said that Mum could on occasion be equally subversive with our cousin Annie, Aunt Lizzie's daughter.)


Confident of at least a sympathetic hearing and possibly even a constructive suggestion, Karen and I approached Aunt Lizzie one afternoon when she was looking after us in our own house. Aunt Lizzie listened to our fairly complicated account of the problem of staying tied up. In retrospect, I think she had probably already heard it all from our mother and already knew what a peculiar pair her nieces were.


Aunt Lizzie's suggestion was that we should fetch the things that were usually used for tying us up and that she would look in my mother's rag-bag and see if there was anything useful there. The rag-bag was a common phenomenon in British households in the 1940s, 50s and even up into the 60s. Wartime shortages of clothing led to a reluctance to throw anything away. The government slogan was 'Make do and Mend' and most people took that to heart, hoarding anything that might conceivably be repaired, used to mend something else or put to another purpose. For children's clothes, outgrown or worn-out garments could be used as donor material to patch rips in current clothes. Other items could find new uses as cleaning cloths or as stuffing for soft toys.


Karen and I had elected to be tied up in the lounge, so we each brought down from our bedroom an armful of the scarves and socks that would be used to secure us. Meanwhile, Aunt Lizzie had salvaged some old nylon stockings (fatally laddered) and a pair of muslin nappy liners (diaper liners to our transatlantic friends) from the rag-bag.


My recollection of this incident is vivid enough in my mind that I can remember what I was wearing. It must have been winter, or at least the cooler half of the year as I was wearing a heavy navy-blue sweater, a particular favourite of mine with a Norwegian star pattern in white, and a tartan skirt. It wasn't quite a real kilt, just a pleated skirt with an elasticated waist made in dark blue and green Black Watch tartan. I had on the usual black woollen stockings my sister and I wore in cooler weather. Underneath, I was probably wearing woollen 'combis' (combinations, or a union suit, with short sleeves and knee-length legs) and a cotton knit blouse together with the horrible stocking suspender we had to wear with its shoulder straps and waist belt.


I put on my mittens (blue to match my sweater) and waited for Aunt Lizzie to show us what she could do. She used the nylon stockings to tie our wrists behind our backs. I can't remember whether she used one stocking or a pair on each of us, but the arrangement was that our wrists were crossed and the stockings were used to lash them horizontally, vertically and between our wrists to cinch the binding tight. We didn't know technical terms like 'cinch' so we called this particular arrangement 'around and around and between'. Nylon stockings are stretchy, but have the peculiar characteristic that they have a limit to their stretch and become almost completely unyielding beyond that. Because of that, a the binding is too loose, it's too stretchy to be secure and, conversely, if it's too tight it becomes rigid and can easily cut off the circulation. Aunt Lizzie judged our bindings just right so that they were close to the stockings' limits of stretch but not uncomfortably tight.


"I don't think you'll be able to untie those knots," Aunt Lizzie told us.


We craned our necks round to inspect each other's bound wrists. Sure enough, the knots were tiny and certainly impervious to any attack with mitten-covered fingers.


Aunt Lizzie used the socks that our mother usually used on our wrists to bind our ankles then the short scarves to tie our legs together just below and just above our knees. The long scarves were used around our arms and chests as usual. Aunt Lizzie pulled all the bindings noticeably tighter than Mum did.


Finally, Aunt Lizzie took the two muslin nappies and folded each of them into a band. The nappy liners were pieces of thin muslin about 30 inches square. These were obviously our gags, so I pursed my lips in readiness to receive it.


"No, you have to have your mouth open for this kind of gag," Aunt Lizzie corrected me.


Slightly surprised, I opened my mouth. Aunt Lizzie carefully worked the band of cloth between my teeth then knotted and double-knotted it behind my head.


"Try talking," our aunt prompted when she had gagged both of us.


The best I could do was to produce unintelligible mumbles. I was surprised at how muffled and quiet the mumbles were too. I had seen pictures of this type of gag and may have seen it on television. However, my belief up until that point was that it must be less effective than a gag that covered the mouth. I was delighted to be proved wrong; here at last was a gag that made it genuinely impossible to talk and be understood and which wasn't constantly in danger of slipping off.


Mum usually hoisted Karen and me onto the sofa when we were tied up in the lounge, but Aunt Lizzie just left us lying on the floor. After a few minutes, Timothy came to investigate. A pair of bound and gagged big sisters were always a sight worth seeing in his estimation. I was lying face-down on the floor, which made my wrist binding easily accessible to Timothy's probing fingers. As the knot in the stocking around my wrists was so small and tight, I was confident that my brother would not be able to loosen it, but I decided to let him try anyway. Timothy had been picking ineffectually at my wrist binding for maybe two minutes when our Aunt came back into the lounge. He looked up at her guiltily.


"Your mother has told you not to do that, hasn't she, Tim?" Aunt Lizzie asked. She didn't sound as though she was actually cross with him, just amused in an exasperated sort of way.


"Yes," Timothy admitted in a sheepish voice.


"What did she say would happen?"


"She said she would tie me up if I kept doing it."


"Well, we'd better go and find something to use, hadn't we?" Aunt Lizzie replied, not unkindly. "Come along, Tim."


Timothy obediently followed Aunt Lizzie out of the room. Karen and I exchanged questioning looks, both intrigued to know if Timothy would finally get his comeuppance.


A short while later, Aunt Lizzie returned to the lounge and, knowing our habits, switched on the television. She asked if we wanted to be lifted onto the sofa and we both nodded in reply. Aunt Lizzie also knew our preferred places to sit and parked us at each end of the sofa. After consulting the listing in the newspaper and reading it to us, she asked us which of the two channels we wanted to watch (that's all we had in Britain at that time). We communicated our preference by nods and shakes of the head.


Aunt Lizzie left the room and returned a minute or so with Timothy cradled in her arms. She set him down on the sofa between Karen and me and then returned to the kitchen.


It was obvious that Aunt Lizzie had been back to the rag-bag. This time it was some of Karen's and my worn-out stockings that she had found. Woollen stockings were robust enough to be darned at the knees (when we had fallen over in them) and at the heels (when they had worn against the backs of our shoes) but would eventually be beyond repair and consigned to the rag-bag. Timothy's legs were tied together at his ankles and above his knees with two of our black stockings. He had a pair of socks over his hands and his wrists were tied in front of him with another stocking. His wrist binding was tied to his knee binding and a fourth stocking was tied around his arms and chest just above his elbows. A white handkerchief, quite a large one, possibly belonging to our Dad, was folded into a band running between his teeth and knotted behind his head. Timothy gave us both as much of a grin as he could and settled down to watch children's television with us.


Dad arrived at about ten to six as usual. Coming in to find Karen and me tied up was not unknown, but this was the first time he had found all three of his children in that state. Aunt Lizzie followed Dad into the lounge and explained why we were all trussed up.


"I suppose we'd better get you lot untied then," Dad said with mock exasperation.


I shook my head vigorously in reply.


"Do you want to wait for Mum?"


I nodded.


Shrugging his shoulders, Dad left the room and went to change out of his office clothes.


The next arrival was our cousin Annie, who would be eating with us before returning home with Aunt Lizzie. Annie is about eight years older than me, so was in her mid teens at this time. She was wearing her school uniform, having come straight from an after-school club and travelled by bus to our house. She was hugely amused at our predicament and made a point of examining our bonds carefully.


"Did my Mum do that?" she asked.


Karen and I nodded.


"I better leave you tied up then. See you later."


I was still pondering the significance of that last remark when our mother returned home at last. She came in through the back door and we heard her speaking to Aunt Lizzie in the kitchen. After a few moments, she came into the lounge and burst out laughing when she saw us.


"Tea's nearly ready, so I'd better untie you all," she told us as she reached down to loosen Timothy's gag.


Mum untied Timothy first and sternly asked him why he was all tied up. He explained what he had done and why Aunt Lizzie had tied him up.


"Well, I did warn you," Mum told him and gave him a hug to show that everything was forgiven.


After a brief hesitation as if she couldn't decide who to untie next, my mother untied my gag and eased it out of my mouth. Next she untied the scarf bound around my arms and chest, commenting how tight it was. I leaned forward so that she could reach my wrists and waited.


After fiddling for a moment, Mum said, "I can't untie this; I'll have to snip it."


She left the lounge and returned a moment later with a pair of scissors. It took only a second or two to free my hands. It had been fun being tied up, but it felt good to be able to move my arms again. Mum showed me the stocking that she had cut; the knot securing it was not much bigger than a pea and would have been completely impossible to untie.


I enthusiastically told Mum how much better it had been being tied up Aunt Lizzie's way so we really couldn't escape and asked if she could do it like this next time.


Mum smiled indulgently and said that she would have to see what she could do, but she wasn't going to sacrifice a good pair of stockings every time we wanted to play. However, she was as good as her word and the next time Karen and I were tied up we were delighted to find that we were genuinely completely helpless.







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