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Someone shouted: "Hey, look!" It was one of the group of walkers. Climbers would not have made a noise about it. Someone shouted and stood up and pointed toward the East Buttress. "Hey, look at him!"
There was a lone figure climbing. He was about twenty feet off the ground. The man who shouted had been watching for a little while, but at first it had not been clear that the figure was truly alone until he, the climber, had reached twenty feet up the great, blank central wall of the East Buttress. The wall is a smooth, slightly curving sheet of rhyolite, a beaten metallic shield that, to inexpert eyes, appears unclimbable.
"Look at 'im. Bloody idiot or what?" "Isn't he doing Great Wall?" "No ropes, nothing. He's bloody soloing."
The solo climber on the Great Wall moved quite smoothly up the shallow groove that gives the line of the route. He bridged easily, his feet braced outward to make an arrowhead of his body. You could see his hands going up on the rock above him, imagine his fingers touching the rock and finding the flakes and nicks that are what pass for holds on that kind of route. Mere unevenness. What the climbers of the past would have called rugosities. They all seemed to have had the benefit of a classical education. Not the present breed. "Thin," the modern climber might say. Not much else.
"He seems to know what he's doing," the walker called to his companions.
"He's not wearing a helmet," one of the others remarked. The walkers were all watching now, some of them standing, others sitting on rocks - the grass was still damp - with their heads craned back to see.
The climber moved up. There was a catlike grace about his movements, a certain slickness, a feeling that, perched as he was above nothing at all and holding nothing at all, he was secure in what he did. He was now flylike, plastered across the center of the gray blankness, laying away on a rib that he had discovered, reaching up for a farther hold, bridging wide and stretching up with his right arm. He was actually feeling for a piton that had been there for the last thirty-seven years, one of those bits of climbing archaeology that you find in the mountains: a peg, placed there from a rappel one wet and windy day in the spring of 1962. The peg is oxidized, but smoothed by the numerous (not too numerous) hands that have grabbed it thankfully over the years. It will be there for many years yet, but not forever. Not even the cliff is forever.
"Look!" A gasp from the watchers, a movement up on the cliff face as the lone climber made a smooth succession of moves and reached the peg and made height above it.
"What happens if he slips?" one of the walkers, a young girl, asked.
A man's voice spoke: "He's dead." It brought a hush to the party. They had been watching the thing as entertainment; abruptly it had been presented to them as a matter of life and death. "Who is he?" another of the party asked. There was a clear sense that this unknown climber, this figure of flesh and bone and blood and brain, must be someone. "A bloody idiot."
After a pause-resting? Was it possible to be resting on that vertical and hostile face?-the man had begun to move once more. The remainder of the wall soared up above him to where safety was represented by a thin diagonal terrace. There was a hint of grass up there, a faint green mustache to break the monotony of gray. It was still far above him, but it seemed to signify safety. His body swayed and moved up, his feet touching rock with something of the assurance, something of the habitual skill and poise of a dancer. You could see that he had fair hair. Not much else about him. An anonymous performer on a Welsh crag, sometime after noon on a dry and blustery day. Who was he? And then he fell.
There was some argument later whether it was he who shouted. Someone certainly shouted. It may have been one of the walking party; it may have been one of the pair on White Slab, looking across from the first stance right out in space, way over to the right on the other buttress. There were no specific words - just a cry of surprise.
He fell and there was something leaden and inevitable about the fall. After the grace and agility of the ascent, the dull fact of gravity and weight. A sudden sharp acceleration. Thirty-two feet per second faster every second. About three seconds. And then he hit the broken slope at the foot of the wall, rolled a bit, and stopped.
People got to their feet and ran, scrambled, slithered up the slopes. A pair of climbers on another part of the crag began to fix a rappel rope. One of the girls in the walking party had begun to weep. Despite the hurry, no one really wanted to get there. Of course they didn't. But when they did, quite absurdly they found that he was still alive, unconscious but alive. And they were surprised to discover that he wasn't some reckless youth, the kind that has no respect for the traditions of the place, the kind that doesn't care a damn about doing anything so bloody stupid as soloing a route as hard as the Great Wall - he was middle-aged. Lean, tough, weather-beaten complexion (bruised horrendously, his jaw displaced raggedly to one side), middle-aged. Bleeding from his mouth and one ear. His limbs were arranged anyhow, like those of a rag doll tossed casually out of a window to land on the grass below.
Someone crouched over him and felt for a pulse in his broken neck. One of the walkers was on his mobile phone calling the police. Others just stood by helplessly. The pulse was there for a moment beneath the middle finger of the would-be rescuer, and then it faded away. He died as they stood and watched.
I was driving home when I heard the news. I was somewhere on that winding nightmare of motorway and expressway and overpass that crosses and recrosses the city of Birmingham: ribbons of lights stretching away into the gathering dusk, the long necklaces of housing estates, the pendant jewels of factories and warehouses. Design without intention; a strange sort of beauty without any aesthetic to support it. Over it all, the traffic moved in columns toward Liverpool and Manchester, toward London and the southeast.
The radio was on, and the story was big enough to make the national news on a day when the news wasn't special, the murders a mere one or two, the rapes only half a dozen and date rapes at that, the peace negotiations stalled, the elections indecisive, misery and poverty quotidian. Noted climber killed in fall, said a disembodied and indifferent voice from the radio, and I knew at once who it was even before I heard the name. Curious, that. I knew it would be him.
Jim Matthewson, who lived in North Wales, had spent a lifetime tackling the highest and hardest climbs in the world but died after falling from a local crag where he had first cut his teeth over thirty years ago ...
I decelerated and pulled into the slow lane behind an articulated truck, like my driving? a sign on the tailgate asked; it gave a phone number, just in case you didn't. The next exit was for the A? and North Wales, and I let the car slow down and drift leftward down the slip road. The newsman was talking about helicopters and multiple fractures and dead on arrival. I hadn't really made a decision, no conscious decision anyway, but that was just like it had been with climbing - movement being everything, movement being a kind of thought, body and mind fused into one, the mind reduced perhaps, but the body exalted surely. Nowadays in the ordinary round of life there was separation of mind and body: but in those days it had been different.
As I dialed home, the radio news had become a broken oil pipeline in West Africa. Villagers had sabotaged the thing in order to collect the crude oil that spilled out. The phone rang in the hallway of my house while West African villagers ranted on about the corruption of the government and the high prices they were forced to pay for what was flowing for free through the metal tube just outside their village. You had to see their point of view.
I'd hoped to get one of the girls, but of course it was Eve's voice that answered: "Hello?" "It's me."
"Where on earth are you?" The overemphasis in her voice. "Have you heard the news?" "What news?"
"On the radio. Jamie. He's dead." An eloquent silence. How can silence on the end of a telephone line be eloquent? But it was. "How?"
"No idea. A fall, that's what it said. Look, I'm somewhere around Wolverhampton. I'm going." "Going?" "To Wales."
"Wales?" A note of incredulity. "Where will you stay? For goodness' sake, Allie's got to go to choir practice this evening. She was relying on you taking her. And you haven't got anything with you."
"That shouldn't be much of a problem. And I reckon I can get a bed at the Center." Another silence. "What's the point?"
"He was a friend. Christ alive, Eve, he was my best friend." It sounded ridiculous, the kind of thing children say. Best friend. Make friends, make friends, never, never break friends. It's girls who do that kind of thing, mainly. Boys find it all a bit embarrassing, don't they?
"And now he's dead. And you haven't seen him for years. What's wrong with a letter, or a phone call or something? You don't have to go running to the rescue like a Boy Scout, for God's sake. And anyway, there's no one to rescue." "There's Ruth."
"I know there's Ruth. And how do you propose to rescue her-?"
There was one of those awkward pauses, made more awkward by the fact that we were just voices, stripped of face or feature. We spoke over each other: "Rob."
"Eve." "Go on. What were you going to say?" "No you." "When ..." "Yes?" "When will you be back?"
Her question hung in the balance. "A day or two," I said finally. "Time to sort things out. Time to see Caroline. That kind of thing. Eve ..." "Yes?"
"Give the girls a kiss from me. Tell Allie I'm sorry about the choir. Next week." "Is that a promise?"
It was hard to read her tone. Hard to read mine too, I guess. "Look, I'm parked on the hard shoulder. I'd better be going. I'll give you a ring later. Love to the girls. And to you." "Yes," she said, but she didn't sound convinced.
Birmingham is something of a border territory. You wouldn't think it to look at the place, but the fact is that beyond Birmingham you are quite suddenly out of the embracing clasp of London, that disproportionate city, that selfish city that wants everything and everybody, that steals almost the whole of the south of England to itself and looks with covetous eyes on the rest. But beyond the lights of Birmingham there are the Marches, where blood was spilled, and the thin ribbon of the A5 that leads to Wales. London suddenly seems far away. I drove into the gathering dusk, past familiar names and familiar landmarks: Telford, Shrewsbury. Ahead there were black hills against the sky. Offa's Dyke was signposted for tourists. At Oswestry came the first hint of a change of language and landscape, chirk and newbridge giving way to pentre and cefn-mawr, and the road abruptly turning westward and finding a narrow gorge into the hills, and there was the sign to Llangollen, which is the farthest many outsiders get into the narrow, crabbed, secretive land that is Wales. The walls of the valley crowded in on the car. Headlights cut into the thick Welsh evening and spotlighted Celtic names now-cerrig-y-drudion, pentrefoelas, capel garmon. With the window down I could sense the difference, that sharp scent of meltwater, the hostile chill of height, the snatch of cold mountain air at the lungs.
It all came back as I drove: an awful muddle of memory and forgetting. Eve and the children suddenly seemed very far away and in another country, a safe, literal place where nothing is left to chance and no one takes risks. But this was different: this was a haunted landscape, trampled over by the ghosts of the past. Ahead was the familiar silhouette of the mountain that was most familiar of all - Yr Wyddfa, Snowdon. Overhead were the stars, Orion setting in the wake of the sun, a planet - Jupiter I guessed - gleaming down on the sublunary world with a baleful eye. One of our routes had been called Jupiter. I could even recall the words in the guidebook: Dinas Mot: start to the right of Gandalf, Extremely Severe. I remembered Jamie floating up on invisible holds while I sweated after him on the blunt end of the rope. I felt the sweat now in memory, even after thirty years.
I turned off the main road into a high valley. A long, narrow lake was pressed into the darkness of the mountains like an ingot of silver. At the only lighted building, I pulled the car over and parked. A warm and soporific atmosphere of tradition greeted me as I pushed open the door of the bar. There was brown wooden paneling and an old hemp rope in a glass case and the signatures of history written across the ceiling: Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans. And another name scrawled somewhere there as well: Guy Matthewson.
I ordered a beer. At the bar two men were talking in low and authoritative terms about the accident. They were tweedy and pipe-smoking. This hotel and all its traditions had always been a different world from ours, a parallel universe of breeches and heavy boots and pipes. We had been down at the Padarn Lake in Llanberis. We were jeans and canvas rock boots that they used to call PAs, and ciggies. Spliffs sometimes. A world away. "What can you expect?" they were asking each other. "These days people have no respect for the mountains. Of course, his father was one of the old school ..."
There was a phone in the corner. I found the number in the phone book, and when my call was answered it was Jamie speaking. It was a shock to hear his voice: "This is the Matthewson Mountain Center," he said. "We can't answer at the moment, but if you leave your name and number after the beep, we'll get back to you as soon as we can."
I didn't leave a message. I finished my beer and left the customers to their complacency.
The road from the hotel wound uphill and over the head of the pass. The lights of a youth hostel loomed out of the blackness. There might have been a trace of snow on the hillside behind the building. On the left, the bulk of Crib Goch rose up to block out the stars.
Excerpted from The Fall by Simon Mawer Excerpted by permission.
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Posted September 21, 2014
Posted April 11, 2010
I'm fascinated both by mountain climbing (well, reading about it) and Britain during World War II, so this book was a slam dunk for me. The Fall jumps between contemporary England and Wales and World War II, as we meet climbers Jamie and Rob and their mothers. Rob travels to Wales after Jamie's death and reflects on their lives; Mawer weaves that story with the story of their mothers, Meg and Diana, during WWII.
The sections about Meg and Diana in London during the war really brought that period to life for me in a way that other books and movies haven't been able to. The day-to-day realities of the Blitz were there as an organic part of the story, not as a lesson.
Mawer also handles the mountain climbing sections well. I've read a number of books about climbing, and again, he writes the sections in such a way that brings the experience of climbing to life. I admit that I have a tendency to skim over long descriptions of things like climbing, but I didn't do that with this book.
There are some weak aspects. Mawer draws some characters very clearly, but others--major characters--remain a mystery. Though I enjoy that he leaves a lot of things ambiguous, there are some character actions that are completely lacking. On initial read, it's easy to ignore, but deeper inspection of character motivations leave the reader wondering.
The plot, also, is nothing particularly new. The bringing together of mountain climbing and WWII may be new, but the stories of Meg, Diana, Rob, and Jamie are nothing you haven't seen before. And the end of the story hardly comes as a surprise.
But it's all so well written, it doesn't matter.
Posted December 9, 2008
Rob Dewar is driving home to his family when he hears on the radio about the death of his friend Jamie Matthewson from a mountain climbing fall. Though he and Jamie had not spoken in years, Rob heads to Wales to learn what went wrong and to provide comfort to his buddy¿s widow Ruth. Rob begins learning about his deceased friend, the man¿s family, and his own parents, more than he probably wants to know. He finds out that Jamie¿s father Guy and Diana Sheridan fell in love and shared a night together in 1940. However, while Guy is a conscientious objector married to a German wife, Diana heads to London to work as a nurse. She ends their affair and aborts the fetus. She marries, but that relationship fails as Guy has her love. After World War II ends, Guy and Diana meet, but though she is free he is now married to Meg. Still they share one last night of love. The historical tidbits bring alive the 1940s and 1960s. The characters are three-dimensional and are very complex. The story line is richly textured as readers observe how star-crossed lovers survive though not with one another. With all that going and Simon Mawer¿s usual strong prose, the novel falls a bit short because the secret once revealed seems insignificant in the scheme of life. Still though not quite a MENDEL'S DWARF, THE FALL displays the talent of Mr. Mawer to tell a tale that will provide much pleasure to fans of complex relationship dramas. Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 16, 2013
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Posted September 1, 2011
No text was provided for this review.