TORVER, ENGLAND. SEPTEMBER 2000
The night before the expedition Joe Shelby and Eva Kimberly spent the countdown hours in a comfortable hotel converted from a substantial country house a place of some grandeur, with high-ceilinged, corniced rooms, heavy, chevroned drapes and gas fires built to resemble hearths of live, glowing coals. From afar its whitewashed gables rose in pristine splendor against the somber greens of the lakeside. From within, the tall sash windows offered an oblique view of water and mountain across tiered lawns guarded by pines, partially obscured by the floral curtains of a four-poster bed in hand-carved oak. They found its solid presence and hint of depravity somehow embarrassing, but neither of them said so.
Driving north he had ventured that they should, perhaps, overnight in the small tent he had purchased with much attention to weight and ease of assembly to acclimatize for his uncertain, solo pilgrimage to the high ground. But she demurred, saying the only kind of tent that interested her was the large type with polished floorboards and mosquito netting and en suite facilities, as deployed on the more discerning safaris in the African savanna, with retainers to bring shaving water or pink gin, as appropriate to the hour. And, in his condition, she said with what she hoped was a fond smile, the less time he spent in imitation of Mallory and Irvine the better, considering what happened to them.
Over drinks in a bar adorned with horse brasses and small, framed lithographs depicting the peaks and slate-roofed farmhouses of the district, he challenged her, saying maybe and, mark you, no one to this day could prove otherwise those two British mountaineers had actually reached their objective, the summit of Mount Everest, before they disappeared back in 1924, so victory had been theirs after all.
Death was quite a price to pay for a mountaintop, she persisted, and that silenced them both until he said, low and rapid and in one angry breath: but it's better than a paralyzed death in a sickbed, stuck with catheters and evacuation tubes and electronic monitors; better to be frozen to death on a mountain than immobilized by the terminal failure of your own body.
In the end of the light, they took a gentle, halting stroll a limp for him, a slow-motion promenade for her around the graveled pathways cutting through the grounds, down to the stony shore where a dark, chill wind coaxed shivers from sightless depths. Their breath steamed and not just from recent whisky. Up there, on the high ramparts of granite and fellside rising from the opposite shoreline, the cold would be more intense, and impossible to flee for a hotel lounge or a four-poster bed bathed in the luscious glow of a phony fire.
Later, in the small hours, with a crackle of autumn rain on the windows, cocooned in the four-poster, they reached for one another in the way of people seeking comfort through familiar sequences and levers of arousal. Both were on their best behavior. Behind the drawn curtains, neither wanted fights or ghosts to spoil the farewells. One phantom in particular stalked them both and they thought that, if they did not name her, then she would not appear to haunt them.
Now, under a low, damp sky pebble-dashed with cloud, they stood together at the point where they would part, he for the mountain, she, reluctantly, to wait.
His destination, Scafell Pike, was not, essentially, a big mountain, but it was England's highest the best, most rugged, least forgiving that the land could offer at a coy 3,210 feet, littered with vertical crags and treacherous boulders and plain hard going. By the route he had devised in hours with maps and guides and memory, it lay two days hence at his pace beyond intermediate ranges of hills and passes where he would make camp. Drawn as a straight line, the distance from where he stood to the summit was a mere ten miles. But counting the twists and turns from start to finish, he would, if successful, cover over twenty miles, with 5,650 feet of steep ascents and 4,350 feet of tricky descents (where, as on Everest, accidents often happened) over uniformly unforgiving ground, vulnerable to rapid-fire changes in weather and temperature, where the rocky trails could turn to rivers of water or ribbons of frost. And, once at the summit, he would need to plod down to the valley of Borrowdale when his limbs were at their most fatigued. The descent would take him across the pass at Styhead, where the mountain rescue team kept its stretcher, prepositioned for upsets on the forbidding central massif of the Lake District, the hub from which the valleys radiated like spokes. Quite recently, an older man had gone missing in September and the rescue team had found his body in January on a rugged bluff of rock called Great End, one of the final markers on his own itinerary.
One last time, Joe Shelby went over the checklist he liked checklists that tallied his gear: tent, sleeping bag, specialized walking poles, an aluminum bottle filled clandestinely with whisky (water would come from the streams and tarns of his beloved English Lake District, whatever people said about nuclear irradiation from the Sellafield plant or lingering microbes from stricken sheep), GPS satellite navigation aid, ultra-lightweight stove with minimal fuel, dehydrated meals, halogen headlamp, old-fashioned oil-filled compass, laminated maps at 1:25,000 scale cut into manageable sections, spare socks, waterproof gaiters, gloves, toothbrush, bandages and liniment in case of slips or blisters. He balanced carefully on his good, right leg as he reached into the trunk of the car for his rucksack, hefting it with his better, right arm, maneuvering his dead left arm awkwardly. He had parked the car next to a field at a junction where a small road led north with a wooden signpost proclaiming: Walna Scar and Coniston Old Man. Another rusty signboard offering "Horseriding" had come loose from its metal anchorings and swung in the wind.
As he pulled on his waxed Austrian mountain boots, he recalled old army surplus footwear, with leaky uppers and laces prone to snapping the boots he had worn, once, to assail the same mountains in the time before doubt and affliction when all things were possible and had proven to be so. Ambitions, conceived as he strode these mountains, had been fulfilled. From this small corner of rock and hill, his horizons had stretched to the broad vistas of Africa and the Middle East, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent his Great Game. He had served his apprenticeship in his chosen craft as a local reporter covering small courts and inquests and scandals, but had always known that far-flung events would lure him. As a junior reporter, consuming the national newspapers, he coveted the datelines with a fierce hunger Cape Town and Hong Kong, Dili, Jerusalem; he craved initiation into the mysteries of gunfire at close quarters. On the television news he watched men and women no different from himself standing in front of the cameras, against backdrops of bombed buildings or blazing hospitals, superconfident in their flak jackets. He knew he could handle those places himself if only someone would pay his ticket and publish his articles. And he knew he could humble those familiar TV faces by taking one step further, beyond the point where the satellite dish functioned and into the real maw of battle. When he thought those thoughts, his gut burned and his throat caught and, sensing his hunger, sponsors came forward to subsidize third-class tickets and fourth-class hotels in first-rate hellholes.
As an itinerant freelancer, owning little more than a laptop and a sleeping bag, he hitchhiked and bussed himself across Anatolia and the Levant and southern Africa, accumulating a sheaf of articles about unpleasant events in unsavory places that became his portfolio, established his credentials. Simply by traveling on the cheap he saw things the bigtime reporters did not see in their business class airplanes and chartered trucks. It gave him cachet but did not make him popular with his peers. He did not care: every modest triumph brought the goal of his raw ambition closer. Finally, through the intercession of an old-timer encountered in the Congo, a prestigious American weekly news magazine hired him full-time onto its staff, offering a salary and expenses, and sent him to chronicle gunfire in Gaza, earthquakes in Turkey, war in the Persian Gulf, mayhem in Crossroads and Rwanda and Kabul and Tashkent. He witnessed the pain of people who had come to learn that collateral damage was the military term for the sudden death of children, lovers, husband or wife or parents. He won the titles he craved foreign correspondent, war correspondent and the job took him to many places, far from any definition of home: he was an Englishman, writing for American readers from countries that wiser people on either side of the Atlantic would happily avoid. Once, he tallied his score like some men counted their sexual victories eighty countries, eighty names from the map, but only three that had been visited without the need to write for the weekly magazine, which he referred to privately as the comic. (His sexual scorecard reflected lower numbers than his reputation suggested.) But those journeys now seemed irrelevant episodes glimpsed through the filter of professional detachment. Here, on the approaches to Scafell Pike, with his limbs weakening, lay his true battle, to be fought on this home turf the only place on earth where he could gauge whether anything of the teenager in leaky army surplus boots had survived to sustain the man in his fancy, Austrian footwear.
Above the village of Torver, where he made his farewells with Eva Kimberly, the great, gray battlement of Dow Crag rose above a skirt of scree three and one quarter miles to the north his first objective at 2,555 feet. Beyond that he imagined his route unfolding through mysteriously named landmarks: Camp One at Wrynose Pass, Camp Two at Esk Hause, before the final push to the summit of Scafell Pike. Already, ahead of him, he could imagine the rocky, steep trails and the granite outcrops pulling tendrils of mist to pale smears of lichen; the dark mirror-stillness of the high tarns; the summits, marked by the protrusion of single cairns and the cumulative traces of countless bootprints, an army of spectral memories, some of them his own, from long ago.
Eva Kimberly linked her arm through his bad, left arm, massaging the flaccid muscle that had once grappled Windsurfers, swung rackets, hauled a way up mountains, steered motorcycles along rutted trails. Now, the arm hung true as a plumb line, just as useful to his current intention.
"You don't have to go," she said.
"That's why I'm going."
"Not because it's there?" Even as she smiled, she shivered inside the black sheepskin coat they had bought together during a vacation in Rome. In the store just off the Piazza di Spagna, he joked about her susceptibility to the merest hint of a chill in the air, her phobia of what the Italians called a colpa d'aria, a malignant draught. But, she said, if you were born and raised near the equator as she had been as a native of Africa, if your days had been framed by the rapid dawns and dusks of Africa, heralded by the pampering of servants with drinks tea in the morning, sundowners in the evening then you would, of course, be more sensitive to the rude, northern climate that had molded him.
"You could at least wait until your test results from the neurologist."
"They won't really make a difference. Let's not argue."
"I'm not arguing. All I'm saying is that, for all you know, it could suddenly get worse while you're up there."
"Then I'd better get going before it does get worse."
"Shouldn't I come with you?"
"We talked about that."
"And what about the weather? The forecast isn't great."
"It never is up here."
She disentangled her arm from his and lit a cigarette. The smoke curled blue in the early morning stillness. In his backpack, alongside his maps and miniature tape recorder, he had stashed tobacco and Rizla cigarette-rolling papers, wrapping them carefully in Ziploc plastic to keep his supplies dry. But while he still had the chance to simply flick a cigarette from a pack, without the complications of one-handed rolling, he would do so. Before he could protest his own ability to do so, she lit one for him and handed it to him.
Her curled, rust-red hair nestled on the black, furry collar of the heavy coat, an affirmation of light in the northern gloom. Even now, in September, with the season's changing, the horizons were closing, the hours receding, shrinking into a perpetual gloaming. When the European winter came, the African summer beckoned and, on this chill morning, she felt the pull away from his mountains to her savanna, her beaches, the sour smell of Africa and woodsmoke, the upstairs-downstairs counterpoint of mortar and pestle in the servants' compound and high-altitude tennis balls on the rolled, clay court. Together they called London home, defining it as their apartment overlooking the Bill Brandt lampposts and rolling greenery of Primrose Hill in London. But home, really, was far to the south, in a continent that did not really offer a home to people of her kind anymore. Home for a generation or two, but home for all that, in the sense that home is an anchor, a set of familiar references, a place where the surprises are all expected.
Joe Shelby had once boasted he had no home beyond the fitful, feckless world of the wandering expatriate remote from the burdensome ties of taxes and voters' rolls and fixed coordinates. "I'm their shitholes man," he said to explain why he seemed to be constantly heading for the airport with his flak jacket in his carry-on bag, his laptop over his shoulder. "I go to the places no one else wants to go."
Only after she burned her own bridges, abandoned her own, true home to follow him, had she discovered that for all the exotic stamps in his passport home, in reality, was such an alien place of rock and rain as this. That, she thought, would explain the penchant for shitholes.
"Have you got everything?" Wasn't this what western women traditionally asked? Have you got your sandwiches and thermos, dear, your newspaper and season ticket for the train? questions just as applicable to sons as husbands, to quaintly forgetful menfolk in general, to relationships, unlike theirs, based on promises and routines.
"Oh, you know. Loo paper. Matches. Salt. Condoms. Whatever."
"Just in case. You might meet somebody."
"It was supposed to be a joke. Never mind. You're nervous, aren't you?"
"Let's not fight."
"No. Let's not fight."
It was time now to make a start. The route seemed unfamiliar, yet, not too many years back yesterday in his memories this had been his stomping ground. The walk to Dow Crag was merely the warm-up, the preliminary to the grapple with unyielding granite on rock-climbing routes pioneered years ago. Eliminate A. Gordon and Craig's. Down-to-earth names for climbs ranked at a middling level of severity that nonetheless brought the fierce joy of conquest and survival. Now, the walk itself was the challenge the meandering start through the first band of woodland and the old mine workings, then crossing the Walna Scar Road and on to the tiny, dark lake called Goat's Water before the rocky scramble to the foot of the crag. There he would veer sharply left to South Rake the rock climbers' easy way down to strive for the summit ridge and the first peak, first of the expedition, first in years, first since his strength had begun to ebb inexplicably a bare six months ago, leaving him with a useless arm and a trailing leg.
Almost overnight, his mobility had been curtailed. Like the Kafka figure who awakes as a carapaced beetle, he had collided with the first tremblings of disability. Running, even jogging, tennis or squash all that was now denied. Movement required a focused mental effort, hardly the best qualification for the scrapes and close calls that drew him to his job. He needed two hands to shave or clean his teeth. In hotel rooms, he wrote his articles with his bad arm balanced precariously on crossed legs, hunched like Quasimodo. Or he simply wrote one-handed, the worst punishment of all, stemming the flow of thoughts behind a crude barrage of physical inability. He had no idea what had cursed him in this way, still less why he had been selected for malediction or by whom. The ailment was anonymous, capricious, attacking like a guerrilla fighter with ambushes and concealed mines, armed with the element of cruel surprise and the advantage of unpredictability. He had no way of knowing when or where the next attack would come, the next worsening. He knew only that it would come and he prayed it would hold off for three more days to allow him a chance for one last triumph, alone in this inhospitable terrain where the seasons played tricks and there were no shortcuts.
The only common ground among the physicians was this: had it been cancer or AIDS or a more familiar condition, there might have been an element of explanation or prediction; but his condition was less charted, moving mysteriously in the secret, hidden places of the nervous system. It could be X, they said, it could be Y. It had not yet fully revealed its symptoms and its cause might never be known. But he had no wish to go gently into the twilight of disability, or into that good night he had seen so often engulfing others in the sprawled indignity of sudden death from cross fire or massacre or battle. He had no wish to become one of those plucky souls in wheelchairs, beyond movement or speech but stubbornly insisting on remaining alive when, really, they had no further use for themselves and had become a burden on everyone else.
In the planning for his expedition, he had studied ordnance survey maps and detailed guides, finding them efficient but inadequate. What he was really looking for was a walking guide that showed a way backward, not forward, to the center of the mystery, to the point of wholeness where past and present were reconciled. Before it was too late, above all, Joe Shelby wanted a haven where all his dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled might dock and be tethered as one.
She interrupted the reverie.
"Was it open?" She knew he had asked the priest at the austere, granite church of St. Luke's for a private blessing on the morning of his start. She imagined that an appropriate donation to the church roof fund would have been made.
"The chapel? Yes."
"Then you're squared away with the almighty, at least. It's only three days. And I'll see you at the other end with a big hug and a bottle of champagne."
"You know it's only..."
"Please don't say it's only one last trot..."
"Around the paddock. But it was your idea, you know."
"I know," she said, reaching into her coat for a handkerchief to dab at the corner of her eye. "It's only the wind."
From a pocket of his shirt he withdrew a small, gift-wrapped package.
"You can open it, if you want."
She eased off the silver paper to reveal a black notebook held closed with a built-in thong of elastic.
"It's supposed to be modeled on the kind Hemingway used. It's Italian. I thought you might like it. Just in case."
"In case? In case what?"
He shrugged and smiled, put his good arm around her for a final, brusque embrace and turned, leaving her to contemplate his offering: was she now to chronicle her thoughts, match them to his? Could he do nothing without the support of words on paper that could enshrine falsehood just as easily as they bore testament?
The track led between gray, drystone walls made of chunks of rock and slate laid painstakingly alongside and on top of one another, without cement, solid structures held together by the artfulness of their construction. The walls themselves encased fields which the sheep of the district had been trained over generations to regard as home, however far they roamed on the mountainside above. Local farmers called this instinct hefting and she understood that people, too, were tethered by invisible forces that drew them back to a geographic point they might stray from but never escape.
He would not turn to wave, but she followed his movements nonetheless, her hands pushed deep into her coat pockets, a cigarette smoldering by her foot where she had dropped it for the final embrace. If she pretended, she could see in him something of what he had been the slender height of his body, the unkempt shock of straw-colored hair. But the retractable aluminum walking poles, the clumsy swing of his left leg denied all pretense, and her recall of what Joe Shelby had been what she had been returned with all its sharp corners and rough edges, without the secret harmony that held the drystone wall in place.
Copyright © 2003 by Alan S. Cowell