The Sherpa didn’t like camp three. It was too inhospitable.
It was at the top of the Lhotse face, the steep blue ice wall was steepest just below camp 3, where the Australian climber had fallen. This was Everest’s wild lands. The comforts of base camp – even of ABC, which was harsher but still busy and relatively well equipped – were left behind now. Up here her heights were steeper, harder, whiter, harsher with every metre of height gained. The blue and white face of the ice and the gargoyles of grey rocks and white spires arising from it were like carven stone. Majestic and silent and the size of long departed giants.
To set up a tent at camp three you had to hack out a horizontal platform in her still sloping ice to have a space you could cling on to in a tent. There was not a lot of level ground. The sky was grey and while when the clouds cleared and the sun hit the ice it could get hot, it was still colder up here; a far sharper cold than they’d experienced anywhere lower. Tom pulled his face protector out of the way, his breath steaming as they knelt, hacking the platform as smooth as they could get it, and his beard was frosted. Jake snapped a quick picture of him while he was busy and not looking: Tom rarely co-operated with photos if he knew you were taking them. He was tired; they were both tired, but the challenge of the climb and the stark beauty of this place spoke to Tom, Jake could see it in his face, in every line of him as he worked, admiring the strength of him, the arch of his spine, the powerful expertise of his hands with the ice axe. They were both high as kites despite the thin air and the physical struggle.
They had climbed from base camp up to camp two yesterday, making the slow, steady plod up the steep, exhausting and never ending slope of the Cwm. Slow and steady and stop as little as possible was a tactic they’d used for years at altitude in Peru – although nothing like the altitude here – but under the heat and the thin air, every step upwards cost and it plain hurt. They spent the rest of the day stripped to the skin to survive the boiling heat at camp two and got through the night huddled together in the sleeping bag when the temperature plummeted from 32 to -26 bringing a biting cold. Your eyes didn’t glue themselves shut with sleep in the night at camp two; for a start, sleep was difficult to impossible to find for everyone at that altitude, and secondly, any moisture from your eyes just froze on your face. Eating was equally difficult now. At this altitude the body had barely the oxygen to handle digestion and the desire to eat was gone. A mouthful or two forced down made you feel full, and yet the body was burning three times the amount of calories it did at sea level even if you lay and did nothing. They drank high calorie hot chocolate and Tom was putting up with Jake repeatedly pushing glucose tablets into his mouth to suck; at least the distraction of something in your mouth took some of the focus off the discomfort.
They’d slogged the six hours up to camp three this morning together in a team with Spitz and Bill; a slow, painful, steep climb up the ice wall of the Lhotse face. Some parts of it you could stand and walk. Many parts of it were a hands and knees climb, finding foothold by foothold to climb up vertical ice face with your crampons dug into the ice as you pulled yourself up. It took concentration. Concentration, commitment and faith. Endlessly clipping the carabiner and sling from your harness onto each new rope as you reached the base of it, before you moved your jumar over so that at no point were you clinging to the face without being hooked onto something, risking a fall from grace. It helped moving with others you knew so well, whose rhythms and pace were yours too; the group rhythm absorbed you in and made it easier not to stop, to just to continue upwards, handhold by handhold, even as your body protested cold, exhaustion, the longing for rest. Once Bill, taking the lead, had shouted, a sharp, loud shout that made all four of them duck close against the ice wall and Jake, who usually made Tom climb ahead of him but this morning had stepped in front of Tom to clip on to the rope and climb first, grabbed Tom’s collar and pulled him tight in to the wall below him, shielding his head. Three rocks tumbled past them. The size of a hand, no bigger. Barely more than pebbles if you put them in a garden, but tumbling down the ice face and this steep, hard surface, they gathered a speed and velocity that would mean they could smash a man’s skull like a bullet. At the foot of the Lhotse face this morning they’d seen thousands of them embedded in the ice where they’d fallen; this was no place to linger.
Bill and Spitz were also on their knees, working on chiseling out the platform for their tent now a short way off from them, also working in silence as breathing took almost too much effort now, and moving mechanically slowly. They were all exhausted from the climb. Most climbers at this stage would crowd into one tent; it was easier to keep warm huddled up together apart from the difficulty and energy involved of setting up tents, but being crowded as well as cold and half suffocated… Tom and Jake would find that difficult, and so would anyone who had to share a tent with them, and Spitz and Bill knew them well enough to know they would always pitch somewhere of their own. The exception would be camp four. The hours they would spend up there in the death zone would be done at too great an altitude and without enough energy to spare to do more than rig one tent between the lot of them. At that altitude, crowding was the last concern on anyone’s mind.
They’d got their down suits out of their rucksacks this morning in camp two for the first time; Tom’s red with black patches at the knees, pockets and down the arms, and Jake’s was yellow with the same black patches that Tom had acerbically told him would look like a stray life buoy as he grabbed it off the shelf in the shop. It had been apparent that he’d thought that was the one Jake needed and Jake hadn’t argued, Tom generally had his reasons and Jake never cared much beyond whether what they bought was warm and functional. Tom had stripped his suit off his shoulders while he worked this morning and the arms were knotted around his waist below white t shirt. He was visibly leaner than he’d been a few weeks ago, his ribs and his collarbones were more visible and his body angled more sharply from shoulders to his waist at the apex of the triangle. The weight they had gained in the winter for this was disappearing rapidly. They were both going to be enough on the bony side to drive Paul nuts when they returned to the US.
The snow was much deeper up here now than it had been before the storm according to the Sherpa who’d spoken to them on their way down through Camp two yesterday, and laying loose on top of the ice face it made this place both more beautiful and more lethal, disguising the sheer ice laying in wait beneath for an incautious step. The storm that had pinned two teams down for two days and ended their summit attempt had made rags of a few less than well pitched tents and had simply blasted others away; a Sherpa team was some yards from them replacing and repairing some this morning and the snow rose thickly in heaped piles, half burying the brightly coloured fabric. The weather had snapped back to fair as fast as it had turned bad; the reports were showing this as a changeable, unpredictable season.
Changeable and unpredictable was a good overview of their compound at base camp too right now. Harry would be only a day or two away from base camp by now, on his return journey from escorting Lawrence to Lukla airport, and Jake had offered Bart and John the option to hike back to Lukla at their own pace with him to catch a plane whenever they were ready. John had accepted and was packing up to head out; the disappointment of failure to him was keen and Shem was spending a lot of her time discreetly keeping him talking and occupied while he waited to leave. The limits of John’s own body had come as a shock to him and Shem had murmured something to Jake about his never having fully accepted or faced the diabetes, making this a double blow for him. This place stripped you down, there weren’t many things you could hide, even from yourself. But Bart had asked to stay on and man the radio for them during the next stages of the expedition. He was enjoying himself in base camp and being part of the group, he and Max were both reluctant for one of them to leave without the other and they planned to hike back to Lukla and return to Kathmandu together, and according to Bill, Bart was making himself very useful with the technological side of things.
And then Max and Phoenix had come together to Bill and Jake in the mess tent that evening and begged for one more try at camp one, to be allowed to climb with them as far as that point on their expedition up to camp three.
Their argument was fairly simple: of all the clients, Max had come the nearest to reaching camp one in the time allowed in the trial and Phoenix had put passionately his belief that his twisted ankle had been the only thing holding him back. The response was anything but a simple matter. Jake would have dismissed it simply; no, they weren’t going there again and the clients needed to get over it. The tests had been fair, the opportunities had been given, the safety concerns and responsibilities they had all held from the start for the clients were very acute ones, and on top of that was Tom. There had been some release of stress for him in a definite decision and knowing the clients were not at any further risk; he needed that clear line. For them to step back in the game piled all the uncertainty and pressure back on him. But it wasn’t his sole decision to make and Bill’s first response had been fair enough. Both Phoenix and Max had come close, they’d worked hard and progressed well, and one more shot wasn’t an unreasonable request to make. No few clients on the commercial expeditions took several tries to make it through to camp one the first time within the time limit. Spitz’s answer had been unrepeatable, but his general gist was Hell No, they were not wasting energy bailing out exhausted, stuck clients they already knew weren’t up to the climb, having to take them back to base camp and losing their camp three acclimatisation expedition. They were either climbers or guides in this; they could not be both. Jake was well aware that Spitz too found the clients both a stress and distraction and they did not as a team need to start the most serious part of the expedition on a row between themselves. Shem was less decided, but had no medical reasons why they should not try again and leaned towards yes. She well understood the longing to climb with a large and now established expedition, to be part of the group going higher even if you could only follow some of the way.
The grapevine in the compound was highly efficient; they were still discussing it when Pemba, Dorje and Lobsang, another of their climbing Sherpas, came as a group to say they had heard of the request and they volunteered to climb with Phoenix and Max and take full responsibility for looking after them, including bringing them safely back to base camp. Therefore Phoenix and Max’s plea for one last try need not affect the expedition. Which left the casting vote as Tom’s. Who, not in the least to Jake’s surprise, had said very little, listened without expression, and then said grimly and unquestionably, yes.
“What? Why the hell ‘yes’?” Spitz demanded explosively. “What ‘yes’ have you thought at any point through this fiasco of Harry’s? You have made the best case against it from the start! This weighs on you like it weighs on me and I know it, there is no need for us to consider this all again. They made their time trial, they were not ready and now the expedition moves on, this is the way of it and it is in their contract. The reasons for ‘no’ are no less than they were before their last attempt at the ice fall!”
Tom looked directly at Jake. “Because I know you want to say no and just end the whole question, but if you do it’s because of Spitz and me. Particularly me.”
And if it was not that there were other people involved in this complicated situation, they both knew Jake would have said no and blithely stuck to it; this would never have been open for discussion.
But this is not just about you and me.
“There’s nothing wrong with that at all.” Bill said wryly. “Jake’s got a point Tom, none of us want you or Spitz affected, we’ve discussed this plenty of times now and your reasons have always been good ones. Our expedition matters too and I’m not saying it doesn’t.”
“Yeah exactly, we keep on having this same argument and it always ends the same way.” Tom folded his arms, nodding at Bill who was watching him with concern. “I’m not afraid to rock the boat, Bill, I still stand by everything I’ve ever said about amateurs on the mountain. I just see that ‘no’ is not working here. It hasn’t worked from the start, so it’s probably time we caught on that it’s probably the wrong answer.”
Dorje, the only one of the Sherpa who had stayed to listen to this debate, glanced up to meet Tom’s eyes and Jake saw his faint smile and nod of comprehension. It was very much Tom; it was exactly what Jake had expected. Tom would always put anyone needier before himself, instantly, he would sacrifice for them. It was what he did. And he had the same kind of gut understanding too that the Sherpa did about the presence of place, about the natural forces around them wherever they were, about a greater presence than them. In jungles, in rivers, in ancient cities; Tom knew the stories, he understood them, he internalised them and underneath the sharply acid practicality there was the mind of a romanticist man who didn’t believe too much in coincidence. It was one of the many things about him that Jake loved fiercely, but it was inconvenient at times.
Tom’s glance at him was curtly apologetic but they knew each other well. If Jake had wanted him in the meeting as back up Tom was well aware Jake would have asked him first; they’d have gone to the meeting together with a plan. If Jake needed him to change tack, to say something other than his honest opinion he’d signal it. They’d handled plenty of tricky situations tactically.
“So let’s try yes deliberately rather than when circumstances just work out that way. I trust Dorje. I trust Pemba and Lobsang, we all do.”
“I do too.” Shem agreed. She was listening with her arms folded on the back of the reversed deck chair she was sitting on, watching faces. “Dorje, I know you guys know exactly what you’re doing, I saw you with the clients on Lobuche. They’d be safer with you than with most of us.”
“My only question is what happens if Dorje or the others need to turn the clients around for their own safety and bring them down.” Tom looked directly at Jake, then across to Bill. “Max would listen. He’s got a brain. Loudon hasn’t.”
“I’ll climb with Loudon and the others to camp one then,” Bill said cheerfully. “He’ll listen to me. If I have to turn him around I can start him down with Dorje or Pemba and then carry on up to camp two after you lot.”
“Ha. So it’s only to camp one.” Spitz said darkly. “Yes. And then it will be only to camp two, pretty please, and so we go on.”
Tom didn’t say anything but he glanced at Spitz and after a moment Spitz got up off the corner of the camping table and gave Tom a brief and very rough hug. Tom didn’t respond; he often didn’t, nor did he unfold his arms, but he didn’t step away either and Spitz knew him. He wasn’t going to take that as any kind of rejection. He glared at Jake and Bill when he let Tom go, but said slightly more calmly, “If you are all to be noble then I suppose I too will have to be noble. Yes, yes all right.”
And so Max and Phoenix set out with them from base camp to start up through the ice fall at a little past 4am.
Phoenix and Max had quickly fallen behind of course. Tom had gone at his usual pace, the one he could sustain for hours, and Jake had paced him without debating it, Spitz climbing close behind them. With the shadowing of their very patient Sherpa guides who could easily have outpaced all of them, Phoenix had done his best to race ahead at first, apparently having learned nothing from his last trip, but Bill had climbed in front of him and forcibly held his pace down, with the result that at nearly noon, Phoenix and Max together, with the Sherpa guides and Bill had made it into Camp One. They were staggering, they were utterly knackered, but it was a well and fairly earned victory for them. Jake went to meet Max and congratulate him, the man whose fitness had been a great concern to them a few weeks back and yet who had of all their clients progressed the most strongly, and saw Max’s eyes travel with awe up the heights of the Cwm and the now visible pathway up to Everest before he gave Jake a crushing hug. And then he said quite frankly with what breath he had left, reaching to give Lobsang, who had climbed with him, an equally emphatic hug.
“That climb was great. This is wild. Thanks. Thanks so much, that was an experience of a lifetime and now I’m done. It’s amazing to be here but I’m not going higher. This is out of my league and I’m not too dumb to know it.”
Phoenix said very little that Jake heard other than what he knew Tom thought of as Look At Me Being A Good Boy noises whenever he thought Jake was watching or was in earshot. He’d been a cheerful, positive little bunny in a way that to Jake quite visibly made Tom’s hackles rise, while the Sherpa guys prepared hot water and food for them, warmed their tents, managed their gear. Tom hadn’t commented, and as far as possible Jake kept him away from being around the clients at all, just shepherding them out of Tom’s vicinity and interspersing himself and distance between them. Most of their day since the early hours had been focused on hard physical work of climbing without breath to spare, and unlike Spitz and Bill who made their own time and climbed usually without worrying where the other one was, Tom and Jake always paced each other the same way they did on a run. Synchronised climbing and synchronised survival, staying within reach of each other. At least when Tom was climbing, his mind was occupied along with his body and a pure physical challenge like this fuelled him at his deepest level. His energy and his climbing was strong today, focused and channelled; he did it faultlessly. It was the break he always needed from thinking and Jake appreciated it.
It was only later, outside their tent at camp two where they were spending the night that Jake saw Bill, Dorje and Phoenix entering the camp together, and saw Tom beside him look with his eyes sharpening. Spitz, who had climbed at his own pace was already in his tent and didn’t see. Dorje shepherded a clearly exhausted Phoenix to the client tent he and the other Sherpa had set up days ago alongside the other tents from their expedition, and Bill gave Jake a sheepish shrug, coming over to them.
“I know, I know. He asked. Begged. Said he wasn’t that tired, he really wanted to do it and Dorje said he was happy to climb with him. I didn’t see the harm. Dorje’ll take him down in the morning.”
Pemba had planned with Dorje to return to camp two this morning to meet him and Phoenix as they came down; that was a little more insurance in Jake’s mind to know Phoenix would get down to base camp safely and without being more than Dorje could handle alone. Which had meant he, Tom, Bill and Spitz had set out alone this morning for camp three.
“Why are Sherpa guys all called the same thing?” Max had wanted to know at camp one which was busy with multiple expeditions and guides all around them. “I’ve met about six Pembas so far, four Dorjes, four Phurbas, they’re all called Pemba, Dorje or Phurba in every expedition. It must be confusing as hell in the villages.”
“Naming traditions.” Jake heard Tom tell him. “Sherpas usually call their child after the day of the week they’re born on, which puts them under the protection of the god of that day. Pemba means Saturday. Sacred virtue names are very common too. Dorje means ‘wisdom’. Up here they believe you need the spirits on your side as much as possible.”
It was something Tom believed in too, even if he wished he didn’t.
Here at camp three they got their tent raised on the ice platform and roped and screwed it down as tight as possible, getting their crampons off before entering as not tearing holes in either the tent or their down suits was a priority and all too easy to do with ice knives on your boots. Outer boots followed, and Jake put them directly in front of the flap of the tent as a barrier and physical reminder. Once boots were removed at this camp there was no leaving the tent. At all. Too many climbers had been too tired or foggy to remember to put their heavy boots on over their soft inner boots, had taken a step out onto the steep ice face and next been seen thousands of feet below, smashed like an egg. From there, they started the long haul of the next chore; melting ice to make fluids, and once the stove was burning they flopped down on the padded floor of the tent and their sleeping bags and worked on trying to get their breath back and ease throbbing, exhausted muscles.
“Dorje spoke to me yesterday evening.” Tom said while they lay and waited to the ice to melt. The snow up here was pure white in a way you normally saw only in picture books, untouched by pollutants, and the little tin pan on the stove made an odd kind of font. Over the slow, thin flame of the high altitude stove in this low oxygen it could take literally over an hour to melt to water and then get the water up to enough warmth for a badly needed hot drink in order to stay warm as much as hydrated. Meeting every human need up here where humans were not meant to be was an effort of will and practicality. “Penguin was damn careful who heard or saw him do it, but he leaned on Bill hard to get up to camp two, and Bill ended up short roping him the last half of the way.”
Jake gave him a quizzical look. Tom gave him a grim nod of confirmation.
“The Sherpa don’t usually tell tales, they hate spreading trouble but that worried Dorje. Loudon’s flirting with Bill at full power, it’s all big eyes and soft smiles the same way he’s keeping you happy with yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir. As pretty as he is, I don’t entirely blame Bill for falling for it, but he’s charming Bill into helping him up above his level of competence.”
And what he thought of Loudon using those eyelashes and God knows what else to siren Bill – Bill for petes sakes who was as cheerfully hard bitten as they came and not easily distracted by a pretty bum – was probably better left unsaid, but in Tom’s mind was another mark on an already well-marked card. It was not pleasant to see a fool being made out of a good hearted man.
“If Bill was willing to help him then it isn’t really our business.” Jake considered it from several angles and shook his head. “It’s our opinion, nothing else.”
“My opinion is that Loudon is a twat, but that isn’t relevant to whether or not he has a right to climb.” Tom said shortly. “My point is that it’s going to be our business if at any point we have to help Bill get Tweety-Pie peeled off the mountain and back down to base camp.”
“Dorje, Pemba, Lobsang, they’re experienced, they’re better climbers than us and they’re here to worry about the clients, this is their area of expertise. That was what we agreed. We let them do their job yesterday and they’ve got Phoenix covered. He’s probably safely back in base camp by now, Dorje or Shem would have radioed us if there were any issues.”
“You know how Loudon talks to the Sherpa.”
“I know he knows how I’ll talk to him if he pulls any crap on any member of staff on our payroll.” Jake said amiably.
Tom cast a brief glance at him, noting both the tone and the glint in the eye, not without appreciation. Jake never turned that on him; he never had to, but he’d obviously turned the full power of it on Mr Albatross Loudon, and from the vigorous sucking up that went on whenever Jake was in his vicinity, it had made an impression.
So the little pink bugger likes strong men. Don’t we all. That doesn’t make him fit to be up here, or ok for him to get his stupid neck broken.
He’d spent a good twenty minutes sitting with Dorje in the entry way to the tent yesterday at camp two, warming a bit in the sun which beat down and glared on the ice and bright white of the snow so that without your sunglasses you risked snow blindness. Jake had been chatting with Bill and Phoenix who was loudly making a show of drinking in every word he said – sometimes it was staggering how obvious the machinations of a seriously obnoxious bunny could be – but it had been then that Dorje very quietly confided to him what Pemba and Lobsang would not have said. Tom had thanked him for it, soberly and with confirmation that he would share this only with Jake and only as needed, and that it would be for the good of the climb and not for any personal reasons.
But selfish motives weren’t something Dorje would appreciate; it was something that was a conscious part of his thinking.
“Isn’t he driving you mad, doing this?” Tom had asked him. “He is me, I admit it.”
Dorje shrugged a little, smiling. “Different to us. We are peaceful people by choice. We do not give religious acts for ourselves to seek enlightenment. We do them for others. Tolerance, not anger. Care for person even when person makes it difficult – this is more of an offering. Bigger act of tolerance, more valuable.”
“You think like that when you’re guiding clients?”
“How many of the Sherpa here think of their work.” Dorje said simply, looking around at the makeshift camp and the tents in the snow. “We have people to care for and protect on our mountain, this is what we do.”
“But you must want to summit too? Pemba has twice, he told me. You must want that chance too?”
Dorje nodded slowly. “Yes, of course. We all do. But summitting here is not glory to us. It is to go closest to heart of faith. The top is holiest place we have, and we leave offerings there. The prayer flags spread blessings… compassion, peace on the wind. We speak to the stupa in the camp every time we leave it. All this to us, all part of climb is religious. You understand this, you nod to the Stupa too when you leave or enter, we have seen you do it.”
That was alarming. Tom found himself saying it a little stiffly, looking across the Lhotse face across the ice. A number of people were making their slow way up the fixed ropes, like ants on a white ant hill.
“… My childhood was a bit like yours. My father is a spiritual leader, I grew up not in a monastery exactly but inside church walls. I understand what you mean.”
At gut level. It had been years since he last lived day in and out around peaceful, explicit faith of this kind in years, been part of a community with the physical presence of objects of devotion directly among them, and among other men living their faith neither subtly nor demonstratively: to the Sherpa this was as simply intrinsic to their day as wearing clothes and eating. But the memories were all there that once he had, and it had felt very like this in many ways. The peacefulness. The amity of it. The connection to one’s core that was so difficult in adulthood and as a child had been so easy.
“And now this giving you thoughts you not have before.” Dorje said gently. Tom nodded a little, surprised, and Dorje returned the nod calmly.
“Too many thoughts and feelings get put there by world around and not from inside. I see this in Kathmandu, so much going on. All things coming into head all time. Here, not much world but mountain. Your inside self show through and take attention instead.”
And it’s angry, bitter and stressed out, no matter what I try to get rid of it. And I don’t really know why.
Tom took a deep, slow breath to stifle the rush of feeling.
“I wish it was less angry.”
“Maybe anger say something you need to hear.” Dorje said simply. “Lungta. Does not just happen because we say it, it is strength of will. For good energy you must let go of bad, and this is what you do here. This is why you feel anger, it pass through you to leave. I was taught life changes all the time. Not good to hold on to what is past when things are different now, no need to carry it.”
“What if you don’t know how to let go of it?”
“Like attracts like.” Dorje brushed melting ice off his battered gloves and smiled at him. “Peacefulness inside attract more peacefulness come to you. Questioning and wondering attract answers. By intent, by seeking, you are call answers come to you. Is true,” he added, grinning as Tom looked wry. “You believe and love qualities you see greatest and so you drew Jake to you. And Jake did same for you.”
He understood about him and Jake. There was complete comprehension and acceptance in his voice and his body, and it confirmed what Tom had already thought for a while.
“I really doubt Jake dreamed about finding a grumpy, bitchy so and so-” he began, and Dorje laughed.
“You love wild places. You tell me about them. Oceans and lost cities and jungles. You love freedom of them and words written down, you have thoughts above ‘now’ and ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ and ‘hungry’, and…” he struggled for the words, “Not hot water, not shelter, not food.”
“Privation.” Tom gave him a wry nod. “Yeah, we like it basic, I admit it.”
There was a kind of peace and purity in it that Jake appreciated as much as he did. No conditions anywhere ever got Jake down.
“Quiet to think in.” Dorje agreed. “You touch places and feel them and you come here to mountain in thirtieth years. That a thing we know as Sherpa, man in his thirtieth years fate touch him then if touch at all. You come now for good reason. So Sargamatha, she will hear you. Some she notice just a little, some no thought, all coffee, iPod. But you think and she hear you, she make you earn what you want. So you be careful up here, my friend.”
Isn’t this what Dale does? Seeks. Like a heat seeking missile, ‘I want to know’.
“In Inja’s sunny clime where I used to spend me time a servin’ of ‘er majesty the Queen,” Jake said in a rather good British accent. Tom pulled himself together and looked at the not much melted ice in the pan with sympathy, dipping his first two fingers into the pan to feel. The water on his fingers was cold. Fresh. Exactly as untainted at this height as it had been when it fell from the sky onto her slopes. And some instinct made him touch it very privately without Jake seeing, to his forehead. The rest of the hand gesture was blurred, too swift to be a recognisable genuflection anywhere but in his mind.
“Desperate for a drink?”
It was what the poem was about after all – the knight on the field of battle being the humble water carrier and not the trained soldiers. Like the simple Wart pulling the sword from the stone. The strength of heart.
“…And you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ‘im that’s got it.” Jake said definitely. He wasn’t talking about the water. Tom looked across at him in shock. He hadn’t realised that Jake had read that particular mail before they left. Not that there was ever anything that was exactly secret from each other, but…
“Got what?” Jake asked gently. Tom shrugged, deeply uncomfortable.
“Just a joke.”
“No, I don’t think it was. What was it?”
Stomach knotting, Tom looked over at him, taken aback. He never did this. No inquisitions, no pushing, Jake normally just waited. Or worked around it. Half the time he either knew what Tom was thinking or was three steps ahead anyway, but…
“You don’t do this.” He said half in protest. Jake lay back, propping his head on one elbow.
“I often don’t choose to do this. That doesn’t mean we don’t do it.”
We. A definite we. And while it was very comfortably, easily said, it was a fraction sterner in semantics than Jake usually went.
Be damned careful what you wish for around here…
Tom swallowed. Jake put a hand out to catch him by the collar, pulling gently but very firmly so that Tom crashed down into his arms and Jake kissed him. Firmly, mouth and forehead, chaste kisses but searing all the same.
“It’s me. I don’t bite.”
“You do. Pretty effectively.”
“Only when I really feel like it.” Jake held him right where he was, their faces close, looking direct at him with the aqua blue eyes that were full of warmth as if this was some private game they were playing, but it was a steadier look than usual. All the force of him coming out clearly in a stream, like a laser. Tom had always known he was capable of it, he’d always felt its presence there; to actually see it felt like being pinned down by his eyes, even as Jake said even more gently, “You’re telling a lot of what’s on your mind to other people; not to me. I’m not ok with that.”
The rush of anxiety, in particular about having hurt him, was as bad as the shock that he knew. Tom put a hand directly to his face, running it roughly over his cheek.
“… Yeah, because they don’t ask questions or matter or know me, and they won’t get worried about things that I’d like not to matter. Not because I can’t talk to you.”
“So what is it Dale has that you wish you had?” Jake asked him.
Total humiliation. It started right here. Tom lay flat on his back, closing his eyes as he felt his face heat painfully. Jake’s eyes weren’t wavering; he could feel them even when he couldn’t actually see them. His gut was still twisting and he had to admit it wasn’t entirely in dread. A lot in dread, but not entirely.
I fantasise for years about you doing this and what it would be like, and where do you choose to do it to me? Up a frigging mountain where there’s nowhere to run!
“There is no point in even talking about this.” he said out loud. It was a stupid phrase, it never worked, a typical Top would be on that like a tiger on a mouse.
Don’t you tell me what there is and isn’t point in discussing young man; I’ll decide that thank you very much –
“There’s every point. I want you to have everything you want.” Jake said mildly. “Who would more than me?”
He said it so simply, such a shattering thing, that Tom felt his eyes sting in response. His voice sounded even gruffer than usual when he managed to say it.
“The guts to sort myself out.”
“What do you want to sort out?”
Tom gave him a pointed, who do you think you’re kidding look. Jake looked right back with those soft eyes that were not wavering even slightly. He was way too good at this, it was scary to have it so directly aimed at him. This was what happened to other bunnies. They handled it. It really wasn’t easy. There was strength in those eyes, determination and even worse, so much warmth they were painful to look at. Tom swallowed a couple of times, stomach frozen and twisting, feeling acutely like a deer in the headlights, trying to find a way to start. It never really got anywhere, but Jake was still looking. After a moment Jake put a hand out to his rucksack and Tom found his mouth opening in a hurry, very keen to get Jake’s mind off martinets and their power of getting his attention focused ready or not.
“No, we don’t need that up here, I’m chilled, I’m not going to do anything stupid, I swear I’m together-”
It wasn’t the martinet he took out. It was a tube of something and a packet. Thoroughly confused but deeply apprehensive, Tom watched him open the packet which was not, from Jake’s demeanour, about to be anything good.
“I’m not taking any risk of you bruising or marking up here in this cold. Take your suit off.”
He looked and he sounded very relaxed about it, but he really wasn’t kidding. Extremely warily, stomach trembling, Tom edged his arms out of his sleeves and slid the suit down his back.
“… Look, I’m entitled to the whole ‘look at me young man and answer me when I speak to you’ and ‘you will not stress at 2000 feet’ lecture, or counting to three or something before you go nuclear, this is cheating-”
“I know, it’s probably the altitude.” Jake took his arm, guiding him to lie face down beside him. He’d unwrapped a thin disposable glove from the packet,
Where the hell did you shop when I wasn’t looking? I’m bloody searching your kit the second we get back to base camp!
And put it on before he opened the tube. Tom saw the name on the tube with a jolt to his stomach that made his jaw drop open in shock.
Oh good God who have you been talking to? Whoever it is I’m going to kill them…
Jake pulled his shorts far enough out of the way and Tom felt the small dab of cold cream on each cheek even in the chill in the tent, then his gloved palm rubbing it over his butt, evenly covering each side. He was extremely careful about where it went, staying well away from the more vulnerable places, and when he was done he peeled off the glove, turning it inside out and tucking it back into the packet before he drew Tom’s shorts back in place and helped him up.
“Put your suit back on.”
It was a relief to get back into the warmth of the thick down suit and Tom did so hurriedly, watching him fasten the cap back on the tube and put it away with deep apprehension. Right now where the cream was on his skin he was aware of nothing more than a faint tingling coolness. Jake put him face down on the sleeping bag against his leg, and calmly went on sitting melting the very reluctant ice. The cream did very little for a while, and then as the warmth of the down suit and the warmth of the tent began to creep into Tom, suddenly the stuff began to activate. Initially just a sense of his butt getting very warm that grew steadily hotter, and hotter, until it burst into a fierce stinging that was… extremely unpleasantly like the immediate seconds after a sound encounter with a paddle.
The worst part was it was damn impossible to rub through a thick down suit and other layers, the wretched stuff made him fidget and wriggle against Jake and increasingly mutter into his arms, which Jake took no notice of other than to sit with him and rub his back, which made it all the more bloody pointed and made it a lot harder to tough out. When Jake lay down beside him at last, Tom rolled over into his arms and admittedly clung to him, turning his face deep into Jake. Jake hugged him strongly. The stinging heat was easing slowly – very slowly – and it was all too exactly like having been spanked, when he knew he’d very much deserved it. He never knew if it was because it assuaged the guilt somehow, or unblocked some stubborn part of him that held his mouth closed, or re-established in his mind his gut faith in Jake’s strength; he’d never claimed to understand it. All he knew was that he found his mouth opening and his tongue loosening in line with his still burning butt.
“I’m sorry.” He said rather unevenly into Jake’s chest. “I never wanted it to feel to you like I couldn’t talk to you, you’re the only person I ever can talk to.”
Or have ever been able to.
“Why not about this then?” Jake ran his fingers through Tom’s hair softly. He was draped comfortably back with his head against his rucksack and the relaxation in his body was genuine; he did this. Large and warm and so laid back that it kind of seeped into you in a way that was overwhelmingly, bone penetratingly safe.
“I don’t know. You matter. It’s too real if I say it to you.”
“I think you’re thinking a lot about your parents. And home.”
He knew. It was a shock and it shouldn’t have been; Jake picked up so much by sheer osmosis it was ridiculous. But to have it put so directly into words and brought out loud, immediately into the air between them was hard.
The elephant in the tent.
Oh for God’s sake. It’s an elephant that’s been following you around for days, it isn’t subtle. He’s just got tired of waiting and called you on it.
“… It hasn’t been my home since I was eighteen.”
It blurted out as a weary more than an unhappy thought. Jake nodded slowly, still smoothing his hair. Tom shut his eyes, concentrating on the feel of Jake’s arms and the background echo of the steady stinging burn of his backside in this flimsy nylon capsule in this silent, snow bound place. Here, on the roof of the world, they were going to have this conversation; Jake was alarmingly clear on that. And he was right; it needed to be had, however hard. And yet there didn’t seem anywhere sane to start. Tom finally blurted out one thing that had occurred to him a few times in his life and particularly the last day or two.
“… All my life I heard my father talk about love to other people. Forever talking about it, the semantic depth of it, the different facets, the responsibilities of it, the cultural interpretations of it, the anthropological effects of it - all his sermons and addresses, all his work, he studied the whole concept of love. He was a spokesman for the foundation belief in it. I just couldn’t help noticing he never brought his work home with him.”
It was a wryly sarcastic comment, a pathetic attempt to lighten the utterly pitiful, and Jake didn’t laugh. Tom sighed, shutting his eyes, pressing his forehead harder against Jake who hadn’t budged an inch and was listening quietly. The confession was hard, he could barely say it out loud.
“… All this compassion and care and warmth for other people. I’d hear him talking to other people who were in bits and he’d be so good with them. He probably came home and needed to put the walls up to rest and put together the energy he needed to keep on doing it. At home he just wanted to be left alone and he’d listen to music or read, or write letters.”
A moment’s silence and then it burst out of him, a question he’d thought for years and never spoken. “Wasn’t Philip like that? It must have been like that. How can anyone live like that all the time?”
“No, Philip wasn’t like that.” Jake said quietly. “It wasn’t a job he did. It was who he was.”
That was nearly as hard to hear as it was painfully intriguing. Because to Jake, Tom had always known Philip hadn’t felt like that.
“With my father…” he said with difficulty, “There’s the politician role within it too, all the politics of the church, the leadership role, he’s good at it. But it’s a public life. There isn’t much of a private life at all for a Bishop or their family, the Bishop’s wife is pretty much a persona in her own right and ends up at all kinds of functions with him or by herself, everything’s in the public eye all the time, every day is stuffed with events and secretaries and appearances and commitments and we had to go along to most of them.”
The family were part of the kit for many of these events. A necessary addition to the event photographs and the public appearance, reported in the court circulars. The Bishop and his family attended…
“My sister is older than me. She’s like my mother. Quiet, self contained, great organiser, never rocks the boat. I was difficult, unsociable, never slept, always scruffy, wasn’t good at the family presentation bit, mostly I just went off on my own and they were probably glad of it… I couldn’t leave stuff alone when I was a kid, into everything. See it and do it; I could never sit still for two minutes unless I was reading. I took the bolt pin out of a table once at a fete and the table collapsed, tea and scones everywhere and people screaming. They’d just look at me with this tired, ‘what did we do wrong for you to be like this’ expression.”
“There’s a bullet hole in Philip’s study ceiling that I put there.” Jake said a little ruefully. “The gun cabinet used to be kept in there and someone hadn’t got around to putting a rifle away. Straight up through the ceiling, through the room that Paul uses for a study now, through the floor of the map room and out the roof. The roof got repaired, I know that since I got sent to help. I don’t know if the other rooms are still holed through. I was nine at the time.”
“Went off in your hand?” Tom looked up at him, distracted and curious in spite of himself.
“No, it was on his desk. I saw it, picked it up and fired it.” Jake winced slightly at the memory. “No intent to do it, no malice, no forethought of any kind, zero impulse control. I was horrified by the damage. Like you say. See it and do it. I was the same. Niall rescued me from a tractor I started up a day or two later because the keys were in the ignition, and stopped it before it ran a fence down. After that Philip kept me within reach most of the time, taught me a whole lot about stop and think, and everyone in the house got really tidy any time I visited.”
We’re possessed by the same demon, you and I.
One American, one Englishman; two little boys on two separate continents. Tom pushed his fingers through Jake’s golden hair with a flash of compassion for the shocked nine year old with a smoking gun in his hand. He knew that feeling all too well.
“You bloody vandal. In the study with the revolver, like Colonel Bloody Mustard. You never told me that.”
“You’ve never felt comfortable to talk about Philip or any of them.” Jake said gently. “I can guess Philip must seem to you a similar kind of man to the one your father was. He wasn’t. He kept his work at home, and he less talked about it to us than did it. Demonstrations. Words in practice.”
“My father is not a cold person.” Tom swallowed, thinking of the face of the man in his mind with detachment. “Not at all. You’d find many people who’d swear to you he’s a wonderful man, he’s much loved. It just gets – shown to the people he works for. I suppose I’m very like him, aren’t I? Like father like son. The good intent’s all there, the academic knowledge is all there, we’re both just bloody incompetent at doing it with the people that really matter.”
“You are not incompetent at doing anything with me.”
It was quite emphatically, sternly stated as hard fact, and it was the most exactly right thing he could have said. For nearly five years that had been nothing at all that they hadn’t done together. Here where there was no one to see, Tom turned his face against the slightly damp patch of Jake’s snow suit.
“…They were very patient. I was hard work. God knows you know I am. Things got a bit better when I went away to prep school and wasn’t causing havoc all the time. The holidays were limited periods of chaos.”
“How did you come to lose touch with them?”
It was hard to answer that. Tom tried for a moment to find the words, thinking of Dale who did this. Worked at this. And forced himself to admit it. It still came slowly. Grotesquely.
“I’d… just moved up to public school, I was twelve and this other kid in the same form… he was sweet. A really ….nice boy. We hung around together a lot, we were probably each other’s first real crush…. We ended up the last ones in the changing room one evening after some games thing and we were talking, and we….we ended up kissing. We were twelve for pete’s sake, it was the first time either of us ever kissed anyone and we hadn’t a bloody clue what to do, it was clumsy boy peck on the cheek stuff, hardly snogging, but the games master came in to lock up, he saw us, and all hell broke loose. We both got dragged into the headmaster’s study, separated – I never saw him again actually, I have no idea what happened to him – and I got sat in an armchair and told not to move.” He paused for a moment, drawing breath. His face was burning painfully at the memory of the shame of those hours in that silent adult room, here in this tent balanced high on this mountain with Jake against him he could still smell the leather of the chair, the dust of the books, the scuff of the carpet under school shoes; acutely feel the sick, awful dread he’d felt at the time sitting there in the terrible hush like the still hour before an execution with no idea what was going to be done to him. Trembling all over. Chill with sweat. The terror as intense as the shame. He’d never disclosed this to anyone. It had never been put into words, he’d spent years trying to forget and had never managed it.
“… No one would talk to me or look at me. There were a lot of adults coming and going and whispering in the hallway, they were horrified. It was like a death. So awful no one could talk out loud. I sat there for bloody hours, and then about half past ten that night my father appeared without a word with my suitcase in his hand and his face….. he took me home, and that was the end of my career at that school. I’d absolutely shamed him and my mother. To be fair they never said that – they never said anything about it, no one talked to me at all for days, but it was pretty damn clear. They were so sad. So disappointed. And a few weeks later I got sent to a different boarding school and that was it. We never talked about it. We never really got back on speaking terms again. My father did tell me at some point, very seriously, ‘I forgive you’. I remember him saying it; just that. It was clearly a big deal for him and he’d had to work hard to get there.”
“… He forgave you?” Jake sounded slightly stunned. “What the hell did you do with that?”
“I had no idea what to do with that.” Tom acknowledged. Face very near to Jake’s he could feel Jake’s energy rising around him and it was always powerful when it moved; he was angry. Jake so rarely got angry about anything much in this world and he was trying hard not to show it, but feeling it in him was in one way alarming… and in another way it was extremely heartening in a way Tom hadn’t expected. “I think I said thank you. In fairness the embarrassment I must have caused him was huge. This was the nineteen eighties, not many parents had a clue what to do with gay. He was upset it wasn’t an aberration I grew out of, he asked in a roundabout way a few times when I was older. I wasn’t very tactful, I probably made it clear he still hadn’t bred the red blooded hetero he’d hoped he had. Although I stayed a bloody monk after that until I was nineteen. Purer than driven bloody snow. And then no ‘real’ people.” He added more quietly. “Ads in the Gay Times mostly. Thank God for the Gay Times and the Pink Paper, the university LGB stocked both. Not that I ever did more than go in there and get them. Not only gay but kinked gay too, there wasn’t a chance in hell that was going to be ok.”
“With your parents?”
“With anyone. God no, not my parents. We reached this mutual arrangement when I left school; I applied for a university grant as a single person with no place of residence, they breathed a huge sigh of relief and the university made arrangements for me to have access to the halls year round. The black sheep sodded off. I was hard work right from the start, they weren’t equipped to deal with me and they had a very demanding career taking up most of their time. Wrong kid for the gig.”
They lay there together in silence for a long time. It was not an uncomfortable silence; Jake knew exactly when to shut up and for that Tom couldn’t have loved him more. It seemed so ridiculous to have hesitated to tell him this, to be so afraid when he was so utterly trustworthy and Tom knew it better than anyone. There was no one safer than Jake in anything. He should always have known that. Eventually Tom shifted his head slightly on Jake’s chest, pulling up another stray thought.
“… I used to climb. Even when I was really small, I was forever getting into trouble for going up trees as far as I could to sit there for hours, or up on walls or up ladders or fire escapes on to roofs. They tried getting me into sport to burn all the energy off a bit, lone stuff. I wasn’t good at the team games. But sailing, I learned to sail when I was seven or so and I used to take a mini skiff out on the lake; rock climbing, swimming, diving, surfing, running. Every damn thing I could do, always about travelling, faster and further and higher. Thinking about it now, I was probably subconsciously trying to get away. All those tough sports. I remember an aunt saying to me ‘you’re so brave, all these things you do’, and I knew even then it wasn’t brave at all.”
“Mhm.” Jake stroked his hair for a moment, Tom could feel him breathing. Comprehending, compassionate, still bloody angry; it was radiating off him like a force field although he wasn’t voicing it.
“You should make me do this more often.” Tom said eventually. “Tell you things. Deal with them. Why the hell do you put up with it? It shouldn’t be something you let me opt out of, you should make it a discipline thing, something I should have to do.”
“That isn’t your decision to make, is it?” It wasn’t often he heard Jake use that tone, or sound even vaguely stern. Tom looked up at him, surprised, and Jake wrapped both arms around him, yanking him over and hugging him, rib creakingly hard, his face pressed to Tom’s for a moment. His voice was softer when he spoke again, directly and very quietly into Tom’s ear. “I love you. I will always love you. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for you. I won’t give you silver hands.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
From: Flynn O’Sullivan
Subject: Re: Update
Subject: Re: Update
Gerry is his usual self, don’t worry. Eating well although Paul’s being careful what we feed him, Ash says on the quiet he’s grouchier and more easily upset than usual but he’s been better since he’s been here and being kept busy, and outside of these bouts of stomach pain he’s been having over the last few months, he’s been ok. They’re just getting more frequent and by their doctor’s advice it’s time to do something about it. Tell Tom not to worry if he doesn’t hear from Dale for a few days. He, Jas and Paul have taken Luath and our client out on a hike, they’re going to be out of touch for a while. Needless to say, we’re very relieved you and Tom made it down from Camp Two ok and you recovered so fast. Paul says he’d tell you to be careful but you wouldn’t pay any attention, so please keep in mind he’s thinking of you and cringing. The rest of us are wishing you both all the excitement and fun and only as much danger as you enjoy.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The camps were fast getting busier as more teams worked on their acclimatisation. Every day more people were heading up and down the ropes between the camps and more tents appearing. It was the cue to me that we needed to get on with our summit attempt before the crowds really started and made things dangerous up there. The plus side was that the mountain mail service was beginning to get more and more organised. Most of the base camp communications tents had access to emails and someone in base camp to check the inbox several times daily, email was too embedded in most people’s lives not to. It was common around here for emails to get printed out, put in a plastic bag with the name of the intended person and the camp they were at scrawled on it, and handed to whoever was headed up the mountain. This small community of a couple of hundred people were on the move constantly now and climbers in every camp would shove named mails through the right tent doorways if they were unoccupied. It meant emails arrived at camp often within only a few hours of hitting an inbox. Tom was cynical about how the Western world had managed to fit their pet technology to the mountain but it seemed human enough to me. Most climbers willingly participated, knowing that other expeditions in turn would bring up and deliver their mail; these communications from home and family were precious to people so isolated and taking their bodies to the very limit up here. I found Flynn’s mail in a plastic bag dropped through the flap of our tent at camp three while we were making our climb up to camp four that morning, and read it to Tom while he dropped chipped ice into the pan to melt. It raised a smile.
For the first time this morning we’d put on the oxygen masks we’d practiced and practised with. Knowing we were going to have to handle the kit and tanks in the cold, in full kit, often in the dark and with hypoxia at its most severe, particularly if we got into difficulties and needed oxygen the most, we’d trained together, all four of us, in the same way that Tom and I trained with our diving kit. Sitting in the dark of the communications tent late at night several times, just assembling and testing and putting on and taking off, doing it without light, with our eyes closed, getting it as fast and smooth as possible. Reading the dials, practising the drill for unfreezing the dial and valve.
It was nothing like wearing oxygen at sea level. When we started up the oxygen canisters in our back packs early this morning with the trickle of flow that would take the edge off the slow asphyxiation of the death zone while making each canister last as long as possible, the mask felt more like it was blocking air than giving it. I’d expected it to be not much different to deep sea diving; we knocked up our regulatory hours and plenty more besides every year to stay certified, but for the first hour as we climbed, despite the thrill of the climb and of being here and the intense physical challenge – and ok, we’re junkies, we’re honest about it - I still kept finding myself pulling the mask down, fidgeting with it, trying to convince myself that it was helping rather than hindering. Tom looked at me often as we climbed, several times he poked whichever bit of me he could reach with the edge of his ice axe or yanked my mask back into place. Tom’s selfdiscipline is iron, he hadn’t touched his mask this morning and he had the edge on me in fitness here where being smaller and more lightly build is a strength. He was moving like a machine. Which is, if you’re interested, phenomenally hot when he’s framed against a blue sky and white ice with a rope around his chest and is dripping frost, sweat and competence in equal amounts. I could feel his buzz too, as strongly as I could feel mine. I never had to worry about his not being able to keep his head in the game so long as we were doing anything demandingly physical. Our long conversation last night was put away for the time being, and if anything, I’d thought last night he was largely relieved. Calmer, some of the steam let out that he’d been simmering on. Right now he was completely subsumed in the head space of the climb and his fierce enjoyment of it and I was glad of it. Bill, who’d done this climb before and was an old hand at using the kit, was just fine with his oxygen kit, he put it on and headed out without hesitation. Spitz I saw fiddling a few times and knew how he felt. So I mostly kept my eyes on Tom and my mind on the job and focused on ignoring the mask.
It was a relief to drop off all the equipment we’d hauled up between us from base camp in our rucksacks; a stove, food, the oxygen bottles that would begin our cache of emergency spares, some of which we’d keep here and some in a cache half way up to the summit. We’d bring up more with us when we came on the summit attempt, but the emergency extras were very necessary insurance in the case of bad weather, delays, trouble on the summit climb. It had made for heavy packs to carry, but you saw Sherpa climbers passing by all the time with far heavier loads, and several Sherpa teams were setting up tents at camp four while we were there with far less effort than it was costing us. It took all four of us working together a couple of hours to dig out a base and set up our one single tent, something that at base camp any one of us could have done alone in a fifth of the time. It was a real trial of strength and of team building, something we’d been working on since last Autumn, to the point where we could just do together without needing to move the oxygen masks and face protectors to talk at all. A long, exhausting day with the bonus being that our camp at four was now set and ready, and we’d forced our bodies through the last step of acclimatisation – to have experienced and worked at the death zone and won our biggest yet of the big races on the way to achieving the summit. As knackered as we were our bodies were generating yet even more red blood cells in response; it was a big investment in the hours of hard climb ahead of us on our summit attempt.
The climb back down to camp three was far faster than the climb up. Tom had moved like a pro all day with the smoothness and rhythm that he’s built through years of serious running, but once we cast off boots and outer clothes in the tent he pulled up the legs of his down pants to check his shins and I saw they were bleeding a little even in the extreme cold, rubbed raw where his heavy climbing boots had rubbed. He’d shown no sign of it, I doubted he’d really been aware of it until he stopped working and freed up his mind to think about other things than the climb. His palms, like mine, were blistered from the ropes even though we were both wearing two pairs of gloves, and all four of us were coughing frequently, the Khumbu cough with a vengeance now as our airways were really getting scorched. I pulled out the extensive first aid kit we were carrying and did what I could, which he didn’t appreciate but knew better than to argue about; broken skin was not good up here. As poorly oxygenated as we were, even the slightest skin damage was painfully slow to heal, infections were easy to get and they sapped your strength and your energy when you could least afford to lose it. We struggled to get down the contents of an MRE pack between us. At least Tom was eating well and with enjoyment now when we were in base camp; I should have thought of that earlier. It had turned into a kind of challenge between our Sherpa team and their cook to come up with a dish hotter than we’d eat once they knew we loved the chillies and heat in their local food. I don’t think Tom had noticed but I saw them lurking, watching us digging into whatever dish I’d collected from the cook tent, all of which were fantastic, and they’d laugh and quietly report back to the cook that he’d failed, we liked that one too.
I was finding it harder to stay hydrated now we’d been at this altitude a few days, and joy of joys was at the stage of producing dark brown urine whenever I used my pee bottle – the bottle every one of us up here carried that saved having to leave the tent with all the attendant putting on outer boots, crampons, or leaving the ropes or trail while climbing, or going outside during the night or when exhausted. The contents rapidly froze up, you chipped it out of the bottle with your ice axe and dumped out the mess of ice when you could at a camp. Tom, with his more compact build was thankfully doing better than I was and after a couple of hours of painfully slowly melting fresh snow and ice to make a hot drink, getting it down and starting the whole cycle over again, he was showing signs of being decently hydrated. I had no choice but to keep on with the melting and drinking, a process that took into the early hours of the morning before I finally saw things improve a little and stalled off the immediate risk of a kidney infection.
“We’re going to have to bring up more canisters and plan to sleep on oxygen up here on the summit attempt, this is ridiculous. We’ve got the stuff, that’s what it’s for, we don’t need to get this drained overnight.” Tom informed me during one of those melting ice cycles. He’d continued to help with the drink making. He hadn’t commented but I knew he was missing nothing including the colour of my bodily fluids and what it meant.
I lay back beside him on the sleeping bags to watch the stove. This was becoming my strongest impression of this whole journey in a curious kind of way; not the climb but the hours and hours we were spending laying together on the rock and ice face of the mountain, side by side, talking. Tom had said more to me last night than he’d ever been able to confide before about a time in his life I knew was too painful mostly for him to even think about. I’d never before pushed him as to why. That is not the way into Tom. I’d felt the wall of wariness around him on the first night I met him; sometimes I see him move subconsciously as a stranger moves around his space, adjusting to maintain the tolerable distance between him and them, it’s the same as his eye contact that becomes more fleeting with strangers or with pressure. The walls go up, he freezes, slips away. Sometimes you barely see him breathe. Years ago when I was too young to really understand what I was learning, I’d picked up from watching Philip how to build trust between you and a wary or mistrustful animal; with calmness, without looking directly at them, by doing the opposite of what they expect, by sharing your agenda rather than imposing on them. I saw him do it with horses, as I grew older I realised how much I also saw him do it with men. If Tom and I are alone together it’s very different, there is immense affection and a need for affection in Tom, the stifled longing for and demanding for attention that he’ll show to me in extreme privacy, he and I we do just fine. But I’d seen the hunger so clearly in his face at base camp when he’d read Dale’s mails and in his answer to them and it hit me to the core. He couldn’t hide it, and while I’d always seen a reluctant fascination with what we saw other discipline relationship couples do, and I’d always understood why he had to dismiss those men so emphatically as bunnies to tolerate it – the brat doth protest far, far too much - I’d understood that it was a very wary interest from afar. It had never been like this before. He’d never signalled so very clearly to me a longing to be able to make this kind of deepest, hardest disclosure and connection a discipline matter, to be helped to say what he was trying to. And that was the difference. Whether Dale had set this wheel of Tom’s in motion over the summer – I’d seen and heard conversations between the two of them that had surprised me, Tom’s often at his least forthcoming with people he’s really drawn to- or whether the mountain was having this effect on him, or the enforced hours of confinement, for whatever reason, he felt ready. It had still nearly broken my heart to see it. And I’d trodden so carefully with him last night, so aware of what terribly fragile ground this was for him, what an immense risk he was trying to take with me and wanting to work with him as I could see he wanted and needed me to, but for him to feel safe too, as safe as I always need to be for him.
This was going to go down with him like a lead balloon, but he was right and I’d reached the same conclusion myself last night.
“I agree. I radioed down to Pemba this morning to organise getting some extra bottles up here.”
Tom looked over at me with shocked outrage all over his face. So far we’d asked for help from our Sherpa team for our clients only; it had been a matter of pride for us that we climbed here independently, on our own strength and merits and without having tents and supplies carried and prepared for us.
“If we need extra oxygen up here we bring it up! We are not pulling the white sahib crap under any circumstances!”
“I’ve already pulled it.” I told him apologetically. “If Sir Edmund comes up here to tell us off I promise I’ll do the talking, but I want both of us getting alive and well off this mountain. I’m funny like that.”
The look I got should probably have turned me to salt. Tom sat up, furious, grabbing the saucepan on the stove to shake the ice viciously to break it up faster.
“If we can’t do it properly on our own resources we don’t deserve to do it properly at all!”
I ran a finger down his hunched spine, leaning past him to pull out more drinks sachets.
“Feel like hot chocolate or...” I flipped the packet up to see it, “Horlicks- what the hell is Horlicks? – for the next round?”
“It’s not my fault I’ve never heard of Horlicks, it sounds like a brand of cough mixture.” I pointed out. Tom glared at me.
“Let’s ask the others. We’re up here as a team, this needs to be voted on, properly. Move it.”
I let him tow me to my feet and went with him, donning our boots and heavy jackets and we crowded into Bill and Spitz’s tent among Spitz’s letters from his various amours since it was apparent he was in the middle of writing one, and Bill’s compass and various other nick knacks. He probably knew exactly where we were by latitude, longitude and sea level, he usually does, it’s a bit of a hobby of his. They weren’t sleeping either, they were glad of the company, and Spitz, while I could see he was reluctant as Tom was, heard Tom out in silence and then gruffly agreed with me. I’d known how Bill would see it without needing to ask; it was going to mean us hauling more oxygen up here than we’d planned, we had the expert support available in our team and we needed to ask them for help, and Bill is practical to the core. Although even had Spitz and Bill been all for the independent option for themselves, my decision was still made for Tom and me, and Tom would be well aware of it.
“This is our preparation problem, it’s something we didn’t expect,” Tom looked around us with growing frustration in his face; I think he’d hoped Spitz at least would see things his way and sway me. “So now we handle it, we don’t pay someone else to do it for us.
We problem solve, it just means an extra climb,”
“And extra time, and extra risk, and extra energy in addition to what we’ve all burned so far helping the clients out.” Bill, with the collar of his bright orange fleece turned up around his ears and sitting among the strands of the rigged up washing line that was holding up his and Spitz’s damp socks in the forlorn hope they’d dry overnight, looked apologetic but he sounded firm, I could see he was well aware how upset Tom was and I suspected he was stepping in and saying this clearly so I didn’t have to, thinking it would be easier on Tom right now to be mad at him rather than me. He’s not above a little good cop bad cop, Bill. It works quite well on Beau. “That’s cost us all. Which is Harry’s fault and I’m bloody sorry about it, but we’ve handled it in the way we’ve thought best and it’s taken all of us time and energy we would have used for ourselves and our preparation. I think asking Pemba and Dorje for their help with this one thing is a fair compensation and we need to cut ourselves some slack.”
“I think we have to handle it.” Tom retorted. “I’d rather know I didn’t summit because I did everything myself, properly and couldn’t do it, than I summited because I relied on paying someone else to do the tough stuff and nurse me up there!”
“Yes, that’s very noble.” Bill said affectionately. “But dropping a few spare cans of oxygen at camp three for us isn’t exactly nursing you. It’s starting to get busy up here. I agree with Jake, I want us done and gone before the crowds around the summit get heavy. We’re tired, we’re losing weight, I don’t know about you two but Spitz and I are notching up the aches and pains and minor injuries higher every day.”
He didn’t comment on the fact that the two of us were coughing as much as he was. This whole conversation was being punctuated by frequent hacking and spluttering from all four of us. “I know you like the pure version Tom, I admire it and I know you’re not afraid of the work, but realistically I don’t know we’ve got the physical resources left to do another trek to camp three just to bring up oxygen. Not if we want to have a chance at the summit. Or to keep on traipsing through the ice fall. You know the risks of something going wrong in there increase every time we set foot in it, and Spitz and I have done five trips through so far – six when we go down tomorrow. You and Jake, it’s seven so far. Including the summit attempt we’ve got to pass through three more times, and that’s more than enough. I say we chuck this one in the fuck it bucket. It’s a little bit of pride we’re letting go for the sake of safety, that’s all.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
They took the vote. It ended three to one.
Stupidly trying to reopen the subject again post vote with Jake when they got back to their tent got him no answer other than a cheerful and immediate reapplication of whatever horrible stuff was in that tube Jake carried. Apparently it was very possible to get spanked even at ridiculous altitude. Jake did it genially but it was like running into a brick wall. Which much confirmed in Tom’s mind how high and hard he was spinning right now; Jake at Defcon One was a dead giveaway. It wasn’t the most comfortable feeling, but it was a very safe one; Jake had handled things exactly right yesterday, in exactly the way Tom knew he’d needed him to. Not that that had been at all comfortable either, but today… Today had been better.
I won’t give you silver hands.
Wrapped around him in the sleeping bag afterwards, sniffling and subdued but calmer and able to let the matter go, which was very different to miserable, Tom reflected on that phrase for the hundredth time since last night. He knew of the reference. It still took him a while of thinking- to be more honest, almost an hour of screwing himself up to the nerve to open the subject – before he said stiltedly,
“It’s the Handless Maiden, isn’t it? The Brothers Grimm. I can only remember parts of it.”
“There was a miller.” Jake shifted slightly to get comfortable, settling on his back with an arm behind his head and the other around Tom. “Who got tired – as you do – of working so hard for so many hours for so little money. And the devil saw it and came to him and made a deal. He would show the miller how to build machinery so that he could grind far more corn with far less work, and make more money. A whole higher lifestyle. The technological dream from the capitalist point of view. The only price is whatever is standing behind the mill – which the miller knows is only the old apple tree. So he agrees, the devil helps him build his machinery, it works like a charm, suddenly he has a lot more money coming in, much more free time, the family are living a much higher lifestyle, and the miller goes with the devil to collect his price. Except to the miller’s horror, it’s his daughter standing behind the mill, not just the apple tree. But he’s not willing to give up what he’s achieved. So there’s various versions of how it happens but there’s never anything to suggest the daughter resists – the devil amputates her hands as his price.”
“Yeah, don’t you just love the guy. The miller and his wife keep telling the daughter, they can afford servants now, she has a life of luxury, they can meet her every need, she doesn’t need to work or to do anything for herself so what does she need her hands for? And she’s ok for a while. But after a while she starts to cry, and can’t stop, and nothing anyone can do can comfort her.”
“So she goes away alone into the forest and wanders there. An angel guides her to a pear orchard, and she can’t pick any fruit, she can’t touch or pick up anything, but she manages to eat a pear where it hangs on the branch and keep herself from starving. The orchard belongs to a king, and when he hears from his gardener about the one pear hanging eaten on the branch that the gardener finds every day, he hides himself and keeps watch, and meets the maiden. And they fall in love and marry, and as the Queen of his Kingdom the King has made for his beloved and wife, a pair of beautiful silver hands.”
“Chauvinist bastard.” Tom said shortly. Jake grinned.
“Yeah, that’s one interpretation.”
“It’s the bird in the gilded cage, isn’t it? The women’s trap. Virginia Woolf, the Room with the View... You don’t need to be able to ‘do’ anything darling, just look pretty and I’ll meet your every material need because I can’t envisage any other needs you might have. It’s no different to what her parents did to her.”
“Or you can look at it as the maiden representing the yin or feminine aspect of a person and the miller representing the masculine aspect.” Jake pointed out. “Taoist, I Ching, inner masculine and inner feminine, yang and yin in all of us. A battle within the self.”
“With the miller representing the yang, the ambition, the drive, the practicality, and the daughter the yin, the emotion,” Tom said, recognising the theory. “The ambition sacrifices the ‘hands’, the feeling part. You’ve been hanging out with Jung again, haven’t you? Wuthering Heights, sex and long walks, DH bloody Lawrence and his spoon obsession-”
“Nah, Stoker’s the most fun of that bunch.” Jake nipped briefly at his neck and Tom pushed him off.
“This is the Fisher King in another form, isn’t it? The wounding of the self.”
“Self as emotion, emotional perception, the damaged sensitivity of a soul.” Jake desisted from chewing on his jugular. “Except the Fisher King is wounded by experience from his own curiosity. The maiden’s wound is inflicted from outside from insensitivity and practicality. So the yang part of a man decides that yes, the practical and financial pay offs of technology is worth the sacrifice of his yin inner self and he makes the deal with the devil – what does he need his inner self for anyway, when all his material needs are being met?”
“Until depression sets in and he doesn’t know why because he doesn’t understand what he’s denying himself. What more can there be.”
“This is what Flynn and the others feel so passionately about.” Jake said wryly. “They meet a lot of handless maidens in their clients.”
“So she goes into the forest – which in this context represents the wild, a lone vigil in nature, Pan a la Forster, a journey to the self, where she meets her angel and the king.”
Tom reflected. “And the silver hands are given with the best of intentions, but they’re just more artificiality, it doesn’t address her loss in any depth. A material answer, bought and paid for, it just covers up the deficit.”
“It’s the common answer to most spiritual pain isn’t it? Buy something. Go on a course. Join a gym. Or a case of going through the motions, creating an outward illusion to try to meet a need.”
“…Which we could do.” Tom saw it as soon as Jake said it and shut his eyes for a moment. “Now I see. Yes. We could go through the motions. We could act it out. All the bunny stuff. You always said you wouldn’t do the lines and corners even when I tried to talk you into it.”
“Silver hands.” Jake said very gently. “We could act out what the others do – Gerry and Ash, Flynn and Riley. Fake it and hope we make it. But it won’t make those feelings of yours go away and it would just be – covering it up. Gilding the cage. You’d still feel it as a cage, and eventually you’d realise it didn’t make you happy, I’d just put a nice face over it. Covered it up so you looked like everyone else on the outside even if you couldn’t feel it inwardly. You wouldn’t feel I saw you or that I heard you, it wouldn’t be you. I’d far rather be a lousy, honest Top.”
For a moment Tom lay against him, barely breathing as he processed that, remembering something he’d said to Dale months ago in a pasture in Wyoming.
Why do you do this? Because you’ve never felt so loved in your life.
Then he rolled up to find Jake’s mouth and kiss him. A lot, incoherently while Jake held his head between his hands, his long, strong fingers cradling. It was a while before Tom subsided on top of him, several things conflicting in mind.
I am handless.
It was a shock to view it in that way – and yet so true, so strongly true that Tom felt the knowledge slip right through him and unlock somewhere very deep inside. Jake had known this. Known it, patiently watched and waited, guarding, not pulling.
“…So what happens?” he heard himself asking, and his voice sounded embarrassingly cracked. Uneven. “With her silver hands?”
“She’s all right for a while.” Jake stroked his hair, combing his fingers slowly through it and his voice was still gentler. “They have a baby. Then she starts to cry again and she can’t stop. The depression is back. She has servants, they meet her every need, her baby’s every need but she can’t feel happiness. She wants to touch her child for herself. Care for it herself. So she takes the child and slips away into the forest again. She’s wandering there when her child falls into a river. Her silver hands are useless, she can’t catch or save her child, there’s no one to help her. In desperation she thrusts her silver hands into the water anyway and tries – and her hands become flesh and blood again, she takes out her child with her own hands restored.”
The artificial solution worked for a while. Staved the pain away a little longer. How true was that? Tom had met many unhappy men in his life who ticked from one new solution or distraction to the next, white noise that blocked out their unhappiness without ever being willing to face themselves and address the real problem beneath. Many made multiple false attempts without daring to go deep enough and ended up compelled to return again to the edge of the forest of their particular mess.
But I don’t understand the end. I don’t know what that means!
The stress rose like a wave, choking, smothering. And Jake rose beneath him like a volcano, rolling him gently over onto his knees.
“We need to drink again my boy. You get the ice, I’ll get this stove going. Come on, we’ve got a night to get through.”
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015