He said nothing of the email to Jake. However the black - black - mood was less easy to hide. Jake watched him checking oxygen tanks for a few minutes when he re-joined them, and Tom was unable to not be aware of Jake watching him, or his matter of fact nod that meant he’d made a decision.
“Like that is it? Come on then.”
It sounded so deceptively casual. Tom’s stomach lurched immediately and deeply with an exact knowledge of what Jake meant and what he intended. He didn’t look up, savagely checking another oxygen bottle’s regulator. This lot had been checked over several times already but it was so crucial not to end up on the summit with an unreliable or difficult bottle that the multiple checks were necessary.
Jake stood and waited for him. He never looked grim, he didn’t do the pointed ‘Look’ thing Tom had seen many other men do, he wasn’t given to snapping orders. He just stood there, being large and cheerfully immovable in his fleece jacket, gloves and hat against the bite of a snowy morning. Quite a bit of snow had fallen in the night; the tents were dusted, the ground and the crates were dusted, it made the place look even more desolate and wrecked than it usually did.
“No.” Tom snapped at him under his breath when it became clear Jake was going to stand there until the next ice age came through. “I’m busy, I’ve got stuff to do, we’re not doing that.”
Declaring war never worked either. There was about a nanosecond between Tom snapping that out in the nastiest tone he could come up with, and Jake genially barging directly between him and the oxygen crate and Tom knew no matter what resistance he put up, Jake would just walk into him and bulldoze him, gently but inexorably towards their tent. Somewhere in the few seconds as Jake closed the distance between them, Tom exploded and lunged at him.
It was nothing so nice as ‘resistance’: it was full blooded lashing out in a way he’d never lost it enough to do in his life, not with anyone. Vicious, terrible and utterly uncontrolled, he hurled himself on Jake with all his strength and his fists clenched, and it lasted about two seconds before Jake wrapped his arms over Tom’s and held him too tightly to struggle, lifted him straight off his feet and walked directly out onto the open plateau of grey moon rock, snow and ruin well beyond their tent and away from the shocked faces around them.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
He stood there for a long, long time, holding Tom in that safe, crushing embrace that didn’t let him move, with his chin against Tom’s head while Tom fought him with everything he had and totally unsuccessfully, with breathing that was horribly loud and ragged. When the red mist cleared slightly and he ran out of the strength to go on fighting, his knees nearly gave way under him. There was the equally horrible and nearly overwhelming compulsion to let go and release the full weepy if not utterly hysterical, limp bunny performance on him, complete with stupid apologies, like there was any possible way to apologise for doing this to the man you loved. Particularly when it wasn’t his fault and he was the last person you’d ever want to take your awful crap out on. And when for some bizarre, stupid, stupid reason he still insisted on loving you. He managed somehow to keep that back. To shut his teeth, try with all the strength he had left and at least shut the hell up and try and stem the mess he was pouring all over both of them. Jake said nothing while he did it. Even a word of comfort would have been too much to handle, but in silence he stood like a rock and he held on with arms that were utterly inescapable, and Tom eventually got to the point where he could breathe more or less quietly again with his forehead hard against Jake’s shoulder and his hands knotted into the fleece of Jake’s dusty jacket, clutching him to the point his hands hurt.
When he got there, Jake’s arms tightened around him still further in return for a long moment, crushing and safe, then Jake guided him unhurriedly across the plateau towards their tent. Tom blindly walked with him, trying to get himself and his face together, and in their tent Jake put him down on the padded floor of the two side by side air mattresses and the ridiculous thickness sleeping bags, zipped the outer door closed behind them and took Tom’s boots off before he removed his own and turned the tent heater on. Their kit occupied most of the ‘lobby’ end of their tent; head torches swung from the overhead rail in easy reach alongside an overhead battery lamp, crampons, ice axes and rucksacks were organised and by the door with a towel beneath them soaking up the bits of snow and ice that tended to melt off it all. The inner section of the tent with its separate zip closed door that insulated more warmth in a smaller area at night, was essentially one large bed. Other than the mattresses and sleeping bags it contained only the crate of books and the things stuffed in the tent nylon side pockets, like the basic first aid kit and water bottles, wash kit, the multiple bottles of sun block you went through by the hour here where the sun blazed off the ice. It was the end of the tent where they kept anything that was crucial kit that couldn’t get wet; their boots went there, their gloves, the dry bag which held what was left of clean, dry clothes, everything separately wrapped in plastic to avoid it dampening. It had been ‘home’ for some weeks now.
Tom numbly co operated with Jake peeling him out of his outer clothes, then Jake stripped himself, zipped their bed compartment closed and pulled them both into the depths of one of the thick, hooded sleeping bags. He zipped that too closed around them, a soft, deep and puffy down shield that shut out the world beyond the tent. Inside its sanctuary where no one would ever see, Tom wound himself arms and legs around Jake, trying to maintain enough self control not to snivel out loud while Jake held him. Gathered him close enough to feel his strength and his warmth and held him. And very slowly, gradually for the first time in what felt like days, Tom felt his heart start to slow down and then warmth began to creep back into him again, reaching chilled hands and feet. They lay together like that for several hours. Bill’s voice at some point called quietly from outside the tent, sounding concerned,
“You two ok?”
Jake’s arms tightened, holding him still before Tom fully realised he’d tensed, and he called back cheerfully without moving, “We’re good. Sod off Bill, there’s a good chap.”
Bill’s boots crunched away out of hearing and Tom relaxed inch by inch back into Jake’s grip.
What was all that about?
Many Tops would have insisted on being told, pulled teeth if necessary and he could only ever have loved or bothered with a man like that, who was quite unafraid of this kind of mess and took no truck from those capable of pulling the kind of crap Tom knew he did on more or less a daily basis. He knew damn well he’d fight to the death with any alpha male that thought he could force some kind of deep and meaningful, understanding little bunny chat on him. Defeat the entire purpose of the poor guy trying with every tool at his disposal and all the force he had, outwit them, out manoeuvre them, outlast them, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to quit until he’d won…. and yet he still would desperately want them to try, in the shameful, secret and truly, ruinously naive hope that he might lose. As Dale had said, you had to know. You had to destruction test it, no matter what the cost. Better pay now than pay later.
But Jake wouldn’t mount up across the jousting field from you. He wouldn’t seal his helm and salute and engage in equally gentlemanly battle on known terms. You’d turn up to fight Jake to find he’d nicked your horse, organised a team of archaeologists into excavating the jousting pitch for something really interesting and bought you a coffee. No rules. At least not ones you could ever get a grip on.
Tom bit Jake’s shoulder, relatively gently, and Jake’s arm around his waist tightened. He sounded placidly sleepy for a man who’d just been domestically abused.
“Yeah you can explain the sex injuries to Shem when I need antibiotics. I was just thinking. I think my first crush was Camilo Aberquero when I was about…. ten and a half? Several years above me at school, he played football. Nice legs. And I occasionally stayed out on the ranch with Philip and David and knew they were gay, the relatives were fine with Philip being gay on the grounds he was Philip. And eventually it dawned up me that pretty much so was everyone else I knew who lived or visited there. I was falling over good role models. So it was a bit different for me.”
How the hell did we get onto this?
Mouth slightly open, Tom found himself clutching Jake for dear life, very aware of Jake’s relaxed body beneath his, the warmth of the sleeping bag wrapped around them, the layer between the ice outside and them inside.
It was hard enough sometimes to be on the ranch where the men there were so openly, frankly themselves. Not just visibly, obviously gay - Tom had done a few gay resorts in his early twenties and spent the time up on cliffs or swimming at the very far end of the beaches, avoiding every other man in the resort and rendering the whole point of being there entirely empty – but their relationships. Natural, there, all the time. Easy. Enjoyed.
“Who is Lucifer, what is he?” he found himself misquoting somewhat incoherently and very bitterly. “Do you think he really was the arrogant bastard Milton paints him as?”
“As opposed to what?”
Jake sounded comfortably interested, never one to mind apparent random leaps of subject. Tom shut his eyes, tried to shut his ears, shut everything, it was too hard to even think about this. He felt like one whole raw wound, head to foot.
“A… basically good character who made a bloody awful mistake, a stupid error of judgment, and was cast out of the home he loved, from the God he loved, to live the rest of eternity in exile from him. Can he truly be bad? He was an archangel once. With the beliefs and the faith of all of them, he was one of them. Did he really revel in his fall and what it meant, the freedom to be evil unleashed? Or did the evil come from anger, resentment, bitterness at himself and the consequences he caused? Or is there an angel in eternal grief and agony of soul, a good soul, presiding over Tartarus with all the pain and anguish of what he witnesses there and what he’s lost? Can anyone stay good or pure in the face of that kind of grief? Doesn’t it twist you? Is that evil? Or if he is just an arrogant, oblivious bastard and that’s his only sin then I’m all kinds of a hypocrite because Loudon is exactly that and so am I and who the hell am I to refuse to understand or connect with someone just because they piss me off?”
Jake reflected on that, not disturbed by its heat or incoherence. Then said thoughtfully, “What were your parents like together?”
“Did they flirt? Were they good friends? Given to PDAs?”
“…God, no.” Thrown, Tom found himself reflecting quite dispassionately for a moment, trying to find images that fit Jake’s question. “I don’t know. He annoyed her quite a lot, she’d get tight lipped and say nothing but go and flower arrange or write letters or make phone calls radiating deep freeze. Never any rows, making a scene was worse than committing murder. Whole lot of passive aggression.”
“How did he tick her off?”
“Being late for meals. Making decisions about the garden she didn’t agree with. Setting dates for engagements without consulting her; that used to cause a wash of iced politeness over dinner. I don’t think he did it deliberately, he was a bit on the absent minded side and he was with people all day, when he got home he wanted to read, write, shut down... she didn’t like it. They had separate rooms. Always had separate rooms actually, I don’t remember ever seeing them come out of the same one, but they were both uptight about that kind of thing. You never saw them in nightwear or went into their bedrooms, just wasn’t done.”
“I don’t know. She was a Bishop’s wife. Three stripes on her handbag, senior wife, she was very good at it. All her responsibilities as well as supporting him in his, she worked seven days a week and that included running the house and cathedral domestic affairs.”
“Colleagues rather than friends?”
That said it really. Tom had a sudden flashing image as if from above of how he and Jake were lying in this moment. Crushed together in a sleeping bag, scruffy, unshaven, wrapped around each other in a sprawl that felt so normal because it was so very well practiced, and even after that God-awful scene outside, still talking the kind of flippant rubbish they always talked together, that could run without thought or effort whether they were on a plane, in a forest, up a mountain, at three am in the morning, at noon over a formal lunch… He couldn’t imagine his parents doing anything of the kind. Couldn’t imagine one of them clinging to the other for comfort. It was too foreign an image to relate to them.
“We had this driver at home when I was really small – Lance. Not sure why there was a driver actually, but he did a whole lot of other useful things around the house too. I wonder if it was felt there just ought to be a man about the place.” Jake said conversationally. “Huge great house, several live-in women of various ages and one kid. Lance had the flat over the garage. I used to spend hours with him washing the car or ‘helping’ clip hedges or roll lawns or whatever he happened to be doing that day, he spent a lot of time chasing me around, played football with me, took me with him if he went out to stores or to pick anything up for the house. He used to say it was his job to tire me out enough to stay out of trouble. I adored him.”
“What happened to him?”
“Nothing. He got married when I was about eight, she lived with him in the flat for a while, then when I went to boarding school he moved on to another job. I know they had three children at the last count, he would have made a great dad.”
“… I mostly used to knock around the garden and cathedral.” It was easy to think of the exact colours and shapes and pathways of every part of it, he’d known it so well. “The close was walled and gated, very safe, no cars, but it was big. Adults always around who knew who I was. And I wandered off constantly; I could get any doors open, windows… I was probably going more or less where I wanted by the time I was three or so, I don’t think my mother was happy about it or it was her idea of child rearing, it was more she and the house keeper and the current au pair had to stay sane.”
“Dozens of them. Usually from Commonwealth countries on programmes with the school of religious studies in the town, mostly various states of Africa, the Cameroons... Twelve week course so they changed frequently. They were supposed to help with childcare.” It was domestic detail, petty stuff he hadn’t thought of in years, it was odd to pull it out and put it into words. “They did a lot of looking after Clara – my sister – but there’s quite a big age gap between us and I wasn’t easy. I remember my mother shouting at my father about it and him saying I’d be fine in the close, it was a perfectly safe place, dozens of people around to keep an eye on me and she needed to stop worrying. I don’t know what she wanted him to do about it. She had a lot of demands on her time, coming home to find I’d been utter bloody chaos all day can’t have helped. I was too difficult for the au pairs.”
“Did you like them?”
“No.” Tired, drained, Tom found the admission coming straight out without thinking, he’d never really reflected on it before. “I don’t know why, they were all nice enough. I was just born a little bugger.”
“I can’t see many kids that age liking new faces every three months.” Jake said reflectively. “And you like time to get to know people to be comfortable around them. Or possibly you just wanted your mom.”
For some reason that felt a hotly uncomfortable, shameful kind of a thought and Tom flinched from it.
Because good boys don’t think like that, do they? Not macho, not appropriate. And yet here I am, still latched onto him.
“It’s a disgusting thought,” he said viciously, “That at your age you’re still carrying around baggage like this – like carrying around the bloody horrible kid you were, you never shake it off. Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man… I’m clinging to you the same way; maybe this is just some stunted growth thing. I couldn’t cling to them so here am I at my age clutching you, it’s pathetic-”
“Behold, thou hast driven me out this day, and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth…” Jake interrupted him.
The quote was shocking; it stopped him dead. It was the heart of it. The absolute heart of it. His chest seized, it was hard to breathe. Jake put a hand under his chin when he didn’t answer, lifting Tom’s face to his.
“That’s what’s on your mind, isn’t it? Answer me.”
He said it so gently and yet any time Jake gave an order he expected to be obeyed. Tom swallowed, closing his eyes to escape Jake’s, trying ineffectually to turn his head away.
“Why is that too hard to tell me?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, I just did-”
“Look at me.” Jake’s hand hadn’t moved from his chin. Tom felt his face burning, the hot, nauseating shame swelling out of all manageable proportion, and heard Jake’s voice drop half an octave to a tone that went straight through him.
“Tom. Look at me.” He did it. Helplessly.
He had no idea why, except he couldn’t have not done it, and maybe that was why Jake never usually spoke to him like that. Jake’s eyes were that turquoise blue that always reminded him of some sunlit bay in the Mediterranean, somewhere with white sand, coral reefs and seashells, and they were unbearably soft.
“I’d so much rather you yelled.” Tom found himself saying helplessly, and completely incoherently. Jake smiled faintly.
“Think I don’t know that? You don’t need shouting at. It never takes any kind of severity to get a message through to you, I can’t imagine it ever has.”
That was a shock to hear. Jake ran his thumb lightly over Tom’s lips.
“Cain and Lucifer. The shamed and cast out. The unfit to belong. That’s what you’re thinking of. Isn’t it?”
It had been hard enough to get it out once; twice was impossible. Jake’s voice softened even further, very quiet, his breath warm against Tom’s face.
“Tommy. You have got a choice. Tell me.”
Years of diving off cliffs. Swimming rough waters. Doing truly stupid things that took no courage at all. You’re so brave…
“… Yes. I always have.”
“Because that’s how it felt.”
“You were twelve. Twelve years old. As an adult, do you see that as good way to handle that situation? A normal response?”
In that light, it was shockingly clear. Tom found his mouth opening stupidly in defence, not even sure why.
“You can’t apply modern standards to times when the culture and received wisdom was different, that’s rule one of anthropology-”
“I can apply normal human feeling about how I expect people to behave with those they love, and I know when I find them wanting.” Jake said definitely. “They were the grownups. They were the ones with the responsibility. It was an awful, damaging way to handle things, it was about their lack of skills, not about what a child needed in a very vulnerable moment. And while I accept they did not do it with malicious intent, they were adults like you and I are adults and they made mistakes just the same way we do when we’re het up or in the heat of the moment. They, with their own reasons, their own baggage and their own purposes, with all the influences of what was going on in their wider lives. Not because it was the right thing to do or because you deserved it. There is nothing evil or shameful about you. Nothing. You’re telling me about Lucifer because you know you yourself were a good person that a bad thing happened to, and admitting it is painful because you trusted what you were told by people you loved, that you were what was bad. It was hurtful, it was wrong, unfair and you’ve suffered because of it. You’ve been that good soul grieving, and you know it. And no, you do not ‘cling’ in any immature way. You don’t cling nearly enough to be good for you in my opinion, and it’s something we’re going to work on.”
There was so much of that lecture that went so deep. It was painful and freeing and intensely hard to hear, and yet from Jake, said that gently – it was impossible not to believe it.
“I am trying so hard to step away from that anger.” Tom said with difficulty when he was able to say anything at all, aware that he was shaking and more than slightly evading the point and hoping Jake wouldn’t realise. “I tried at the monastery. I’m trying all the time. It isn’t working-” He stopped, aware he sounded pitiful; needy and pathetically despairing.
“I know. I know you’re trying.” Jake’s tone was absolute. “I see it. I still think it’s the wrong sin you’re trying to confess. You’re not an angry man. Your father wasn’t, none of your family were, you’ve never carried a problem with your temper. I’d know.”
“I just tried beating you up for God’s sake!”
“Yeah, about that.” Jake settled his shoulders more deeply into the pillow of his rucksack to get comfortable. “When you need a hug that badly it’s fine to just ask for one? That works too?”
Tom ran a hand over his eyes, somewhere between laughing and perilously close to tears and hearing the crack in his voice. “That doesn’t make it ok! I spend half my life growling and snarling,”
“Are you trying to get me to believe you?” Jake pulled him closer, tucking Tom’s head into his neck in a position that was shamefully close to the definition of ‘cuddling’, and he sounded amused. “That’s not the same thing as being angry. It’s not the action, it’s the intent, isn’t it? The intent of the heart. Come on, you know this stuff better than I do.”
It was a theological idea that went back centuries and crossed multiple cultures. Juries debated it in courts even now: the action was viewed only in the light of intention. In the eyes of God, a good deed done with poor intention had no value; action is the overflow of the heart. Tom had heard his father talk about it years ago in the ringing vaults of the cathedral to a congregation of hundreds. If what you held in your heart was anger, it would spill out into your actions. If you were pure of heart that purity was expressed in your actions. It was exactly the same as Dorje’s belief of the water tank; the maintained internal balance to ensure what came from one was good. His people consciously knew how to feed the inner heart, where Christian culture tended to focus more on feeling guilty about not achieving it.
But I am angry all the time, I am! It’s anger that spills out into everything. Impatience, irritability, suspicion, cynicism, doubt... doubt about bloody everything. I just need to get better at anger bloody management. Deep breathing. Meditation. Something. If I do that, it’ll be fine.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“What’s a Snark?” Tom asked him a while later. He heard Jake grunt as he thought about it.
“Just the place for a Snark the Bellman cried
as he landed his crew with care
Supporting each man on the crest of the tide
with a finger entwined in his hair…”
It’s a poem, Lewis Carroll, I used to love it as a kid. Some people think it’s a mystery, they’ve tried to solve it, other people think it’s just a piece of good nonsense poetry and fairly straight forward, it’s about an expedition after a mythical beast. Where did you hear about it?”
“Something Dale mentioned.”
“Yeah, I can see he’d love Lewis Carroll.” Jake said reflectively. “Another left field mathematician.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
In the early evening they walked together to the communications tent and to get dinner from the mess tent, and Tom stood in the doorway for a while, somewhat shaky around the knees but eating a vegetable curry that was extremely good while Jake checked their inbox. Shem was talking quietly on the satellite phone, Tom saw her face more than her voice. She was sounding warm although her responses were brief; her face was detached and he thought she was struggling a little with her side of the conversation. She ended the conversation soon after and Tom nodded to her as she got up.
Shem nodded slowly in return, digging her hands into her pockets. “Emily. How are you? How are the shins?”
“Better than they were thanks.”
“Stay off them.” Shem nodded at a deckchair. “As much as you can, I know you’ll climb anyway but it’s going to be a lot easier if you’re careful.”
That was more fluent than anything she’d said to her daughter and he saw her realise it at the same time as he did. Shem sighed heavily, glancing at Jake who was skimming through emails.
“I know, I know… It’s supposed to be an anathema isn’t it? Not loving being a mom. I just wasn’t cut out that way. I’m not good at it, not that Emily’s not a great little girl but... A mother’s never supposed to say that, we’re not even supposed to think it. It’s just supposed to be naturally wonderful and there’s something wrong with you if it’s not.”
From her point of view Tom could sympathise; she was another adult who made mistakes, who had no higher knowledge, just was muddling through life on experience gained and doing the best they could in the circumstances. It was all kinds of damaging to struggle on being the shell of the person you were supposed to be, concealing who you actually were. Not just for you, but for everyone around you; he’d seen no few men who’d done it and left victims behind them when they couldn’t lie any longer. Children. Wives. But then there was Emily who apparently showed no sign of missing her mother – in Tom’s mind and from his own experience such a total lack of indication was likely to be overcompensation, a wall in front of emotion too sensitive or unmanageable to be shared – but who called the satellite phone here every evening. From Emily’s point of view how reasonable did it feel that her mother felt she was not cut out for parenting and preferred to be here? Would she in the long term be proud of her mother’s career and her climbing history here, or would she remember missing her, wanting her and knowing she wasn’t important enough to Shem for her to stay at home? It was a situation in which there could be no winners.
We never do know our parents adult to adult, or as equals. I was a ‘late’ addition to the family. Did my mother actually want another child after Clara? Or was it something that happened to her unplanned and she had no choice? I can’t blame her for resenting that. What if the idea of parenting doesn’t match your reality? She didn’t sign up for a ‘challenging’ kid. Neither of them did, but you can’t exactly divorce a kid or resign if you’ve had enough or you can’t handle it. Did she ever feel like this? No good at it and no way out? She couldn’t disappear off to Nepal for months at a time, or sod off into jungles. He could bury himself in his work only so much – the four of us were stuck with each other. Thank God for boarding schools.
Jake got up and turned off the laptop, handing a sheaf of papers to Tom. Shem smiled at him, nodding at Tom.
“Get him off his feet. And keep him there.”
“Yeah, I’m good at that.” Jake said breezily. Tom accepted the papers, swatting him with them as Shem laughed and walked away in the direction of the mess tent.
“Oaf. What’s this?”
It was the Hunting of the Snark, downloaded from the Internet.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“It’s the Fisher King yet again.” Tom told him a while later, lost in the words. It was rolling, memorable stuff, he could see how Jake would have absorbed chunks of it as a child. Jake nodded slowly, reflecting on that.
“Yes, I suppose it is. A lighter version but that’s the gist. The blind search.”
Shem. Shem is a handless maiden, Emily and her father took her hands. Was my mother one? Was my father?
“Hunting the Snark.” Jake said pensively. Tom picked up the printout again.
“Or the Boojum.”
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015