Here is the news in English
My apologies for the delay in replying to your mail. I could at this point offer a number of excuses, but to be frank it’s been a rather crowded few days. You and Jake may like to know that Gerry is here. He took a plane out of Seattle one night when things all got a bit much, and Luath and Flynn met him at the Texas airport. He, Ash and Luath are currently staying with us. Gerry has some minor chronic gallstone concerns for which Ash explained they have booked surgery shortly in Seattle. We’re assured this is routine minor surgery, minimally invasive, and should result in Gerry being far more comfortable.
Subject: Re: Here is the news in English
Thanks for the news on Gerry. Jake’s response included a whole lot of what? and how? and he’s gone to ring Paul. I’ve accused him of only wanting in on the gossip but he says it makes a change from camp gossip.
I was glad of your email and any news that didn’t involve ice. We’ve had a bloody nasty few days. We went up to camp two as planned, made good time, no problems and were settling into our tents when an Australian team radioed down from camp three to say one of their team had fallen, and above camp one if they say someone’s ‘fallen’ they mean the climber was last seen plunging down several hundred feet of ice face. The ice might as well be granite, if you’ve bounced down several hundred vertical feet of it at high speed you’re not likely to get up again. The guy hadn’t clipped in to the safety line, he was probably in early stage hypoxia as it was the first time he’d been that high and no one was near enough to see he was in trouble, he lost his balance and was gone. We went out to take a look around and Jake found him. I’ve seen quite a few human remains in various states in my time, but this poor bastard was smashed, and I hope he was dead long before he came to a stop. There was a quick debate by radio with the Australian team about what they wanted to do, it’s not easy getting a body down from anywhere above base camp and a lot of risk for everyone involved in trying. The agreement was we left him where he was for his team to make a decision. Most bodies here are interred by being lowered into the nearest deep crevasse, it’s the best you can do. On the other hand, I’ve seen a certain amount of people up here not wanting to go anywhere near someone dead or dying, it’s too immediate a reality to deal with.
We went back down to camp two and started to settle in again, and then Jake started sounding slurred and had a bad headache, all the signs of cerebral oedema, which scared the living hell out of me. I was livid with the Australian team that after climbing all day to our own carefully planned limits we’d had to go out to spend more energy at more altitude, and get stressed and upset which raises the risk from mountain sickness. Totally irrational, the poor bastard didn’t mean to fall and there was nothing his team could have done. It’s a constant balancing act up here between what you can safely plan to do, taking into account your own limits, and what you can then give beyond those limits for someone else who unexpectedly needs help or gets into trouble, without you putting yourself and your own team in danger. It was dark by this point, Jake absolutely refused to let me short rope him, and it’s not easy to have a row at altitude where there’s hardly any bloody oxygen. It took us over four hours in bad weather to walk down to base camp to the team doctor, who stuffed him full of fluids and painkillers and she and I sat most of the rest of the night in her tent watching Jake sleep until we were both convinced we didn’t need to descend any lower. I swear, we talked about this for weeks before we came out here, and it’s not like we haven’t been used to doing high chance things together for years, but up here I’m wary all the time for myself and you’d have to be insane not to be, but I’m even more scared for Jake while I’m watching him take all the same calculated risks I’m taking and its 24 hours a day, constant, taking those risks and escalating them. I don’t want to quit, but I don’t do great under stress either, so all in all it’s a joy to hear that there are still normal people out there doing normal things, and that other people are having a lousy time as well as me.
~ * ~
“Dale… said something about a child following him around.” Tom said a whole lot later.
It was pitch dark outside, a clear night and so cold he was watching the condensation of their breath crystallise into delicate ice on any surface it touched. Even tears turned to ice up here. There was a curious sense of – peace left in him, aided by the physical exhaustion of the day’s climbing. Of no secrets left and the burden of them released, leaving him empty and feeling slightly drunk. Of being open and sensitive in a way that was almost overwhelming, even the most ordinary things. The press of Jake’s body against his in the sleeping bag they were zipped into. The Day-Glo orange of the tent, the familiar bits of their kit by the door. The utter silence of the ice outside. In base camp it was never completely silent, the ice fall groaned and creaked and cracked and rumbled frequently and people came and went with their boots crunching on the shale. The music could be heard in the distance until late from compounds holding parties trying to keep warm. Up here – people up here were tired. Extremely tired. They got to their tents and they rested. Hard. And when the temperature went down they zipped in and burrowed into sleeping bags to try to stay bearably warm and you might as well have been the only tent on the mountain, hours of hard climbing away from civilisation. You heard nothing. You saw nothing. Isolated tents in an isolated, tiny village of canvas, half way up to the roof of the world.
“Stuck in that moment, hating him and hating everything… I think he must have been very small when whatever it was happened. He said he was looking with intention at trapped moments of time, those memories, how they were still affecting him. They were the root of why he found it…….” he trailed off, not sure how to put it into words. Jake waited, his back solidly to the wall of the tent which shielded out some of the cold that radiated through it, one arm behind his head, the other competently folded around Tom around his shoulders where it gave most warmth as he lay on Jake’s chest, huddled particularly close tonight.
Although if you’re honest – you might stalk around the place looking confident and tough but you spend a hell of a lot of time clutching him just like this when there’s no one else to see.
That thought in himself would have usually made him force himself to let go, ashamed and angry with himself and determined to do better. Although the determination never lasted very long. He felt that exact pull now; the impulse to shut down, close up, the well of anger – and for the first time saw it from the outside for what it was.
Because that’s too needy. Too demanding. Pathetic. Who wants to be around that? Be a man.
Whose voice is that?
Mine. Saying what – probably – I thought my father would have wanted me to say. Did I ever really hear him say any of that? It means ‘I don’t like myself’. It means ‘I know I’ll eventually bore you to tears of hanging around me’.
That was not possible to say. Tom took a breath instead, trying to choose his words carefully, aware that the impulse to slide down into that angry, dark, grim wallow that usually would have swallowed him whole without his noticing - was there. But somewhat palely there, and he felt stood apart from it. It felt different. The ability to look at it and choose – was different. It took some careful breathing but he could feel the choice.
“… He said it was ironic he and I both wanted relationships so based on communication. Honesty. When we both suck at it.”
“Suck?” Jake sounded amused.
“I’m lousy at it. I know what he means. He gets the necessity, he’s committed, he wants to do it, he works on learning how.”
“I heard you give him some pretty good advice over the summer.” Jake said mildly. Tom gave a rather bitter snort.
“Oh I can talk the talk no problem. Academically I could lecture in it. Being A Better Brat. Undergrads sign up here. Just don’t ask me – or rather you I suppose – what the hell it looks like when I’m actually doing it in my own life rather than telling someone else objectively what they should do.”
“You and I do just fine. If I needed you to do something differently you’d be the first to know.” Jake said definitively. “I don’t.”
“Only because you compensate for me all the time.” Tom fumbled a hand out in the dark to find his face, pulled it over to find his mouth and kissed him. “You’re way too nice and way too sympathetic-”
“Yeah if you had your way you wouldn’t stop until you were in chains in some dungeon somewhere.” Jake dug his fingers into Tom’s ribs until he squirmed. “Still feeling too guilty to enjoy it either, which is why you should never be allowed to get your way under any circumstances. You do not need to do anything differently for me or because of me because we are fine the way we are and I’ll make very sure we stay fine, I have got that one covered. If you want to, that’s a very different matter. If you want to, then whatever you want to explore or try I’m with you all the way. But I’m equally cool with hanging out with Lucifer slash Cain, slash anyone else dark and evil you feel romantically personified by until the end of time if that’s what you’re up for, that’s the guy I fell in love with.”
“You are a lousy Top!” Tom shook his head, somewhere between deeply touched and exasperated. “You are supposed to be exhorting character building, moral development, the pursuit of excellence and all kinds of stuff good little brats are supposed to get on with, you are not supposed to encourage me to be dark and twisted if I want to.”
“Why not?” Jake said practically. “It sounds good to me? You need sleep, sunshine.”
“So do you.”
“Yeah, but I’ve got you to repress first.”
“You’re not going to get any watery tarts lobbing swords at you up here, I promise you.” Tom shifted over onto his back to let Jake get more comfortable in the position he usually slept in. “Yetis possibly.”
He felt as much as heard Jake laugh. A deep, rich sound even with the strain the cold air was taking on his throat.
“Yeah. Settle down or it’s the vache. I’ve warned you.”
Tom smiled, watching the roof of the tent above them with its faintly sparkling ice coating.
“Although we’re lying on a sea bed. There’s fossils of marine life in the rocks here, I’ve seen pictures. This was all under the Tethys sea once, there were prehistoric monsters cruising here before the Indian shelf smashed into Cimmeria and ploughed the ground up thousands of feet into the sky.”
And froze it. Gliding plesiosaurs, placodonts and pistosaurids once passed over this surface before it sedimented into rock, built of once-living bone and earth. From low depths witnessing warm ocean giants to be thrown to a height towering above the world, to be encased in shimmering ice. This was a strange place and had been so for millions of years.
“So watery tarts are not all that implausible.” he amended. “If one does hand you a sword she’s probably legit.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Neither of them slept much. Shortly after 4.30am they got up in the freezing, cramped cold of the tent, moving with care to avoid knocking the canvas and showering everything with crystalised ice which would then melt and make everything wet, melted enough ice to drink and force a few spoonfuls of hot oatmeal down, kitted up again and the five of them zipped up their tents and walked out together into the icy dark, leaving camp two behind them to start up the Lhotse face. Tom was pulling his boots on with fingers that still hadn’t properly warmed up when he felt something crunch under his foot and investigated the inside of the boot more thoroughly. Jake was outside the tent, crampons on, rigging the ropes a little more securely to ensure the tent was still there when they came back. The crunching sound turned out to be a scrap of paper with Jake’s writing across it.
I love you.
Soppy bugger. He’d taken to doing this. In the last few days Tom had found several messages, some schmaltzier than others, hidden in the most unlikely of places so that he kept stumbling across them. He sat looking at this one for some seconds with his eyes stinging before he shoved it deep into the depths of his snow suit and finished putting his boot on.
The first stretch out of camp two was a bugger of scree and loose rock that camp two sat on, which was hard to walk on in the dark, took time as it rolled and shifted under your feet like walking on a steep shingle beach, and sapped energy from your legs as you floundered over it. Beyond that was a walk over a snowfield so gentle it might have been the nursery slopes of some ski resort if you didn’t have to constantly check your path for snow bridges that would give way as soon as you stepped on them. And that last section of the Cwm led to the towering blue ice wall of the 5000 foot Lhotse Face. From there it was a long, slow climb directly upwards, much of it on near vertical faces, ladders and ropes and ice cliffs, and they planned to be several hours up it this morning before the sun was full up and embarked on its daily job of making the mountain less stable after the deep freeze of the night. They would ascend nearly 3000 feet today, an abrupt and vigorous increase in height over a relatively short distance when up to now the gradient had risen gradually.
They paused at the Bergschrund crevasse, the thirty foot wide crack in the mountain where the Cwm ended and the Lhotse face began. It was like standing on the edge of a canyon. Tom thought of it as another of her posterns, the crossing into the deeper, private and demanding realms of her lands.
We may not see her armies,
we may not see her king
Her fortress is a faithful heart,
her pride is suffering…
Ladders were roped together, balanced over the distance where as you walked, you saw the bottomless, mighty wall of the other side of the canyon disappearing down into the dark; textured layers of ice that dwarfed you. The majesty of it was as powerful as the heart thudding long and lonely walk over that ladder in your crampons, with nothing to hold on to but the two ropes you slid through your hands. Watching Jake make that walk again to follow him made Tom’s heart thud in his throat and dried his mouth more than the cold air did, watching his every step intently with dread until he reached the other side. It was far worse watching Jake do it than doing it himself.
And then for grinding hours, they climbed. Concentration here was crucial; the Lhotse Face had been responsible for so many deaths on Everest, and every step had to be planned considered and placed with care with less and less breath in your lungs and less oxygen in your muscles to do so. With every metre of altitude you gained, your blood lost a little more oxygen to travel around your body, leaving you drained, weaker, foggy brained and starved of calories, dehydrated. And just as the ice chips they dislodged tumbled down the face behind them, there was always the risk of falling rocks here, rolling down from above and smashing into unwary climbers. They were about a third of the way on the ropes up the Face towards camp three and daylight was starting to cast across the ice when the radio crackled and a woman’s South African accent emerged from the static.
“Mountain Eagles. Jake, are you there?”
Jake lifted the radio on his harness, pausing for a moment on the ropes and his crampons dug into the ice, and checking the teeth of his jumar were gripping before he leaned back.
“Shem, what can I do for you?”
“Sorry to bother you. I’ve got an urgent family call for you on the Sat phone? Paul. He says he needs to talk to you both.”
“Go ahead.” Jake looked down to Tom who was climbing behind him, raising his eyebrows as the radio hissed. Paul’s voice was unmistakeable.
“Jake? Everyone’s fine, don’t panic. I need some help.”
“I’m up a rope in Nepal at about ….” Jake glanced down the sheer slide of the Lhotse face dropping away beneath them in the early light of dawn. “Six thousand, five hundred metres. Sure, what can I do for you? What time is it there? Aren’t you heading to bed yet?”
“Dale is headed out on a lone camp, I’ve got a few things to do.” Paul sounded quite cheerful about it. “You know how we do this for clients? We ask for letters from their family for them to take up.”
And Jake’s ranch lot would call without hesitation to every member of their family, despite whether or not they were up a mountain at the time. The distance made no odds to any of them. Tom, who had watched similar calls come to Jake and seen his involvement and attachment to what many men would have seen as mundane domestic stuff through the letters that somehow managed to reach them and always kept on arriving wherever Jake was in the world, saw illumination and warmth come into to Jake’s face and he nodded understanding, shifting his position carefully on the rope. “Yep. We’re nowhere near email and right now we need to think what we’re doing, can you call back in – say four hours? We can dictate something to you then from both of us. Sorry about the time difference.” Tom heard Paul laugh over the radio.
“Don’t worry, I’m going to be up all night anyway. Talk to you later.” Jake let the radio go and carried on climbing.
“Lone camp?” Tom said behind him.
“I’ve seen them do it with clients.” Jake’s sentences were slightly punctuated with his need to breathe and climb at the same time. “They spend 48 hours out camping by themselves on the ranch. Space to do some thinking outside, let the quiet and the open air work on them. So either they or Dale have decided it would be good for him. They usually ask the client’s family to send letters for him to read while he’s there. Share what’s best about their relationships, challenge whatever is a problem in the relationship that needs fixing, if necessary the terms on which the relationship can continue. They’ve had clients who have taken some pretty tough letters out there with them. I don’t think Dale’s got anything to worry about.”
No, Dale would state any issues he needed to address in his relationships himself, first and far more strictly than any of them could: that wasn’t the kind of challenge he really needed at all. What he needed was exactly the kind of approach Jake would take. Tom flushed slightly under his face protector, reaching for another hand hold and thinking of himself last night.
No, I won’t, I can’t.
It’s ok. It’s all right, I think we can do this.
No barking, no reproach. When Jake talked like that, it was possible to believe they could do absolutely anything.
Dorje was not far above them. Tom suspected he had been hanging back on purpose, keeping a watchful eye out for them although he climbed with the lightness, speed and strength that was typical of so many of the Sherpa men, and he could have been well ahead of them if he’d wanted to be. He smiled at them as they caught him up, nodding from beneath his red and yellow wool knitted hat above his black down suit, moving at a steady pace that matched theirs.
“Is a beautiful day. She very beautiful on day like this.”
She was. Majestic and gigantic, like something sprung from the writings of Jules Verne. Another world, a silent and carved one.
“Such beauty is reserved for distant, dangerous places, and nature has good reason for exacting her own special sacrifices for witnessing them.” Jake left off quoting long enough to switch onto the next rope, but Tom recognised the author. Jake had been born in Byrd’s own neighbourhood, great grandson of his contemporaries; another man born with wild blood and an adventurer’s heart.
“A stirring dwarf we do allowance give Before a sleeping giant.” Tom said in return, waiting for Jake to move on before he transferred his own rope. Jake gave him a quick grin, glancing down over his shoulder to meet his eyes.
“Art thou afeared? Be not afeared. The isle is full of noises…”
“Like avalanches. Yeah. Get on with it.” Tom switched onto the next rope and followed him.
“Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices…” Jake paused to shift his grip and dig his crampon in deeper before he took the large step up and across to the next handhold.
“This your spirits, Tom?” Dorje asked. He sounded gently intrigued by this, a very old game of theirs. Tom climbed the last few feet up the wall onto the slightly easier ground of a walkable slope, catching his breath.
“Just stories. Not the demons and angels I was telling you about.”
“What are angels?”
There were demons and spirits of all kinds of good in Sherpa beliefs, but not angels as other faiths knew them.
“Spirits. Messengers, holy guardians. Where I grew up there were pictures of them. Especially the archangels, the highest form of angel. They were my favourites. They were in a set of windows on one side, coloured glass.”
Which he knew and could remember as acutely as if he were still sitting on the stone ledge across the aisle, tucked into the alcove, watching the daylight shine through the faces in coloured shafts to pool on the flagstones below.
“They’re too often pictured as wet looking individuals with Aussie beach curls and soppy expressions.” he said more curtly. “Lot of rubbish. On our windows they were far more like the texts. More realistic. Most of them men. Tall. Strongly built, strong faces. Wings like swords or shields. Or eagles. Wings as large and tall as they were.”
He saw Dorje’s eyes as he grasped that and understood it as he understood it in himself. Gentle eyes in steady faces; warrior built men with wisdom and love in them, in the way they stood, in the way they looked down into the body of the cathedral, in the set of their shoulders and the grasp of their hands, but not in any sentimental sense of the word. There was nothing soft or mawkish about these beings. They were holding swords and it was clear they would have no difficulty in seeing any bullshit for precisely what it was.
“There are seven of the archangels.” Tom paused for a moment to stretch his back and glance down the way they had come. The ice face soared away below them. “The highest and holiest of messengers, the right hands. Every one of them has different interests and values according to their own way, they’re recorded in the old texts as being distinctly different personalities.”
“And who are they?” Dorje asked with interest. Jake was listening too; Tom could see his attention as they climbed.
“Gabriel….he stands for integrity, the power to hold onto your convictions, especially when you’re alone. Commitment. Steadfastness. In the Christian sacred texts he’s most often the messenger of God, sent to mortals with the ability to talk without terrifying. Be not afraid. Samael… his values are for fairness, constant mindfulness and care of others and your surroundings in terms of your self control, your self discipline. Ramiel…. She stands for her love of people and the values of friendship: trust, empathy, care and warmth for every being, whether they’re a stranger or not. Azrael….he stands for the patience to create stability, to resolve conflict and injustice peacefully and patiently, with forgiveness, to avoid hostility.”
The names were deeply familiar. Soothing. These were the stories, the people and faces that went back to his earliest years, he’d known them as well as the animals entering the ark in the east window and the characters in the nativity in the stone relief on the side of some ancient Bishop’s tomb, the names and the faces built into his world. This seemed an extremely apt place to be naming and reflecting on them, speaking them aloud like the daily repetition of the ancient Latin prayers and chants in the sanctity of the cathedral at home where people’s little lives came and went but the words went on unchanged in other voices. This was an unearthly place, an ancient and a sacred one. A place fit for angels.
Again he remembered standing with his father looking at the gold leafed pages in one of the huge books in the great cathedral vault with his father’s voice explaining the names, the values, the words and their meanings, things penned and illustrated by hand centuries before and kept safe among the priceless gold chalices and the jewelled sceptres and the other oldest, most precious secrets the cathedral guarded through time.
“Uriel – His values are for honesty, commitment to morality. Resistance to distraction in following your commitments and promises. And Raphael stands for healing, the will to take up the ugly, the tedious, the boring jobs with sacrifice and no obvious or glamorous reward, particularly towards those you don’t agree with or particularly see as deserving-”
He’s probably working overtime for the Pink Peril.
There was a shout from above and several more rocks bounced down the face, thankfully some way from them.
“The values are much the same.” Tom went on as they continued to climb again. “Same ideas. Just given to different names. They were messengers. Guardians. Soldiers when necessary. Once there was an eighth, Lucifer, who led a rebellion against the status quo in Heaven and battled the others, and he and his followers were cast down to Tartarus, a sealed depths. The fallen angels.”
Jake glanced back and met his eyes directly, smiling but giving him a very definite shake of the head.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Everyone went on more or less compulsory bed rest in camp three. With the ground too steep to leave the tent without being roped up, once they got there and took their boots off, they were restricted to the four walls of canvas until they stepped out to climb on in the morning. Dorje shared Bill and Spitz’s tent again. Tom suspected that either Bill had tipped him off that he and Jake fidgeted like all hell or had invited him in order to give them a break; Bill was tactful like that. However he and Spitz were the most tired of the group on reaching the camp.
“All that climbing and you two are still bloody hyperactive.” Bill said sourly when Jake brought him a sack of the ice chips he and Tom had just hacked to keep them going through the night. He and Spitz were sprawled directly across the floor of their tent while Dorje was sitting placidly lighting the stoves. “And too bloody chirpy, go away. Some of us are knackered.”
They were all knackered. It just worked out in different ways. Arms throbbing, legs on fire with muscles threatening to cramp, Tom dumped stuff to the sides of the tent, managed to stretch out from end to end of it and did a sharp, brisk set of push ups, forcing his calves to loosen out and stretch and his biceps to work the extensors as well as the flexors he’d been overusing all day, and his spine to remember it was supposed to work in alignment. It bloody hurt to begin with, but he and Jake had been in athletics training since before adolescence and it involved developing a different relationship with pain. It was something you worked with, something you managed strategically, and you picked up a lot of tricks of the trade on the way. Jake was crouching in the open doorway of the tent, elbows on his knees, sunglasses pushed to the top of his head, just watching him with an expression in his eyes that made Tom snort as he stopped and knelt up to shake his wrists out.
“Not a chance, forget it. Go and roll in the snow.”
“Yes. Double dose.” Tom leaned over to take one of Jake’s crampons as he took it off, turning it over to check the blades. There were a couple of practical hours of sharpening their blunted crampons and ice axes, checking their kit and then reading in the icy afternoon daylight of the open doorway of their tent, watching the extraordinary view before them. And as the afternoon faded away they sat shoulder to shoulder watching the sun go down on Everest. The golden light fading slowly from the ice as the shadows grew longer, looking down from their freezing eagles’ perch down the massive ice wall below, silent because it was too remarkable a sight for words. Tom had sat in some spectacular places around the planet with Jake and seen no few sunsets but this one – this was something else. And then as the temperature started to plummet, the breeze began to get noisy, to rattle the tents and send snow flurrying up from the ground like dust and the world outside began to freeze solid, they zipped up the tent, shut out the worst of the cold, and Tom felt his stomach clench.
He wasn’t entirely sure why and he was aware he was doing it more for the look of the thing rather than with any real purpose but while Jake lay down to read again, Tom unpacked his rucksack, checked it again and re packed it, aware that Jake was whistling Santa Claus is Coming To Town half under his breath, probably subconsciously.
He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice…
It was a fair and sensible thing to do, no one headed up to the summit without knowing their kit was straight and everything was there, but Tom knew it was a little too thoroughly done to be quite convincing, particularly since they had already done it once together about an hour ago. After which he fidgeted with the harness for a few minutes, making some unnecessary adjustments to the strap length. And then with a sinking feeling he couldn’t quite control, he found himself making a direct, impulsive attempt at crawling to and unzipping the tent door.
It was getting far too cold and windy to have the tent open. More to the point, on the Lhotse Face where stepping out of the tent unprepared could mean an immediate descent of 3000 feet in about eight seconds, it was not a smart move. It had been a lethal move for no few climbers in this camp, and Jake had left their boots and crampons directly in front of the tent entrance as he had last time at camp three, blocking their way to make absolutely sure neither of them could absently or half asleep take a step out there without thinking. Before he got half way there Jake signalled in one jerk of his thumb to get away from it right now.
His signals were pretty unmistakeable if you knew him. Tom paused where he was, looking at him for a few seconds with his heart thumping and no real idea what he was doing, but his voice was to his own ears very soft and quietly persistent and coming from somewhere else entirely than him.
“It isn’t even dark yet-”
He’d seen Riley argue plenty of times; Flynn and the others usually warned. Explained. Jake didn’t, and it was just as well he didn’t as Tom had played Sea Lawyer to several other men who had very kindly tried, driving them to distraction and making him unfairly and hotly frustrated with them. This, with Jake, was the equivalent of leaning over to the red button marked ‘do not push’ and punching it.
Jake sat up in one smooth movement like a jaguar dropping down off a branch, Tom’s arm got taken in one clean swipe to pull him over and mouth drying rapidly and stomach dropping like a stone, Tom found himself kneeling while Jake, looking genially calm about it, all too efficiently peeled him straight out of his down suit, dropped it to one side and turned Tom over his lap. Panting on the low oxygen and sweating despite the biting cold in the tent, Tom felt his fleece pants and underwear stripped straight down, Jake’s arm fold around his waist and grasp his hip to keep him steady and his palm landed in a very rapid flurry of loud, crisp spanks that rained all over his bare backside. As cold as he was, it felt extremely sharp; getting oneself spanked when this cold was a seriously bad idea at any time, it was something Tom knew academically from experience but rarely remembered until it was too late. He squirmed; he couldn’t help it; the ouching and yelping and whining that burst out was undignified and equally involuntary, he had no choice about that either, and there was definitely a little kicking involved. It didn’t last long – the downpour was maybe thirty seconds at most – but Jake meant business and his backside was smarting fiercely and radiating heat and his eyes were wet when Jake paused and to Tom’s alarm instead of helping him dress, stripped him of the rest of everything he wore, down to the skin which was no joke in this tent where their breath was steaming brightly in front of them, and unzipped the sleeping bag.
Tom moved fast from his lap. The inside of the bag was freezing. Jake knelt up to strip off his own down suit, undressing to his fleece layers beneath, and slid into the sleeping bag with Tom, zipping it up around them both before he lay back to lean against his rucksack and pick up his book once more. Brat sorted. Problem over with.
Feeling extremely, wholeheartedly sorted and unable to prevent himself sliding a hand down to rub some of the intense sting out of his backside which gave far too much away to Jake about how it felt and how much of an impression it had made, Tom turned over against him for warmth which, from Jake’s body heat, rapidly combined with his and within a few minutes had raised the sleeping bag interior to a comfortable temperature. It did not make being stark naked feel any less exposed or tangible, it felt rather like having been peeled and it made the touch of Jake’s body head to foot against his bare skin feel much more penetrating. He’d wanted Jake’s definite action. Except that Jake tended to be a whole lot more definite than he was prepared for. He wouldn’t use the martinet up here; that was probably hyper cautious actually but Jake did as Jake decided, and Tom was extremely glad he hadn’t reached for that horrific cream, he didn’t feel up to handling that at all tonight, but that had been…. Bloody definite.
This was not what book heroes did the night before they went to slay the dragon or find the grail or whatever it was they were questing about. They knelt in chapels and got their mind on the job. Cleared their consciences, sharpened their focus on their intent, their purity of heart. They did not struggle with the impulse to jump all over the last nerve of a boyfriend who had no reservations whatsoever about applying his hand to your butt, they did not end up naked and feeling extremely pathetically clingy in sleeping bags, it was ridiculous.
What exactly do I think I’m doing?
The stove, with its small, struggling flame heating the ice chips in the pan, cast its clean light through the tent like a candle.
“What’s the worst thing I’ve ever done with you?” he found himself blurting out to Jake. Jake thought for a moment, marking his place in his book with one hand.
“Bought tickets for that God-awful performance of A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum in Cyprus by the British am dram society….. where most of the cast was over fifty and huge elderly women in togas were playing the courtesans and the guy playing Miles Gloriosus was about five foot two, eight stone wringing wet and singing about his mighty chest-”
“You didn’t sit, you paced around at the back and kept laughing in the wrong places.” Tom poked him with an elbow. “I’m serious.”
“So am I, I should have spanked you for that.”
“Worst meaning what?”
“Oh come on.”
“What do you mean by worst? The most upset I’ve seen you get? The most trouble you’ve gotten into?”
Tom sighed hard, exasperated as Jake would never be easily manoeuvred anywhere. “A list. You know a normal couple would come up with a list in seconds?”
“What fun is normal? You mean what I’ve been most bothered about, don’t you?” He said it with gentle precision that made Tom wince.
“…It’s not like I think you keep a score sheet -”
“I can’t think of it in those terms, you’ve never ‘done’ anything.”
“Oh for God’s sake Jake, I’m a bloody disaster area, you’ve been straightening me out for years.”
“That’s not what it’s like. Is it? It’s not what you tell Dale he’s doing.”
“It isn’t what he’s doing.”
Jake rolled over to lay on his stomach, propping his head on his hand above Tom where he could see his face. “Why not admit it’s exactly what we’re doing? With all the romance you’re capable of, with all the thought and feeling you’re capable of, with all the meaning and purpose that matters to you? Because we are, I’m qualified to know this. I happen to know exactly how fantastic knocking around with you is. I don’t plan on doing anything else the rest of my life.”
The proper response would have been to mutter something about soppy bastard; Tom didn’t manage it, but Jake pulled him the rest of the way into his arms and lay down to hold him.
“I think it was swimming the harbour at Dover.” Tom said eventually, not very steadily. “That was probably the worst.”
“In what way the worst?” Jake said quietly. “The one you feel worst about right now? Because I remember that as my mistake leaving you alone without seeing you were too stressed out to handle it.”
“Balls, you never signed any agreement to be psychic, it was my responsibility to tell you. You’d have stayed if I’d asked you-”
“You wouldn’t have wanted me there,”
“I would. I always want you there.”
“Yeah, I know. And in that state you try your hardest not to admit it and get rid of me because otherwise you’d weaken and let me see.” Jake finished gently. “I know you. I know how it works. And you couldn’t have told me. Then. Now… I think it would be different. It takes time to learn to communicate, any couple have to figure it out between themselves.”
“Dale gets this you know. They talk about not withholding, he just gets it and sets out not to do it, it’s something they can talk about.”
“Why don’t you say what you actually mean?”
“I wish I was strong enough to do that. I know why they value it, I agree, I agree completely, I don’t do that with you and I should.”
“But it’s supposed to involve bloody torturous negotiations and explanation and reasoning, and all the rest of the crap?” Jake smiled at him, quoting something Tom had said to him awkwardly, a long time ago in a garden in Cairo. “It’s not going to make any difference, we both know perfectly well. Do you want help? Without all the supposed bloody torturous negotiations?”
He was smiling. Tom remembered it as a fearful, defensive declaration – the most romantic he’d been capable of at the time:
I’m a grown up. I do not need looking after. I do not need sorting out or fixing. I make my own decisions and I’m an awkward, bloody minded cynic so it’s a waste of anyone’s time trying anyway. I don’t buy into the fairytale crap and this isn’t being swayed by jet lag or the place or anything else –
He’d never fooled Jake for a moment. And he’d always known it.
The wind rattled the tent skin and the little flame of the stove flickered on.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It wasn’t long after that Shem radioed up to say Phoenix had stayed another day at camp one, too tired to want to face the ice fall yet and having too good a time socialising with the Canadians. Pemba and Lobsang were staying in the camp with him, and she wasn’t concerned, but if he wasn’t feeling fit enough in the morning she’d climb up to camp one herself and take a look at him. And she had Paul on the phone again. Jake took the phone first and Tom listened in silence to the quick and very kind letter that Jake dictated, lying beside him with his eyes on the view beyond. Until now they had been climbing in a canyon. From here, the top was all too visible above them. The weather was sharp and clear and holding, it was perfect climbing conditions. Dream climbing conditions, almost too good to be true.
“… I knew Philip,” Jake said calmly beside him to the phone, “and I knew David, they would have loved you and been very proud of you. I know too how happy you make the others and they are people I love, and I know how much my partner values your letters and mails. I thank you very much for that Dale, it makes you an important person to me too and I’m very glad you found your way to us. With love, Jake. Got all that? I’ll hand you over to Tom.”
He handed the phone across to Tom. Who cleared his throat, sitting up to take a grip on himself. He’d been thinking all day about this. There was no time or place better to say these things to someone who would- truly understand them. Exactly as he did, on the other side of the world. If he could only find the courage.
“Hi love,” Paul’s voice said warmly over the phone. “If you wouldn’t mind giving me a couple of lines I know it would mean a lot to Dale; checking for your mails has been one of the few things he’s been interested in over the last few weeks, he’s really appreciated them.”
“Is he ok?”
“He’s had a rough time.” Paul sounded gentle. “He’s doing ok, but it hasn’t been easy for him. I admit I’m not keen on him being away from me for a couple of days or him being alone, but it’s important to him. I know he’s shared some of what he’s working through with you. He wants time to think and prepare himself, this is a formal commitment he’s making to us. That matters a lot to Dale, he needs to do things fully and consciously and in an organised way, the gesture is important.”
Dale was so absolutely right. These pilgrimages – they were huge acts of sacrifice, of purpose, the ceremony was deeply important. The act of purification was deeply important. These gestures were known to man as far back as recorded history went, in every culture.
Jake was laying on his back, against his side where Tom could feel him. Tom drew a deep breath.
“Ok. I’m going to try, these things never come out too well for me.”
“Honey, it’s you he likes, not your flowing prose, I promise.” Paul said lightly. “Just a ‘hi Dale, I’m thinking of you’ would matter a lot to him right now.”
“Dale.” Tom shut his eyes, trying to think. “… I’m glad you’re going on the camp. I agree with you. Being somewhere alone and wild lets you think clearly. I’m glad you found the Fisher King story useful. It’s one I’ve thought about for years, it makes a lot of sense to me. I’ve been sitting in that castle for about twenty years trying to pull up the courage to ask the question.”
Jake’s hand came down over his shoulder, purposefully, and Tom reached for it, gripped it hard, watching Jake’s fingers wind through his.
“…Did you know about Plato’s Devine Design? ‘There is a place that you are to fill and no one else can fill." It just takes both the guts and the insight to look for it. Something else you might find interesting given what Paul’s telling us: did you know the night before a man was knighted he traditionally spent a night alone in a ten hour vigil in a holy place? Prayed, meditated and prepared himself to make that lifetime sacred commitment to the principles he was vowing to serve, until the morning when his sponsor presented him with his shield and sword and he swore his oath of allegiance. I’m not surprised that’s what you feel drawn to do. I’ve done a little of it myself in the last few days, our Sherpas see this as a supremely spiritual place that is earned, not an entitlement. I’m dictating this to Paul over the satellite phone and the reception’s bloody awful so I need to keep it quick. We’re at camp three today. Tonight we’ll go up to camp four, sleep the rest of the day and in the early hours we’re making our summit bid. We’re both in high places tonight and both preparing ourselves to be worthy…” He hesitated, knowing what he wanted to say, and finally said out loud, “…Ex animo. Tom.”
There was a moment of long pause where Tom felt his stomach knot with anxiety that either Paul had decided he was a complete and utter twit, or that the line had been broken.
Then finally Paul said very softly, “I’ve got it. Thank you honey. Thank you both very much. You be careful, we’re all thinking of you and we’re wishing you a good, safe day tomorrow. Please let us know as soon as you’re safe?”
“We will.” Jake took the radio gently from Tom. “Love to everyone. Goodnight Paul, get some sleep.”
He stuffed the radio out of reach and put a hand up to run a finger down Tom’s cheek, his eyes very soft in a way that went right through Tom’s heart and into his guts.
“You are so beautiful. You know that?”
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015