“Our time window here is going to be short.”
Jake, sitting with his hands dug in this pockets on one of the multiple and luridly coloured plastic barrels that were currently stacked in their compound like giant kids’ building blocks, looked around the small circle of five clients seated in deckchairs on the frozen grey shale in their thick down jackets, woolly hats and sunglasses, their faces streaked with sun block. Bill and Spitz were crouching on the ice shale, listening in silence. While Jake’s voice was gentle, there was a specificity to it that Tom had heard him use to other clients of theirs in similar meetings on multiple Peruvian expeditions. And those had been experienced archaeologists and anthropologists with some idea of what they were getting into.
“The weather generally clears for climbs to begin around the first week in May, and the final climbs will take place around the beginning of the third week. We’re talking about a brief time period when the mountain might let us up without weather that’s going to blast us off.”
“People do climb year round though?” One of the clients asked. He was a thick set, heavy guy who was a banker from somewhere in the Midwestern states, who’d obviously done a lot of reading and tended to like to make it clear to the other clients he knew it all.
“Elite professional climbers and Sherpas climb more or less year round.” Jake agreed. His fair hair was in his eyes, it needed trimming and he looked cheerfully ragged around the jaw and in need of a shave unlike their currently still fairly well groomed clients. “That’s not us. We, and almost all the 200 plus climbers currently in base camp will be going up in that two to three week weather window, and we’re all going to be timing it carefully, partly around the weather and partly to make sure not too many people are using the same bit of the route on the same day. As we get clearer information about weather windows we’ll start negotiating times with the other teams around us. The weather is going to be the crucial part.” He paused again to let that sink in, looking around the five clients, including Mr Phoenix Loudon, who was today a vision in electric blue, and seemed to have brought a ridiculous amount of clothing with him.
“We’ll hope it’s going to work with us. We need to be prepared that it may not. Bill’s expedition a few years ago got to camp 3 and no higher because of the weather turning bad on them. There will be limits to the time that we can sit in camps higher up the mountain and wait for the weather to clear. It’s not just about having enough supplies up there, enough food and fuel, it’s also the altitude. Higher up, your body is burning its resources to survive, it’ll be managing without enough oxygen to work properly, you’re going to struggle to digest or to sleep. There’ll be a limit to how long you can take it before you’ve used up the energy and health you need to be able to climb. We’re always looking at having enough in reserve to be able to get safely down.”
Why talk to them about issues that none of them are going to have to actually contend with? Tom thought, looking around the circle of faces. None of this lot are going much above camp one, if we even get their skills high enough to consider taking them that far.
And what happens then? If one of them refuses to accept a ‘no’ if we say they can’t go further? If we end up having to tell all five they came here for nothing and aren’t going up at all?
It was a conversation he’d had with Jake, Bill and Spitz more than once, and Jake, while he agreed, had calmly reiterated that the clients would be treated as if they were all potential summiters, and at least they could that have that experience and be included in it.
But they’re not fit enough. They’re not prepared, they have no experience, they have no idea what they’ve got themselves into. Most of them are shocked by the cold at night and they’re struggling already with coughs and chapped lips. They’re struggling to learn to use crampons. This was an awful thing Harry did, and I don’t know how long we can protect him from the clients realising it.
“This is the take it seriously speech.” Phoenix commented, crossing his legs. Which were irritatingly shapely, even through his thick down trousers.
Jake nodded, giving him a smile. “It is. If we turn you around, it may be to make sure that you’ve got enough reserves left to get back to somewhere safe, and it’s why the rule is cast iron for every member of this expedition. If one of the guides tells you it’s time to turn around, there’s no arguments. It isn’t something we’ll tell you to do lightly, but if we do, it isn’t negotiable.”
“What about the time limits?” Phoenix asked. “What will they be at each stage?”
“The first stage, through the Ice Fall, you should be able to do in under four hours from base camp to camp one.” Jake said calmly.
“Isn’t four hours a little unreasonable?”
Even through sunglasses, Tom could see Phoenix’s eyes and the way he used them. ‘Flirt’ wasn’t a good description, but it was near.
“Is there going to be grace period? Like half an hour? And some individualisation? I mean, given my own time I can do what I need to do, and surely it’s better that I feel confident and take my time and do it properly rather than rush because of some arbitrary plan?”
Tom gave him a steady look from behind Jake.
“This is the same plan every commercial expedition here will have,” Jake said patiently. “And every serious independent climber will time themselves and stick to those limits.”
Phoenix shrugged a casual shoulder. “Well I find it’s better for me to do my own thing and make my own judgements-”
“You cannot saunter up Everest in your own time.” Tom cut Phoenix off without delicacy. “This isn’t Mount bloody Scott. Organised expeditions set strict time limits at the low camps for a good reason. At higher levels, moving that slowly, you’re going to get yourself killed, not to mention risk the life of any poor sod who happens to be stuck behind you, or any bunch of idiots soft hearted enough to try to help you at night in lousy conditions because you took too long and got into difficulties. It’s not just a speed test – and there is a window each day of when it’s safe to climb, when you’ve got daylight and it’s less dangerously cold, when everything’s still frozen hard and is stable – it’s a fitness test too. We need to know who’s got the speed and the stamina, people die on this mountain. Professionals and Sherpas who know exactly what they’re doing and have been doing it for years die on this mountain. If you can’t do it within the set time at the low levels, then you’re not fit enough or strong enough or acclimated enough to risk going any higher. That’s the discipline basic to any serious climber.”
There was rather a stunned silence when he finished. Spitz caught his eye and gave him a dry nod of approval. Tom found himself looking rather grimly from face to face, more concerned than angry.
There was Max; a retired and wealthy racing horse owner with a distinctly large middle and a deep throated chuckle who probably worried Tom the most as he was cheerful and friendly and by far the least fit of the group, here to realise a romanticised ambition. He’d struggled with the walk down to base camp and was finding it hard going to move his big frame around in the thin atmosphere, although he was good natured and not given to grousing. There was Lawrence, a man of no career and a large trust fund as far as Tom could see, who enjoyed sailing his yacht with his wife and had gone on a large number of exotic expeditions he enjoyed telling the others about in the mess tent in the evenings, but while he was trim and well into his forties with extremely expensive gear that was the very best of the best, the gear was brand new, he had little to no climbing experience and his fitness was in terms of sessions in a private gym. That didn’t stand you in much stead up here and it was coming as a rude surprise to him. There was Bart, who messed around in the art world and was a genuinely nice guy who had done some serious climbing in his youth, about twenty five years ago, and was essentially having a midlife crisis that had driven him to make this wild gesture towards recaptured youth and fitness and living for today or some such nonsense which he talked about a great deal to anyone who happened to be around. He really had more or less decided a few months ago out of the blue to go and climb Everest, and while he did have some technical experience and some knowledge of what he was getting into, it wasn’t well practiced and his fitness was a serious concern. There was John, the banker, who had done plenty of reading, whose self confidence was apparently boundless, who thought of himself as quite the athlete with his five mile jogs around New York city streets on the weekends and his squash tournaments, and believed he was thoroughly prepared. And there was Mr Phoenix Aleutian Loudon. Their little Pal. The youngest of the clients by about two decades, with no experience of any kind, an amazing wardrobe, an amazing ego and a big mouth.
That was probably not charitable.
What they had in common was all being extremely wealthy holiday adventurists, and enthusiastic, at least in principle.
“We’re going to do some training hikes and practice the crampon work and using ice ladders before we make plans about starting towards camp one.” Jake said gently as though nothing had happened. Phoenix was still staring at Tom, who looked right back, eyes unwavering. Phoenix broke the gaze first, deliberately turning his attention back to Jake.
“Some more simple things,” Jake went on. “Eat as much as you can, and work on eating well. You’re going to be losing a huge amount of calories and energy just being awake at this altitude. The only way you’ll have energy to climb safely is if you eat properly and regularly, and accept that a lot of the time at this altitude, you’re not going to feel like it or want to. You still need to make yourself do it.”
No kidding. Tom shifted slightly where he stood, a little embarrassed although no one but Jake would know it.
“Everyone should keep chocolate and energy bars on them and in their tents, the cook’s got boxes of them.” Jake went on. “Carry them, and use them, you’re inevitably going to lose some weight up here but the less you lose the better. While we’re in base camp – rest. Sit or lie and read. Listen to music. Relax. We’ll have regular rest days in between climbing days, and you need to make the most of them by preserving all the energy you can, and letting your body acclimatize. You also need to get into the habit now of drinking plenty, and that means a lot more than you’d think of as plenty at home. You’ll dehydrate fast up here breathing air this cold and thin; that saps energy. If you’re dehydrated your body will struggle to stay warm and to use what oxygen it’s getting, and you’re more likely to get kidney and bladder infections that’ll make you too sick to climb. The higher we go, the more important drinking gets. Get in the habit now of checking your urine.”
Several clients flinched and Phoenix winced and said a loud and highly high schoolish “Ew!” that made Tom long to throw something at him. Jake took no notice.
“Standard practice up here. The darker it is, the more you need to drink. If it’s brown, you’ve got a problem and you need to take in fluids until it clears. Which brings me to another point, I’d like to introduce you to Shem Carroll who will be acting as our expedition doctor.”
Shem, a woman in her mid forties with a brown and weather beaten face and her long, dark hair in a plait over her shoulder, hands dug deep in the pockets of a battered purple anorak, nodded to the group and smiled. She was a South African national with a strong accent, and her medical training had been put to use in medical stations in Mozambique, Uganda and Zimbabwe. When the doctors at the clinic for altitude sickness near Tengboche had been contacted to ask if they knew of a medic who might join the Mountain Eagles expedition, they had immediately suggested Shem, who they appeared to be fond of, who was camping near the monastery and lending a hand to the clinic and anyone else who happened to need it, and who would welcome an expedition to join at base camp itself. She was an efficient camper and hiker, independent and as strong as she was lean and wiry. Tom had seen her set up her own tent, cheerfully brushing aside any offered help, and while the supplies she had brought with her from the clinic were basic, they were well organised and real essentials. Unlike some of the other expeditions’ doctors who had come to this country for the first time with crates of all kinds of medical supplies that spoke more of anxiety and panic about what they might have to handle than of any real experience.
“My tent’s the red one,” Shem said in her thick accent, nodding at the scarred red dome that was big enough to accommodate several people standing up. “Come and see me any time, everyone welcome. I’m going to ask all of you to meet with me this morning and let me get an idea of your medical history, height, weight, information that might be important for me to have to hand for you if you need help while you’re here. Jake’s warned you about urine infections. I’ll warn you about HACE. High Altitude Cerebral Edema, also known as mountain sickness. Too little oxygen, swelling of the brain inside the skull, it happens often up here every year, you’ll have heard of it, and it’s a killer. It creeps up fast, people can die in the matter of a few hours so be alert for it. If you get a bad headache, if you’re breathless, if you’re throwing up, if you can’t sleep, you need to let me and one of the guides know. If you see any of the team looking or acting confused and that includes the guides and the Sherpas, don’t assume they’re ok: double check on them and let me and one of the guides know. That person may have gotten hypoxic and be too confused to realise they’re in trouble. The only treatment that really helps HACE is immediate descent, no matter whether it’s day or night. Ideally you take the person straight down 500-1000 feet at least, to the last elevation at which they were sleeping ok and feeling well, and it can mean leaving base camp and going back down into the valley where the oxygen is thick enough for you to recover.”
“What about dexamethasone?” Phoenix asked. “We can take that, can’t we, if we need it?”
Shem gave him a brisk nod. “Yes, we’ve got dex. You’ll carry it when you’re climbing in preloaded syringes, and before you climb I’ll show you all how to use the syringe if you have to, but dex is emergency medical treatment, not a climbing aid. A shot of dex will buy someone a little time when they’re collapsing, when it’s combined with oxygen and with getting down the mountain. It isn’t a fix. Above camp three where you’ll be using canned oxygen, the oxygen won’t be a fix either. Oxygen and dex will not make you feel like you’re walking around at sea level, it’s just going to take a little of the edge off hypoxia. The rules to follow are that if you feel unwell at altitude, it’s HACE until proven otherwise, and never go higher if you’ve got any symptoms. You will get worse.”
“We’ll follow the tradition of ‘climb high, sleep low’ to work on avoiding this.” Jake agreed. “You’ll see almost all the expeditions follow the same pattern we will, the aim is to acclimatise ourselves while spending the minimum possible number of nights at high altitude where your strength is going to be sapped, and we’ll take some rest days at base camp between each trip. Our first proper expedition up the mountain will be to climb to camp one and back down to base camp on the same day. The second expedition, we’ll climb to camp one and sleep the night there, the next day hike on to camp two and then come back down to base camp to sleep. Third expedition, we’ll climb base camp to camp two, sleep there overnight, hike on to camp three but come back down to camp two to sleep, then climb back down to base camp again. The fourth expedition will be to climb from base camp to camp two and sleep there overnight, climb up to camp three on the next day and sleep there, then the next day climb up to camp four but descend back down to camp two to sleep before we come back down to base camp. At that point we’ll pick our weather date to climb up through all the four camps with an attempt on climbing to the summit from camp four. Because of the avalanche risk at camp one, we’re going to aim to be there as little as possible, we’ll use it as a way station more than an established camp. That’s why camp two is known as advanced base camp around here. ABC.”
The clients were silent. Even those that had read plenty about climbing here were starting to see a little more reality than perhaps was comfortable for them. Not without sympathy, Jake looked around the circle once more, voice gentle.
“I know some of you are shocked by how tired and unwell you’re feeling right now. It’s normal at this altitude. This is what we expect and it’s the same for all of us. In a few days you’ll start to adjust and that’s why these rest days are important. Take it easy, eat and drink all you can, relax and give yourselves time.”
Jake was feeling as unwell as any of them, although you had to know him to see it. Arms still folded, Tom watched him get up with expert eyes, intensely aware of him moving more slowly than he usually did, as if he was stiff, and that he often stifled a cough as he talked. The Khumbu cough it was called; the lining and membrane of your throat and respiratory tract dried out here and was endlessly irritated by breathing freezing air. The coughing was painful and tiring and broke your sleep, and Jake, while he was lean and wiry rather than heavily built, was the tallest man here and that equated to his oxygen and circulation having to work harder than the rest of them. He needed rest and calm; to be doing nothing more than laying around reading as he would have been doing had it just been the five of them working to their original plans. Not to be actively busy caring for a set of no-hopers who were upset when they couldn’t get warm at night and panicked at the copious nose bleeds and sores on fingers and lips that were starting to appear, and wanted a visible leader to be chatting to and referring to all day. Bill was doing his best to share the load and he was the other one of them good at the social stuff, but Jake was the one people naturally warmed to. It always was. And base camp was the point your health started crashing; it was only going to get harder as you went higher, and at the end of the day that was a lot of what you were gambling; that your body could hold out long enough to get up and down again.
And stress didn’t help. Stress radically increased your chances of mountain sickness.
Unable to watch any more, Tom turned and walked away behind the tents, wanting to get away from the sound of the voices. The last few days had been nonstop bustle of unpacking, setting up, chiselling out ice platforms as stable bases for tents, and there was still plenty to do. The camp had transformed over the last few days, and the speed with which the locals did business could have taught a few things to the comfortable western world. Larger, more stable and better insulated tents had arrived and the clients now occupied one each of the red blisters, which had been erected in a group in the shelter of the large new mess tent they had put up to replace the battered one that Harry and partner had initially provided. The cooking equipment inside had been updated and was considerably more expensive, and a middle aged and cheerful Sherpa man with one foot missing at the ankle and his stump wrapped thickly and jammed into a boot, had appeared with a yak train one morning along with a teenaged boy who appeared to be the son of someone else at base camp, and the two of them had taken over the meal preparations.
The man was a good cook, and he kept the mess tent warm and enjoyed the company of people coming and going; the clients were appreciating that and the mess tent had immediately become the social centre of their compound where people sat around with mugs of hot chocolate and coffee and chatted when they weren’t actually eating. The appearance was now of a well organised dude climb expedition.
Several more Sherpa men had arrived and after talking to other Sherpa men in base camp, came to Jake and explained they were here to work as porters and would guide if wanted to. They were fascinating people to talk to; no few of them had climbed the mountain before, a couple had summited, and the loads they calmly toted up here where most people wheezed for breath even just walking to the toilet, were jaw dropping. The oldest and most experienced of them was a man by the name of Pemba, who might have been in his mid forties although the Sherpa men with their generally weather-beaten faces and astounding physical fitness were extremely hard to place in terms of age. Pemba appeared to be the leader of the group, had obviously worked with climbing expeditions before, and the other men had calmly and cheerfully began to unpack and assemble equipment under his direction. They were an upbeat group. Calm and confident, mostly keeping to themselves in a group although they were friendly enough to anyone who spoke to them, and efficient in everything they did.
They had gone yesterday with Tom, Jake and Spitz to set ropes on a lower slope in the foothills that lay a couple of miles walk from base camp; safe places to practice stamina and ice climbing, crampon work and hiking at altitude. They’d set ladders too; not necessary ones but like the ladders they’d been working with at base camp, just a means for the clients to become experienced in using them with crampons on their boots and while handling ropes. A climber in the Ice Fall would be using ladders for real over and over again, the last count rumoured for this year was a total of seventy eight constructed by the Sherpa ice doctors who laid the trail annually. They led for a hard climb that took you 2000 feet up the mountain over a long, convoluted route; ladders to climb up and down and many laid flat to walk over wide crevasses where all you could see below you was a blue ice canyon with no bottom. Which you walked over wearing crampons, the metal spikes balancing on metal rungs.
What the hell are we going to say to them when the verdict has to be for all of them, no, you go no further? What are we going to do with them while we head off up the mountain?
Tom ducked into the communications tent, taking no notice of Harry who was hunched as usual over the elderly laptop at the far end on a camping table. He’d barely left the tent since they day they arrived, and he barely spoke to any of them either, not that Tom cared much right now. On the new camping tables was the new equipment set up and humming; fax machine, two brand new laptops, a printer, the satellite phone equipment, various other pieces of shiny black plastic with flashing lights that Tom didn’t recognise at all since technology usually played very little part in their lives, but the clients were enjoying being able to get to and send emails, print them off and share them.
In the new email account he’d set up less with tongue in cheek than with suppressed bitterness, there was a new mail from Dale and Tom sat down in a deck chair to scan through it quickly.
Subject: Re: Large Financial Mess
Paperwork enclosed. It’s as water tight as I can make it without involving a legal team. If you need book keeping work for this I’d be glad to do it.
How are things going? As far as I can work out, you should have reached base camp by now?
Paul et al send good wishes.
Tom suppressed a rather twisted grin at the signature. He knew the hands that fell on his shoulders and sat back to let Jake read over his head, hearing Jake’s snort of amusement.
“Yes well if Dale thinks he’s made something water tight, it’s probably the equivalent of declaring a drought disaster area. I doubt he’s left one single drop anywhere.”
“I’ll print a copy off and file it.”
“Later.” Jake gripped the shoulders of his fleece, pulling him up out of the chair. Harry didn’t look up at either of them, staring at his laptop as if they weren’t there.
“I was about to reply;” Tom informed him, “You reply to mails, it’s the nice thing to do, particularly when some poor bugger with no idea of what’s going on just spent a few hours of his time saving our necks-”
By this point Jake had pushed him through the flaps of the communication tent which made continuing to argue fairly pointless. The sun was warming up outside. Spitz was sitting chatting with Max and John outside their tents. Bill and Dorje were checking ice screws on the mess tent. On the glacier here, the ground moved every day and the tents needed constant re adjustment. And it was hard not to drag his feet as going anywhere with Jake was not something Tom wanted to do at all this morning, not that he would have admitted it or done anything so bunnyish as to show it. Worse, Jake was heading purposefully for Shem’s red tent where Shem herself was unpacking a crate of the brand new oxygen bottles set aside for her medical purposes and glanced up at them.
“We thought we’d check in with you now if you’ve got time?” Jake said with criminal misuse of the term ‘we’. Shem put down the canister and waved them through the open flaps of her tent.
“Great, come on in, be my guest. You’re the first on my list.”
“That’s us. Keen and ready.”
The tent was Spartan rather than neat or homely, and Shem herself looked like a proper climber; that was to say she looked like a hobo who’d come to base camp direct from three days hanging around the back of a supermarket for stale bread. Her clothes were weathered, her boots were battered and comfortably well worn, and her plait was careless and ends of hair curled free from it as she worked her way around first Jake’s and then Tom’s chest and back with her stethoscope. Tom stared into the middle distance and ignored it and her until she tugged it free from her ears and smiled at him.
“All good. You two have some pretty efficient blood oxygen readings for the altitude, you’re well prepared for this.”
“Jake was telling me you’ve spent a few years working at altitude on and off.”
He gossips like that.
And where Tom had focused on chiselling out ice platforms and roping tents to ice screws, Jake had been doing his usual thing of quickly and easily getting to know people, particularly the new people around them. He had a natural gift for liking people and being liked and it didn’t get in the way of him doing just as much of the physical labour. Tom shouldered back into his various layers of thermal tops which was what helped balance the ridiculous contrast of heat and cold out here, and behind him Jake filled the social gap easily the way he often did for them.
“Mostly Peru, we’ve got the hang of it over the years.”
“So two totally boring medical histories and clean bill for you both, no problems, I shan’t have to worry about you.” Shem stooped over her files to write a note, tossing her plait back over her shoulder. “Other than that cough, Jake. Not that it’s going to be unusual up here, but if it doesn’t settle in the next day or two I’ll give you a bronchodilator. Someone your height needs an eye keeping on them.”
Yes, I know. Keeping the glower off his face with an effort, Tom zipped his jacket up to the chin and watched Jake skim through the paperwork she passed to them.
“Your next of kin all there? Everything I need to know?”
Flynn O’Sullivan, Falls Chance Ranch was listed with the number written beside it. That was about all the necessary detail.
“That’s pretty much it, we don’t lead complicated lives.” Jake propped an elbow companionably on Tom’s shoulder. “What you see is what you get.”
“The clients are a bit of a different ball game.” Shem capped her pen and sat down on one of the folding deckchairs that stood behind the plastic garden table serving as her desk. “Max came to see me last night when he wasn’t feeling so good? He’s finding acclimatizing rough going. His blood oxygen level’s a bit lower than I’m happy with, and his blood pressure’s high. I’m not sure a doctor would have passed him fit to join this expedition but I understand the clients didn’t have to pass a medical?”
Jake gave her a friendly look, Tom didn’t answer in any way, and Shem nodded after a moment. To Tom’s knowledge no one had specifically explained to her why an expedition doctor had been sought so late into the setting up process but she hadn’t seemed surprised by it.
“Yeah, I get the picture. We’ll see how Max does on the low slopes. And you knew John’s a type one diabetic?”
Tom swore. It was mostly under his breath and Shem gave him a slightly wry smile.
“I’ll keep a good eye on him. If he was an experienced climber and used to managing himself then I’d worry less, but this is his first time at this altitude or trying an eight thousander and it won’t be easy for him to keep himself stable. Especially if he gets any gastric issues.”
Which was very likely for all of them at some point; it was more or less inevitable up here.
“This isn’t so unusual for commercial climbers, you know that? I’ve seen it before, it’s no worse than a lot of other expeditions have handled up here.” Shem said, filing her paperwork in a battered ledger on a plastic shelf. “I wouldn’t say it was good, but it’s not a disaster.”
There was more comprehension in her voice than was comfortable.
The flaps of their tent were pinned back at this time of day, less to let the air in than to let some sun and warmth in. The tent was also turned to face away from the chaos so at least at the front of it they had some privacy. Jake paused in front of the tent to ditch his boots and Tom squatted down to watch him do it, with the urge strong to walk away and do one of the many things that needed doing, and knowing if he did Jake would ask where he was going and why, and he’d commit himself to a conversation he didn’t plan on having. Jake put a hand back without looking, caught his and yanked, and Tom crashed down beside him on the thick layers of mats and sleeping bags that protected from the ice floor below them. There were usually two ways they’d handle a morning like this one and anywhere but here, Tom would have had some means of initiating it. One involved going and doing something extremely physical. Not a good idea on a rest day; Tom was well aware he’d already been as active as was sensible, if not a bit more, and while it had been in some grim way satisfying to fight against the breathlessness, his heart was racing and his chest was burning. The other way….. just wasn’t possible in a tent, in a crowded camp, on sacred ground. And sleep wasn’t easy up here where the air was thin. Never easy for Tom at night at the best of times, he’d laid awake and read a lot of the night and walked softly around where was safe for the rest of it, bundled up against the cold and very aware of the risks of wandering out here in the dark. At the higher camps it wasn’t going to be possible, and it was one of the parts he dreaded the most.
Jake rummaged one handed in the crate of books he’d insisted they brought, grabbed a couple of the books and dropped them on the sleeping bags in front of him, and put a hand on Tom’s hip, tapping with a decisiveness Tom knew well. It was the turn over and sleep indicator, something Jake often did in quiet moments during a day when they were free, as Tom tended to sleep in daylight cat naps more than he did through the night.
This morning he had to be kidding.
It was hard not to reflexively explode at the sheer audacity of the suggestion. Tom lunged to get to his feet, infuriated beyond bearing, and found Jake’s hand locked calmly but utterly immovably on the back of his pants. Without looking over, Jake opened a book with his free hand, settled more comfortably on his side, and turned Tom over onto his stomach against him without effort, holding him right there. He was big. After a youth and adulthood where Tom had been very used to being one of the tallest men around, Jake was bigger than he was and was shameless about using it to get his way when he chose to. And he could pull this kind of crap without showing the faintest sign of needing to work at it. Or even pay much attention to it.
Flat on your stomach on an ice sheet and a pile of sleeping bags was not the best place to stage a battle, but for a moment of absolute fury Tom found himself gripping the ground through those sheets, teeth clenched, seriously thinking about it. There was a quiet scrape as Jake turned a page. There was a whole lot of snarling just about staying behind his teeth about how dare you? How dare you pull this here, in this place, in the middle of this bloody chaos, how dare you?
And something a hell of a lot deeper, darker and stronger that was a sheer visceral reaction to that hand on his back, holding him down against the length of Jake’s body, and if he was honest….. it really wasn’t all bad.
He was panting. He hadn’t even noticed until he realised he could hear himself. Any attempt to stir – even to try with the faintest of muscle movement to test the grasp of that hand on his back, and Jake put him right back where he was with a strength that wasn’t faint at all. There were about three of those very slight isometric experiments. A delicate testing of very marginally shifting his position didn’t fool Jake in the slightest and had precisely the same result. The proper Scarlett O’Hara response at this point was to flop down and surrender; Tom knew it well and braced his head on his arm, teeth tight, shoulders tight, not one inch of muscle anywhere down the entire length of his body anything like surrendered. As well as being very ready to bite a chunk out of Jake’s down pants – and not in a fun way – he was shocked. This kind of demonstration on Jake’s part was ….not unknown at all, although it was relatively rare; but for some reason Tom hadn’t expected him to be so ready to do it here. Not in amongst organising all of this. Not with people only a few yards away and clients to look after.
It was a few minutes while he lay, still but stiff from head to foot in a way that should make damn clear to Jake what he was thinking, before Jake’s hand released the grip from the back of his pants and instead slid up beneath his fleece and sweater. Tom wrenched sharply on his side to stop him, and Jake’s hand promptly returned to the grip on the back of his pants, putting him back down on his stomach. And he turned another page. Once Tom was still, he simply tried again.
And he would do this. If need be, he would do it over and over again for bloody hours without losing patience, Jake was like a tank in getting his way, he just cheerfully never quit. Tom lay still this time, swearing silently at the hand that found its way to his bare back and the fingertips that ran lightly and slowly up and down in a way that felt like it burned. It ought to be illegal to be touched that gently by someone who knew perfectly well you were fantasising about snapping his hand off at the wrist. Or tearing his clothes off and doing a number of athletically unmentionable things which should not be done here under any circumstances. Another angry wrench sideways when that hand explored too sensitive a place got him put right back where he was, and a moment later those relentless fingertips returned to drifting lightly in exactly the same spot around his shoulder blades and the edges of his ribs, tracing delicate lines that did not exactly tickle but were only just in the shadow of bearable and absolutely not possible to ignore in the way that deeper pressure would have been.
You could fight this if you were stubborn enough, and for a long time Tom did, rigidly not giving way to it, which made it considerably harder to stand. Which he knew Jake knew as well as he did. Or you could allow yourself to accept it, which would involve relaxing and admitting to yourself that you were enjoying it because you’d thrown your lot in with some pushy bastard who knew your body as well as you did.
Jake was more than a chapter into his book when Tom finally let his shoulders unclench and drop, less a surrender than an extremely sullen taking of a break. Jake didn’t look over, and his hand continued to drift. The urge to spill a whole lot of venom had waned, it felt like too much effort and the moment had passed, and Tom turned his head on his arm to watch Jake with some minor resentment for that too. Jake’s head was resting on his hand, he looked serenely comfortable, and the silver St George’s medal he never took off was hanging a little from his throat at the open neck of his fleece top. Golden skin that was tanned and windblown brown, golden hair against it along the line of his wrist and jaw, and the bright coral pink of his knuckles where the blood showed through his skin. A ridiculously bright colour like papaya, something tropical that went with hot climes and aquamarine seas and skies that was specific to him and something Tom had never seen the same in another man. At times he found himself looking for it in Jake’s skin, the distinctive familiarity of it. Pressed together like this, he was warm for the first time since he’d got out of his sleeping bag this morning, the steady ache behind his eyes had eased, and his lungs no longer burned with overuse and not enough air. With the fading out of the steady background discomfort, a lot of other things had faded down too.
It was amazing how often it was with that thought on his mind that it was easiest to fall asleep.
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015