It was downright hot in the morning. Officially a rest day, the clients lay in deckchairs in front of their tents with sunglasses, sunscreen, books and laptops and iPods. If they hadn’t invested in top of the range equipment including internet connection for the communications tent, Tom seriously wondered what some of them would have done with themselves and how they coped during power cuts. Apparently the signals up here were surprisingly good. Mr Phoenix Louden was wearing his pink snowsuit again, with the only possible excuse that he thought he looked hot in it, which Tom found ironic since the man was certainly going to get hot and probably end up dehydrated. However the mirrored sunglasses below his expensively cut and fashionably dishevelled fair hair completed the look and complimented the way he strolled around the compound flashing butt and long thighs and deeply increased Tom’s desire to find a snow bank and insert him head down into it. Or grab a rope and his crampons and hike away as far in the other direction as he could get. The man was firing puppy signals in all directions, anyone who was missing them was either starting a brain oedema or was dead. He was getting a lot of attention from the other camps too, both male and female. Several of the older women on the Australian team were visiting the mess tent a lot to drink coffee and smile at him.
Lawrence’s tent was still zipped up. He hadn’t come to breakfast and whatever it was they were going to do with him was going to have to be done this morning; there was no more time for making plans. Tom glanced at it a few times, half wanting to check on him and well aware that he wasn’t the right person to do it. Tact and diplomacy was Jake’s department, or Bill’s, and the poor sod needed someone with social graces. Harry’s tent was equally zipped closed. Tom would have checked on him without hesitation, Harry was used to him. It had been hard enough leaving him in the communications tent staring into space last night; it was not exactly their place to interfere, Bill would have been the one who could have most easily intervened, but the atmosphere between the brothers was less strained right now than non-existent. Bill, who was a brisk, efficient and positive man, was simply ignoring Harry. It had been some of what Tom had been communicating to Jake yesterday, we should do something. Which Jake would translate without difficulty being used to him and his more cowardly tendencies as I think you should do something. Jake’s explanation that it wasn’t for them to do had been tactful and gently put, and Tom at gut level still didn’t agree with it. In his experience there was no one better qualified to do anything that needed doing and he’d never yet seen Jake make a situation worse instead of better. But he was relieved to see the side of Harry’s tent move and shake as Harry moved around inside: that was a hopeful sign that he’d got himself together enough to go to bed last night.
Keeping his hands as much as his mind occupied, Tom ran the quick checks that all the tents were still stable and the water hose still intact and was piping fresh run off from the snow down to them, and ducked into the communications tent to check for email. It was something he found himself doing a bit furtively, aware some part of him didn’t want to be seen going into the tent although he couldn’t have explained why. Dale’s mail this morning was a rather surprisingly long one and Tom read it with his eyebrows raising steeply. He was still reading when Jake’s hands leaned on his shoulders, making him jump.
“Any ranting yet from Beau?”
“I didn’t look. This is Dale, they’ve had a tree blow up.” Tom sat back to let him see.
“What?” Jake stooped to read the screen with him, and whistled softly as he reached the end. “That has to be a David cache, I’ve found one or two, but nothing that exploded.”
He was fascinated. Tom both knew and loved his expression that meant Jake right now was fighting an immediate impulse to find a phone or a plane and go and look for himself.
“What did you find?”
“A couple of candlesticks.” Jake indicated size with his hands. “Big, heavy. Regency stuff if I had to guess. And a set of charts in a leather case. Not sea charts, I had no idea what they were.”
“You put them back.”
“Not mine to move.”
“But what would he have stuffed that had buttons on it? It had to be soaked in phosphorus, not just dabbed with the stuff to get that strong a reaction. Thank God Flynn wasn’t any closer.”
Jake shrugged. “I don’t know, but I’ll be surprised if Dale doesn’t figure it out. He won’t quit until he does. If we could figure out how to get phosphorous up here by yak I’d suggest we got some and ran some experiments while we’re hanging around with nothing better to do. I doubt Flynn will let Dale do much.”
“Being a half way decent Top, yes.” Tom gave him a dig in the ribs to make him move over so he could print the email out. Jake grinned and leaned over his shoulder as Tom hit the inbox link.
“Dale’s still in the early stages of brathood, he needs someone sensible.”
“And I don’t?”
“You’re experienced enough to cope.”
Hardened, cynical, yes; no damn good at it certainly, but experienced…..? Tom swallowed down a very sharp answer which would not have been helpful. Jake used a single finger to select and delete unread the several mails from Beau, most of which lacked a subject line. That probably reflected the speed at which they were written as much as her temper at the time; Tom could well imagine both.
“She’ll only re send them.” He pointed out. Jake shrugged, emptying their trash file as well so the mails were wholly irretrievable if anybody weakened.
“Fine, if it makes her feel better. And if she wants to turn up here to talk about it, great. We could use another pair of hands.”
And Beau would be furious, and she’d make them well aware of it, but she’d certainly be competent. Tom reached to turn the computer off and Jake blocked his hand, taking a seat on the table beside him.
“Why don’t you answer Dale now while we’ve got nothing better to do?”
Tom gave him an exasperated look and Jake grinned and reached for one of the files on the table, picking it up to flick through.
“We’re in no rush. Talk to the cowboys.”
“Yeah you’re just hoping I’ll find out more about the exploding buttons because you’re dying to know.”
“A cynic is a man who knows the value of everything.” Jake crossed his ankles lazily, turning a page. Tom, in the process of retrieving a glib answer to snap back, found the first thought in his mind another quote from the same poet: a man who had written oh so acutely, Never love anyone who treats you as if you’re ordinary.
Without looking, he put a hand roughly behind him to find Jake’s, winding his fingers through Jake’s and gripping them tightly for a moment as he began to type with his free hand.
Subject: Exploding Banks
Look, exploding banks are not in the bunny contract, on the grounds of being nasty, untidy and probably flammable. Evacuate the area immediately and do not do anything sensible like investigate further. Except I’m sure I’m probably too late. Do you have an identification of the buttons yet? How much phosphorus is needed on cloth to cause that kind of a fire and detonation? Are you really talking about splashes? Jacob comments that there is no phosphorus available to obtain by yak train or we’d do some experiments and help you out. It would make a change from unpacking equipment and trying to teach the tourists to use crampons.
I’ll see your chronic alcoholic and raise you the Pink Peril, who fancies himself in a down suit and wanders around in it at base camp at risk of overheating. I’m resisting the urge to tackle him and sit on his chest, repeating slowly and clearly ‘this is a sub-tropical area’. It’s a ridiculous mixture between boiling hot and freezing cold here. The ground is ice, we’re camped on a bloody glacier, I watched the cook deep freeze chicken legs yesterday by burying the crate of them in the ground, but once the sun’s full on us it’s scorching hot. We’re all going to leave with piles and sunburn. Everyone walks around in hats and sunglasses and a particularly hard look this season seems to be to have white streaks and splodges of sun barrier on your face like you’ve escaped from a Comanche war council. Sorry. The politicking around here is driving me insane.
“I’ll take Lawrence down.”
Tom paused in mid send, twisting around in his chair. Harry had his hands dug deep in his pockets, his collar was up around his face and mostly hid his mouth like his hat mostly hid his eyes, but he sounded more together than he had last night. Jake, still lounging against the table, did nothing more than give him a calm, appreciative nod.
It was a classic Jake strategy, most people fell straight for it and Tom watched Harry hit the wall of bewilderment at getting so little reaction, not know how to respond and then start to explain and talk a lot more than he probably would have done.
“I’m packed and so is he. I’ll take him down and get him on the plane at Lukla and head back here. If I run the walking tours back to Lukla as and when people need it at least I can do something useful.”
It was apparent he’d thought about this a lot. Watching him, Tom saw the difference, the purpose back in the line of his shoulders, he still looked withdrawn and grim and he wasn’t meeting their eyes but any of them, Harry included, could do the Khumbu valley trek on autopilot, and the walk down would do him a lot of good, particularly with a client to nurse along and talk to. Tom’s chest released with relief, he hadn’t realised until that moment how tightly he had been holding himself, and Jake didn’t react any more than if Bill or Spitz or any of them had done exactly what needed doing: a normal action from a competent friend.
“Thanks Harry, that’s a great help. Take whatever you need from the supplies and cook tent and pick up whatever else you need from the market.”
His tone helped. Harry nodded, clearly relieved to grab a working role and hide in it, and as he headed out presumably to round up Lawrence and start on the trek out, Tom glanced at Jake wondering how much he’d steered for Harry to step up like this. Jake could move in subtle ways. He’d meant what he said last night; he’d said it plenty of times in many ways and Tom loved him for it. What it always boiled down to was run, if you need to. Just tell me and I will always understand. But Jake probably knew too that having his full permission to do it, having it as an open, accepted and above-board option, it was easier to hold on for another day. And another. Not to mention that if he did bolt it would be less than twenty four hours before Jake joined him, without excuse or apology and deaf to arguments. Harry had sacrificed his chance at the mountain and it was right that it should be him among them that should do so, actions had consequences and no one else deserved to lose their chance over his mistakes – but it was still hard to see happen.
“Are you convinced he’s safe alone?” he said slightly roughly to Jake. Jake nodded slowly, lowering his voice to the same low murmur Tom was using that didn’t travel beyond their ears.
“I think so. He’s got Lawrence with him, the walk will help and he’s not having to sit here watching us when there isn’t much he can do.”
Sitting stuck with a major mistake was certainly one of the hardest things to do in Tom’s experience.
Their Sherpa team, Pemba and Dorje and the several others who had joined the expedition, had this morning finished the building of the stupa by the entrance to their compound, the ihapso altar. These men who had been born at altitude in this wild land, who had grown to manhood digging in the fields up here, hard physical work at high altitudes, knew this mountain well. Her name in their tongue was Sargamatha. The mother of the sky, and they treated her with the deepest of respect.
The newly hired Sherpa had slotted into the work so easily and so calmly that it was as if they had been there from the start. By Tom’s observations they were quite a closely knit group of deeply competent men, who could be found checking and testing equipment and examining the client kits minutely. The reputation of a Sherpa guide up here depended on the wellbeing and safety of his client, with no accidents on his record, for if a client was sick or hurt on his watch it was remembered, and the payment for being chosen for annual expedition work, particularly guiding, was serious wealth in the terms of the Sherpa communities. But there was a professional pride alongside their real and Tom thought sometimes rather paternal care for these foreigners, the tourists, who were so much less fit and hardy and experienced, and who needed such care. It took time to get to know them, much as it took time to establish trust with locals in other communities in other countries where Tom had worked where he and Jake could be the only strangers within miles. They were several of them quite shy men who merely nodded, smiled and got on fast with whatever they were doing. Others were more outgoing but preferred the company of their own group and men who spoke their own language. They had set up their own tent and in the evenings gathered there together much as they shared sleeping space together. Wrinkled, stocky Pemba was the oldest and one of the most skilled, and he drew Tom’s respect as in a group of Sherpa men who were in themselves serious mountaineers and athletes, he stood out as physically as fit and hard as nails. He walked effortlessly and tirelessly about the camp as he worked, hefting loads larger than Tom knew he could even lift easily at this altitude. Dorje was the only one of them who really talked socially, and while he seemed welcomed by the rest of the Sherpa group, he had continued to sleep in his own pitched tent much as he had joined an expedition alone and away from the company of others. He seemed to be something of an unusually independent or solitary soul in his culture. He approached Tom quietly as Tom walked back towards his tent, giving him a quick smile.
“Tom, we will make puja this afternoon. Will you tell client?”
“Yes, I’ll get Jake to announce it at lunch. What time do you want us? Have you got a lama coming?”
“No.” Dorje gave him a rather shy, sideways smile. “When little boy grow up in valley here they know lama in village and learn from him, and see monastery beautiful in Tengboche and want to be monk. Sometimes try for years but do not stay in monastery. Come back to world. But can do puja.”
“You?” Tom asked him, touched. Having read for years in biographies of the childhood fantasy of many little girls raised Catholic in Ireland, taught by nuns and surrounded by the church in their community, to become a nun, it was easy to understand. Moreover it was easy to see in Dorje as soon as Tom knew what it was. A gentleness to him that was tangible.
“Me.” Dorje agreed softly.
Tom looked with him towards the new stupa standing alone below the brightly coloured prayer flags hung by the Sherpas in strings above the tents which rattled and fluttered in the wind and were sharp against the bright white of the snow and the mountain and the navy blue of the sky. All the colours were sharp here, the fluorescent greens and blues and reds of the snow jackets and tents and barrels the yaks carried. And here, in this atmosphere of logoed coffee and satellite phones and communications tents with high technology, the Sherpa would bless the expedition and pay homage to the mountain itself that lay under them and around them and lay above them as it had for time unrecorded, with the same words their people had used for centuries.
“This must mean nothing to you.” Tom said rather clumsily, but aware it was exactly what was most bothering him and had been since they first arrived in camp to see Harry and his crisis. “All this – stuff. People arriving with their tents from other countries, the electronics, all the nonsense, it must seem so stupid.”
Dorje didn’t try, as a Westerner most likely would have done, to smooth things over or to say something socially comfortable. Instead he said after a moment of thought, “Once I hear a good Sherpa say if we drove cars along the Khumbu valley, would we still feel the steepness of our mountains? Would we still hear the waterfalls coming down our cliffs? Would we stop and say a prayer when we passed a mani stone?”
Indeed. Because the hike here was in itself a slow and sensory path to the mountain itself which gave you the time to hear it, see it, feel it as you walked each step yourself, the time to know what you came here to do. Conscious living. It was a belief Tom had encountered in other cultures he and Jake had worked within.
“We believe that what is within you …. is the same as what flows from you,” Dorje said more slowly, searching for the right words in English to translate what he was thinking. He dug his gloved hands in his pockets, watching the prayer flags flutter. “If water tank is polluted then all taps can release nothing but polluted water. If body is polluted – spirit, soul – then all the taps - see, hear, say, feel, think – will be polluted too. If body and spirit are full of good things, good thoughts, good feelings, then all senses will give out good and call out to good things. Things in the world are pollutant sometimes. Too fast, all noise, all rush, too much in head.”
“Yes. If thoughts are chaos and rush and feeling are chaos and rush, then person will see chaos, hear chaos, spread chaos and call chaos in to them. With music in ears and phones and computers not the time to see. Not the time to feel, or be. Not lungta.”
And by the Sherpa belief, in no state to make what in their culture was a holy pilgrimage to a sacred place. In Iran Tom had heard Islamic men talking of their hajj made to Mecca, the physical acting out of the core principles of their faith. In Egypt, where the acting out of faith through ceremony was the stuff of every painting on a tomb wall and every ancient sculpted statue. In Peru, he had seen the Catholic culture that saw their approach to the sacred in no dissimilar way on their holy days. In England’s cultural history, the cathedrals of his childhood where he’d sat and rubbed with his hands where the stone steps were worn away by centuries of pilgrims climbing them on their knees, hearing the same services in the distance and the same words spoken. It was never particularly comfortable making that connection, those memories were something he’d for years been used to blocking out as much as possible and it was always strange somewhere open and free and good to find that there was still the connection, still a resonating memory of core belief that went back through time to all cultures. This was a spiritual preparation.
He knew it. It was something both he and Jake felt and understood and they’d moved through many cities where faith walked the streets along with the people in ways that were no longer felt in many western cultures.
He that outlives this day and comes safe home….
It was a vigil they were keeping on these slopes, for good purpose.
The clients were curious and enthusiastic about attending the puja that afternoon. One or two puja ceremonies had already been held in neighbouring compounds and the trace smell of juniper smoke was becoming a familiar one. It was custom to bring anything sharp in their possession to the ceremony. Harnesses, crampons, their climbing boots, their ice picks. A pile of equipment began to gather around the square, grey stone stupa that rose three or four feet into the air, the Sherpas did a quiet sweep of the camp and gathered anything forgotten into the collection.
“What’s this about?” Max asked jovially as they began to collect around the stupa. “Bless this rope and let’s pray it doesn’t break?”
“They’re going to ask the mountain’s permission for us to climb.” Jake, sounding perfectly comfortable about it, came to sit cross legged on the blankets the Sherpas had spread on the ground directly before the stupa and the clients began to gather around him. “Partly for safe passage, and partly they ask forgiveness in advance for the hurt we’ll do to the mountain with anything sharp we dig in to her.”
The clients as a group were rather quieter than they had been at breakfast. Lawrence had made his goodbyes quickly and he and Harry had started out on their trek by mid morning. It had brought it home to a few people that this was not exactly a game; the clients who had met up in Kathmandu and walked up together through the Khumbu valley as a group were used to thinking of each other as a social group now, something they would do together, and to see one of them leave and acknowledge he could not withstand the challenge ahead had come as a shock to them. Tom, sitting cross legged on the ground at the back of and the side of their clustered group, found himself looking from one face to the next as they sat together, because that was exactly what this ceremony was. The fastening of the group, the team that would be climbing together, and while it was not the team Tom had expected to be here with, the facts were that here they were, for better or worse. Bill, barrel chested and cheerful, his elbows propped on his raised knees and gesturing actively with his hands as he talked to Jake who sat hatless and gloveless next to him with the collar of his jacket zipped to his chin against the wind and his fair hair blowing in all directions. Max, broad and good natured on Jake’s other side, listening and laughing at whatever Bill was talking about. Bart, beside him, who was the oldest of the group and who probably had more idea than most of what was going on, and who had struck up quite a friendship with Max. Spitz, next to him, longer and much darker, his eyes on the statues set up before the stupa. John on his other side, who had read all about it and was thrilled to be seeing it in real action, and Mr Loudon next to him still in his shocking pink suit with his mirror shades pushed up on the top of his head, sitting on the blanketed ground after a couple of comments about cold rock and didn’t they have deckchairs, watching the Sherpas preparing with the look he always had when he was asked to pay attention to anything the Sherpas were doing. It made Tom’s teeth clench and he looked away. Shem. At the other end of the line and like him, slightly to the side and back from it. She’d joined them without question and just settled with the group as she did at mealtimes or in any group meetings, an efficient part of the team just as from what Tom saw and heard, she dealt efficiently with any injuries brought into her tent. So far she’d stitched up a Sherpa’s hand and had a look at an older Sherpa man from the German expedition who was a Porter with what looked like a chronic curvature of the spine. Dorje, seated in the middle of the line. Pemba. The kitchen boy, who was too shy to share his name aloud. The several other new Sherpa men who Tom was getting slowly to know by name as well as face. Phurba. Pasang. Another Pemba. Another Pasang, and Lobsang.
The ceremony impressed the clients, even Phoenix, and while at first they were gathered in a rather party mood like tourists about to be shown a local dance display, they were all of them gradually drawn in by the spirituality they were witnessing. No few people from other camps drifted over and gathered to stand behind them and watch and listen and camera lights flashed occasionally. Dorje sat in the centre of the front line, sitting in front of the dishes he had prepared, an upturned crate with a blanket over it in front of him with a book laying on top.
A picture of the Dali Lama was placed on the stupa and a fire was lit. Juniper branches were added to the fire pit, the green strand leaves bright against the wood and the small bright orange flames, and within a few minutes the white smoke rose in a stream and fragrance of the it was strong in the air as Phurba next to him held the pages of the book open against the wind with the help of stones resting on the pages while Dorje sang the rapid chanting prayers alone in long phrases with only rare pauses for breath, tracing along the line of text with his finger, at times accompanying his singing with a soft clap of his hands, or taking rice or flour from the dishes in front of him to throw gently up into the sky, or the man seated next to him rang one of the two old metal bells he held, the crisp jangling sounding loud in the clear air. It was the sound of that lone young male voice and the chime of the bell that drew Tom in deepest and grasped him as the group gradually became very still and quiet. Pemba and the other Sherpa men rose and offerings were laid on the stupa and on the stone platforms covered with a blanket before it where several small statuettes stood. Then lively moments followed in this not exactly solemn occasion; rice was tossed into the sky with vigour by every Sherpa man, so was barley flour, after which it was shaken and sprinkled over every member of the group and smeared on each person’s cheeks in turn by Pemba, smiling, the smear of flour already marking his dark, weathered face on each side where one of his companions had placed it. The rice wine was also freely sprinkled. Bread and rice wine was passed around the group for every member to take a drink, and the Sherpa men guided everyone to their feet, stood with their arms around each other in a long line and sang the chants in their language, dancing on the spot in a kind of rhythmic and synchronised jogging step. There was a warmth and a liveliness to their manner in doing this, but all the same the seriousness and the respectfulness of what they did was tangible. It was being done from the heart, and their conviction reached everyone. At the climax of the ceremony one of them climbed up onto the stupa and roped new prayer flag strings to the central pole, laying them out one in each of the four directions of the wind, more bright colours and fluttering that sent prayers out on the wind to the mountain, and the Sherpa turned to shake hands with each other, guiding the westerners to do the same. At their urging Tom, like everyone else, shook hands with everyone within his reach, muttering the words that the Sherpa repeated, to be careful on this journey they made together. He found himself grasping Shem’s hand in the middle of it, she had been crouching throughout, listening with her arms wrapped around her worn down pants, chin on her knees and strands from her plait blowing loose, looking directly at the fire as the chants went on. It was clear this was not her first experience of a puja, she knew what to do and she was not surprised by it, but Tom saw in her face as she grasped his hand that she too took this seriously and she knew what it meant. Bill, with his warm grin behind his moustache and the flour smears standing out on his face, gripped Tom’s hand with his other hand clasped over the top, a good head shorter than Tom but with a lot of vigour. Spitz, who had listened in silence through the ceremony as Tom had seen him attend through other ceremonies and rituals they had witnessed, with his dark eyes sober and one hand at the neck of his shirt where Tom knew he wore a small and worn silver crucifix. He grasped Tom’s hand and what he murmured was in Spanish, but the tone gave away what he meant, Tom thought it came most likely from a Latin Mass. And Jake. Who smiled, his eyes alight, and held out a hand. Shaking hands with him – it wasn’t something Tom ever remembered doing, it was a totally foreign form of touch between the two of them who spent a lot of their time in close physical contact and it was odd to stand and look straight at him with the formal distance between them. Jake’s hand was warm and strong when he took it, and it gripped his privately, firmly, longer than anyone else had done, for a moment his eyes met Tom’s, the unique bright aqua blue with the cracked glass patterns of his iris that made it look like someone had stirred a hand through a phosphorescent sea, warm, alive because he was loving this. To him it was pure electricity and this was the last and final rite of preparation on a list of preparations that went back years that they had to complete before the climb began. With the puja complete, they could enter the mountain now. He was beautiful. He looked tanned and weather beaten and so vibrantly alive in that moment, and looking at him Tom felt a bolt rip right through him of sheer and cold terror. Utter, abject terror.
There were photographs taken too. In the melee of gathering everyone together, Tom slipped away from the group and disappeared behind the tents and out towards the open ground beyond the camp. Everyone did it, he’d seen plenty of those before-climb pictures and he couldn’t stand it. Ordered lines of grinning people in their jackets and scarves in base camp, and after the worst accidents and disasters those photographs appeared in books with lists of names where you looked at each face of someone who thought they were there for a few weeks to climb and fulfil a dream and had been knocking around this same camp doing the same things you were doing, had thought they were making mementos and hadn’t realised that they were making their obituary. It was getting dark and the wind was getting higher, the sky was turning to a dark midnight blue above them, his breath misted strongly in front of him in white steam where he stopped, some way from the scattered brightly colour tents, alone in the lunar landscape of grey before him and the mountain behind him. He was cold to the bone from sitting on the ground, his hands were like ice but they were still sweating and his back was wet with it. For a moment Tom stood there with his head tipped back, staring up at the sky, the vastness of the blue, his knees still shaking with that wash of terror that had hit him by the stupa. He was nauseous with it, for a moment it was hard to move or breathe it was so vast. And then he made himself turn around and look up the mountain. It reared up before him, black as the shadows spread across it in the falling dark, starkly beautiful and deadly, and while he’d lived on this plateau in its shadow for some days now it had never held the realness or the immediacy it held in this moment. Hall lay up there. Fischer. Sharp. Tasker. Mallory. Irving. The names from the stories. Gifted climbers, serious mountaineers.
It took a long time to control his breathing. Hands dug deep in his pockets, he fought with the nausea and the waves passing through him until he could move again. Then he began to walk, steadily, hard cardio challenge in the low air, pacing along the grey shale on the safe even ground. His face stung with the cold and the wind in the open air and that helped too. Leaving the camp behind him he walked out along the plateau where there was nothing at all but the sound of the wind and the relief of being utterly alone, unseen.
There was a party that night. Lots of teams celebrated the puja in this way and by dark there were several fires lit in their compound and other teams’ and thudding music was filling the cold night air and overcoming the wind. The solar power batteries and the generator were too damn effective, there was no trouble running laptops, tvs and music 24 hours a day. Jake and Bill must have planned for this; army men knew how to throw parties, and their clients were mixed in with clients from the other expeditions, carrying cans of drink, getting rowdier and probably drunker by the hour. Tom took refuge in the communications tent which was as far away from it as possible, and found Shem there finishing a conversation on the satellite phone which she seemed to hurry to a close as Tom came in and took a seat in front of the laptop to fire it up. Her voice had taken on a kind of furtive edge, he heard her tone drop.
“Yeah. I promise. Ok. Night Em. Love you too,”
She put the phone down, but sat there for a moment more in silence before she got up and her voice was back to normal.
“Hey Tom. Not a party fan?”
“No.” Tom said briefly.
“No, me either. Been here, done this a few too many times. This is my sixth season, the bug kind of gets you, doesn’t it?” She glanced at the screen and Tom heard her voice change at the sight of their inbox.
“Wow. Whoever Beau is, they really want to talk to you.”
“Friend of ours.”
“You’re not opening them?” Shem watched him delete the lot. “Ok, that’s assertive. You look cold, are you ok?”
It was rude, but it worked. Shem hesitated a moment more, then said with more ease than most people managed when they were spoken to like that,
“I think I’ll go hang out in my tent, put some ear plugs in and wait to start treating the sprained ankles and hangovers. Night Tom.”
Jake came in as she went out, Tom heard his voice outside wishing her good night, and then his footfall on the shale and Jake’s hands cupping his shoulders.
Tom tipped his head back to give him a flat look. Jake crossed his eyes at him.
“Come And Be Sociable. Get Off The Internet. Nah, it’s boring. Any more from Dale?”
“No.” Tom said shortly. “You’re only salivating to know about that jacket.”
“And you’re not?” Jake pulled a chair up to join him and read Dale’s newest mail, lounging back in it which effectively dwarfed it. Very few chairs looked sensible once Jake sat in them.
Subject: Large Historical Mess
My sympathies regarding the Pink Peril. Mason is engaged in battle with Jasper over the stables. It’s now ten minutes to ten pm and Jasper is still sitting on the porch waiting. I have no idea how long this is going to go on for, but no one else appears to be particularly worried about it. I always thought I presented Flynn with a challenge. I’m reassured that I conformed with things that others don’t!
I enclose an attachment of the paperwork needed for tax and to set up book keeping arrangements, and I draw your attention to page 2, paragraphs 4, 5 and 7b codicil 4.
How is the crampon tuition going?
We may have unintentionally caused a problem with the historical research. The buttons are from a 17th Infantry British Regiment coat, the Royal Leicestershires, from the War of Independence. We’ve got various theories for how this got to Three Traders, but the evidence (see enclosed, notes, timeline and the copy of the newspaper articles, Jake may find the picture interesting) suggests that it may have been coated with phosphorus for a man to play ghost in the dark in bad weather to stop the train in order for it to be robbed. The picture in the newspaper appears to contain David as a local grouped around the robbed train, the jacket is on our land, the coated phosphorus army jacket is an old British smuggler’s trick if you’ve heard the stories. Flynn’s first response was that it may be that David was actually involved in the robbery. If so, that’s not information that I would have liked Paul to hear, or would want other members of the family to hear, particularly those that knew him. I’d like to find out what the trains through Three Traders heading west would have been carrying. The mine was no longer producing gold by 1928, just coal. I’m supposing that most cargo would have been shop good from the eastern cities going out to the small west towns like Three Traders.
There was a moment’s silence while Jake digested that and laughter and the thud of music came from outside the tent. Then Jake said cheerfully,
“Who do you think we ring to find out more about this train?”
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015