Tom read the mail several times from start to finish, aware his mouth was dry and his heart was starting to thud exactly as it had in the ice fall the night he climbed down with Jake with altitude sickness. Then too fast for accuracy and with several impatient stops to correct his typing he shot the message into the machine and hit send.
Subject: Re: Well just to cheer you up
Dale, what’s happening with Flynn and the others? How are they handling this? Are you able to let them handle it?
And I’m a bloody hypocrite because in your position I wouldn’t. I know what you should do, I know they need to know and deal with this for you and that is what will work for both of us, always. But…
The instincts were strong to grab Jake, show him the mail and have him get the satellite phone and call Flynn right now, whatever the hell time it was in Wyoming; to deal with the risk fast because if Dale was managing to conceal this in the way Tom knew he himself would be doing in Dale’s position, Flynn needed to be tipped off immediately. In brat terms this was a major SOS. Huge.
And yet Dale had confided in him… and Tom couldn’t bring himself to betray that loyalty until he knew more and had more of an idea of how unsafe Dale really was. In their weird and wonderful world there were so many different kinds of safety aside from the basic physical, and so few people would understand how.
Dale said it. He said it. Plainly. To a relative stranger. He didn’t understand it, which he admitted freely, but he tried to, and Tom sat for a moment more in front of the laptop in the communications tent, torn between respect and a great deal of concern, and a whole lot of other searing emotion he couldn’t put a name to which filled his throat so tight that swallowing was difficult. His hands were shaking on the keyboard. He had only a moment more and he knew it; Jake was barely letting him out of his sight, he had gone to the mess tent to collect breakfast for them both. It was another rest day, life here swung between major feats of exertion and the several days your body needed to recover from it. The clients were going to be flat out after yesterday’s climb. Somehow he shut the laptop down and by the time Jake appeared with a dish in his hands, the screen, thank God, was safely blanking.
“Any mail?” Jake offered him the dish as Tom got up. Lentil stew and rice; it was one of the staple dishes the Sherpa cook made for his own men, quite a number of them were extremely good cooks and spent the winter working in the tea houses in the area as well as on the smallholdings and farms their families ran. The cook had been delighted that Tom and Jake had defected entirely to his home cooking and not the high carb American diet he was producing for the clients, and what he made was excellent and far more to both of their tastes being simple, spicy and fresh food that was much better digested and suited to the altitude and the physical work here.
“Just Dale.” Tom walked with him back towards their tent, the stew in his hand and the smell of it today was turning his stomach. And we’re not sharing details until I hear back from him.
“I’ll ring again in a day or two and see if they’ve got Gerry down off the ceiling yet.” Jake helped himself over Tom’s shoulder to a piece of unidentified vegetable with his fingers, tossed it up and caught it in his mouth as he walked.
“He’s going to be much better there than sweating it out in Seattle.” Tom said abruptly. Jake looked across at him, eyebrow raised. Tom grimaced at him.
“Yeah don’t give me that look, it’s not like I don’t get it.”
Jake took his arm, turning him round, and Tom shoved him off.
“Looking to see who had a gun in your back.”
“You’re not funny.”
They sprawled out and ate on the roll mat in the doorway of their tent in the growing sun and heat of the morning. Or Jake ate, and Tom tried to. After which Jake leaned over to his rucksack and to Tom’s dismay pulled out the martinet.
“Let’s get the morning chill out session sorted.”
Arguing didn’t help or delay things much at all; Jake just got his hand and less pulled than just towed, gently but with the subtlety of a Sherman tank until Tom ended up going where he wanted. He was developing a technique with the damned thing that made Tom hate it with a passion, all eight strands of it, and it wasn’t the same at all as the kind of spanking he associated with being in trouble. It didn’t draw tears, it didn’t come with the same kind of emotional catharsis he associated with those times, it just made him bloody wriggle like an eel and yelp and make the kind of fuss he cringed to think about, and it did cause a catharsis all right. Just a different one. Of having to let everything else go because he couldn’t do all of that and this, he couldn’t feel that and this. It meant being right here, immediately now, because it wasn’t just the damn martinet it was Jake, right there, in his... face, kind of, and insisting in a very Jake way of him letting his grip slip on the tension and breathing and this morning – yeah this morning, however much he hated to admit it, he bloody needed it.
In those moments there was nothing at all but Jake. As if there was no one else at all in base camp, or in Nepal. The rest of the world went right away, even Dale and that bloody mail and the several tons of rusty iron apparently occupying his chest, and it was like all that weight being shifted off him willing or not. It was very difficult while laying pants down across his lap afterwards, just about trying to breathe instead of gasp with his backside feeling like it had hosted a nest of bees, to care about anything much except whatever Jake was thinking, what he might do next, the solid pressure of his thighs, the warmth of his hand and the sound of his breathing; nothing else mattered next to that.
Eventually Jake’s hand ran over his lower back, patting mildly.
“Think that’ll hold you for a few hours?”
“You total sod.” Tom said to the roll mat without very much conviction, and when he could find the breath. “This is ridiculous, you can’t do this every bloody day.”
“Watch me.” Jake said cheerfully, helping him up. Which was a shock because Jake never sounded serious about anything and never threatened idly. They lay side by side, Tom sprawled face down beside Jake and watching the tranquility of the mountains in the distance. They were faced away from the rest of base camp: the bustle and woolly hats and sunglasses and bright jackets that made it look like a mall in a ski resort. Eventually Jake put out a lazy hand to rummage through the crate of books, pulling up titles to find one he hadn’t read yet.
“Want one of these?”
Tom shook his head. He was clinging to the feeling of subdued peacefulness, of wanting to be as close to Jake as possible with all his strength and to not think. At all. It was pure cowardice and yet he clung on. Jake stretched out again beside him on his side, close enough that he pressed the whole length of Tom, one heavy arm draped over his hip and his head above Tom’s like a human shield. “What do you want to read right now?”
“Faust.” Tom said it without thinking. The longing had been on his mind a few days. “Paradise Lost. The Morte D’Arthur.”
“Angels and demons and quests.” Jake mused, running a hand slowly up and down his hip. “I love those who yearn for the impossible.”
His rich voice made the most mundane of quotes into something magical. Musical, something you could hear afresh and reflect on for hours.
“We must always change, renew, rejuvenate ourselves, lest we harden.” Tom quoted automatically from the same author as it rose to his mind. Jake, head leaning on his hand, quirked an eyebrow at him.
“Are you feeling hardened?”
There was an almighty crash that happened almost the instant Jake spoke; like a train wreck taking place a few hundred feet away. Tom was on his feet a split second later, aware that Jake, who had been behind him, was now half a step in front of him, his shoulder full in front of Tom’s and blocking him. There was nothing visible near base camp. Just about four hundred people in the camp frozen to the spot, looking towards the icefall.
“It wasn’t in the fall.” Jake listened carefully to the echoes dying away. “That was Nuptse.”
No one would be affected by it then. They were used to the thundering and crashes and sudden cracks the glacier made, particularly at night; they were a steady backdrop sound track to base camp. But the big ones were shocking.
Dorje was on his knees some way off by the edge of the mess tent, re fixing the screws that held the tent to the ice. All the tents needed re setting every couple of days as the glacier moved under them; Tom had re done theirs yesterday evening. He had paused to listen to the crash and as it died away, he glanced back to Tom and smiled.
“Big fall. Avalanche. Someone sing too loud again.”
There had been in the rumours passing around base camp yesterday, that a group from the Taiwanese expedition had been enjoying singing vigorously in the ice fall to warm themselves while they took a few moments’ break, until a more experienced climber pointed out to them the extreme unwisdom of it.
John, Bart and Max had emerged from the mess tent looking more interested than concerned, and Bart had a camera in hand. Jake went across to them, he’d never leave anyone even potentially anxious or in danger of wandering closer for a better look, and Tom followed, pausing by Dorje to take the rope and brace it for him while Dorje fixed the ice screw.
“Other expedition Sherpas talk about you.” Dorje told him, checking the screw and moving on to the next. “The climber you cut out of ice. They say quiet man, not say much but do much. Look like this at other climbers,” He pulled a grim expression which was so odd on his usually cheerful face that Tom smiled in spite of himself, “And they get out of way and be quiet. They happy you did work right with them. Respect for mountain. Respect for people. I say you eat our food, you climb ok, you might make good Sherpa one day.”
Tom snorted, a brief laugh that was as much surprise as amusement. Dorje was unusual for a Sherpa man around here, there were a number of things Tom observed that to him said a great deal. The other Sherpa in their expedition liked Dorje, he was welcome among them, and Tom had heard them call him ‘Ang Dorje’ among themselves; the ‘Ang’ part used in Sherpa names was often a diminutive; it meant ‘small one’ or ‘beloved’, a pet name from the people and community in which he had grown up. But Dorje slept alone in his own tent unlike any of the others, and they accepted that. He acted more alone than the other Sherpa ever did who were a close knit group used to close social and working bonds, and his sense of humour – it was gentle, but it was extremely acute and it spoke to Tom of a number of things that set this man slightly apart in his community in the way that only another who’d experienced being apart in that way would recognise.
“You were a monk.” Tom said to him abruptly, hoping it wasn’t rude to ask but unable not to. Dorje glanced up and smiled at him, a relaxed and easy smile that didn’t fit with the power with which his hands were bolting the ice screws down. He was short, but the thin, wiry muscle in his shoulders and trunk Tom could only envy.
“Do you know of any tales of here, the spirits on the mountain?”
Dorje nodded, fixing another rope. “My grandparents told me many. When they were young the Lama in their village say never go to mountains. Spirits and demons in mountains, you go there and not come back. Very bad. But when I young in monastery, I learn the Sherpa people very long ago walked from their homeland to look for Shangri La, and they stop here. Hard land, but they stop here. Spirits, yes. Not demons. Are there spirits in your stories Tom?”
Angels and Demons, oh yes, aplenty. Jake was heading back towards them and Tom didn’t answer; Jake had soaked himself in the same literature Tom loved and he picked up too fast on hints through even the most obscure quotes; he’d already given Jake uncomfortably too much information.
You hypocrite, you’re telling Dale to do one thing while doing another. You know damn well what you’d advise yourself to do. His stomach clenched like a fist at the thought.
He spent time that morning discreetly checking and re checking the email inbox on the laptop while Jake read. Or at least he thought it was discreet. When, to his relief the mail finally hit the box, Jake looked with him and turned over to see the screen.
“This is the one you’ve been waiting for?”
Tom read with him, scanning the lines rapidly and with concern.
Subject: Re: Re: Well just to cheer you up
>>What’s happening with Flynn and the others? How are they handling this?
Flynn tends to make the world very small and straightforward when things are rough. It’s like being able to find the stillness to think about ‘right now’ instead of ‘everything’. There’s so much conviction in his ‘I’m the only thing you need to be paying attention to’ attitude that I find myself believing him. Paul is Paul only more so, he’s been amazing. Riley calls this standard brat stuff and is completely unstressed about it – to quote him, my work scares him; this is normal. Jasper is also very unfreaked by it. This kind of thing figures pretty strongly in his philosophy, it’s something you have a responsibility to do and it’s good, it’s not something to worry about. I’m stunned at how patient they’re being with this mess. It doesn’t matter. They tell me that over and over again, it doesn’t matter, not to stress about it, it’s all a part of getting where we want to go. In their perspective the occasional disasters are just hiccups, nothing more significant. Gerry says the same thing, that in mid disaster he’s always convinced this time the world is ending and he finds himself avoiding Ash’s conviction that no it isn’t, this is fine, this is just a problem we can plan for and deal with. It’s that ability to keep your eyes on the big picture, not get lost in the moment. I do that all too easily.
Gerry has joined Riley in agreeing mine is the total reversal of their experience of being stressed out or in trouble, they both swear their chores quadruple if they’re grounded. I use any kind of activity or distraction to zone out and get further away, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to break the habit of. Flynn and the others work in a similar way with clients, starting them out in a very small structured routine and enlarging it gradually. There’s a sort of pyramid of functionality, starting with eating well, sleeping well and being able to be calm, and working upwards, in line with criteria for being allowed to leave the house, leave the yard, work with someone, work alone, etc. A few times I’ve reached the absolute bottom of the pyramid and been sent to bed for a few hours to calm down, which also helps me keep in mind that calming myself down is something I have to actively focus on and accept help with if I want more rope. Watching the client and joining in monitoring his level of functionality has given me a clearer understanding of my own experience of it. I never would have tried reducing stimulation or deliberately managing my stress in this way when I was at work or put any effort into figuring out why I felt and why, I just used more and more distraction to block it out, sublimated it, and I can see now why bad became worse. I don’t ever remember anyone teaching me ‘this is how to calm yourself down’. ‘This is how to figure out what your problem is and deal with it when you’re in a state’. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention on the day in school they taught everyone else.
I suspect Gerry is also on what Riley refers to as ‘a tight leash’, but is looking calmer and more relaxed than he was when he first arrived, certainly he’s smiling far more. I can see things being kept very deliberately calm in the house right now, there’s a team effort going on. Ash is working Gerry hard, they’ve been out with Flynn and Riley every day, and Ri is getting worked just as hard from what he says, and from the chores he and Flynn are dealing with before he comes in for dinner. Luath is going out with them too, and I suspect he’s pushing himself as much as Ash is pushing Gerry, and the same way Jasper pushes the client. Exercise, organisation, things to do, and tired enough to be relaxed and to sleep well: it’s a plan I know. There was something in one of Flynn’s papers on neurological regulation, sensory organisation and activation of the frontal lobe via exercise and physical tasks, I need to get his papers out and re read them more thoroughly. I distinctly remember thinking when I first came to the ranch that they had hit on an extremely useful excuse for a free source of labour.
>>Are you able to let them handle it?
Yes. They’re making it as easy as possible, we’re talking more about it than is at all comfortable, and now of course they’re taking no crap about it either, which was the aim but sometimes is easier to cope with than others. Breakfast time didn’t go too well a couple of days ago and Paul and Flynn both walked with me out as far as the pasture and out of earshot of the house, where I tried to explain some of it, which didn’t go well, and Paul as soon as he got the gist, went straight to what I actually meant. Try standing in a wet pasture in the rain at seven am in the morning, politely stammering out that it’s somewhat discomfiting having a crisis in front of witnesses with Paul interpreting by yelling at the top of his voice with dramatic emphasis. It’s difficult to stay stressed once someone’s made you laugh like that, and hard to feel like an idiot when Paul’s cheerfully acting a far bigger one. The morning did get better.
How are you handling anything with Jake when you’re under canvas and around other people all the time? That’s pure curiosity and an extremely personal question, I don’t expect an answer, and Riley has said before that you and Jake are often with or around teams of people you’re guiding, so this is probably something you’re very used to. I’m not sure on reflection how I would cope being anywhere with the others where they weren’t free to react as they usually do. I rely on it too much, especially at times when I’m not very together. But then this is still fairly new to me, and I live in a household where there’s no time or activity off limits. No one’s worried about what the client hears or sees unless things get fully physical, as he’s participating in the same standards and values, just in a different role and to a different degree to me and to Riley.
Where are you on the mountain? I know a climb up to camp three was next on the schedule.
Thinking of you
He does it. It scares the hell out of him but he does it anyway. He’s barely known for a year what this even is, and he’s light years ahead of me now. I do none of this. I won’t even try. Even here, I won’t try. Not really.
The shame was so powerful it was choking. And yet other parts of what Dale so honestly explained grabbed him by the throat with emotions too peculiar to name.
“He’s telling you a lot, isn’t he?” Jake said mildly as he finished reading. Tom didn’t answer for a moment, struggling to take his eyes off paragraph four since it was gripping him with a really horrible kind of morbid fascination in amongst all the rest of the turmoil.
“Yeah. If you ever, ever dare even try that…”
“What, shouting with you in pastures?” Jake gave him a brief, affectionate grin. “You look like you’re finding it far too interesting a thought. Are you happy he’s ok or do you want me to phone Flynn?”
“I wouldn’t drop him in it like that.”
“You would if you thought he was in trouble.” Jake leaned his chin on Tom’s shoulder to read through again, his hand slipping companionably into Tom’s hip pocket. “It sounds to me like they’re well aware of what’s going on.”
Tom dug an acute elbow into his ribs as Jake’s hand wandered. “Stop it.”
“I wasn’t built to be celibate.”
“Me either. Get off.” Tom rolled over and lay on his back next to him, shoulder hard against Jake’s. Jake propped his head on his hand, looking down at him. His St George’s medal hung a little way out from the hollow of his throat, a tiny wrought silver thing that Tom knew very well from daily sight of it. There was nothing more fitting that Jake could be wearing. Shaggy faced, scruffy, his golden hair on end, against the backdrop of the cold, bright morning and the sharp colour of the tent skin he was beautiful. A shining man, vibrantly alive in every inch of his skin as he was in everything he did, from pitching a tent to climbing a rope to reading a book, to that lazy, sweet smile of his he was directing down into Tom’s eyes right now. A golden man. Tom put a hand out to roughly ruffle his hair.
“Find something to do, you’re only reading my mail because you’re bored.”
“So we’re here, celibate, eating lentils, freezing our balls off, what are we supposed to do all day?”
“Read. Meditate.” Tom grabbed the nearest book from the crate and whapped him fairly gently over the head with it. “Improve your filthy mind. This isn’t supposed to be easy.”
Jake laughed but grabbed the book before he got whapped again. “Hike with me down to Tengboche.”
“That’s bloody miles.”
Tom looked at him, for a moment seriously torn. Jake gave him a smile that bordered on the wicked, raising his eyebrows. Tom shook his head and sat up, grabbing to collect his sleeping bag.
“Rest days are supposed to be about resting. Climbing this mountain is supposed to be about concentration, preparation, not heading down into the valley every five minutes because you need a shag.”
“I’m not complicated.” Jake got lazily to his feet, starting to pack his rucksack. “I’ll tell Bill we’re off.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It was a two-day hike down to Tengboche. The trail down was getting busier with expeditions and yak trains heading up the valley with equipment towards base camp as they came down, and they spent two days walking with the increased speed of the increasingly acclimatised, down through the barren, bare and harsh landscape to spend the night at the spot where they’d slept last time, and then in the morning down further through the valley. Past the Mani prayer stones, through the villages and their small shrines, and into the deeper valley which now, a few weeks after they’d last been here, had its hill slopes alive with blossoming rhododendrons everywhere, their large, exotic blooms of all colours everywhere you looked. With the rich air over two thousand feet lower than base camp, the softer light away from the glare of the ice, the heat of the day and the beauty of the flowers and hills, it was like walking into Immanuel’s Land from another story that Tom had known deeply from his childhood and onward.
“And when thou comest there,” he said half to himself, “From there thou mayest see the gates of the Celestial City.”
Jake glanced across to him and smiled; looking with him back up the trail they had come down. Everest and Lhotse dominated the skyline here in the distance. The white mountains, the gates of Celestial City.
They went up into the hills by the monastery and there they dropped their rucksacks and sat down together on the rough grass with the clear view down across the carved red and white buildings on the plateau, the whitewashed stupas and the prayer flags that fluttered in the wind. Tom propped his elbows on his knees, losing awareness of aching legs as he watched the tiny figures of tourists and the red robes of the monks in the courtyards among the buildings. It was a panorama from the gods. About five pm when the light was well softened and it grew quiet, and the moving figures of people among the buildings grew few and far between, Jake got up and brushed his now very well worn pants off.
They must have looked like a couple of tramps. The tourists had left, seeking the warmth of the teahouses in the village. Twilight was starting to draw in and the temperature plummet as the sun went, and Tom paused by the carved gateway, looking at the two brightly painted statues of dragons snarling outward into the valley, one on either side. A monk was walking unhurriedly towards them, keys in his hand. Jake made a slight bow to him, smiling. Tom had never yet seen many people resist that smile, mostly because it was, like Jake himself, honestly warm and glad to meet them, and the monk returned it, looking from him to Tom. Then without a word he gestured a hand welcoming them past him into the yard, and he walked away.
He had obviously been about to lock up. It was a gesture of kindness, a willingness to be inconvenienced, and its simplicity was touching. Tom walked in silence through the grey stone paved courtyards, the steep stone steps and walkways, past the buildings, the stupas, pausing before the shrines. So different from the ancient painted altars in the little chapels of the cathedral where he had grown up, but in the same bright colours. Different figures and faces, but still a place that held a kernel, a steady burning memory of years of people’s hopes, faith, questions, requests, the reliquary for centuries of faith and human feeling. Like there, the peace retained and soaked deep within the stone was tangible. There was no one else here now. Only the one monk lived in the courtyard to keep the keys, no meditations or teaching went on in the dimly lit rooms of bright red, blues, greens and golds on the pillars and walls with the polished wood floors and blue and green vaulted ceilings, but from the courtyard the sky began to turn a soft red as the sun sank and clouds drifted like smoke before the mountains. The red painted windows with their tiny, ornate lattices let in the growing dark and the empty rooms held the stillness that Tom knew from the cathedral he had spent his childhood in. Careful to walk clockwise around each sacred object, he stood for a moment before a mighty prayer wheel, turning it softly with one hand. In Kathmandu there were prayer wheels set against the walls turned daily by the locals as they passed them by. Faith was built into the very walls where these people lived, it was tangible and peaceful and beautiful here in this open place on the roof of the world.
Om mani padme hum, the mantra was written on paper that was placed within these wheels so turning them was to repeat the mantra with its purifying energy. The speech of enlightenment with meaning built into each syllable. From what Tom understood from the sterility of books, it didn’t translate well into English and he knew his comprehension of this was superficial to put it mildly, but the six syllables were meant to touch and purify the six realms of suffering. The energy of the mantra was said to transform the six negative emotions of pride, jealousy, desire, ignorance, greed and anger, to clear the disturbing emotions from the mind that led to negative force and suffering. Om for pride and ego, ma for jealousy, ni for passion, pad for ignorance and prejudice, me for greed and possessiveness, hum for aggression and hatred, The same thoughts, just by different names to the ones he’d grown up with on another continent to here, in another ancient city.
Samael, of mindfulness. Azrael, of stability. Ramiel, of trust. Uriel, of honesty. Gabriel, of integrity. Raphael, the angel of the courage to undertake tasks that were tedious, difficult and unglamorous, with sacrifice involved. Michael…
Tom swallowed on that thought and looked around for Jake. He was standing before a shrine, tall and chiseled even in the windcheater and fleece he wore, leaner than he had been a month ago and more weather beaten in the face, his golden hair flying in the wind although he took no notice of it. One of them light, one of them dark. Day and night. Sunshine and shadow. It was so extreme a difference when they stood side by side that it was almost silly. His hand was still resting on the prayer wheel. Tom spun it again, slowly, watching it turn with the mountains in view through the gaps in the wood, thinking of Dale on the other side of the world, near other mountains, with so much more strength than he had. And the crushing weight of the dragon on his own back, even here in the respite of the silence in the valley around him. And even if he barely understood it, he found himself reaching for what very little he did know in desperation. In supplication.
Anger. My sin is anger, I name it and please, I let this anger go. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I will not carry it with me any longer, I will not let it hurt Jake or what we came to do here, I will not let it weaken me, or take it up onto your mountain or take anything negative into your holy places. Om mani padme hum. I know what I come to do here, and I let this go.
~~ ~ ~ ~
The glorious weather in the valley turned as we reached Gorak Shep on the return hike back up the glacier. They say it rarely snows at base camp, as it’s too cold. However, we hit base camp late afternoon with the sky a dark grey and strong wind blasting light snow into our faces, and most of the mountains above camp had disappeared under thick cloud which gave away the weather conditions up high. Bill, Spitz, Dorje, Max, Shem and Bart were huddled together around the radio in the communications tent and Max was pulling up some slowly moving multi coloured weather picture on the open laptop.
“There’s two teams stuck up at camp three.” Bill said soberly when he saw us. “The first summit attempt was planned for the day after tomorrow, but they haven’t been able to get up to camp four, they’re pinned down where they are and it’s pretty bad there.”
Tom glanced at the screen, looked sideways at Bill’s face and I saw his face shutter as he unclipped the harness of his rucksack, freezing up again where for the last thirty six hours alone with me I’d seen it be more mobile and him, and known he’d felt some peace. Shem tried to catch his eye and give him a smile, without success; he wasn’t looking. I hoped she wasn’t going to try mothering him. I’ve seen both men and women try mothering Tom; something about him just pulls that out of some people and it never goes well. I dumped my rucksack by the door and came to lean on the back of Max’s deckchair, looking over his shoulder at the screen.
“How is it lower down?”
Max sat back to let me see. “They’re saying it’s blowing hard at camp two but not the blasts they’re getting higher up. Camp one isn’t too bad. This came out of nowhere, the weather forecasts were ok last night and the guys at camp three said the wind just hit up there like a bomb in the early hours.”
“Looks like they’ll be waiting a few more days to make their summit attempt.” Bart commented. He was leaning on Max’s other side, these two were becoming like Laurel and Hardy. Wherever you found one you found the other, they were both easy going and upbeat guys who were openly enjoying themselves being here and it was visible even in their concern now. “They’ll be bored to death killing time up there.”
Bill shook his head. “They don’t have a few days. It’s bloody thin air up at camp three; you’re weakening every hour you spend up there. If they sit at that altitude for long they’ll run out of supplies and the energy and strength to climb any higher. That was what happened to my team here a few years ago, we couldn’t get up above camp three on our attempt, the weather didn’t break in time and we had to come back down.”
Max looked both impressed and concerned. We’d been saying this kind of thing to him and all the clients regularly since they got here, but most people take in information in small pieces, processing slowly as experience builds up. What looks at first like a manageable big picture turns into a nightmare when you start trying to take in all the details.
“And you didn’t make another attempt?” Bart asked him.
Bill shook his head. “We were financed for supplies, food and oxygen for one attempt, and that was big money. Not many teams can cover coming back down to base camp for a decent rest, re supply, then head back up again, even if their permit allows it. It all hangs on the weather.”
He didn’t mention what it was like for a group of a group of army men to give up on their objective when they’re guys who don’t quit easily, admit their own fitness deteriorating when their fitness is a matter of fierce pride, and come home without the summit attempt being mad. I knew the whole story and dropped a hand on Bill’s shoulder as he passed, and got a brief smile from him. He loved having a team of men to organise here, a base in need of a quartermaster and active things to do, this was what he excelled at and, better still, from my point of view he was thoroughly enjoying himself doing it while accepting Tom and my need to vanish down the valley, up to camp two, hike up and down the plateau, move all the tents and dig them in better…
“It’s like having a bloody golden retriever with you around the place,” he’d said to me more than once in the last few years. “Running laps around you, covering three times the distance everyone else does, diving into any body of water it passes, and just when you’re knackered and you want a sit down and a beer, it brings you a bloody Frisbee.”
He was balding slightly on top, his breath was steaming in front of him, he looked enlivened rather than cold, and he’d get far more fun out of organisation here than he would have done kicking around base camp in the mad world of swinging from frantic, hard activity to waiting and killing time if we’d had the small private expedition we’d planned.
“How are you feeling?” Shem said to me quietly enough not to attract client attention. I smiled at her, going to grab our rucksacks. Tom was still by the door. Silent; he goes into statue mode when he doesn’t want to talk and is keeping several arms’ lengths between him and anyone else in the vicinity. Fencing length. I realised it once, watching him standing talking to someone. He chose a length that a few centuries back would have been a comfortable one for his sword to meet someone else’s in the middle.
“Great thanks. A few days hanging around in high oxygen and I’d never know it happened.”
“Good. I still want to check you over before you go up again.”
Judging by Tom’s hard look at me, he’d be insisting too. He’d done some fairly thorough physicals on me while we were down in the valley, with a little more groping than most doctors went in for, but a very nice bedside manner.
Our tent was where we’d left it, although someone had re fixed the screws and ropes. Probably Dorje; he kept a special eye on Tom. I think he’d noticed who checked the screws and ropes on the tents in the early hours, or who checked on the insulation of the clients’ tents, made sure the water supply ran clear and the hose didn’t freeze up, jobs the Sherpa men just as quietly did themselves for all of us. The wind was getting higher as we stripped off boots and jackets and crawled into the tent. We rarely shut the flaps and zipped up during the day, but I zipped it tight behind us to keep the warmth in and the dust and snow being blasted off the glacier by the wind. For a moment we edged around each other on our knees, sorting things out, putting things back in the tiny space of the tent. Tom is actually ferociously tidy. Neither of us like clutter, we tend to have the bare minimum anyway in terms of possessions other than books, but Tom keeps any living space we’re using in rigid order. He can organise equipment with precise detail no matter how complicated, it’s because to him that’s interesting; interesting enough to grab his whole attention by the balls and give him the focus he needs. With things he doesn’t care that much about… he’s never said it, but I wonder if there aren’t many mundane things he might find difficult to do if he didn’t discipline himself so strongly to get on with it, sharply, efficiently and as if he’s doing it under threat of death. He shaves like that. He dresses like that. We’re both all-or-nothing kind of people with only two speed settings on our dials, like the British Royal Green Jackets regiment. ‘Stop’ and ‘full speed ahead’.
I collected him gently by the scruff of the neck and lifted him away from putting our boots tidily, dropping him like a kitten on his stomach on the thickest part of the mat and sleeping bags that protected him from the ice below. And lay down beside him to prop myself on one elbow, the other arm heavily across his lower back to keep him there. Not that he was doing a lot of moving; he was glancing back at me with distinct apprehension and a lot of attention, which was just what I was aiming for. While we were down in the valley we’d been occupied most of the day with hiking – and the fast, hard stuff we both loved – punctuated with finding somewhere very quiet and very out of the way at night to spend our private hours very much involved in our other favourite activity. We’d had the option of finding a tea house or lodge in the villages, the shelter of a warmish room to sleep in, hot food and showers but we’d both preferred to be in as wild and isolated a place as possible to be in the open air together, largely sleeping only during the necessary breaks. Going for days up here where it was not possible for much more than a chaste kiss or embrace, we were both starved by the time we found somewhere private for a few hours.
As a result, the best we managed was a strip wash in a stream somewhere around Tengboche, and that had felt like deep luxury, we’d washed in many worse places than a clear if icy mountain stream. But we’d had plenty of physical outlets of the kind that drains Tom down, like a high blood race horse needs draining down daily to stay sane.
I’d realised this early, in the very first days before we bolted together to Cairo. Tom misses nothing. That was easily said; many men are sharp eyed and with sharp memories, you meet plenty of them in any kind of military or police job and I’d known a few in my time. In quite a different way, Tom wasn’t able to miss stuff. We had casually been drinking coffee together somewhere in a courtyard square, he had been scribbling at some job application for which he had no pen and glared at me when I provided him with one from my pocket. His black hair was wild, it was always wild, his shirt was clean but somehow looked as if he’d slept in it, his jaw was as sharp as a knife, angled like his nose and the straight line of his brow, and it looked like a wolf sat across the table from me. Lean and edged and watching the world from the sides of his eyes in the daylight. We’d first met at night; it was much more his element.
I’d glanced up at an odd sound across the square and he’d seen me look and muttered without stopping scrawling rapidly on the form for a job he didn’t want and any excuse he could find to keep me at arm’s length across the table, but not actually going away.
“It’s the kid in the red sweatshirt with the plastic whistle.”
“Where?” I looked around the square. He still didn’t look up.
“Four tables to the left, 2 o clock. With the woman with the black hair and the denim jacket and the kid in the buggy.”
He was right. I swirled my coffee in my hand, which always made me think of Philip’s tone of weary amusement,
Jacob, would you be kind enough to drink that rather than play with it please?
“What made you notice them?”
He shrugged, still scrawling and sounding irritable because I was sitting here talking and not taking the heavy hints and going away. He was on to a lost cause with that plan.
“They were in the queue when you got the coffee.”
He’d been on the other side of the square, pretending that he wasn’t watching me. Interested, I sat back in my chair and sipped Americano.
“Who else was in the queue then?”
He listed them. Shortly, without looking up. No particular observations, but a basic description of their face, the clothes, the colours. Where they were sitting now. The faces of the three youngsters serving behind the coffee bar. A lot of the coffee brands and prices listed on the notice board. It wasn’t exact, he didn’t have perfect recall, he remembered bits, and it wasn’t with Sherlock Holmes deductions – a man I’d always felt would have benefitted from Watson spending a few weeks on the ranch and acquiring a good paddle. It was just normal noticing in highly compacted amounts, like a zip file. Things he’d seen and heard in the space of a minute or two of immersion in a situation where I’d noticed the freckles on the nose of the boy who served me coffee and perhaps a few hazy recollections of the man who stood in front of me in the queue and most of the rest had passed me back.
With observation, I realised this happened to him all the time. It wasn’t a superpower, he wasn’t aware particularly that he perceived things differently to anyone else. But, if we walked through a market together, I would notice a few stalls other than ones I bought things at, a few items, a few people. He in the same space of time while walking would notice most of the stalls, details of what was on them, prices he’d seen and heard as he walked by, details of people who’d been around us, what their conversations had been about, what they had been wearing. Multiple amounts of information would have flooded his brain and registered itself there, more than into mine in the same space of time. Once he told me wearily that it was like a jug of water being poured into his head. All at once, whether he was ready or not, whether he was full or not; here it came in a relentless flow.
“Think of it like buses, Jake.” Mr Hauser had said to me years ago when he sat with me to review the findings of the school report. “One city has one bus service. Regulated, timed, the buses come and go to the schedule. This is like the bus services from three cities all being sent to work in one city together. Buses are arriving and leaving and whizzing around, groups of them are turning up together, they’re all over the place.”
Tom’s bus service worked a different route to mine, but I understood it. Noisy, busy, crowded, social, it could get overwhelming to him and I’d see him shut down. Overload. He’d get too full and the whites of his eyes would start to show and he’d struggle to contain it and his head would race until sleep wasn’t just difficult, it was impossible which knocked the sensory overstimulation higher still and he reached a sense of panic and the need to get away. Danger Will Robinson, Danger. The only thing that worked when we hit that point was to be completely alone somewhere outside, mostly in silence, preferably somewhere high, help him physically get decompressed and wait it out. But he was like me too in that if he was somewhere that grabbed his mind, somewhere interesting, doing something interesting, actively demanding enough to keep his body drained and organised. he was fine.
Climbing around here: that ticked all the boxes. On those days I could see his motor running on high, he loved it. Laying around base camp resting? We both get the concept of just Being, in open space somewhere wild. Tom is three parts wolf and can lay for hours in the grass against me just looking at the world around him, aware and resting, part of that peace if we’re alone in it. But base camp isn’t peaceful and you’re never really alone. He would have found it hard going anyway as time went on, although he’d been determined it would be fine. Which meant grabbing his mind and keeping it somewhere interesting and focused and strongly enough that he could concentrate on that and not on the whirling cocktail being mixed in his head. I know my guy and his buttons, and I wanted them good and pressed right now before he had time to start building up another charge.
When I really want him to concentrate I usually put him face down beside me instead of just laying beside me to rest. It’s a ritual he gets at the gut level that really matters to Tom, it makes him feel contained without being trapped, and it takes mental effort from him, which helps. He usually gets more and better quality rest in those hours – and sometimes when things are rough, like just now, I make him do it for hours, for one hell of a lot of his time – more than he ever does at night, I think because it makes him stop his mind running. Mental rest as much as physical. I never pushed him about sleep, he’d had decades of people stressing him out about sleep and he got stressed enough about it all by himself. Rest, yeah I’d see he rested. Properly. Sleep? We weren’t flapping about that. If I got him de stressed enough then he slept, when he wasn’t thinking about it or trying to; he’d slept a good half of the night out in the valley at Tengboche. Right now though, being put down beside me wasn’t enough by itself to pull his mind together, it wasn’t strong enough to compete with everything else flooded in there.
I ran my hand up his spine to the back of his head and ran my fingers lightly through his hair. Combing. Stroking from the crown of his head to the nape of his neck. The shiver was instant, it was almost a physical shake like a dog trying to get water off its coat. Sex, yes. Any time. With enthusiasm, even if it’s under a grouchy shell. That kind of touch makes a lot of sense to Tom. Being petted? Uhm. Under protest. Largely. Unless it’s really dark and he’s really upset and he’s mostly hoping neither of us are paying attention. Today that was tough. I slowly lifted my hand to the crown of his head again, stroking my fingers gently through his hair, stroking his scalp, and this time he half rolled over to fend me off. I swatted him soundly. For a moment dark blue eyes glared at me, intense and shocked and questioning. I put him right back on his stomach and went back to stroking his hair. Not lightly enough to be annoying, but gently. Soothingly, with all the care I could put into it. I swear I could see minute squirming all over from head to foot like bits of him were trying to inch away. I swatted him again. Hard; I never kidded about this kind of thing. Shoulders hunched now. Outrage. His head was turned into his arms, he was radiating protest. Another hard swat, and hastily, the protest tuned down a bit and the shoulders dropped out of any obvious demonstration of Sod Off. I went on stroking. Not a word. Relaxed, breathing, unhurried. He picks that kind of thing up by osmosis too; Tom usually knows my mood before I do. I had all his attention all right.
It was about ten minutes of him silently radiating of what he thought of this before I saw the spikiness start to leave his shoulders. He lay flatter somehow, as though his body let itself go against the ground next to me and melted, and inch by inch his head relaxed forward, until he was breathing softly. Limp. His face was slightly turned towards mine and his eyes were half unfocused which he only ever does when he really lets go, looking at nothing in particular. I leaned down to drop a quiet, firm kiss against the top of his head and went on stroking.
Angels and demons and deities, oh my.
He’d been quiet since the hour we spent at Tengboche monastery, but not his shut-down kind of quiet like a wolf frozen on the hill, stood still to avoid being seen. Tom absorbs culture like he does languages; the amount he drinks in from what’s going on around him translates almost immediately into him just knowing bits and pieces wherever we are, and he’s as attuned to atmosphere and the feel of a place as he is to any piece of fiction or poetry or historical fact he’s absorbed. We’re both romanticists; put us in Cairo and we’re breathing a whole lot of Howard Carter mixed up with Elizabeth Peters, Agatha Christie, the known records of Seti the first and random bits of Exodus. Stick us in Italy and we’ll be quoting EM Forster to each other alongside heads full of Angelo, St Paul, Julius Caesar and Lindsey Davis, and half the time what one of us starts quoting the other one will finish because we both soak ourselves in the same books and poets and legends. Everest was a quest we’d been talking about for years, something we’d always wanted to do, and this was a holy place to the people who lived here. It was not just a mountain to physically get up, it was a real and genuine quest. A pilgrimage in the sense that Tom had taught me about of pilgrimage of old, with Chaucer among others, barefoot through the streets and on knees through the stone steps of the cathedral. A challenge of body, heart and mind in a sacred place. Tom would not miss one single nuance of that at gut level, he feels all of it.
While we were in England – the one time we went there together – I went early one morning to a cathedral. Not ‘his’ cathedral, just one of them. I went alone, I knew he wouldn’t come with me; in the end that turned out to be something of a mistake. Tom went out while I was gone and swam the harbour wall at Dover which is one of the toughest wild water swimming challenges in Europe, not to mention the need to play chicken with cruise ships and cross channel ferries. But in that hour alone I walked through the stone arch and gateway into the cathedral close, what was left of the shell of the abbey with its outer wall and houses and outbuildings that had stood here centuries before. The green grass close in the middle was immaculately manicured and several statues and memorials were in the garden there. The grace and favour houses around the perimeter were built on the foundations of much older abbey buildings, quiet and old and picturesque houses that spoke of their age, occupied by quiet and mostly elderly people closely attached to the church. The large house stood behind the railings with extensive gardens, the Bishop’s ‘palace’, by the cathedral itself. Mighty and peaceful and radiating its stolid atmosphere over the city with its ancient stone. It had been the beating heart of the city for over a thousand years and was in no hurry, time moved more slowly within those walls. Towering above everything, it stood sheltered in a small, private enclave of those medieval stone walls and the gates that were locked at night. The cloisters still stood immaculate beyond the body of the church where once monks had worked and walked. The small private chapels were occupied, the services and bells took place among the tourists, and the walls and floors were lined with names, dates, Latin inscriptions, the tombs and casts of knights, lords, ladies and church leaders laying on top of them, their faces clear to see with their names. The threadbare, greyed and spider thin Union Jack flags hung from the walls with the faintest ghost of red, white and blue still distinguishable, the British colours carried into battle by battalions several centuries ago, carried by men on the battlefield and preserved here to honour those men whose names lined plaques on the walls. The music, the ceremonies, the rituals and the language, the living history of a thousand years. Tom had grown up in this. He had been bred and grown in a sanctuary like this one, he’d been fed by words like these and stones and history and beauty and the stories all around him that were woven into every square foot of ground, and it was a part of his bones. I could see him everywhere. I knew the feel of the place because I knew him. When he haunted a city at night or went to climb a hill or be alone in a forest in the dark – I thought this was some of what he was searching to feel. The peaceful silence of this mighty place where memory and hope walked. Where centuries of hush and people passing with their hearts and minds open had soaked into the stone.
This place here in the Himalayas called to every inch of my Tom in the same way. An open skied church, but a church of a kind all the same. A place where mundanity lifted away and where the wildest of myths lived untouched, unsullied, alive in nothing but faith to the people who lived here. The monastery had been the best place I could think of where he’d find some real, tangible evidence of that peace and focus to physically hold on to.
“This place is Tartarus.” He said after a while, mostly mumbling it to the ground rather than directly to me in the rough-end-of-Sussex accent he’s hung on to despite all his years out of England.
The ruins at the bottom of the world. The prison of the Titans far below Olympus’s slopes. Yes, I could see it.
“The place of the fallen angels.” Tom said after a moment more, while I reflected on that.
The ruined grey rock, the complete lack of life other than the moving, living Titan of ice and stone, the gloomy, storm wracked lower shell of the crucible of the cosmos. The place where human life was sustained only with great effort for short periods, beneath suddenly turning weather, where a few mortals fought our way quietly up the slopes towards the sun and the pinnacle, inching toward Olympus on our knees.
“And there, all in their order, are the sources and ends of earth and misty Tartarus… And this marvel is awful even to the deathless gods.”
I said, reflecting on a poem we both knew. “
Are you feeling particularly fallen then?”
He snorted, a faint laugh as he was currently too relaxed to find the energy to do more. “Always.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I found the mail in his outbox that evening when I checked the weather on laptop on my way past the communications tent. He wasn’t with me.
Subject: Oh for God’s sake change the subject line occasionally
>> with Paul yelling at the top of his voice with dramatic emphasis
... are you serious?! How do you stand still in front of that? Jake wouldn’t dare, I’d change my name and emigrate. The whole thought of it makes me want to go for a long, long walk. Argh. In Inja’s sunny clime where I used to spend my time, etcetera etcetera, and you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ‘im that’s got it.
We’re still in base camp. I made Jake take a few days rest to be sure he’d got over the altitude sickness, and the weather turned and it’s been rough high up for the last 24 hours. There are two teams at camp three right now, and according to the radio they’ve dug in and not been able to move. It’s proving to be a changeable year, with unpredictable weather slots. The trouble with that is that as soon as there is a clear slot identified, a lot of teams will grab it and try to go up together, and some of the teams are large and very slow moving. The next plan we need to make is an expedition to camp 3, which will be the longest expedition so far, and after that we’ll take a few rest days in base camp and get ready for the final expedition to camp 4 and the summit attempt.
How we handle stuff up here and in public. I’m not a lines or essays or corners sort of person, I never have been. There aren’t that many corners in your average jungle. There was a certain amount of thought on my part early on that I probably should pull myself together and/or be made to do it, but Jake’s useless at stressing about anything and just said it wasn’t for us. We live pretty unmaterial lives too, so there isn’t much that can be withdrawn. I don’t deal well with limited space, and it isn’t usually about issues that can wait, so it is almost always physical. We’d most usually use a paddle, but we tried out a few things for the times when discretion’s the better part of valour and settled on some martinet thing Jake had as part of his Mounties kit for dusting dress uniform, which is allegedly French traditional although I’ve told him it looks downright kinky to me. It is practically silent and it hasn’t drawn attention, and here most people are more interested in trying to sleep or get warm than care what anyone else is doing in their tents, and while it’s probably something that Gerry et al would frown on, we’ve worked on the principle of what people don’t know won’t upset them.
What’s the significance of activating the frontal lobe? Regulation? If exercise does it, we ought to be regulated to the nth degree up here but no one’s looking that regulated to me. Possibly cold and low oxygen undoes the effect somewhat. The household sounds under a tight regime right now, which I admit sounds quite interesting. How is the train robbery investigation going?
Look after yourself,
Oh my boy.
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015