Right from the start it had felt like a perfect day to be on the rock, a good day to climb, the right day to do that route. The first two pitches had gone well and he had led up the third section, the hardest so far. He had climbed up and across a short vertical wall on good sharp-edged holds, then round an arête – a ridge – and up to a place where the rock steepened and bulged out above his head. That was where, over half an hour ago, things had started to get tricky.
Now he was getting tired. He could feel an increasing aching reluctance in his fingers and his calves. He had stayed too long under the rock bulge, forced over backwards, out of balance, too much weight on his arms. He looked down, past his feet glued to those two good holds, to the twin threads of rope that spidered down around the arête and out of site. Then his eyes flickered on to focus on the scree 300 feet below.
He checked the distance to his last piece of gear, his last belay. Too far, twenty feet or more, a serious fall from where he was, even if he didn’t climb any further. He rested his face against the warm rock for a moment, then he locked his right hand into the deep undercut by his waist and freed his left for a good shake out. Get the blood moving, ease the tendons, then a quick dip in the chalk bag to dry the sweat and back into the hold. Same with the right then pull hard and step up, one foot, both feet onto those higher foot smears, the bad ones, the ones he could easily slip off.
He knew she was married, knew her husband, he was almost a friend. In fact he had known her on and off for ten years or so, from when they were both single. He had worked with her back then, side by side, often late into the night. They had become friends, good friends. He trusted her and hoped she trusted him. The trouble was she had married the wrong guy, a right bastard. He had found out just how bad a year ago, when she had put out a distress call and he had answered, gone to rescue her from a lay-by late one night. She was bruised and in shock, standing in the rain.
A misunderstanding, a row, shit happens. He didn’t agree, took her to A and E and then home. She lied at the hospital, told them she’d fallen off her bike, like they believed her. No police, she had said to him. Absolutely no police. Her man was stressed, anxious, there was a lot of bad stuff going down at work. It would be OK, things would settle down. No worries.
But he did worry.
Another good look and feel above his head. Nothing had changed since the last time and all the times before that, there was just one short, thin vertical crack in the rock eighteen inches above his head, hardly enough to take two finger joints. That’s all there was to pull up on, to get over the bulge. It would have to take all his weight long enough to get to what looked like a good hold a couple of feet further on. He eased back down again, onto the two good foot holds, feeling the day slipping by, feeling his strength and will draining.
He didn’t want to go down, to retreat. That wasn’t why he was there, on that crag that day. And reversing, descending those last fifteen feet would be hard, a really difficult series of moves and he’d probably fall. At least it would be a shorter fall than if he went on and lost it above the bulge, but a fall anyway.
Up or down, succeed or fail, live or die perhaps. The ropes twitched. His second, his friend, back down there around the arête, wondering. He twitched back. It’s OK, I’m just taking a look, sorry it’s taking so long.
He eyed the distance to the next belay ledge, just another ten, twelve feet once he was over that hideous bulge. Come on, get on with it. Three or four moves, no problem. Chalk up and move. Get it done.
He got another call a few weeks later, less distressed this time but he was jolted just the same. Could they meet? Of course, where? She had named a pub, well out in the boondocks, nearly an hour’s drive, no-one would know them. She had looked great, full of life as always, buzzing with that special energy he enjoyed so much. They talked about everything that wasn’t important in their lives. Things were fine she said when asked. Her eyes told a different story, sliding away from his. When they said goodnight, her hug felt desperate. He didn’t want to let go, didn’t want to let her go. His drive home took forever.
The rock was compact, granite, full of tiny chips of mica and quartz. It was warm up there, the high summer sun hot on the back of his neck, his shoulders and his calves. The chalk from his earlier explorations stood out sharply white against the even grey, the shapes of his fingers aboriginal. The wind that had been flicking at his tee shirt and keeping him cool had dropped and sounds began to drift up from the valley. Traffic and sheep. There were ravens or crows high on the ridge above, cackling and wheeling off into the sky one by one to show how easy it was. He reached down and checked that the ropes were running smoothly, chalked up his hands again and moved. Up onto the small foot holds, lock off the left hand and reach up with the right to ram his fingers tight into the crack. Then let go with the left. He was committed, no going back now, he’d never find that hold again. Then he jammed the fingers of his left hand into the crack above his right and pulled hard, fingertips ripping on the crack edge. Then he heaved his left foot up high, smearing his boot sole onto the slight slab above the bulge, pulled hard and swung the right up alongside. Straightening out , he let go with his right hand to slap it onto the good hold. Bollocks! Not good. Not good at all. Really bad, rounded, greasy. Reset the feet. Stick, stick, stick. No gear. Nowhere to go. Big fall time. His right hand was going, sweat slick fingers slipping, so was his left. Pull hard with the left, try and place the right again. Use the sharper side of the hold instead. Better. Get that left foot higher onto the slight knobble and lock it off. His calves were going then, vibrating like hammer drills with the tension in his legs. Get your heels down or you’re off here, relax. Jesus Christ this is hard. Left hand up, no time for chalk. There must be a hold up there. Don’t panic, don’t panic.
They met again, at the same pub, five times in the next six weeks and he looked forward to seeing her a lot more each time. Then, on their sixth meeting she gave him a present, book shaped, carefully wrapped. He was puzzled, asked Why a present? She said, Why not? He heard Don’t ask, and opened the package as carefully as it had been wrapped. It was a book of poetry, slim and enticing, by someone he admired, who’s work he enjoyed. He thanked her, got up and walked round to her chair to give her a kiss on the cheek, at least that was where he aimed his lips. But as his head approached hers, she turned her face to him and they crashed, lip to lip, heart to heart.
Then she went home to her husband.
There was a hold but it would only take two fingers, a harder piece of stone protruding from the granite mix, almost white and shiny like a gem. He was stretched out awkwardly by then. He remembered ancient instructions, three points of contact, always maintain three points of contact. Jesus, what did he know, in his nailed boots and woollen sweater?
He moved his feet up a few more inches to take some of the weight off his arms. He was just balanced enough to take off one hand at a time and plunge them quickly in the chalk bag. That was better, just a bit more sticky, less sweaty. A mist of chalk dust swirled around his head for a moment before joining the rest of the sky. Now what? Onwards and upwards. There’s no going back.
A week later she phoned, in tears. They had to stop meeting. No, her husband didn’t know about them. It was just that… she wouldn’t say. They had to stop. She was getting too… She was sorry, rang off.
It hurt, more than he felt it should have. But he held the pain, didn’t let it go. And it grew and deepened, merged with caring, changed into something he couldn’t acknowledge, daren’t admit. And so he waited and prayed for her call. Five days, six. Then, late one summer evening, his doorbell rang and there she was, suitcase in hand, beautiful, pale faced and desperate. Afraid of presumption, he put her case in his spare room, got her a drink, sat her down, waited for her to tell him what he hoped so much.
He moved again, heart pounding, muscles screaming, vision narrowing with the effort. He forgot to breathe, tried to defy gravity and time, made the move.
She cried, told him she’d had enough, couldn’t bear it any longer, had to be with him, told him she loved him so much. He held her close then, soaked up her tears and her grief, absorbed her decision, her commitment.
And as they shared that first uncertain night, he felt his grip on caution slip and could find no reason to renew his hold. Their future pulled and plucked them into space.
© David Hermelin 2016