|"Is he dead?"|
I opened my eyes.
The face of an old woman came slowly into focus. I knew I wasn't dead.
What I didn't know was how I came to be lying on a rain-soaked London street in June of 1950.
My name is William Bromley and, until that moment, I had lived secure in the belief that the gods were looking out for me.
Firstly, through nothing more than luck, I had survived the war.
Secondly, despite the fact that jobs were far from plentiful, I had a steady post as a teacher at a small private school in London called St. Vernon's. This provided me with long holidays and time to take advantage of my membership at the Montague Club, where I had many acquaintances but very few close friends. Nor did I have any romantic attachments, which suited me just tine.
Thirdly, I had a place in the country, where I could spend filly holidays. This was thanks to my father, who lived in a quiet Cotswold village named Painswick. When the school term ended, I traveled there by train and spent my days rambling through the woods, or hiking up a bald-topped hill that overlooked the distant mountains of Wales.
It does not sound like a very exciting kind of life, and indeed it wasn't. I'd had all the excitement I wanted for one lifetime in September of 1944. I felt like a man who had once been granted three wishes by a turbaned, cross-legged genie out of a lamp, and who had since spent two of those wishes just tot stay alive. I kept that third wish in reserve, hoping that I'd never have to rub the magic lamp again.
Up to now, everything had been going more or less perfectly, but one thing the gods will not stand for is the joy of perfection among us mortals. Even the tiniest whiff of such contentment and they begin to scheme, plotting the chaos that will bring this happiness to an end. It is a law of the universe that anything perfect must be wrecked for its audacity in claiming to be so.
Something you can say in the gods' favor is that they aren't boring in the way they go about wrecking it. Each time, they use a different strategy. This keeps life interesting, I sup pose, during those dull days up on Mount Olympus. Their methods even have a morbid sense of humor, although if you are, as I was, the butt of the joke, it's sometimes hard to see it at the time.
It was a Friday afternoon. I had finished up my classes for the week. The history papers I'd collected from my students remained in an uncorrected clump inside the old Hardy fishing bag I used as a school satchel. The bag was a heavy thing, its leather and canvas stiffened from afternoons spent slung across my back when I sat in the rain on the banks of the river Cherwell, taking a break from my studies at Oxford to tempt a few pike out of the tea-brown water. And the Parker 51 pen I used for marking, with ink that advertised itself as "red" but which looked to me more like fresh blood as it flowed from the little gold nib, remained tucked inside my chest pocket. Until Sunday evening, that pen and those papers would remain untouched.
As I did every Friday afternoon during the school year, I made my way downtown to the Montague, where I planted myself in a chair close to the radiator. This was where I always sat, with my back to the wall and a good view of the entranceway.
Barber arrived soon after, bearing a tray on which lay the daily paper while two bottles of Chateau Figeac teetered back and forth with the motion of his shuffling feet.
Barber was the caretaker of the club and he had held his post for longer than most of the club's members had been alive. Old age meant that he was more taken care of than he was actually taking care. When you asked him for something, lie would usually wander off, forget what he'd been asked for, and you would find him asleep in the library half an hour later.
Barber had the look of someone who had once been more substantial but had been worn away by the years, as a piece of glass is scuffed down by the sea. Now he was a student of his own disintegration, and often spent hours just staring at his hands, which were anchored to his wrists like two small, featherless birds.
This particular day was a cause for celebration, because Barber had remembered not only to bring me the correct paper, but even the right kind of wine. The contents of these bottles was to be shared with my best friend, Stanley Carton. Soon he would come through the door, shaking the rain from his umbrella and shivering dramatically, something he did no matter what the weather was outside, in a way that always reminded the of an old blackbird ruffling its wings. Then he would stride towards me across the red-carpeted room, eyes widening as they adjusted to the soothing darkness of the czar's green walls.
Once we had dispensed with any gossip about old schoolmates, most of whom were also members of the lklontague, we would settle down to our drinks. Over the next few hours, we would polish off the wine. At the end of this we would, with great solemnity, forgive the world for all its many sins.
By Monday, all bets would be off and the world would have returned to its previous unforgiven state. But on Friday afternoons, Stanley and I made our peace with the planet, which always seemed easier to do after six glasses of Bordeaux. Glancing at the paper, I read the grim announcement that North Korean troops had crossed the border into South Korea and seemed to be ignoring the United Nations Security Council's demands that they withdraw. Unsettling as this news appeared, I was still getting over the war I had finished with only a few years before, and had no room in my head for contemplating another. My eyes drifted to the story of a British climbing expedition soon to depart for Patagonia.
At that moment Stanley appeared. He handed his coat and umbrella to Barber and marched towards his seat, pausing only long enough to give his trademark shiver.
Stanley had a long Roman nose, blond hair so fair as to seem white, and sleepy-looking eyes which were never quite as asleep as they seemed. He was extremely agile and moved with fluid, catlike motions. He was also incredibly stubborn, which meant that he never did much of anything unless he felt like doing it. If he had ever shown interest in sports at school, he would have been an excellent long-distance runner, but Stanley was not inclined to be ordered about in the rain by a man with a whistle and a starter pistol.
It was this combination of stubbornness and agility which had later Made him into such a good mountaineer, a sport neither he nor I discovered until university. In the mountains, he had no one to obey except himself, which was as close as a man like Stanley could ever get to heaven. For a while, it had seemed as if mountaineering would become a lifelong fascination to us both. But circumstances had changed. Now those climbing clays were a thing of the past and we had become, each in our own way, outcasts from the mountaineering community. What we'd once had in common as climbers, we now shared as two people who no longer climbed. We even referred to our binges at the Montague as "The Weekly Meeting of the Society of Former Mountaineers."
I had known Stanley for most of my life, not only from Oxford but from Eton and the Dragon School before that. Spend fifteen years elbow to elbow with another person and there isn't much mystery left in either of you, though it does permit you to sit together in silence, which is a thing more difficult to achieve than any art of conversation. This was one of tlic 1Mtndations of our friendship and the reason 1 so valued qoiir titne at the club.
Stanley came to a stop in front of my chair and gave a ridiculous salute. "What is your plan for the evening, Mr. Bromley, Sir?"
I looked up at him. "My plan is to drink heavily and agree with everything you say."
"Excellent decision!" He slid into the opposite chair, snatching the paper from my grasp as he sank into the leather cushions. "And how are the pigeons?" he asked.
I had ongoing strife with pigeons on the windowsill of my flat. "Bloody pigeons," I said. "One of these clays . . ." I made a gun with my thumb and index finger.
"And unlike most people I know who threaten to shoot things, mostly me, you actually possess a gun."
Quite illegally, I had held on to my Webley pistol from the war. It presently resided in a seldom-opened trunk under my bed, along with several other worn-out pieces of kit from my days in the service.
Stanley opened the paper with a dramatic rustle. "What's wrong with the world today?"
"Korea's gone all to hell," I replied.
Stanley glanced at the headlines. "Silly huggers," he said as his eyes wandered across the page. "And as for the mountains of Patagonia . . ." He folded the paper and skimmed it onto the windowsill. "They're just another pile of rocks as far as I'm concerned."
I knew perfectly well that he could have found Korea on the map. It was simply his way of reaching the same conclusion as I had when I read the news. He knew where Patagonia was, as well, just as he knew the whereabouts of every other mountainous region on the planet. This, too, he felt obligated to deny.
just after I gave up climbing, it used to be that any talk of mountains would unsettle me. Lately, though, I was pleased to find that it had less and less of an effect. To prove it to myself, I rolled a smoke. With steady hands I held the fragile paper along the line of my thumb and index finger. Then I sprinkled into it just the right pinch of tobacco, swiped my tongue along the edge of the paper, and rolled the cigarette shut.
"You know," said Stanley, "I don't understand why you still use that little tin as your tobacco box."
My "little tin" was in fact a ration box given out to all Special Operations soldiers in the war. The box was painted green, although most of the paint had worn off by now, reveal ing the gray glimmer of bare metal underneath. Stamped into the lid of the tin were the words EMERGENCY RATION. PURPOSE OF CONTENTS. TO BE CONSUMED ONLY WHEN NO OTHER RATIONS OF ANY KIND ARE PROCURABLE. NOTICE: NOT TO BE OPENED EXCEPT BY ORDER OF AN OFFICER.
The contents, two hard bricks of gritty-tasting chocolate, had long ago been consumed. I'd kept the tin all the way through to the end of the war and saw no need to break the habit now. It was just the right size for storing tobacco and fit neatly in my coat pocket. This was the practical reason for keeping it, though not the only reason.
"To me, the little box had become a mark of my survival. Its dents and scratches were more of a medal than the one I kept in its velvet-lined presentation box.
"It's all bashed up," continued Stanley, swishing the wine through his teeth, which he did every time before he swallowed, as if he were trying out some new flavor of mouthwash. "We ought to take a walk down to Asprey's and get you a Accent one. You don't have to roll your own anymore, either."
As if to emphasize his point, he had by now fished out his own silver case and was tapping a prerolled cigarette vigorously on his monogrammed initials.
It was not Stanley's fault that he could not grasp the meaning of the box. I had been the one to change, not Stanley, not the club, not the mountains that we used to climb before I went away to war.
Stanley had not gone to fight, and that was why he could not understand. I3is father had pushed him to join the same regiment in which he and a long line of men in the Carton family had served. But the father's gentle and then not-so-gentle persuasion fell on deaf ears. Stanley announced that he would refuse to join up with his father's regiment, or any other regiment for that matter. The idea of a conscientious objector in the family so horrified his father, who ran a factory that canned meat for the army, that Stanley was hurriedly installed in the company as his father's "personal assistant." The war made Stanley's father a very wealthy man. The Bully Beef his father canned was a mash of pasty white fat and lurid red flesh. It was standard issue to the troops, no matter where they were serving. Soldiers in the jungles of Burma poured it in a greasy liquid from heat-bloated tins and men in the Arctic hacked the meat from its metal housing with the tips of bayonets.
As an employee of this vital company, Stanley had the right to wear a brass badge that read ON WAR SERVICE. By wearing the badge on his lapel, he was able to fend off the ugly stares of men in uniform, or women handing out white feathers, which signified cowardice, to any man wearing civilian clothes who looked as if he ought to be a soldier.
I le was proud of this badge and kept the brass highly polished, so that it stood out against his dark jacket. As soon as the war was over, however, he threw that badge off Waterloo Bridge, spinning it out across the water like a skipping stone. Since he had discarded this once-powerful trinket, it made sense to Stanley that I should also put away the relic of my own war days.
But it did not make sense to me. 1 was not yet ready. Nor was I the only one.
Under the shirt of the bowler-hatted banker who managed my meager accounts still hung the remains of his dog tags. At the school where I taught, the head groundskeeper carried a bullet that had nearly ended his life. It hung on the end of a watch chain straddling his waistcoat pockets. The head of the school's math department slept with a Luger beneath his pillow. And I wouldn't part with my emergency-ration box.
Now and then, as I traveled on the train to my father's home in Gloucestershire, I would be fixing myself a cigarette and sense that someone was watching me. I'd raise my head and come eye to eye with some old soldier, who knew exactly what the box was, and what it meant to carry one.
Having been with us in those moments when we stood on the verge of oblivion, these talismans served to remind us that we were still alive. Sometimes the only way to avoid being overwhelmed by what we had seen was to cling to those symbols of the days when we had taken life for granted, which none of us could ever do again.
I could have told Stanley all this, but I doubted he would understand. For the same reason, I'd never spoken to him in any detail about what had happened on the mountaineering expedition which had closed that chapter of my life for good. I carried on rolling my smoke.
By now, Stanley was stretched out in his chair, feet up on cushioned stool and joined heels making a V with his outward-pointing toes. He puffed his cheeks and noisily exhaled.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"I'm in love," he sighed, the way a person might confess to having lost too much money at the races.
I made a vague attempt to sit up. "Sounds serious," I said. "Oh, it is," he replied.
"Well,_ who's the lucky girl?" I asked. I wasn't completely sure I wanted to know. One didn't normally discuss one's romances at the club. You could talk about almost anything else, but not about love.
"Her name," said Stanley, "is Helen Paradise."
"Hell and Paradise?"
"Helen," he said slowly. "Hel-en. You've got the Paradise part right, though."
"You're kidding," I told him. "What kind of name is that?"
"French, I think. The name used to be Paradis." He pronounced it Paradee. "But then they came over here and changed it."
"Paradise," I said. "You're bloody joking."
"Paradise," he sighed again. "Its true."
"She's giving a lecture series at my uncles club."
I gritted my teeth in anticipation of the tirade which usually followed the mention of Stanley's uncle.
The man's name was Henry Carton and he was president of the London Climbers' Club. Many years ago, Carton had made a name for himself as a mountaineer. He was best known for having scaled a previously unclimbed peak in the Alps and for nearly dying in the process.
It was Carton who had first drawn me and Stanley to climbing, and we were not the only ones. Few people had done as much as Carton to ensure the popularity of mountaineering, not only with those who climbed but also with those who had never, and would never, set foot in the mountains.
In Carton's day the act of climbing, particularly in the Alps, had been considered a rich man's sport. At the turn of the century, the cost of getting to the Alps, of purchasing climbing gear, of hiring porters and guides, and of securing membership in various mountaineering societies had kept it that way. The mountains were the province of the climbing elite. Above all, this elite was an English elite, and even if they were grudgingly forced to accept the French, Swiss, German, Austrian, and Italian climbers who made their way into the hills, and whose countries owned those mountains in the first place, one thing they would not tolerate was what they saw as the lower classes of their own society. Women, too, were frowned upon. Mountaineering clubs either barred them from membership or obliged them to wear full-length dresses when
they were climbing.
By the 1930s, when Stanley and I started climbing, all that was changing fast. Women had discovered that they could scale mountains just as well as men, and had long ago refused too wear dresses, insisting on trousers instead. Travel to the Alps was no longer as costly as it had been, and mountaineering societies had dropped the requirement that only those who had been above twelve thousand feet could apply for
Henry Carton had no use for the old elitism of the mountaineering establishment. "Social Climbers Climbing Socially," he called them. Climbing was for everyone, he maintained, and anyone who didn't climb had missed out on one of the greatest joys on this earth.
For a man who preached this sort of doctrine it was a particular disappointment that his own nephew, who had once showed such promise as a mountaineer, should have given it up. Now these two men, who had once been mentor and protege, regarded each other only with disgust.
The strain between them was made worse by the fact that, after the death of Stanley's father in September of 1945, only weeks after the end of the war, Stanley had quit the family meat-canning company and was looking forward to a leisurely existence of living off his inheritance. Unfortunately for Stanley, his father had anticipated this and, being a man of solid work ethics, had placed his brother Henry in charge of the
inheritance. With this came the discretionary power to distribute the money to Stanley in whatever amounts Carton saw fit.
The result of this was that Stanley soon found himself employed as his uncle's assistant at the club. Here, Carton had calculated, he could not only keep an eye on his nephew but could also ensure that he earned an honest living.
"Is your uncle still making you miserable?" I asked Stanley, remembering the days when they had not hated each other quite so much.
"I should say he is," Stanley growled. "I'm not his assistant. I'm his bloody servant. He tells people I'm his Nifty Gritty Man and has me doing all the boring paperwork. Whenever I stick my head up from the accounts books, he starts making suggestions as to how I could better myself. I know that nothing would please him more than to hear I'd taken up mountaineering again. But he'd better not hold his breath, what little he's got of it. He may have talked the into climbing once, but. I'm damned if he'll do it again."
Both Stanley and his uncle were equally obstinate. That was why I had no hope for any reconciliation between them.
"Why don't you just get another job?" I had asked him this question before, and he never liked answering it.
"I can't be bothered," he said.
But the truth was, and we both knew it, that his uncle did not work him very hard, and to earn as much as Carton paid him Stanley would have had to find a real job, with real hours and slim holidays. As it was Stanley's efforts at the club were slack at best, no matter how hard Carton tried to push him. He kept irregular hours, took endless lunch breaks, and seemed to be under the impression that the Christmas holiday lasted
until February. More than this, it seemed to me that the two men had grown so accustomed to being at each other's throats that they had, in a way, forgotten how to exist any differently.
"Look, you really haven't heard of her?" demanded Stanley, returning to the topic of his latest romance.
"What's her name again?" I asked. "Helen Paradise. I told you."
I shrugged myself a little deeper remember a name like that."
"You'd remember if you saw her, too." He held a wine bottle upside down over his glass, shaking the last drops from its dark green mouth. "I first spotted her when she came in to hear a lecture in the last series we had at the club. Well, then we happened to get talking-"
"You mean you threw yourself at her feet."
He ignored me. "-and then it turned out she was also a mountaineer and then she got invited to give the next lecture varies."
"You mean you begged your uncle to let her give a talk." "I didn't beg," he sniffed. "I just mentioned it to him as a possibility."