Whittaker Prize 2008: Round 4 entry

Sunday, 10 August 2008

(Before anybody asks, there is no Round 3 entry. I sat out that round owing to illness.)

ROCKFALL (Prompt: going down an angle so sharp it makes Pythagoras puke)

“Do I have to go up there?”

Rachel tilted her head back and looked up. Before her the ridge struck upwards at an alarming angle, pimpled with jutting rocks and boulders and pock-marked with patches of crusty snow. Her legs seemed to have turned to a trembling jelly and beneath her ribs her lungs screamed “no more!” Some Historical Society weekend outing this was. Part of her mind was beginning to wish what she’d told Steve was the truth.

Craig was above her, one foot on a rock, looking down with a big silly smile on his face. “Twenty minutes, max,” he said. “You’ve done really well to get this far, Rach. You’ve done the really hard bit slogging up to here. Now the ridge should climb itself.”

“I really want to, Craig. But my legs are telling me they’ll strike if I push them any harder.”

“I love you, Rach.”

“I love you, too, Craig.” And she smiled, stepped forward, kicked her crampons into the ice and hauled herself up one step, pulling with her hands on the rock above. Craig was right. Now that she was climbing with all four limbs, it was easier than the long slog up the head of the valley. The way she was gaining height so quickly was exhilarating, too. One last haul. One last outcrop rounded, and the terrain flattened into a bare stony plateau. The wind, freed from all obstruction now, hurled itself at the mountain top so that Rachel, for an instant, was driven back on herself. Only with much stumbling and flailing of her arms did she manage to avoid an ignominious landing on her bottom, but Craig was there waiting with his arms held wide, so that she teetered forward into the warmth of his embrace. His mouth felt hot as it melted against her own.

“Are we alone then?” Rachel asked, pulling herself away from Craig’s face. She loved the way the wind picked up his long, fair hair and set it flying. She loved the way his blue eyes echoed the afternoon sky. She loved being with him, here, on this desolate mountain top.

“As alone as we’ll ever be,” Craig said. “In summer there’s a queue up the ridge, and the summit is heaving. But they don’t know what they are missing. Look!”

Craig unwound his arms from Rachel’s waist and waved a hand in a great sweep. Rachel tore her head from the comfort of Craig’s fleece and let her eyes follow the arm. In every direction, bathed in bright winter sunshine, lay succeeding rows of fells, a hundred shades of brown flecked with white and looking like toy mountains she could reach out and touch in the sharp crystalline air. Below, as if it were a puddle at her feet, Wastwater stretched along the line of the screes and pointed the way to the green coastal lands and the sea.

“What’s that over there?” she said.

“That’s the Isle of Man,” he said. “It’s about fifty miles away, but you could almost count the sheep on Snaefell. And that,” he swung his finger to the right, “is the coast of Galloway. And the other way you can even see the Welsh mountains. You won’t see that too often.”

Rachel cradled her head on Craig’s shouder. “I wish we could see our future as easily,” she said. “If I had a way of stopping time for ever, at a moment of my choosing, I’d choose now.”

Craig said nothing for a long time, but pulled her close and kissed her once more, slowly, succulently, and for an instant it seemed to her that her wish had been granted. Even the wind seemed to have frozen in its tracks.

“We have to go,” he said in the end. “If we’re to get back to the tent before it gets dark. And then…”

“And then we’ve all the time we need for each other.”

The sun was already dipping towards the sea. On the shadow side of the mountain it would soon be gloomy. Rachel heaved her pack onto her shoulders once more, and plodded off in Craig’s wake. There was a gully to descend, a steep and stony trail cascading between walls of slimy rock. Out of the wind it may have been but it gave off a chill that went right through all her protective clothing to the bone. It was not a place to be in bad light. She knew that a false step could meana twisted, or even broken, ankle, and help in this desolate place was a long way off.

“Rock fall,” Craig said, turning to face her. “Watch your step. It doesn’t look very stable”

The gully ahead was partly blocked by three or four large boulders; she saw one of them towering over Craig as he stood in front of it. From the way the broken faces of the rocks gleamed this was a fresh fall. The stagnant air of the gully was infused with an acrid, sulphurous smell, of stones struck together, that made her screw up her nose against it.

“Stay there,” Craig said. “I’ll go ahead and find the way through, and then I’ll call you.”

She watched him pass the biggest boulder to the left, then stepped towards a large flat rock at the side of the gully. It was slippery with algae; the ground vanished from under her and no amont of arm-flailing could stop her keeling over sideways, sending a shower of small stones tumbling downhill.

“Don’t make things worse,” Craig called. His voice seemed a long way off. Rachel sat on the flat rock and tried not to move as she watched Craig picking his way through the rockfall until he passed out of her sight.

The earth seemed to shudder. It was something Rachel could sense, but not see or hear, and it only lasted for an instant, but she could feel every muscle in her body clenching as if bracing itself for a crisis. Only then was a rumble, as if they were shooting over on the Eskmeals firing ranges. The big boulder seemed to stand up and flex itself, as if seeking a more comfortable position to sit, and then it was moving, shifting itself in slow motion a few feet further down the slope.

The sulphur smell intensified, ripping at her throat. And there was silence. Rachel breathed in, tuning her hearing to pick up the slightest sound. What she wanted to hear was the crunch of feet on stones, to know that Craig was still there, still moving about.

No sound came to her.

The light was failing. Above and behind her, shreds of cloud were drifting across the clear blue. A clammy chill seized her arms and insinuated itself into her windproofs. “Craig!” she called, and she heard the echo from the rocks but no answer from Craig. Rachel had felt alkone before; alone in her marriage to Steve, but for the first time in her life, she sensed what it was like to be completely, utterly, and helplessly alone.

She heaved herself to her feet. It was becoming hard to see the way past the fallen boulder in the growing shadow, but she inched her way towards it, feeling her way around the rock. Dread flooded her body, seeping up from her stomach. She wanted to screw her eyes tightly shut, the better not to see what she feared she would find, but she swallowed hard, breathed in, and edged around to the far side.

Her dread had steeled her. Craig was stretched on his belly, his head turned to one side, his face as pale as the moon against the damp rock. The lower part of his right leg was trapped under the boulder. There was nothing she could do to move it, not without the danger of the rock roll8ing forward and crushing him completely. Her first instinct was to check for a pulse. Her relief at finding one was tempered by the thought of the pain. Mercifully he was unconscious.

The blue had gone from the sky now, and fingers of mist probed the gully, bringing with them a fine drizzle. She knew the first thing to do was to keep him warm; the biggest danger in the fells was hypothermia, which crept up on you and made you feel warm and fuzzy and sleepy. His survival bag was strapped to his rucksack; it was a simple matter to unbuckle it and wrap it round him. The second thing was to fetch help, because there was nothing she could do for his crushed leg. That was a bigger problem. He had made her carry a whistle on a lanyard around her neck, and a torch in her own pack, but who was there to see or hear? In front of them, on this side of the mountain at the bottom of the gully, there was the empty expanse of Burn Moor, and the rugged desolation of Upper Eskdale. She doubted that there was even a shepherd out on those fells at this time of the day, of the year. She could try, but to have a real chance she needed to go back to the top of the mountain, alone and in the gathering darkness, mist and rain.

Six of anything, didn’t Craig tell her? Six flashes of the torch. Six long blasts on the whistle. She raised the whistle to her lips and blew as hard as her lungs would let her, but the mist seemed to soak up the sound like cotton wool. Again she blew. Three times, four, five, six. The breath drained from her body. A dull throb banged against her temples. Her arm seemed sapped of strength as she lifted the torch. When she pushed the button the mist lit up, punctuated by scintillations of ever more insistant rain. It was no good, nobody would see it here. She turned and looked up the gully, back to the top of the mountain, and the mountain frowned back at her, dark and fearsome.

“Here I come,” she muttered to herself, “for better or worse.”

Rain peppered her face and ran down her chin, seeking ways to penetrated her clothing and possess her. The rain made the stones of the gully even more slippery than they were before. Three times she slipped, sliding backwards down the scree and senting showers of stones tumbling down the slope. Once she landed face down on the bone-cold rocks. She closed down her mind, driving everything out of it but Craig, and by force of will-power she stepped out once more onto the summit. The wind was savage now, and she struggled to make headway, but she drover herself forward to the cairn from which she had looked on the Isle of Man. There was nothing to see now except a streak of paler grey over on the western horizon. Even in thick woolen gloves her hands struggled to grip the rubber torch. It took both hands to raise it and turn the light on and off, sweeping the beam six times over Wasdale and the neighbouring fells. The whistle stung her lips and clung to the flesh so that she felt a terror of the metal freezing to her mouth. The latest climb had sapped her breath leaving almost none for the six blasts, and when she had finished those she felt faintness wash over her. She wanted more than anything to sit in the lee of the cairn and rest, perhaps fall asleep, but she retained enough presence of mind to know that would be the last thing she’d ever do. Think of Craig, not me, she scolded herself. She’d done what she could. Now he needed her with him.

It was dark now. A black, enveloping, soggy darkness with no moon or stars. She had the torch and with that she could make her way down the gully, slowly and with infinite caution. The passage of time didn’t matter; she had lost all sense of that. It might be teatime or it might be nearly dawn, she didn’t care. All that mattered was getting to Craig as best she could, and if that meant easing herself down the scree on her bottom, then so be it. Inch by wet, miserable inch she crept downwards until she found the fallen boulder, and then she felt her way round to obstacle to find where Craig lay.

A new panic seized her. When her fingers found him, would he be as cold as the rocks now? It didn’t matter, she wouldn’t know; her gloves were sodden and inside them her fingers had very little feeling left. When she found his soft form she had just enough energy left to find her own survival bag, wrap herself in it, and lie down on top of him. He needed the warmth. She needed to sleep. She had just enough sensibility left to find his lips with hers, and to note with relief, before sleep seized her, that they were warm.

It took the roar of the helicopter to bring her round. The world was bathed in light that soaked through closed eyelids. Not the natural, healthy, light of the sun but the clinical glare of floodlights. She was lying down, wrapped in blankets and some kind of tin foil, and somewhere she could hear the crackly voice of a radio but the words made no sense to her. Her nostrils were full of the scent of wet grass. A woman’s voice cut through the murk as clear as a laser.

“You saved his life, you know.”

Whose life? It didn’t register. At last she forced herself to open her eyes. The woman standing over her had cropped, honey-coloured hair and wore a bright ornage jumpsuit. Next to her was the familiar face of…

Oh no!

Steve. Dear, kindly, dumb, Steve, smiling down at her, stupidly.

“I lied to you,” she said.

“You nearly died,” he said.

“I’ve been lying to you for years”

“That doesn’t matter. I’ll drive you home. You need looking after. We’ll sort things out later.”

She couldn’t look at him. Her head lolled to one side. She saw the stretcher, with Craig’s foil-clad body on it, being hoisted into the helicopter and she looked after it full of longing. The silence echoed around the fells.

“I’m not coming back,” she said.

“Rachel, he could have killed you.”

“Maybe,” she said. “But he showed me life. More life than you could ever give me.”

She looked at the woman in orange. “I’m going with him,” she said, with a flick of her head towards the helicopter.

And then she was being lifted into the air and carried towards the waiting helicopter, while Steve looked on with his mouth ajar.

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