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The Fall: A Novel


The weather was good for the Snowdon area. The rain had held off all day, and there was enough of a breeze to keep the rock dry. Damp could not have been a contributory factor. There was even the occasional shaft of sunlight cutting down through the varied cloud to brighten up the cwm, but no direct sunlight on the fluted walls and boilerplate slabs of the crag itself. This is a north face.

Someone shouted: "Hey, look!" It was one of the group of walkers. Climbers would not have made a noise about it. Someone shouted and stood up and pointed toward the East Buttress. "Hey, look at him!"

There was a lone figure climbing. He was about twenty feet off the ground. The man who shouted had been watching for a little while, but at first it had not been clear that the figure was truly alone until he, the climber, had reached twenty feet up the great, blank central wall of the East Buttress. The wall is a smooth, slightly curving sheet of rhyolite, a beaten metallic shield that, to inexpert eyes, appears unclimbable.

"Look at 'im. Bloody idiot or what?" "Isn't he doing Great Wall?" "No ropes, nothing. He's bloody soloing."

The solo climber on the Great Wall moved quite smoothly up the shallow groove that gives the line of the route. He bridged easily, his feet braced outward to make an arrowhead of his body. You could see his hands going up on the rock above him, imagine his fingers touching the rock and finding the flakes and nicks that are what pass for holds on that kind of route.Mere unevenness. What the climbers of the past would have called rugosities. They all seemed to have had the benefit of a classical education. Not the present breed. "Thin," the modern climber might say. Not much else.

"He seems to know what he's doing," the walker called to his companions.

"He's not wearing a helmet," one of the others remarked. The walkers were all watching now, some of them standing, others sitting on rocks — the grass was still damp — with their heads craned back to see.

The climber moved up. There was a catlike grace about his movements, a certain slickness, a feeling that, perched as he was above nothing at all and holding nothing at all, he was secure in what he did. He was now flylike, plastered across the center of the gray blankness, laying away on a rib that he had discovered, reaching up for a farther hold, bridging wide and stretching up with his right arm. He was actually feeling for a piton that had been there for the last thirty-seven years, one of those bits of climbing archaeology that you find in the mountains: a peg, placed there from a rappel one wet and windy day in the spring of 1962. The peg is oxidized, but smoothed by the numerous (not too numerous) hands that have grabbed it thankfully over the years. It will be there for many years yet, but not forever. Not even the cliff is forever.

"Look!" A gasp from the watchers, a movement up on the cliff face as the lone climber made a smooth succession of moves and reached the peg and made height above it.

"What happens if he slips?" one of the walkers, a young girl, asked.

A man's voice spoke: "He's dead." It brought a hush to the party. They had been watching the thing as entertainment; abruptly it had been presented to them as a matter of life and death. "Who is he?" another of the party asked. There was a clear sense that this unknown climber, this figure of flesh and bone and blood and brain, must be someone. "A bloody idiot."

After a pause-resting? Was it possible to be resting on that vertical and hostile face?—the man had begun to move once more. The remainder of the wall soared up above him to where safety was represented by a thin diagonal terrace. There was a hint of grass up there, a faint green mustache to break the monotony of gray. It was still far above him, but it seemed to signify safety. His body swayed and moved up, his feet touching rock with something of the assurance, something of the habitual skill and poise of a dancer. You could see that he had fair hair. Not much else about him. An anonymous performer on a Welsh crag, sometime after noon on a dry and blustery day. Who was he? And then he fell.

There was some argument later whether it was he who shouted. Someone certainly shouted. It may have been one of the walking party; it may have been one of the pair on White Slab, looking across from the first stance right out in space, way over to the right on the other buttress. There were no specific words — just a cry of surprise.

He fell and there was something leaden and inevitable about the fall. After the grace and agility of the ascent, the dull fact of gravity and weight. A sudden sharp acceleration. Thirty-two feet per second faster every second. About three seconds. And then he hit the broken slope at the foot of the wall, rolled a bit, and stopped.

People got to their feet and ran, scrambled, slithered up the slopes. A pair of climbers on another part of the crag began to fix a rappel rope. One of the girls in the walking party had begun to weep. Despite the hurry, no one really wanted to get there. Of course they didn't. But when they did, quite absurdly they found that he was still alive, unconscious but alive. And they were surprised to discover that he wasn't some reckless youth, the kind that has no respect for the traditions of the place, the kind that doesn't care a damn about doing anything so bloody stupid as soloing a route as hard as the Great Wall — he was middle-aged. Lean, tough, weather-beaten complexion (bruised horrendously, his jaw displaced raggedly to one side), middle-aged. Bleeding from his mouth and one ear. His limbs were arranged anyhow, like those of a rag doll tossed casually out of a window to land on the grass below.

Someone crouched over him and felt for a pulse in his broken neck. One of the walkers was on his mobile phone calling the police. Others just stood by helplessly. The pulse was there for a moment beneath the middle finger of the would-be rescuer, and then it faded away. He died as they stood and watched.

I was driving home when I heard the news. I was somewhere on that winding nightmare of motorway and expressway and overpass that crosses and recrosses the city of Birmingham: ribbons of lights stretching away into the gathering dusk, the long necklaces of housing estates, the pendant jewels of factories and warehouses. Design without intention; a strange sort of beauty without any aesthetic to support it. Over it all, the traffic moved in columns toward Liverpool and Manchester, toward London and the southeast.

The radio was on, and the story was big enough to make the national news on a day when the news wasn't special, the murders a mere one or two, the rapes only half a dozen and date rapes at that, the peace negotiations stalled, the elections indecisive, misery and poverty quotidian. Noted climber killed in fall, said a disembodied and indifferent voice from the radio, and I knew at once who it was even before I heard the name. Curious, that. I knew it would be him.

Jim Matthewson, who lived in North Wales, had spent a lifetime tackling the highest and hardest climbs in the world but died after falling from a local crag where he had first cut his teeth over thirty years ago. . .

I decelerated and pulled into the slow lane behind an articulated truck. like my driving? a sign on the tailgate asked; it gave a phone number, just in case you didn't. The next exit was for the A? and North Wales, and I let the car slow down and drift leftward down the slip road. The newsman was talking about helicopters and multiple fractures and dead on arrival. I hadn't really made a decision, no conscious decision anyway, but that was just like it had been with climbing - movement being everything, movement being a kind of thought, body and mind fused into one, the mind reduced perhaps, but the body exalted surely. Nowadays in the ordinary round of life there was separation of mind and body: but in those days it had been different.

As I dialed home, the radio news had become a broken oil pipeline in West Africa. Villagers had sabotaged the thing in order to collect the crude oil that spilled out. The phone rang in the hallway of my house while West African villagers ranted on about the corruption of the government and the high prices they were forced to pay for what was flowing for free through the metal tube just outside their village. You had to see their point of view.

I'd hoped to get one of the girls, but of course it was Eve's voice that answered: "Hello?" "It's me."

"Where on earth are you?" The overemphasis in her voice. "Have you heard the news?" "What news?"

"On the radio. Jamie. He's dead." An eloquent silence. How can silence on the end of a telephone line be eloquent? But it was. "How?"

"No idea. A fall, that's what it said. Look, I'm somewhere around Wolverhampton. I'm going." "Going?" "To Wales."

"Wales?" A note of incredulity. "Where will you stay? For goodness' sake, Allie's got to go to choir practice this evening. She was relying on you taking her. And you haven't got anything with you."

"That shouldn't be much of a problem. And I reckon I can get a bed at the Center." Another silence. "What's the point?"

"He was a friend. Christ alive, Eve, he was my best friend." It sounded ridiculous, the kind of thing children say. Best friend. Make friends, make friends, never, never break friends. It's girls who do that kind of thing, mainly. Boys find it all a bit embarrassing, don't they?

"And now he's dead. And you haven't seen him for years. What's wrong with a letter, or a phone call or something? You don't have to go running to the rescue like a Boy Scout, for God's sake. And anyway, there's no one to rescue." "There's Ruth."

"I know there's Ruth. And how do you propose to rescue her—?"

There was one of those awkward pauses, made more awkward by the fact that we were just voices, stripped of face or feature. We spoke over each other: "Rob."

"Eve." "Go on. What were you going to say?" "No you." "When . . ." "Yes?" "When will you be back?"

Her question hung in the balance. "A day or two," I said finally. "Time to sort things out. Time to see Caroline. That kind of thing. Eve. . ." "Yes?"

"Give the girls a kiss from me. Tell Allie I'm sorry about the choir.Next week." "Is that a promise?"

It was hard to read her tone. Hard to read mine too, I guess. "Look, I'm parked on the hard shoulder. I'd better be going. I'll give you a ring later. Love to the girls. And to you." "Yes," she said, but she didn't sound convinced.

Birmingham is something of a border territory. You wouldn't think it to look at the place, but the fact is that beyond Birmingham you are quite suddenly out of the embracing clasp of London, that disproportionate city, that selfish city that wants everything and everybody, that steals almost the whole of the south of England to itself and looks with covetous eyes on the rest. But beyond the lights of Birmingham there are the Marches, where blood was spilled, and the thin ribbon of the A5 that leads to Wales. London suddenly seems far away. I drove into the gathering dusk, past familiar names and familiar landmarks: Telford, Shrewsbury. Ahead there were black hills against the sky. Offa's Dyke was signposted for tourists. At Oswestry came the first hint of a change of language and landscape, chirk and newbridge giving way to pentre and cefn-mawr, and the road abruptly turning westward and finding a narrow gorge into the hills, and there was the sign to Llangollen, which is the farthest many outsiders get into the narrow, crabbed, secretive land that is Wales. The walls of the valley crowded in on the car. Headlights cut into the thick Welsh evening and spotlighted Celtic names now— cerrig-y-drudion, pentrefoelas, capel garmon.With the window down I could sense the difference, that sharp scent of meltwater, the hostile chill of height, the snatch of cold mountain air at the lungs.

It all came back as I drove: an awful muddle of memory and forgetting. Eve and the children suddenly seemed very far away and in another country, a safe, literal place where nothing is left to chance and no one takes risks. But this was different: this was a haunted landscape, trampled over by the ghosts of the past. Ahead was the familiar silhouette of the mountain that was most familiar of all - Yr Wyddfa, Snowdon. Overhead were the stars, Orion setting in the wake of the sun, a planet - Jupiter I guessed - gleaming down on the sublunary world with a baleful eye. One of our routes had been called Jupiter. I could even recall the words in the guidebook: Dinas Mot: start to the right of Gandalf, Extremely Severe. I remembered Jamie floating up on invisible holds while I sweated after him on the blunt end of the rope. I felt the sweat now in memory, even after thirty years.

I turned off the main road into a high valley. A long, narrow lake was pressed into the darkness of the mountains like an ingot of silver. At the only lighted building, I pulled the car over and parked. A warm and soporific atmosphere of tradition greeted me as I pushed open the door of the bar. There was brown wooden paneling and an old hemp rope in a glass case and the signatures of history written across the ceiling: Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans. And another name scrawled somewhere there as well: Guy Matthewson.

I ordered a beer. At the bar two men were talking in low and authoritative terms about the accident. They were tweedy and pipe-smoking. This hotel and all its traditions had always been a different world from ours, a parallel universe of breeches and heavy boots and pipes.We had been down at the Padarn Lake in Llanberis.We were jeans and canvas rock boots that they used to call PAs, and ciggies. Spliffs sometimes. A world away. "What can you expect?" they were asking each other. "These days people have no respect for the mountains. Of course, his father was one of the old school. . ."

There was a phone in the corner. I found the number in the phone book, and when my call was answered it was Jamie speaking. It was a shock to hear his voice: "This is the Matthewson Mountain Center," he said. "We can't answer at the moment, but if you leave your name and number after the beep, we'll get back to you as soon as we can."

I didn't leave a message. I finished my beer and left the customers to their complacency.

The road from the hotel wound uphill and over the head of the pass. The lights of a youth hostel loomed out of the blackness. There might have been a trace of snow on the hillside behind the building. On the left, the bulk of Crib Goch rose up to block out the stars. Then the descent into the pass began, and the names of the climbing crags crowded in from memory-Dinas Mot, Dinas Cromlech, Carreg Wastad, Clogwyn y Grochan. A narrow valley littered with boulders and outcrops and legends, a cradle and a crucible.Nant Peris with its little straggles of cottages.

The turn off the main road was vividly familiar, as though time had no dimension in memory and I had last taken that route only a week ago, when we had been looking for a place that was for sale. And then the headlights picked out the slab of engraved slate announcing


and the low-slung gray house with the outbuildings that had been converted into sleeping quarters, and a rough car park with no vehicles. I climbed out into the chill night air, feeling at the same time part of the place and alien, an adept and an intruder. There were lights in a few of the downstairs windows. When I rang the bell, footsteps sounded inside and a male voice called through the door: "You the press?"

"I'm a friend." "That's what they all say. You'd fucking better be." The door opened with reluctance, and a face peered out. Sallow skin and a scattering of stubble like iron filings across the chin. Long hair pulled back with a bandanna.

"Where's Ruth?" I asked as I stepped inside. There were familiar photographs on the walls of the hall, stark monochrome ones of angular rock and scrawny climbers plastered across in balletic poses; color shots of dark rock and enamel-blue skies and untrammeled snow. One of the rock climbers was Jamie himself, poised on fingerholds on some overhang; the couple of guys in down jackets and helmets and cheesy grins with an apocalyptic sunset behind them were Jamie and me together; the girl climbing a steep rock wall, with long hair streaming out below her and a skintight T-shirt was Ruth over a quarter of a century ago, all of them three decades ago, when we were all much younger and less foolish.

"She's in the kitchen. Who shall I say—?" "You shan't." I pushed past and went down the passage. The youth followed behind, no doubt wondering whether he had failed in his duty as guard dog, no doubt wondering whether this visitor was going to pull out a notepad at the last moment and ask Ruth how she felt about Jamie's death and what it was like to be married to a man who defied death every day and crap like that. She was in the kitchen just as the guard dog had said. She was fiddling around with a coffeepot, occupying herself with trivial things, which is what you do in circumstances like this. She turned to see who it was who had just come in the door, and there were whole seconds when I could watch her expression register nothing at all, a performance that would have tried a lesser actress beyond all imagining. Her hand went up to brush a strand of hair from her forehead. She did it with the back of her wrist, a gesture that was so familiar. Her fingernails were cut short and stained with oil paint.

"Dewar," she said. No surprise. A consummate piece of acting. She'd always called me by my surname, right from our first meeting. Almost always. The minder had slipped back into the shadows. "I heard the news on the radio," I said. She frowned. "Where were you?"

I shrugged her question away and went over to her, and she stood there while I put my hands on her shoulders and leaned forward to kiss her on the cheek. There was that awful familiarity, the sensation that somehow, even after so many years, this was where I belonged. "I thought maybe I could be of help. I don't know how exactly." "Shoulder to cry on?" "Perhaps."

She offered me something. A beer, anything, something to eat perhaps? I took the beer and sat at the table. While she prepared me some food, she told me what there was to tell, which was mainly about hospitals — "dead on arrival, actually" — and police statements and that kind of thing. "There'll be a coroner's inquiry, but they say they'll release the body for the funeral." Her mouth turned down. "It'll be a zoo. Press, television. They've been on the phone all bloody evening." Her Welsh intonation. People say the accent is singsong, but that's just being romantic.

It's flat-voweled and resigned, the voice of a people who have always scratched a living on the edge of Britain ever since they were driven there by the invaders. The accent of defeat.

"What was he doing?" "Doing?" "Yes, doing. What happened? The radio report said nothing. Just a fall." She looked up at me. "Great Wall," she said. "Solo." "He what?"

"You heard." Her face was lean and pinched. It looked as though she was in a gale, the wind battering past, the sound of it in her ears, roaring past her ears so that it was difficult to hear what people said. You stood right near her and you shouted and still the wind snatched your words away. "Solo? But that's the kind of thing kids do." She shrugged.

"I mean it must be outside his range these days. Must have been. Even roped. What grade is it now? E?? When I knew it, it was just ridiculous." "Four. It's E?."

"E? solo? At his age? I mean, that's suicide." There was a silence in the kitchen. The windows were black as slate. There was that faint, infernal smell of gas from the stove. "He was fit," she said eventually, as though something had to be said. "Always out, always climbing. You know." "I remember falling off Great Wall trying to second him. Had to take a tight rope. He thought it bloody funny. I remember him peering down at me from the peg belay and grinning like an idiot." "He would."

"Where is he now?" For a fraction of a second it had seemed that we were talking in the present, about the living, not the dead. That lithe man, the laughter in his expression, the shadows in his eyes.

"The undertakers'," she said. "I've discovered that they take everything off your hands. Complete service. What a discovery to make. Look, you don't have to be here, you know." "I want to be."

"Have you got somewhere to stay? Do you want a room?" "If you like." "Okay." She looked away and found something to do, the way you do when you want distraction. There's always something irrelevant to do. "What are your plans?" I asked. "Plans?"

"About this place." "Oh, that. Sell my share, I guess. Nic's a partner now, did you know that? Dominic Lewis. You know him?" "I know the name. Was that the courteous reception committee?" "He's been a big help." "I'm sure."

"And I'll buy a cottage in Spain with the proceeds." It was a joke. She smiled to show me that it was and I smiled back, and there were echoes all around us. The past, the distant past. A whole lifetime. She corrected herself: "Castle more like. Castles in Spain." "Or in the air."

I slept in one of the rooms in the main building, beneath a low, sloping ceiling and watched over by a picture of Dominic Lewis climbing Pendragon, which was one of our routes, one that Jamie and I had put up. I recognized the pitch clearly enough. Like so much else it was ingrained in memory — the feel of the rock, the precise uncompromising curve of that hold, that crack, that small nub of quartz that was the key handhold. It was like an etching, the details scored into the mind because they were experienced in every way at the time — intellectually, physically, all ways that there are to experience something. "It's just like sex." That's what Jamie used to say. "The physical and the mental together. Mind and matter." Quite the little philosopher, Jamie used to be. In the photo, Lewis was all flexing deltoids and purple leotards, looking up toward the camera with his fingers curled like claws over a flake hold and his mouth in a half smile. The pink gneiss was all around him, the sea boiling in the background: very photogenic. He was soloing, of course. No doubt he'd have done Pendragon on sight, as a warm-up before tackling something hard. He was one of the new generation: bolts and chalk, rappel inspections and top-roping to get the moves right. I thought of Jamie soloing Great Wall, a climb he could never have hoped to succeed on, not any longer, not these days. And then I must have dozed, because the next thing I knew was a faint, mouselike sound, and when I turned there wasn't the cold blackness of the wall across the room anymore, but a faint gray trapezium of light. The door was open. A figure was standing there, a black silhouette against the gray, like a minimalist painting.

Mere shapes. "Who's that?" Soft steps creaked on the boards. I felt her close presence in the darkness, a sensation that was midway between heat and scent. "Do you mind? I just wanted company, you know. Feeling a bit digalon."

Calon is heart; digalon, downhearted. It had been one of her words, one of her Welsh words that she allowed into her English. Cariad was another: darling, dearest, love. I said something - an apology, a warning, something — but she didn't care. She lifted the blankets and slipped in beside me. Even after a quarter of a century, she was familiar, the movements of her tough limbs, the hard angles of her body, her loose breasts, her smell. She'd gone by the time a gray, bleary dawn opened the narrow windows of my borrowed room. The whole incident might almost have been a dream — or a memory.

Excerpted from The Fall © Copyright 2004 by Simon Mawer. Reprinted with permission by Back Bay Books, an imprint of TWBookmark. All rights reserved.

The Fall: A Novel
by by Simon Mawer

  • paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316735590
  • ISBN-13: 9780316735599