Twenty-four



A temporary hero and celebrity, Adam began to get communications from the world outside, relayed from the newspapers and publishers to which they’d been sent. People wrote to him as they might have written to Dr Livingstone or Lawrence of Arabia, complicated theories and grievances outlined over a dozen pages in minuscule handwriting and unusual colours of ink. There were adoring letters from young girls that made me smile, and become a little worried. There was a letter from the widow of Tomas Benn – who had died on the mountain – but it was in German, and Adam didn’t bother to translate it for me. ‘She wants to see me,’ he said, wearily, tossing the letter on to the pile.
‘What does she want?’ I asked.
‘To talk,’ he said curtly. ‘To hear that her husband was a hero.’
‘Are you going to see her?’
He shook his head. ‘I can’t help her. Tommy Benn was a rich man out of his class, that’s all.’
Then there were people who wanted to go on expeditions. And there were people with projects, ideas, obsessions, fantasies and a great deal of hot air. Adam ignored most of them. Once or twice he was lured out for a drink and I would join him in some bar in central London being talked at by a magazine editor or a bright-eyed researcher.
One day there was another unpromising approach, a foreign accent on a bad line early on a rainy Tuesday morning. I picked up the phone and was discouraging. I handed the receiver across the bed to Adam who was downright rude. But the caller persisted and Adam agreed to meet him.
‘So?’ I asked Adam, when he slouched in late one evening and took a beer from the fridge.
‘I don’t know,’ he said, banging the bottle open in his macho way on the edge of the table. He looked puzzled, almost stunned.
‘What was it about?’
‘A man in a suit who works for a German TV company. Knows a bit about climbing. He says they want to do a documentary about a climb. They’d like me to lead it. Any time I want, anywhere in the world, with whoever I want, the more challenging the better and they’ll organize finance.’
‘That sounds amazing. Isn’t that perfect?’
‘There must be a catch. There must be something wrong with the plan, but I haven’t worked out what it is yet.’
‘What about Daniel? I thought you were going with him next year.’
‘Fuck Daniel. That was just for the money. I just can’t believe it’s for real.’
Apparently it was for real. There were more drinks, then meetings. One evening, late at night when we were a bit drunk, Adam told me what he would like to do. He would like to go up Everest and not even attempt to get to the top: just clear the mountain of all the shit, bits of tent and frayed line, empty oxygen bottles, litter, even some of the dead bodies that were still up there, crammed into their last useless shelters. I thought it was beautiful and I coaxed him into scrawling the idea on a piece of paper, which I then typed into a presentable form. The TV company said yes to everything. It would make a great film. It had mountains and ecology.
It was wonderful, I felt wonderful. Adam had been like a boiling pot, spluttering and splattering on the stove, and it was as if he had suddenly been turned down to a more manageable simmer. Adam’s life was climbing and me, and for a couple of months it had been almost entirely me, and I had begun to wonder if I would get worn out, literally worn out, by the intensity of his attention. I loved Adam, I adored Adam, I lusted after Adam, but it was a relief now sometimes to lie in bed, sipping wine while he talked of the number of people he should take, when he should go, and I contributed nothing. I just nodded and enjoyed his enthusiasm. It was nice, just nice but nothing transcendent, and that was good too but I was careful not to say that to Adam.
For my part, I was also, gradually, becoming calmer about Adam’s past. The whole Michelle thing was now part of the landscape, the sort of thing we all get involved with when we’re young in one way or another. And Michelle had her baby and her husband now. She didn’t need my help. His previous girlfriends, the long-term ones, didn’t really mean much more to me than, say, the mountains he had summitted. If, when I was talking to Klaus or Deborah or Daniel or another of his older climbing friends, a mention of one of them came up I wouldn’t pay particular attention. But obviously you are interested in everything to do with the person you are in love with and to say nothing at all would have been an affectation. So I picked up information about them here and there and began to form a picture of them in my mind, to consider them in chronological order.
One evening we were back at Deborah’s Soho flat, but as guests this time. Daniel was going to be there. I had suggested that Daniel could go along on the Everest expedition. Adam was generally about as likely to take my advice on the subject of mountaineering as he was that of the doorknob of our bedroom, but on this occasion he looked reflective rather than dismissive. For most of the evening, he and Daniel were deep in conversation leaving Deborah and me to talk by ourselves.
It was a simple meal, just ravioli bought from across the street, salad from round the corner, and bottles of Italian red wine poured into dangerously large glasses. After we had finished the meal, Deborah took one of the bottles from the table and we went and sat on the floor in front of the open fire. She topped up my glass yet again. I didn’t feel exactly drunk, but I felt that my edges had gone fuzzy and as if there was a soft mattress between me and the floor. Deborah stretched out.
‘I sometimes feel there are ghosts in this flat,’ she said, with a smile.
‘You mean, people who used to live here?’ I said.
She laughed. ‘No, I mean you and Adam. This was where it all started.’
I supposed that the colour of my cheeks would be camouflaged by the fire and the wine. ‘I hope we tidied up properly,’ was all I could manage.
She lit a cigarette and reached across to the table for an ashtray. She lay back down on the floor. ‘You’re good for Adam,’ she said.
‘Am I? I sometimes worry that I’m not enough of a part of his world.’
‘That’s what I mean.’
I looked across at the table. Adam and Daniel were drawing diagrams and even talking about spreadsheets.

Deborah winked at me. ‘It’s going to be the most glamorous trash collection in history.’ She laughed.
I looked across. They wouldn’t be listening to what we were saying.
‘But his last er… girlfriend, Lily, she wasn’t involved with climbing, was she? Did you meet her?’
‘A few times. But she was nothing. That was just a transitional thing. She was all right, but she was a pain, whining after Adam all the time. When he woke up and saw what she was like he dumped her.’
‘What was Françoise like?’
‘Ambitious. Rich. A pretty good technical climber.’
‘Beautiful, as well.’
‘Beautiful?’ said Deborah ironically. ‘Only if you like long-legged, thin, suntanned women with long, fine black hair. Unfortunately most men do.’
‘It was a terrible thing for Adam.’
‘Worse for Françoise. Anyway,’ she pulled a face, ‘it was finished, wasn’t it? She was a climbing groupie. She liked the guys.’ She dropped her voice a little. ‘It may have taken Adam a little time to discover that, but he’s a grown-up man. He knows what happens when you sleep with climbing doctors.’
And then I knew.
‘So you and…’ and I nodded over at Adam.



Deborah leaned over and put her hand on mine. ‘Alice, it was nothing, for either of us. I just didn’t want to have a secret between us.’
‘Of course,’ I said. I didn’t mind. That much. ‘Then before Françoise there was the girl called Lisa,’ I said, prompting her.
‘You want to do this?’ asked Deborah, with amused suspicion. ‘Adam dumped Lisa when he fell for Françoise.’
‘Was she American?’
‘No. British. Welsh, Scottish, one of those things. Part-time climber, I think. They were A Couple,’ she pronounced the words as if they were inherently comic, ‘for years. But, Alice, you mustn’t get all of this wrong. They were A Couple,’ she made invisible quotation marks in the air with her fingers, ‘but they never lived together. Adam’s never been committed to anybody the way he has been to you. It’s just a different thing.’
I continued to press. ‘There was always someone in the background. Although he had other affairs that didn’t mean anything – as you say – there was always a permanent relationship. When one finished another started.’
Deborah lit another cigarette and frowned with thought. ‘Maybe. I can’t remember who he was connected with, as it were, before Lisa. Maybe I never met her. There was a girl a few years before that when I first knew him. What was she called? Penny. She married another old friend of mine, a climber called Bruce Maddern. They live in Sydney. I haven’t seen them in a decade.’ She looked round at me then snatched another glance across at Adam. ‘Jesus, what are we doing? You don’t want to bother about all of this. The only point of it is that Adam stayed committed to people he wasn’t really in love with.’ She smiled. ‘You can rely on him. He won’t let you down. And you mustn’t let him down. I’ve climbed with the guy. He doesn’t tolerate you failing to do what you’ve committed to do.’
‘That sounds alarming,’ I said cheerfully.
‘How about climbing, Alice? Any ambitions? Hey, Adam, are you going to take Alice along next year?’
Adam turned to me amiably. ‘Maybe you should ask her.’
‘Me?’ I said alarmed. ‘I get blisters. I get tired and bad-tempered. I’m unfit. And what I really like is being warm and wrapped up. My idea of happiness is a hot bath and a silk shirt.’
‘That’s why you should climb,’ said Daniel, coming over with two mugs of coffee and then sitting with us on the floor. ‘You know, Alice, I was on Annapurna a few years ago. There had been some fuck-up with the supplies. There are always fuck-ups of some kind or another. Usually it’s something like finding yourself at twenty thousand feet with two left mitts, but this time someone, instead of packing five pairs of socks, had ordered fifty. What it meant was that every time I got into the tent I could get an entirely fresh clean pair of socks and put it on and luxuriate in that. You’ve never been on the mountain so you can’t imagine what it was like to put my wet feet into those warm dry socks. But just picture every warm bath you’ve ever had mixed into one.’
‘Trees,’ I said.
‘What?’ said Daniel.
‘Why don’t you climb trees? Why does it have to be mountains?’
Daniel smiled broadly. ‘I think that I will leave that question for the famous buccaneering mountaineer Adam Tallis to deal with.’
Adam thought for a moment. ‘You can’t pose for photographs on top of a tree,’ he said finally. ‘That’s why most people climb mountains. To pose for photographs on the top.’
‘But not you, my darling,’ I said, and then was embarrassed by my own serious tone.
There was a silence as we all lay and looked in the fire. I sipped my coffee. Then, on an impulse, I leaned over, took Deborah’s cigarette, dragged on it and then returned it to her.
‘I could so easily start again,’ I said. ‘Especially on an evening like this, lying on the floor in front of the fire, a little drunk with friends after a lovely dinner.’ I looked across at Adam who was looking at me, the light from the fire shimmering on his face. ‘The real reason isn’t any of that. I think I might have wanted to do something like that before I met Adam. That’s the funny thing. It’s Adam who’s made me understand what a wonderful thing it is to climb a mountain and at the same time he’s made me not want to do it. If I were going to do it, I’d want to be looking out for other people. I wouldn’t want them to have to be looking out for me all the time.’ I looked around. ‘If we were climbing together, you’d all be dragging me up. Deborah would probably fall down a crevasse, Daniel would have to give me his gloves. I’d be all right. You are the ones who would pay for it.’

‘You looked beautiful this evening.’
‘Thanks,’ I said sleepily.
‘And what you said about trees was funny.’
‘Thanks.’
‘It almost made me forgive you for quizzing Debbie about my past.’
‘Ah.’
‘You know what I want? I want it to be as if our lives began at the moment we first saw each other. Do you think that’s possible?’
‘Yes,’ I said. Meaning, no.



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