Reaching The Summit
Edward crept under his blankets, and lay there, all senses quivering, waiting for the inevitable sounds of feet on the stairs. Would it be Mother or Father? Either way it would be bad. But for a long time nothing happened. The house was quiet. Edward started excavating his nose with his inky left index finger. His father had used a rude word about his being left-handed. Edward knew it was rude because he had repeated it in all innocence to his brother Bunny, who had gone round all day tee-heeing about it to his school chums. It was awful having an older brother at school. That was number five on the list of awful things in Edward's life. There were worse things:
Number One: His name. Edward felt plain wrong. As soon as he was old enough he was going to change it to Elvis.
Number Two: Reaching the Summit. This was something Father was always going on about. It was the most important thing in life for him, he said, and it would be for Edward and Bunny too. So he said. "RTS, boys," he would cry, "that's what makes you a Man." Edward really wasn't sure he wanted to be a man at all.
Number Three: Having a sister. Father ignored Nesta, so she didn't have to Reach the Summit and, even more to the point, she was allowed to play with dolls. This was not fair. Edward would have liked to play with dolls too, although he had not told anyone this, and never would. Especially not Bunny, for obvious reasons.
Number Four: Being only nine years old. Edward was counting the days until he was ten. He knew that ten wasn't old enough for him to be allowed to change his name to Elvis, but he felt sure that something important would change when he got to ten.
Edward lay in bed wondering whether when he was ten he would be allowed to go on his own to the shop on the parade where Mother didn't like him going because of something bad. He didn't know what the something bad was. He didn't think it was because the shop sold dolls, because he knew for a certain and definite fact that Mother had bought a doll for Nesta there, but when...
His reverie was broken by the sound of heavy footsteps coming up the stairs and then his bedroom door crashing open, his father looming in the doorway, face all twisted and hand, huge, coming towards him. Edward rolled into a ball like a hedgehog, hands over his head, frozen and waiting for the blows. But no blows came.
Edward peered out from under his arm. His father had dropped his hand. His father had dropped to the floor and was spreading there, like the ink on the carpet downstairs, only pale not dark. Edward cowered in confusion. Next thing there were fast, frightening noises, Mother at the door gasping, rushing, then Mrs Holland from next door and he, Edward, was bundled up and pushed into Bunny's room and Bunny was there too and they sat on the floor behind the closed door, close together. Edward wished very much at that moment that he had a doll to cuddle, but there was only his brother so he cuddled him and for once Bunny didn't hiss in his ear. They stayed there together, warm and comfortable, until at last someone got them into bed and sleep enveloped everything.
Edward's father died that day, on his son's bedroom floor, at the age of 45 and still a bank clerk. Edward found he didn't have to worry any more about Reaching the Summit after his father died. He moved schools and, in due course, went to Art College. He is now quite a well-known artist. He didn't change his name to Elvis but sometimes, now, he dresses as a woman and meets friends who know him as Elvira. When he thinks about it, he realises that he has actually reached a kind of summit. And he feels so very sorry for his father, who never did.
Esteval looked at the shipping schedule, scanning down the available jobs to find one that matched his ship. Merryweather wasn't fast, so courier runs were out, and she wasn't pretty, so nobody would choose her for a pleasure cruise. There were some long haul cargo contracts up on the board, but Esteval ran the ship alone and didn't like being out in deep space for too long. It made him go a bit strange, not to mention being dangerous for a solo pilot. If anything happened to him or to the ship, it would be a hell of a long time waiting for someone to find them.
A listing caught his eye, and he smiled.
“Dependable ship with reliable pilot needed for diplomatic run to Argus III. Quarters required for three passengers with luggage. Must arrive before start of third quartile. Fee negotiable.”
Perfect. Diplomats always had interesting stories to tell, and there was plenty of time to get Merryweather to Argus III by the deadline. Plus, there was always the chance of pirates around the Argus system, which might put other pilots off and potentially push the price up. Esteval had no qualms, though – Merryweather's armour could see off most attackers. It was what made her slow and awkward, but it was worth it in Esteval's opinion for the added security.
He posted his name and ship ID on the board next to the request, with what he thought was the top end of reasonable for his fee, and sat back to wait. The board pinged within a few minutes, with a counter-offer that slightly upwards of insulting, and the negotiations began. It didn't take long for pilot and passengers to reach an accord, and Esteval was fairly happy with the result. As long as they didn't have too much trouble on the run, he would make a tidy profit.
Even better, they wanted to leave right away, and Esteval hated sitting around in port, waiting on a contract. He posted the location of his current berth and opened the hatch. Then he glanced around the cabin and spent the next five minutes scurrying around, desperately trying to make the place look presentable. The sound of someone knocking on the bulkhead caused him to straighten up a bit too quickly and he clonked his head on the edge of the console. He managed to stop himself from swearing, and spun round to see three people waking up the hatch into the ship.
A tall, almost skeletal man led the way, openly sneering as he took in his surroundings. He glanced back over his shoulder at the young woman behind him.
“Are you sure about this, Selestra?” he asked, his tone contemptuous. “This ship doesn't exactly look the part...”
Esteval bristled, bringing himself to attention and addressing the man with dignity.
“Merryweather's record is beyond reproach,” he said. “As is mine, both as her owner-pilot and prior to that on other ships. If you would like to check our references before we disembark, they are freely available on the guild board.”
The young woman pushed past her companion and stepped forward, extending her hand, a bright smile on her face.
“Don't mind Brodin, Pilot,” she said in a breezy voice. “He's never satisfied. I checked all the references before accepting your services and I am convinced Merryweather will suit our needs perfectly. “Diplomat Selestra Abrava,” she concluded.
“Pilot Esteval Karanor,” Esteval replied, taking her hand and shaking it firmly. “I know Merryweather may not look like much, but she's safe as houses and twice as reliable. We'll get you where you need to go, perhaps not in style, but definitely in one piece.”
“Excellent,” Selestra said, her smile widening even more. She flipped her chestnut curls over one shoulder. “See, Brodin? Safe as houses.”
“I shall believe it when we dock at Argus III,” the unpleasant man muttered.
“This is Diplomat Brodin Garvin,” Selestra introduced, though Brodin did not step forwards to greet Esteval formally. “And this is Oblulawa Onmitra of the Lalaley Empire.”
Esteval turned his attention to the third member of the party for the first time and had to restrain himself from staring when she lowered the hood she had been wearing and revealed her face. Her skin was a shimmering blue and her head moved fluidly on an over-long neck. There was no hair on her head, and she regarded him solemnly through large, silver eyes. He had heard of the Lalaley Empire, of course, but had never met one of its people before.
“Greetings,” he said formally. “Welcome aboard Merryweather. I trust you will find the accommodations suitable.
Oblulawa raised a small device to her mouth, clutched in slender blue fingers. When she spoke, Esteval heard a sound like softly chiming bells before an incongruously flat voice emanated from the translator.
“I thank you for your kind welcome, Pilot,” the voice said. “I would be further grateful to be shown to quarters.”
“Of course,” Esteval said, and ushered all three down the hall before him.
He keyed open the doors to three different rooms and allowed them to arrange themselves as they saw fit. Oblulawa and Brodin each chose a room, entered and closed the doors firmly behind them. Selestra, on the other hand, stepped inside her room briefly, dropped her luggage and then came back out into the corridor.
“I'd like to see the launch from the bridge, if that's permissible,” she said.
“Absolutely,” Esteval said brightly, and led her back to the control console.
Unexpectedly, she flopped down in the co-pilot's chair and heaved a huge sigh.
“Here's hoping those two just stay in their rooms for the whole trip,” she said, then glanced at him sideways. “I assume I can count on your discretion not to tell either of them I said that.”
“Well, it's a bit late now if you can't,” Esteval quipped, happily matching her informal tone.
“True,” she replied with a wry smile, “but by this point, I'm not sure I really care.”
“Tough crowd?” Esteval prompted.
“Oh yeah,” Selestra agreed. “No sense of humour, either of them. Plus, Brodin's got his panties all in a twist about the mission, so he's even more up-tight than normal. Oblulawa's all right, really, just a bit difficult to talk to, what with that awful translator voice. I could just do with a bit of a break, and some more human company for a while.”
Esteval started warming up the ship for take-off while they talked.
“That's fine by me,” he said. “I've just landed after a week's run back from Cosmos VII all on my own, so I'm pretty desperate for some company myself. That's why I took your request. Am I allowed to ask you what's taking the three of you to Argus III?”
Selestra grimaced. “Brodin would probably flay me alive for telling you, but since you're taking us there, I don't see that there's any harm. The Lalaley Empire has been at war with the Hondar Federation for three generations, and they're finally ready to start talking about a truce. They're holding a peace summit on Argus III because it's neutral ground, and the Lalaley Empire have hired Brodin and me to act as their agents at the negotiating table. Oblulawa is the official Lalalian representative, and she has the authority to agree terms on behalf of her people, which is why Brodin has such a stick up his arse about this trip. She's a pretty important statesperson, and the negotiations are likely to be quite sensitive, so reaching the summit on time and in one piece is vital.”
Esteval was a bit intimidated by all this information, but he had confidence in his ship and in his own piloting skills, so he tried not to let the high profile nature of the commission get to him.
As he fired the engines and the ship raised itself smoothly off the landing pad, he grinned over at his passenger.
“Merryweather and I will do our utmost to ensure your safe arrival,” he said, and punched the button to send them into hyperspace.
It's never about getting to the top. Not for me. It's about every footstep I take to get there, every thought that goes through my head and every word I use silently to urge myself on. I have a mantra, a childish rhyme which goes through my head on a loop and I listen and push myself on. Every step is for my father.
I climbed my first mountain when I was seven. It was a hill at the back of my great-grandmother's house and my father took me, encouraging me, talking about his life. I was determined not to let him down so I pushed myself on and on until we stood together grinning into the wind, looking at the house way down below, a doll's house I'd slept in the previous night. I thought I could see my great-granny waving so I waved back, and then I waved at the town and the distant hills. We turned around and looked behind us and then I saw it, a higher hill, a peak reaching up to the clouds.
I wanted to go to the clouds.
My father saw my look and put his hand on my head. "I know, Andrew. I know."
The next time he asked me to go 'climbing' - he insisted on calling it although we were only hill walking - I was ready before him, jumping up and down beside the car.
It was the beginning of finding a bond with him, this father who I'd always been a little in awe of. He loved climbing and I would love it too. I began to see things the way he saw them - a deer, cautious, looking at us as if we were hunters, a hawk watching us high above, shimmering in the huge sky.
We went every weekend it was fine or my mother would let is go. Other times she insisted on family visits and my father and I would sink into silence in the car. It must have frustrated and scared her, thinking I would turn into this silent man my father was.
When I was older we began Monroe bagging, and were set for a record for the number of climbs in six months. But I'd noticed my father getting slower, and clumsier. I watched and didn't say anything, commenting instead on the life around us, the way we always had. My father's eyes weren't looking as far as mine though. It was as if he'd begun to turn inwards.
The illness which took him should have been frightened away by his strength and fitness, but it claimed him anyway. My mother's life halted; she'd lost a man she didn't even know very well. I tried to be warm to her, talk to her, get her to understand but I felt I could not reach her.
Now when I climb I look for him in the land around me. When I see a hawk, or a deer. When I go to the same places we walked together. And every time, I stand at the summit and imagine him there with me, touching my head and telling me he understood me. Or perhaps, knowing I understood him an knowing how rare this was. My father was hard to know.
I am hard to know, now. I have become like him, always reaching for the clouds, always lost in the journey. I'm happy in the mountains. There's a stillness you never find on Earth. Life is harder and more beautiful. The moutain seems alive and you know it's a priviledge to be there and you tread carefully so as not to harm her.
It's not about reaching the top; it's about reaching a place deep inside. My father had me to understand but in all the climbers I've met I've never found the same connection. Maybe one day I will. perhaps in my own son. Perhaps in a lover - though this seems impossible.
For now though, the mountains are enough. They speak to each of us differently, though I know they spoke to my father and me in the same language, all those years ago.