The Way Down
“I have a really good idea for a holiday,” Martin said.
“Hmmm?” Julia dragged her attention up from the book she was reading and focused on her husband. Her brain finally caught up with the words he had spoken, and her distraction turned into surprise. “Really? Tell me more.”
“I saw a documentary the other night,” Martin continued, clearly enthused. “Michael Portillo went round Switzerland by train. It looked amazing. Do you think we could put it on the list?”
Julia was conflicted. Martin never contributed to their holiday planning. Oh, he came along with her on trips happily enough, and they usually had a good time, but she was in charge of everything; from concept through planning to actual logistics while away. She had often wished he would take more interest in proceedings, but – Switzerland? By train? Wouldn’t that be complicated, and – well, boring?
She didn’t want to discourage him, though, and he was so cute when he was excited about something, so she dutifully put it on the list. Martin may have come up with the initial idea, but Julia knew she would still be doing all the organising. And, if she was honest, that was the way she liked it. She could wish that Martin would get more involved but, deep down, she was a control freak and she knew it. If she expected him to actually do any planning or organising, he would just do it wrong and she would get annoyed about it.
So, the next time she perused the list in search of a holiday to plan, Julia spotted the Switzerland idea and decided to do some research. It turned out to be surprisingly easy to come up with an itinerary, and a Swiss Rail Pass made booking travel simplicity itself. Before she knew it, she had a whole week planned, making sure to include a trip on the Glacier Express, which Martin had particularly requested.
When the holiday came around, Julia was apprehensive about all the train changes, but she set her reservations aside and was determined not to get stressed unnecessarily. The whole thing turned out to be very smooth, and they didn’t need the multifarious activities they had packed to amuse themselves on the long journeys, as the spectacular scenery largely held their attention.
The Glacier Express from Chur to Zermatt was indeed a highlight. The train was extremely comfortable, and the panoramic windows provided amazing, changing views for the whole six hour trip. By the time they reached their lovely hotel in Zermatt, Julia was really enjoying herself and was delighted that Martin had come up with such a wonderful idea for a holiday.
The friendly receptionist gave them a map of the town, then produced another leaflet, which she opened out before them with a flourish.
“Of course, you’ll want to take the cable car up to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise while you’re here,” she said, brightly, tracing the route on the diagram with one finger. “It’s absolutely the thing to do in Zermatt.”
Julia had stopped listening at “cable car”. She wasn’t particularly keen on heights, and swinging out in open space in a tiny box, suspended from improbable wires, seriously gave her the heebie-jeebies. She looked up to see Martin beaming at the receptionist as she continued to expound the joys of the excursion.
“Sounds amazing!” he said. “We’ll definitely look into it. Thanks very much.”
Julia remained silent as they took their bags up to their room. Martin immediately bounded out onto the balcony and exclaimed over the view of the Matterhorn itself, which loomed over Zermatt, almost menacingly, Julia thought.
“Just think,” Martin breathed. “Tomorrow, we’ll be able to get right up close and personal with it. This is exactly why I wanted to come on this trip.” He bounded back into the room, grabbed her and kissed her soundly. “Thanks for organising all this, Jules. You’re wonderful.”
Of course, after that, there was no going back. Julia wasn’t going to deprive Martin of the mountain, and she knew he would be upset if she suggested he go up without her. So, the following day, they set out to the cable car station, Julia determined not to let her fear get the better of her.
It was perfectly safe, she told herself. Nothing was going to happen to them. There was absolutely no reason to be scared. How she wished rationality could control her treacherous lizard brain, lurking behind the sensible words.
Martin chattered away happily, completely oblivious to Julia’s inner turmoil. He had always been a bit dense when it came to her moods, something which she usually appreciated, since it meant he generally didn’t even realise when she was being mean to him. It really wasn’t his fault, either, since she didn’t tend to broadcast her emotions, and being quiet in the face of his burbling wasn’t exactly unusual.
Stepping onto the cable car was easy; just a little hop from solid ground into the car as it moved slowly round the bottom corner of its track. It wasn’t very busy, so they got a car to themselves, which was lucky. Julia sat down gingerly on the bench seat facing up the mountain and took a deep breath.
And then they suddenly swung out into open space and were away. The wire stretched up before them, impossibly high and terrifyingly steep. The trees below them and the landscape to either side seemed very far away, and there was nothing but some thin metal and a panoramic plastic window between them and oblivion. Julia gripped the seat tightly and tried to control her breathing.
She couldn’t hold in a little squeak of alarm when Martin shifted onto the forward bench for a better view and set the little car swinging alarmingly on its cable. He looked back in concern.
“You okay, Jules?” he asked, clearly baffled by her distress.
“Mmm-hmm,” she murmured back, not trusting herself to speak.
“I didn’t know you had a problem with heights,” Martin replied, his tone one of interest rather than sympathy.
It was a testament to how little he observed and how little she conveyed that they had just passed their tenth anniversary without this becoming common knowledge between them.
“We’re not really that high up,” Martin continued blithely. “If the car were to fall, we’d probably survive.”
“Not helping!” Julia ground out.
She tried closing her eyes, but that only made it worse. She kept forcing her arms and legs to relax from their clenched state, only to discover a few moments later that they were rigid once more. Every time they passed over a pylon, the car vibrated and fear surged through her. She hadn’t known it was possible to sustain a sense of absolute terror for so long, but throughout the 45 minute trip up the mountain, her fear never subsided.
When the car juddered to a halt about 35 minutes in, Julia’s heart nearly stopped with it. They hung over open space, swinging slightly in the wind, with no reassuring announcement to tell them why they had stopped and how long the wait would be. Martin tried to be supportive, but the idea of being afraid of heights was completely alien to him and he found it difficult to understand her problem.
Eventually, they were on the move again and, at long last, the cable car reached its destination and they both stepped out onto solid ground again. Julia immediately moved as far away as possible from the evil car, wanting to get inside, away from the vast space that stretched all around.
Martin was in his element, excitedly leading the way up to the viewing platform at the very top of the peak. He leaned over the railings and stepped up onto a bench to get a better vantage point for his photos of the nearby Matterhorn, exclaiming over the views and commenting on the air quality. Julia had to admit that the views were amazing, and the viewing platform was large enough that she could stand in the middle and feel relatively safe. Martin clambering about near the edge made her feel a bit nauseous, but she was glad he was enjoying himself and that her ordeal in the cable car on the way up hadn’t been in vain.
All she could really think about, however, throughout the entirety of their time on top of the mountain, was the way down.
Right, here goes.
God, the mirror in this lift makes me look awful.
Hang on, straighten the tie, flatten the hair. Ok, reasonably presentable.
She’s never going to say yes. I mean obviously.
What the hell am I doing?
I’ll just walk past her.
Just walk past reception like I always do.
But she might ask why I'm carrying the flowers.
Everyone who saw me with a huge bunch of flowers in the office today will ask me tomorrow if I asked her.
They might even ask her if I asked her.
This is getting out of control already.
Oh, come on Richard, grow some balls and ask her.
It’s just a drink, or maybe dinner.
Maybe dinner is too much. Maybe see how it goes.
Maybe I can jokingly ask...
No, not jokingly. Bad, bad idea. Remember that last office party.
Damn it, why wasn't she on reception this morning?
I was all geared up and there was Bob instead.
I like Bob and everything, but he is not Jane, and I was not giving him flowers.
If she’d been there it would be all over and done with, and the whole office wouldn't have seen me with the flowers.
They would have either noticed a nice bouquet on Jane’s reception desk, or in her litter bin, and I could have avoided all the nudges, winks and giggles all day.
Why is this lift taking so long?
Look, I’ll just go up to her, hand her the flowers and ask her out. It’s easy.
She’ll just politely say no and that will be that.
Then I’ll have to just avoid her entirely for the rest of my life.
Maybe I should just save us both the trouble.
I’ll make up some excuse about the flowers.
I’ll not tell her that I think about her every day.
That I look forward to seeing her smile when I sign in each morning.
That I keep looking for excuses to pass reception and chat.
I’ll not mention how I love the way she’s so easy to talk to.
No, I've got to do it. This is ridiculous.
Even if we stay just friends I have to try.
I'm going to do it.
I'm going to do it.
I'm going to do it.
I'm going to do it.
I'm going to do it.
Oh God, here we go.
Bloody mirror. Bloody hair. Bloody tie.
Get a grip, next floor.
You can do it.
There she is. I'm going to do it.
If she looks up and smiles, I'm going to do it.
Please Jane, just one smile. I'm standing here with a stupid bunch of flowers, ready to make a complete twat of myself for you. Just one smile and I’ll do it.
Here I go.
His fall from grace was gradual: a slight trip on a slippery floor; a casual slip of the tongue. So gradual, hardly anyone noticed--including his wife, his children, his closest friends. Hardly anyone--but himself.
"Wrong, something's wrong," he would mutter under his breath when he'd trip over his feet as he walked in the garden or he'd spill his coffee--
yet again--at the breakfast table. His wife tried to ignore these mishaps or pretended not to see. And his two teenaged children, drifting more and more into their own worlds, never paid attention to their father's slow downward spiral.
He would say "flower" when he meant "butter"--"salt" when he meant "sewing"--"umbrella" when he meant "laundry." The words a strange cacophony of sound and song. His ears heard one word, but his mouth shaped a totally different word. As if his tongue and throat were locked in a rebellion against him.
To walk down a simple flight of stairs became a major challenge. His feet seemed to forget how to negotiate the step-by-step process of getting from the second floor of his house to the first. As if he were a toddler again, frozen at the top of the landing, wondering how to navigate the distance from top to bottom.
"If only I had wings," his wife overheard him say, as he talked to himself one evening while staring at his dinner.
"What, Tom?" was her only response. His response was silence.
That night, he dreamed a strange dream filled with an overwhelmingly blue sky. He was climbing a tall, grassy slope that overlooked his boyhood home in the country. When he saw his wife and children standing at the top of the hill, he climbed faster and faster with complete joy.
Reaching the top, he looked down into the valley below. Every color was more alive, more vibrant than he had ever remembered. The yellow roses by his mother's back porch. The light purple lilacs growing at the end of the lane. The lush green that enveloped the huge oak near the brook. He felt a sudden calm and total peace. For the first time in a long time, he didn't worry about how he was going to make it down to the bottom. He started running headlong down the slope. His eyes fixed on the gray stone house of his childhood. His arms outstretched like the wings of pure flight. His mouth forming the tentative pitch of birdsong. The sounds of his wife and children, caressing his ears--calling his name into the blue, blue air.