Magic in the Airby Niall Grimes Dec/2006
This article has been read 8,231 times
I easily get bored reading another bloody crag profile or a 'what I did on my holidays?' article. Don't get me wrong, I like ideas for trips and I write guidebooks but I'm sure that I am not the only one to recognise that many of the climbing print magazines have morphed slowly into content that appears to be part climbing guidebook and part gear catalogue, there's some good writing there, sometimes, but most of it is editorially sanitised and commercially focussed to bring in the advert pounds - that's essential of course and what makes the world go around, but surely there has to be some wall of seperation between editorial content and advertising or are we doomed to a world of advertorials (definition) and sneaky product (and logo) placement? And the pool of writers they use is very small, the same old faces in the photographs and in all the credits. At UKClimbing.com we'd like to give a voice to everyone, both the famous and the not so.
So Niall Grimes, very prolific creative writer, raconteur, husband, rock climber (he's done 'End of the Affair' a grit E8....and lots of of other things, in the dark and in the rain), he was a researcher and presenter for the World famous climbing film 'Hard Grit', he hosted and presented the lecture series called "Ape Index", a climbing cabaret in Sheffield several years ago.......and now, he is the Guidebook Supremo at the BMC and has brought them screaming into the Noughties with the award winning "Burbage, Millstone and Beyond. "
So, a couple of weeks ago I went to a BMC Lakes Area meeting at the Sun Hotel, Troutbeck Bridge and it featured a free slideshow by Niall Grimes, as well as a special 'All you can pay for' beer promotion. There was no bugger there....well thirteen of us. OK so talking about access isn't most peoples idea of a fun evening, but with a carrot dangled like Grimer you would of thought!!!!!!!!...But no, naff all promotion. The room should have been buzzing for goodness sake. But I'm rambling. We had a great evening with Grimer and I asked him to submit something to UKClimbing.com. This is it (well nearly...there was another article!)......and yes he is Irish and he is a Catholic.
The electric tokens had run out that morning. It was too long since the last benefit cheque, and tobacco was too short for anyone to spend the money on anything so luxurious as light. Outside it was rainy: another December dusk had started to approach - still, timeless and forever like a tide, and a small drop in the daylight outside had plunged our room into gloom. Too wet for climbing today, we had decided earlier, again.
In the kitchen, Finbarr and I leaned against the worktops, our books in our hands. We burned all four gas rings to get light to carry on reading by, but this only managed to change the shade of the darkness. Still, the heat, fire, the steady purr of the burning gave some comfort. My eyes hurt and I was hungry. I gave up and put down my book beside the cooker, upsidedown and open at my page. Beside me, Finbarr had given up too. He put a saucepan of water onto one of the rings, and had started rolling himself a cigarette.
“Make me one, Finbarr?” I asked him.
We both stood leaning against the worktop either side of the stove, and when he had finished rolling, he passed it leftwards to me, untidy, uneven, unlit, then started on his own.
I lit it off the cooker. It was getting harder to make things out. I almost appreciated this scene, as I realized how seldom I had seen it like this, resorting as we usually do to the light switch at the first sign of darkness. But no. Aesthetics weren't enough. I hated the mess here. I hated the empties, the damp ash. I hated the fact that Finbarr was boiling a nest of blanched teabags for the hundredth time to make what we called 'black' tea. I wanted more tobacco. I wanted to watch some rubbish on the fourteen inch black and white telly. I wanted something more than all this for Christ's sake.
“Want some toast?” Finbarr asked me.
He had stabbed a heel of white bread with a chopping knife and was holding it a few inches above one of the flames. We both watched it transfixed, the primeval mesmerism of flame, with the sound of the idling gas burners soothing the ears. For a few peaceful moments I perceived nothing that was more than a few inches from the bread. The heel curled down towards the heat, and Finbarr made it dance weird jigs to avoid any one part of it overheating. Even so, the edges went alight frequently. When it was dark enough, he cast it off the end of the knife onto a handy plate, poured some vegetable oil onto it, and pushed this to the edges with the knife. He then picked up a half-onion. The exposed face had green blemishes; he sliced these off, and then cut a few thin slices over the blackened bread. It looked dry, but it was still an act of great generosity to slice it in two and give me half. His slicing also touched me somehow, as he did this, not across the middle, but from corner to corner, as if we were civilized and I were important. It was consumed.
We munched through it with dry appreciation. As I chewed I wondered what I could find to do next in the dark house.
“C'mon, lets get out,” Finbarr decided for both of us, and tossed most of his tea into the blocked sink. I followed him, and fumbled in the corner amongst ropes and gear where I knew there was a dry coat. The climbing gear had lain there for a few weeks now, unused, unsorted. They gave me a dull sense of guilt, as I kicked the pile back into the corner, out of the way. We stepped towards the doorway.
“Oh, the gas,” I remembered. “Leave it, let the place burn,” Finn said.
I went back in and turned the taps off two at a time. I stood there a moment, and the dim silence gave me a shudder. I thought for some reason of a photo I had once seen of a dead soldier lying in a lonely room in Leipzig beside his own blood. He had been shot on the last afternoon of the war. I hastened from this lonely room, and gladdened to see Finbarr's silhouette on the edge of the evening.
It had stopped raining, and the thrilling chill of the outside air felt infinitely preferable to inside's cold must. From the threshold, we could see across the town, noticing that the clouds had started to break up enough to let the late sun hit some blocks of flats on the hillsides. Some of the windows reflected us back a golden ochre, as if pools of spare liquid sun were kept in those rooms, and we envied the view they must have. Without asking, we both knew where we were going. We slammed the house behind us, turned first right, then left, then right again. We were going to the dark house on the hill.
The way was steep, and we pressed on as fast as walking could go. Tar in the lungs didn't help aerobic fitness, and we hadn't much wind to talk to each other on the way. Still, we were excited, and anticipation soon helped us arrive at the house.
The dark house was the eccentric end of a terrace, situated as high up as any in the city, and, up close, was a miracle of eccentric, dark rough stonework. It seemed to have been built along the lines of an inside-out cave, and every time we came here we always thought about knocking on the door and asking the owners why or what they knew. We never did.
We walked down its drive and rested on the ornamental railings at the bottom of the garden. The world was below us. The evening was indeed clearing up, and a hard after rain clearness filled the air. There was a great lightness in the sky. The dundark heaviness of the land contrasted sharply with this. We observed the scene like we were in a crows nest; we could pick out roads, with their lines of redlight or whitelight traffic. We identified our house, number sixty-eight, for all the houses either side had their lights on. We saw the crossroads, and the chimney from the hospital. A stain of smoke meandered from this into the crystalline atmosphere, as if it was escaping the earth. A chain of white squares meandered smoothly away from the city; a train, and along its path, there were stationary breaks in the light, showing where trees or bridges lay between it and us. Orange sodium constellations were everywhere, but diminished leftwards towards the countryside. At each house I looked at their lights, and wondered what life surrounded these. People snoozing after work, children playing, people happy, people sad. Couples kissing, couples fighting. I felt warm at the thought of what was going on around each of these bright yellowy eyes.
We looked at the skies. Although inside number sixty-eight had long been gloomy, it looked as if the sun had not long since dropped below the horizon, for it was still burning onto the clouds above us. We marveled at these celestial wonders, examined them and tried to describe them. We lost count of the number of different types or even colors. Some rose vertically in huge chimneys, they seemed to go to the very edge of the atmosphere. Others were like mighty ice-caps and must have kept the sun off hundreds of square miles of earth. They were denser to our left, and thinned out somewhat passing overhead. Some seemed so thick and lumpy to be almost clotted solids. Others were like vague memories of cotton wool. Some were dark shadowy animals, while others were great white sunbathers. The best, however, the ones we longed for, caught the sun's light at such an angle, they seemed to be mad fireballs, in raging mourning at the sun's departure. We wondered about what each type meant, and what special relationship seafarers must have with them.
I grasped the railings, and, now I had my breath back, allowed oxygen to fill my lungs. I drew in air. It had a refreshing drinky coolness to it, and I kept inhaling until I could inhale no more, and even still, kept inhaling. I felt the airborne evening, the clearness, the cloudiness, the warmth and chill, the companionship, the whole scene entering me. It sought out every gloomy damp sooty nook of my insides, and left instead its opalescent vapors.
“Isn't this amazing,” Finbarr said. “It always looks totally different every time.”
I looked across. He had already started taking off this clothes. His coat was slouched on the railings, and he pulled his woolen jersey off over his head, shaking his hair free. He then unbuttoned his shirt, removed it, and piled it carelessly on the coat and jersey. His wings were now wrapped tightly around his body, and he had to pull the ends out from the tops of his jeans. This done, he continued to prise them away from himself slowly.
Fin allowed his wings their full eight foot span. They looked marvelous in the light, although the effects of squalor were showing. Some feathers had broken, and their whiteness was patchy from uncleaned natural oils, and had tea stains. He gave them a slow, rhythmic beat, in order to stretch them out. Huge ribbons of muscle heaved about his torso, and I couldn't resist running my fingertips through the fine snowy down about his latissimi dorsi, and down into the channels formed by his abdominal muscles. These were still damp from perspiration. Back muscles rippled sharply, and a violent shuddering passed through his wings, rearranging any misplaced feathers.
I soon joined him. After our walk, I felt warm and healthy, and enjoyed exposing my body to the evening's elements, and enjoyed how the cold turned my perspiration to an involuntary shiver. He was ready, and soon so was I. We stashed our clothes behind a dustbin, stood on the railings, leaned forward, and took flight. Free.
We moved fast, suddenly dropping height down the side of the slope but picking up speed. We beat our wings stiffly at first, feeling the blood reach the muscles, warming up, but it wasn't long until we had gained height. It was marvelous to fly west, over the sun's horizon, back into daytime. It was bright and blinding, but felt warm on our face, especially in these chilly high atmospheres. The landscape below us was fine rolling green or ochre farmland, and we could see the dark light border between places where the sun had set and places where the sun was setting. Shadows of trees stretched for a hundred yards, and lights were on already or coming on. On the fields oblique shadows picked out vague features that might have been houses or walls or roads at some time in history.
Not far away we saw a rain shower happening, so we made for it. It was dark here in the evening and under the umbrella of cloud, and the drops were big and heavy. In the wetness we laughed and cavorted, and the rain stung our eyes and made our hair stick to our faces. I tasted the moisture as it went into my mouth, and it was salty from sweat. I called to Finbarr but he could hardly hear me, as his ears aren't so good, so I pointed upwards. He gave me a nod, and we both arced heavenwards, through heart of the leaden gray cloud.
Flying through this denseness, I was a bit wary of crashing into Fin. The visibility was poor in the heart of a rain cloud, and droplets of water on my glasses made things trickier. Luckily we didn't crash, and halfway up through the cloud's body, the raining stopped.
Emerging at the top, I found it hard, as I always do, to associate the soft bouncycastle purewhiteness of the top of the cloud with the thick rainbringing blackness below. There is always a certain unreality about being up here.
We coursed in the sunny air for a bit to dry off, which didn't take long, and then spent some time in acrobatics, until, due to the thin air, fatigue forced us to turn again eastwards and to home.
We landed quietly again below the white house. A television's blue aura danced inside one of the rooms, but here at the back, no-one was around, so we took our time at refolding our wings and dressing. Dark night now, and the moon silvered only a few small loose clouds, allowing the constellations to be seen clearly. Orion, the dogs, Auregia, and my favourite, Cassiopeia. We gazed at these, then at length, turned and walked homewards. The silence of satisfied fatigue was seldom broken, but we both agreed that it was crazy that we went out flying so seldom these days.
In silence we walked back down the hill. Fin let an occasional sigh, and when I asked him if all was well, he told me that he and Rosie had split up. I didn't know what to say, so said nothing except for an “Aha” to acknowledge that I'd heard him. I felt for him as we continued home in silence. Near the house, we met Rosie walking. She had obviously called round at ours. She saw us and I noticed her normal confidence had gone, and that she was hiding her prettiness. Her eyes looked earthwards, and her arms were folded across her chest. Her white shoes made short steps.
They looked down in each other's general direction without speaking so I excused myself. “I'll see you later then.”
“Yeah, sorry. See you later.” Rosie smiled good-bye, and I left, glad to be the one who could walk away.
Rounding the corner, I saw that a light was burning from within number sixty-eight. Entering, I looked down the hall into the lounge, seeing Libby nested in lamplight, and exclaimed “Electricity!”
She was sitting in the corner, and the radio was turned on, with a man's soft voice talking, and with the day's paper open at a half-finished crossword. We smiled at each other and I sat down. She looked up, beaming, with the end of her pen in her mouth.
“Christmas come early?” I asked.
“I found a twenty pound note just outside the house today,” she said, looking pleased with herself. “I hope it wasn't yours,” she added, giggling.
“Wouldn't know what one looked like,” I smiled back.
“Well, would you like a coffee?”
I told her I'd love one. She got up to prepare it, and over the sound of a bubbling kettle, told me to see what I could do with that crossword. I went over and sat in Libby's vacated chair. It was warm and friendly. I started rolling up with her tobacco, and noticed then that the house was tidy again.
The man's voice on the wireless, deep, soft as the dusk, continued: “....and the forecast for the next twenty four hours. Tomorrow will continue to be sunny, and possibly all the way to the end of the week. Tonight's frost will remain through most of the day in sheltered areas, as the temperature will seldom climb above two degrees, although with no wind, temperatures shouldn't feel too bad”
I lit the cigarette. It tasted good to my revitalized lungs, and its smell mingled with that of coffee from the kitchen. I got one of the clues in the crossword: 'glowing', and was writing it in as Libby came round the door, carrying a cafetiére, two cups and the sugar.
“Oh yeah,” she said. “Your friend Beggs phoned this evening.”
Beggs and I had climbed together a lot in the past, but after he and his girlfriend had split up, he had found other more important things to worry about than conditions and redpoints, and we had lost touch some. It had been a long time since I had seen him. The mention of his name made me realize I had missed him.
“Yeah,” she continued, pouring the coffee, spooning in the sugars, stirring, “He says he's coming round at half nine in the morning to pick you up to go climbing, and you better have your lazy arse ready.” She passed me the cup. Smiling.
I took a savoring first sip, swallowed, and sat back and smiled at Libby. The taste, the light, the broadcasted voice, warmth and health. The evening, my friends, Fin, Libby, Neal. And climbing tomorrow. Climbing again tomorrow, I repeated to myself. The realization that I could just go climbing again tomorrow seemed to explode onto me, as if I had never realized it before. Of course. It's just out there waiting. God I'm slack. I better go and sort out that rack, I can't believe I let it sit there unused, so long. I grinned, and felt my heart melt into the warmth of the moment.
Niall Grimes is a registered climber at UKClimbing.com. His profile is here.