First, you see the sweeping shape of a looming wave, perfect blue coming right at you, but it’s not moving. Then, as you follow the crowds of people through the room, you see that it’s not a wave, it’s a whale. You wonder what kind of whale it is, then you wonder if this beast is real or a model, and if it is real, when did it die and what killed it? You will have answers to all these questions if you read the information on the plaque beneath the monstrous, docile figure. Here is its Latin name and its common name; facts about its natural habitat and diet; that it is not really blue – this colour is the effect of under-lighting the museum has installed to augment what nature has made.
You examine other displays, moving among cabinets of curiosities, stages set with conquered beasts, bodies stuffed and bones strung up on wires, marionettes stripped of everything, including artifice: you are supposed to see that these have been placed here by humans, subjugated by superior powers. As you read the signs and memorise trivia to demonstrate your education to friends and family later, you feel a power that comes from knowledge. It comes from the words you are reading. In the beginning was the word, and in the end will be words. Famous last words.
The attendant at the imposing doorway gave you a brochure when you entered the museum. It is advertising tonight’s event, which seems superfluous as you are already here. Posters lining the walls direct you to the lecture hall where the event is being held. The page in your hand tells you:
‘The Quatermain Museum of Natural History was founded by renowned explorer Allan Quatermain in 1872. Turning away from big game hunting and wanting to share his knowledge of the world, Quatermain set up a small museum where he displayed his growing collection of flora and fauna. He bequeathed the museum to the city before his death, and since then it has flourished and…’
You skip down to the photograph of the scowling man with frost in his beard and climbing gear wrapped around his torso: not Quatermain but the man whose book signing the museum is doggedly flogging.
‘We are fortunate to have Leon Bonneville with us to talk about his memoir, a gripping account of survival and loss. He will share his memories of the avalanche that one of his party did not survive. Woven into his extraordinary story are other tales from his many expeditions, as well as contemplations on the nature of journeys, discovery, and why we feel compelled to climb ever higher.’
You make your way towards the lecture hall, passing by the cavernous skull of a Tyrannosaurus Rex that silently bellows at the visitors gathered in front of it. Next, you see two preserved lions eternally poised above their kill, the plaque beneath them directing you to the African Mammals gallery. Then two tall masks of orange wood, distorted faces poking tongues out, which you find funny before remembering this is serious and meant something to someone somewhere at some time. The plaque directs you to the African Peoples gallery. You half form an idea about the loaded juxtaposition of this and the last display, decide to think it through later, and choose the friend you’ll run this by, knowing she will be impressed at your discernment of racist undertones. For now, the lecture hall is up the stairs ahead.
The staircase is wide, rising towards a vast clock face embedded in the wall at the top of the stairs. The clock, lit by yellow light from within, is so large that the silhouette of a person standing in front of it is the same size as the VI numeral. The second hand slides silently around each minute. The staircase splits at the clock and rises to the left and to the right, each leading to different mysteries behind broad oak doors. The marble balustrade guides tentative hands along its almost indecently sensual curves. The sophistication and solemnity of this place, despite its self-conscious air, is convincing.
A member of staff is guiding visitors with the appropriate tickets up the left-hand staircase, at the top of which another attendant holds the door open to let people into the lecture hall. Inside are lines of cushioned benches, each row stepped down from the last, following a slope that descends towards the stage where two men are sitting on Chesterfield armchairs. There is a table between them, on top of which sits a stack of hardback books. The cover of each book bears a photograph of Leon Bonneville’s rugged face, along with the title Today the Struggle.
‘The title comes from one of my favourite poems.’ His voice booms around the room. ‘It’s a poem by Auden, and it went round and round my head while I was trapped up there.’
The host smiles with closed eyes, a face of serene seriousness, and recites part of the poem, proving that he knows it. The other man, Leon, who is the centre of the evening, is tidier tonight than he is in his photograph, but still weathered, with stubble and unbrushed hair. He looks ready to leap into action, to run towards danger, to escape the everyday, as he has been for years now. He adjusts the microphone clipped to the collar of his plaid shirt. The sound of his thumb brushing the microphone interrupts the host’s recitation, which pleases Leon as he can now continue speaking.
‘I’ve jumped ahead in my story. How did I end up on that mountain, buried alive in snow? Well…’
Leon begins, the host does not interrupt, and the audience listens attentively. Leon has told this story more times than he remembers. He can tell it in his sleep, and his wife says that he does, mumbling instructions to strap something tightly to something else, anguished pleas for help, an apology, before jumping out of bed into confused consciousness. This doesn’t happen so much anymore, but it happens more often than he’d like.
Leon lays out the foundations of the tale by introducing the players. As well as himself, there is Noel – his trekking buddy since they met a decade ago – and Charley Coombs, a semi-experienced climber. Separate paths in life had separated Leon and Coombs, who’d grown up together and attended the same university. Two years ago, Coombs had got in touch, and some months later, the three men had set off with hiking gear, climbing equipment, and foolhardy bravado. Although this was new terrain for them, the initial hike was uncomplicated, and after all of his experience in harsher conditions, Leon was confident about climbing here.
‘Do you think this overconfidence, possibly arrogance in the face of nature, contributed to the death of Charley Coombs?’
Leon falters, the sentence he was about to deliver stumbling over his tongue and stalling. He chews the words, swallows them, and wonders what to say. This host is not only interrupting yet again, he is doing the one thing Leon made him swear not to do – asking about Coombs’s death. Leon will give only the details that he is prepared to discuss, then move on to the rest of the story. He does not want to dwell on the death or be made to think about it in new ways. Leon has his story and wants to stick to it.
‘We haven’t reached that part yet, you’re jumping ahead.’
The host smiles, a withering look meant to indicate that he will ask whatever he wants to ask.
‘This seems an apt moment to ask the question I’m sure many of us,’ he indicates the audience before them, ‘would like to ask. Did your decisions lead to the death of your friend?’
‘If you really want to ask that question, you’ve never lost a friend, and I am not here to engage in crass sensationalism. I will say goodbye unless you can be more polite. Would you like to hear my story or not?’
The man appears sufficiently chastened, so Leon feels better. The host gestures for the story to continue.
Despite losing daylight, Noel had convinced the others to attempt a climb they had reached. Halfway up, they became stuck, unable to ascend any further and forced to hesitantly descend. By the time they were grounded again, night had set in. A sudden squall whipped up the air with snow. Their vision was limited to a circle of light from their headlamps, which only revealed the knee-high snow beneath them or whatever was less than a foot ahead. The wind twisting around them in whirling gusts turned the men around. They lost their way. Rather than admitting this, Noel – probably out of pride – insisted he knew which direction they needed to move in. After an hour of following Noel, Leon realised they had stumbled onto the lip of a precariously loaded snowfield. He had time to raise his arm and shout ‘Avalanche!’ before he was swept away on a wave of snow, pulling him under and crushing him as he tumbled. He lost all sense of direction, including up and down, and then lost consciousness.
‘It was very sudden,’ Leon says. The lecture hall is silent, breath collectively held as if each person listening is trapped under that snow with him. ‘I was conscious, then everything was black. I was there, and then I was gone.’
‘Did you have thoughts in the moment before it went black, while you were going under the avalanche? Did your life flash before your eyes?’
‘I would like to say yes, that I pictured my wife or thought about the children we hadn’t yet had. But the truth is, I only remember thinking that if I was sick – I felt like I was going to throw up – then it would be trapped under the snow with me and it wouldn’t smell nice.’
The audience laughs, right on cue.
‘Thankfully, I wasn’t sick.’
Laugh number two.
‘Anyway, I woke up just a few minutes later.’
The snow settled, and Leon lay still, overcome with shock. Noel reached him at last, digging Leon’s legs out of the snow and snapping him out of his stupor. Noel had been lying on his stomach while helping him and now rolled with tremendous effort onto his back: his left leg was broken at the tibia, blood soaked into his clothes. Leon’s right shoulder was dislocated from its socket. Noel tried three times to shove the arm the way he’d been taught to fix it, but this didn’t work and caused excruciating pain. They made a sling for Leon’s arm, dressed and splinted Noel’s leg, then decided to look for Coombs. Leon left Noel wrapped in the thermal blanket from his bag and set off, keeping the small sphere of light from Noel’s headlamp in sight.
‘That’s when I found Coombs. He was among a small cluster of trees, in a heap of broken branches. I immediately knew that he was dead. His spine was broken like a twig, bent backwards so his head was touching his feet, and his face…’ Leon has learned the right way to tell this part of the story. Offer just enough information to satisfy people’s instinctive curiosity, plus a horrifying image, and trail off to indicate that the rest is even worse. This is as much as they will get. Time to move on.
The door through which the audience arrived opens with a squeak. No one notices, or if they do, they ignore it and wait for the rest of the tale. Leon looks up to the back rows of rapt people to see who has joined them late. The lighting is low, so at first he only sees a figure, then that it is a man wearing a hoody and jeans. Leon sees the man’s eyes watching him with an intense burn. He feels the way he did just as the slope of snow broke and sent him sailing down that mountainside: the feeling of quiet certainty that his time has come. The man watching him is Noel.
Noel makes no indication that he plans to interrupt, so Leon continues. He goes over the events that followed the avalanche, which everyone knows in detail by now because the media ran the story ad nauseam for a week after their rescue, and it is all in the memoir, but people have come here to hear it from the mouth of one of the survivors. They can’t hear it from Coombs, whom death has silenced, and Noel has not offered a word to a single journalist or even to any of his friends. In fact, Noel has not spoken to Leon in almost a year. The only one of their group who is willing to tell the story is Leon.
He recounts how they divided up the food they had for rationing; how Noel succumbed to pain and cold to the point that his mind went to a dark place; how he began murmuring, ‘We’re dead, we’re dead, we’re not going to be found,’ like a mantra, while Leon tried to console him; how Leon (‘and I’m no hero here, you just do what you have to in these situations’) gave most of his food to Noel; how they tried to call for help on both of the phones they had, even as they lost battery, but there was no reception on this side of the mountain; how Leon, in spite of the constant agony in his arm and despite twisting his ankle so badly that he had to crawl, pulled himself up to the highest point he could reach, where he found reception and called for help. The rescue team arrived several hours later in a helicopter.
After a session of questions from the audience, Leon goes to a desk in front of the first row where he prepares to sign books. Noel is still at the back of the room. Leon wonders if it is anger on his face or merely a contemplative frown. The audience has formed a queue, about forty people waiting to shake his hand and have their book signed. Noel joins the line. He waits as Leon signs his name over and over, smiling for selfies with the arms of people he has just met thrown around his neck, intimate for one moment, strangers again the next.
When it is Noel’s turn, Leon has no idea how to approach the situation. Should he embrace his old friend, or cautiously wait to see what he wants? He stands, but stays on his side of the table. Leon offers his hand, which Noel takes after a beat, keeping their eyes locked.
‘Noel, I wasn’t expecting to see you here.’
‘How have you been?’
Noel is still gripping his hand. ‘I’d like to see you when you’re done here. I’ll be in the marine room. You know where that is?’
‘I can find it. But I may not be done here for a while.’
He releases Leon’s hand and forces a smile before vanishing into the small crowd milling around the room. Leon hurries through the remaining fans, keeping an eye on his watch. Finally, he has a chance to leave, so he tells the event organisers that he needs to speak with an old friend who is waiting outside.
In the museum lobby, Leon consults a floor plan to find his way to the marine gallery. It is housed in the Dakkar Room, named after some prince he has never heard of. He walks down a strangely lit hallway, dark above his head and at his feet, where he can just make out the crimson and sapphire pattern in the oriental carpet. There are deep aquariums set into the wall at his left, inside which exotic fish swim in endless circles. To his right, he sees a large door that seems unnecessarily ornate; there is probably some history to the oak panels that holds some significance or some brilliance in its art that appeals to somebody. The sign above it reads ‘Dakkar Room’. He pushes the door open and goes inside to greet whatever awaits him.
This room has the same broody feeling as the hallway, thanks to low lighting and glass walls that stretch the length of the room. Behind these thick panes are desiccated marine oddities, dried seahorses and starfish pinned to boards, shark bones, rows of teeth displayed on beds, collections of twisting shells. Inside other tanks are live creatures lounging among underwater flora, or swimming aimlessly from one side of the tank to the other, or bouncing against the glass and watching the absurd, upright animals looking back at them. Beneath these aquariums are panels of information. A shimmering blue light flows from behind the glass, lighting the midline of the room. Noel is the only other person here. He stands next to a large counter that sits like an island in the centre of the room, on top of which are more displays of vanquished and catalogued artefacts for the visitors’ education and entertainment.
Leon walks straight over to him, having closed the door so they will not be disturbed. His footsteps crack on the mahogany floor. Noel is a rock face not yet climbed, daunting but conquerable if Leon steels himself to take it on. Do not hesitate. Show no fear. These mantras have got him through many formidable situations.
‘Noel, it’s fantastic to see you. How have you been?’ As Leon approaches, he raises his arm in a way that signals an incoming hug, but Noel is not receptive, so the motion becomes a casual slap on the shoulder. ‘Any reason you chose such a gloomy room?’
‘I prefer the dim lighting. I’ve got a hell of a headache.’
Leon notices the moonlike pallor of Noel’s face, which makes his skin thin enough that purple veins bulge through. Are those bags beneath his eyes, or just the effect of the lighting in here?
‘What did you think of my talk?’
Noel shrugs. ‘Not sure how a book about climbing relates to natural history.’
‘I’m not sure it does, but an event is an event. It gets me a few more sales and maybe a piece in the local paper.’
‘And what does the museum get out of it?’
‘Honestly, I think it offers them exposure and stalls the general decline of public interest in museums. I imagine this is a busier night for them because of my talk and book signing.’
‘Nice of you to share the limelight.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘You didn’t use to be big-headed. You’ve become unbearably full of yourself.’
Leon wonders if this is a joke, playful ribbing between two men who used to be friends, might still be friends, probably are not still friends. Leon accepts it as criticism.
‘What are you basing this judgment on? You haven’t spoken to me in a long time.’
‘I saw your talk tonight, most of it. I read your interviews in the papers, climbing magazines. I read your book.’ He says this with a cold stare of accusation aimed straight at Leon’s eyes, designed to cut through to his soul. Any semblance of a façade has fallen away now, the curtain has dropped, leaving the actors to shed their characters and speak freely to one another.
‘All right,’ Leon says, folding his arms, ‘let’s talk about whatever it is you’ve come here to discuss. Go ahead, say your piece.’
‘I don’t need your permission to “say my piece”. The problem is you saying more than your piece.’
Leon tightens his jaw to look steadfast and calm, but his stomach plummets inside of him. His face tingles with pinpricks of sweat – nervous anticipation of what is to come. He has imagined this confrontation many times in the past, and not once did it unfold well for him.
‘You have, I presume, a problem with the way I tell my story about what happened on that mountain.’
‘Because what you say didn’t happen! You were the one who lost your cool, not me, despite how you tell it. You were crying about how we were doomed and no one would find us. That was you, and it was bizarre because you’ve survived worse. And because of your whingeing, I gave you more of the food and water, hoping it would give you the strength to snap out of it. Speaking of snapping things – why does your version of events have you dragging yourself to higher ground on a twisted ankle, when it was me, snapped leg and all, who pulled myself to the ridge? All while you sat there, refusing to move.’
‘I didn’t say you were the one who became despondent.’
‘I was there twenty minutes ago when you told a room full of people exactly that.’
Leon rolls his head as a gesture of All right, I got that wrong, is it such a big deal? ‘Maybe in the retelling tonight I got carried away, but—’
Noel pulls an unloved copy of Leon’s book from the pocket of his hoody, which Leon now notices hangs loosely from the man he remembered as being stocky. The cover of the book is stained, and when Noel throws it open, Leon sees notes scrawled in the margins, lines scratched beneath whole passages.
‘All the stuff you made up and told everyone tonight, it’s all in here.’ He slams the covers of the book together, as if hoping to harm the pages and the stories they contain. ‘What really upsets me, Leon, is that you not only abandoned all responsibility for how events unfolded, you fobbed it off onto me.’
‘I don’t think I did that.’ Leon hears how he sounds, that his words are those of a petulant child trying to justify the unjustifiable, or simply rejecting it with blunt denial.
‘You blamed me for that stupid climb we got stuck on. You swore you knew what you were doing, and I trusted you. Then, when we were lost, you promised us – and you were certain – that you knew exactly where we were and where we needed to go. You had no clue, did you?’
‘I don’t see what this—’
‘No fucking clue. But you lied because you were arrogant, or proud, or—’
‘I know!’ Leon has to cut him off because he doesn’t want to hear it. He holds out his hands as if offering something, but they are empty. He looks at his useless hands and lets them drop. ‘I thought about that every minute of every day after it happened. I thought about it until it drove me crazy and I couldn’t think about it anymore.’
‘Fine, I understand that. No one can make you face up to anything you don’t want to. But you don’t get to blame me for your mistakes, just so you get the glory.’
‘That isn’t – it didn’t start that way. When people first asked me about what happened, I talked around those things, but people always want to know. They kept asking, and I had to tell them something. So I began filling in some of the blanks, but something inside me wouldn’t allow me to connect with those truths. I needed to get away from them, and the story just moved naturally so it was you who did those things, and then…’
‘And then it ended up in a book you got paid for writing, and now you’re going around giving talks that spread these lies further.’
The door to the room creaks open and a woman’s head appears, peering in and catching the men in the middle of their dispute. It is clear from the sudden cessation of their voices and the way they both turn to stare at this newcomer that she is intruding. She creeps backwards out of the room and closes the door. Noel’s scowl crumples into a wince, and his thumb and forefinger pinch the bridge of his nose. Leon dares to attempt empathy and asks, ‘Are you feeling all right?’
Hand still up to his brow, eyes firmly shut, he says as if talking to himself, ‘I’m just exhausted. Not sleeping well.’
A moment later, the pain seems to pass, and Noel folds his arms. His voice is quieter now. ‘Why are you selling my experiences as your own?’
‘I’m telling a story. Stories depend on much more than facts about who did and said what at this or that time. I don’t feel that I’ve done anything wrong. I changed a few details for narrative effect. It’s not like I wrote you out of the story.’
‘Stop calling it a story.’ Noel’s voice bounces around the room, off the glass tanks and display cabinets, returning to them half a second later. ‘It really happened, to you, to me, to Coombs. It’s only a story now because you’ve turned it into one.’
‘Exactly! That’s why I have the right to tell my version of events the way I have, because I made it my own. This story I tell in my book is something original I’ve created. Yes, I made it out of events from real life, but I did so in order to create something new. I’m not really telling your story, I’m telling mine, which just happens to not be as close to the true events as your story might be.’
‘What the hell are you talking about?’
Leon isn’t sure he can recapture the idea he’d been playing with a second ago. As he recalls what he was thinking, it sounds like sophistry, and he knows that examining it too closely will reveal its flaws. He changes direction because he doesn’t like to be on the back foot.
‘I’m sorry, but I don’t see what the problem is. I’m hardly stepping on your toes. I’d understand if I’d beaten you to writing about it, but you’ve not said a word to anyone all this time. So if you weren’t going to tell the story, why shouldn’t I?’
‘Because it’s not your place to decide when my story – if we must call it that – gets told and who by, or even whether it should be told at all. If I want to keep it to myself, that’s entirely up to me.’
Leon does not understand Noel’s anguish, and this confusion is wearing him out. ‘The bottom line is – and this won’t be the feel-good, inclusive line you’re looking for – I’m the one who wrote a book and found an agent and got a publisher and was asked to speak here tonight, which means I have every right to tell whatever story I want to tell. Don’t like it? Want to tell a different story? Fine, write your own damned book.’
‘I am.’ Noel delivers this with a deliberate tone of threat. ‘I am writing my own book.’ This is the bait, and Leon clamps his mouth down on it despite seeing the glinting barb it contains.
‘You can’t, that’s not—’
‘Not what? Fair?’
‘So you’re going to write your version of things and have it compete with mine?’ Leon laces his speech with derision to convey that this proposed book will not stand a chance. Few will read it, and fewer will believe it over the account they’ve already read, the one that has been in the public sphere for long enough to be accepted as fact.
‘No, I plan to write about what really happened, the way you manipulated the account and your readers, the way you’ve treated me over the years and tonight. You’ve written your own bad ending. I came here to give you a chance to apologise, to make amends, to portray yourself as the fallen figure who made a mistake but deserves a second chance. Now, I’ll be showing the world what an asshole you are.’
Leon stands back, folds his arms, and scowls defiantly. ‘I don’t give you permission to quote me or discuss what we said here.’
‘Too bad, it’s not your place to stop me. This is my story.’
‘Why now?’ Leon slouches, drops back a step from his once-friend-now-foe. He is too tired for the moment to continue his attempts to dissuade, but he has enough energy for curiosity to push him to understand. ‘Why were you content to stay silent for so long yet now feel compelled to confront me?’
Noel’s shoulders slump too, each man mirroring the other’s buckling under the weight of the situation. ‘Because I never really believed I would die up there. At the time, I thought I was afraid of mortality, but I was just afraid of pain and the dangers in our immediate situation. Now, I know I am going to die soon and I am afraid.’
‘The doctors like to say aggressive grade four brainstem glioma, or something like that. You know I hate fancy words. It’s brain cancer and it’s bad.’
Leon thinks about asking how they know this is the case, then when he was diagnosed, and finally how bad the prognosis is, but he realises each of these is redundant. Noel has cancer and that is all that really matters. Still, the last question arises again, twice more, and it occurs to Leon in a consuming wave of horror why he wants to know how long Noel has left: he is wondering if Noel will have time to write his book. Perhaps, Leon thinks, before he begins to hate himself for it, he will die before he can expose me.
‘The thing is,’ Noel says, ‘you realise that when you die, all that remains is the story people tell about you. All you have left in the end is a story in which you’re a hero, or a villain, or most likely just somewhere in between. But it matters to you that people get it right. The people I was an asshole to, they’ll say I was an asshole. Fair enough. The people I loved will say I was loving. Turns out that my dying wish is to set the record straight on my life. Like I said, it’s all I have.’
He pauses here, and then his mouth opens like a fish seeking oxygen and his hands open as if showing Leon something, but then his mouth and hands simply close. He has run out of things to offer. It is Leon’s turn to give. But Leon’s earlier thought returns – that Noel may not have the time to take his vengeance – and the idea will not go away. Anything that prolongs the process of releasing his exposé reduces the odds of it ever coming out. So Leon brings himself up to his full height and forms with his facial features an expression he hopes comes off as apologetic yet firm in its resolution.
‘Expect to hear from my lawyer.’
As Leon marches self-assuredly from the room, leaving Noel behind, a woman speaks over the PA system. Her voice resounds throughout the building, gentle yet commanding, godlike in its omnipresence. Ladies and gentlemen, she announces, her voice following Leon out of the room, the museum hopes you enjoyed yourselves today. The declaration echoes down the hallway outside the Dakkar Room, past other doors to other rooms – The museum is now closing – to the landing at the top of the stairwell with the clock – so please make your way – and bounces around the lobby below – towards the exit.
Following the crowd towards the doors, you pass by the whale suspended in its eternal swim. You linger as long as you can, letting other people pass you by, families with impatient children pulling them along to the next amusement, weary couples with thoughts of home and dinner, stragglers on their own, all making their way to the exit. You are almost alone here for a moment, circling to take in everything you missed on your way in. Finally, you nod at the security man not paying you any attention as you drift out of the building. The doors are finally shut behind you. The museum is now closed.
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