This is the final part in a two-part piece of fiction in response to the Weekly Writing Challenge ‘Cliffhanger’. Part 1 can be found here.
‘It was the first week of secondary school.’ He stretched the skin on his forehead with his hands, then titled his head faintly, as though discovering a better tack.
‘My father was… a proud man. He was a County Cricketer, a Lancashireman born and bred. He came from a working class background: a baker’s boy. Despite that he always seemed to succeed, as if his way was paved. His cricketing gains afforded him a wholesaler’s business on the side, which he paid someone else to manage. By the time he was 30 he was a rich man.
‘But he always knew he was simple, y’know? That he didn’t belong with the monied classes. He perceived around him an elite circle of society from which he was excluded. It was his one disappointment, a denied holy grail. To him, yes, but not necessarily for his only son.
‘That’s why I lived my formative years with the caveat that I must excel at everything. He would always harp on: “not just the sports, lad, the brainy stuff too.” He thought I should be Achilles. Maybe you’ll appreciate the burden that was to me.
‘It was the Wednesday of the first week in school and instead of dispersing to classes we were to stay in form all morning. Our form tutor, Mr. Wheates, had prepared a series of games and tests for us. It was supposed to be a lot of fun with prizes, probably the teacher had thought of it as a bonding experience for the new kids, but I sat sweating in my seat for three hours while the other children enjoyed themselves. The onus was on me to win at everything.
‘Of course, I didn’t win everything. When the results came I had won one thing: the art round. But who cared about art? It wasn’t brainy and it wasn’t physical. My father would have sneered at me if I had ever told him.
‘Then Mr. Wheates announced the overall winner. It was a quiet, swarthy little kid in the corner that I’d never even noticed before. Well, I noticed you then. You were everything I wasn’t. Patently middle class, you weren’t beholden to either of the classes that I was torn between. You sailed through everything quietly and got your way. And I hated you for it! That was the day it began.’
The dark-haired man stared at the window, which was opaque with dirt. The wind had picked up fantastically and was now slewing ice against the panes with a sound like gravel in a washing machine. He remembered that day now, and especially he remembered the blond kid’s drawing – an ersatz Manga, an exaggerated and sexualised fighting nymph with outsized eyes and a tiny waist.
‘That’s not how I experienced the morning,’ he said. ‘I came second or third in every round and the “overall” prize felt like I was being commiserated. “A jack of all trades and a master of none,” there’s an epitaph for me. Only one round I cared about and put effort into. I sketched a gorilla in charcoals and I was so proud of it. It was such a mature and accurate drawing that I surprised myself, I was sure it would win. But it didn’t, and all the kids flocked around your desk with exclamations about how cool you and your gimmicky drawing were, no one even looked at mine. I ripped it up later.’
‘Not entirely true,’ replied the blond man. ‘I recall vividly that someone noticed your drawing, because it crowned my dislike for you. While the other kids were congratulating me, Elizabeth was over at your desk. From across the classroom I heard her say quite clearly “that’s beautiful.”’
The shorter man’s hand unconsciously clasped the haft of the revolver in chagrin. He got to his feet and shouted.
‘Don’t you talk about her! You can’t expect me to believe you had a thing for her back then.’
‘You never knew we were boyfriend and girlfriend as children, did you?’
The shorter man lowered his behind back onto the bench in bewilderment.
The blond man continued: ‘We went to Sutton Primary together. We were ten years old. We held hands and pecked each other on the lips. It was just a few weeks and it meant nothing to her. Of course, we were children, why should it? Although, that wasn’t true for me; I was enchanted by her from then. Unfortunately, she always liked you.
‘Everything just came to you, whereas I had to try so hard. Like in the athletics club. I Was twice your size! Making a hectic, desperate dash I could beat you in the 100 metres, but only by wearing myself out. And the 5,000 metres? Forget about it. You had such stamina that I couldn’t keep up. Your little legs just kept on pumping away while I receded further and further down the line. I had thought at least I was supposed to be the sportsman! It was maddening.’
Outside the air was howling as it tore itself apart. The window, blocked up with snow now, gave no light, enclosing them in a tremulous sphere of flame light. The darker one pressed his thumb and forefinger to his temples. He had never imagined that his enemy felt envious and inadequate in the shadow of him! What a confusion of matters. He struggled to reconcile this new information with the pummelling fury incited by the mere visual cue of the man across from him.
Then there was still the issue of the gun and the knife, the fact that his life may still be in danger.
Could this chat be a ploy to catch me off guard?
But it made no sense. He caressed the gun in his pocket and reasoned that as long as he had that, he could maintain the upper ground.
‘I’ve made a decision,’ he said, surprising himself. Then, letting himself persevere: ‘I’m leaving town. I think that if we can get some distance between us, we can forget the whole thing.’
The tall man stood up sharply, appearing a giant in the cramped confines of the quarter. His lips trembled and he spat.
‘To be close to Elizabeth, right? She told you to leave her be!’
The short guy rose to meet him, but failed to produce an imposing effect; at full height he was still a head below the blond titan. Whatever, he cared little for measurements right then.
‘That was your greatest triumph, wasn’t it? Driving her away from me! How proud you must be!’
‘You drove her away yourself. Your petty machinations against me disappointed her.’
In part that was true, but there had been a rumour as well, something about him and Harriet, the waitress at the diner.
‘Are you saying you had nothing to do with the lies told about me and a drunken night with a waitress?’
The big guy suppressed a smirk.
‘I suppose it wasn’t my greatest moment,’ he said, but when it escaped his lips it lacked feeling.
It was lucky for both of them that in his anger the darker man forgot the revolver in his pocket. Instead he dove for the other and they tussled desperately. The larger man managed, with humongous effort, to force the smaller back.
‘Don’t you EVER lay your hands on me!’ He yelled, swinging his arms about wildly. As he did, his knuckles struck against the paraffin lamp and sent it coasting off the side table. It shattered against the wall, sending a blue lake of flame tumbling out over the wall and floor. The boards were dry and rotted. As the pair gaped in horror the blue light transformed in quick succession from jade to scarlet and then to bright yellow. Acrid black smoke filled the room as the fire crept down the corridor. The dark-haired man grabbed a grubby fent of tea-towel from the kitchenette and battered at the flames. The threads caught fire immediately so he threw it into the growing furnace. There was nothing for it. They stumbled outside coughing and sputtering as the cabin transmogrified dramatically from haven to pyre.
The ice-laden wind felt as charged with algidity as the flames behind were enlivened with heat. The rocks lay lacquered with sleet underfoot. Visibility beyond the short, orange radius of the inferno was nil. The wind tore through the abyss around them with a plangent howl.
‘We have to find a way down from the mountain,’ said the blond man. It was useless to ask how. Only some miracle of providence could supply them the means.
Eventually it was the searing heat on their backs that spurred them, stumbling with stiff legs, over the slippery landscape and into the cat-whipping gale of the mountainside. This time the shorter man led the way, but only fifty feet from the cabin they were crawling blind against the rock wall.
He felt a timid, shaking hand reach out and gently touch his shoulder. He thought back to less than a quarter of an hour ago when the hand’s owner had raged ‘don’t you EVER lay your hands on me!’ but he couldn’t suppress the well of pity invoked by the gesture, and he knew that they needed each other if there was any hope of survival; there would be no succour.
They pressed on sluggishly, at times slipping in a way that brought their hearts into their mouths, fumbling for foot-holds and hand-holds along the spartan pass.
‘We’re not going to make it. Is there another shelter?’
‘No. Let’s just see if we can find our way below the weather.’
But they could barely move safely and the freezing temperature, worsened by clinging moisture, was creeping into them, numbing their limbs, making them otiose implements for mountain walking.
An hour passed, or maybe two; like the path ahead and the abyss at their side, time was difficult to fathom.
The dark-haired man paused to blow air on his benumbed fingers, to bat them against the wall in the hope that circulation would return. There was a subtle scrape behind him and the hand that had lain on his shoulder appeared to brush his spine and be withdrawn.
Arduously, he twisted himself around.
‘Hey,’ he said.
The blond man was no longer there. Had he been abandoned to his death upon the mountainside?
His conscience told him that wasn’t right. His rival had fallen, downwards, into the abyss.
But how far?
Awkwardly, still cradling the hand that had been anaesthetised in its dealings with the rock face, he sat on the pass, dangling his legs over the void. Then he inched his buttocks forwards and stretched out his legs. It seemed there was a incline. He lowered himself meekly off the edge and then, prone, in skittish movements, he slid his body across the slope face, sensing that any moment the ground would give way and he would plummet to the bottom of a gorge.
Then the earth did disappear. He seized a node of rock before he could tumble. Peering down he could just distinguish the green outline of the blond man’s jacket, he lay sprawled on a ledge a few feet below. He painfully lowered himself once more and came up beside the other man.
‘Had no air in lungs to cry when I fell,’ the tall man laboured. ‘Still don’t. Think I’ve hurt my hip.’
‘Can you walk?’
The shorter one surveyed the inky night around him. ‘Well we’ve lost the path. We’re still in danger of freezing. Let’s try to keep going down.’
He hoiked the heavy man up with an arm around his shoulders and by force of will began down the next invisible slope. The wind was still blustering fierce, but at this altitude it held only water droplets, reserving the ice for further up. They fell again and again, sometimes painfully, slithering intractably for distances, finding each other again, forging on. By some miracle they got below the worst of the weather, the inclines became less harsh, and an air-blasted pine or two sprouted defiantly out of the rock, providing them intermittently with a sheltered resting point.
They almost nose-dived into the alcove without seeing it. Instead they managed to slip around it and come to its base. It was a tear-shaped cut-out in the rock, supremely sheltered on all sides. They were low enough now that the air felt tepid to their raw, sopping bodies. They decided mutually that they should stop in the alcove until light, clambered in and huddled pathetically up against each other, building what warmth they could, realising that from here they would probably make it.
‘Thanks for getting me,’ said the blond man. ‘I’m not sure what I would have done in your boots.’
The dark-haired man eyed the other through a cloud of his own breath.
‘A question: there was a revolver in a draw up there. Did you bring it?’
‘Aside from making me angry you also terrify me. I brought it for protection, but then I figured it wasn’t wise. I put it there so that we couldn’t hurt each other.’
‘And the knife in the sink?’
‘I crept after you and saw you take the gun. I was bricking myself then.’
The dark-haired man drew the revolver out of his pocket and tossed it onto the ground in front of them. There were still a few hours until dawn. Steam rose up from their bodies as the enemies clung to each other for survival. And the wind whistled sonorously over the alcove as they finally, exhaustedly, drifted out of consciousness.