Authors: Robert Ferguson
Copyright © 2013 Robert Ferguson
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To Fiona, Isabelle and Jemima.
The moon lit the monastery in a light that was clear and pure.
It magnified as it reflected off the snow-capped peaks surrounding him, glistening on the tumbling glaciers that fell towards the valley. Philip could smell the air, the rock, the snow and vast space, tainted by the odour of sun block and days’ old perspiration.
His body ached with cold, his joints grating as he moved stiffly along the side of the building. Each breath seemed to chill the furthest recesses of his tired lungs, drawing the raw, thin air deeper inside his body. He hadn’t had any feeling in his toes for days and now the bones in his fingers throbbed just like when, as a boy, he used to play in the snow for too long.
Far away he could hear the distant roar of fast-flowing water; small rocky streams joining the larger torrent of freezing snow melt that cut its way down the barren valley. Above it came the occasional howling of wolves as they searched for stray goats in the higher pastures, and the ferocious snarling of guard dogs, chained near the animal pens to protect the many rather than the few.
He edged his way along the rough stone-wall, its whitewash stained and cracked by the bitter weather it had endured over the centuries. As he walked he placed his hand against the stones, reassured by their solidity and texture that made everything feel more real.
Stooping down as he passed the only window, he turned to ensure the men who followed did the same. Noises tumbled out from the opening, a babble of murmuring voices and the groans of injured men smothered by the wooden shutters and thick woollen hangings that protected the interior from the biting winter winds. He grunted to himself satisfied. Any noise they made would be muffled by these and the echoing acoustics inside.
At the end of the wall he stopped and looked at his watch. Its enamel dial glowed back at him in the moonlight, a reassuring face that had been through so much with him. He had twenty seconds. He turned and mouthed this to the three men who were crouched close behind, each with a curved bladed knife grasped in their hands.
He reached inside his coat for the grenade. Its casing felt smooth after the roughness of the wall, its metal warm to the touch, heated by his body. His mind flashed back to the small charcoal pocket warmers he’d been given by his mother as a boy while out on the salt marshes in winter, beating through the tall grasses to drive wild duck towards the waiting guns.
He pulled the grenade out into the night and glanced down at it. Panic shivered through him, bile pushing into his mouth. He felt his legs weaken and leant against the wall, clenching his fists to prevent them from shaking and squeezing his eyes closed. The distant roar of water transformed into a background chorus of cicadas and frogs; the wolves into shrieking monkeys as they crashed through thick jungle canopy. A smell of cordite and burning filled his nostrils, mingling with the pungent, metallic aroma of blood.
Rifle shots rang out from the far side of the courtyard, pulling him back to the present. Philip heard the bullets slamming into the stone frame and heavy wood of the door around the corner, ricocheting away into the darkness. Ten seconds. Cautiously he peered around, forcing his memories away. He could see several rifles poking from the doorway about ten yards away, their muzzles flashing as they returned fire.
He pulled himself back and looked down at the grenade once more, visualising what he had to do. He would pull the pin and release the trigger. It was a five second fuse so he’d throw it on two. It would slowly tumble in the air, its shallow arc bringing it down onto the stone paving with a dull, metallic thud. It would probably bounce, catching the edge of a flagstone and deflecting slightly one way or the other. It wouldn’t settle, its oval shape gradually rolling it around until it hit the wooden door with a gentle tap. Then it would explode. Faces flew at him. Long dead people crying through ripped eyes, women screaming over broken bodies, hair burning, gaping wounds. He shook his head, trying to dislodge the images from his mind, trying to control his breathing.
He glanced again at his watch. It was time. Time for redemption.
It was like a journey back in time. The Dakota banked steeply and Philip looked out of the small window at the medieval city below. Winding streets snaked between tiled roofs and the occasional glint of gold reflected from the gilded decoration of a hundred temples. Wispy columns of smoke rose lazily into the sky, while a river of crystal blue cut through the city, its sandy banks covered with the dazzling colours of washing drying in the sun.
He caught his breath as the plane dropped, lurching to the right and depositing the dregs of his drink onto his lap. He hated flying and this journey had been worse than most, the turbulence, as they’d flown through narrow mountains passes, tossing them around like a flimsy paper plane. Nausea dried his mouth, whiskey burning the back of his throat. For the first time in years he craved a cigarette, biting at his nails instead.
He looked out of the window again, taking long, steady breaths. He could now see people in the streets below. There were women squatting beside piles of vegetables and porters bent double by huge loads balanced on their backs. He glimpsed a child driving a herd of sheep and a column of monks in bright purple robes. As they heard the noise of the propellers they all stopped and looked up, shading their eyes from the bright afternoon sun, to marvel at the silver machine roaring overhead.
The houses and streets changed to the vivid green of verdant countryside and the plane glided lazily over a grassy field, its engines throttling back. There was a small bump as the wheels silently kissed the turf and he relaxed back into his seat as they rolled to a stop up a gentle slope. He’d made it. “Welcome to Kathmandu,” he said to himself, raising his empty glass in a mock salute.
The airport terminal was little more than a bamboo shed at one end of the field. Philip and the other passengers, all of whom seemed to be Indian businessmen, stood in the warm sunshine as their bags were unloaded onto the grass. An immigration official walked over to him and politely requested, in broken English, to see his passport. He handed it over and watched as the man solemnly held it upside down and copied his inverted name into a blue school exercise book, returning it with a small bow. He was just walking forward to identify his cases when a man dressed in lounge suit and tie came hurrying towards him.
“You must be Armitage,” he said through half opened lips that clamped a cigarette. “I’m Arthur Hutchinson. Call me Hutch.”
Philip reached out to grasp the proffered hand. “Delighted to meet you,” he replied. “Philip, please. Thanks for coming to meet me, it really wasn’t necessary.”
“Think nothing of it,” Hutch answered with a dismissive wave of the hand. “Anyway, they said you’d be bringing out some scotch and I didn’t want this lot,” he nodded towards a group of customs officials circling the bags, “relieving you of any before I’d the chance to savour some of it.”
He slapped Philip on the back and strode off, waving a piece of paper he’d pulled from his jacket. Philip followed and listened to a confusing stream of English, Hindi and Nepalese that was being directed at the officials. Whatever it meant seemed to work because within minutes his cases were being loaded onto the back of an ancient jeep.
The jeep had seen better days. Its bumpers were gone and there was no sign of the windscreen. The bonnet restraints were broken and as the driver turned the ignition it bounced up and down in time with the misfiring engine. Hutch saw the look on his face and laughed, swinging himself into the passenger seat.
“This is as good as it gets over here I’m afraid,” he said with a shrug, gesturing to the back seat. “There’re no roads into Kathmandu from the outside world so every vehicle has to be dismantled in India and carried through the mountains by porters. There’s only a couple of hundred in the whole country.” He shook his head. “Even the petrol’s carried in. Expensive too and these damned drivers really try to rip you off over it.”
Philip clambered into the back and they juddered off in a cloud of black fumes, turning a lazy circle on the airstrip before picking up a rough track towards the city. Philip looked out, enjoying the feel of cold air after the stale cabin of the plane. They were driving through rice paddies and meadows which stretched away on either side across a wide valley that rose in the distance into thickly forested foothills. The colours were so bright, the air so crisp that for the first time since leaving London he smiled.
“So what’ve they told you?” Hutch shouted over his shoulder. “We only asked for an extra pair of hands last week so they must’ve dispatched you pretty damn quick.”
“They said you were having problems with the
,” he yelled back. “Told me I was booked on the flight out of London the next day and to go pack a bag.” He paused. “That’s about it. I’ve been either flying or sitting in airports for the last three days and that was quick apparently. They managed to get me on a Comet jetliner rather than one of the old Constellations.”
Hutch nodded. “I know. It’s the back of beyond. Further! Less the Forbidden Kingdom, more the bloody Forgotten Kingdom.” He shifted in his seat and turned to face Philip. “There’s hardly any electricity, other than that produced by generators. No telephones either. And the local tipple. Christ, you could pickle rats in it!”
Philip laughed. “Just as well I bought that scotch then.” There was a pause. “So what’s the issue with the
“Well, they’re here for a start, although that in itself wouldn’t be a problem.” Hutch scratched lazily at a mosquito bite on his cheek. “The
sent Colin Reid but he’s happy enough to stay in town and forage for news. The
guy, Izzard’s his name, has hired a guide and disappeared into the hills.” He stopped talking to light a cigarette, inhaling deeply and then thoughtfully picking a piece of stray tobacco from his mouth. “If he’s got a radio transmitter in all the baggage he took with him then he could cause us a few problems. I sent James a message by runner telling him what was happening and decided we could do with someone checking up on him properly. Trouble is James is stuck with the expedition and I’m stuck here relaying his reports to London.” He shook his head. “Wish we’d brought our own transmitter now, although last year when I was working with the Swiss Expedition on Everest they were adamant that it would’ve been a complete waste of time. Too many big mountains in the way blocking the signal.”
They drove on in silence, Philip enjoying the warm sun on his face. James Morris was the Special Correspondent from
who’d been sent to cover the British Expedition to Mount Everest. The paper had paid for exclusive rights to the story but no one could prevent the other papers trying to scoop the news. Morris’ dispatches took nine days to reach Kathmandu, sent by runners who had to cover 180 miles of rough trails, river crossings and steep climbs. There was, Philip realised, a lot of scope for interception and bribery, and if this Izzard had brought a radio transmitter with him, he could get the news to London days before their runners had even left the mountain.
Hutch flicked the butt of his cigarette out into a paddy field. “Not much time to rest I’m afraid,” he said, looking at Phillip. “Izzard left a few days ago and the expedition should have reached Everest by now. We’ll need to set you up with a guide and porters and get you going. You need to catch him and find out just what he’s up to.” He paused. “If he gets the story to London before we do, I don’t want to be first back in the office. Guts for garters, I reckon.”
They entered the city. It was like crossing an invisible line, the country lane transforming into a bustling street hemmed in by high, closely packed houses of brick two or three stories high. Narrow alleys and shadowy side streets disappeared off through small gaps between them. The ornately carved doorways and gates of houses stood open, revealing tidy courtyards and built into every threshold and street corner were small shrines containing statues of various deities, decorated with garlands of marigolds and daubs of vibrant paint.
Philip was overwhelmed by the fetid smell of sewage and decay, of pinewood smoke, stale sweat and livestock mingling with exotic spices and sweet incense. He shuddered, his mind travelling back to places from his past he tried hard to forget.
Despite entering the city the driver hadn’t slowed down and Philip found himself thrown back to the present as they swerved violently around pedestrians, frantic shouting from the driver and a dilapidated horn serving as warning to their approach.
They emerged into a small square, at the centre of which stood a towering pagoda, its tiered roof soaring into the sky, and guarded at each corner by a large stone griffin. The square was packed, mainly by women out buying fresh vegetables, all dressed in colourful saris and many with flowers tucked into their hair. They looked up, curious as to the occupants of the vehicle, and smiled shyly as they saw Philip staring back. Stalls covered the square, most just blankets or baskets on the rough paving on which vegetables and fruits were arranged in piles. Elsewhere were heaps of firewood, tied into equal bundles by hemp twine, which were being examined and haggled over. Around its four sides were small shops, rough wooden shutters pulled back to display their merchandise. Whole sides of meat hung on hooks in clouds of swarming flies. Sacks of spices with their sides carefully rolled down and their contents arranged into pointed cones of brilliant colour. Bolts of materials shimmered in the sunlight with gold and silver braid flashing as shop owners unrolled them for prospective clients.
A sacred cow wandered out in front of them and for the first time the driver used his rather ineffective brakes, swerving narrowly around its hind quarters. Philip turned to watch it start feeding unperturbed on some rotting leaves in the gutter, its forehead anointed with orange paint. Behind it an old woman brandished a stick at three monkeys who’d jumped from the pagoda roof and were skulking towards her stall of beautifully polished apples.
The scene disappeared as the jeep dived off down a dark, narrow street and after only a couple of minutes, they turned sharply left through a tall, stone archway. They emerged into a sweeping courtyard of sun-bleached brick and looking up Philip saw the grand but dilapidated edifice of what appeared to be a large Palace. They rolled to a stop in front of a grand central flight of steps, scattering a brood of scrawny chickens pecking lazily at weeds. A small man dressed in a tight-fitting waistcoat, white cotton pantaloons and traditional Nepali cap scuttled down the steps to meet them. He bowed, holding his hands together.
“Welcome to Kathmandu Sahib!” he said, a serious look on his face. “Welcome to your stay at the Royal Hotel.”
That evening Philip sat in the hotel bar as the conversation washed around him, exhausted from all the travelling. The room was dark, lit only by a single flickering light bulb and the glow of three hurricane lamps that hissed and spat on nearby tables. The walls were covered with moth-eaten tiger heads baring yellow fangs, dusty eyed rhino staring sadly back at him and the faded photos of Maharajas and Kings standing proudly over fallen prey. Everywhere smelt of wood smoke and decay, a blazing log fire making the animals shadows dance in its flickering light to the music of a jazz quartet who were playing disinterestedly in the corner.
Hutch leant forward and picked up the half-empty bottle of whiskey that sat before them on a fraying elephant’s foot table, pouring a generous measure into his glass. They were discussing Hunt, the leader of the expedition.
“He seems a reasonable enough bloke to me,” Hutch stated, collapsing comfortably back into the depths of a sagging leather armchair. “I guess the last thing he wanted was a journalist tagging along.” He chuckled. “Especially one who’d never even been on a bloody mountain before.”
Another man spoke up. “James will be all right. Your editor made a good choice in sending him.” It was Colin Reid, special correspondent of the
. “I see his runners have already started arriving with messages from the mountain.” He paused, glancing up at Hutch. “They must be doing well?”
Hutch laughed. “Nice try, old man.” He wagged a finger in Reid’s direction. “You’ll have to get me drunker than this if you want any free information. You’ll just have to spend more time on that radio receiver of yours, seeing if you can intercept the Embassy transmissions.”
Reid shook his head. “It’s useless. There’s so much chatter going on I can’t understand anything that’s being said.”
“What sort of chatter?” Hutch asked, raising an eyebrow. “There’s hardly enough electricity in this country to run that light bulb,” he pointed towards the ceiling, “let alone a transmitter.” He paused. “Don’t suppose you’ve heard anything from Izzard have you?” he asked, shooting a glance towards Philip.
Reid shrugged. “I don’t think so but, to be honest, it’s hard to make anything out.” He stopped, rubbing his eyes as a billow of smoke rolled into the room from the narrow chimney. “It’s certainly not English but it doesn’t sound like Nepalese or Hindi either. More like Mandarin, but the Himalayas should, in theory, block out any broadcasts from Tibet.” He paused again. “Sometimes it’s so weak I can hardly make it out through the static.”
The conversation lulled, each lost in thought and relaxed by the warmth and whiskey. The expedition should be camped at the foot of Everest by now. Another runner from the base camp was due any day. Philip closed his eyes, enjoying the luxury of being still after all the travelling. In a few days he’d be out in those hills, looking for Izzard, no doubt cold and tired.