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When Matteo calls one evening, a fortnight after the funeral, I beg him to take me climbing. He’s reluctant but I insist.
He has to lend me all the equipment because I don’t have the courage to go search for Chris’s.
Matteo is younger than Chris, shorter and of a more wiry build. He looks as though he could climb the cliff without ropes. When he explains that he’s an actual climbing instructor, I have a moment of doubt. We don’t talk about Chris. We don’t talk much at all. He explains about the weather. It’s cold for April and cloudy. The rockface will look different in the diffused light and I have to check twice before every move.
“You know what you’re doing, yes?” He eyes me distrustfully as my fingers fumble with the knots.
“I’m just cold,” I lie so he wouldn’t be suspicious when he has to tie them for me. I’ve never tied any climbing knots.
“You climbed with Chris?”
I nod. Once. A long time ago and only because I trusted him unreservedly.
Matteo safeguards me from below. He doesn’t call out instructions even when I hesitate, for which I’m grateful. I’m past the spot where I fell my first time. I find a foothold in a crack and stretch to my left to reach an outcrop with my fingers. My hands sweat copiously but I don’t dare reach back for the magnesium. My heart palpitates in my chest. It hasn’t felt this alive in a long time. Fear has the power to overcome heartache. For a while at least.
I count to seven on my exhale to slow my breathing. My hands tremble with the last atoms of strength when I pull myself up and hook the rope through the anchor. I’m one step higher and then another. I see Chris moving up the cliff, his sure moves as he grips the rock, finds a foothold. His bandaged fingers when he scratched them on a sharp rock. His strong legs pushing upwards as though he were climbing steps. Easy and certain, the way he did everything.
Matteo down below yells again. Unfocused, I went in the wrong direction. There are no holds above me. Matteo swears nastily. I want to yell back at him but I don’t have the strength. I gnash my teeth just to stay in the wall.
I have to move my left foot to move on but when I do, it throws me off balance. I feel my nails break as I cling to the cliff-face convulsively. I’m panting. Sweat trickles into my eyes. I wonder how much longer I will be able to hold on. I wonder what would happen if I don’t. What would it be like to let go? I force myself to look down although I know what it’ll do to me. Matteo is frowning up at me. He calls out in Italian but I don’t pay attention. All I notice is the depth I would fall. Not deep enough to kill me.
Going back is harder than going forwards. I don’t see footholds, I have to feel them. I fish for them with my right leg, at last hitting against an outcrop. I check it’s big enough to hold my weight before I step on it. I search for the next one. I’m in a position to change direction then. This time, I go right and as the rock wall leans in after this point, the climbing is easier and faster.
I reach up and up, by now impatient to get this over with. The edge of the wall is within reach. I swing my upper body up and over and then scramble over the edge and onto the grass above. Matteo is too far below for me to understand his yells. I lie back onto the cold ground, panting. I stare at the grey sky, the nothingness. What was I hoping to find up here?
I pull furiously at the knots. It takes a while for them to give as I barely see the rope through my tears. I get up and let the rope slither down and over the edge. If it gets stuck, I’ll be in trouble, but I can’t be bothered to care.
I walk down the back slope, needing the time to calm down before I face Matteo. He was irked before, he’ll be furious now.
He doesn’t speak to me. He doesn’t even look at me. His anger is icy. He unclips the harness from me, tugging and pushing so roughly I take a step back to catch my balance. He’s gentler and more careful with the equipment when he puts it away in the boot of the blue Suzuki. I sit in the car and wait for him. Sweat has chilled on my face and back and I shiver. I don’t have a tissue to wipe my nose and tears so I use my sleeve.
He sits in and starts the car. We don’t speak on the drive back. What could I possibly say to him? I decide to apologise when we get into town. But once he stops the car on my street and I open my mouth to get the words out, he speaks first.
“’E’s not out there, you know,” he says and his Italian accent is stronger than before.
I don’t know what he’s trying to say so I don’t respond. His eyes aren’t blazing anymore when he meets mine and I think on a level, perhaps, he understands better than I do what I was trying to achieve with this madness.
I close the car door and he drives off. On firm ground but alone now, the fear settles in. I have to face my life without Chris again.