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For the thousandth time, well before first light, you walk the ancient track through the forest, the place where you and Spike used to come nearly every weekend when you were growing up.
You get your bearings from the just-visible ebb and flow of the tree line. The fading starlight barely makes a difference. Your feet place themselves in the familiar ruts and dips. There is no hesitation. Your way is straight ahead, towards the edge of the cliff. You and Spike climbed all the routes, you discovered it together, and you know exactly where he would want to be.
Shadows are starting to shift and collect into recognisable shapes, but it is still hard to see anything on the ground in the darkness under the trees. Now off the track, you take your time, stepping round the stumps and boulders you sense rather than see.
Eventually, you identify the outline of the massive beech trees that seem to grow straight out of the sandstone, their silent root-falls tumbling down the rock face. You feel the soft, leaf-filled hollow underfoot which tells you to take the four final steps diagonally across a slab of bare rock. You stop at the brink, aware of the plunging space in front of you, and you listen to your heartbeat. You breathe in the cool stillness, and invite it to infuse your soul.
You make a final check on the two chalk bags which, on this journey, contain something so much more precious. They are securely fastened to the karabiner hanging off the back of your belt. You straighten from the hips and square your shoulders and stand still until your body and brain merge. You let go of all sadness and fear, for now. You focus your whole self on the task of climbing down the cliff.
The light is fading up. You kneel with your back towards the edge and grasp the two embedded tree roots that begin this descent. Your right leg goes over and your foot finds the first hold. You bring your left leg down and your left foot slots into place. The chalk bags bump the backs of your legs.
One by one, in strict rotation, your hands and feet find the holds, fingers angled into cracks, pressing through the fine, sandy grit onto firm rock. Your muscles do exactly as you expect, your body maintains its position parallel to, never touching, the rock face. You feel yourself floating down and down, your brain empty of conscious thought as you concentrate on each stage of your descent.
Seventeen moves and you are there. Your feet find the wide, solid rock shelf and you turn on the spot and lower yourself into a cross-legged seating position. You brush the sand from the ends of your fingers and blow gently on them to alleviate their heated, almost painful, tingling. Your pulse slows, your body relaxes, you put your hands on your knees and look up at the eastern horizon and feel your mind re-opening, reaching out, gathering back your sorrow.
As the sky turns from dark to pale grey, then to blue brushed with pink and yellow, and the dawn chorus is well underway, you unfasten the chalk bags from your belt. One by one you open them and you tip out Spike’s ashes.
They disperse in the gentle, clean air. You have brought him home, far from the frozen mountain col where you and he had your last adventure together. You think of him as he was; his famous smile that melted your heart; his fierce eyes, berg blue, and his strong, graceful body which seemed to almost float up mountains.
The sun rises above the hill and begins to warm you as it warms these grey rocks every summer’s morning. You lean back against the stone and feel the sun dry your tears.