Chapter 4 - Lift Up Mine Eyes To The Hills by A.J. Hall
Like 90% of people saddled with an indifferent companion on whom he planned to inflict the delights of Lakeland hiking, John fell back on Helvellyn.
It had not, of course, proved possible in the time available that day to get Sherlock kitted out with walking boots, waterproofs and a fleece he would consent to wear and to get him onto a mountain with any chance of getting off it before nightfall (“Climbing mountains by night: more difficult.”).
However, despite his fears that Sherlock would change his mind overnight, John managed to get them both loaded into the car and off towards Kirkstone Pass at an astonishingly early hour the next morning.
“Ripperologists who favour Frances Thompson as the culprit suffer from an unrealistically idealised picture of family life,” Sherlock observed irrelevantly, emerging from a long silence just as they passed the Queen’s Head at Troutbeck and John started the long, winding climb up towards the summit.
“Um?” he hazarded, braking sharply and backing down the road to a passing space, to allow a people-carrier driven by a nervous and harassed father unused to Lake District driving conventions to pass.
“The principal evidence against Thompson – apart from being in London at the relevant time, something which could then have been said for half the wastrels in the British Empire – is that his sister in Canada refused to acknowledge his existence in later years. One has to be absurdly invested in ideals of family solidarity to assume only her belief he was a serial killer would justify her action – not the opium, nor the abandonment of his medical studies nor the retreat into London’s slums.”
He hunched unhappily in the passenger seat, staring dully out through the windscreen.
“So how do they explain his other sister?” John said. “Sister Mary Thompson was one of Harry’s heroines. The Vatican’s gain was the ACS’s loss, according to Harry. Years after her brother’s death, when she’d been in an enclosed order of nuns for decades, Sister Mary could still recite all the scores from all the matches her brother had watched at Old Trafford when he was a kid. She obviously didn’t strike his name from the family Wisden. Whatever he’d done.”
“Another sister?” Sherlock’s head snapped round. “None of the books – oh, I see. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Of course people made up the narrative first, and rewrote the family dynamics to suit. They always do.”
He turned to look out down the valley side, back down towards Ambleside, so that all John could see was the tangled black mass of his hair. There was, though, something slightly more encouraging about the set of his shoulders. Though he didn’t speak again until they reached the car park in Patterdale village, John dared hope that, perhaps, they were winning.
Light drizzle blanketed the car park, with the promise of worse weather behind it. Sherlock shot him a glance of eloquent misery as he pulled on his boots. John ignored it. If his flatmate truly wanted to avoid climbing a mountain – and it had, after all, been his own suggestion – he was capable of deploying infinitely more effective techniques than a martyred expression.
John had forgotten, in the intervening years, how crowded the Lakes became at Easter. As yet another party of hikers hove into view around a bend in the path winding up through the coppiced valley side, building up to the long slow slog to the Hole-in-the-Wall, Sherlock raised his eyebrows pointedly.
“And about this rural solitude…”
Not that the crowds seemed to bother him; rather the reverse. In fact, John reckoned that had Sherlock been confronted with Lizzie Bennet declaiming, “What are men to rocks and mountains?” he would have favoured her with a stare of sheer incredulity, shortly before opining that she was clearly covering up a recent romantic disappointment under cover of a clumsy and utterly implausible lie.
Without even having had the benefit of reading the book.
Admittedly, there was something faintly absurd about the way gaudy little groups of hikers proceeded along Striding Edge, an almost measured distance apart, as if obeying an unspoken but understood rule of etiquette about how closely it was permissible to approach another hiker to whom one had not been introduced.
Sherlock walked easily at his right hand; a breach of mountain etiquette in its own right, given that everyone else on the ridge had noticed the several hundred feet of sheer drop to Red Tarn on that side and were playing things safe in single file.
“Without the crowds, this would be a very dangerous location,” he observed when they were two-thirds of the way along.
John slid him a sidelong glance. “Ah?”
“The opportunities for staging a plausible accident, if this place were deserted, would be almost unparalleled. And one would hardly have to worry about disposing of the body; choose the right time of year and one could rely on days, if not weeks, during which the evidence would be hopelessly contaminated by the effects of weather and natural scavengers.”
“To say nothing of the faithful hound,” John muttered. Sherlock’s face lit with interest.
“The faithful hound?”
John grinned. “You’ll see. When we get to the Gough Memorial.”
They rounded the last fold of crag, a steep pinnacle at the ridge end. Beneath its shadow, the path vanished down the narrowest of gullies; thirty feet of almost sheer descent exposed to the full fury of a cold front. (First rule of mountaineering, as John should have remembered; the wind always gets up just at the worst moment of any mountain ascent or descent. Sailing friends had told him the same was true when approaching tricky harbour entrances.)
At the gully’s foot the main bulk of the mountain asserted itself; a short, steep slope to the summit, a stroll, almost, with just the scramble off the Edge between them and it.
Sherlock shouldered past. “See you at the bottom.” He launched himself down in a flash of red waterproof jacket.
John reached the edge himself, considered for a moment turning to face the rock and descending ladder-wise as the safest option; rejected it as unworthy of an officer and a mountaineer; took one step down, then another –
On the third, his leg refused to bear his weight. He flung his weight backwards as it crumpled, flailing for a grip on rain-slicked granite, his thoughts spiralling – thirty feet sheer, onto rock; precipices either side if he missed the straight fall; skull shattered, neck broken; the Gough Memorial; no chance of lying three months dead up here these days –
His slithering, out-of-control descent came to an abrupt stop. A grip as unshakeable as the rocks of Helvellyn held him firm.
“Leg, I take it,” Sherlock drawled, an inch or so above his head His warm breath stirred John’s hair, where it had plastered in strands across his forehead. He opened his eyes to see blurred red fabric right in front of his nose. He twisted his neck and leaned backwards, to get a broader perspective on things.
Sherlock was braced across the gully; his knee raised and a boot wedged against the other side. He had, John realised shakily, anticipated the whole incident; had positioned himself in advance to break John’s fall.
“I saw your hand tremor yesterday. A psychosomatic reaction’s been building for days. But I suspected your subconscious wouldn’t give in until your over-developed sense of duty gave it permission. What?”
The last word was directed up the gully, where the party behind were fretting at the blockage to the path. Their disapproving scrutiny made John acutely aware Sherlock’s arms were still gripping his upper body. The sense of security was overwhelming; not just the physical support but Sherlock’s proximity – warm, vital, inescapably there in a way John only now realised how much he’d missed over the days when Sherlock had been present in body but absent in spirit. His heart – pounding already from the shock of the fall – stuttered, then raced, like an over-revved engine.
Even so –
“We need to get moving.”
“Don’t be an idiot, John. That leg’s not ready to bear your weight.”
“Psychosomatic. You said so yourself, remember?”
“Well, that’s you and me convinced. Want to persuade your leg, while you’re on a roll?”
Tentatively, he shifted his balance – Sherlock still supporting him – and swore. Waves of weakness radiated out from the centre of his thigh, as if the limb had been in plaster for a month and the muscles wasted.
Sherlock didn’t precisely say, “I told you so” but the expression on his face supplied the missing words. If Sherlock hadn’t just stopped his plummet to the rocks below, John might have said something rather sharp.
“Do you mind?” an aggrieved voice said from above.
Sherlock cast a glance upwards. “Not in the slightest.”
That, briefly, seemed to give them pause. John rather hoped they’d try another sally into passive-aggression. The sideshow would, at least, provide a distraction from the completely imaginary but nonetheless excruciating ache in his leg.
“We seem to be creating a Bank Holiday tailback.” Sherlock considered for a moment. “Try to support as much of your weight as you can. On whatever seems appropriate. And don’t let go of me.”
The next few moments were a confused, rough-edged, muddy scramble. They also involved a great deal of Sherlock holding him in a fierce grip while contorting himself into most peculiar shapes to keep them both on the crag. Stumbling onto the rain-lashed scree at the rock foot felt like the culmination of several rather fraught lifetimes compressed into one.
Or, in other words, business as usual.
He staggered to the nearest boulder and collapsed onto it.
Sherlock flopped beside him. “Kendal Mint Cake?” He fished in the left pocket of the red jacket and produced a familiar blue and white packet. “Brandy?” A serviceable gun-metal hip-flask appeared from the other.
John emitted a half-hysterical giggle. If this was some escalating scale of mountainside restoratives, he really didn’t want to know what Sherlock had in his inside pockets. Especially since the disgruntled party of hikers from behind them was stalking past along the path, casting them suspicious glances as they went.
“Kendal Mint Cake,” he agreed. Then, “You really did come prepared.”
Sherlock shrugged. “As I said, a collapse was on the cards. It might have happened at any point on the ridge, but I’d been watching the walkers in front of us. About a third of them took far longer to negotiate that gully than its height and difficulty alone would account for. It’s a matter of boundaries. Transitional places. Between the ridge and the mountain, in this case. Anyway, while your leg makes its mind up to rejoin the rest of your body, suppose you tell me about the Gough Memorial and the faithful hound?”