"Yes, I know there's a gap in the market, but is there a market in the gap?"... "You bet there is," Johnny replied, "...'think of all the men you know — fathers, husbands, students, workers, wankers — whatever hat they are wearing, guilt keeps them in line. It must be the same with climbers." I gulped nervously. In this mood Johnny's imagination bounced about like a fire-cracker. You were never sure where his comments were going to land. "Look," he explained maliciously, "think of you and Jane. Guilt rules your relationship.
Each time you go climbing and leave her alone with the kids for the weekend, you spend the next week in a frenzy of 'new mannery', beating your breast and stroking hers, trying to amass sufficient points to cancel out your guilt and her anger." "Nonsense," I barked back, "it's called give and take — something you wouldn't know too much about." Johnny tilted his head and grinned, pleased to have drawn first blood. "Listen dummy," he purred, "it won't work. You are so transparent there isn't even a watermark.
‘Do you think she doesn't know that all your lovey dovey stuff is a con — the price you are prepared to pay for a week-end away from her. God — it's positively evil. When was the last time you were nice to her spontaneously, rather than as a crafty scheme to stack up the points?" Ouch — on the chin — footwork — get out of range. When Johnny punches like that I leave the ring.
"That's what marriage is like," I countered weakly, "without guilt there can be no morality. You're right, It does keep us in line." "You are full of shit" he stated sadly as if I was a no-hope case. "I'm going to abolish guilt from my life. It's a dangerous emotion. You can be paralysed by it, and deceived by it. And in the end it's just window-dressing. Most people parade their guilt to show how 'right-on' they are, but when it comes to the crunch it means nothing. Selfishness rules. Best have the reality on the table."
It took Dostoevsky 700 pages to say something similar. I felt as if his collected works in hardback had fallen upon me. In the years to come I often remembered Johnny's fighting words. We met occasionally — on the crag or in the bar — and he never lost a chance to remind me that his memory was also good. He said that a cloak -remorse and lost opportunities- hung around me like mist on the Ben, and even used to sing me 'The Guilty One' by Jerry Lee Lewis to rub it in. Don't think I didn't try to change things.I didn’t like being under heavy manners like that. Jealousy and envy — no problem — seeing them off was easy, but the big G was a different matter.
Just as the old Soviet Union is finding out with virulent nationalism — something it thought had been relegated to the history books — guilt kept bouncing back in my life and slapping me across the face. Johnny, on the other hand, seemed to thrive on his diet of emotional lobotomy. Women, he said, liked his honesty.
"Make your wants explicit" he was fond of saying. "Then people can make up their own minds without bullshit." He was good on the rock as well. I guess most people have to jettison half the baggage they carry around in their heads to deal with climbings simplified reality. Johnny had done it already. He was always ready for the crux. You will understand by now that we are talking real love-hate' here. We were 'mates', but the chemistry was occult. Which probably explains why we climbed together so infrequently. Yes, our careers had swirled us in different directions — geographically, socially and financially — but the mountains span wider gaps.
As so often it was a funeral that united us. Among climbers no party or celebration seems able to issue an invitation with a greater attractive power. Across the windswept churchyard was ranged a class photograph from every corner of our contrasted lives, a unique cobweb of partners and memories from rock faces the length of the land, as if the names from the columns of my annotated guidebooks had all assembled. However at the end of the service, only one strand of the web was in my hand. "We must do a route" I found myself saying. "I've got the gear in my car" Johnny said. As always he was ready. The valley cliffs were damp and cold, but the west facing quarries beckoned. Johnny had done several first ascents in the early days, necky ungardened leads that had earned him a big reputation.
One of them, the ugly jumbled wall above the pool, still awaited a repeat. After the Ball Johnny had named it. I had tried it several times, but on each attempt midnight had always struck before I got committed. "Don't suppose you'd fancy a second ascent?" Johnny looked at me curiously. "You mean, would I take you up it?" he responded tartly. He led the first section in fine style, then disappeared from view above the overhang where the angle fell back. The upward movement of the ropes slowed to a halt and the half-way marking tapes seemed to shuttle-cock across my stitcht-plate.
Funny how sometimes the static flickers along the nylon. Geiger-counter palms can sense a leader's cry of desperation before your ears pick up the sound waves. The runners stopped him below the roof — an honest thumping fall, devoid of malice. May they always be so clean. "Not like I remember it" Johnny grunted. Up he went again. This time no wind-mills, just up-draught, surging to the top. "Shit — the whole top wall has been chipped." His anger crackled back down the rope, jump-leading through the metal in my hands.
Indeed it had. Hewn incisions cat's-eyed the vertical slate. I paused for a long time beneath them, searching for alternative holds. There were none. The wall was unclimbable without the chopped finger-pulls. "How did you do it on the first ascent, Johnny?" I shouted. His face craned over the rim, guilt-edged against the evening sky. "The loose flake has gone" he replied, "whoever chipped the holds must have pulled it off." "You did it, you bastard, you chipped that route. If that's how you live your guilt-free life, you can stuff it."
Johnny looked up startled, the rope half coiled across his hand and composure skidding across his face. A snarly smile fought to retain control; harsh words trying to accelerate out of danger. "Always so quick to judge, aren't you? Do you honestly believe that I would have taken you to the scene of my crime if it had been me? Today I fell off the first time trying it without the chiseled holds. Sure, I used them eventually, just like you. But on the first ascent the upper wall was unmarked — no chips — right? " It was hard to tell which was worse — the crime or the cover-up.
His own route description in the guidebook, extolling the quality of the rock, impaled the lie in the widening space between us. We walked back to the car-park in silence; my suspicion and his feigned betrayed friendship, eye-balling each other across the path. That's how it ended. We never climbed together again. Years later he called me out of the blue. "How about a weekend in the Lakes?"
Dave Cook: Photo Ian Smith
I prevaricated clumsily in reply. "Don't worry about the last time" Johnny urged, "life's too short. I bet you've been eaten up with guilt. No need. I forgot it straight away." "Forgot what" "Calling me a liar and a cheat among other things," he answered cheerily. "You are forgiven."
I didn't go to the Lakes that weekend.
First Published in the CCJ 1991