Say what you like about Charles – and plenty of people had plenty to say – but before Charles came into my life Dominic had been a nightmare, fighting all the other kids at school, ranting and raving at home, and refusing to help out or tidy his room; in short, a real devil child. But he looked up to Charles, saw him as a kind of hero, which he was in a way, I suppose. Charles would give Dominic little jobs to do – cleaning his crampons, coiling his ropes, helping to sort out the mountaineering gear he’d stowed in my shed, all those bits and pieces that had names I suppose, but looked like junk to me.
And, of course, Charles would show us photos of his expeditions – Kanchenjunga, Cho Oyu, Manaslu, Nanga Parbat and so on, mostly names that meant nothing to me back then.
He told me he lived with his aged mother, Valerie, who didn’t like to be left alone, nor did she ‘approve of him having women friends.’ “But I’ll move in when the time is right,” he’d say. In the meantime, he’d call around two or three evenings a week and most weekends when he wasn’t off climbing.
I worked in the pathology lab at the local hospital and would work overnight, ‘on call,’ once or twice a week to boost my single-parent wages. Then Charles would stay over to look after Dominic, saving me a fortune in babysitter’s fees. Sometimes I’d have a day’s holiday after a night on call, and then Charles and I would spend most of the day in bed. He was a kind and considerate lover, always gentle with me, except when I wanted it rough, then he’d oblige in spades. Underneath the brown corduroy trousers and anoraks was a lean, muscular body and I longed to hold it every night.
It had begun one evening in July. I’d been waiting for a bus after work whilst my car was in for a service. It had been a busy day, a lot of patients needed transfusions after a nutcase had gone berserk with a machete. Anyway, Jude the babysitter had Dominic after school for a couple of hours. Thank God there was someone else willing to cope with his explosive temper tantrums, though at a price. I’d sat down to read Dahl’s Switch Bitch. After a few minutes, I became aware of someone else at the stop. A man in his forties or fifties. Scruffily dressed.
“The Visitor, that’s a good one,” he said.
He spoke with a posh accent, rather at odds with his appearance. I looked at him more closely – a tanned narrow face, curly black hair, badly in need of a cut. “Yes, it’s amazing,” I said.
“That ending, when whatshisname finds out he’s caught gonorrhoea from the girl’s grandmother!”
“Thanks, I hadn’t finished that one!”
He winked and smiled. “Where are you headed?”
“Canon Town, if you must know.”
“Come on, I’m headed that way, I’ll give you a lift. I’m parked just down the road.”
I hesitated, but his boyish appearance, friendly smile and twinkling eyes captivated me and I threw caution to the wind. “OK.”
To my surprise, he led me to a lovely silver Rover. I slid onto smooth beige leather, still with that fresh, sweet, musty smell. Whilst he drove, he chatted happily, telling me he was a mountain climber and author of three books on climbing, as if it was no big deal. He’d given me his card when he dropped me off. A week later, feeling lonely and with Dominic driving me up the wall, I called his number.
Six months after I fell for Charles, and just as I was beginning to think of him as the soulmate I’d been searching for all my life, he dropped a bombshell. He’d be away for three months, leading an expedition to Kanchenjunga. I was gutted and resigned myself to marking off the dreary, depressing days on a kitchen calendar.
Then one lonely night, on the news there was a report of an avalanche in the Himalayas and the death of several British climbers. Charles was mentioned by name as one of those missing. I felt like a part of me had just been ripped out. Not knowing what to do or who to call, I spent the night looking through his books and photographs, sobbing so loudly I thought I’d wake Dominic.
The next morning there was a knock on the door. A short, plain, dumpy lady gave me a wistful smile. “Hello, I’m Rosalind. You don’t know me but I know you. I’m married to Charles.”
I didn’t want to believe her but what she told me left me fuming and in no doubt that she was being entirely honest. For one thing, Charles’s mother, Valerie, had died four years earlier.
She was a gentle soul, one of life’s ‘earth angels,’ whose good nature and trust had been badly abused. Apparently, they had three children, grown up now and living their own lives. Lives that Charles, of his own choosing, was not a part of. Charles was a free spirit, she said, he wouldn’t be tied down.
Apparently, Charles had asked Rosalind to get melatonin from the pharmacy where she worked, ‘to help a friend’s son sleep,’ promising to spend more time with her. Reluctantly, she’d agreed.
It seemed Charles had told her all about me – just one of ‘his other women,’ apparently. How was I to know that when I was ‘on call’ he’d give Dominic a pill to knock him out for the night, then go home to shag Rosalind or spend the night with one of the others, making a brief appearance in the morning to get Dominic up, groggy and bleary-eyed, and off to school. No wonder so many of my calls went to voicemail and were ultimately unanswered.
After Rosalind had gone, I took down one of his books, On Barren Slopes, and turned to a photograph of a young Charles, standing with a group of climbers and Sherpas, nothing behind them save one snow-capped mountain after another. I sat and cried until my eyes were so red and raw, I could barely see. He’d treated me like shit but at least I’d had someone. Now there was just Dominic and without Charles’s influence, he was growing resentful and angry again.
They never found his body. For several years I half-expected him to walk in, unannounced, with that boyish smile and tousled hair. But life moved on. I met and married a new man, Ken, an English teacher, and Dominic went to a special school where most of the rage was drained out of him. Finally, as the memory of Charles began to fade, I came to accept that his bones lay forever under a vast tomb of snow in a far-off endless landscape and could never be found. And that his spirit had now found the freedom he’d spent his life searching for on Earth.