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By misadventure
David Mitchell
13 June 2022
published in Issue One

The prequel. A Mum and Dad, circa mid-1970s, are talking with Mr Snowdon on the school steps. The Mum’s coral necklace and big, dusk-tinted glasses catch Jason’s eye. The Dad looks like a guilty Dachshund. Both of them sort of smile as Jason and his classmates file out for break, but their smiles are out of tune. « They’re the parents of that kid who died up at Tank Quarry last term, » says Someone. « They’ve donated the Encyclopaedia Britannicas to the school library. » Jason knows nothing about a dead kid. « Yes you do, » Someone replied. « He was climbing and he fell. The End. » Out on the playing field, spring is erupting, a billion daisies opening for the sun. Dead Kid’s parents make their way to a grey Morris Minor and drive off, never to be seen again. « Look. » A girl points a slender finger at the recumbent Malvern Hills, trimming the horizon. « Find the Wyche Cutting. Go down and left a bit. There. Tank Quarry. » Jason follows the directions and arrives at a gouge of grey-blue on patchwork-green. Then Duncan Priest kicks his new leather Official World Cup football halfway to the sky. Upon attaining its apogee, the prequel ends.

Eleven years later, Jason narrated the prequel to that same Duncan. Both were freshly eighteen and basking in evening sunshine on a flat-top boulder in the grassy bowl of Tank Quarry. « A dead kid? » Duncan was dubious. « Our primary school? Surely we’d have known, even if it happened the year before. Black Swan Green isn’t like, Mega City One. Maybe you dreamt it. » Jason wasn’t sure and let it go. They had more pressing matters to discuss. School was over, forever. Duncan had been accepted at art college on the strength of his portfolio, but Jason’s next chapter at university depended on his A-level grades. Holidays. Duncan was off around Europe with his art college girlfriend – « the Prada in Madrid, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Uffizi in Florence. » Jason was working at his mother’s gift shop in Cheltenham until August, when he might hitchhike to the Outer Hebrides – though he’d probably bottle out of the hitchhiking and take the National Express coach. Girls they discussed only in general terms. Duncan had, Jason hadn’t and wasn’t likely to any time soon, and his friend was not wholly devoid of tact. Church bells rippled the distance. Jason rolled onto his side and located first the gothic steeple of Saint Gabriel’s flanked by its two giant redwoods; then his old primary school; then the rear of the home where his family had lived until the divorce. That time felt like a previous life. It felt like last week. The M5 motorway buzzed, halfway to Gloucestershire.

‎ « Let’s climb the quarry. »

« Who said it first? » the investigator asks the survivor. « Whose idea was it? » the reporter yells at the figure in a hood being led from the courthouse. As if every tragedy is divisible into a starring ringleader and the easily led. Casual observers would point to Duncan as the wrong sort, citing his fondness for thrill-seeking, for saying, « I’ll be dead by my thirties » and for the adjectival modifier, « completely and utterly ». Observers better acquainted with Jason could attest to an inner Hulk who occasionally smashed his way out of caution prison and out-Duncanned Duncan. In truth, it’s not as simple as either Kid A or Kid B. The prequel made the climb likelier. Possibly a dare, or a rite of passage, hung in the air. Remember their age: most late teenagers are immortal. Maybe Tank Quarry didn’t look that steep from the base and – with over a decade’s-worth of new growth – was better equipped with hand-holds than in the days of the prequel. Stories crave clear motives. Reality rarely obliges. Whatever the reason, whoever said it first, Jason and Duncan began their ascent. Crows exploded from the sycamores below like a raucous sneeze, buoyed by sneery laughter.

Part 1 was a five-minute scramble, not a climb at all. Mountain ash and hawthorn offered shelter; bracken and weeds offered traction; gorse and bramble offered only a little thorny resistance. Had Duncan said, « Come to think of it, I don’t fancy climbing Everest today after all, let’s go to the British Camp the long way round », Jason would have assented with a minimum of chicken noises. But he wasn’t going to back down first. Duncan might have the girl, the Inter-rail ticket, the bedroom painted black, the Fairlight synthesiser and the CND parents who smoked dope, but Jason read Harold Pinter and Jack Kerouac too. He was going to be some kind of an artist too. He was foggy on the details, but he knew that artist would never emerge if Jason always chose Safe’n’Boring on the menu of life. « Look at that. » Duncan was pointing at a single shoe, caked in mud, hanging by its lace from a gnarled tree. It rotated clockwise, anticlockwise, clockwise… its lace had was worn to a single thread, ready to snap. A bird sang like a bird in a poem.

Part 2 of the climb was above the shrub-line, steeper, slipperier and scree-ier between patches of moss and lichen. Jason hoped no walker would happen by and take them for stupid kids about to get stranded on a ledge. This was a private endeavour. Jason noticed Duncan had fallen behind, so he took a breather in a V-shaped cleft in the rock. The base of Tank Quarry was already a surprising distance below. Jason guessed they were half-way up. The shadow of the hills was advancing across the Severn Valley, field by illuminated field, all the way to the Cotswolds. His mother would be doing the day’s accounts before settling down for an episode of Inspector Morse with a glass of wine. Duncan reached the cleft. « You okay? » asked Jason. « Yup, » said his friend.

‎The slope was steeper, and each footfall dislodged a trickling cascade. To avoid getting a face-full of dirt and dust, Duncan picked out a route of his own a few yards over, no longer following Jason’s. You had to focus – keep three points of contact on the rock at all times: two hands and one foot; or one hand and two feet. Jason made a deal with himself to turn back if, or when, the climb started to feel lethal. You can’t be an artist if you’re dead; and while dying in a duel, or in the arms of a lover, or saving someone’s life had a certain glamour, the verdict of « Death by Misadventure » was a bit crap. The climb was still on the safe side of dangerous, however. Plot a path from that tough-looking weed – to that jag of rock – to that series of eight or ten likely foot-holds. Beyond that was a ledge. Beyond that… it was looking pretty vertical. Jason figured he could wait there for Duncan, and then retrace their steps down. Probably. Probably definitely…

‎But when he reached the ledge, it was more of a shelf. Not a shelf a mountaineer could set up a tent on to wait out an Alpine blizzard; more of a bookshelf, spattered with birdshit. Jason looked down and in a lurching heartbeat the story changes. Blood drains from his head as the base of Tank Quarry telescopes away. Jason realises there is no going down. He’s climbed too high. The incline is too steep and crumbly and a lethal fact becomes an obvious fatal fact: Up is easier than down because feet cannot see. Feet can only fumble and feel for cracks or jags in the rock or tufts of vegetation. If these support your weight, you survive. If not, you slip, shriek, drop, accelerate, spin, bounce, impact, split, impact, smash, smash, smash and come to a dead stop. The End.

‎Adrenalin floods Jason’s body, but enhanced strength is not much use and speed would kill. Calmness and self-possession would help, but Jason is stuck on a shelf one foot deep with a fifty – sixty – seventy-metre drop through dark air – don’t look don’t look don’t look – onto rock, and he is trembling with fear. If the trembling becomes shaking, he’s dead. Jason looks up at the quarry above – and the Earth tilts backwards, through 90 degrees, and into an overhang. No no no no no no no. It must be safer to try to climb down. He looks again and panic howls in his ears, NO! NO! NO! No way down. If he tries, he’ll slip and die. Quick, messy, sure. He presses his face against the rock and whimpering and swearing…

Dear God, prays Jason, get me out of this, please; sorry I called you a Comfort Blanket for People who Can’t Handle Reality; sorry for all the smart-arse times I’ve said, « If God is Love, why does he let millions die in famines, love and war? Doesn’t that make God a Genocidal Psychopath? » I don’t want to die here, not like this; I know prayer isn’t a wish-list like Jim’ll Fix It, or maybe it is, I don’t know – but please, let it be twenty minutes ago; or thirty; or however long it was; please please please let me be down sitting on the rocks; let us not start this stupid climb, to this stupid ledge, let me not die this stupid death… please? Okay, I’ll open my eyes at three: one, two…

What else? Scream? Jason daren’t. By twisting around to yell at the base of the quarry, he’ll shift his centre of gravity over the shelf – and fall. Duncan? Where’s Duncan? He’s gone. He must be on the other side of this spur. Jason calls out, « Dunc? » Nothing. Louder. « Dunc? » Louder. « Dunc! » Did he go back down? Did he find a better way up? Jason hopes his friend is safe – he could fetch help when Jason fails to appear – but the notion of being on this ledge of granite alone, like a solo butterfly pinned on a board, makes Jason more isolated than he’s ever felt in his life. « DUNCAN! » No reply but a nightmarish idea – Duncan’s already dead, he lost his grip and fell, and no help is coming. No. Jason would have heard his scream. Not necessarily. Not if he was facing downwards as he fell, and the onrush of air filled his lungs and didn’t let him scream. Not if the shock of falling shut his system down. Duncan could be lying there now, twisted like a prototype Birdman. Crows waste no time. They go for your eyes first. They’ve even have a go at newborn lambs, if the mother’s too far away. That’s one reason farmers hate crows. What if Jason survives this – one Big if – and Duncan doesn’t? I’ll be blamed for his death. Telling people it was Duncan’s idea won’t change the fact that the two of them started climbing Tank Quarry, but only one survived. How will I face his parents? Imagine their faces. Jason’s ankle is starting to seize up. He changes its angle, and scuffs loose a shard of stone. He listens, and listens, and listens…

‎…and hears a faint clack… and a whisper of loosened dirt. Weigh up your options. Options? Stay on the ledge. Hope a dog-walker or jogger looks up from the footpath and notices Jason in his in his grey jeans and moss-green jacket – perfect camouflage, by the way – and calls up, « Are you stuck? » Jason manages a loud enough « Yes! Help! » The jogger then jogs to the British Camp Hotel – twenty minutes away – and calls a helicopter – forty minutes, maybe, if there even is one on standby… but where? Or a mountain rescue squad? It's the Malvern Hills, not the Malvern Mountains. That’s not an « Option »: that’s an « If ». A Big If, that’ll take two hours, Jason guesses, at best, if it even happens. Cramps will have half-paralysed him by then. It’ll be dark. If you can’t stay here, then you’ll have to carry on climbing. Jason looks up and already the tilting begins. He shuts his eyes. I can’t, I’ll fall I’ll fall I’ll fall I’ll fall… Ah, poor Jason, shall we have a little cry? A third option. Jump. Resign with dignity. Tip the king over. Was that Encyclopaedia Kid’s final move? Jason imagines him here, with him, on this very ledge, eleven years ago, weighing up these same pitiful options.

No. Climb. If you climb, there’s hope. Stay here, there’s none. Famously, it’s the hope that hurts. As carefully as he’s ever moved in his life, Jason inspects the rock above the ledge for a hand-hold…

Part 3. That nub of rock looks firm. Test it, lightly, and transfer your weight over. Ease yourself up. That root might hold. Good, it’s not pulling loose. Grip. Move up slooowly… The toe of your trainer should fit into that crack… there’s nowhere else. Slide your foot over, and… in. Another few inches gained. How far now? Jason can’t see above the brow of the rock, six or seven metres away. He daren’t look down to the ledge. He’s had nightmares like this – of being Spiderman minus the Spider-powers – when he falls, cartwheeling in space, limbs flailing, but he always wakes before hitting the ground. Reality is the reverse. If he falls, he’ll never wake again. Either Duncan will find him, or a passer-by, or a walker in the morning. A policewoman will ring Jason’s mother’s doorbell. « Are you Alice Lamb, the mother of Jason Taylor? » She’ll will nod, praying, praying that it’s some drunken prank, or shoplifting, anything, anything but this: « Mrs Lamb, I’m afraid I have bad news… » She’ll zone out until « …to come and identify the body. » Later, fortified by a G&T with no T, she’ll call Jason’s father in Oxford. His wife will answer. « Cynthia, it’s Alice, sorry it’s late but something’s happened to Jason, I need to speak with Michael… no, I, no, just… no, PLEASE put Michael on! » Jason’s father will go pale. He’ll call Julia in The Hague and speak in a croaky whisper, « Julia, it’s Dad, it’s about your brother… » and she’ll guess the news from the tone of his voice. And so it will go. News leaping from person to person. Teachers and friends in Cheltenham. Relatives. The Lambs in Richmond. Strangers. As the hours pass and the word spreads, mockery will smother sympathy. « Mustn’t speak ill of the dead – but Jesus Christ, what a plonker! » « If you ask me, he did the species a favour by removing himself from the gene pool. » As of right now, Jason cannot disagree.

« Get down, you bally idiot! Get DOWN! You’ll FALL! » A woman’s voice, old, posh and mannish, reaches Jason from the base of the quarry. He can only ignore it. If he tries to seek out the shouter, he will fulfil her prophesy. If he tries to shout back – even a pathetic « Help! » – the act may dislodge him. He wishes he could be sure she was shouting « idiot » and not « idiots » because the singular means Duncan’s okay… but no. Maybe she simply can’t see Duncan. The quarry is in thickening shadow. Or, she’s shouting at Duncan and can’t see Jason. Climb! Once it’s dark, you’re screwed. Anyway, the shouter’s stopped. Maybe she’s gone to fetch help. Or maybe she has no wish to spoil her week by witnessing some stupid kid plummeting to his death. Wherever she’s gone, whoever she was, she took Jason’s lethargy with him. Climb.

Part 3, continued. The ledge is far below now. Every upward gain could have ended in Jason falling, but it hasn’t. Yet. The top can’t be far. Jason dare not hope that he may, may, reach the ridge. Hope is a distraction. This isn’t like films. Courage, fighting skills, reflexes haven’t got him this far. It’s been the tread on the soles of his trainers, the tenacity of heather roots, and his ability to grip thorny stems of gorse and not let go. Jason can’t see past the top of the rock face just three near-vertical metres above him, but there’s grass. And grass grows along the tops of the hills. He grasps a big fistful of the stuff – it’s safe, green, deep-rooted grass, not dead, yellow grass that comes away in your hands – finds a good foothold to slip his right foot into, and – almost there – heaves himself up –

‎…and the clump of grass, and the whole sod comes away in a powdery shower of dirt. Jason teeters back, and hangs there for a moment of eternity – silence roaring in his ears – and Jason knows he lost, and Tank Quarry won. Gravity’s fingers close around his diagonal body and pull and here I go…

– and only because Jason’s body refuses to give up, his right foot pushes hard against its foothold – and his right leg kicks like a launching frog. propelling him maybe metre to the right, above a big gorse shrub growing out of a crack in a rocky outcrop. It’s only a shrub with a hundred metres of nothing underneath it, but Jason’s hands don’t care. They grip a thick stem – and Jason’s two-second descent comes to a slamming stop. His legs are dangling over space but his torso is on flat rock and crushed gorse. His mind needs a moment to catch up. This gorse bush: it isn’t growing from a fissure, but is rooted in a table-sized outcrop. Jason pulls his legs up, ignoring the thorns pricking his skin and face. Only now does he fill his lungs with oxygen and gaze at the sky. A white hang-glider passes overhead, pinkish in the late late sun. Jason hears the pilot singing to himself.

‎Leading from the outcrop was a narrow sheep’s path, clinging to the rock face, smothered by more gorse and hidden from the gulley Jason had climbed. On any other day he would have considered the path far too dangerous to explore, but now it was like sturdy stairs with a bannister. Three minutes later, Jason reached the safety of the top ridge. An operatic sunset was in its final minutes. An empty bench cast a long shadow. Below, Herefordshire undulated like a dark green sea, all the way to Wales. « You took your time, » said Duncan. Jason guessed that feral look in Duncan’s face was mirrored in his own. Luck and luck alone had given the evening this ordinary ending. Soon they would be at the British Camp hotel bar turning the last hour into a short story with a prequel, parts, backflashes, tense jumps, morals and a sequel. But not yet. Duncan sat on the bench and took two roll-ups from a shirt pocket. « Spliff? »