By Chris Mawbey
Malcolm lay on his back in the snow and waited.
He was convinced that someone would come along. They always did, didn’t
they, sooner or later?
It was getting dark and people would be making their way off the fells and
mountains, back to the warmth and comfort of their hotels and holiday
chalets. Malcolm refused to entertain the notion that he may have to wait until
the morning – or longer.
Staring up at the darkening crag from where he had fallen, his left leg tucked
awkwardly beneath him, Malcolm wondered how long he had been lying
there. It felt like years. He was covered by a light dusting of snow flakes and
the deep wound in his knee glistened in the fading light of the day.
A thick cap of snow, now shading blue as night came on, crowned the crag
towering above. Beyond the crag a few early stars began to appear. They
shone through fingers of clear sky between clouds that were clawing their way
across the sky, dragging the body of a storm with them and aiding the
Malcolm closed his eyes and waited patiently. Someone would come. They
always did: all he had to do was bide his time. There was nothing else for him
to do - he knew that he wouldn’t be walking off the mountain.
A distant rumble of the oncoming storm rolled around the mountain tops. As
the sound sank slowly into the snow fields Malcolm heard the soft, virgin snow
yielding under the weight of a boot. Opening his eyes, he smiled when he saw
a vague silhouetted form looming over him, blocking out the meager
illumination from the ever diminishing canopy of stars. Blinking away the fresh
patina of snow on his eyelids, Malcolm refocused. The figure was regarding
"Thought you were dead for a minute there mate." The stranger sounded
relieved. "Are you okay?"
Malcolm grimaced and nodded towards his injured leg.
"Mmm. Sorry, bit of a daft question that." The man’s embarrassment shone
through his words. "The name's Pete."
"Malcolm." The response was a faint whisper, as if the effort of speaking was
almost too much.
"You’ll be okay now Malcolm, I'll stay with you until someone comes."
"Someone has come." Malcolm smiled faintly but noted with satisfaction Pete’
s puzzled look.
"Anyway Malcolm, let's take a look at this leg," Pete said, ignoring Malcolm’s
comment. He bent forward over the injury and failed to hide the look of
distaste that crossed face.
“Is something wrong?” Malcolm asked. He could see the concern on Pete’s
“This injury doesn’t smell too good,” Pete replied. “How long have you been
“I don’t know,” Malcolm replied truthfully. “I seem to have lost all track of
Malcolm allowed Pete to straighten his damaged limb and dressed it as best
he could. Malcolm showed no reaction to the manipulation of his leg. Malcolm
watched Pete and pondered his saviour’s obvious unease.
Was Pete out of his depth as a first aider? Was he worried that Malcolm may
be in deep shock? Was he afraid that Malcolm might die?
Malcolm allowed himself a small inner smile. It didn’t matter what Pete
thought. He was here – that was all that mattered.
"Have you got a bivvy bag?" Pete enquired.
"Over there." Malcolm pointed to the foot of the crag where his rucksack lay,
half buried in the snow and deepening gloom.
Pete fetched the bag and delved inside for the bright orange plastic sack.
Carefully and as gently as possible he slid Malcolm's body into the emergency
sleeping bag and made him as comfortable as he could. A few minutes later
Pete had rigged his Primus and was brewing a pan of strong tea.
"You're lucky I came along." Pete attempted to engage Malcolm in
conversation. "The snow fields are heavier and lower this year. Most walkers
are taking that route." He gestured over Malcolm's shoulder, in the general
direction of a path at the foot of the precipice on which they were perched. "In
fact, there’s virtually no-one else on the mountain - especially since they
posted the avalanche warning."
"So why are you out? You should be down in the valley with the rest of them,"
Malcolm replied, adding quickly, "Not that I'm not glad to see you of course."
"Oh I just come and go as I please." Pete shrugged. "I know the dangers well
enough and don’t take too many risks. Here this will perk your spirits up." He
handed Malcolm a mug of steaming tea.
Malcolm took the mug gratefully and hugged it to him.
"How long have you been here?" said Pete, repeating the question he’d asked
a few minutes earlier.
Malcolm was distracted. He was concentrating on the clouds beyond the rim
of the crag brooding over them. "It feels like years," he murmured.
Malcolm absent-mindedly sipped at his tea. His companion did the same. A
silence descended over the two men. Shifting into a more comfortable
position, Malcolm turned to face Pete, who had settled himself down into the
"Well you really are a godsend Pete. Not only were you out walking when you
shouldn't have been - and off the main path; but you also came equipped with
a full first aid kit and a top class mug of tea." Malcolm raised his mug in a
salute of gratitude.
"Oh, I just happened along," Pete replied, sounding defensive. "Things
happen like that sometimes. Lives crossing at a crucial moment. There's
probably a fancy name for it."
"No, things don't just happen," sighed Malcolm. "Look at all of this." His arm
drew a broad sweep indicating their immediate vicinity. The only illumination,
save for the Primus flame, came from a pale luminance emanating from the
snow field itself: a winter blanket punctuated by black monolithic rocks -
sentinels of a now deserted land. There was barely enough light to illustrate
Malcolm's point. "This didn't just happen. There was a purpose. We met for
a reason, not just through coincidence."
"Are you going all religious on me?" Pete sounded sceptical.
"Not at all. It's just that I believe that some things are meant to be."
"So you think it was your destiny that you would be found by me?" Pete
"Or your destiny to find me," Malcolm countered.
"Is there a difference?"
"It depends on whose destiny you are considering," came the reply. "It could
be that tonight our fates are co-joined."
Both men lapsed into another silence.
The approaching storm rattled the thoughts of the accidental companions like
a loose window frame.
Presently, Malcolm spoke. "Isn't it customary for travellers, thrown together by
fate, to entertain one another with their favourite tales of ghosts and strange
Pete started theatrically with surprise. "So you believe in destiny and ghosts!
You're very deep for a walker. I always thought we were a simple minded lot.
Traipsing up and down mountains just because they are there. Getting
soaked to the skin and enjoying it - or pretending that we do." Pete paused,
then his eyes lit up and he added, "No, I've got it. You're the sort that keeps
the Youth Hostel dormitory spellbound 'til the early hours with your yarns."
Cloistered on the mountain side, the men's laughter was incongruous; the
sound fading rapidly as though the mountain itself frowned upon such a
display of mirth and smothered the happy sound. After dark, the hills claimed
the footpaths back for themselves. The men had remained after curfew and
though their presence was reluctantly tolerated, merriment was not welcome
on the now silent slopes. As if sensing the annoyance of the mountain, Pete
abruptly fell silent.
Malcolm noticed the change in the mood of the mountain and how it had
affected Pete. He whispered when he spoke, though his retained smile
seemed inappropriate to his words,
"I feel that I want to talk. I feel so alone in all this silence - even with you sitting
by me. And I’ve been waiting for someone for so long."
"Okay, let's talk," Pete’s reply was also whispered. "But don't tire yourself.
We need to keep your strength up. We could be here all night."
"Oh I'll be here all night - no doubt about it," Malcolm said quietly. He glanced
at Pete and then upwards at the crag and the mantle of black beyond it. He
began to speak, slowly, "Do you believe in Mermaids?"
"It's Mermaids now is it?" Pete exclaimed.
"They fascinate me," Malcolm continued, ignoring Pete's remark. "Their
popular image and legend are so at odds with one another." Though it was
too dark for Pete's features to be discerned clearly Malcolm sensed his
bewilderment. He didn’t care, these were words that he felt he just had to
speak - before it was too late. "We all think of Mermaids as beautiful girls with
fish tails - just like the statue of Andersen's Mermaid in Copenhagen. But the
reality - oh that's much more horrific. They used to sit, sunning themselves on
rocks, hoping to distract unwitting sailors and delay them long enough for
Death to sharpen his scythe and claim the soul of the sailor."
"You've been on this mountain too long." Pete laughed gently, but the sound
was hollow, as if he feared the shock of the fall and injuries to his legs had
affected Malcolm's mind.
Abruptly the snow stopped and the light breeze faded to less than a whisper,
then was silent. Pete shuddered. He looked around anxiously.
The silence was shattered as the threatened storm finally broke - seeming to
hammer the very earth with its force. Pete raised his eyes to the heavens in
As the vanguard of the avalanche reached them, Pete turned, thinking to
shield the injured man. His expression froze. Malcolm was smiling through
cadaver's lips as flurries of snow passed through his transparent body.
Then the maelstrom hit them.
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