Hemming

by Martin Westlake

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3

conclusion


‘She’s a good one,’ said Jimmy, smacking his lips.

‘Well over five degrees,’ Griffyth told him. ‘One to sip.’

‘Aye,’ said Jimmy, taking another generous gulp before putting his glass back down.

Griffyth brought the rabbit casserole to the table and served two steaming portions.

‘Smells good, Mr Griffyth,’

‘I found some ransoms,’ Griffyth explained.

‘Delicious.’

Griffyth told him about the cage and the freeing of Cracker.

‘Gamekeeper won’t be ’appy,’ said Jimmy.

‘I couldn’t leave Cracker there. You understand, don’t you?’

‘’Course I do, Mr Griffyth. You’re the caring kind. That’s why’ — he nodded at the tabernacle and the votive light — ‘you’ve got that candle on the go all the time.’

‘Ah. Hemming,’ said Griffyth.

‘Here’s to Hemming, Mr Griffyth,’ said Jimmy, raising his glass.

‘To Hemming!’

The men clinked their glasses and drank. Jimmy picked up his fork and speared a kidney he’d spotted amid the onion rings on his plate. He chewed on it for a while.

‘Mind telling me who he was?’ he asked.

‘Who?’

‘Hemming.’

‘My best friend,’ said Griffyth. ‘We grew up together in a home. I’m an orphan, Jimmy, and so was Hemming. We did everything together.’

‘Sorry to hear that, Mr Griffyth.’ He paused. ‘Accident, was it?’ he asked.

Griffyth nodded his head slowly.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘An accident. A climbing accident.’

‘Climbing?’

‘It was our shared passion.’

‘A dangerous sport, Mr Griffyth.’

‘Well, it doesn’t have to be, Jimmy. But it was.’

Jimmy watched Griffyth take a gulp from his glass and pushed his advantage.

‘So what happened, Mr Griffyth? You don’t need to tell me if you don’t want to, mark.’

Griffyth pushed his plate to one side. ‘We were trying a new climb up in Scotland, on the west coast. A sheer face with an overhang at the top. It had been done plenty of times, but it was new to us, and by the time we got up to that overhang we were pretty tired.’ He stopped and looked at their almost-empty glasses. ‘Shall we have another beer, Jimmy?’

‘Oh, yes,’ said Jimmy. ‘One for the road, it had better be.’

Griffyth fetched two bottles from the stack he had left outside. He opened them and brought them to the table.

‘We were in two minds,’ he continued. ‘We could either bail out and abseil back down, or we could try for the overhang. After all, the overhang was the climax of the climb. We rested for a quarter of an hour and then decided to go on. But then we had another decision to make; would we make our own way or use the existing bolts? You see, others had drilled and hammered in a series of bolts leading all the way up, but it’s considered more sporting to make your own way; it’s also more reliable. And that’s when we made our big mistake.’

‘How’s that, Mr Griffyth?’

‘We chose to use the existing bolts. Most of them seemed to be fairly recent.’ He poured half of a bottle into Jimmy’s glass and did the same for himself. ‘Hemming volunteered to lead the pitch and I anchored.’

‘Come again?’

‘Hemming went first. The anchor’s job is to feed out rope to the leader and to be ready to secure the climb if the leader falls.’

‘That sounds right scary, Mr Griffyth.’

‘It shouldn’t be, Jimmy. You see, as the leader progresses he secures himself by clipping his rope into the caribiners and the caribiners into the bolts. If he should fall, he won’t fall far, because the bolt will keep the rope close to the face and the anchor will tighten the rope. Do you see?’

‘Sort of. The anchor takes up the slack, is that it?’

‘That’s it. And the anchor, as the name suggests, is himself secured to one or more bolts.’

Jimmy drank some beer and smacked his lips. ‘You wouldn’t get me up there,’ he said.

Griffyth smiled briefly, then stared down at the table. ‘Ironically, it was a bird that started it all,’ he said. ‘Hemming had spotted a hold on the edge of the overhang. We neither of us could see beyond it. It was one of those holds where you have to take a gamble.

‘He took a swing and reached up and put his hand on a bird, a raven that had been sheltering in the crevice. The bird flew up. It was a huge thing. Hemming was startled and missed his hold and fell.’

‘But the bolt and the anchor stopped him from falling far, right, Mr Griffyth?’

Griffyth picked up his glass, drank and swallowed, then looked at Jimmy. ‘The bolt gave way,’ he said. ‘And the next one. I took up the slack as fast as I could but Hemming was now dangling out and away from the face.’

‘How could that happen?’

‘I don’t know, Jimmy. Maybe the bolts were older than they seemed, or had rusted inside. But we were in a horrible fix.’

‘Not half you weren’t. What did you do?’

‘Normally, we would have reduced the slack and brought Hemming into the rock face until he could find a hold and support himself, but we couldn’t trust the bolts on the overhang. He was only a metre or so away but he was beyond my reach. If I could just swing him a rope, then he could grab it and I could pull him in.

‘But then another bolt gave way, and another, and this time I didn’t have the time to take in the slack and the dead weight of his body pulled out all of the bolts. He smashed into the rock face beneath and now all his weight was pulling on me, the anchor, and one of my bolts popped out. “The bolts!” I shouted down to him. “Hemming! All of the bolts are rotten!”

‘I’ll never forget the way he looked up at me as he started to slip the rope. “Hemming!” I screamed. “What are you doing?” He said nothing. He just kept on slipping the rope until he fell down the face, tumbling down and down to the rocks and the glittering sea below.’

‘He sacrificed himself?’

‘That’s right. To save me, Jimmy. Hemming saved me.’

* * *

The next morning there was no sign of Cracker. Griffyth called repeatedly, but the trees and rooftop were silent; the crows were elsewhere. Griffyth thought of the trap. Surely Cracker wouldn’t be foolish enough to get caught in it a second time? He resolved that if he hadn’t seen the crows by midday he’d take the quad and go and take a look.

In the meantime, he started to stack the beers he’d bought in the cage at the back of the house. He placed the packs and crates in rows and piles to make sure he could get everything in.

Just to be on the safe side, Griffyth had built the cage on a slight incline so that the door swung outwards. At first, therefore, he couldn’t understand how the door had closed behind him, but he heard the clang and the click of the lock and, turning his head, just had time to see the key fall out of the lock and into the grass on the other side of the path.

Perhaps he had inadvertently snagged the door as he carried the crates in. By now he had stacked most of the packs and bottles into the cage so that there was very little room left to manoeuvre. He managed to turn around and then kneel down and reach out through the bars.

He could see the key in the grass, but it was just out of his reach. He knelt down further and squeezed his shoulder between the bars, but the key remained beyond his reach. He looked around for a stick or any sort of instrument that would enable him to reach the keys. Nothing. He thought of Jimmy, but Jimmy had just been the previous evening and probably wouldn’t pass by for another fortnight now. And then he thought of Cracker. He called him.

‘Cracker! Cracker!’ To his delight he heard a caw, as if in reply, and then he saw a crow flying towards the house. It landed on the path outside the cage, and Griffyth saw immediately that it was Cracker.

‘Well done, Cracker!’ he said. ‘You understood! You came!’

The crow put its head to one side and made a small cracking noise. Could he be replying, Griffyth wondered?

‘Now listen, my friend,’ he said. ‘You remember how I saved your life, not once but twice?’

The crow cawed.

‘Yes, that’s right, Cracker. Twice! And now I need you to help me, do you hear?’

Cracker cawed again.

‘I want you to pick up that key and give it to me. The key, Cracker, in the grass. The key.’

The bird cocked its head, as though listening intently, then turned and hopped towards the key. The bird looked down at it, and then back at Griffyth and cawed again.

‘That’s it, Cracker. That’s the key, you clever, clever bird. Now, bring it to me.’ He held his hand out through the bars as far as it would go. ‘Just pick it up and give it to me.’

The crow leaned forward and, to Griffyth’s astonished relief, started to peck at the key, as though trying to get a grip on it with his beak.

‘You clever, clever bird,’ Griffyth murmured.

And then, just as it seemed that Cracker would pick up the key and place it in Griffyth’s outstretched hand, a huge black shape swooped down and knocked the crow over. The aggressor landed a few feet away, letting out a deeper cawing sound. Cracker rolled over, got up, flapped his wings and flew away. What was this?

Griffyth watched as the strange bird waddled towards him. It cawed again. Griffyth, unsure, pulled in his hand. Now he could see the bird’s massive black bill and its shaggy throat feathers. A raven, he realised. It must be a raven. The bird stood and stared at him.

‘Who are you, my fine fellow?’ Griffyth said softly. ‘Are you going to help me?’

The rook cocked its head to one side.

My God, thought Griffyth, could this one understand him as well?

‘The key!’ he hissed. ‘Do you see the key? I need the key.’

The raven cawed again then turned towards the key, which Cracker had dropped further away from the cage in his fright. Griffyth watched with fascination as the raven picked the key up in its massive beak.

‘That’s it!’ he hissed. ‘Now bring it here, my friend.’

At the word ‘friend,’ the raven stopped. It stared at him, the key in its beak, then tossed the key further away.

‘No,’ murmured Griffyth. ‘I need you to bring it to me, my friend.’

The raven cawed aggressively and waddled towards him. Griffyth became afraid. He was squashed between the beer crates and bottles and the cage bars and was ill-placed to defend himself.

‘Just what are you?’ Griffyth cried. Then his eyes narrowed with realisation. ‘Hemming?’ he said. ‘Is that you?’

The raven cawed.

‘Hemming? Hemming!’

Griffyth was back on the cliff face. ‘Hemming!’ he shouted. ‘All of the bolts are rotten!’

‘Grif! What are you doing?’

‘I’m sorry, Hemming. The weight is too much. I’ve got to let you go.’

‘Please, Grif, don’t!’

‘I’m sorry, Hemming. Why should both of us die?’

‘Don’t, Grif! Please don’t slip the rope. We’ll think of something.’

‘There isn’t time, Hemming, don’t you see? The bolts are rotten! We were fools to trust them.’

‘Grif! Listen to me. Just twist me around. I think I can swing myself into the rock face. Try and twist me. Twist the rope, please!’

‘We don’t have time!’ Griffyth screamed. ‘It’s too late. The bolts will give at any moment and then we’ll both be dead.’

‘Grif, how can you do this? Please, Grif!’

Griffyth watched as Hemming’s body tumbled silently down and down to the rocks and the glittering sea below...

* * *

‘Mr Griffyth? Mr Griffyth?’

Jimmy waited a while then opened the garden gate. The vegetable patch was strangely unkempt.

‘Mr Griffyth?’ he shouted, as he made his way to the cottage door. He knocked. No reply. He knocked again.

‘You all right, Mr Griffyth?’

He walked into the kitchen. It was cooler than usual. Jimmy touched the Aga top. It had gone out. And the votive candle in the glass jar had burned out. He picked up the photograph from the old tabernacle. It was a pleasant face. A faint smile played around the eyes and the lips. ‘Hemming,’ Jimmy murmured. He walked through to the back of the house and opened the door.

‘Mr Griffyth?’ he shouted again.

He saw a hand, palm upwards, stretching out from the beer cage. As he got closer, Jimmy saw the dried blood on Mr Griffyth’s cheeks.


Copyright © 2016 by Martin Westlake

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