It was just not the same without Nigel Stockwood. Jack had tried but, even though he was alone when he had first started walking amongst the fells of the English Lake District, that period had been but brief. He thought, with Nigel gone, that he could simply have reverted to his usual solitary excursions but those last few years had made everything different. Instead, when out on the Lakeland hills without Nigel’s companionship, the heights did not register; Jack just felt as if he were in an enormous, meaningless void.
His memory had stretched back to well over fifty years previously, when he and Nigel were at school in Southampton. Although much was misty from that far off time, he recalled being with Nigel in the playground and had a hazy picture of them visiting each other’s houses every so often. What he did recapture clearly was their then common boyhood interests; collecting bus, train and aeroplane numbers, swapping TV series’ cards, building up fleets of model cars and buses. They were all innocent, if somewhat largely solitary, pleasures but they provided welcome escapes from the rather unexciting school life of the time and offered a seemingly robust cocoon away from the bad boys and the bullies.
Jack had looked back, too, on that day Nigel and his parents moved away although, strangely, he could not bring to mind any particularly strong emotions inside himself from that time; perhaps just a passing twinge of sadness at losing a friend but then finding increased solace in his solo pursuits. One memory alone remained vivid: that of Nigel’s Mother crying as she left the family home on the day of their move up north to Lichfield. It was the first time he remembered seeing an adult cry and he could recall being at the time both surprised (that grown up people did such things) and uncomprehending (that she should be doing it seemingly just because she was moving house). In his later life, Jack moved house many times but he never once cried at so doing; he was determined not to evidence any emotion at vacating what, to him, was primarily a mere building.
Following Nigel’s departure from Southampton, that friendship was never replaced by anybody to the same extent, perhaps because there was nobody else in Jack’s environment who shared his particular interests and pastimes. Inevitably, as Jack grew and developed, he found the enjoyments of his youth surpassed by new and apparently more meaningful things to do. The “spotting” books went - although Jack still retained a passing fondness for old vehicles - the swap cards were jettisoned and the little die-cast models, of which Jack could never quite bring himself to dispose, were gathering dust in an open box up in his loft. What was perhaps most lasting, in the years following Jack’s maturity away from the world of his childhood, was that he had remained very largely happy in his own company.
He did eventually marry but the marriage was never one of soppy intimacy and when, after many long years of increasing incompatibility, the separation and subsequent divorce eventually came and Jack found himself alone once more, he was actually quite content with his lot. What bothered him most, as he entered his sixties, was his burgeoning weight. In his youth and adolescence he had been as tall and as thin as a rake but whilst his height had diminished a little - as it does for so many over time - his girth had rather ballooned. He was embarrassed to look at himself sideways in a full-length mirror and so decided to do something about it. Joining a gymnasium and thus being in close confines to other people was anathema to Jack. Besides, he had never undertaken any kind of exercise in his life. However, having lived in various parts of England over his working career thanks to his actuarial job, which had required him to relocate at frequent intervals - one of the underlying sources, if truth be told, of his marriage difficulties - Jack had developed a liking for the English countryside. Accordingly, he decided to take up walking.
In all his various travels through work and leisure, Jack had never really explored to any great extent the English Lake District in Cumbria, with its breathtaking scenery, tranquil expanses of water and glorious, lofty panoramas. He made a point of visiting the area (on his own, of course), found it most pleasing and, as soon as he could after his retirement, he moved to the town of Keswick there. It still pained Jack to recall all the trouble he encountered in trying to achieve even a half functioning internet connection to his house but the technicians won through in the end. Jack was pleased they did as it allowed him to spend hours in his own company on wet or windy days researching on-line the Lakeland peaks, the various routes up to them and their degrees of ease or difficulty.
One day, a few weeks after his move to the area and having already explored by himself some relatively short and easy routes, Jack was carrying out his internet investigations with a view to tackling his next fell-walking challenge. He was reading the comments posted by others who had already traversed the route he had in mind when, almost leaping out of Jack’s computer screen, came the name of one of the contributors - a Nigel Stockwood. In an instant, Jack was transported back to the front room of his childhood, bus and train books on the table, model cars all over the floor and his boyhood friend tucking into a large slice of his Mother’s home-made cake. It was a sudden memory he did not even know he possessed, not least because he had almost completely forgotten about a boy named Nigel with whom he once, many years in the past, had a friendship based on common pursuits. Could this really be the same person? There must, Jack thought, be many Nigel Stockwoods in the world.
In addition to facilitating the adding of comments, the walkers’ internet page Jack was viewing allowed him to do two other things. The first was to click on the profile of a contributor to see further details about him or her and the second was the ability to send any contributor a direct message. Jack clicked on Nigel’s photograph and scrutinised it as best he could on his computer screen. It might have been his childhood friend of fifty odd years ago but there again it might not; it was hard to tell. Where there had undoubtedly once clearly been a fine head of hair, now an expansive bald head stared out of the screen. Jack knew that he, himself, certainly looked considerably different to his youthful image and it was therefore entirely possible that other people had aged to become similarly unrecognisable from their former visages. However, studying Nigel’s profile information, Jack was excited to see that their ages were the same, that Nigel originated from Southampton and, intriguingly, he now lived in Lichfield. All that might, of course, be coincidental but, whether it was or not, Jack decided to send Nigel a message.
A reply arrived. It was his schoolboy friend. As they proceeded to exchange e-mail addresses and subsequent communications went back and forth between the two of them, Jack realised that Nigel’s delight at reconnecting with his old mate was equal to his own. He learnt that Nigel’s Mother had not settled comfortably in Lichfield and that her health had declined over the years. She had never really recovered when, some time later, her husband - Nigel’s Father - died and when his Mother passed away herself not long afterwards, Nigel stayed on in the house he had moved to when a boy, having himself grown fond of it and his Staffordshire surroundings. He too had married and had continued to live in the house with his wife. With an uncanny similarity to Jack's life story, though, he also had divorced after many years together. Now, it transpired, Nigel spent his own retirement - amongst other things - journeying up to the Lake District at regular intervals (the travelling to and from there seemed to be just as much a part of his enjoyment) and spending part of the intervening periods planning his itinerary of lakes to visit, peaks to climb and viewpoints to tick off. There was one other surprising coincidence: whenever Nigel visited the area he always stayed at a hotel in Keswick!
As you may well imagine, it did not take long for the two old friends to get together again and for the following four and a half years Nigel, eschewing the hotel, stayed at Jack’s house by invitation at least every three months. Together they planned their outings, together they marched across the fells and valleys in all weathers ranging from the spectacular to, when it had suddenly changed, the atrocious and together they spent many happy hours in the local pubs, discussing their walks and reminiscing on their childhood days as best as their gradually ageing memories permitted. It was the first time in his adult life that Jack really had a soulmate and he looked forward immensely to Nigel’s cheery visits and his wonderful companionship on their many and varied explorations together. Jack’s excess weight completely left him and for perhaps the first time in these later years he felt fit and really happy.
Nigel did eventually begin to evidence some fatigue on their walks, which over the previous few months had become slightly shorter and noticeably slower, although he still visited Jack with the same regularity. Nigel never spoke of his health but, immediately after their last get together and completely unknown to Jack at the time, Nigel rapidly deteriorated after his return to Lichfield. He departed this world with the Lakeland mud still caked on his boots from his visit to Jack just five short weeks previously.
His death came as a blow to Jack but, as with their first parting as schoolboys, he attempted to remain unemotional, quickly drawing on his introverted reserves. That same kind of inward determination which had stood Jack in good stead many times over his life, his insularity and lack of dependence on anybody - least of all his wife when she was with him - and his natural solitary instincts resulted in something akin to Jack simply flicking a switch and trying to carry on as before, without Nigel’s companionship.
However, it was just not the same. Those last few years of Nigel’s company could never be recaptured: the planning together, the travelling, the walking, the endless conversations feeding off each other’s input, the pointing out to each other of distant landmarks, the beers, the meals together, the joint reminiscing, the badinage, the understanding and the compatibility between them. All had given Jack a taste of something he had never previously known to anywhere near the same extent and now he missed it, achingly. His solitary walks, with no visit from Nigel to look forward to and plan for and no outdoor comradeship, became sad, lonely endeavours and he began to despise his own company, a state of mind which he would have considered inconceivable just a few weeks earlier.
Jack decided he could not go on like this. Thus it was that, in early May, he planned to make one last attempt to shake off for good the emptiness and the melancholy under which he felt completely burdened. By taking on an interesting fell walk and trying his best to be positive, Jack hoped he might be able to expunge for ever those gloomy clouds within which he was immersed. Where to go, though? Jack was looking for somewhere reasonably challenging for his abilities and had begun to consider possibilities when the weather closed right in, as it can do in the Lake District at any time of the year. His enforced stay indoors for three days of downpours and gale-force winds was, in fact, fortuitous because on the second day something arrived in the post which decided Jack’s destination. He would tackle Pavey Ark.
This was a peak he had not yet conquered and he was going to ascend it via Jack’s Rake. Classified as a “Grade 1 scramble”, Jack’s Rake is a long but very narrow diagonal groove on Pavey Ark’s southern precipitous face, with loose scree at its lower levels, allowing a transverse ascent up the near vertical cliff face. From the exit, the summit is actually only a short rise away but climbing up Jack’s Rack was not without its dangers; only the previous month two people had fallen to their deaths from it whilst attempting the ascent. The route had actually featured from time to time in the background to Jack and Nigel’s plans together - not least because of the name “Jack” - and it was certainly one of the climbs Nigel always, in his heart of hearts, wanted to make. Somehow, though, one of the other peaks always seemed more immediately accessible or more propitious given the vagaries of the northern weather, the other sights they wanted to see together or, at certain times of the year, the daylight hours available. Quite simply, they had somehow never got round to climbing Pavey Ark, either individually or in each other's company.
Jack was not at all sure what he would do if this final effort were unsuccessful in bringing his mind back more into a state of equilibrium and happiness as he felt he could no longer keep pushing himself out on the hills alone. Something deep inside him was clearly wrong. Of course, joining a Cumbrian walking or trekking group and thus being assured of guaranteed companionship on his excursions never once entered Jack’s head and, if it had, he would instantly have shied away from the idea.
After his enforced delay, Jack set off. It was a shining morning, with the sky a cloudless and luxuriant blue. From the traditional starting place for the route near the New Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, Jack stepped out briskly on this first stage of the climb, following the less popular and more strenuous path climbing adjacent to the Dungeon Ghyll ravines. For the first time since the news of Nigel’s death had reached Jack, he did not feel alone. As he tackled the upward track by the clear, plunging stream he knew with absolute certainty that Nigel was with him that morning and would stay with him all the way up the fellside until he reached the cairn of stones on its peak. In fact, Jack was so confident of Nigel’s presence that he was actually talking out loud to him, as if the two of them were walking alongside each other, as they used to do. Despite the pressures of the steep walk and Jack’s increasing breathlessness as a result, he kept up an almost continual stream of conversation to his friend and, as the way became higher, he began verbally to point out to him the various peaks and landmarks becoming ever more visible in the clear air.
Reaching the intermediate flat space occupied by
the delightful little Stickle Tarn, resting in a bowl in the hills, Jack sat
down by its shores to recover his breath and to take on board food from his
rucksack in readiness for the next and most demanding stage of his journey upwards. As the tiny
waves gently lapped the shore, Jack prospected the imposing and massive bulk of
Pavey Ark’s south face and could see quite clearly the line of Jack’s Rake,
running as a discernable geological feature from the lower right to the upper left of
the impressive cliff. Having eaten - and stirred on by his resolute
determination - Jack almost
jumped to his feet again and marched off briskly around the tarn to commence his
climb up the side of the face.
Again, all the way up, he pantingly attempted to carry out an unrelenting dialogue with Nigel, at times breathlessly debating with his unseen friend whether he considered the route was indeed, as described by that great Lakeland guidebook walker and illustrator Alfred Wainwright, “difficult and awkward”. Jack discovered it certainly was in places, particularly when he had to squeeze himself between the rocks in the crevasse or, on occasions, use both hands to haul himself higher. Further on, as the views to his left really opened out and Stickle Tarn below him took on the appearance of an elongated puddle, Jack told Nigel that he was very glad of the, as Wainwright had described, "comforting parapet of rock” against which he could lean in the more exposed points where the fissure offered nothing to prevent a false step into oblivion. Jack continued to set a tremendous, almost a reckless, pace: pushing himself well beyond his body's usual limits, ignoring the jelly like feeling in his legs and leaden tightness in his chest thanks to his exertions.
Gasping for air and with his heart seeming as if it would burst, Jack eventually reached the exit and, with almost the last reserves of his energy, pounded over the final stretch of sloping soft grass and rocky boulders to reach the summit. As Jack had secretly hoped, nobody else was there. It is still possible to be completely alone on a Cumbrian peak but often only for a short period of time, particularly given the number of paths and scrambles which lead up to many of the tops. However, Jack had struck it lucky just at that moment. Unusually, he did not pause to survey the wonderful vista all around him but immediately sank down with his back to the cairn and, gulping after his efforts, reached into his rucksack. He brought out a small package which he had received in the post on that second, weather imposed, day of delay and carefully extracted the small container from within. Jack concluded the torrent of words he had been speaking all the way up the climb, addressed to Nigel, with “Goodbye old chap. Thanks for being with me on this journey”. Then he lifted the lid of the little urn and scattered Nigel’s ashes away into the gentle breeze.
Nigel had indeed been present on Jack's climb to the summit that morning - at least in some form - for, in his last will and testament, he had requested that Jack should scatter his ashes at the top of Pavey Ark. It had come as a monumental surprise when Jack had received the little casket from the Funeral Directors in Lichfield with a covering letter from Nigel’s executors explaining the request in the will. Jack had never before been shown such a level of trust, confidence and fellowship. Completely overwhelmed, he had started addressing out loud Nigel’s remains almost immediately: conversing with the urn, commenting, asking unanswered questions, sharing all his actions with a verbal commentary. This is what had continued all the way to the top of Pavey Ark and now, having fulfilled his commission, Jack suddenly felt very tired as the arduous efforts of his climb quickly caught up with him.
As the last of Nigel’s ashes floated gently away Jack, still sitting against the cairn, at last surveyed the panorama before him, observing the land falling away in all directions to a distant horizon. He tried to search for the other fells rearing up near and far from that wide prospect but, whether due to the brightness of the sun beating down on him or through the exertions and exhaustion of the past few hours, Jack’s vision appeared to take on a kind of hazy hue. He was overcome by an overmastering desire to sleep and the last thing he saw before he relaxed his eyelids in the warmth was a group of fell walkers a mile or so away making their way gradually towards his position on the summit by another route. When Jack’s eyes flickered open again a few minutes later, his soul had climbed from Pavey Ark to an even higher elevation.
In a short while, the first of the trekkers Jack had dimly observed approached the summit. Perhaps surprisingly, it was one of the women in the group who was striding out ahead. She could see somebody in front of her resting by the cairn and, as she scrambled nearer, she thought at first the climber must be asleep. However, nearer still she noticed the head had fallen back against the stones at an unnatural angle and then she realised the eyes were open, staring but unseeing. She took an involuntary step back as the realisation came to her that the man must be in some sort of coma or even dead. She turned and beckoned by way of alert to her fellow walkers to close in quickly.
Understanding her apparent urgency and gesticulations, they did so and the group leader took charge, explaining to everybody, after a brief scrutiny of Jack’s body, that Pauline had indeed found a dead person there, apparently a solo fell-walker who - it looked like - had succumbed to a sudden heart attack. Whilst the leader then tried to catch a signal on his mobile phone to report the discovery, Pauline stepped forward again from the shocked group and looked more closely at the completely serene, inert face before her. She thought she had never seen anybody with such a look of absolute calm and happiness on his face: the man had evidently died in a totally content and peaceful frame of mind. It was at this point that Pauline screamed, for through the placid features she had recognised that face. By an unbelievable coincidence, the fell walker who had discovered Jack’s lifeless body was his former wife.
© Richard Farquharson, Haddenham, Cambridgeshire January 2020