Breakfast on my shoe
The plane buckles in the sky and drops through dead space to splash down on cloud with a big dipper lurch. I’m going to die. There is vomit on my left shoe.
I’m racing above the alps - twenty thousand feet or so - I don’t know - the pilot’s not told us, but we’re high, Mont Blanc an iceberg in the cloud below. Beneath me now I can see the North Face of the Driotes, its North East Spur the size a black lego brick, imagine my younger self astride it, unaware I’m flying past twenty years away. I makes me feel kind of smug; I know how the story goes, and he didn’t - the fool - but wonder then where now, twenty years on, I am, looking back at me? Maybe that’s my problem - I don’t think about what comes next.
I sit here and write, window blind half down to screen out the sun, write because that’s all I can think of doing these days, aware that I’ve become obsessed with words. Behind this window on my laptop there sits an open spreadsheet - my business tax calculations, what I spent, what I made, and I’ve been trying to finish it all week - but it’s like a scab - I pick at it each day, knowing it won’t heal itself. There is always something better to do, and right now it’s writing this instead of doing that. Finally, after a lift time of words I begin to feel I have a handle on them - just words - how they line up before they jump into your eyes - not how they are spelt, or grammar and all that shiz; I doubt a life can be long enough for me to grasp all that.
The plane lurches.
“What are you?”
“I’m a philosopher” I tell her.
“No - someone just said I was yesterday in an email. I’m a climber who writes… no, I’m a writer who climbs”
The plane drops.
I sit in a cafe at Manchester airport, maybe the only one there not either at work or about to fly away, just there, rushing all morning for a flight that was never there, and now waiting to go slowly home to wait for when it will. I want to punch myself in the face, to drown my sorrows in alcohol, but instead I drown mine in tea and words and write - instead of doing my tax - a story about Ella and Ewen, and going to Hull, the whole thing resting on the words “We’ll make our own arrangements” - which I post before I head home.
The plane fights and rises.
Three days ago I arrived for the plane that would take me to the place I’m now flying back from - the 11.30am to Milan from Manchester airport. As anyone who follows me on Twitter knows, I am a shocking traveler, in both space and time, like a man who’s racing fast but with head sewn on backwards. I am a shocking traveler in many things - a speed bump in the lives of others - sometimes a broken rail. In an email from someone I care about - even if she doesn’t believe it - she writes the word fuck three times in three lines, all frustration at me, a very important letter sent to an old address, that they “are not surprised” - which is fair, as neither am I, as yet again me being ‘on it’ turns out to be a delusion, knowing neither what ’on’ or ‘it’ really are.
The plane loses its battle against the sky and drops again, and then again. I sit next to a terrified woman as we enter a bank of clouds, as thick and dark and scary as Goth candy-floss. I want to hold her hand. She wants me to hold her hand. But I don’t as the plane drops and rises and drops again. “Enjoy it” I tell myself. “Believe in the plane” I tell myself. “It’s a ride” I tell myself. “Either you die or you don’t - nothing in between”.
The day before I rushed for that flight, through Manchester airport - all sweaty and worried, like a man who’s afraid time may speed up unless he does - I stand before the army in North Wales and tell my tales. Most have been and come back from Afghanistan. They tell me that now there’s no war that they miss it, that peace is boring - how being home is worse than the Taliban. I imagine all those killers, cooped up in barracks and army housing, waiting for war to come back soon. “It’s not easy to adjust” they tell me “but I’m sure you know that”. And I do - think now that I didn’t and couldn’t. “I think I had a nervous breakdown last year” I tell one of them, and then feel guilty for saying it, and like a true Brit, I add “only a mild one” even though I know to measure anything in one word or another is meaningless. “You put too much strain on your emotions and they snap. The needle falls off the pin”.
The plane seems to be going sideways, the Italian country side seen for a second below.
Words seem to mean more to me than they ever have before - and I realised this week that I am totally in love with them, addicted to the act of making them fit, or at least trying to - seeing them like a puzzle. They say that the reason we like puzzles, be it x-box games, the collection of knowledge, or ticking routes, comes down to the release of a happy drug in my head (can’t remember what, and can’t arsed looking it up) that was released when we foraged and found food - each packman gobble or crimp held a little dose.
But writing is a terribly frustrating process, like a man who knows the steps but is tapping with shoes a sizes too small.
When I write it’s like climbing, I achieve flow, and like any flow, that is a place I most want to be, being in an almost trancelike state, but it is the flow that tricks me up, that I write like a man on the edge of sleep.
The engines wine and we lift.
I stand in airport ready to fly home, already feeling a bit dejected, my slideshow in Milan a little flat, unable to get into a flow while being translated, that maybe the people there, who’d read my books had expected someone else. An email pops into my phone from a well loved stalker:
I particularly liked the poignant ending to this writing.
I am a little unsure of this sentence ...
” ... we’ll just make our own arguments.”
Arguments works ... but did you mean arguments or did you mean arrangements?
I find the blog about Ella and Ewen and there it is, the words looking the same but not the same, the whole piece of writing undermined. My skin gets hot, the ground on which I stand unstable, my self belief crumbling. “You’re shit, your shit, your shit” I tell myself, feeling down, my brain, my lack of attention, of care, undermining the possibility of any glint of brilliance. The words I love dropped and wasted - any little mastery I thought I may have achieved an illusion - just one single word turning me to ash.
I login and with my thumb highlight and delete two letters: ‘gu’ and type ‘range’ in their place - language and meaning as subtle as that, no trumpets or marching feet necessary to bring down the walls of me, only less than a fingers worth of letters.
The engines scream louder as a stewardess lurches down the isle and buckles in.
I show my new slideshow about Antartica to the army, and at the end I tell them that people I valued the least were - in the end - the ones I needed the most, and for a second I feel overly emotional, like I might cry at the memory of it, of them - the strain I put myself under, the hardest route ever climbed by the least qualified team to climb it. It always seems like such a game until you experience the cost. But I didn’t cry - but if I had - I think I’d have been in good company. That’s what people don’t understand about killers, they’re an emotional bunch - an excess of which is why it’s hard to cope sometimes.
“Do you want a pint” a man asks as I pack away, and I want to say yes, because I like hanging out with soldiers, like their stories, their sense of humour born from places where there a was nothing to laugh at. But no, I have to go - “I have to fly to Milan in the morning” the truth, but still sounds a little la-de-dar when you say it, and so I’m off, out the fire exit, emails and facebook messages saying thanks instead of real people.
Someone screams. I think about her, that I will never get chance to tell her I forgive her.
The problem with working hard is that you make the outlines but never get to colour them in, always moving, the laurels you weave, never worn or rested on, just hung up the second you get them - no roses to be smelt either - and so I’m driving home, arriving at midnight for a 7am start to get to Manchester for that flight, well 6.30am start, as for the first time since I left school I polish my shoes. I was off to Milan after all.
Whenever I work hard it always reminds me that work is a full time job. Perhaps my problem is pacing, that I cram a years worth of work into a couple of months - so no wonder life is chaos (but then I remind myself that I’ve had long periods with no work, and no money - that I’m like those soldiers, bitching about getting shot at, bitching when the bullets stop flying = basically just bitching). Thinking of which - christ this blog must sound like a load of old bitching sometimes, I bore myself - me, me, me - I, I, I - what’s it for?
We hear the wheels lower and lock, a snake of a highway passing beneath in the fog of rain.
I stand in McDonalds at midnight (and what’s wrong with that?) and ask the pretty assistant what time they close, skin spotless, hair clean, eyes bright, as out of place as a Russian Doll set amongst Potato Men. “3am” she says wearingly, and I know I’ll be in bed by then, “don’t worry, you won’t be here long” I say as she passes me my coffee, serving up a smile, wondering if there could be anywhere worse to be but a strip lit night shift in Mac D’s?
I’m lost in time, the past and the present and the future, all those events, like you, these words - the ones above and below - jumbled up. Where are we?
Getting to the airport - christ, even the word makes me feel a bit anxious - was the usual string of knots to untie, will the alarm go off, will I get the hire car back in time and get to station, spotting it opens at 8:30 and train leaves at 8:50, get from train station to check in with only ten minutes before it closes - but I do - but it leaves me stressed and sweaty, standing at the automatic check-in machines. Nothing ever goes right, and the law of chaos has taught me that the less time you leave in which to manoeuvre from A to B, the more the problems multiply . My passport has only a few months left on the clock and has done a Lisa Stansfield several times, pages ripped and bent and torn, a document of travel and adventure and an interesting life, like Ran Fiennes stamped flat and panted red. Joining a long queue of old ladies with big plastic cases I had five minutes to check in by the time I reached the front. “Erm I can’t see you booking here” says the woman, typing on her computer in the style a child would when pretending to type - my stress levels getting pretty high - “but there is a mr Kilpatrick booked to fly tomorrow?”. “I’m such a twat” I say, realising that I must have bought the wrong ticket, the second time I’d done this this year. “Do I have time to change it or buy another?” I asked, the default remedy for most of my life to piss my money all over it until it goes away, knowing I would have 300 disappointed Italians sat waiting for me if I didn’t arrive. “Erm - that will be £89 to change the ticket” she says, as I pulled out my wallet - no doubt this being one of those talks were all the profit is burnt by my crapness, like the time I spoke in Stockholm and missed both the flight there and back.
“Actually” I said, as I held the card out, “… what day is it today?”
“Erm - Wednesday” she said, pretending to look at her computer screen, maybe to give the impression she didn’t know either, while still looking up at me like she was talking to an idiot - which she was.
“Oh fuck - I’ve come a day early”, confirming that she was right.
For once I’m not out of time, but well within it.
There is a flash and the plane lurches, a woman screams, but no one says anything. The woman beside me, her head now at her knees looks up at me as if to say “did you hear that?” my eyes on my book still, but not reading. “It’s either a bomb, a missile or we’ve been struck by lightning” I say, trying to sound cheery. The woman vomits and sick splatters my left shoe as the plane drops five stories and I wonder if, after a life of missed planes, if I rushed to fast to catch my final flight.
The plane lands. We get off. I stand behind the vomiting woman at passport control, her breakfast on my left shoe.
A Snicker's bar costs 60p. Were these words worth as much?
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Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.Follow @ Instagram
Collected writing on life, death, climbing and everything in between
2017 Banff Mountain Film
The Ultimate Big Wall Manual
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