Saturday, 31 October 2015

Three Friends (1993)

This simple little story was dashed off very quickly in an idle hour but has since been published in many different places and several languages. It now forms one of the sixty linked stories to be found in my book TALLEST STORIES and it was turned into a play in Finland.

The three friends were mountain climbers who had trekked to the roof of the world. They had encountered many dangers on the way and each had taken it in turns to plunge down a crevasse. Bound together by ropes as well as friendship, it seemed they had all escaped death by the narrowest of margins. One by one, they had praised their luck and had agreed that teamwork was wonderful.
     After the end of one particularly difficult day, as the crimson sun impaled itself on the needle peaks of the horizon, the three friends set up their tent on a narrow ledge. The first friend, who had survived the first crevasse, boiled tea on his portable stove and lit his pipe. Stretching his legs out as far as the ledge would allow, he blew a smoke ring and said:
     “The wind whistles past this mountain like the voice of a ghost, shrill as dead leaves. The icy rock feels like the hand of a very aged corpse. Those lonely clouds far away have taken the form of winged demons. Everything reminds me of the region beyond the grave. I suggest that we all tell ghost stories, to pass the time. I’ll go first, if you like.”
     Huddling closer to the stove, the first friend peered at the other two with eyes like black sequins. “This happened to me a long time ago. I was climbing in Austria and had rented a small hunting lodge high in the mountains. Unfortunately, I managed to break my leg on my very first climb and had to rest in the lodge until a doctor could be summoned. Because of a freak snowstorm that same evening, it turned out that I was stuck there for a whole week. The lodge had only one bed. My guide, a local climber, slept on the floor.
     “Every night, as my fever grew worse, I would ask my guide to fetch me a drink of water from the well outside the lodge. He always seemed reluctant to do this, but would eventually return with a jug of red wine. I was far too delirious to wonder at this and always drank the contents right down. At the end of the week, when my fever broke, I asked him why he gave me wine rather than water from the well. Shuddering, he replied that the ‘wine’ had come from the well. I afterwards learned that the original owner of the lodge had cut his wife’s throat and had disposed of her body in the obvious way…”
     The first friend shrugged and admitted that his was a very inconclusive sort of ghost tale, but insisted that it was true nonetheless. He sucked on his pipe and poured three mugs of tea. Far below, the last avalanche of the day rumbled through the twilight. The second friend, who had survived the second crevasse, accepted a mug and nodded solemnly to himself. He seemed completely wrapped up in his own thoughts. Finally, he said:
     “I too have a ghost story, and mine is true as well. It happened when I was a student in London. I lived in a house where another student had bled to death after cutting off his fingers in his heroic attempt to make his first cucumber sandwich. I kept finding the fingers in the most unlikely places. They turned up in the fridge, in the bed, even in the pockets of my trousers. One evening, my girlfriend started giggling. We were sitting on the sofa listening to music and I asked her what was wrong. She replied that I ought to stop tickling her. Needless to say, my hands were on my lap.
     “I consulted all sorts of people to help me with the problem. One kindly old priest came to exorcise the house. I set up mousetraps in the kitchen. But nothing seemed to work. The fingers kept appearing on the carpet, behind books on the bookshelf, in my soup. I grew more and more despondent and reluctantly considered moving. Suddenly, in a dream, the solution came to me! It was a neat solution, and it worked. It was very simple, actually. I bought a cat…”
     The second friend smiled and sipped his tea. Both he and the first friend gazed across at the third friend. The third friend seemed remote and abstracted. He stared out into the limitless dark. In the light from the stove, he appeared pale and unhealthy. He refused the mug that the first friend offered him.
     The first two friends urged him to tell a tale, but he shook his head. “Come on,” they said, “you must have at least one ghost story to tell. Everybody has at least one.” With a deep, heavy sigh, the third friend finally confessed that he did. The first two friends rubbed their hands in delight. They insisted, however, that it had to be true.
     “Oh, it’s true all right,” replied the third friend, “and it’s easily told. But you might regret hearing it. Especially when you consider that we are stuck on this ledge together for the rest of the night.” When the first two friends laughed at this, he raised a hand for silence and began to speak. His words should have been as cold as a glacier and as ponderous, but instead they were casual and tinged with a trace of irony. He said simply:
     “I didn’t survive the third crevasse.”