Sunrise shaded the flat roofs and scaffolded billboards of Venice Beach into ash pinks and dirty blue greys. The shadows were soft, blurred by the same temperature inversion that smudged sea and sky into one and haloed the rising sun in a parabola of white gold. Chained, the street lights were bright as stars, and even at four o'clock in the morning the freeway was lined with the paired headlights of cars and trucks, the rumble a constant undertone to the shuffle and heave common to all big cities. Below the fire escape, the neon barsign hissed and flickered. The air smelled of doughnuts and hot metal, sharp with sugar and the smell of the sea.
Joe's voice was lower than usual, sleep-heavy.
"Yeah," Simon said. He could hear the shuffle of bare feet behind him, the infintestimal hitch to Joe's stride. In the forced intimacies of climbing, habits that were barely noticeable at sea level become intolerable irritants. Joe's limp grated on Simon, reminded him of a failure he could not escape.
Told, Joe had stared at him blankly, said, "Fucking hell, mate, I'm just glad to have the thing."
In the cold of Calgary, filming, Joe had favoured his good leg: during that ill-judged, racking expedition back to Siula Grande, at rest, he'd massaged his knee incessantly, battered climber's hands kneading at the knotted flesh. The scars were messy, as jumbled as the bone underneath, memories carved into flesh of the six different operations in three separate countries that had sown Joe back together. Under Simon's fingers the feel of damaged skin had been unnaturally tight and smooth, instantly distinguishable to touch.
"Safe trip," Joe offered, unselfconciously naked, leaning against the doorframe. He had a climber's body, whipped and strung with muscle, although his belly was softer than it had been twelve years ago. When he scratched at the hair on his chest, it was matted into sparse curls, stiff.
Simon had already showered, taking advantage of the free hot water and Joe's battered towels and the unfamiliar soap. He's scrambled onto trains and planes stinking of sweat, unshaven, rife with dysentry and bedbugs and the assorted complimentary diseases of a life spent travelling in countries where clean water was a privilege of wealth. Even so, two hours in LAX's air-conditioned, bland shopping mall of a terminal and a fourteen-hour flight to Heathrow stinking of another man's jizz was an opportunity he's glad to forgo.
"Call me when you get home," Simon said, although Joe had three suits in his walk-in wardrobe and a letter on the kitchen table from Unipart and another from Texaco that said home for Joe was a different time and place. Joe's driven, ambitious: he always has been, even when he was young and hungry, sitting in a bar in Charmonix drinking cheap red wine and talking about tomorrow's climbing, back when time was measured in days. Climbs fifteen years gone. Joe now was tanned where Simon was pale, California sunshine set against the rain and sleet of a Sheffield winter. He had his own company, a website, a lawyer, an agent and for all Simon knew a publicist and a secretary as well. Simon had a gear-tangled room in someone else's terrace house in Dronfield, and needed nothing more.
Joe shrugged. "Won't last forever," he said. And then, awkwardly, "You could stay if you wanted. My agent'll set you up."
"Not my scene," Simon said, and looked out at the sunrise. There was a yacht on the bay, white sails, heeling in the wind. He'd never sailed. Maybe this summer he'd blag a berth: ropes were ropes.
"I'll see you in the pub then," Joe said.
"Sure," Simon said. They hadn't seen each other for ten years when Kevin MacDonald called them both in for the film. Twenty five hours on interviews and two expeditions. Calgary had been rough. Peru had been almost unspeakable, MacDonald focused on camera angles and light meters and for God's sake remember you're the stand-in, Joe, it's not about you. Siula Grande bound Joe and Simon together and ripped them apart, looming over both of them in opposed nightmares. Joe lived. Joe died. Simon cut the rope. He didn't. He died. Joe clawed his way down the moraines to find the camp empty. Simon and Richard packed up a day early. Joe died. Joe died crawling over the glacier, of thirst, of hunger, of exposure, the crows picked out his eyes and a year later two Peruvian girls found his dessicated body.
Pinned alive on the iced over scaffolding of their separate past, Joe had retreated into sullen silence, Simon into anger. There was no invitation to the first film screening for Simon. Joe went. "Simon, it's okay," he'd said over and over, last night, as Simon had cried helplessly into the shelter of his own hands. And Joe's. That feeling of being held, Joe had said. "Simon, it's done with, gone." Two weeks before, on impulse, Simon had phoned from Karachi. "Stopping over in L.A." - he'd barely got the first words out before Joe was asking him to stay.
On the shelf above the largest television Simon had ever seen, Joe had the DVD of Touching the Void. It was still wrapped.
"I've never seen it," Simon had confessed.
"Well," Joe said, although he'd turned the disc over and over in his hands, frowning, before he'd put it into the machine and closed the tray with a smooth and definite click. "I, um," he said. "I cried, the first time. Never felt such an idiot in my life. Everyone in the place was looking at me and I couldn't bloody stop."
Simon said, "Press play."
In the unreal dawn of a California morning, Joe said, "I'll be back."
"Yeah," Simon said. "Okay." And then, awkwardly, "Thanks."
Joe said, "I owe you more than a handjob, mate."
Laughter caught at Simon's throat, startling: he snorted. "Cheers," he said. "I'll hold you to that."
Below them on the street, the taxi's horn blipped.