Joe sits Don's biographer down by the fire with a very large glass of whisky. "You do know," he says, "that he was an absolute bastard, don't you?" Writing of Don in public, Joe says, "He was a genius." Of all climbers, Don's the toughest to quantify, the hard man, the fighter, the villain, the alcoholic, the raconteur, the lecher, the man whose legacy on rock is so hard-edged and brilliant that the most demanding moves and most difficult cruxes are still termed Whillans routes. He was hard-edged and gritty as the stone of his mill town childhood, razor quartz embedded in shale. On rock, he was efficient, brutal, delicate.
Joe's different. Elliptical, guarded, cautious, an relaxed, skillful, imaginative climber. His hands are massive, broad, thick fingered, calloused and cracked: his footwork as precise as a dancer's, the necessary result of years climbing in hob-nailed boots. He muses, "Mountaineering, by the nature of things, is a very unsettling activity." Joe's not a man for boasting or adulation. Joe prefers going fishing. When he writes, his we, his us, is Don. Shortly after Don's death (52: heart failure, after a life of excess) Joe will say. "It was either Don, or a wife."
It was Don who courted Joe, a delicate negotiation carried out in the haunts of the Manchester Rock and Ice club and on the millstone grit of their shared playgrounds. On Cloggy, Snowden's great cliff Clogwyn Du'r Arddu, they forge a partnership that will become a legend: on the greasy slabs of Dove Crag and the gritstone of Glencoe, on the icy slabs of the West face of the Dru, they cement it. Don, afterwards, says wistfully on the North Face of the Eiger, "If Joe wasn't here, I could think of nobody to better share the climb with than Chris." It's years after their partnership had dissolved, wrecked on Don's pride.
Don doesn't share. Don has no patience with women, load carrying, cooking: these are for lesser men. "Oh, to hell with it," he says. It's 1955, Charmonix, the English campsite at Biolay. Joe and Don are sharing a tent, wrecked amidst the clutter of a season's debris, damp and miserable: the site's flooded, their sleeping bags soaked, water squelching under the ground sheet and drumming against the canvas. A bundled figure in his sleeping bag, Joe grunts in reply. Don rolls over. His eyes, in sunlight bright blue, are shadowed and narrow, his mouth pursed: he shoves the covers down. His drawers are down at his knees, his hand moving on his cock, pragmatic. Like him, Don's cock is broad, short, fat: the slap of skin on skin is unmistakable.
Joe says, bleary, "Do you have to?"
"Bloody thing's hard mate - you can say what you want." Don's strokes are efficient, practical.
Don grins at him. "C'mon youth, get it out." The words are jocular, but there's a vulnerability under the aggression few people will ever hear. Joe's one of them.
"Bugger off," Joe says, uneasy.
Don shrugs. His hand tightens: liquid glistens on his skin, dribbles on his belly and over his fingers. Later, Don will become all too familiar with brewer's droop, but here, now, he's rock hard and proudly flushed. "Don't know what you're missing," he says.
Unbidden, Joe's own cock twitches. Theirs has always been always been a competitive partnership, aggressive, challenging. Don doesn't look away.
Joe slides his hand down, palms his balls. It's meant to soothe, although there's no pleasure in the promise of a wank over the stink of the latrine, later. Against his wrist, his cock stirs, begins to fill.
Grunting, Don splays his legs an inch or two further. His hand slows. It's more of a show, a display, cocky and obvious. His forearms are massive with muscle, the veins showing on his wrists and biceps, his fingers stubby and strong. Those hands have held Joe's weight on ropes of Italian hemp, nylon, perlon, have held Don on limestone and shale, granite and grit, as sure on rock as they are now on his own flesh. Every bruise and graze on Don's knuckles is echoed on Joe's.
Under the weight of his sleeping bag, Joe tightens his hand. Moves, once. Again. He's unexpectedly hard, a simple, heated response where Joe's used to coaxing himself into arousal. Unbidden, his breath hisses between his teeth.
"Don't faff around," Don says. "That's it, lad. Up and down like a bride's nightie."
"Don," Joe says, and the word's meant to be admonition, a nod to the unspoken ethics of their shared community, but it comes out on a groan Joe never meant to make.
Don laughs, a short bark of amusement. "C'mon then," he says. "Come on." His hand's moving faster, his thighs shifting.
Joe, too. He can't look away. He should. Anything, the blur of light through canvas, the mess of his gear and Don's at the mouth of the tent, the folds of his sleeping bag. There's a smile he's never felt before tugging at his mouth, hard and urgent. He can't stop. Don's eyes are on the thrust and pull of Joe's hands under the down of the sleeping bag, obvious, shaming, but Joe's can't stop. He's trapped in free-fall, caught in motion, and he knows on a moment of pure fear that he's going to come, faster and harder than he's ever spent before.
Don says, unforgivably, "Joe," and comes on a long-drawn out, luxurious groan. Spunk gleams on his chest, sprinkles the dark hairs of his belly.
Teeth clenched on Don's name, Joe has no choice about following.
The tent stinks of both of them. Don doesn't look away. Joe can't. There's a moment when he thinks, stomach churning, 'Oh bloody hell. That's done it.' He's married. So's Don, for all his carelessness with other men's wives. There's a softness in Don's eyes Joe's never seen before.
Then it's gone, fast as cloud shadow. "Roll us a fag, luv," Don says.
Joe says, "Sod off."
Brown, Joe The
Hard Years (1967)