Girls like mountaineers. I think that’s something we can all agree on.
And as a confident, twenty-first-century male, I can understand the appeal. Mountaineers are rugged, brave, adventurous, determined. They laugh in the face of danger. They have adrenalin where others have blood. They can pitch a tent on the side of a rock face, in the dark, with one hand, whilst fending off polar bears. I doubt even a woolly beard, chock full of frozen ice, is enough to negate all the innate female-attracting manliness that comes with the whole mountaineering gig.
Which is why I’m half way up a mountain. Somewhere in Tibet. Taking a quick selfie. If anything’s going to impress Paige, this is it.
Ken, my sherpa, is waiting patiently for me to finish capturing the moment. I have no idea what his real name is. Probably something like Kennunanmahindo. But it really doesn’t matter. When you spend your days lifting and hauling luggage through the Himalayas – the vicious frozen waste lands that divide Tibet and Nepal – well, you could be a guy called Susan and still be thought of as the rugged personification of everything masculine.
I wave to Ken that I’m ready to continue, pocket my camera, adjust my goggles, and on we plough.
That’s how we’re communicating now. Through a series of waves and gestures. I have no idea how much English Ken speaks but it’s irrelevant at this altitude. Just breathing is a challenge. Talking would be a staggeringly stupid use of breath.
It’s funny; even though the wind is relentless, and the snow here has more in common with razor wire than the pathetic flakes of partially frozen water we have back home, I’m barely even registering the pain any more. In fact I relish it. Every gruelling step along what Ken laughably describes as ‘the path’ is just testament to the fact I am alive, and beating the odds. I doubt even Paige will be able to leave me alone when I see her next. My God, beard or no beard we’ll probably end up doing ‘it’ on the luggage carousel at Heathrow airport! “Ade,” she’ll gasp, “I need you! God I need you! Let’s do it! Right here Adrian! Now!” And if that thought isn’t enough to propel me onwards I don’t know what is.
Not that I should be having thoughts like that. Not at this precise moment anyway. I can almost make out the temple through the blizzard, and I really ought to be in a place of extreme reverence when we finally get there.
I’m not really sure what to expect. ‘Spiritual enlightenment’ would be good. Or perhaps anything that comes under the broad heading of ‘answers’. To be honest, right now I’d settle for somewhere to sit, somewhere to sleep, and perhaps a meal that doesn’t come out of a tin. Everything else I need is waiting for me back in London – and probably having similar thoughts about that luggage carousel I shouldn’t wonder.
The temple is quite clearly made from stone, brought here – one presumes – by the monks, one boulder at a time. The doors on the other hand are made of oak. Each one is at least twenty foot high, ten foot wide, and looks as if it they could stop a tank – it’s exactly what I was expecting.
The doorbell, on the other hand, is a bit of a let down.
Okay, so clearly it’s slightly more than your average hardware store doorbell offering – it’s obviously been designed to withstand some pretty poor weather conditions – but still, surely a large wrought iron gong would have been more fitting?
I communicate all of this to Ken with a wave and a head toss, but he just nods solemnly, reaches out a gloved finger and presses the bell. From inside the temple I can hear a deep echoey ‘ding dong’, and then one of the doors creaks opens – just a crack; just enough for each of us to squeeze through. And it’s only when the door booms closed behind me do I suddenly appreciate how damn noisy it was out there. For the past two days I’ve heard nothing but the sound of a million damned souls screaming their eternal torment.
But not in here.
In here the only sound is the constant murmur of monks repeating the same four syllables over and over. It’s not exactly musical but at the same time it’s like someone has poked their fingers into my ears and is steadily massaging my brain, which would be fine were it not for the fact my brain is also trying to take in the splendour of the temple.
There are candles everywhere; they’re hanging from the ceiling on giant chandeliers, they’re wedged into crevices in the walls, they’re on ledges, and tables, and candlesticks, and all over the floor. It’s as if someone started with one candle, and then put another wherever there might be shadow. There are so many candles that my eyes feel like they’re being bathed in light and it actually takes me a moment to notice the sixty foot gold statue at the far end of the great hall… and I’ll be honest, it’s not quite what I was expecting.
“Welcome,” says a voice just behind me. I turn to face a monk, his hands pressed together just in front of his chest. He gives a slight bow and I do the same, though with considerably less grace. “Welcome, weary traveller,” he says again.
“Er, yes,” I say, “thank you. Thank you for allowing me… well, in, I guess.”
“All are welcome in the house of—”
“Yes, yes,” I say, “thank you. I do appreciate it. Really.” I squeeze in another quick bow and force a smile. “Look, I er, I wonder if… I don’t wish to be rude or anything, it’s just… I was… about the statue—” The monk looks over my shoulder, and as he does so his face is bathed in reflected gold light. His smile broadens as though he’s just slipped into a foamy bath.
“Our master,” he breathes.
“Right. Your master. I see.”
“And also your master.”
I nod my head from side to side. “I’m… not so sure about that,” I say.
“He is the master of all things,” insists the monk. I turn to look at the statue again. Just to make sure I wasn’t mistaken the first time. Just to make sure that the intoxicating combination of candlelight and incense and endless bloody chanting hasn’t somehow caused me to imagine a sixty foot gold effigy of a smug, grinning man in a three piece suit, holding – amongst other things – an iPhone.
“He doesn’t look very… Tibetan,” I say, through gritted teeth.
“No one knows where the master really comes from.”
“At a guess I’d say it was Basingstoke.”
The monk nods. “The sacred lands?” he says. “Perhaps you are right.”
“And I can’t help noticing that he seems to have an extra pair of arms.”
“To symbolise the many gifts he brings to the world.”
“I see. And what is that he’s holding in his right hand?”
“That is the true symbol for communication.”
“I meant his other right hand.”
“A ball of the finest yarn, to symbolise his warmth and generosity of spirit.”
“And when you say ‘finest’, I don’t suppose you mean regular sheep’s wool…”
“Oh no. Alpaca. The sacred beast.” I bite my lip, hard, and try not to explode.
“And in his… left… hands?”
“The ancient pendant from the land of Bavaria, with which he summons forth his holy chariot. Notice the markings.”
“Yes, that’s a BMW logo.” I say. “It’s a BMW key fob!”
The monk nods, and frowns, and nods some more. “I know not of this… fob… of which you speak.”
“And the bowl!?” I ask.
“The sacred chalice of holy sustenance.”
“Which is what exactly?”
“Sweetcorn fritters,” he says. “Food of the gods. Would you like some?” He claps his hands together so gently it’s barely audible, but as he does so two junior monks appear out of nowhere with bowls of, what I can only assume, are sweetcorn-bloody-fritters.
And then my mind makes sense of it; the four syllables that the monks keep chanting over and over. It’s a name. A name that I’ve come to despise. A name that will haunt me for the rest of my days.
Se-bast-i-an, Se-bast-i-an, Sebastian…
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