This blog is a chapter from Tim Wood's forthcoming book Twisted Mountains. Entitled Ysgolion Duon, we're blogging it to give you a taster for the book - it's being published in October and we'll be opening pre-orders later in the summer.
A collection of short stories about the UK's high places and the people found up and around them, in Twisted Mountains rarely heard characters tell their stories. A vengeful student, conservation volunteer, Wainwright expert and more. Normal people like you and me, imperfections, warts and all. Dark humour, sex, fear, revenge and duplicity abound, interwoven with moments of joy and achievement. After reading them maybe you won't look at the quiet loner nursing their pint in the Old Dungeon Ghyll in quite the same way again.
I’m out before sunrise. I need to be up there before anyone else. If I’m going to do this, I have to be alone.
Leaving the bike in Bethesda, I set out for Cwm Llafar. Past the bunkhouse, over Afon Cenllusg, and from there it’s simple: follow the Afon Llafar upstream. I soon hit a steady pace. The air is fresh, rinsed clean by the overnight downpour, and the river is full, much higher than on our first walk together. Our first day together; we’d only met the night before. I can remember every detail of that day. That’s why I’m going up there, why I’m following the same route. He’ll know why I did it, of course he will, but doing it at that exact spot – our spot – it sends a message, doesn’t it?
Maybe Carnedd Dafydd wasn’t the best choice for his first walk. Craig was unfit, he never did any sort of exercise. Apart from one thing, of course. We did plenty of that. But the Carneddau are tough for anyone, let alone someone on their first proper hike. And it was after a very late night, too. We didn’t leave the nightclub until three, and didn’t get to sleep until … well, a lot later than three. I should have suggested to the others that we did something easier, or maybe waited for a day when it could be just the two of us. But Craig insisted; he wanted to come with me, to meet my friends. I even suggested we turn back at Cwm Moch, when he could hardly breathe, could hardly get himself up again after the drinks stop. But he refused. He wanted to get to the top, he said. It took us five hours, and another three back down.
It was his decision. I never forced him to do anything he didn’t want to.
I’m faster today, of course, despite the pain in my ankle from that fall two weeks ago. And even though my rucksack is much heavier than usual, I don’t stop at Cwm Moch, or head to the summit cairn. Instead, on reaching the plateau of Carnedd Dafydd, I go to the edge and look over, down into the vast, dark-grey corrie of Ysgolion Duon. It’s my favourite place in Snowdonia, right at the top of a very long list.
I set down my pack halfway along the ridge, right by the edge, then search for the spot where Craig and I had lunch that first time. And, a few months later, where I proposed. Yes, I proposed to him. But I can’t find it at first. I thought it would be easy, a location seared onto my mind. Is it hidden by the snow? There’s still a bit about, tiny patches hidden in the shadows. I kick over one of the small piles of stones that people leave beside the path to let out a little tension. I think about destroying them all, but there isn’t time. I need to get on with this, or I won’t go through with it.
There it is: a large triangular stone, half-covered with bright orange lichen, very close to the edge. I can’t remember why we sat there on that first day. Probably to get some space, a moment to ourselves. But it became our stone. That’s why I made him come back up here to propose. It’s why I’m here now.
So, here I am. There’s nothing else to stop me. But I can’t, I’m not quite ready. Instead, I go and gaze into the corrie. It’s four hundred metres to the bottom, but looks like far more from here. I’m going to make a hell of a mess.
Not just yet, though. There’s no one about, I don’t need to rush. I wish I’d made some coffee, but there didn’t seem any point. The plan was to get it over with as quickly as possible, not pootle about up here. But now I wish I had made some. I could do with a coffee.
I can understand why my friends had their doubts, right from the start. Craig and I were hardly a typical match. Nothing in common. Both twenty, but that’s about it. In every other way, we’re complete opposites. The outdoor enthusiast and the local DJ. No one could understand what we saw in each other.
Correction: they understood what I saw in him. Everyone fancies the DJ, don’t they? It was what he saw in me that defeated them. He could have anyone, why has he picked her? I don’t blame them, I thought exactly the same myself. Every day we were together.
They could have tried, though. They could have made more of an effort. But that’s the problem with university clubs, especially the outdoor societies: they’re elitist and insular, indifferent to anyone who isn’t as passionate as them about their sport. ‘You’re friends don’t like me much.’ That’s what he said, after that first walk. I told him it wasn’t true, even though I knew it was. Jerry and the lads all laughed at him. Behind his back, but close enough to be heard. They mocked him for being unfit, for being too scared to go along the ridge to Carnedd Llewelyn. ‘It’s not that far, come on.’ Maybe not too far for them, but it was his first walk. Carnedd Dafydd is hard.
The girls tried a bit, I suppose, but they weren’t much better. No one asked him anything about himself, anything about his music, or what it was like being a DJ. They just talked about mountains, climbing, biking; which summits they’ve ticked off. Anything that didn’t include him. Maybe it wasn’t deliberate, but they could have been more thoughtful. Only Anja, my best friend, made any real effort to get to know him.
Good old Anja.
It was so different when I was with his friends. They were much kinder. They all had that same thought at first, I know – what’s he doing with her? – but they didn’t say it, that’s the important thing. And they included me in their world: the music, the clubs, the drugs . They looked after me, too, always making sure I had a lift to and from whichever club Craig was playing that night. He couldn’t, of course, because once he had loaded up his car with all his precious records, there wasn’t room for me. God, he loved those records. Almost as much as I love the mountains.
And it was wonderful. I adored being one of the cool kids, just for once. I’d never heard of Northern Soul, but Craig told me everything I needed to know. About floor fillers, floaters, the whole history of the scene. It was his dad who had got him into it, and Craig loved it even more. ‘I’m keeping it alive for future generations,’ he always said. And it’s true, people went crazy on those nights, I mean properly crazy. They never left the dance floor, barely even paused for breath, all moving to the music my boyfriend was playing for them. And I was in among them. I’m in with the in-crowd, that was one of the songs he played. Anja loved that one too, once she started coming with us.
We couldn’t always go, of course. He usually played Friday and Saturday nights, and that’s when the society has its big trips away. It wasn’t possible to do both, not every weekend. So if there was a big something important in the calendar, that was it. I wouldn’t always go with Craig.
Correction: I didn’t always go. I could have chosen him over the mountains, if I’d wanted to. So what happened was partly my fault, too. It wouldn’t have happened if I’d always been there. Not so soon, at least, and probably not so often. I should have made the sacrifice. Put Craig first. But I didn’t, so I have to share some of the blame.
Our stone is cold when I eventually sit down. Me too: I’m shivering. It’s chilly, even though the sun is now pushing through the early morning haze. I really do wish I’d made coffee.
It didn’t come as a surprise when I found out. You don’t get unsexy DJs, do you? Even when they’re a bit overweight, like Craig. Drugs, music, girls, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? They swarmed round him even when I was there, so if I wasn’t there… well, what did I expect? I knew he would sleep with someone else eventually, that’s part of why they do it. But as long as he came back to me, I didn’t let myself mind. And he looked genuinely sorry when I found the condom wrapper in his pocket. A different brand to ours.
‘It won’t happen again,’ he said. There was no ‘I promise,’ though.
We still had some good times, even after that. He came with us on a couple more walks, despite the way the others treated him. Not anything big, but he was there on Yr Eifl, on Moel Hebog. At Easter, he even drove us, just the two of us, to the Llyn coast for a weekend away, one when he wasn’t DJing. He’d planned it as a surprise, because I was stressed about my final exams. So he definitely cared about me. I think he even loved me, in a way, but not like I loved him. Not even close.
It was during that weekend away that I decided to propose. It seems ridiculous now, but I really thought it might make him think twice on those nights when I wasn’t there. I thought a ring might rein him in. People said it was too soon, but people always says that, don’t they?
‘You’re too young,’ said Anja.
‘He’s too young,’ said his friends.
‘OK, if you really think it’s a good idea, just be prepared for when he says no,’ said Dad.
Thanks, Dad. Really supportive.
That’s why I brought him back up here. He wasn’t keen on the walk, of course, but I managed to persuade him. I thought it would make it more significant, if I did it in the same place we’d had lunch on our first day together. Here by Ysgolion Duon. I wanted it to be special. I even bought champagne. Actual champagne, not the cheaper stuff. He seemed genuinely pleased when I asked, maybe even a little flattered.
Me? I was relieved. You’re not supposed to be relieved, are you? Only propose when you know they’ll say yes, isn’t that what people say? But as he hugged me, all I could think was that from now on, he wouldn’t sleep with any of the women he met while DJing. Or at least not so often. It’s not the most romantic reason for proposing, now that I think about it.
A fell runner goes by, staring straight ahead. They never look at the floor, do they? How do they not trip? What would happen if she fell up here, all on her own? There’s no one coming up the path behind her.
She could be the last person I see today. No one else is about.
I think I could have lived with it, if it only happened on the club nights, when he was away. I could have turned a blind eye, so long as he always came back to me.
But fiancé and my best friend? I couldn’t ignore that.
I should have realised earlier, of course. I was so, so stupid not to see it. Craig and Anja were always chatting together, or laughing on the sofa when I got home from the library. I was actually pleased, can you believe it? So stupid that I didn’t notice when she stopped coming on the society’s weekends away. Thank goodness one of my friends gets on with him, that’s what I thought. It never occurred to me both of them knew that I’d be away. That they would have the flat to themselves.
I don’t know how long it might have gone on if I hadn’t slipped on Crib Goch. That was another foolish decision on my part. It was too wet; no one else wanted to go out, but I insisted. Only Jerry would come with me, and then only so I wasn’t up there on my own. It wasn’t a serious fall, just bruising, nothing broken, but in the car Jerry said I should go to the hospital, just in case. He was adamant, now I think back, kept going on about it. I didn’t realise he was trying to delay me from getting home. And when he dropped me off, he wouldn’t come inside. He wouldn’t even look me in the eye. So I guess Jerry knew all along, too. Maybe they all did.
I don’t blame Jerry, though. I don’t even blame Craig. It’s not actually all that glamorous, being a DJ in Bangor, playing ancient records in poky little pubs to people the wrong side of fifty. And far less important than he thinks it is. But it’s still more exciting than being the events secretary for a university walking society. And there’s far more glamour in sleeping with Anja than there is with me. She’s funnier, sunnier and much, much prettier. Far more glamorous. So no, I don’t blame him. But I do hate him.
It takes quite an effort to drag the overloaded rucksack to the edge of the vast greyness of Ysgolion Duon. But I manage and, seconds later, Craig’s treasured record collection is crashing down it, each one chiming a glissando as its shatters into a million tiny pieces. Their last musical performance. In among them are fifty-year-old classics and much-sought-after rarities, many of which are impossible to replace. Together, they’re worth close to eight thousand pounds. Craig never tired of telling me how valuable they were, or how long it had taken to put his collection together. I wonder when he’ll notice all the sleeves in his bedroom are empty. Soon, I hope.
And her? We’re no longer best friends, of course. We’re still flatmates, but only because I haven’t found anywhere else to live yet. I’ll move out as soon as I do. I did consider doing the unthinkable, and pushing her off a ledge somewhere. ‘It was an accident, it was windy, it was slippery!’ But I’m not sure anyone would believe me. I doubt she would ever have come out with me, anyway. And it would have been an excessive punishment. Just about.
Still, she’ll miss her bike. That StumpJumper was a twenty-first birthday present from her parents which, by a neat coincidence, also cost close to eight thousand pounds. I don’t expect it will take Bethesda’s teenagers very long to find a valuable, unlocked bike on their patch. Nor will she be able to claim it on her insurance, because I cancelled that yesterday. Never reveal your passwords, Anja. That’s the first rule of online security. Everyone knows that. And don’t sleep with your best friend’s fiancé, either. I thought everyone knew that rule, too.
I lie flat on my stomach to enjoy one last look at the shining fragments of North Wales’ finest Northern Soul collection. There is a tinge of guilt about the mess, but not a huge one. I feel a bit better already. And the sun’s out fully now, so I’ve stopped shivering. I’m feeling better all over, in fact. Better than I have in weeks. And with my rucksack now much lighter, I decide to make a proper day of it. I’ll head over Carnedd Llewelyn, down Y Braich and into Capel Curig, where I can finally get my cup of coffee.
Craig will miss those records. He loved them as much as I loved him.
Almost as much as I love the mountains.