AN ACCIDENT IN THE ALPS, 1928
The following poignant tale comes from English journalist Michael Davidson (1897-1976)’s Some Boys (1969), his memoir of his Greek love affairs.
The text is taken from pp. 19-31 of the unexpurgated American edition (New York, 1971), which in this instance is the same as in the British edition.
IT seems odd when I think of it now — that this very year, the year in which I'm writing, François would be fifty-six years old, or perhaps fifty-seven. For these things happened just four decades ago, in 1928, when he was sixteen; and when I see him in my mind's eye, which I often do, as plainly as if it were yesterday, it's like looking at a very old-fashioned photograph: I see him wearing what in those days were called "plus-fours", breeches bunched below the knee over long stockings; and an old-fashioned short haircut, with a forelock brushed upwards in front like a cock's comb. Even his face seems old-fashioned, like the faces in old school or college groups, looked at forty or fifty years on.
An easygoing, jolly face: not conventionally handsome and certainly not plain; laughing grey eyes with glints of gold in them, like quartz, and a broad, short nose with big nostrils that he loved to fill with the clean, cold air of the high mountains he delighted in. "Là-haut sûr la montagne . . ." — I can hear him singing still his favourite alpine song in that strong boyish baritone, clear and resonant over the silent snowy slopes. How he loved singing! . . . He had wonderful teeth, white and strong as an animal's and a mouth like two pigs of one of those scarlet blood-oranges one sees cut in half on Italian fruit-stalls: full, red, juicy lips that gave his whole fact a look of sensuality. He was tall, though still boyishly slight; and much climbing had given him muscles like steel springs.
François had the strength and agility and aptitude for high altitudes of a mountain goat. He had the lusts of a goat too; there was nobody he wouldn't fuck, or at least have some sort of sex with, if he got the chance. He used to boast to me that when he was fourteen he'd seduced his younger sister, aged twelve; and kept it up with the sister for nearly a year, until she went off to be a maidservant in some hotel at Lausanne. It was he who took me to Rosetta's bar, in a small side street near the Rhone. Rosetta was a limping old woman with a splendid Roman face and one leg shorter than the other her singing was as histrionic as her dramatic features and her much-beribboned guitar—in a voice that would have filled the Scala she sang the Italian songs of that early fascist era — "La Giovinezza" was always in demand — and her small shabby bar was always crowded with people from the fringes of the Geneva underworld. François used to assure me that he had slept a whole night with Rosetta and had enjoyed it very much. Perhaps that was true; I preferred to think it wasn't.
That was a time when all the idealists' hopes, and all the politicians' cynicism, were poured into the new League of Nations, and enormous sums of dedicated money poured into its grandiose buildings in Geneva; and when Stresemann and Briand, over huge mugs of German beer at the Brasserie Gambrinus, might, if they'd been left alone by the Allied politicians, have devised a real European peace. It was a time, too, when the League and its ancillaries were offering a multitude of well-paid and nicely puffed-up jobs to the middle-class unemployed of Europe—the new international bureaucracy was coming into being. I got one of the humbler of these jobs, and that's how I found myself in Geneva in 1928. One consequence, therefore, of the creation of the League of Nations was my meeting one night in the Rue des Alpes with François.
The Rue des Alpes, in those days, had tram-lines running down it and was a principal street between the railway station and the port, whence the steamers set out for points along both the Swiss and the French coasts of the Lake. Half way down the hill, in the middle of the road, stood a shelter for waiting tram passengers: a commodious structure of masonry with a kiosk open deep into the night, where drinks and snacks could be bought. It was, in fact, a place round which various kinds of night-birds used to congregate — not only "birds" in the modern sense, but also local layabouts and, often, young hikers from Germany who, hoping to find work, were first of all looking for food and bed. It was a good spot for making friends — or, better put, for a pickup.
Here too, late at night, waited the adventurous, anarchic adolescents who, unripe yet for grown-up night life, couldn't bear to cut experience short by going to bed; who, held like moths by the bright lights, hung on hour after hour on the chance of something exciting happening. François was like that — always waiting for a thrill; and it was at that noctivagant tram-stop that I met him. François had a key to his grandmother's back-street apartment, which he used merely as lodging and larder — although, as I found, there was an essential attachment, an umbilical affection, which held the two together, the old woman and her only surviving descendant, even though they were scarcely on speaking terms. (He couldn't remember either of his parents what had happened to them he wasn't quite sure.) But "home" — I don't think he'd ever known one: it wasn't "home" at his grandmother's. "Up there," he'd say to me, pointing to the shining white Alpine skyline. "That's where I feel at home. Above the snow-line — my home's there." And when he looked up like that towards the distant mountains, the hard, laughing glint in his eyes seemed to soften.
François despised people who couldn't look after themselves; he used to say that if he couldn't find what labouring jobs he wanted, he'd take to burglary — he could never whine or fiddle for a living, he'd declare, or sell shoe laces shivering in the cold. He was a hefty boy, and enjoyed hefty work. When, that first night, we went to a brasserie and ate a plate of fondu each he wanted to pay; and it was he who bought, ahead of me, the wine we took back to my apartment just off the Rue des Alpes. And while we drank the wine he sang those mountaineering songs whose words or tune or both seemed to turn the rather cynical jollity of his expression into something like happiness —
Là-haut sûr la montagne. . . .
. . . . c'était un vieux chalet. . . .
— this was the song he loved best, though there were other French songs; and one famous one in German he used to try — but, French, as he put it, being the tongue he was born with, German didn't come comfortably:
Auf der Alpe regt ein Haus
Drûben über's Tal hinaus. . . .
But it was "up there" that he was always singing or humming: the term "là-haut" had for him a mystical value. Sometimes, during our times together, I'd suddenly ask: "Where'd you like to be now?" He'd always answer: "Là-haut"; and he'd look out into the high distance. Nearly every weekend, weather permitting, he'd go off, generally by himself, to do some old favourite climb or some exciting new one; he spent all his spare money on fares and provisions, or on keeping his boots in good order.
That night — and many other nights too — we slept in the same bed, and only spent some of the time sleeping. He was always ready for anything, and hugely enjoyed any kind of sensuality; and he gave me, too, a kind of rollicking affection, as if it were a big joke. And yet, loyal and fond as he always was, I often had the feeling he would just as soon be doing whatever it was we were doing with almost anybody else. His mind, or at least his heart, seemed always elsewhere — là-haut, I supposed, in that glittering distilled solitude which was his heaven. Naked, he could have been a model for some sculptor's "athlete"; yet, because of the ridiculously narrow focus of my own sexual nature, he wasn't really my type—too big and brawny, for all his sinewy grace: too mature. Nevertheless, bewitched by his charm and gusto and the warmth of his high-spirited friendliness — and especially, I think, by his uniqueness — I was instantly infatuated.
Looking at him, listening to him, fascinated by him, I felt something of Byron in him: even his face, from its magical charm, acquired a sort of byronic beauty; and I could feel the same rumbustious enjoyment of laughter and singing and robust pleasure — with none of Byron's flaring temper, moodiness or sullen ill-manners. And there was too this sexual catholicity, this zest for everything, including incest. . . .
Soon he was spending nearly every evening with me as a matter of course: we'd go to some brasserie where there was music — French, German or Italian; and François, after two or three décis of wine, would add his rich boy's baritone to their songs, and sometimes get them to accompany him in his own. Or we would spend a long and hectic evening at Rosetta's; and next morning I'd leave hung over for my office long after he had blithely gone off to his labouring job.
Some Saturdays, when we were both free and there was a warm spring sun, we walked northwards along the bank of the Rhône to a small modest restaurant which, almost outside the confines of the town, seemed from the wall of its terrasse to hang right over the swift flow of the river. Here we'd eat trout or roast duck and drink a great deal of the fendant of Vallais, a pale golden wine, clean and clear and sharp as crystal: free of acid but deceptively light — after two or three glasses, one's every word was witty. We'd watch the great birds of prey, some fish-eating eagle or falcon, glide on a huge span of wing above the current and suddenly drop to the surface for a snatch. And then we'd walk back a little uproariously, along the river bank, François' singing accompanied by a good deal of histrionic gesture, and his voice echoing back from the buildings across the water. . . .
And soon what I'd been dreading would happen, did; he began insisting that I must come climbing with him — next weekend, the weekend after that, the first fine weekend, we would go he would take me up on the Saturday to a "refuge" where we'd sleep; and at crack of dawn we'd be on our way up, up — là-haut . . . up beyond the snowline. I told him I was no mountaineer, that I'd done no climbing, that I'd only be a nuisance to him, that I hadn't got the right boots or anything. . . . It didn't matter what I said; he wouldn't listen to any objections: the more he talked the keener he became—now all his happiness, all his pleasure, depended on his leading me up, on his showing me his mountains. I knew I wouldn't be able to disappoint him; and I knew I was too much of a coward to tell him I was frightened of mountains, that I hated heights, that I was a victim of vertigo and couldn't even look out of a second floor window without feeling dizzy.
His heart was set on taking me up some beastly mountain; soon he was talking about our expedition every evening, making plans, working out routes. I told him I was such an ass about climbing that I'd be a disgrace to him and spoil it all by making him ashamed of me. But he wouldn't listen; and said he'd take me on a very easy little ascent — just a lazy walk up, he said, that any child or old woman could manage. I gave in, of course; but not before making one more protest. "I'm not going to spend money on a special outfit," I said, "boots and so on. And I can't go as I am, can I?" Yes I could, he snapped back, just as I was — hadn't I ever gone up an ordinary hill path before? And I'd be so happy up there, he begged — he wanted so much to show me what it was like up there — là-haut; Oh, how could I want to spoil it all for him? When he spoke like that, his grey glinting eyes seemed to flood with excitement. He was right: how could I . . .?
We settled for the coming Saturday, if the weather allowed; and when the morning came we shouldered our rucksacks, full of food and wine and topped with blankets for the night. On the way through the town I stopped at a tobacconist's just taking down the shutters — I wanted enough cigarettes for myself. François despised my smoking — he would never touch a cigarette. "Smoke in your chest up there is like a charcoal stove in a shut-up room," he used to say. "Smoking, you can't breathe the clean air up there."
We went over to the French side of the border — I can't remember now whether we took a bus or crossed the lake by boat. It was a brilliant autumn morning of sharp air and sunlight — there was already snow well down the slopes ahead of us. We spent most of that day walking comfortably, climbing higher and higher; when I looked back over the lake, the steamers were mere specks, like ships seen from a highflying plane. This is easy I thought to myself — what had I been worrying about? François padded ahead as lightly as a mountain bear, and his singing seemed to grow in volume with every degree of altitude.
By the time we reached the resthouse, the air felt near freezing. Inside, we found a few others there already; before long, what with warmth and food and an exquisite exhaustion medicated with plenty of drink, I had become an enthusiastic mountaineer. This is the life for me, I thought! And the more wine I drank, the more melodious the singing of several songs at once seemed. And pure happiness came when François, the rest having warbled themselves into a torpor, could sing alone: "Là-haut, sûr la montagne. . . ."
I whispered to him: "We can't sleep together. . . ."
"Of course we can!" he said almost angrily. "Mais bien sûr — je m'en fous des autres!" What indeed did he care about the others? When François was excited and happy, he didn't care two cents what the whole world thought of him.
We couldn't take our clothes off; but we lay tightly close under our two blankets; and his kisses, up there on the mountain side, seemed to have more behind them than I'd known before. It was the mountain, I think, that he was kissing. . . .
And I had drunk far too much wine. I was to realize that again next morning.
* * *
It still seemed fairly easy going next day; though I was feeling hung over and nervy, and my heart was thumping a bit. But I kept going, determined to earn his approval—or anyway escape his jeers. There was still something of a path, with a good deal of scrambling up what seemed some pretty steep places — but I thanked heaven I could still look back without feeling dizzy. We came to snow, sparkling like tinsel under the sun; and the sparse trees were like frosted fretwork. Then all at once I was aware of a thing I'd never really thought of before — an absolute soundlessness, so extraordinary that it was almost as assertive as noise: at ordinary earthly levels there's always some sound in silence — the tiny ignored notes of birds, the rustling in the undergrowth; but here in this unearthly world there was nothing: we were beyond the bird level — we were in a bloodless, bodiless, abstract world where nothing lived but ourselves: I felt like a trespasser in some exquisite preserve of refrigerated death. Our little petty human voices sounded sacrilegious — until suddenly the whole mountain, the whole of heaven, became filled with François's singing, which seemed to roll for ever and unending over the snow and up to the peaks above and to have a purity of sound which I felt I'd never heard in a voice before. "Là-haut, sûr la montagne," he sang, ". . . c'était un vieux chalet. . . ." The sun was blazing down now, hot as in summer; and suddenly he began to tear his clothes off, even his boots and stockings; and then he was prancing and dancing in the snow, stark naked shouting and singing, leaping and pirouetting, like a gloriously crazed satyr. Next minute he was rolling in the snow, burying himself under it, pulling handfuls of it over his whole body like a child burrowing in the sand at the seaside. I felt quite mad the sparkling cold loveliness of this suspended world, the deathly soundlessness except for his echoing and empyreal melody, the stainless beauty of that perfect prancing nude, capering ecstatically in the snow in a kind of Bacchic, yet immaculate, rapture — it was enough to drive a man made of plumduff dotty. It was as if we'd suddenly reached Olympus, instead of a minor mountain in the neighbourhood of Mont Blanc — and he there, the possessor of that divinely white body, was an immortal, one of the gods — perhaps Dionysus, the boy god himself. Later, when I felt fairly sane again, and when François had put on his clothes and we were plodding upward through the snow, the ground rising ever more steeply, I thought that really I'd always sensed something of the nature of Pan in him, something half divine and half demonic: something fantastic that seemed to make him more than mortal — immortal in fact. It was, anyway, quite absurd to connect a being so vibrant and vital, a creature so manifestly akin to the sun and the stars and the firmament, with death or even the dismal approach to it: how could a boy so joyously and radiantly young even grow older?
The ascent, for me at least, was becoming difficult; and suddenly we came to what surely must be a full stop: there was obviously no getting up the sheer, flat wall of rock as high as a good-sized house at whose foot we had arrived.
"Well, what do we do now?" I asked. "You won't get me up there."
“It's easy,” he said: “you just follow me.”
"Mais, dis-donc, mon petit, ne blagues pas, toi! C'est une muraille"—une muraille, I repeated, a bloody great wall as tall as a prison.
He looked at me as if I were a sulky child. "Pas de bêtise—you've got handholds and footholds all the way up, easy as walking up a ladder. Simply watch me and you can't go wrong. Why, an old woman could climb this!" And he started up, climbing patiently, in slow motion, so to speak; carefully showing me every move and looking back to make sure that my fingers and feet were exactly following his. It was then, of course, that my hangover came back to me: I began to sweat, and feel slightly sick; and I knew that if I looked down for an instant I'd be stuck. François was infinitely unselfish and forbearing: not nagging at me, nor laughing; but gently, gently, advising and encouraging. In this way we arrived about halfway up, or a bit more: I suppose I had some ten feet yet to go above me, and a twenty-foot drop below. And suddenly I knew I'd had it: the climb hadn't become any more difficult — I simply couldn't move, up or down. I wanted to be sick; my tongue felt twice its size and horribly dry.
"François," I called, or tried to call — my voice seemed to have seized up — "je n'en peux plus. I can't do any more." He looked down at me expertly, weighing the situation: "Go down then, if you can't come up. Go down the way we came." I shook my head, gazing steadily upwards: I knew if I looked down I should fall. "Stay where you are then," commanded François, "and don't move. Stay just as you are till I come back." He seemed to run up the face of the "muraille" like a cat, and vanished over the cliff-edge at the top.
I don't know how long he was gone: it seemed eternity. My fingers were hooked—the most feeble, brittle, of grappling irons — into two tiny crevices; the tip of my toes perched on ledges that felt more and more tiny every instant. I still wanted to be sick; and I had a feeling I wouldn't be able to swallow next time I wanted to. Even at this distance of time I can remember almost every detail of those minutes of terror, waiting for François's return. I kept my head tilted upwards — partly because I was terrified of looking downwards, even by mistake; and partly because all existence and the world's whole destiny seemed to depend on my first glimpse of François' face peering over. I could feel the strength running out of fingers and toes like blood out of an artery — I knew I couldn't hang on much more, and that my only hope was to put every ounce of my consciousness into my hands and feet, to play a game of willing that they kept hanging on.
And then François came, with a rope — God knows where he'd got it: but just then, to me, François was God. He came down in seconds, and fastened the rope round me; then he was up top again, and hauling; and with this blessed, this divine, support I could help myself up by ledge and handhold.
At the top I was sick. "I'm sorry — but I told you I would let you down. I'm sorry I've disgraced you. Now I'm going to do worse — I'm going back to the resthouse." He showed me where the refuge stood away below us, and how to take the long way round to get down to it. Then he went striding off through the snow again towards the craggy pinnacle he was bent on climbing that day ("it's a child's climb," he'd told me). I hung about through the afternoon, waiting for him and feeling what a worm I was — I had let François down. Towards evening he came back; I could see he was happy in himself — the happiness of one who'd done what he'd set out to do.
"I'm sorry, François," I said again as we walked down; "but la muraille made me ill: it nearly killed me." He shrugged: "You didn't try."
We reached Geneva late that night, and after a silent supper went to bed. He was healthily tired, content with his own exertions, and told me to shut up about "la muraille," as I called it — I had nightmares about it.
The memory of my terror and my silliness, clinging that day to the face of "la muraille," has often given me a nightmare in these last forty years. But within a few days of that unlucky weekend, we were both treating my experiment in mountaineering as a joke; and we were both referring to the whole expedition, and to that cliff of rock, as "la muraille"; and even the two or three boys he called "mes copains"— he had no close friends — got into the habit of calling the spot "la muraille." A week or two later I had to go to Berlin where I stayed a month or so; I sent François three or four picture-postcards, and gave him an address; but no word came from him. No word ever came from him again.
He knew what day I'd be back: I thought he would be sure to come that same evening — I even hoped he might be at the station to meet me: it would have been so like him to work out the trains from Berlin and the connection from Basle. But he didn't come at all. For several days he didn't come, and I began to worry a lot. After nearly a week I made up my mind to track down the grandmother's apartment, although he had never allowed me to go near it. But that evening, in the rue des Alpes, as I was passing the tram stop where I'd first met him, I ran into two of the copains.
"Where's François?" I asked, "I haven't seen him." They looked at their feet, and took a long time over lighting cigarettes, and shuffled about as sheepishly as young people do who aren't certain of their ground. "Tiens — you don't know —?"
"Don't know what? What is it —?"
"You haven't heard — the accident —?"
If I hurried them, I felt, if I wasn't very careful, I'd start screaming out loud. "Accident? What — what happened?"
"He'd gone to help somebody: he was roping somebody up and somehow — I don't know just what happened — something gave, and François was pulled over."
I couldn't speak. I could only wait for the finish of the story. They puffed laboriously at their cigarettes, and looked everywhere but at me.
"His neck was broken. At the bottom of la muraille."
* * *
Now, so often, forty years after, I hear that echoing voice, "Là-haut, sûr la montagne. . . ." and I'm haunted by the stainless beauty of that perfect prancing body in the snow; and I remember asking myself how a boy so joyously and radiantly young, could ever grow older. . . .