When I slam into the cliff face with the full weight of my body behind me, splaying out and splattering like an unlucky mosquito, I start to think that this may have been a bad idea. My legs are shaking uncontrollably, a fact which I am desperately hoping is not visible from the ground, although I definitely have more pressing things to worry about.
Like not dying.
The white chalk on my hands has turned to sweaty white sludge. I consider wiping it off, and then remember that letting go equals falling, so don’t.
Thinking that it can’t be as bad as it seems, I crane my head around, trying to move as little as possible, and assess the damage.
It’s worse than it seems.
For one thing, I am now on the wrong side of the fissure. For another, I am back below the rocky overhang which took me a good fifteen minutes to scale the first time, and which I will now have to attempt without any blood in my veins, judging by the torrent of red leaking from my left shin.
“Come on Abby!” my fellow climbers are cheering from below me, “you can do it!”
“Yeah, good one Abby,” calls Cody the American, who has been trying to get me into bed for three days. There is a note of panic in his voice, but I choose to believe that he is chivalrously concerned for my safety, rather than looking at my injuries and worrying about contagious blood diseases.
My brother’s voice floats above the crowd. “If you die, can I have your room?”
It isn’t the first time I’ve considered fratricide on this holiday, and for a moment the temptation to launch myself in his direction and crush him is almost overwhelming. But if I miss him I will land on Cody, who will undoubtedly interpret this as some sort of exotic South African mating call. I send down a few Afrikaans swear words instead.
Thailand’s Railay Beach, above which I am currently dangling, is famous for three things: the pristine view, the potency of the Fertility Caves (which I have studiously avoided entering), and the sharp, vertical cliffs that are a siren call to rock climbers.
I am not a rock climber. Actually I’m not an anything climber. Also, I have a cracked bone in my left foot, and – I learn later – the remnants of a concussion, about whose origins we shall not speak. Clearly, I should be safely ensconced in a beach towel, drinking Pina Coladas and trying to avoid skin cancer.
Rationally, I’m aware that rock climbing with fixed lines is considered ‘safe’ by the lunatic powers that be, and that the chances of me actually plummeting to my untimely end are just shy of zero.
Emotionally, I am convinced that I should have made a will before attempting anything as blatantly suicidal as this.
Physically, I think I’m already dead.
I don’t know what makes me keep going, but the deep belief that this is something that I absolutely cannot do hits against something else inside me, something that I didn’t know was there, something very small and very hard and thoroughly immovable. I reach out my left hand, fumbling blindly at the rock until my fingers find a groove. I pull.
And so it goes. Fumble, grip, pull, each time fighting down panic, each time blinking away the sweat sending salt and sunscreen through my eyelashes. After five minutes, I am back over the overhang; after ten, I am back to where I was before I fell. And then I stop.
Here, the cliff opens into a fissure. It isn’t wide enough to pick a side to climb, so to go on I will have to spider climb like a radioactively enhanced superbeing – which I am not.
“I don’t know what to do,” I call down to Li, who is grounding my rope. “Tell me what to do.”
He hasn’t spoken once in all the time I’ve been climbing, but now his face splits and he beams up at me.
“Rest,” he says, simply. “And then I tell you.”
As a rule, I don’t often ‘rest’ whilst clinging to cliffs in forty degree heat, dripping blood onto innocent bystanders and attempting to ignore the dull ache of a broken foot. Looking down now, I’m convinced that even the young, married men being forcefully dragged into the Fertility Cave look marginally more relaxed than I do.
After a few minutes, Li calls me.
“Okay Abby, you go on?”
“Yes,” I call back, aiming for confident but coming in somewhere squeakier.
“Abby,” he says, steady, “don’t climb with your feet. Climb with your mind.”
I take a deep breathe, and then I do. I climb for another ten minutes, past where the fissure closes, past where my arms start to shake, after my fingers start to bleed. And just when I think my mind must surely give up too, I hear my brother:
“Abby, look up!”
And I do, and there is the ring at my left hand, the uppermost point of the climb, the end.
The people watching cheer, my brother whoops, Li laughs. He tells me to look out and up, and I see the ocean fading into the horizon, the tiny islands jutting out like so many mismatched tropical teeth. I hear birds, and waves, and laughter, and silence. I think nothing. I feel my breath in my body in a way that I will later seek in meditation and sensory deprivation tanks, but will never find again.
I should just say that coming down isn’t much easier than going up. My legs are shaking too badly to push away from the rock, so I keep whacking back into it like some perverse swingball set, grazing my hands and pulverizing my shins.
But quite apart from the blood and the skin and the sweat, I leave something else of myself on that cliff, some part of me still at the top, looking across the turquoise water, breathing in, breathing out, resting.