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Brothers of the Rope

Two years before he was murdered and four decades before he died, my twelve-year-old brother Charlie and I went to Chudleigh Rocks with a brand-new rope bought for me by our dad. ‘Be careful,’ dad said when he dropped us off at the end of the track. I promised him we would be, but fearless at sixteen I had other priorities: I wanted to lead my first climb.

We followed a winding path through trees and dense thickets of brambles until the ground became up-ended. Scrambling down rocks smoothed by the passage of countless climbers before us, we arrived at the foot of a partly quarried cliff. It was dank and grey and forbidding. Water wept from solution pockets, empty eye sockets weeping, and while we prepared for the climb they seemed to watch us with a Tolkienian foreboding.

Charlie glanced up from the ground where he crouched, all teeth and eyes and uncertainty, while I lapped 120 feet of white hawser-laid coils across the root of a tree to keep them out of the mud. There was always mud here in the shade of the trees; black, peaty mud that the fickle Devonshire sun failed to prevent from sticking to our shoes and whatever else touched it.

'Whatever you do, don't stand on the rope. Otherwise, you'll die.'

'Why die?' asked Charlie.

'Because if there's a sharp stone underneath it, it'll cut into the rope and when you fall it will break and when it breaks you'll die.'

His eyes saucered before shrinking to suspicious slits and he made a sound that fell short of a laugh. 'Mum and dad would be cross. You've got to look after me.'

'Sure, Charlie. I'll look after you.' I grinned in reassurance. 'You're gonna love climbing.'

I tied the new rope around his waist and the other end into my new harness and showed him how to belay me by holding the running rope through his left hand and around his back to his right, with a twist around his trailing forearm for added friction. He practised the technique while I pulled on the rope, then I gave him a nod and stepped up to the cliff.

The warm autumn day was kind on the fingers as they searched for something to pull on, feeling the cool grey limestone for edges and dimples and probing the depths of water-eaten pockets still damp from earlier rain. A few metres above the damp black earth I gained a ledge. At last there was somewhere I could stand without a muddy boot threatening to skid off the glassy rock. I looked down at Charlie, seeking reassurance that he was unqualified to give. He showed me his buck teeth.

At the top of the six-story high climb I tied myself to a tree and leaned over the cliff in the sunshine while Charlie waited in the cool shade of the trees below, stomping his feet in the sticky black earth. I told him to let go of the rope because I was safe, and while Charlie climbed I pulled on the rope to keep it snug around his waist, to keep him safe.

Charlie was my little brother. I’d promised to keep him safe but life took me away from him. He climbed a bit with others, though not for long; he went climbing to keep up with me, not because he enjoyed it. Climbing, you see, was dangerous. But for Charlie, the real danger lurked much closer to home.

Last week we did our last climb together. It was on Haytor, a Dartmoor beauty spot within eyesight of Chudleigh Rocks. This time we had no rope or other climbing equipment. During a brief respite in the rain I led off in my walking shoes, hands tender on the crystalline granite, the wind tugging as I dithered over an awkward move. Five years of no rock climbing and I was out of touch with what was possible. I thought about backing off, but I didn’t want to let Charlie down. Our last climb couldn’t be a failure. With Charlie’s hand on my back, I committed myself, pulled through the move and found good holds higher up. We continued to the top of the tor and stood together, braced against the breeze, looking down towards Chudleigh where we'd first climbed together nearly half a century before.

Our three sisters, Glyn, Penny, and Lucy were waiting for us at the foot of the rocks. We gathered around Charlie and hugged and cried and laughed at our memories of him. Then we took him from my backpack and gave his ashes to the wind.

Charlie Bell 15/04/1963 - 02/09/2018


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