Out of the Abyss by Louise Mangos

I’m making chicken broth with a leftover carcass when I think I hear a knock at the front door over the roar of the steam extractor. I wipe my hands on the dishtowel tucked into the waistband of my jeans and come out of the kitchen to check. I hear the scrape of the pot on the step outside; someone must have knocked it with their foot. I hurry down the hall, expecting to answer the door. But it bangs open before I get there and I look up in surprise.

You know that thing when you plunge your foot into a steaming hot bath, and there’s a split second when you can’t work out whether the water is freezing cold or scalding hot? A muddled connection of brain synapses conveys many conflicting messages. It’s the same when Harry walks through the door with the key from under the pot in his hand. That ice-hot moment.

Because he’s supposed to be dead.

And he clocks it. That split second. The bathtub moment. The moment when I have no idea how I should feel.

After a rift in time, guilt presses down on me for not immediately rushing to Harry and throwing my arms around him. There’s an instant when I’m not sure whether I’m pleased to see him or not. And as though I’ve stuck my whole head into a scalding bathtub, the blood that I felt draining from my face only moments ago rushes back with hot shame.

You see, I’ve already mourned his loss. It’s what partners of climbers like him are told to expect. I’ve been through the motions of quashing my emotions. Forced myself to lance the bubble of grief and sob until I thought my chest would burst.

I’ve already cried Harry right out of my heart.

He swings his grubby pack off his shoulders and it drops to the floor. The hopeful smile flickers from his face. His eyes dart sideways, as though he expects someone else – a lover maybe – to come into the hallway from the snug.

Now he’s here in front of me, I can’t work out what I’m supposed to feel.


The tragic news came five weeks ago on the phone. I remember the handset clattering to the floor, Sonja’s voice squawking, tinny from a distance.

‘Harry’s copped it.’

That’s how Sonja put it. The brutal slap of this announcement created bewilderment at first. But then her message was perfectly clear. Harry’s gone.

I sank to the floor, sweeping the back of my hand across my forehead and reached for the phone with Sonja still calling ‘Gemma? Gem?’ As I lifted the phone to my ear a primordial wail escaped my mouth.

‘Gem, stay where you are. I’ll be right over.’

A click, a hum, and loneliness was suddenly delivered to me. At the time I considered this would be a life sentence. I pushed myself off the floor, and wandered down the hallway to my bedroom. Our bedroom. I lay down on Harry’s side, trying to suck up his essence through my own corpse-like body. His side of the bed was cold. The spirit of him, even then, was long faded. I peeled away my clothes, climbed under the cover and pressed my back into the mattress. The room grew colder, darker.

Fury eventually took over from the shock, and the drag of my gut forced me to the bathroom. As the rising bile settled, I turned the tap on the shower, stepped into the tub and stood under the warm jet of water with my face turned into the flow.

‘Gem? Gem?’

I heard Sonja, like a voice on the telly in another room. The front door slammed, and moments later she came into the bathroom.

‘Oh God, Gem, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have told you over the phone. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.’

I wanted to tell her to shut up. Surely I felt worse than she did? It was quite unnecessary to have both of us in that steamy room feeling so wretched.

‘It’s okay, Sonny, it’s okay,’ I said, as though Sonja was the one bereaved.

The two of us stood holding each other, Sonja’s clothes drenched, both of us sobbing, tears and snot mixed with hot water pounding on us from the shower.

Harry’s gone.


Sonja works in the booking office at the Mountaineering School. She told me she’d taken the call from the expedition leader in Mendoza. A misplaced axe on the Polish Glacier. The slip of a crampon on an outcrop of ice. A loose peg on the wall of a crevasse. And a slithering line of climbing rope snaking silently into the dark blue depths. A split second of slow motion, apparently, and Harry fell like a rag-doll into the fissure, a surprised ‘whoops!’ his only comical comment as he must have realised his demise, too late. It was the last word his climbing colleagues heard from him on the brink of the crevasse.

‘Did they look? Did they climb down? What if he’s still down there, injured, unconscious, but still needing help? Oh my God, Sonja, how do they know he’s dead?’

‘Ian said no one could have survived the fall. They estimated the crevasse was a thousand metres deep at that point. He and Alan climbed down a couple of hundred metres, but they couldn’t find him, couldn’t see anything, no sign. He’s gone, Gem.’

‘Holy shit. They just left him there? My Harry.’

‘They had to leave. A storm came up. Heavy snow and strong winds. They had the route set out for the descent with lines and pitons and had to get the others out before everything was hidden by the blizzard. They couldn’t hang around, as it was such high altitude. They weren’t able to return for three days. Alan stayed at base camp, but Ian took the others down. Alan and one of the trackers went back, but… it’s horrible I know, Gem. There’s no body, nothing physical.’

There’s this physical pain! I wanted to scream.


Harry stands there in the hallway. Alive. The lightbulb over his head turns his dark curls into a blond halo. Dust floats above him like fireflies. For another moment I am rooted to the spot, mouth agape, before rushing to hug him.

‘Oh my God, I thought you were dead!’

I squeeze hard, then ease off, unsure whether I should be favouring an injury, broken ribs or bruised organs. His hands tentatively touch my shoulders.

‘I thought I was dead too. I lost consciousness when I hit a ledge halfway down. I don’t know how long I was out.’

‘Jesus, Harry! How could they leave you behind, not knowing whether you were still alive?’

‘I would have done the same. The safety of the group was paramount. You can’t blame them. A storm came. They had to leave. The others would have been jeopardised. It was a miracle I still had my ice axe strapped to my wrist. Look, I’m really tired. Can we just…?’

‘Oh, Christ, of course. Here, come in here.’

It’s as though I’m inviting a guest into the snug. An old family friend, or the insurance assessor (the life insurance assessor, I think briefly – his appointment is on my calendar). I sweep my hand in front of me, show Harry the way, forgetting he’s walked through the snug door a thousand times.

The smell of boiling chicken bones in the hallway is overpowered by the scent of lilies in the snug.

‘They’re a bit cloying. I meant to get rid of them. They’ve lasted weeks. The climbing school sent them,’ I pause. ‘They’re for you. Or in memory of you.’

I have the urge to fill this strange space between us with words.

‘Gemma! I’m here… It’s me. Through a rare miracle, I got out of that crevasse. Look at me.’

Harry has tears on his cheeks. It doesn’t compute. I’ve never seen him cry.

‘I can’t believe it,’ I whisper. ‘I can’t believe it’s you.’

As I hold him tight again, I feel a sob shake in his chest. Is he crying because he’s overwhelmed to see me? Or does he feel it too? That static distance between us, like the two walls of his glacial sarcophagus.

Later, after he’s slugged a cold beer, eaten my soup, shaved and showered, we cling to each other in bed until we are emotionally spent, physically exhausted.


I open my eyes in the night, but don’t yet recall that Harry is lying beside me. I think I’ve awoken from an erotic dream. And then I realise the heat and dampness are real between my legs. And then I feel him, although we aren’t touching. I’m aware of his muscular body lying next to me in the dark, filling the silence. And because he’s so quiet, I know he’s awake, his exhaustion probably not enough to quash his disturbed circadian cycle.

I’m lying in the middle of the mattress, the place I’ve become accustomed to sleeping over the past weeks, and when Harry takes a deep breath, I remember. I remember he is back from the dead.

I shift onto my side, giving him room, and then roll back to the centre to place my head on his shoulder, his solid deltoid muscle rising and falling gently with the movement of his breath.

‘Why didn’t you call?’ I whisper, my voice almost an accusation.

He strokes my hair.

‘When I was with the native family, the only person with a mobile phone was one of the uncles in the village. I couldn’t ask him to sacrifice his precious minutes on a pre-paid card to make an international call. I figured I’d wait until I got to Mendoza. Then things moved so quickly. I thought the trekking company would contact you through the travel agent. They managed to get me on a flight to Santiago immediately. I hadn’t expected that, thought I would have to wait for a regular flight to Buenos Aires. Then, I don’t know, in Chile I fell into this daze, and assumed someone would have told you I was on my way. I had no phone, no money. I had to get temporary travel papers from the embassy. Didn’t think to check with them. I just had my flight tickets. Amsterdam. Here.’

‘I could have been prepared. This is all… I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but it’s all such a shock.’

Harry throws the covers back and climbs out of bed, combing his dark curls with his fingers. He rummages in his pack, pulls out his dirty clothes, and pads to the kitchen. I hear him load the washing machine, pull out the soap draw and tap in a cup of laundry detergent. A strange task to perform in the middle of the night. I have a few clothes in the drum too, ready to wash. The faint sound of water running into the machine masks his footfalls back down the hallway.

He comes into the bedroom and the silhouette of his body passes in front of the pre-dawn indigo square of the window. A small thrill runs through me seeing his naked body, the length of his back, and the tautness of his thigh. I feel like a teenager sneaking a one-night-stand.

‘I can’t sleep, Gem,’ Harry says as he climbs back into bed, his hands falling onto my body. ‘What can we do with this jetlag?’ I hear the smile in his whisper.

The washing machine’s monotonous hum and squelch far off in the kitchen fills the silence of his kiss. A zipper on a pair of jeans pings repetitively against the glass as the drum turns. I envisage the twisted union of our garments, sleeves and legs wrapped around each other.

I pull him towards me, into me. Hungry for a fantasy. I wonder if I could get used to this.

Tomorrow we can talk about it. Tomorrow we will face the truth. In the meantime, I shall enjoy this gift.

Never knowing whether this time will be the last.

Before he has to move back into the abyss.

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