Sea Level: An Excerpt


Part One – Mountains

Ever since they proved the world was round it has played a cruel trick. You can travel as far as it is possible to travel – to a remote Pacific island say; say Tonga or Ruatua – and then you decide you are still not far enough from England, so you take another step, to Indonesia, say, or New Guinea, and you are not farther but nearer. As you extend your flight, you return. As you put everything into your escape, you are recaptured. It makes me bad tempered this refusal of progress by the world.

My father did not travel, so I travel. When he was a young man he twice visited Dieppe. In his fifties we took a package holiday to Austria, but soon after he had his first heart attack and did not attempt travel again. In any case, being out there, away from England, away from his women, made him nervous and anxious to return. Distance scraped away his skin, leaving him exposed to pain. Later, when I started leaving England, he was full of admiration for my hardiness and pleased for me that I was not like him.

I’ve gone as far up the valley as it is possible to go. From Mastuj there is a pass going east to Gilgit, but the snows are too deep now. I could borrow the Aga Khan’s helicopter, which he uses to reach the impoverished Ishmailis, but last week it landed on the fragile snow above a chasm and was wrecked. The four-wheel-drive is useless now, and although I am informed that there are yaks in the neighboring villages, no one knows how to hire them. The trail north is even higher and more difficult, though I believe it joins up with the silk route from Persia to China and the mujahedin still use it. Or I could follow the river down to Afghanistan, but this would be troublesomely dangerous, and why should I? I’ll go back the way I came. There’s nothing up here anyway.