At 20, I left Northampton with an A6-sized political map of Europe, and hitchhiked onto the ferry, where I paid for chips but filled myself on ketchup. After unloading, I slept for five hours at the edge of a field—my first-ever night alone—then stuck my thumb out at first light. I arrived at the tiny village of La Palud sur Verdon at the end of a summer’s day just as two of my friends were coming down the main street on their way back from the crag.
“The eagle has landed!” Paul called out to me. I hadn’t seen him in seven weeks and we hugged each other.
Hang on. What year was that? Reebok trainers, thin legs, tattered wool. Sportiva Megas, double ropes and long hair. Sometime late 1980s. Society hadn’t cottoned on to climbing yet but hippies had. There were really only two sport crags in Europe—the only two crags that weren’t alpine—and they were Verdon for adventure-chasers and Buoux for number-chasers. The usual procedure was to stick it out as long as you dared in Verdon, then head over to Buoux to relax and punch your grade up.
Paul led me to the campsite where my old friends, a little Irish cadre, cheered me a great welcome. We strew out about the tents and right away the banter began.
“How was the hitch down?” someone asked.
“Fantastic,” I told them.
“Any action off men in fast black cars?” (We had all heard the stories about Continental drivers looking for “payback” for rides.)
“Just the one, a Dutchman,” I told them. “But he was a perfect gentleman to me afterward.”
“Oh, yes, took you home to meet his mother?”
“No. He kept her in the trunk.”
I met some new Irish climbers, saw a few old acquaintances and shook a bunch of hands. I sat in the golden short-trousered evening enjoying the scene and feeling for the first time in weeks that I was in some sort of bosom. All the while my friends called over passers-by and made fun of them. The passers-by all seemed to enjoy this. My group had already acquired a campsite-wide reputation for eccentricity and I felt welcomed as a peer.
Paul cooked me a quick dinner involving, exotically, a courgette, then alcohol took control and led us towards the small village. A fitful evening followed: an arcade game, red sauce, a raised voice, and a quiet road out of town.
Next morning the heat was soon unbearable and by 9 a.m. we were sitting on chairs and looking at our feet. I knew if I waited long enough it would happen, and eventually a cup of tea arrived in my hand. This revived me some and soon talk turned to the fact that we were going to have to go climbing.
“Here comes Howard,” Paul said.
Howard, who was staying at the other campsite with his girlfriend, strolled over to the group. He had a car and was driving to the crag in 15 minutes if anyone wanted a lift. Paul immediately bagged a ride for the two of us.
Howard cast an eye over us all.
“Did you have yourselves a riot last night?”
“More of a war, Howard.”
“Looks like you lost it.”
“Haven’t you ever heard of a tactical defeat, Howard?”
He grinned. “I’ll bring my car around to the gate at 10. If you make it that far you can have a lift.”
He mooched off.
Wow! I’m off to the Verdon Gorge.
That meant packing climbing gear from the mess around us. I dropped what I could find into my rucksack, which was soon stuffed. I lay down and saw Paul come back from the toilets and pack his own bag. He folded his quickdraws and put them into the sack. He then placed his boots and chalk and some water on top of them. He folded his rope in two and slotted it in. He pulled the drawstring at the top of the sack and toggled it tight. He then drew the string around the nylon extension and cinched that tight too. He folded the lid of the rucksack over, clicked the straps into their buckles and drew them each individually to a certain tension. He then tousled the lid to seat it straight and turned around to look at me.
Isn’t it funny how different we all are.
“Come on,” he said, “we better go. Howard’s there.”
He swung up his rucksack and led off. I grabbed mine in my hand and followed him.
Someone hailed us from the corner of the field.
“Hi, you two!”
We looked over. A figure waved to us from a group of tents.
“It’s Gerry,” Paul said. He said Gerry in a slow Irish/Texan accent, an amplification of the drawl Gerry affected. He had hung out for a bit at our tents the night before. We trooped over and said hello. Gerry introduced me to his three companions, all of them girls, sitting on very low camping stools. All had little empty coffee cups.
Gerry had grown up in our same area but he wasn’t quite part of our group. We liked him well enough but didn’t quite gel. He was a little bit older and while there were people amongst us who were older than Gerry, the spirit was very young. His upbringing had been like our own, but he had moved away somewhere and had had his edges worn off and replaced with new ones. Around his ankles were some beads and he had a small Kathmandu shoulder bag with him always. He knew women.
The worst thing I could say about him is he was too cool.
“Were you boys naughty last night?” he asked, in his slow voice.
The girls were looking at me and I looked down at them. I felt myself being stared at. My spirit was not yet awake and I was feeling quite tender. The phrasing of Gerry’s question made me feel childlike and silly.
“Well, you know the way it is yourself, Gerry,” I said, hoping for the lifeline of common humanity. I waited.
“He’s a funny man,” Gerry said, addressing the girls, loudly enough to make me think that one or more of them did not speak English as their first language.
“Tells good jokes,” he added.
The girls all nodded appreciatively towards Gerry. I had told some new gags the night before, although I had noticed that they often left Gerry lukewarm. I began to feel uncomfortable.
“Tell us a joke,” Gerry said.
“Yay, jokes!” said a girl on the left in bare feet.
I didn’t want to tell a joke. If I did and everybody laughed, would Gerry get a round of applause? I got the sense that he was trying to gain from me somehow in the girls’ eyes. I felt that I was being used.
They looked on; they wanted a joke.
For some reason, at quiet stops on my hitchhike down, I had been thinking about an old joke from my childhood. An odd joke it was, and so bad that I had eventually decided that it was actually a very early example of postmodernism. I tripped straight into it.
A boy and his mother go into a department store and the mother asks the shopkeeper if he has any monogrammed handkerchiefs for her son.
I scribed the letter M onto the palm of my left hand to be sure the girls weren’t wondering what monogrammed meant.
“Yes, certainly, madam, what letter?”
“Let me see.”
He pulls out some hankies but says, “Sorry, madam, we don’t have any S’s.”
“Ah, that’s OK,” she says. “Come on, son, we’ll try somewhere else.”
This being a fairly structured joke, the scene is repeated twice more in different shops. Gerry and the three girls were still with me and the one of them on the far right, who if not for her dreadlocks would have been quite pretty, was oscillating her head in a generally encouraging manner. I saw Paul grinning on the sideline, one hand cocked on his hip. I rejoined the action in the third shop.
The assistant searches and searches and eventually says, “Sorry, madam, I’ve looked everywhere and we don’t have any S’s.”
“Oh, well,” she says. “Come on, Shuie, we’ll try somewhere else.”
Paul immediately burst out a laugh and I joined him. I stood in mock acceptance of the crowd’s appreciation even though there was none. Written over their faces was the question, Was that it? But I had clearly stopped talking. I deliberately wore an idiotic smile.
You see, it’s the strangest joke. The thing is that Shuie was what some people in my hometown, Derry, called people whose name was Hugh. So if she calls her son Shuie, then the first letter isn’t S, it’s H. And the joke is that this woman was so stupid she didn’t know that it begins with H.
I looked expectantly at Gerry, who felt forced to join us in a laugh. The girls turned their inquisitive gaze towards him for an explanation. Gerry? Still making out I’d scored a blinder, I shouldered my rucksack, nodded c’mon to Paul, and with some aplomb said goodbye to the girls and Gerry.
We left Gerry to it and as we started away I heard him falter into an explanation. The funny thing was that Gerry didn’t grow up in Derry, he grew up in Strabane, which was 11 miles away. And in Strabane they just call Hugh Hugh.
Use me, will he? Paradoxically, it was nice to feel that I was worth using, and I strode off down the campground with new vim.
“Oi, come on,” Paul said.
Howard was waiting at the gate.
“Can’t believe I’m on my way to the Verdon Gorge.”
We got to the car and squeezed in the back seat.
“Take us to the crag, Showard,” demanded Paul.
He elbowed me hard in the arm.
“I haven’t heard that one in years,” he said.
Niall Grimes, “the Grimer,” is from Derry, Ireland, and lives in Sheffield, England. A frequent contributor to Rock and Ice, he is the coauthor with Jerry Moffatt of the memoir Revelations, grand prizewinner at the 2009 Banff Mountain Book Festival.