Frankie Fey

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 39


Spiritually, if not physically refreshed, satchel under his seat, Frankie marvelled at the amount of forest remaining in such an overpopulated country. The smoothly sealed road soon left the valley and wound up rocky slopes with not a tree or shrub to inhibit the view of distant mountains. Then down and along stony canyons beside pale grey glacial water that roared over huge boulders and rapids. Then more green valleys. The most interesting of the stops was at a waterfall tumbling a hundred metres down rocks into a pool formed by a low dam, in which men stripped to their shorts, splashed, laughing and shouting from the cold. Frankie and his two fellow travellers joined them.

The scene was romantic, a deep cleft in the mountains among dense temperate rainforest trees. Then they were on the road again through more steep-sided valleys with roaring torrents and chalet-type houses on terraces cut into the green grassy or heavily treed sides. A bright pink, beautifully maintained two storeyed house looked as if it might slide in to the river.

The road wound ever upwards and at the top of a bleak, treeless and windswept pass, the State Bank of Sikkim proudly announced that at 12,400 feet this was the highest Branch in India. Beside it was an open market where the most popular garments were heavily padded jackets—an unwelcome reminder of approaching winter. Next to that, an elegant shelter without walls built among the stones and rubble of landslides, had a large and beautiful red and white velvety banner depicting roses, draped across the front. Beyond the valley the world's third highest peak, Mount Kanchenjunga (8,598 m/28,208 ft) rose in splendour among attendant snow-capped mountains that appeared to float under an indigo sky.

Half an hour later they were looking down on a straggling collection of buildings on the far side of a wide stony riverbed. Grey-blue water ran rapidly over rough rocks and boulders. A five storey yellow building and a bright blue similar structure looked odd among the single storey dwellings. The taxi crossed the river on a single lane iron bridge and stopped in front of a four storey white building with what looked like another small house on top, and banners and flags fluttering from poles on the roof. Towering directly above were rocky, snow-covered ridges and peaks. The air was chill. Lachung was only a hundred and twenty-five kilometres north of Gangtok but much higher up the mountains.

The white house was a hostel for trampers, so after a healthy meal and a stroll up and down the village and across the river, Frankie retired to a comfortable warm bed where he shed a couple of tears at being alone again. Sushant was twelve years older than him. They were totally different. It had to end like this, but… every parting is a form of death, he had read somewhere, and it certainly felt like that in the stillness of the mountains so far from home.

The following morning, before setting out along the road that his host assured him led to the mountain trail leading up to Sankturi, he visited a nearby ancient Buddhist monastery containing important engravings that, when he saw them, meant nothing. The hostel owner had seemed surprised that a young man would be heading further into the mountains with only a small satchel, wearing sneakers and an anorak over ordinary clothes, but what was it to him if the mad Englishman never returned?

The rough road led due west through spell-binding natural beauty, rough alpine forests, cleared terraces, canyons and mesmerizing views of snow-covered mountain peaks. But it was not the cosy luxuriance of Gangtok. Here, trees were sparse. Shrubs, and dry tussocky grass failed to conceal the barren rocks beneath. The occasional cottage had a rusting iron roof and tattered flags fluttering from poles. Drunken telegraph poles followed the track. Narrow runnels of water ran down great swathes of bare mountainsides and vast slabs of rock. In a few months all would be covered in snow. A shudder ran through him. He had been stupid to leave his visit so late. But then he wouldn't have met Sushant. He smiled at the way life depended on chance.

He shouldn't have visited that monastery. It had taken far longer than expected and the track he was heading for was further than he'd realised. He should have used a Jeep taxi. After eating the few sandwiches provided by the Hostel and drinking stream water, he trudged on, arriving much later than he had hoped at a collection of stone houses with a walled garden that the hostel owner had told him were opposite the path. They seemed to be abandoned. To Frankie's relief there was a signpost and a well-worn track.

Never had he felt so alone. Silence, apart from the wind that seemed perpetual, and rustling grasses. No other life visible. Frankie shouldered his pack, which, now he was wearing all his clothes against the cold, contained only a small bottle of water and a packet of biscuits. He checked the sign. Algae and lichens were obscuring the lettering but it was possible to make out Sankturi. He heaved a huge sigh. He was on the right track.

After a hundred metres of easy walking, the path rose steeply up steps of large flat stones held in place by smaller pebbles. It was the work of giants; each large flat step would require two or three men to lift, and it looked as if they went right to the top of the mountain! Soon he was high enough to look down on the narrow roadway and tiny houses, already out of breath from the altitude. He pressed on past huge boulders on one side, shrivelled dry yellow and brown desiccated grasses and thorny shrubs on the other. Every now and again he passed a gnarled pine tree decorated with fluttering flags in primary colours tied to strings strung from rock to tree to rock. Most were tatty as if they'd been there a long time. What if this wasn't the right track? What if no one was there? He was much later than he'd planned. It was getting very cold. He should have bought one of the padded jackets beside the bank.

The track, which now appeared to have been chiselled out of the side of a mountain of solid stone, was overhung by the sparse branches of drought-stricken trees whose roots seemed intent on tripping the unwary traveller. To the right, a sublime view across a ravine, triggered alternate waves of exaltation and terror depending on whether he was looking across or down.

The sun was already so low the track was in deep shadow. Clinging for support to a sturdy old pine, Frankie peered down a vertical wall of rock to a turbulent river rushing between boulders hundreds of metres below. Scrubby trees clung to the steep slope on the far side of the torrent, beyond which distant pale blue, snow-capped mountains appeared to float and shimmer in the waning sunlight. One little slip on a loose stone and that would be it.

As he reluctantly turned back to the line of stones marking the apparently endless track skywards, a stone slammed into the side of his head. Shocked and slightly dazed, he looked up in fear, imagining a landslide. Instead, a bony fist continued the work of the stone. He fell, hit his head on a rock and blacked out.

It was dark when he came to his senses lying sprawled across the track; naked, cold, hungry and thirsty. The thieves had taken everything. He rolled over and froze in fear. Unable to move. He was right on the edge of the canyon, along the bottom of which the turbulent stream reflected starlight. Craggy snow-sprinkled peaks supported a sky so clear, so devoid of dust or other pollution and so filled with stars that the constellations were no longer discernable. The entire great void of space seemed pulsating with life and light. But down on the ground for some reason it was too dark to see exactly where he was.

Too terrified to move in case he fell over the abyss, he spent a very long, very dark night of freezing cold that finally ended when someone carrying a heavy load on his back tripped over the shivering obstacle in the middle of the track. With a grunt of irritation the fellow gave Frankie a solid kick in the ribs to make him move aside, then continued on his way.

Frankie woke from his stupor with a shriek of terror. It was just light enough to see the edge of the chasm, so he rolled further away, sprang to his feet and called out. But the pale grey shape of a man plodding up the path might as well have been a wraith. What to do? The stones were sharp on bare feet, the wind was rising and grey clouds were already turning dawn to dusk. The collection of stone hovels at the beginning of the track was at least four hours back and he didn't fancy hobbling all the way back to Lachung naked of foot and body. If he'd been managing three kilometres an hour, then Sankturi would be just beyond the next rise… or the next. Hugging himself and pounding on chest and back to generate warmth, he staggered after the man with the pack until he disappeared into the mist.

Just when he thought he could go no further, blood dripping from torn feet, he arrived at a miserable collection of windowless stone hovels, roofed with broken slate, doors firmly blocking entrance to both cold winds and strangers. About halfway along the row of semi derelict dwellings, the road widened to become a cobbled square in which three women shrouded in rags were filling containers from a trickle of water that fell into a stone trough from a narrow spigot. When they saw Frankie they turned their backs. Opposite, was a stone building that appeared to be a shop; double doors sagging open to a dark interior with a few sacks, bottles and simple foods. Two men were sitting at a rough wooden table just inside the door, drinking from bowls.

Frankie hobbled over to them. They pretended not to see him. In desperation he touched one on the shoulder, only to have his hand viciously slapped away.

'Sankturi?' he pleaded, miming ignorance of its whereabouts.

The other man stared at him for a few seconds then said in a thick accent, voice dripping with hatred, 'American?'

'No!' Frankie whispered. 'Australian.'

The man spat on the ground. 'Same fuckin' thing.'

The first man pointed up the hill, then raised his fist as if to strike.

Frankie staggered away from the misery, poverty and blank eyes of hatred that he knew from his reading of alternative Internet news sites was justified. Mind closed, feet so cold he could no longer feel them, he staggered on into the increasing gale, not realising he'd arrived until his head butted against a grey stone wall. Lacking the strength to even knock at the scarred old wooden door, he sagged onto a seat beside it and stared vacantly into space until the cold roused him enough to pull on a rope attached to a tiny bell above the arched stone doorframe.

The door cracked ajar to reveal a diminutive old man in a loose, rumpled grey garment.

'What do you want?'

'To come in. I'm tired, cold and...'

'Come back tomorrow.' The door closed firmly.

Too dulled to react, Frankie rang again.

This time an older, frailer and even more rumpled old man opened the portal to enlightenment.


His voice quivering from hunger, thirst, exhaustion and cold, Frankie marshalled his forces and attempted civility—difficult when cold, bleeding and naked. 'My name is Frankie Fey and I've booked a place here to discover…'

'Come back tomorrow.'

Door slammed.

What to do? The wind was picking up. He was literally beginning to freeze. He sagged onto the bell. This time it was opened by a tall, powerful, lean man in his sixties who stood with legs apart and arms folded.

'Who are you and what do you want?'

'I'm Frankie Fey!' Frankie whispered pathetically. 'I booked to study here. I…'

'We're busy. Come back tomorrow.'

Defeated, Frankie crawled into a corner as far out of the howling gale as possible. He was hated because his country was the war-mongering lap-dog of the U.S.A. He was tired. Too tired to care. He was going to die of exposure, but somehow it no longer seemed to matter. As he rolled onto his side and curled up, he noticed a flickering light. He crawled towards it. A stout wooden door had been left ajar to reveal a small room with a straw pallet and blanket on the floor, and a three legged stool holding a wooden plate containing a loaf of hard bread and a ceramic jug of water. He eased himself in, closed the door against the wind and relaxed in the silence. The tiny room felt surprisingly warm after the cold. He dragged himself to the stool and washed the bread down with water, wrapped himself in the thick, rough blanket, and decided to return to civilization as soon as he'd warmed up—dressed in the blanket if necessary. If they didn't want him, he certainly didn't want to stay. A minute later he fell into an exhausted sleep that lasted until hunger and a slight noise woke him.

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