It is the most dramatic flight path in the world. Four tremendous mountains, feet planted in snowfields, peaks ventilating the sky: Everest, imperious and distinctive, a plume of snow jetting from its crown; Makalu, saw-toothed and threatening even when the sun is shining; Lhotse, a thunderclap of a mountain, its bulk dwarfing its neighbours; and finally the ramparts of Kanchenjunga, stretching as far as the eye can see. The great peaks seem to be just inches from the windows of the small plane crawling across the face of the eastern Himalaya. “Killers,” Zachariah Thomas says to his wife, Julia, “every one of them.” His eyes are riveted on the mountains below. “Hundreds have died on their slopes and yet the climbers keep coming. Oh, I’m not being macabre, just telling it like it is. Wonder if any of them have scored a planeload of passengers yet? You would think that any self-respecting death zone peak would be pretty pissed if it hadn’t knocked an Airbus out of the sky.”
Julia does not reply, possibly because she is not on the plane. She has been gone eighteen months and it was then that Zach’s troubles started. Hammer blows, one after the other, pounding his life into something resembling a coffin. All that needs to happen now is for the lid to slam shut. Perhaps these mountains will do it for him.
As if in response to that thought, the plane encounters a patch of turbulence, shivers in its skin. The pilot’s voice crackles over the speakers, reminding passengers to fasten their seatbelts and stay calm. The man next to him – bearded, overweight, and smelly – starts to pray loudly in French, grasping the crucifix around his neck. Zach glances at him irritably, what better way to go than ramming into a milehigh wall of ice, stone and flying snow at several hundred miles an hour? He puts up with his neighbour’s panic for a minute or two, then leans across and whispers into his ear.
“Relax, mon ami, God’s mighty host will not let this plane fall, I should know, I am quite knowledgeable about angels.” The Frenchman looks at him as if he is mad but he isn’t joking – well not entirely, he does know a bit more about angels than his terrified neighbour, although it would be stretching it to say he can predict how they will behave. The plane sails out of the turbulence, the juddering ceases and the Frenchman smiles vacantly. His teeth are large and yellow.
Zach has always spent a lot of time watching his own thoughts, and has grown even more introspective since his troubles began. He loses interest in his neighbour, begins to brood on the events that have put him on a plane to Bhutan.
Julia (now an imaginary friend) walking out of their Kensington fl at; his mother dying a year later; and then, the last foundation of his seemingly unassailable life beginning to crumble – being told by his boss that the publishing company he has devoted fourteen years of his life to is in deep trouble. So he is on holiday, ironically the only palliative he can think of, he who has always been indifferent to nonsense like work-life balance and holidays – it’s one of the things Julia and he had fought about for the six years they were married. Once the decision had been taken he hadn’t known where to begin, his holidays this far having been taken at the behest of others, usually with him cast in the role of reluctant participant.
All he knew was that he needed to get as far away as possible from London. He had phoned Julia and told her that he was thinking of going to Bhutan after the London Book Fair – he had quite enjoyed himself the only time he had visited the kingdom. He had refused to be pathetic and say what he had actually wanted to – that the reason he had so enjoyed that vacation (if you discounted weekend getaways and visits home, one of only two proper holidays he had taken with her) was because she had been with him. She had thought the call was another of his ploys to get back together. He had told her quite emphatically that it was not, although he could tell she didn’t believe him. It was late at night and she had terminated the conversation quickly after pointing him to a travel website. As he surfed the site he had come across the clincher – Bhutan was the only country in the world that had officially adopted Gross National Happiness over GDP as its chief indicator of progress and prosperity. Just what he needed, he had thought savagely, as he booked flights and hotels, a week among shiny, happy people was bound to annoy him so much it would eject him from the pit of depression, and get him back on his feet again.
The plane banks and touches down abruptly at Bhutan’s only airport – a feat of flying so demanding that only eight pilots are licensed to land on the terrifyingly short landing strip that lies hidden behind a mountain until the very last minute. The Frenchman is predictably terror-struck but Zach ignores him. Once out of the plane into the crisp, clear air of the mountains, he walks across to the airport building and clears landing formalities. The terminal seems to have grown bigger since he was last here, although it is still the smallest he has seen. He is met by the driver of the car he has booked, and after a nerve-wracking ride on roads narrow as rubber bands, which he quite enjoys, they get to Thimphu an hour-and-a-half later.
The capital, a small tidy town, spreads like a rash across the lower slopes of a valley, at the bottom of which runs a clear mountain river over a bed of fl at white stones. The town is in the throes of expansion and Julia would have been upset by the signs of construction everywhere, and by the modernity that has intruded in the form of garish buildings that stand out amid the traditional houses and shops. But for the most part Thimphu seems to have stood up to the onrush of the twenty-first century reasonably well.
He showers, shaves, takes a couple of aspirins for the headache brought on by the altitude, and goes in search of some decent coffee. From memory he knows that the city is not an epicurean paradise, but the travel sites he has searched online are reassuring on the fact that the food, and especially the coffee, in Thimphu has got better. He finds a restaurant that has received good notices and asks the smiling waitress in her dragon-bright kira for a table overlooking the main thoroughfare. He glances at the menu and orders a brownie and a latte. When the order arrives he pulls out a manuscript that he has chosen at random from among three he has brought with him, and attempts to lose himself in the prose style of a writer whom the agent has described as a cross between early Saul Bellow and Martin Amis – which should have been warning enough. The writing is an unholy clash of prose styles of writers the author has evidently admired. Ten pages and he is done. What is it about most debut novelists? Don’t they realize theirs is the best chance any writer could have to make a mark? Don’t they understand that every publisher in the world is looking for the flawless debut, the novel of genius that does not have a dispiriting track record to weigh it down? Why on earth don’t they throw caution to the winds, give their work a great clawing distinctiveness, an irresistible force that will sweep the reader along from the very first page? A cross between Bellow and Amis indeed! This protagonist is no Augie March or John Self commanding the reader’s attention! He resolves not to look at any more submissions from the misguided agent, whom he hasn’t bought anything from in a couple of years anyway, and turns his attention to the dancing policeman outside his window.
He remembers from his previous visit that Thimphu is one of only two cities in the world – the other being Pyongyang, a city that sounds so dire it might be fun to visit – which lacks traffic lights; instead it has policemen who, with movements as smooth and choreographed as those of temple dancers, direct the sparse traffic on Norzin Lam, the city’s main street. As he watches the gloved hands moving languorously in the thickening evening light he wonders how the dancing policeman would fare if he had to regulate traffic on Oxford Circus! Ah, London, how distant it seems. He thinks about his colleagues at Litmus Publishing (“We are the test of a good book
,” the company’s slogan reads), and then tries to put them from his mind. He is here to steady himself, to recover, and he is not going to do that by thinking about Litmus. Through an effort of will he manages to keep out what is waiting for him back home for a few moments but it soon forces its way back in – next year will be the first time in ten years that he will have to meet his budget targets without a new Seppi. In an industry that appears to be dying, to be without the one author who has insulated them from all the ills that the competition has to deal with, is a terrifying prospect. They have nothing on their list that will come close to the 2.5 million copies they sold of his new book in the UK alone two years ago. No new hardback. No movie tie-in edition. Just an A format edition of the last novel. Plus a hundred or so regular books, of which approximately eighty per cent will barely live up to expectations or fail to recover their advance no matter how desperately they massage them into shape, or how vigorously they hawk them to a largely indifferent media or even more indifferent customers. Stop worrying, he tells himself, you are on holiday. And who knows, this might be the place where his luck will turn; maybe he can stick a prayer flag into a mountain top, there to fl utter away madly, sending out entreaties to God that will eventually be answered.