The National, 17th of August 2018.
By the time you read this, Martin Jones will have scaled at least 4,536 meters of elevation. That’s three and a half Ben Macdhuis. In excess of four Shiehallions. Eighteen Arthur’s Seats. Half an Everest. And Everest is the goal. Over the next three days, Martin will traipse from Puck’s Rest in Dunoon to the apex of the Bishop’s Seat nine more times, topping the world’s highest mountain off at 8,848 metres without having troubled a yak, recruited a Sherpa, or having left Argyll and Bute.
You may be wondering what these labours of Sisyphus are in aid of. Almost two years ago, tragedy of almost impossible proportions struck in the lives of Martin and his wife Sam. Martin is a law colleague at Glasgow Caledonian University. He is one of the most decent men I know. You wouldn’t wish what happened to him on your worse enemy – but somehow Martin’s essential goodness made the events of Tuesday the 30th of August seem unfathomably crueller.
Tuesday the 30th began as an ordinary day in Innellan in the Cowal peninsula. Like any other ordinary day, Martin and Sam sent their kids off to school. Their eldest – Olly – was a bright wee boy of twelve, full of green sap. Like his old man, a soul of the outdoors, a Liverpool fanatic. And that afternoon, having stepped from the school bus, Olly was swept away. A tanker, a small body – and he was gone.
All the clichés are true. You know tragedies happen. The news where you are is always a story of malice or disaster sweeping some poor soul off their feet. But when tragedy stretches out its fingertips and touches your life – the initial effect is pure disorientation. I recently found a note I wrote at the time, as the bleak news filtered through.
“Today has been a truly awful day. Unthinkable tragedy has engulfed a colleague at work. Their lives are forever upended. You are wordless. You have nothing valuable, or useful, or intelligent to say. The human awfulness of the circumstances are overwhelming. I’ve spent most of the afternoon, wringing out tears, wandering about listlessly and trying diffidently to be productive. I feel like there’s a hand at my throat, which intermittently exerts pressure. For a bit, you are forgetful, even jolly, then you choke on it all again. Those poor people. A terrible day.”
I remember numbly crawling into a bottle, into oblivion. Tragedy is lived individually, but experienced collectively. It felt like a lesson in the human position of suffering. As WH Auden wrote, suffering always takes place “while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” I remember colleagues with broken reeds in their voices, storm clouds in their eyes. Sat through haunted meetings. Imagined teachers calling the morning assembly, the empty desk an aching, absent presence. Thought of Olly’s school friends learning to hear a new silence in their lives.
Olly’s sudden death felt like a puncture wound in glass that sent cracks radiating across its whole surface. Even the memory of the memory of those few days still takes me by the throat. I’d never met the wee boy, but stories of his life and times were a familiar part of office life.
I’ve never experienced anything like it before, or since. And grief is a strange thing at one remove from events. Many of us – I think – felt the strange need to police our emotions, to hold back, worried that avowing our sense of sorrow would somehow appropriate the immediate and overwhelming suffering of a family dealing with all the nevermores which follow a young life being cut senselessly short. This instinct seems, in retrospect, mistaken. Tragedy forms a lattice work of cracks in people’s lives. The damage is most profound where the blow impacts hardest – but everyone is damaged.
With characteristic quiet and practical compassion, Martin and Sam are working to mitigate the worst of that damage in Olly’s memory. They’re raising funds in order to provide free accommodation in Cowal for families who have suffered the death of a child. This is their Everest. Explaining his climb to the media this week, Martin reflected on his own experiences .
“You want to just find that place, maybe where you haven’t been before, and somewhere you can begin to think about reframing your life. We were lucky in that we had people in our networks able to offer us this, other people might not be so lucky,” he said.
“Olly loved the outdoors and whereas a mountain bothy provides free accommodation to shelter from the elements, our bothy will be a freely accessible refuge from the emotional storms that come with losing a child.” I wish him fine weather for the balance of his days on the slopes of the Bishop’s Seat.
There’s something immeasurably affecting about the image of the solitary walker, ascending and descending the mountain again, and again, and again in the memory of a lost boy. The quiet dignity of a father, faced with inconceivable losses, who walks on and walks on. Who keeps going through the weariness of the spirit and the flesh – through the mud and the smirr and the stitches – stumbling but still, somehow, finding the energy to put one foot in front of another, again and again and again.
But Martin will not walk alone. In Olly’s memory, his friends, his family, his neighbours, his colleagues will all take a leg beside him, one foot after another, every step, always.