In the Mountains, There You Feel Free #4 / by Alex Williamson

He first learns that the boy who lies is getting married when the best man, the boy with pinned back ears, sends everyone a group email about the stag do. After moving to Scotland, contact with his oldest friends lapses into silence, or if not exactly silence, long periods of static noise. Most communication with them passes through the filter of a WhatsApp group, a repository of toxic banter, pornographic GIFs and various memes of an African man with a two foot long penis. Things they wouldn’t want anyone else to see, particularly not their wives.

The announcement of nuptials does not exactly come as a surprise, but it has been some time since he heard from the stag, or the best man. The last time he saw the boy who lies was on a weekend trip to Ibiza, the last failed attempt to reconnect with their youth. It was not a successful trip. He missed his flight home after taking MDMA a few hours beforehand, had a panic attack outside Ushuaïa, and ended up coming home a day late to a very wife.

The best man’s email informs them that the stag is to be held at SNOWBALL, a music festival in the French Alps. Attendance, the best man’s email suggests, is non-negotiable. Fancy dress is compulsory. All-in, the cost per head is phenomenal, even exceeding that last debauched trip to Ibiza. Any ambivalence he has about the stag weekend is counterbalanced by the possible ramifications of not going. He cannot understand why the stag wants to go to a ski festival when hardly any members of the stag party can ski. Perhaps the point is moot. They will not be there to ski. Knowing that he will almost certainly regret it, he confirms by email that he will be there, and scrapes together enough cash to settle the deposit. A few months later, the best man asks for the final balance. Last one to clear their balance pays a forfeit. It takes him a fortnight to settle the balance, something he is only able to by dipping into his children’s savings.

Shortly after the balance is settled, and the opportunity to back out gone, the stag posts a message to the WhatsApp group informing everyone he is already married. It later becomes clear that several members of the stag party already knew this, having been at the wedding. He knows the best man will not cancel the stag, and there is no reserve list, no one else to take his place. He must go.

The day before the flight, he drives to his father’s house near Manchester airport. He is having dinner with his father when he receives the first of a series of panicked messages posted by the stag in the WhatsApp groups. The stag has either misplaced his passport, or it has been stolen. The inference is that this has been done by someone very close to him. Given his propensity for bullshit, no one is entirely sure what to make of it. The real and imagined calamities which have befallen the stag in the past continue to endear him to a number of the stag party, but these sort of antics, losing his passport the night before his stag do, a stag do that the other participants have signed up to at not inconsiderable expense, stretch the patience of even his most committed cheerleaders. Considering the stag’s history of lying, the whole thing could be a hoax. Either way, he knows that the stag knows that the best man will sort it out for him. Such is the nature of their relationship. He checks in online for his flight, switches off his phone and goes to bed.

His alarm wakes him at an unearthly hour. His father is already up, ready to take him to the airport. They pick up one of his friends on the way, and the three of them discuss the passport debacle. His father is entirely unsympathetic. What an idiot, his father says, shaking his head. When they get to the airport, he reaches into his rucksack to retrieve his own passport, only to find it isn’t there. He checks the bag several times, hoping it may magically appear, trapped in the folds of the fabric, but it doesn’t. Then he remembers leaving it on the kitchen table before he went to bed. He takes out his phone and calls his father. You’re not going to believe this, he says. But I think I’ve left my passport on your kitchen table. You’ve done what? Fucking hell. How’ve you managed to do that? I don’t know. I checked in online, and left it – it doesn’t matter, please can you try to get it for me? Bloody hell. Alright. Thanks.

He waits. The rest of the stag party drop their bags and head to security. The flight information screen says Go to Gate. He waits. Walks in circles, clenches his fists. The departures area slowly empties. The flight information screen says Now Boarding. Still he waits.

Twenty minutes to go until his flight departs, and his father hasn’t returned. As he begins scrolling through Sky Scanner for alternative flights, his father phones him. I’m here, he says. At the barrier, I’ve got your passport, you’ll have to come and get it. He runs outside and up the ramp to where his father’s car is waiting the line for the drop off. His father winds down the window and hands him his passport. What are you? His father says, shaking his head. I know, I know, he says, taking the passport and running back inside. The flight information screen says Last Call. At security, the line of passengers waiting for their bags to be scanned is backed up beyond the belt barriers. He begins working his way to the front, waving his priority boarding pass in the air and apologising to the travellers as he nudges their ankles and treads on their toes, and tries not to meet anyone’s eyes. He throws his hand luggage into a tray and hurries through the body scanner, which mercifully stays silent, then runs for the gate, reaching the plane just as air bridge is about to be detached.

He is thinking about the origin of the term schadenfreude when two members of the stag party pass him on their way to the toilet. One Hands him a black cap and says, You have to wear that. For your forfeit. They laugh and walk off towards the toilet. He looks at the cap. I love big black juicy dicks is stencilled onto the front. He puts the cap under his seat. When they disembark, the best man asks him where his cap is, and he pretends to have forgotten it. This is the first of many contraventions of the stag rules.

The second is not drinking with the others in the hired minibus. Gay, someone mutters, and he shrugs apologetically. The stag party slowly wind their way up the mountain. At the snowline, the temperature drops, and the first faint flakes of snow begin to fall. Half an hour later, a few kilometres from the resort, they drive into a blizzard. The road becomes blocked by haphazardly parked cars, as other drivers caught out by the sudden snowfall struggle to fix their snow chains. When their own minibus becomes stuck, the driver reluctantly does the same. Everyone stumbles out in the snow to take photos and drain their bladder. They message the stag for an update. A short time later the party arrives in the resort’s vast subterranean car park. Half have been booked into a luxury hotel, the other half with less money, which includes him, are in a utilitarian self-catering complex some distance away. There are no streets in the resort, so in the swirling blizzard, they stagger through ankle-deep snow to find their accommodation.

An hour later, they are sat in a bar, supping beer and chewing cheeseburgers, when they receive another series of panicked WhatsApp messages from the stag. The stag has successfully located the lost passport, but failed to board his replacement flight. The best man rises from the table, mobile in hand, and goes to call him. When he returns, looking vexed, one of their party spots someone sniffing and gurning at another table. They strike up a conversation, and the guy, who has an Estuary accent, introduces them to his friend, another Essex boy in a baseball cap and bulky ski jacket. You’re not Old Bill are you? The boy in the baseball cap asks, laughing. Less of the old, comes the reply. The boy in the baseball cap and another friend disappear to the toilets.

After sampling the wares of the boy in the baseball cap, they almost forget about the stag. Then the next wave of panicked WhatsApp messages come through. Back in Britain it is snowing, and the stag’s second replacement flight, from an entirely different airport, has been cancelled. The stag sends them a photograph of the airport, and a picture of himself looking fed up. The airport website, however, indicates that the stag’s flight left on time. This causes some confusion Is he coming or not? Someone asks the best man. He’s trying to get here, comes the reply. Why don’t you believe him? No one says anything. A few more rounds of jaegerbombs later and they’re ready to move on to a club, but they are far too early, the club is completely empty, just a handful of punters, spectral and faceless in the gloom. As the DJ plays staccato hip-hop, they lean against the bar, gripping their beers and grinding their teeth, while the best man throws shapes on the dancefloor, resembling a chimpanzee balancing on a wobbly branch.

Early the next morning, after missing three flights and catching one which is diverted from Geneva to Lyon, and thereafter paying four hundred Euros for a shared taxi, the stag arrives, looking every bit as road weary as his selfie from a few hours earlier. The stag is not suffering fools. When he hails the stag, the stag tells him to fuck off. The word appears to be out that no one thought he was coming. With everyone suited and booted, though apparently still under the influence, they head to the slopes. He leads four of them across a small slope of powder snow, and watches each of them crash onto the piste. It takes them half an hour to get to the bottom of the short blue run. He waits by the chair station, looking up the hill. The entire slope is littered with collapsed skiers, drunken, drugged or simply incompetent. He watches a laughing blonde woman in a white one-piece slither down the entire run on her back, like a spider in a sink’s watery vortex. He thinks about helping her up, but then her friend comes to her rescue.

They ski for a few more hours, then head back for shits, showers and shaves. They meet for dinner wearing their fancy-dress outfits. The outfits give the impression of the wearer piggy-backing on a cartoon character, as if each member of the stag party is riding on the shoulders of their spirit animal. There is a sumo-wrestler, a baby-face, an elephant, a chicken, a rat. Each has been carefully selected by the best man for its associative properties with the stag party member’s individual character. The stag’s is a pig, as in pigs might fly. His is a Scotsman, replete with full Scots regalia, tartan kilt and red beard, which was not what the best man had chosen for him. The best man had chosen a troll. A nonentity. His old self.

Making up for lost time, the stag orders the first of several large rounds. Soon the table is crowded with half-drunk pints and empty shot glasses. As they eat, they debate going to watch the festival headliner. The general view is that they should go, but the stag is not so keen. If they don’t go, they’ll simply stay in the bar all night, doing coke and running up a ridiculous bill. Ordinarily he wouldn’t have a problem with that, but they are here for the festival, they’ve paid for it and they should get their money’s worth. This is what he says, but it gets lost in the clamour of disagreement. In the end, the best man casts the deciding vote. They leave the bar, and trudge through the snow to the main stage’s VIP area. Some of the group are annoyed about this and refuse to dance. And after the DJ wraps up his set, yet another protracted debate follows over where to go next. The stag and the best man head to a club with a handful of the others, while he and the rest retire. He wants an early night. The weather forecast for tomorrow looks good.

When he rises the next day it has stopped snowing and the slopes are lined with deep powder. The rest of the stag party are aiming to go to a breakfast brunch event, with unlimited champagne and most likely more cocaine, but the snow is simply too good to miss. As he skis through the heavy marshmallow snow , he can feel the after-effects of the previous night, and it is a strange sensation, gliding along still slightly wired. He stops to catch his breath, his heart beating like a bass drum inside his chest. He is not as good at this as he was twenty years ago. Back then he felt feather-light upon the piste, weightless, like he might ascend to the heavens at any moment.

Alone on the chairlift he wonders what the others are up to, and thinks about all the cocaine he has taken in his life, weekend benders and midweek casuals, the special occasions and surreptitious snufflings, and all the other times, too many to recall, too unimportant to mention, that he has taken it, on his own or in the company of friends, if he took every single bag or wrap he has consumed and tipped it out, how large would the pile be, would it look like a little mountain of off-white snow, or simply a hillock, a small mound, barely enough to cover the seat of this chairlift, and yet he thinks about how prevalent it has become, it truly is everywhere now and everyone is on it, it seems, even up here in the mountains, thousands of miles from its source, it has spread and continues to spread, freely available to those in the know, something inconceivable a couple of decades ago, cocaine is everywhere, a constant buzz of feeling surrounding him, like the snow-capped panorama only visible from this elevated height. A panorama of self-oblivion.

From the chairlift, he watches the other groups of skiers puttering around. It is gone lunchtime, and the slopes are teeming with people skiing unsteadily, rolling about on the snow, laughing. Some in fancy dress, others retro ski suits. He is envious. This is what he had hoped would happen with his friends on the stag, something he had always wanted to do with them, specifically them, for he has other friends who ski, but to ski with his very best friends was always something that he felt they as a group of friends were missing out on. Now he accepts it was an unrealistic expectation. Apart from a school ski trip and another holiday with a handful of friends after university, skiing has never piqued the collective interest. It has always been something he has done on his own, separate from their shared consciousness. Skiing is definitively his thing, something which he is good at outside the confines of their group, but sitting on that chairlift on his own, skiing, one of the few things that he has been able to have just for himself, suddenly feels profoundly joyless.

Gradually the cloud creeps back over the resort, flattening the light and restricting him to just one or two runs where he can still see. Anglophone voices float out from the fog, calling out for lost or fallen friends. He decides to call it a day and head back.

When he returns, the rest of the stag party are in a brasserie, cramped around a small table. All are completely drunk and talking loudly. The stag hails the waitress in English and orders a round of beers and a round of sambuca. While the waitress takes the order, one of his friends, his jaw working overtime, tries to call the boy in the baseball cap. One of them has his sunglasses on indoors, and there are minute flecks of cocaine in his beard, and when the waitress departs, he retrieves the baggie from his pocket and tips a little clump into his palm, before snorting it. There are families with children the same age as their own in the restaurant, groups of men who do not have cocaine on their faces enjoying their lunch. His friend begins waving the bag of cocaine around, so he decides to leave, but now no one will let him out from the cramped table. When the best man tells him to stay, he tells him to Fuck off. As he leaves the table, the best man calls him a Ski cunt.

He leaves the restaurant, goes back to the bar from the first night and sits on his own. He is tired from the skiing and possibly bummed from the drugs, and possibly a little paranoid from them too, but the bottom line is that his friends no longer feel like his friends anymore. All the fraternal feelings he had on the chairlift have disappeared like a handful of blown chalk. He thinks about to calling his wife, but then the stag party come in, walking past him and heading to the other end of the bar. He waits a little while before joining them. No one says anything. The best man has passed out in his chair. The stag’s facial tics are working overtime. They finish their drinks and discuss what to do next. Some want an early night. The stag wants to stay out. They think they have an agreement about going to bed, but when the best man wakes up and discovers this, he blows his top.

As a compromise, they head to a trendy wine bar near the luxury hotel, where they sit in awkward silence. The stag is unhappy. This is supposed to be my stag, he laments. The best man sits at the head of the table, fuming, singling people out and calling them cunts. X is a cunt. Y is a cunt. This is supposed to be his stag. No one else speaks. To keep the peace, he and a couple of others agree to carry on drinking, so that the others can go to bed. At the first bar they come to, the stag orders five beers, five shots of sambuca and five jaegerbombs. I’ve lost my credit card, the stag announces, so I can’t pay. At the next bar, the stag slumps down at a separate table, and passes out. They wake him and hit another bar, which he hopes will be the last. The friend with cocaine on his face disappears to the toilet and returns with what’s left of the cocaine cupped in his sweaty palm. At least he hopes its sweat. It just fell out, his friend explains, before licking it off.

On the long walk back to the apartment, they pass the club they visited on the first night. He prepares himself for the inevitable, and as if on cue the best man blags them to have one last drink. Looking at the sizable queue and the state of the stag, he mumbles his excuses. While the best man is distracted, he and another friend decide to make a run for it. Back at the apartment, he bolts the door and puts the security chain on, though he knows if the best man really wanted to get in, he could still do so via the balcony window. It is not beyond the realms of possibility.

The next morning, everyone gathers at the luxury hotel for the minibus transfer back to the airport. While they stand mutely, waiting for the stag and best man to materialise, one of his friends says, I’ve had a really great weekend, lads. I paid two grand to be called a cunt. No one says anything. The stag and the best finally man appear, looking like they’ve slept in each other’s clothes, and everyone lugs their bag into the subterranean car park where the minibus is waiting. He volunteers to sit up front with the driver, an English ski guide, chatting to him as they wind their way back down the mountain. It seems that they have much in common. At the airport, lifting their bags out of the boot, the friend who paid two grand to be called a cunt nods towards the driver and says, You were well up his arse, weren’t you?

In the airport, the shuffling stag cuts a disconsolate figure, as if he has forgotten something, left an item of vital importance up on the mountain. Perhaps he has, though it isn’t his passport, unbelievably he has that, so it must be something else. Then it transpires the stag isn’t booked onto the return flight, so he and the best man wander off to find the airline’s information desk. Everyone else proceeds through security and waits in the departure lounge. He buys some chocolate for his children. They spot the former Manchester United captain Gary Neville waiting to board they flight, and one of their party goes over to ask for a photograph. The former footballer does not look happy about it but manages to smile for the picture. As they board their flight, there is still no sign of the stag or the best man. He has no idea if they’ll get home. On the return flight he feigns sleep and imagines skiing home to his family across the surface of the cloud top.