The sun is shining! For the first time in days the sky dawns a decadent blue.
I scowl, then tramp down the stairs cursing loudly. Because it doesn’t matter what colour the sky is. We’re not going to be seeing it after all. No. We’re going to be underground, in the dark, crawling through caves. Can you hear the joy in my voice at this prospect?
I have woken in a grump, wishing I’d never let John sway me into agreeing to this. I’m still in a grump an hour later when we pull down a rutted road and spot a boy unloading gear from the back of an old Fiesta.
‘He looks about twelve,’ John and I say at the same time.
I frown. We’re about to be led into the biggest underground (mainly unmapped) cave system in the UK by a boy who hasn’t yet hit puberty. This day just gets better and better.
Alex turns out to be 19 not 12 and he does his best to answer my rapid-fire questions as we step into our boiler suits and try on our helmets:
‘Has anyone ever got lost in there?’
‘Has anyone ever died in there?’
‘Do I have to squeeze through any narrow tunnels?’
‘What if I get stuck?’
‘Has anyone ever got stuck?’
‘What do you mean it took eight hours for them to get rescued?’
‘What happens if I need a pee?’
‘What happens if you fall down a hole and break a leg?’
‘Has there ever been a cave in?’
‘What qualifications do you need to lead people down here?’
‘You’re not yet qualified?’
‘You’re three years off becoming a PE teacher?’
By the time we spot the cave entrance I know more about Alex than his own mother and Alex, clearly exhausted by my interrogation, has sprinted 100m into the distance. It’s OK, I think to myself, I’ll have him in the cave. He can’t run anywhere in there.
Alula glowers at John and I. She is deeply unimpressed by the boiler suit action and the rather fetching helmet she’s being made to wear. ‘You look like a ghost buster,’ I tell her.
She refuses to pose for a photograph.
We have to duck and scuttle in order to enter the cave system. Already I hate it. I grit my teeth and decide to enter into the spirit of things because in the cave it’ll be too dark anyway for anyone to see my scowley face. Plus, as I tell John, at least it will be good for the blog.
As soon as we get inside I start visualising all kinds of scenarios I could work into future books or films – dramatic and romantic YA scenes involving trapped teens (who all look older than Alex), exciting rescues, dangerous dares that go desperately wrong. I even let my mind wander to a dystopian future involving life in underground caves and a zombie vampire race that has evolved and picks off innocents, dragging them to a sacrificial chamber … I get quite carried away and smack my head on a stalactite.
Alex makes us climb, scrabble, scramble, slide, slip and crawl all the way to an underground lake.
‘It’s 90 feet deep and people dive here,’ he tells us.
‘Why?’ I ask, frowning at the murky water.
‘Because,’ he answers, not understanding the question.
‘But why?’ I keep asking. Because WHY would anyone want to dive in a freezing, pitch black lake? It’s completely beyond my comprehension. There are no fish. No turtles. No coral. There’s only the prospect of death. And hypothermia. Also, what a hassle carrying an oxygen tank all the way down here. If I had been allowed to carry anything (which I wasn’t) it would have been chocolate. And spare batteries.
Luckily Alula announces at this point she is desperate for a wee. Thank god for nine-year old bladders. ‘We need to get back,’ I tell Alex in the voice of someone who would happily go caving for another ten hours but is sadly having to give in to her daughter’s bladder’s silly demands.
He takes us back via the ‘Mud Slide.’
Great, I think with relief, a slide. That sounds easy. No more bloody climbing or squeezing head first through puddles bloodying my palms and cricking my back. Just sliding. Even I can manage to do that.
But no. The slide should be renamed the ‘Ten Rounds with Mike Tyson You’re Too old For This Get Me Out Of Here Death Trap’. I manage to slam my entire right side into a jagged rock wall. At speed. The pain is eviscerating. For ten seconds I can’t breathe. Neither can I move. Remembering our ante-natal class I suck in a breath and then pant out. Tears smart. I force myself to move – by pretending the vampire monster beasts from that movie The Descent are behind me. I channel my inner YA heroine. But I’m shaking so hard from the adrenaline and pain that I slip and manage to slide again onto my ass. My lip wobbles. I think of the beach, dappled by sunlight. It wobbles some more.
John gives me a leg up onto a ledge and then we spot blue skies. Though there’s another horrible crawl on our bellies over rocks and crags to reach it.
I limp to the car and peel my boiler suit off to admire the purple lump that’s bloomed on my thigh.
That, I make a vow to myself, is the very last time I ever do anything requiring a headlamp and a boiler suit.
Unless of course I ever get the chance to be a Ghostbuster.
This bruise is as big as my hand. And it hurts. A LOT.