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November: A Short Story

(Version 1.0. Revisions are possible. For the blog post about the short story, see here.)

Darkness, complete, total darkness and the sound of water rushing over stone. Then a light reflected from the eddies of the surface, a tiny ray of white bouncing around, enough to reveal flowing water and black rock in strange, menacing forms like the inside of some huge scaly beast. No sky above, only stone. A sharp, thin rock in the vague shape of a fin, rising a full metre out of the stream. Three lights slowly advancing towards it from upstream, three figures wearing helmets and overalls, wading in the stream, stooping in the low passage leading to the rock.

“The Confluence”, Adam said over the rush of the stream. “This is where we get out of the water for a bit.” He turned back to smile at his two companions. He’d done this trip several times, but the last time was some years ago, and the streamway they’d come down was still one of the most marvelous in Britain. Tomos stopped for a while to catch his breath. Nasha was grinning practically from ear to ear. Unlike Adam and Tomos, she was not clad in waterproof PVC, so after an hour and a half in the streamway she probably didn’t have a single dry piece of kit on her. Despite that she was obviously having the time of her life. It was good to have enthusiastic people along. Then again, this was her first time down this way, and it really was an excellent trip.

The idea of doing a through trip in the streamway of the cave Ogof Ffynnon Ddu had been born last night. A number of cavers had been doing a pub crawl in Swansea, of all places, and Adam had joined in because he’d happened to be in town, even though it was the middle of the week and he was working the next evening. But one pint couldn’t hurt. After exchanging a couple of words with his mates he had ended up in the same table with Tomos, who had been busy doing what he did best: being a dirty old man.

Actually, that was a bit unfair at Tomos. The girl he was entertaining with his war stories was hardly a naïve, innocent teenager, even if she was a newcomer to the sport. Nasha was well able to keep up with the septuagenarian, drinking-wise, and she was obviously having just as much fun at impressing the geezer old enough to be her grandfather with her low neckline, as he was at impressing her with exaggerated tales of his adventures back in ye olden days. In other words, the two got along splendidly. They seemed to share a taste in beer and dirty jokes as well as in caving.

Somehow the story of the great flood of ’81 had turned into a discussion of the most amazing underwater streams in the UK. When Nasha had admitted that she had not yet been to most of the streamway of Ogof Ffynnon Ddu some thirty miles away, Tomos had been shocked — shocked! She absolutely had to see it, he had declared, as soon as humanly possible! Tomos had offered to take her there himself, this very evening if need be, and Nasha had been just as ready to leave for the trip right there and then. Somehow the plan had got some sense interjected, and the attack on OFD had been moved from Wednesday night to Thursday midmorning. Also, when Adam had jokingly said that he might as well join them since he was only expected at work around 7 P.M., he had instantly been roped into the plan.

So, he had driven home to Cardiff and told Sarah he was going caving tomorrow. Sarah was, as ever, understanding of her husband’s hobby, and told him to stay safe and have a great trip. The plan was to be underground by ten, which gave them seven hours for the trip. It didn’t have a lot of extra room, considering Adam’s schedule. Tomos, of course, had no strict schedules, being retired, and Nasha mostly worked weekends.

Waking up the following morning, Adam had rung up Nasha and Tomos to check that the trip was still on. Both of them had stayed with the crawl when he’d headed home, and he was half expecting one or the other to call it off. But Nasha was in her twenties and therefore immune to hangovers, and having only been bitten by the caving bug months ago, had not yet comprehended that you didn’t need to do every trip right this instant, the caves would not be going anywhere. Tomos, at 75 with over fifty years of caving experience understood all too well that the cave would be in the ground forever, but his chances at taking a pretty, flirtatious young woman underground were diminishing every year. Adam couldn’t tell whether he should be Nasha’s chaperone or Tomos’ wingman.

They’d been underground at ten thirty, having changed at the car park of a local caving club and hiked up the hill on a chilly November morning. It hadn’t been raining that week and the forecast for today was looking good, so the streamway trip was completely doable. Opening the hatch in the hillside, they’d slipped inside, from a windy, green and blue world into one that was quiet, brown and black.

Following a path of of blocky boulders and mud they had ventured deeper. The noise of the hillside had faded into silence, only broken by sounds made by the explorers themselves or by the occasional drop of water falling into a pool. The big chambers in the upper reaches of the system close to the top entrance were familiar even to Nasha, so they hadn’t lingered. The higher-level passages were dry and dusty, but as soon as they had descended a steep, broken slope, a small brook had appeared and the air had gotten moist. They had gone still further down, a slippery descent of boulders jammed in a narrow crevice, then a swirly meander in the bottom of the crevice, and finally down a wet, smooth, calcited half-pipe, into the stream.

The Ogof Ffynnon Ddu streamway, looking down from the top of Maypole Inlet, was amazing. Several metres wide, well over ten metres high, black rock in sharp, curved shapes, clear water running along the bottom, the occasional stripe of white only highlighting the blackness of everything else. A delighted Nasha had taken pictures of her companions descending, and even though the trip was on a tight schedule that didn’t account for time-consuming activities like cave photography, Adam didn’t have the heart to stop her. It was forever since he’d last brought novices down this way, and seeing Nasha’s face light up, someone who really appreciated the sublime beauty of what there was to find in the depths of these hills, made him completely stop worrying about getting to work on time. It would be a sin to rush her. She’d been caving only for three months, but Adam could already tell she was a lifer. Tomos had probably seen the same thing in him, thirty-five years ago, when he had been just a brat out of school.

Tomos had done most of the talking. In the more than fifty years that cavers from all over the planet had been making trips in this streamway, quite a few stories had amassed, and it was a rare bend that didn’t have some anecdote to go with it. Tomos knew a lot of them. The old man had the dramatic sense to know when to launch into an amusing tale about the university club of so-and-so being out of their depth, and when to keep quiet and let the magnificent streamway speak for itself. Adam had never done this particular trip with him before, and realised that actually the last time they’d been caving together was ten years ago on a club trip in Croatia. He’d since then been absorbed by digging projects and Tomos didn’t really do those any more.

I ought to go caving with him more often, Adam thought. Their relationship wasn’t one of master and apprentice any more, probably hadn’t been for ages; he’d just thought of it like that since that was what it had been in his youth. These days they were equals, both veterans getting on in years, even though at 53 Adam was still in his prime as cavers went. But neither of them could match the enthusiasm and raw energy of Nasha. Once she gets a little experience under her belt she’s going to do some incredible stuff.

The sound of running water diminished but never vanished entirely as the cavers climbed into a wide, high passage with a floor of roundish rocks. In flood the Nant Newydd would flow into this section as well, but at the moment only the occasional pool in the floor and water level marks on the passage walls marked this as anything other than a safe and dry section. Switching from wading to walking their pace quickened automatically.

A couple of twists and turns led to a bit of a climb over boulders, and then an exposed three-metre descent into a large, windy, high chamber that was, to an untrained eye, a dead end. The rock here was more pale brown than black, and a drizzle of water was coming down from high up along one of the walls. Nasha was first, then Adam, and finally Tomos. The old man was very careful with his footing when climbing down the pile of boulders where calcite had congealed in ugly forms, like mucus from some huge ancient beast. Nasha went to the end of the chamber, set up her remote-controlled flashgun and snapped shots of her companions with her super-durable camera. Cave photography was so simple nowadays, Adam mused.

Tomos got down the boulders onto level ground, and Adam turned to head off.

“Wait a bit, Adam”, Tomos said. “I have a spot of trouble here.

“What is it?” Adam asked.

“I’m feeling out of breath. I have to take a break before attempting Diver’s Pitch.”

Adam raised an eyebrow. He studied his friend of over thirty years. Clad in a PVC oversuit, wearing wellies, rubber gloves and a plastic helmet with a high-powered caving light, Tomos looked superficially ready to take on anything. But his lined face, which only ten minutes earlier had been smiling and energetic, now had a slightly pained and ashamed look. His breath was wheezing.

Shit. He is really tired. Adam didn’t feel tired himself. Their trip so far had only taken close to three hours, which was practically nothing. The most interesting section was now behind them, and what remained was a tight, rather crawly labyrinth of dry passages that would take them back into the stream for a last, short push to the exit. They’d come in through the top entrance, and the plan was to come out at the bottom, close to where the stream emerged from underground to become a tributary of the river Tawe.

The only even remotely challenging thing left in this trip was facing them right now. The big chamber wasn’t really a dead end: on the far left-hand wall, right where the small waterfall was coming down, a set of calcited holes and chunks lead some twelve metres up from the floor to a small hole in the rock. This was Diver’s Pitch, a simple free climb into a tight crawl. Adam had done it several times, just like Tomos, just like everyone else who did this trip. Occasionally, when taking novices or people with a poor head for heights, a safety rope was rigged from the top, usually more as a psychological measure than anything else. You didn’t really need it, since the handholds and footholds were so good that climbing Diver’s Pitch was like climbing a twelve-metre ladder.

Adam hadn’t brought a rope, since Nasha didn’t have a problem with high places and she was obviously strong and fit. He’d never even considered that the unsecured free climb might prove a problem for Tomos. Obviously, neither had the older man.

You didn’t attempt Diver’s Pitch, because you really had to do it all; you couldn’t take a break or have second thoughts while doing it. You just climbed until you reached the top and then you pulled yourself into an alcove leading to the crawl. But recalling Tomos’ slow and methodical descent into the chamber over the boulders, as well as his laborious progress in all the other, smaller climbs on the trip made Adam realise that the old caver’s strength might actually fail mid-climb. If that happened, he would fall. As far as Adam knew that had never happened to anyone here, but on this climb there still was no margin of error. There was nothing any of them could do to help him.

Why didn’t I bring a rope for belaying? Adam admonished himself. He had considered it for a minute when assembling his kit, but he hadn’t been sure where his light twenty-metre handline was, and he hadn’t wanted to bring one of his long, heavy ropes along on the trip. He didn’t even have a tackle bag with him, since this trip didn’t actually require any extra baggage. As long as everything went right. And it wasn’t really his trip to organise.

“Are you hurt? Sick?” Adam asked.

Tomos smiled mirthlessly. “No. Just old and fat.”

You’re not old, Adam wanted to say, but didn’t, because it wasn’t true. Caving was not exactly a young man’s sport, but there were aspects of it that stiff joints and weakened muscle tone made challenging. At Tomos’ age, most cavers had abandoned difficult trips and focused on their personal pet projects. Even though this wasn’t a particularily hard trip, there were bits that were unforgiving, and running out of steam in the middle of an unsecured climb would be serious business.

He is really getting on in years. And sooner than I realise the same thing will be happening to me.

Nasha kept taking pictures. She was never one to make her fellow cavers hurry up.

“All right. Should we go out through Cwm Dwr?” There was a third entrance to the system, coming out in a quarry right next to the caving club building, and they were practically right below it. It would not require them to climb Diver’s Pitch, or even do a lot of backtracking. And since the best part of the trip was already done, it would not even be a disappointment to Nasha. The little bit of the streamway that remained she’d already seen on her earlier trips to the system.

“I haven’t been to Cwm Dwr in over fifteen years”, Tomos said. “It’s not ideal for my body shape, so I’ve never liked it, and never really learned my way around in there. How about you?”

“Not really my favourite either”, Adam admitted. His last trip through what he considered to be the tight and awkward way into this system had been almost ten years ago. He had a rough idea of which direction to go, and he remembered that between them and the way out lay a complicated boulder choke, a long, tight crawl and finally what had years ago felt like a ten-metre climb out through a vertical concrete pipe with no handholds. It didn’t really seem much simpler than climbing Diver’s Pitch.

“Then we’re going this way, as planned. Just give me a few minutes to catch my breath and my resolve. And don’t say anything to Nasha. I don’t want her to worry.”

Should I worry? Adam wondered. He walked to Nasha. “Hey. We figured that since there are way too few good pictures of Diver’s Pitch floating around, we should maybe try and take some, now that there’s actually someone with a camera down here.”

“Suits me perfectly”, she responded. She nodded at the waterfall. “That’s the climb, isn’t it? Looks a bit exposed. How come there isn’t there a rope here?”

“Sometimes there is, but you don’t really need one. The handholds are good and getting to the top is easy. Although if you’re nervous—“

“No, I’ll be fine. I was just wondering.” Adam tried to figure out if her cheer was real or if she was bluffing, if the climb actually worried her. He thought she’d speak up if something made her feel uneasy, but in all honesty she might not yet know her limits after only a couple of months spent caving. She didn’t allow him time to prod further. “Go stand there, look up the wall as if you’re pondering whether it’s climbable.” True to form, she sent him standing right under the falling water, but with his waterproof outer layer it was no problem.

The next fifteen minutes consisted of posing, flashes, re-positioning and Nasha swearing colourfully when something in her photography kit refused to work for no apparent reason. First it was just Adam modelling, then Tomos joined him. The old man was all good cheer and enthusiasm. Adam wondered if he’d truly gotten a second wind, or if he was just pretending for Nasha.

You old fool. Too proud to let the pretty young girl know that you doubt your stamina. Maybe we should just abort this, head for Cwm Dwr. We might end up being overdue or lost, but at least we would not be in any danger. Once we reached the pipe I could climb it, go get a rope from the club and belay you out safely. That’s what a responsible trip leader would do. That’s what you should suggest, since you’re the leader.

Adam decided he’d have a private word with Tomos, try to get him to see reason.

“Okay. I’m going to climb the pitch and then take a few shots from the top. Hold the flash for me”, Nasha said. She put her camera into her pocket, handed the flashgun to Adam and grabbed the first handhold, started up the wall. Water drummed an irregular beat on her helmet.

“Stay to the left if possible, that should keep you out of the spray”, Tomos said.

“Okay, thanks”, Nasha replied, adjusted her climbing a little. She went up steadily and carefully, not rushing but not stopping to look down to worry either. Just the way Adam would have done it, just the way it should be done.

“Maybe we should consider Cwm Dwr”, Adam said to Tomos when Nasha had climbed too high to hear them.

“Nonsense.”

“If you slip or run out of strength—“

“It’s not going to happen. I’m already sorry I said anything. Stop being such an old woman. Besides, Nasha’s already halfway up the pitch.”

“You are being irresponsible.”

“Lad, as long as I can remember my name and my home address right, I do as I damn well please. If you’re worried about me falling, don’t stand below me when I climb.“ Tomos’ tone told Adam that any further arguments would only make the bullheaded codger more determined to show that he could do it.

Nasha reached the top. She clambered into the alcove, then her head poked back out. “Adam, go to the end of the chamber, and aim the flashgun over there”, she said, pointing at the calcited boulders. She instructed Tomos to pose, took a few shots, re-positioned both the model and the flash, took more pictures. The remote controlled flashgun Adam was holding lit the chamber in bursts of light. From the ground Tomos looked defiant and proud. He could only imagine what he’d look like from forty feet up, in the finished shots.

“Brilliant. Next a climbing shot, lit from below”, Nasha called. Tomos was closer to the pitch, so he grabbed hold of a protrusion and started up the wall before Adam could stop him. His wellies found footholds fast and easily as he scrambled deftly towards the alcove. In a minute he was halfway up the climb. Maybe the worries were unfounded.

“Great! Can you stop there for a minute?” Nasha said. “Adam, get under Tomos and point the flashgun up so we’ll get a backlit shot.”

No, don’t do it, Adam thought, but Tomos had stopped in mid-climb to oblige. Nasha was telling the old man to look up at her and hold his position. The stupid girl doesn’t understand that it’s taking him all he’s got just to do the climb. He can’t hang around posing for pictures.

A few seconds of shuffling, then a flash as Nasha took the shot.

“The flash is visible from between Tomos and the wall. Can you move the gun just a little?”

Adam did as he was told. The flash recharged for several seconds, then the green light indicating full charge came on. “It’s ready”, he called.

Another flash.

“Damn, too dark. Aim the flash at the wall just a bit, that way we can get some reflected light.”

Adam could see Tomos’ foot shaking in the hole he was using as a foothold, five metres up. A fall from that height this far from all exits would be a serious matter for anyone. Adam was right beneath Tomos, but that was not going to help a bit if he fell.

“We shouldn’t—“ he started to say, but Tomos looked down at him and glared him into silence. You idiot! he wanted to shout. Get moving before you fall off! Obviously, the old man wasn’t going to interrupt the shoot.

The green light came on again. “Ready”, he called. A flash lit everything up. He wondered if he had enough time to get out of the way if Tomos fell. Nasha muttered something about the picture composition being off. The flash started another recharging cycle.

Then Adam had an idea. “What does a blinking red light on the flashgun mean?” he called to Nasha.

“Oh bloody hell”, Nasha said. “I need to see the gun.”

“Right. Move it, Tomos”, he said in a tone that brooked no argument. The old man resumed his ascent. Adam found he was holding his breath, as the stubborn fool clambered up the top half of the pitch. Once his foot almost slipped, but he didn’t let go. He reached the alcove and climbed in.

With Tomos clear of the pitch head, Adam put the flashgun back in its belt-case and scrambled up the steps. They felt more slippery and treacherous than he remembered.

At the top Nasha and Tomos were crammed into the alcove, where some water was dripping out of the tight crawl leading onwards. Adam squeezed himself in as well. He handed Nasha the flashgun for inspection. A green light was shining steadily.

“Huh. Now it seems to be all right again”, she said. “Some day I’m going to be able to afford equipment that keeps working even when I don’t touch it.”

“How’d the pictures turn out?” Adam asked.

“Have a look”, Nasha said, and handed him the camera. On the screen a climbing Tomos was looking up at the camera, a wild grin on his face. He looked like he was having the time of his life.

“Such a handsome fellow!” Tomos said. “That’ll make a lovely Christmas card.”

“I’ll adjust the edges a bit and make sure you get a high-res copy”, Nasha responded.

“Much appreciated”, Tomos said. “Adam, do you remember the last trip we did together? What was it? Balkans, 2003? We should really do more caving together, you and I.”

“We should indeed”, Adam replied.

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