I was whining a couple of days ago as if the worst thing that could happen was to have wet socks. Of course, I realise that losing the use of your legs is much more serious, but I feel inordinately uncomfortable when I step in an unexpected puddle. Walking about in socks in the kitchen for example or the sudden seeping realisation that your garden clogs have a hole in them. It is part of my psychological baggage: I must have stepped in a puppy-puddle when I was small. All this reminds me of my one and only spelunking expedition, which must have happened about 25 years ago. Before returning to Ireland in 1990, we lived for much of the 80s in Newcastle upon Tyne, living for several years at #37 in a late Victorian red-brick terrace. Moving in we found that the family across the way at #36 were friends of friends and they quickly became ours. An fear an tí Roy worked for the local TV station, but had previously been a dairyman in Devon and loved being out in the dales, hills and fells that define the North-country of England. He was pretty good at identifying the LBJs (little brown jobs) that make bird-watching such a compelling challenge; but he didn't limit his interest in the natural world to Class Aves.
One evening he came across the street to announce that he was taking his hill-walking pal down to the Yorkshire Dales to try caving and asked if I'd like to go along. He had recently embraced this indoor extension to his outdoor pursuits and had bought himself a wet-suit to brace his body against the icy-waters that are integral to the sport. But, he said airily, if I brought long-johns and/or some overalls and a pair of wellington boots, I'd be just about as ready for the fray as he was. It was early spring and as we set out South it started to snow; by the time we reached a lay-by on a bleak upland road an inch of snow was settling on the fields. We got out of the car and changed into our caving-gear. My heart was sinking because I knew that there was a crack in the sole of my left boot and it was sure to give me a wet sock as we trudged though the snow to the cave entrance. And it was so!
But a damp sock was the least of it. Within three minutes of entering the cave, the water had over-topped both my boots and ten minutes later progress required that we crawl on all-fours in 30cm of water. They grade caves like mountain pitches and I think our journey in the dark was deemed "suitable for parties of primary school children". It wasn't completely dark, because Roy had scavenged us each a miner's helmet with a head-torch. But I was happy to hang back a piece and when Roy and Les had disappeared round a couple of bends I switched off my torch to better appreciate the roar of the water.
Eventually we emerged from that simple caving system into day-light: down a 3m high waterfall that got wet the last dry patch of clothing between my shoulders. We only really started to feel the cold as we made our way back to the car because the wind was getting whippy but stripping the wet clobber into bin bags behind the car and putting on dry warm clothes (and dry woolly socks!) was such a relief that it made the wet worth it. Roy being Roy and it being long before we got all rigid about drink-driving we stopped at a local pub for a few scoops before heading back home in the dark. A special man, a special day, still clearly remembered a quarter century on. Roy died three years ago, far too young, dicky heart, and it's his birthday today. Cheers, mate!