My dad turned seventy this week. There have been several points over the last twelve months when we didn’t think he’d make it: an extremely aggressive form of prostate cancer the principal reason.
Towards the end of November 2017, my dad underwent surgery. His prostate and lymph nodes were removed by a multi-armed robot named da Vinci. A miracle of modern medicine and, in this instance, a life-saver.
Our existence seems so fragile in a world where cancer is omnipresent. It is a given that we all know someone that has been diagnosed, is living with, or has died from the disease. Its prevalence however doesn’t make it any easier to get a handle on. Nor does it equip us to deal with the seconds, minutes, hours, days, months that follow on from first hearing those earth-shattering words.
When I heard those words, I was out in the garden and it was drizzling lightly. My mum told me the news and everything stopped. The water droplets suspended in mid-air, oxygen stopping short of my lungs.
Some time later, it slowly started up again. But the earth was orbiting on a different axis now, gravity had been altered. Everything was the same; everything was irrevocably different.
Let’s fast forward. Several months have now passed since the surgery and it appears to have been a success. My dad is one of the lucky ones. The relief and the gratitude we feel as a family is immense, overwhelming at times. I wasn’t able to imagine a world without my dad or envisage one that saw him beating such odds to remain with us.
There aren’t adequate words to express how truly thankful we are to the NHS, the surgeons, the nurses, in particular Sam at GWH, the support groups that worked, and continue to work, tirelessly to provide emotional and physical care. Our endless gratitude extends also to the family and friends that have offered their love and support. Gratitude too for the scientists and engineers behind the remarkable technology that played a vital role in keeping my dad alive.
My dad is still the same man: forced to act his age a bit more, a little softer round the middle perhaps, prone to hot flushes, with joints that play up more, generally not feeling quite as invincible as he once did – but, above all else, thoroughly delighted to be alive.
He still does most of the activities he has always loved doing, only some things aren’t possible anymore. He still enjoys an ale or two, an occasional fry-up, one too many fish and chip suppers and slabs of cake, a good belly laugh, singing with his mob of musical blokes. He still has the uncanny ability to shoot the shit with anyone and everyone, and make people laugh. It is a rare gift. He has an energy to him that draws people in, like moths to a bright light, and keeps them there.
Beyond the everyday pleasures my dad gratefully enjoys, there is a select list of unfulfilled ambitions – my dad’s bucket list. Top of this list is the desire to be lowered into a hundred metre deep hole in the ground in a remote part of the Yorkshire Dales.
This needs explaining.
Before I was even a twinkle in my dad’s eye, Gaping Gill was the cornea, gloating from the top of his list of life goals. It is hard not to take this personally. The fact that fathering a child was so royally trumped by the descent into the mucky depths of a 330 ft Yorkshire pothole is a bitter pill to swallow as the firstborn.
Gill was the sister that got all the attention. My brother and I, the happy accidents; the afterthoughts. It transpires however that it was these two afterthoughts that were the ones joining him on his forty-year old quest to conquer the mighty Gaping Gill.
Gaping Gill, or more precisely the winch that permits access to this giant limestone cave, is open to the public at two points each year. There is no booking, no VIP ticket, no corporate sponsorship. You get up early, hike to the mouth of the cave, register, pay your fee and then wait till your number is called. It is brilliant in its simplicity and matter-of-factness.
The meets are arranged by two local caving and potholing clubs and coincide with the second May and August bank holidays. Each year around a thousand people get to experience the thrill of being lowered deep into the earth alongside Britain’s highest unbroken waterfall before ending up in a limestone cave the size of the Old Wembley stadium. This year, by hook or by crook, the Spooner men were going to be amongst them.
The car journey up to Yorkshire was eerily familiar, recalling those of 25 years prior. Me, surly and detached in the back, in a state of existential despair; my brother alert and currying favour up front, and then, my dad singing nursery rhymes, rugby songs and occasional Jake Thackray lines without a care in the world. Sucky sweets, as they had done decades before, provided brief respite, but it was the occasional unclaimed fart that forced us to abandon our roles completely and frantically unwind windows to welcome in the fumes of the M6.
Despite bad traffic, we arrive at the farmhouse campground in the afternoon. The sun is out and it is hot, although a vicious wind blows from the east. We unload the contents of the car into the wooden cabin that is to be our temporary home. It’s not long before the bedding and supplies have been arranged and the cricket stuff comes out.
The years are quick to roll away. David, all uncontrolled power and brute force thwacks the ball like a village blacksmith; me, angular, spindly, frequently wayward; and my dad who possesses the measured control of a man out to win, so competitive that he risks exploding his entire body to take a low catch or hit a crisp off drive. The close proximity of tents, caravans, BBQs and beer bottles means it is a game fraught with danger and effervescing with laughter.
After an hour of injury-free fun, we decide to cash in our luck and walk to the local village for a pub dinner. As we leave the campsite, a solid little man greets us. In his eighties or there abouts, he is out for an evening stroll to stretch his aging legs. We explain the reason for our trip and in response, slow smiling, he recalls going down Gaping Gill in ‘53: Nothing but a rope ladder, hundreds of feet of which dragged across the Moors on sledges pulled by horses before eventually being unfurled into the dark threatening chasm. What a world. A Cormac McCarthy blend of endeavour and hardship.
Towards the end of the previous century, French caver Edouard Martel had run out of rope just a third of the way down the main shaft. The history and scale of tomorrow’s undertaking were looming a whole lot larger.
It begins at 5am. The electronic beeps of our collective alarms fills the wooden cabin with an atonal symphony. Roused by these phased Steve Reichian chimes, we start our morning in a shared fug. I drink a tar-like coffee out of a tin mug, the chipped enamel around its rim the war wounds of a thousand previous expeditions; my dad swallows a trio of pills with a decaffeinated tea; my brother performs graceful stretches to ease his bad back.
Outside the cabin, the morning is already in full swing. A rooster confidently patrols the campground, cock-a-doodle-dooing, as hens gobble distractedly and rabbits jump around beneath the caravans. A walk to the toilet block reveals the aura of the new day glowing beyond the Ingleborough peak. Moments later the first light escapes and illuminates a field of buttercups, a buttery ooze in a toasty landscape. It’s going to be a glorious one, but only if we all make it.
My dad’s knees are bad. Osteoarthritis, fluid from the operation, wear and tear, and age have left them creaky, painful and not at all suited to hill climbs. He secretly doubts if he can make the ascent up and across the Moors. Me and my brother, although it remains unspoken, know that we will carry him, nay drag him or have him pulled on a sledge by horses if we have to, to get him there. We three Spooner men start the walk in our shared private knowledge of the situation, ruminating on the repercussions and their potential remedies with each step.
We follow the beck out of the picturesque village of Clapham, leaving behind the flat tarmac and the last of the easy terrain. The first path is rough: cricket ball rocks and a long, steady incline along a verdant valley. Scruffy sheep and doe-eyed cows keep us company as we trace the snaking dry stone walls across the wilderness. It is gone seven by the time the terrain mutates again. We now find ourselves scrambling up a steep gorge of misshapen boulders. All eyes are on dad, his eyes fixed on the daylight beyond the apex.
Half an hour later and the landscape opens up completely, rugged green gathering a stormy momentum up towards the handsome, brooding features of Ingleborough. The mountain is a strong-jawed film star, setting housewives hearts a flutter stretched out so nonchalantly on his viridescent rug, promising hidden peaks and very few troughs.
All around, the benign undulations of the moor harbour hidden threats. Sinkholes and chasms, potholes into the centre of the earth, guaranteeing the endless black. For late evening ramblers and nighttime moor-types, a wrong step could mean certain death. We traverse the danger and head on towards the tents that are fluttering on the horizon, marking our destination.
The Bradford Pothole Club have been heading down Gaping Gill since the early fifties. This yearly winch is a three week operation, evidenced by the collection of brightly-coloured tents and more worryingly the countless barrels of beer.
The men of the Bradford Pothole Club have beards and faces that you recognise from portrait paintings framed and hanging on the walls of remote coastal pubs, all deep lines, bright eyes and swirling beards. Faces that are oceans.
Having been assigned our numbers – 33, 34 and 35 – unsettlingly as dog tags that now hang round our necks, we get out of the wind and change into our waterproofs. It is going to be cold and wet down there and prepare we must.
An hour later, we are called down to the lower platform. It is our first real chance to see the full extent of the chasm and appraise the quality of the winch. As we nervously assess, the winch whirrs into action and a woman emerges pale-cheeked but grinning from the depths. I notice straightway that she is sat in a cage that looks suspiciously like a decommissioned playground ride from my childhood. A thin piece of metal stretches the width of the cage – the seat – two thin handles above to grip onto – a protective grill, thoroughly rudimentary-looking, and a space to swing your legs beneath. It looks secure in the same way a supermarket trolley looks secure.
The instructions are the same for each of us as we walk along the plank to the cage. Sit as far back as you can, tuck your legs back under the cage at all times, and please just quickly sign this disclaimer. The plank that separates the passenger from what lies beneath is slowly withdrawn and 100 metres of nothingness opens up beneath them. The mechanical clunk then indicates that the winch has been engaged and then you slowly descend.
To be dangled is to be vulnerable, to put yourself in the hands of a greater power. In this instance, it is not fate or God that you must put your faith in, but instead a rotund hirsute man in sandals from Giggleswick.
After watching my dad disappear and then my brother, it is my turn. I sit myself down, swallow once, and then stop breathing. The plank is removed and I am sinking. After just a few seconds, the daylight disappears and I find my nose just inches from a glistening rock face, my knees millimetres from it. Is this right?
With no room to adjust my head in order to look up inquiringly, pleadingly, I instead stare nervously at the rock face. I try not to move a single muscle as the cage is lowered, and impossibly, the rock face draws closer. And then, quite suddenly, the rock is no more and I am floating in space. Dank air rushes up to greet me and a gentle waterfall appears by my side, catching the light from a floodlight. Finally free, I swing my legs and risk a glance down.
It appears that I am very very high up and that my decidedly sweaty arse is wedged in a shopping trolley that in turn is dangling from a piece of metallic string. At this point, it is safe to say I feel nervous. I am acutely aware of the unnaturalness of the situation, but also of the exhilaration that I am feeling. And then I am at the bottom, stumbling, trying to get my legs working and my eyes to adjust to take in the enormity of this limestone cave.
Soon enough, I gather myself and head off to find my dad and brother. Forty years on, my dad has finally made it. We have all made it. With Gill out the way, it’s just us locked in this hug, this moment.