His father took him to the Yorkshire Dales when he was a boy. They searched out caves in guide books and on a cloth-backed map, and then drove out to park and pursue them, hounds on a scent, trekking moorland paths until, in some cliff face or grassy hollow, a rocky mouth opened before them.
Sometimes, it was a narrow, smiling mouth, like a snake, inviting them to take their chance, daring them to enter. Other times, it gaped widely, disguising the dark menace within with an affable welcome. He recalled the trepidation with which he stumbled towards those caves and clambered within, food for a hungry mouth.
He trusted his father because his father was a cautious man who knew that beyond the threatening mouth there was little to fear. His books told him what to expect. He knew if the cave would widen into a small cavern. He knew how far they could safely go, and when the moment had come to turn back. Usually, they stopped to peer by torchlight down a narrow tunnel, which they dared not follow, down into unknown depths. Occasionally there were streams, rarely seen but often heard, like some subterranean beast.
They never went far into the caves, rarely losing sight of the failing daylight lingering at the mouth, but it was far enough for him to feel a suffocating weight, as if the rock above his head compressed the air he breathed and crushed his lungs. His heightened senses drew every gram of dread, and of exhilaration, from the moss-damp walls, the shining stalactites, the distantly heard echo of a rumbling stream, and the heavy darkness.
Fear and excitement were his constant companions on those adventures.
When they did pursue a particularly welcoming tunnel further under the mountain, they would stop, turn off their torches, and listen. They would absorb the utter darkness, the only true darkness, and, for him, it was like some living thing creeping into his skin and burrowing down into his soul. When they joined, for a few metres, a shallow stream, he felt it grow deeper beneath his feet and flow with increasing haste. He pictured the sky outside growing dark, the rain falling in torrents and a flood carrying him down until he was lost in eternal shade.
At home, at night, in the darkness of his bed, he would re-live, not only the cave itself, but the fears and terrors the experience had stamped on him, like a tattoo or a permanent scar.
There was a cave on those nights, set of a shelf of rock, the mouth a narrow slit which opened into a tunnel with sufficient height for a child on hands and knees. It was a terrifying place where no hint of daylight penetrated. His friends would peer in the entrance, glimpse the darkness, and draw back, shaking their heads as if the damp cave had laid cold, damp hands upon them. They would go no further.
He couldn’t recall when he first explored the full extent of his cave. Nor could he explain why he returned to it so often to relive its terrors. But, throughout his childhood he returned again and again, facing horrors and fears which never diminished by a single degree, but which grew by anticipation.
On dark and moonless nights, not long after he had closed the book he was reading, and lay slumbering and warm in bed, he would find himself, torch in hand, standing on the ledge, outside the narrow entrance. A moment later he was swallowed by it, and the weight of rock above him began to compress, driving the air from his lungs.
Within twenty or thirty metres, the tunnel down which he crawled grew lower and narrower, until he could only proceed by supporting himself on his elbows and wriggling forward, his knees and arms scraping against walls and floor.
After another few metres, the tunnel turned sharply to the left and steeply upwards before swinging viciously right, and levelling out. The only way to pass this obstruction was to shuffle onto his back and propel himself only with his feet and elbows until the level passage was achieved.
It was then that the true horrors of the cave revealed themselves.
The walls of that narrow tunnel were so close on either side that his arms, pressed against the cold rock, could not free themselves or move, while above him, inches from his face, a jagged roof, spiked with lacerating splinters, carried the weight of a mountain on its back. He closed his eyes, desperate to rid himself of the feelings that surged and tore in the pit of his stomach, and to calm the pounding in his chest.
He inched painfully on, pushing with his heels and hands, his torch useless, his eyes closed against the dread of what lay around him. He knew that he could not go back. Were he to find himself unable to move further forward, he would be trapped, imprisoned, until death overtook him. The oppression of rock grew so great he could barely breathe. He was lying in his coffin, deep underground, alone, and without hope.
Something inside him wanted to scream, but, inch by inch, he struggled on.
The tunnel was mercifully short. First his head emerged into a wide, high cavern and then his shoulders and then, to his relief, his elbows and arms. He clambered out, shone his torch around the cave, and cried out with delight. For, all around him, stalactites shone and glistened, and wrinkled rocks glowed orange and grey. Through the centre of the cave, a crystal stream carried wavelets along a bed of soft green. The stream disappeared, rumbling and splashing into a dark tunnel, and rolled on towards the mysterious heart of the mountain.
In the corner of the cavern, a round-mouthed passage dropped vertically. Pinned securely to its side, a wooden ladder fell into darkness. He swung himself onto that ladder and clambered cautiously down, feeling his way with feet and hands.
No matter how many times he clambered into this passage, he never knew the point at which the stone walls gave way to wood, nor when the smooth wood became fractured planks. All he knew was that when he reached the bottom and stepped away into a musty daylight, he was in a barn, on a hayloft, looking down onto the straw-covered floor below. Above him, the rafters, broken in places, permitted an influx of welcomed light, as did an open door in the far wall.
He stepped over the creaking boards and found a trap-door and another ladder and, within a minute, he stood outside, free of the earthy smell of animals, free of the damp and decay. A few steps took him back to the alleyways and terraced streets of the town, and then he was back in his bedroom, curled under cotton sheets, in a sleep from which he would momentarily awake. At that moment, he had the clearest recollection of his journey, and the emotions of terror, elation and relief it created. Then he would sleep again, peacefully now, until morning.
He followed that route many times over the years of his childhood, until he spread his adolescent wings and flew into a new world, where such things were no more than a strange and distant memory. Adulthood came, marriage, and children of his own, and he rarely thought of the cave until, an old man, he found himself slipping back into a shadow world of the past.
From somewhere, – he hardly understood where – he recalled this jewel of memory and saw it, as if viewed in a deep well. He reached down to grasp it, but it eluded his wrinkled hand, and fell away from him, always tantalisingly out of reach.
He could no longer locate the cave, or remember what it looked like. He could not recreate the feelings which had accompanied him through so many long, childhood years. All he could see was an old barn, its timbers cracked and fallen, a roof crumbling under its own weight and within it, when he dared ease back the creaking door, just a dry floor and a hayloft, and pigeons fleeing through gaps in the walls.
There was no cave.
He searched in vain for the terrors he felt, for the ghastly oppression of rock, for the coffined space within which his tiny body was temporarily imprisoned, the joyous reprieve, the triumph of fears overcome, and the joy. It was gone. Only an echo of a fear once felt, lingered. It was a scene from a stranger’s life.
Only on one occasion, as he lay in half-sleep, on a cold Autumn night, did he find himself in that narrow prison once more; the horror of it was more than he could bear, and he turned his mind from it, and fled. The door to the world of his childhood nightmares, was closed forever.
He would not tread that path again.