The Second Cycle

Had I not known
that I was dead
already
I would have mourned
my loss of life.

Death poem of Ota Dokan (1432-1486)

June First saw another death, although I didn’t know until the Second.

My dad’s uncle. A fall at home, followed by a fall asleep in his chair. Only a few years older than my dad, so more like a brother. He had lamented to me at the burial that the order was wrong; that he should have gone first.

My planned trip to the UK for that month inevitably got cancelled. My suitcase remains sitting in a corner of the bedroom, packed for a trip that is still a way off in the future. It’s being joined by an increasing number of boxes ready for a big move.

I pick up Irvin Yalom’s Staring at the Sun with its ominous subtitle Overcoming the Terror of Death. He talks of ripples, a concept I can understand well as during the first year all it felt like I was doing was lobbing huge rocks into the depths of a massive lake. The thing with ripples though – they move forever outward, leaving all around you still. Occasionally you may feel a slight back-lap, but that’s inevitably just from someone else lobbing a rock.

Otherwise, I feel a space.

People, events, and objects move in and out of it, but the space stays.

I become intrigued by a work that the artist Jackie Morris is working on.  At the time I come to it, the name is The Space Between.

 Over the year though, I see her begin to fill this space with feathers, stones, bark, gold leaf, otters, labyrinths, and typewriters.

I fill my space with books – reading them, talking about them, listening to other people speaking on them. I realise I did the same in the second year after the Tohoku earthquake. It’s not so much retreating into books, rather expanding out with them. Being able to access literary festivals online is a godsend.

The genres and topics I veer towards range from grief to death to magic realism to spirituality, along with a whole lot of bizarre.

Beowulf makes a special Xmas appearance.

Out in the real world, I manage two outings beyond the immediate vicinity of our house. One in the summer to a hotel restaurant overlooking the bay and one in winter to a bayside restaurant with a view of the city. Otherwise, I circle round and round the same 2-mile area – supermarket, post office, convenience store, all interspersed by Kōshin-tō stones depicting the three wise monkeys under the feet of Shōmen Kongo, who protects against all types of evil, including disease.

The principle is that the gods can’t be angry if they never hear, see, or tell your bad deeds. Just remember to stay awake for a whole night once every sixty days and you’ll be alright.

What of the third one?

In August, I get word that my dad’s second bicycle has finally been sold. The quirky bike. While the first one, a red and black Cannondale, had soon found a new home and gone on a grand tour of Europe (well, Spain at least), this second one was something of a Frankenstein’s monster. Bits and bobs added here and there to a Specialized frame. Customized* in Eski style, meaning the concept was completely lost on everyone else. All that could be said was it had character.

Quirky.

* Even the plastic drink bottle had been customized. It felt like there was left-over drink in it, but when I had gone to hesitantly empty it, a bunch of assorted bike tools wrapped up in a rag fell out. Ergonomic; waste nowt; spend nowt.

With that, the loose ends around my dad’s estate are sorted.

I pack away all the documents, letters, birthday cards, a mud-stained phone, and caving notes into an old school satchel and place it in the closet.

A memory box.

In the new year, I join a second book club and throw myself into The Memory Police (written by Yoko Ogawa and translated by Stephen Snyder). It makes me question what I remember and what I’ve forgotten. The levels of pain and numbness that comes from realizing things have gone, are going, will go.

A memory comes.

It’s 1997. We’re on Enoshima, a small island off the coast near Kamakura.

An outside table at a restaurant. Freshly fried tempura and ice-cold beer. Sea eagles swooping overhead on the breeze. Buddhist drums and chants from the nearby temple. Everything bright and blue.

He’s smiling.

‘Now I feel like I’ve arrived in Japan,’ he states.

I step back in my head. How did we get there? Where else had we been? How long did he stay? Where have my memories gone of my dad’s first trip to Japan and why is only this one left, blazed in place like the hot sunshine of that day? I could sit a while and try to recall more, but it would be a haze, just imaginings. Not real. Unreal.

A samurai and his camera  (The Yokomizo Residence, Yokohama, October 2008)

Yalom releases a new book A Matter of Death and Life, co-written with his wife the writer and historian Marilyn Yalom after they learn of her terminal diagnosis.

He too is in the second cycle. I watch his Zoom talk. He mentions that the first marking points have all passed. Now the second birthday, second Xmas, and second New Year all pass, and we arrive here at the second anniversary.

I go to check on the internet about second cycles. It helpfully dumps tens of thousands of results on me stating that the second year of grief is worse than the first.

I’m glad I learnt that at the end and not the beginning…

I take my usual route to the local supermarket.

As I cross the road, a bicycle cuts across my path.

A black Cannondale.

Another cycle has passed.

Great Douk – Quantum Digging

Eski

(This article first appeared in the NPC Newsletter 60 in  February 2004)

Following recent comments about activity levels within the club, it might interest some of you to know that someone from the club is actually doing some digging every week. Before you get too excited about this signalling a renaissance I should admit that it is still the ‘feared and fearsome’ Thursday night team or, more precisely, the tattered remnants of it.  When we accidentally misplaced Batty’s knees somewhere on Fountains Fell and he joined an NHS waiting list, Frank and I temporarily lost our raison d’être. We no longer had someone to provide order and meaning to our lives. No-one to channel the fearsome internal drives wrought by aeons of amoral evolution.  No-one to provide social status and certainty in a volatile world. We had, in short, no-one to say ‘Dig ‘ere’.

Fortunately, we fell in with the YSS and their efforts in Great Douk.  For those of you unfamiliar with Great Douk it’s on Ingleborough. (For those of you who don’t know where Ingleborough is, it’s that lump between The Crown and the Hill Inn). It has an impressive upper streamway that debouches into a large tree filled ‘ole where the stream sinks into chaos. For years this has been a focus of interest for many clubs searching for the downstream continuation, most notably, the Bradford and NCC (or so the old ones say) who dropped a shaft in one corner of the chaos into a savage, frequently flooded crawl which ended with a 20’ pitch into a large chamber containing crumbly walls and a floor that said ‘Ah used ter be t’ceiling. Eeeh! Them were t’days. Hic!’.

The situation suited me ‘n Frank not only down to the ground but quite a bit below it. On Thursdays we could stormtrooper into the dig, create all sorts of havoc in the general direction of down by the random application of dehydrated mini black holes, then, at weekend, the skilled lads would come along and make things pretty. In thus ways was the terrible crawl enlarged so that we now have considerably less scary access to the final chamber than the earlier explorers.

The problem of where to dig in the chamber itself was overcome by the application of quantum mechanics. It’s often said that ‘caves are where you find ‘em’. Consider this. Would you look for a cave where you don’t expect to find one? Of Course Not. So, the very act of observation implies a probability, however small, of the existence of a cave where you’re looking and, if you didn’t look there, there wouldn’t be one. At least, not from the observers frame of reference. A classic example of the act of observation influencing the outcome of the experiment or, in this case, where you start shovelling shit from.

We happily set about converting the chamber floor into a large and gruesome crater, which, after the weekend boys had been in, miraculously became a neat, scaffold-lined shaft.

Naturally the deeper this shaft became, the more difficult it was for the two of us to dig, lift and empty buckets but we gained help from a rather unexpected quarter when I suffered, for reasons that we needn’t go into here, what I believe is known in polite circles as ‘a severe blow to the head’ which left me with two things.

Thing the first is an impressive facial scar that came together with an urge to wear coloured headscarves and a gold earring, carry a cutlass and bury large boxes of trinkets in the sand-dunes at Southport.

Thing the second is, well….’companions’ that only I can see. Frank diagnosed the problem thus:

We all have a blind spot in each eye where the optic nerve connects to the retina. Our brains recognise this and ‘fill in’ the spot with appropriate information from the immediate surroundings. Now, a good bash on the head can create a second blind spot, known as a scotoma, which the brain also tries to fill but, since it hasn’t had a few million years of practice with this particular spot, the ‘filler’ can be somewhat bizarre.

(Note that this is not the same as always seeing naked ladies when you close your eyes. Other evolutionary forces account for this).

In my case the ‘filler’ that I see is cartoons. That’s right, Bugs Bunny, Mickey M, Road Runner, any of ‘em can pop up large as life. So, being practical people, Frank and I issued a blanket honorary membership to the lot of them and put ‘em to work. Frank would dig, I would haul buckets and whoever was appearing alongside me at the time would heave the crap over into the far corner of the chamber.

This worked amazingly well. No sooner had the bucket reached the top of the shaft than, whip, zipadeedoodah, it was emptied and back on the rope. But what, I hear those of you with incisive minds ask, happens if, say, instead of Superman appearing, I get Goofy or Dopey? Doesn’t that slow down the digging? The answer, of course, is ‘no’ because cartoons aren’t real and so don’t conform to our values of spacetime.  Even Snow White, I’ve discovered, can empty a bucket of neutron-dense sludge in, well, no time at all.

The flat-earthers among you may doubt all this but the experimental facts show that it works. We dropped the shaft about 15’ before finding a drafting hole that led into a rift going off from the chamber, descending another 20’ or so on the way. Currently the whole process is being repeated at the bottom of the rift where we are confident of baldly going……etc.

In summary then:

  1. The club still has active members.
  2. In addition to tried and tested forms, cutting-edge scientific methods are being fully utilized at the extremes of our sport/science.
  3. Members are open to all new ideas, including the uses of parapsychology.
  4. It is occasionally difficult to differentiate between cavers and cartoon characters.

Stay in this space-time continuum for further developments.

By John Illingworth, CC BY-SA 2.0

The Indian Half Hour

The Kunzum Pass

A tale in two parts, the first by Wendy and the second by Eski. The Pennine trip to the Himachal Pradesh was from 27 August – 28 September 1998. Part I was published in the Northern Pennine Club Newsletter February 1999 No. 46 and Part II in the May 1999 No. 47 one. A bit of editing has been done here to correct glaring mistakes.

The Indian Half Hour – Part I

Sub-title: Your Wen No Yen Ya Ken

                                                    Wendy (sub-title added by Eski)

When I heard that Eski was going to India I thought, there’s no way I can let my dad go on his own. So off I went too. It was a bloody good job too, otherwise he could really have had some fun.

As the leading team to the Himalayas (pronounced Himaaliyar by those climbing greats – Bonnington, the Im Shallah bloke, and of course, good ol’ Brian Blessed…) in HP (Himachal Pradesh), it was our mission to set up a basecamp for team 2 who’d be arriving in a week’s time.

It’s in this account I shall describe the (un)fortunate events that led to us being left penniless and beerless, swinging our tanned, toned legs from the Guest House balcony. Well, camping just wouldn’t have been the same without the others.

It started off a wonderful trip. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, beggars grinned in New Delhi station as they shouted

“One rupee, one rupee”

and Uncles Col and Roy smiled back as they replied

“Bugger off!”

Finding the “Uncles” had been a little difficult – (I say Uncles coz you try explaining what a 23-year-old girl is doing with the Pennine) the description given was look for a clean-shaven bloke and a Teletubby. But this wasn’t taking into account it was Delhi airport amid a mass of Dutch tourists. I mean, come on, all these gaijin look the same. (Gaijin = bloody foreigners)

New Delhi station was an eyeopener. It’s just the place to go if you want to be harangued by starving, crippled kids and, for an extra $52, you can rebuy your ticket on the express train, The Himalayan Queen, and get to sit in an office across the street from the station and be lied to. Of course, we didn’t fall for that. Instead we sat in the luxury European waiting room, ie on the platform with the rats. Uncle Col had a magnetism with rats.

Some express train – it stopped for every car, person, and cow. It finally pulled into Shimla though after many, many chai stops to men rattling the windows and dragging us and our bags from the carriages.

Shimla was like walking down Skipton High Street, except there was no sign of WHSmiths. There were more cockroaches too. The Indian equivalent of The New Inn was the Hotel Mehmen with its wonderful aroma of eau de damp and background music of screeching monkeys. But it all added to the ambience of the trip and we didn’t waste time in sampling the local brew, Golden Eagle.

It was here however, we, or rather I suffered my first setback. In my back pocket was 90,000 Japanese yen (roughly 450 quid) and whaddya know, it wasn’t worth a penny thanks to collapsing Asian economy. A frantic phonecall was made to get Eski to bring more money. (Well, that’s what dads are for, isn’t it?)

And then it was off to Kalpa, further up in the hills. The Mehmen hotel porter was a fine strapping lad. He literally strapped all 4 of our rucksacks to his back, then plodded off down the road leaving us to stroll empty-backed behind him. From the road we went by Kamal – that was the driver’s name.

Climb high, sleep low

An acclimatization period was announced. We woke to a mountain ridge towering above us across the valley from Kalpa. We were suitably impressed. A bit cloudy, but…

And then the clouds rose.

“Bluddy ‘ell” exclaimed Uncle Col. He quickly ran to check on his clean underwear drying round the corner of the balcony. A further cry was heard. He’d just seen the mighty Kinner Kailash in typical Pennine fashion – framed by socks and grundies.

Day 1 was spent looking at the mountains, taking photos of said mountains, then going downhill to Rekong Peo, while keeping an eye on the mountains, to get essential goods to maintain the running of camp – beer, ketchup, and bog roll.

Day 2 came and saw us making a concerted effort to reach the ridge that loomed up behind us. Goddamn it! We were surrounded by mountains. The aim – get to the top… OK maybe the treeline. No? How about that hut? That looks pretty close. Hey, why’s everything going green? Can I have my eyesight back now?

After a slight bout of altitude sickness on my part, we decided to repair to the South side of the Kinner Kailash in the Sangla valley for further inspection. However, to get there involved a mobile boom box that jaya jaya buli bulied its way up a dirt track that’s classed as a national highway, plus a nice breathtaking, bowel-sucking 200m drop to what looked like a small glacial stream, but was in fact a raging river. And what Indian experience would be without its demons – giant orange trucks with the boding phrase

“Oh God Save Us”

Emblazoned on the front, a lone flip-flop hanging from the back (apparently to stop unwanton covetness of said bloody big orange truck, but is more likely to be a tally for the no. of people shoved down a ravine today).

You never see the driver, just the occasional scrawny hand beckoning you on into the path of… yes, another truck. While usually to your right is a narrow piece of crumbling gravel and THE DROP.

It’s well worth it though, as this road leads you to something akin to the lost valley. There you’ll meet kids who parrot “Hello, hello” and friendly old women who nod knowingly as you gasp and wheeze your way up their garden path.

Now, I’m not a climber and have no intentions of following in the wetsuit of Eski down those dank, dark holes, but I can tell a good mountain when I see one. Uncles Col and Roy did lots of oohs and aahs, then started formulating plans. If I remember rightly, please correct me on this lads if I’m wrong, the best place for a base camp would be Chitkul, up the valley from the village of Sangla. From there, those who just wanted to hike could go off on a 5 or 6 day trek, or even lots of little day treks because the valleys seem to flow one into the other. But the big boys could get together with porters from Sangla and push up to the base of Kinner Kailash. From what we could see there’s cultivation on the steep sides to nearly two-thirds of the way. A base camp could be set up around there, and an alpine assault could be done, a quick up and down with as little gear as poss. Time involved was estimated at 3 days with maybe a week or 2 weeks before as acclimatization, waiting for it to stop raining, or just knocking off a few of those smaller 6000m unnamed peaks.

“Has the sun gone down yet?”

came the familiar cry from Uncle Col. In other words, beer time. Rationing was of course in effect. Two bottles a night (between 3 people I may add) except in Sangla where it rose to four coz there was a festival on and it wouldn’t have done to be outdrunk by the locals. The festival was something to do with aromatic flowers – you know the kind of thing – mad monks go up mountain, collect smelly flowers, get high, come down mountain and hack up a few sheep and goats, all to keep tradition alive.

Buying beer was like going to the local jail to bail your mate out, what with the cast iron bars you had to speak through and the general seediness of the place. We weren’t very spoilt for choice – either super strong or superstrong. The names were interesting though. Godfather, with its mellow yet ominous undertones, or Thunderbolt, that hit you straight in the throat, then carried on into your stomach.

We got the first inkling that the second team had arrived in India coz

  1. It started to cloud over for the first time that holiday, and
  2. We got a strange phonecall from a pissed Rason and a freaked out Eski. And we mean really freaked out, man.

While Rason giggled in the background, Eski waxed lyrical about the evils of Delhi, the shit that pours in streams down filth-ridden streets, collecting in pools of human festering. Chill out, dude – shit happens ☺

He also mentioned something about feeling Hapi Hapi, or was that the other way round? Whichever, it was very confusing as he’d unwittingly got engaged to him and now wanted to break it off to be with Sanjay the Superstar.

We returned to Kalpa to sit it out until Team 2 arrived with beer and cash. By now the GH family had taken pity on us, giving us fresh walnuts, apricots, and apples. It could also have been to stop Uncle Col raiding their orchards, under the pretence he was practicing his climbing techniques. Then he had to excuse his limp, from falling out of the trees, on the high altitude.

The arrival day for the follow-up team came ….. and went.

We sat on into the night, swinging our legs over the edge of the balcony, wondering if and how we were going to be able to pay the GH bill. All the lights that could have been 3 white jeeps turned out to be tractors, uses, and the local guerillas doing their night manoueuvres. Give it another half hour, we thought.

Then there was a commotion from below, engines revved, doors slammed, and voice carried up along the path.

“Hey up youth, where’s the beer?”

And why had they been so late? Well, that’s another story. Let’s just say it had something to do with schoolgirls….

Three Jeeps – Route 505 between the Kunzum and Rohtang Passes

The Indian Half Hour – Part II

                                                           Eski

‘Namaste’, depending on your translator, means ‘God go with you’ or ‘I salute the God in you’. Say it to the meanest Indian beggar and the reply ‘Namaskar’ (which is a far more polite form) will be delivered together with a prayer-like joining of the hands and a smile of such joy that the shit covered bag of bones responding is immediately transformed into a ragged angel bestowing a blessing.

Contrast this with the greeting of the Pennine advance team, swinging their toned, tanned legs from the edge of the guest house balcony. ‘Where the fuck have you been? Wiv no beer n’ no money!’ and ‘S’right Dad, it’s not tobacco, just REALLY inhale’. Fortunately, I was immune to its effect….

On the seashore of endless worlds children meet… Tempest roams in the pathless sky, ships are wrecked, death is abroad…… and children play.

The B team was at least a day late, delayed by, well, India, in the form of con men (everyone needs to be conned once – it’s like a vaccination), militant schoolgirls prostrate on the road (what better way to stop the trucks), bureaucracy, insanity and an unusual form of population control that involves stuffing ninety people onto a bus designed for thirty then driving it over a cliff or into a river or, best of all, slam bang into a train designed to carry five hundred but now containing enough smorgasbord to feed the rest of the world for a month.

Anxious to make up for the delay we hit the main Hindustan – Tibetan Highway (picture the Hull Pot track tacked half-way up a bloody great cliff of crumbly cheese, now picture something worse – you’re still nowhere near) and made our way via tracks clinging and precipitous to our first campsite in a farmyard at Thangi, intending a three day warm-up trek over the Charang Pass (5266m), knocking off a peak on the way over, then down to Chitkul in the Sangla Valley (a spot that the A team had become enamoured of and apparently well worth a visit).

Unfortunately we were halted by the Indian army who for some reason didn’t think that Tibet, China, Pakistan, nuclear weapons and the Pennine was a good mix.

A pompous little colonel arrived together with the army camp doctor ‘to engage us in debate’. He introduced himself as being from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (‘like MI5 you know, isn’t it?’). He informed us that the ‘British are spineless’ but we didn’t feel miffed because shortly before he’d pointed out his ‘top secret listening post hidden in the trees up there’, and asked us not to let on to the Chinese or the Ameri……..’

They’re all watching me man. They’re putting needles in my head when I’m not looking… You know?

After an hour I’d learned nothing except he was a sad little bastard. He complained that he couldn’t communicate with the locals and seemed to think that that was the fault of the British too. Shortly afterwards the farmer’s raggedy wife rolled up. She did a swift double take of me and Wendy and her face lit up. ‘Papa? She asked. I nodded. She pointed to a raggedy child, then to herself and said ‘son’ with immense pride.

India does stuff like that – in a look, universal joy, universal sorrow, universal life.

So we retreated and headed to Musrang for a six-day warm-up trek over the Tarikhango Pass (4866m) to the Pin and Spiti Valleys. At Musrang we had a delightful campsite between the school and an embryonic hydroelectric tunnel. The occasional surprise explosion from the tunnel peppering the campsite with shrapnel was nothing compared to the attentions of the local kids, most of who produced equal parts of industrial strength snot and ear discharge.

‘One pen, one pen’ they’d beg or, more mysteriously of Roebuck and Hall, ‘one lipstick, one eye shadow’.

We journeyed complete with mule train up a steep valley between 5000m peaks and containing, to my surprise, ancient mixed woods, glades and high pastures. It was pure delight, real lost world stuff, complete with prayer flags, hanging glaciers, and wheeling eagles. The guidebook spoke of ‘The Land of Ibex and Snow Leopard’ and optimism reigned.

Eski in a lost world or just lost?

Unfortunately (again) during the night the other kind of rain began. When the cloud occasionally lifted a little, we could see that the snow level was coming down faster than we were going up. It became obvious that we’d never get the donks over the pass because of the deep snow, so it was back to Musrang and the decision that we’d have to suffer a long drive to the Spiti Valley via Manali and the Rohtang and Kunzum Passes to try to get in the rain shadow of some big hills.

Words cannot describe the next few days. ‘Hotels’ sluiced out with Jeys fluid of such concentration that it made your eyes bleed. It could have cleaned out Chernobyl, but it couldn’t handle the crap output by Indian society.

It’s the kitchen?!! Oh man! I just had a shit in there.

The sodding schoolgirls were prostrate on the road again and we spent hours sitting boiling in the jeeps on one of the few fine days of the trip. Ancient trucks died in front of us, blocking the ‘road’ interspersed with landslides which, in an interesting variation on job creation, were cleared down the mountain by the local gang to create a slightly bigger blockage on the same road for the next brigade a couple of hundred feet lower.

We just drove past there!

However – the Lahaul, Pin, and Spiti Valleys are a raw, savage, awe-inspiring high desert environment of mostly 5-6000m peaks with the valley floors reshaped by glacial floods every spring. We hauled up in pitch darkness and horizontal sleet at an altitude of about 4000m by a roadside restaurant – well, some dry stone walling with a tarpaulin over the top. Stepping inside was like going back a thousand years. Mr and Mrs restaurateur presided over an ‘oven’ in surroundings only slightly more soot blackened than themselves. Lounging on stone benches and ran around the walls, wearing funny hats and cloaked in blankets sat about thirty weather blasted brigands.

A hut fit for brigands

As Wendy, Keith, and I walked in, the obligatory wide-eyed, jaw-dropped, deathly silence fell. ‘Namaste’ says I. The place immediately erupted into the Tibetan / Indian equivalent of ‘Get thi’selves in ‘ere by t’fire an ‘ave a drink wi’us owd pal! What a bastard night init?’ (The translation may not be perfect but you get the drift).

Amongst the brigands was a group of Bengali climbers who, along with their porters, had left virtually all their equipment on the mountain and sprinted down to avoid the storm. They’d managed to climb a 7000+m peak in 1960s boots and C&A jackets and were quite deservedly getting pissed.

Down in the Spiti Valley, we had a warm-up trek to the Dankar Gompa, which is one of the many 1000-year-old monasteries that the Dalai Lama is going to retire to. It was allegedly built in one night and it shows. If you like your religious buildings and artefacts in the form of large lumps of mud, then this is the place for you.

The Ki monastery, just up the road, sits majestically on a knoll in a pastel and watercolour dream. We didn’t spoil the illusion by visiting it, but we did have a warm-up trek in the Pin Valley, including a dangle-in-a-basket river crossing, to Mud, where our six-day walk would have ended.

The geology in this area is incredible with huge slabs of bedrock ripped from the horizontal to the vertical and it doesn’t just make pinnacles, it makes mountains. I counted the equivalent of the Grandes Jorasses fourteen times on one fantastic lump. There’s unclimbed peak after unclimbed peak for miles in every direction…

but just to be there in that light, in that country, in that company.

The snow level coming down

But…… the weather just got worse and worse. We made an abortive attempt to get to the lake at Chandra Tal, but the road was literally getting washed away around us, so we beat it back to the hot baths and chip shops in Manali with every intention of going to Dharamsala.

In fact, the whole of Northern India seemed to be getting the treatment. Just going from our digs to the chippy involved dodging (literally) rockfalls, so we retired, via Chandigarh, to the sophisticated, cultured, civilized world of Delhi and then home.

People ask me what I think of India. Well, I’ve never heard girls dying on the streets referred to as ‘economic transients’. I’ve never seen small boys sitting under wagons without a mask or crippled, crawling, begging in a city. I’ve never imagined such a stench, such filth, such poverty, such utter deprivation.

I’ve never seen families working as gangs for 70 rupees a day, maintaining mountain roads almost barehanded at altitudes that made me breathless, with no shelter, in winds of glacial ferocity.

The younger women mask all but their eyes against the elements. I’ve never seen eyes like those. Eyes to drown in, eyes to die for.

I’ve never seen smiles like their children’s smiles. Smiles of pure delight for now, for this instant because nothing else exists, only now – and now I’m happy because you acknowledge me.

Everyone who’s been there says that India will change you, but it didn’t affect me, I’m too ld, too world-weary. And would I go back? I might. And when? Well, I dunno, I’m not fussed – but, if you want, we could go tomorrow.

Spiti Valley

Grief, Measured

‘You didn’t have to be stuck in the story. You could change it, not just for yourself, but for other people. You could change the story with a wave of your hand.’

Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight

It has been a year and it has been a year.

I had imagined myself saying these words to a slightly swarthy group of mostly retired potholers at the start of June in a caver’s haunt somewhere in North Yorkshire, England. Instead I am writing them at home in a quiet backwater of Yokohama, Japan, as the world begins to slowly reset.

I have a notebook to my left on the desk. To my right, on a moss-green armchair, is a whole pile of them. They begin on 2nd June 2019 with a police officer’s ID and name, telephone numbers, facts, people to contact, and from there cascade into drafts of letters and emails, more facts, addresses, schedules, people to meet, scattered ideas, random thoughts, pourings of emotion that need to be anywhere but in.

Words flow, but passages stop and start intermittently, chaotic jottings anchored only by dates and times.

Fragments

This is not about me

The first night, no sleep or, rather, sleep to wake to a single light in the darkness. The headlamp of a caver sitting in a pitch-black void, and then in shock to wake again, and the light becomes the luminescent dial of a watch on a bedside table.

2am.

From then on, this is a time both dreaded and welcomed. The mourning hours from 2am to 4am, when all the pent-up emotions of the day release themselves as racking sobs, startled awake, overwhelmed, finally reduced, back into light sleep. From there, to rise and pass through the day, functioning on almost autopilot.

*

A rushed flight across the desert.

A man, towards older years, carefree, sits at the back of the transit bus. A wayfaring traveler like a mirage in the corner of the eye, so painfully familiar; there and yet not there.

Children, full of joy at getting to eat burgers and fries at 6am.

Laughter as a Japanese Satnav app tries to announce Accrington Bypass and instead shuts down.

Pain, on the faces of loved ones.

Surprise, looking in the mirror and instead of red, swollen eyes, being met by a clear, pale gaze.

Grief, like an invisible veil.

Emotions, separated.

*

The words Thank You, spoken with deep compassion, unending, unstoppable.

*

Every thought emerging as if out of nothingness to be considered anew. Time is of no matter, as up until that moment each issue did not even exist. Now the house, now the bank, family, back to the house, family, cavers, friends, car – where is the car? (That last piece of information gets misplaced for several months. The car is there, but not in any known place.)

*

A reluctance to use the words funeral or father.

*

Rain streams down the windows; a watershed.

*

The inexplicable head cold that comes on almost straight away and persists until the day of the burial, when it intensifies into a blinding headache. The head becoming the whole.

*

Rescue members and old friends at the caver’s graveside.

One son’s pained expression; benign confusion from the other, still wondering when Grandad is going to pop out and say ‘Da dah!’ because Grandad loves really dark jokes and this is the darkest one of all.

*

Everything broken. Disconnected.

Everyone needs time.

*

A flight, in reverse, back across the desert, into forty days of emotional exile.

Tangled

No right or wrong

At the three-week mark, a sudden void. To wake one morning and find the world has moved on, yet your grief remains present, is distressing to say the least. (If you know someone who has recently experienced grief in some form, now is the time to reach out with a kind word.)

~

I begin to imagine this all as a black comedy of my dad’s design. Whenever something arises, I take it to be a bizarre plot twist, aimed at making the situation even more absurd. Nothing to do but laugh.

That’s my story anyway and I’m sticking to it.

~

In my notes though, I rip out my soul and press it to the pages.

~

The best advice I receive is to be kind to myself. So I start to create a space within me, a place to be still at the centre of a chaotic storm.

~

I feel time splitting between the UK and Japan as I try to keep the connection with both the here and there.

~

I try to think of ways to ease the pain the rescuers and my dad’s friends must be feeling, but in my heart, I know I have to wait until they are ready. Until I am ready.

~

That doesn’t stop caffeine-inspired (fueled) ideas jumping to mind and into emails; yet people manage to parse what I actually mean, putting my mind at ease.

~

I seek out grief everywhere, to try and understand it, to try and find similar incidents with similar circumstances for guidance on how I should be acting in this situation.

~

But there are no rules to go by, no gauge for what is normal. It just is.

~

The rain continues, heavier, a deluge now.

~

After forty days, I return. I go with Rescue and the Gentleman up on to the fell. The thick mist means I can’t see a thing. But at least now I have walked in my dad’s footsteps.

~

My need to express gratitude to everyone is as strong as ever. Compassion flows.

~

I need to know everyone is okay.

Because if they’re okay, I’m okay.

Flux

Courage is a response

I feel a return to self.

I return to the mountains. I return to walking. Under light of day, I cautiously face my fears, but as evening draws in, I reach for headphones with loud music to drive out thought. My mind protests; the upbeat music going against its preset of sadness. Hurting because it makes me feel too much. But being pulled under is not an option.

I receive letters addressed to my dad. Some helpfully add (Deceased) after the name. Others just assume he’s alive and berate him for three paragraphs for not attending an appointment, then finish by cordially inviting him to telephone to make a new one.

The impending inquest hangs like a black tempestuous cloud. No-one knows when or how it will go.

I am slowly finding the story though.

I write to meet myself on that murky August day on the fell. I turn Fountains Fell into the ethereal and Eski into a boggart.

I write to face The Inquest. A lifestyle statement. A boy, a man, an outdoor enthusiast, a husband, a father, a traveler, a grandfather, and throughout, a caver.

I write the stories.

My soul is now ripped to shreds.

But the mourning hours are receding and many nights don’t come at all. It is a relief to wake after 5am, like a sign of visible healing. I worry that compassion may also begin to fade and so become mindful to its ebb and flow, guarding it carefully.

Beware of firsts, people caution.

Birthdays. First mine, then his.   

I gift myself the power to respond, not react, and the strength to feel emotions.

I present my dad with a cartoon of Death.

Xmas.

I anticipate this will not go well.

My younger son, sensing it may not happen at all, drags me to the cupboard on December 1st to get the decorations out. I leave him to put the tree up, while I stay in the cupboard weeping over last year’s Xmas cards.

On the eve, we run away to the bright lights of Yokohama Chinatown and then, on the actual day, float out at sea. Anywhere but home.

All the while, I keep up a routine of writing and emailing everyone to see how they’re doing.

Because if they’re okay, I’m okay.

Balance

Know your solitude

The New Year begins, bright and optimistic.

The headphones now drape more around my neck than cover my ears, the cord like a reassuring safety rope running over my shoulder, wrapped around my phone, in place for when needed.

The daily silences are becoming a comfort with less sense of dread. I feel happier in myself, which is good because the universe has deemed that we all stay in place. Plans get put aside and I quietly accept. Everything will still be there. Now we are here.

I take the time to read through my dad’s writings. His emails, letters, potholing reports. His constant interest in life, his ability to take the darkness and turn it into something that shines, his insistence on the importance of always wearing clean underpants – because you never know what will happen next.

It is in his last, unfinished, report that a Pratchettesque reference to midnight and dancing leads me back to the start.

‘Can you take away this grief?’

‘I’m sorry,’ she replied quietly. ‘Everyone asks me. And I would not do so even if I knew how. It belongs to you. Only time and tears take away grief; that is what they are for.’”

Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight

Brown Envelope, Yellow Card

There’s a brown envelope. A large missive in my hand. I know it’s for me as it has my name on it in my dad’s handwriting. It’s thicker than I expected. This is mainly because in 2015 my dad arranged to have his body donated to science; the university medical permission papers bulge out, meaningless now because of the unavoidable postmortem. The other contents I already knew about, because they’ve been pinned to my old noticeboard in my old bedroom in my old house since 1999. It is a copy of his will* and a white envelope with a yellow index card inside.

The card has four bullet points.

These are my instructions to follow in case of his death.

  • A Black Briefcase

Tucked away in a corner, but still in plain sight, the contents are indeed self-explanatory. Documents and letters related to his life neatly organized in paper files with headings like Bank Account, House, Utilities, Tax, and Car. All I have to do is take the case and hand it over to the solicitor. The simplicity of it reduces me to tears. The moment I opened this case, I was relieved of having to sort through any real bureaucratic matters. Everything is here in a format that anyone can understand and I am now free to focus on my emotions, on my grief. I am burdened and unburdened all at once.

When I look at his desk, the same principle applies. At a glance, I can see what he had been doing just days before – working on possible connections between various pothole systems and researching the latest dig, as well as keeping up his Spanish for a planned trip. There is some clutter, but not enough to confuse or cause despair.

  • A Key Safe

Located outside the old house, this once held a door key in case we ever got locked out, but I’m informed that the key safe has been removed in the last year in preparation for renting the house out. Instead I am handed eleven keys. I recognize two, possibly three. They are grouped into two assorted bundles. Four keys on one keychain and three on another, plus five attached make-shift with a scrap of wire to that chain. (By the end of that week, I can only identify one more key. The other eight remain a mystery.)

  • Email

This was an emotional obstacle too high in the first days. I had to come back to this at a later date and even then, it took me several days to bring myself to open the inbox. The computer was directly linked to his email, so I didn’t actually need a password. What I found was a revelation that would make the most zealous minimalist green with envy. Almost none of the emails were more than two months old. Any dated prior to that were related to issues my dad was still trying to resolve. Even the more recent emails were only ongoing conversations that still needed some action – arranging a meeting, booking a flight, a bank statement to be filed. There was no personal mail, no shopping activity, not even junk mail. I didn’t have to feel like I was prying into some private part of my dad’s life because he had been consciously, consistently erasing it all. It made sense. Did I really need to know the details of a cavers’ dinner he’s attended in 2017, with all the toing and froing of details like what main course he wanted and if he preferred a seat by the bar or in the main room? But he knew I would have hesitated again and again over whether it was right to delete something, some small piece of information that might hold an as-yet unknown importance. He saved me this trouble and in doing so remained what he always was – a truly private person.

  • FIRU

I download the said file onto a clip drive and also email myself the files to look at later. It’s basically a digital window into his financial situation, recent photos he’s taken, and pothole reports. Again, nothing really personal except for a birthday/Xmas card address list of around twelve people. There is also a letter from 2018 to an old work colleague that unusually had not been deleted. Or had he left it as a final clue so that I can connect the dots to all this sparseness? It’s a brief message to say that he’s cutting contact with many old faces from his past. I feel this was not done out of any maliciousness because I can feel the sadness in his words, but as being his way to clean the slate in preparation for his final stage of life. I write to the people on the address list to personally inform them of my dad’s passing. It gives me purpose and the kind words I receive back are a true comfort.

But of course, with my dad there always has to be a comic twist.

On the flipside of the yellow card is a note.

I know the teapot well and take a trip back to the old house, wondering what I will find.

 It is still there.

I reach up. Has he really left the flash drives in it? But no, it’s empty. An obvious thing, but still a flat ending to a slightly exciting treasure hunt. I eventually find the flash drives in a camera bag along with some CD-ROMS containing older photos, more pothole reports, and a bizarre three-minute video montage of photos of the Great Snow of 2010 in the Yorkshire Dales accompanied by the soundtrack of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (that must have been a very long, boring winter for him stuck at home and not able to get out caving or on his bike…).

I decide that I’ll try to be this organized for my kids, but will make it even simpler. All they’ll have to do is find a sea dragon in a treasure chest.

*My dad’s perhaps one oversight. He wrote his will in 1999 before the anti-terrorism and money laundering laws meant proper checks needed to be done on names, and he never updated it; so when I talk to the solicitor, I have to explain that all three people appearing in the will actually have different names… I’m warned that there may be delays in going through probate as we may be suspected of illegal activities!

The Clapham Gobbin

This little fellow has always been part of life, along with a whole host of interesting characters who may or may not actually exist (do any of us really exist though?). He regularly appeared in and on the back cover of NPC journals and there have been many spottings over the years along the road leading to Greenclose and up on the fells.

It’s very possible that Eski was not in fact searching for the elusive Master Cave, but was in fact hanging out with the Clapham Gobbin. He did always take extra tea and biscuits down the pot ‘just in case’.

This gobbin is not to be confused with the Clapham Boggart who is much more friendly and even has his own story walk.

He could be related to one of the flesh-eating boggarts that also lurk this area in North Yorkshire, but as you can see if you read the poem below (an excellent piece of local history, although not for the easily offended), all gobbins and boggarts remain terrified of the Pennine, so stick with a caver and you’ll always be safe!

SPRINGTIME

By Cyril Crossley

As owls did hoot along the Clapham road,

Staggering beneath a huge and cumbrous load,

A Clapham Gobbin clatters in his clogs,

Herding along a pair of black arsed hogs.

At every pace from each hog there is rung,

A loathsome and gigantic heap of dung,

And this, with hordes of savage, ravenous fleas,

Which buzzed and bit his knackers and his knees,

Did fog his brain and dim his eyes,

Bringing him to where a cottage lies.

And peering like a feeble witted louse,

He spelt the magic letters, Greenclose House.

It was a fairy cottage in a dell,

Without lived pixies, nymphs and gnomes as well,

But yet within this godly paradise,

There dwelt a black and sickly den of vice.

The dung stained swineherd staggered to the lane,

And peering through a cobwebbed windowpane,

Beheld a sight unfit for mortal sight,

Which caused the Gobbin’s balls to shrink in fright,

And panicked by their masters frenzied howls,

The slavering hogs did empty all their bowels.

But let us now with fancy step within,

And hearken to the bloody fucking din.

The Chairman who’s a big and gentle man,

Requests them all to hush please if they can,

And mildly censuring members round the walls,

He accidentally hammers on his balls.

The cottage trembles with his thunderous shouts,

Shut up! You bloody jabbering fucking louts.

Then silence reigns; the Secretary talks,

Of Fountains Fell and digs and timber baulks,

But when at last the Chairman slowly stands,

And calls for a conclusive show of hands,

The motion deals with hags and jades and whores,

And buggering crabs upon Sumatran shores.

The Horwich member sits in slumberous ease,

With pumpkin knackers splayed across his knees,

His questing root suspended o’er his chair,

Crushing gnats and midges in midair.

Meanwhile the Treasurer speaks in solemn pity,

Informing members there’s F.A. in the kitty.

And as a shocked silence stills the midnight air,

The Chorley member shags the wicker chair.

The Rescue Warden leaps upon his feet,

Protesting loud and long that all’s not reet,

And as he speaks, more violent the abuse,

The tandem is subject to gross abuse.

The Gardener in the shadows slyly grubs,

Stealing Pennine shite to feed his shrubs,

And yet they do not match in length or height,

The depths below of laminated shite.

The Chairman asks what shall the members do,

And if in fact this ghastly charge is true,

What proof is there that in the long-drawn night,

Our humble home is not engulfed in shite!

At this appalling thought all stare aghast,

Accusing eyes are at the Gardener cast,

But he, undaunted, speaks in terms aloof,

Now all is well; bar holes in’t fucking roof.

Outside the Gobbin crouched, transfixed in fear,

Yet petrified of moving lest they hear,

And as he turned, his foreskin twitched in fright,

The grunting hogs were shagging in the night.

His skinny frame is seized by callous hands,

The burly ogre in the moonlight stands.

The abject bundles punched along the floor,

The hinges groan upon the tandem door,

A heavy shovel falls with sickening clubs;

Silence! Then two Christ Almighty thuds.

A screech of terror rends the moonlit night,

Then all is silence beneath the waves of shite.

Illustrated by Trever Reynolds

The Power of Three

On the eleventh day of the third month in 2011, the earth shook. Seismic waves were quickly followed by huge watery ones, enveloping large areas of the East coast of Japan, shifting land, buildings, people, lives forever. Food, water, and electricity shortages; radiation warnings; constant earthquake alerts; innumerable aftershocks; immense loss and despair. Would anything ever be the same again?

My immediate response was to try and help in some way. I joined a group of dedicated people who were working online inputting data on Google People Finder from the thousands of photos of name lists being posted at evacuation centers. I joined initially as part of the effort to trace a young American woman called Taylor Anderson who was missing. She was an assistant English language teacher in Ishinomaki and had last been seen making sure that her students were okay after the earthquake.

While we searched the lists, whenever we found a non-Japanese name, we checked if there was already an entry for that person and then either updated the information or created a new entry. So many names. People searching for loved ones, people trying to contact family and friends to let them know they were safe. But it was the missing individual names that hurt the most. Finding one or two names in a family, when there should have been three or four. A brother, a sister, child, parent, or spouse wrenched apart by terrible force and the feeling of sheer pain of that separation.

A week later, we received the sad news that Taylor had not survived. We continued to go through each newly uploaded list for other names, but it soon became clear that fewer and fewer were appearing and some days there were no updates at all. In total, more than 22,000 people died in the earthquake and ensuing tsunami, and 2,500 are still missing.

I shifted to working with another online group coordinating information so that volunteers could be best allocated to where their help was needed. Then, when the opportunity came up to work as an in-house translator for a major NGO involved in recovery projects in the disaster area, I took it.

It gave me a sense of real purpose, but I still felt though that I needed to do more with my life. I took on other jobs on the side and filled all my time with either translation or study. Every day was like a competition to see how much I could cram in. I could feel myself teetering on an edge though, where with just one change, my whole schedule would begin collapsing into chaos.

That’s when the three dots began to appear.

Bullet points in biro at the base of my right thumb.

If I could get three basic things done each day to keep my life in balance, it made me feel like I was still on top of everything. Sometimes the dots acted as a shopping list.

  • Milk
  • Bread
  • Stamps

Sometimes they were a to-do list.

  • Pay bills
  • Clean bath
  • Phone mum

It brought false neatness to potential mess. The more firmly pressed into my skin they were, the more urgently they indicated my need to stay in control, to keep in balance. Some days they glowed red around the edges, while on others they faded to almost nothing. But something made me keep them visible. It is maybe no coincidence that they greatly resemble the S in Morse Code and an integral part of  ・・・ — ・・・

I ‘busied’ myself like this for nearly five years, so much so I was asked to be part of a translators’ panel to talk on time management, because apparently staying busy must mean you’re managing your time right. So I talked. About my two in-house jobs that had me racing from Yokohama to one end of Tokyo to the other and then back home again. About my freelance work that had me waking early, keeping me up late, and even working on the commute to my other jobs, using my trusty laptop and toggling wifi access with my smartphone. About my post-graduate distance learning studies crammed into any spare time in-between and my realization that when they say you read law, you really do have to read law, hundreds and hundreds of cases. Oh yeah, and raising two children under the age of ten. And as I talked, I saw my life reflected in the eyes of the audience. Stunned silence and looks of horror, some laughter (mostly from me as I came to see the absurdity of it all). I was not managing my time. Time was managing me. I came out of the talk and sat on a sofa in the lobby with a couple of other translators. We chatted and as we did, I realized I had nothing scheduled for the rest of the day. So I sat there. I did nothing. Time flowed and for a few wonderful hours, I let it. People came and went from the sofa. Conversations rose and fell, leaving us in moments of comfortable silence. It was probably the first time I had ‘stopped’ in a long time.

Several days later, I took out my older son’s calligraphy set and got the Japanese ink, jet-black, and with a needle made the three dots on my right thumb permanent.

I made changes. I cut back on work. I cut back on study. Commutes transformed into more me-time, checking messages and social media posts, reading books, time to myself. I felt physically more balanced.

Then on the first day of the sixth month of 2019, my personal world shifted with the loss of my dad, knocking me completely off-kilter and leaving a huge emotional gash.

And in rushed compassion.

Compassion for others and compassion for myself. People reached out to me, saying to be kind to myself and I understood. It wasn’t sitting down and watching my favourite TV programme, it wasn’t spending money on a beautiful item of clothing, and it wasn’t bingeing on chocolate. It was stopping in the moment and feeling whatever it was I needed to feel.

And that’s when three more dots appeared.

On my left thumb this time.

First as a reminder to try and notice being in the moment, of being aware of feeling at least three times a day. Grief is numbing. It leaves you devoid of emotion and you pass every day in autopilot. Nights are different. That is when you have to turn the music up louder, shut yourself down, and endure the mourning hours from 2-4 am, when everything suppressed during the day wells up and inundates you.

This noticing slowly evolved into being aware of feelings of happiness. It is actually a relief to know that you can still feel happy after tragedy strikes.

Now they have come to symbolize finding the magic in life at least three times a day. Some days it can be a push to find one, but the more you look and notice, the more they seem to appear.

Sparrows perched in a tree, finding a special shaped stone, the telling of a bad joke and the laughter that ensues.

An uplifting breeze, the first star in the evening sky, sunlight on moss.

A sentence in a book that speaks as if just to you, a memory in a photo, smiling eyes.

Balance is physical and emotional and I am learning to do both.

Image: Orion Head to Toes by Rogelio Bernal Andreo

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