‘It was in a cave near there that De Selby encountered St Augustine and surrealistic visions of eternity.’ or so I wrote last October of a cave in a cove where naturists liked to hang out. I’m not contending that De Selby or St Augustine were advocates let alone dedicated to meeting au naturel but far stranger things happened in The Dalkey Archive. By the way, the naturists I often encountered while walking the dog have recently moved around the head to the Vico Bathing place. In case you were curious.
The cave was once an adit. White Rock Beach is where the once molten granite met the mudstones and cooked them to offer intrepid Edwardians and Victorians the possibility of mineral rewards. The adit is now a mud- plugged cave, just below the former Obelisk Hill Station. If St Augustine had met De Selby in 1856, rather than a century later, one of them might have walked down from the railway halt built for the local land owner, Robert Warren.
Until today, I had no recollection of me at age eight or nine of being trapped in that same cave. Even as a geology student, a decade later, a field trip to study the whitish aplites and pegmatites that vein the granite triggered no memories. Nor had any dog walk nor swimming with our children nor hours spent with long exposure photography.
I grew up on the other side of the hill, hearing stories of the mysteries of the railway station that closed a century earlier. Such is the romance of the cove that attracted us adventurous kids. Long closed mines and railway stations offered the potential for escapades that semi-feral children like us lived for.
Then today, I read a paragraph from The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner. ‘… heels jammed against the roof: he could move neither up nor down and the rock lip dug into his shins and until he cried out with the pain. But he could not move …’
My last memory of claustrophobia was an attack while listening to loud and very bad music featuring f and n words that I thought we weren’t allowed say. If I was to rap about it, I might say that this n!99er$ heels were free but his f0ck1n’ head was jammed. I could move neither up nor down. Nor could I get the attention of the MRI technicians who must have tortured a deaf patient with the machine before I arrived. I had the horrors, full on terrors. A panic attack that taught me respect for panic attacks. Utterly irrational, I couldn’t tune out the music not turn down the volume of hormones coursing through my system. I felt utterly helpless but a rational inner voice told me to control my breathing and stop trying to get the technicians to notice my panic attack. I focussed on not having to start the MRI process again.
‘How was that?’ a smiling male technician asked through a well practiced, convivial social mask. ‘Horrific’ I answered and ‘I’m glad it’s over’. The technician smiled again and I tried to be helpful. ‘The music was offensive and there should be a way to turn it off’. He stopped smiling as if to say there must be some mistake.
And that was my sole memory of claustrophobia for my lifetime. Until I picked up Underland by Robert Macfarlane and found the quote from Garner in the First Chamber.
Aged eight or nine, we used our Raleigh bikes with the innovative plastic mudguards for a cycle down to White Rock Beach. It’s hard to forget the mudguards that cracked and broke every time the bike touched anything. Light by innovation but not robust. Too modern for my father who was also angry that we’d taken off and discarded the more suitable metal originals. But it was summer and it was good to be out cycling. And we could leave the bikes at the roadside and walk down the steep, paved and sometimes stepped path, to cross the railway and descend through the screeching fulmars and kittiwakes to reach the sandy beach.
We headed to the cave, the site of the fictitious encounter between De Selby and St Augustine that was probably being written that same year. The old adit had, by local rumour, once penetrated lodes of silver. Others said it had also housed pirate treasure, sheltered escaped German POWs, hidden the brandy smugglers’ casks and of course, our skins would melt in the heat if we went in too far. Some stories suggested the miners would have had an air vent up to the top of the hill.
The cave entrance is blocked these days but back then we could still scamper in. And it got narrower and blacker. And slippy with sea weed, water drip and judging from a whiff of ammonia, there was worse unseen. Somewhere in there I found a small opening and squeezed in. One of my friends followed and pushed my feet. I was blocking him, so he retreated. I wiggled, ready to reverse and follow.
My heels were free but my shoulders were jammed. I could move neither up nor down. I had the horrors, full on terror. A panic attack that taught me respect for panic attacks. Utterly irrational, I couldn’t move nor turn down the volume of hormones coursing through my system. I felt helpless but my rational thoughts were to control my breathing and stop shaking with fear. I barked my shins, my forearms, my side, my temple, my shoulders in my panic. But I got out.
I was eight so we laughed it off and ran around the beach before our little troop climbed back up to the road to cycle home. Despite the painful, scabbing reminders of my terror, by the next morning I had already lost the respect for panic attacks. They might be have been considered the mark of sissies by the others in our little gang that I aspired to lead.