The Rock Gave Way, Clamping My Foot Like A Steel Bear-trap.
I gasped as my ankle ligaments crunched with the sound of distant thunder and I threw my arms out wide like a drunk on a bouncy castle in an attempt to keep my balance as I desperately tried to prevent the load I carried on my back from falling down the mountainside.
Gulping down lungfuls of air, I shook my head once again to deter the insects treating themselves to an early breakfast of the sweat streaming down my face. My gaze fell downwards to the jumble of rocks, thorns and undergrowth that I had been desperately climbing for the last 45 minutes.
And then I knew I was trapped. I was too scared to go on, and I didn’t know if I could make it back down without losing the cargo I held.
Under normal circumstances, I would have focused purely on doing whatever it took to get out of the situation without further injury. This time, however, the stakes were higher.
The load I carried upon my back was my distinctly unimpressed 8-year old son.
At that precise moment, he was regretting his decision to leave the comfort of his bed and join me to watch the sunrise.
It was fair to say that neither of us were enjoying our induction into the early-risers club.
The Living Daylights
The secret mission had been devised the day before, and was brilliant in its simplicity.
My son and I would rise at 4am, jump into our clothes and drive to a nearby mountain that rose proudly from the harsh but stunningly beautiful North Wales countryside. We would arrive at the carpark near the foot of the peak and then enjoy a leisurely but challenging climb to the summit.
Uponing reaching our goal, we’d enjoy a picnic as the sun was rising and share jokes and stories. And we’d do it all in a safe, socially distant way without the need to burst any bubbles or break any rules like a couple political advisors visiting a distant castle to check their eyesight.
I was very aware this occasion would be a ‘life moment’ for my son and I. After all, I often struggled to get my head around the fact that I was in possession of an actual 8-year old in the first place.
I can remember being that age myself. I can recall my eighth birthday party at Bath Sports and Leisure Centre where we trampolined and binged on red Slush Puppies. And if I could remember that, then my son could remember this moment for the rest of his life as well.
Parenting had entered a new phase this year: My son would remember what I did…and more importantly, what I didn’t do.
Back in the early days, it hadn’t mattered so much.
The times when I’d found him sifting through the cat’s litter tray, looking for ‘toffees’, or the occasion when he’d put the TV remote in the freezer to ‘cool it down’, had all been received with a slight ‘get out of jail free’ nonchalance on my part, because I knew he was too young to remember things.
However, I still wonder if the whole ‘TV remote in the freezer’ episode was really an evil master plan to fool me into thinking I was suffering from early-onset dementia.
From now on, I realised: This stuff had real meaning. I had an opportunity to be a Hollywood director and craft a momentous adventure so perfect, so wonderful, that I would forever be cast as the heroic, action-man in the story of my son’s life.
Yes, this was how it was going to be. In years to come, when I would be carrying some extra timber and sporting a dodgy wig, like Sean Connery as James Bond in Diamonds are Forever, in my son’s eyes, I would forever be lean, daring and dangerous like Connery in his Dr No days.
As I went to bed the night before, I knew I had the perfect mission. Now all I had to do was execute it, and return to base for breakfast tea and medals.
No, Mr Bond, I Expect You To Die
“Shit shit shit shit shit”
The car’s hybrid motor screamed a high-pitched wail as I threw the vehicle around yet another country road. The shuddering acceleration and breaking reactions that were slower than a two-year old trying to catch a tennis ball reminded me that the days of driving a Porsche were long gone.
The morning hadn’t started as planned.
4am had arrived and I’d rolled out of bed, trying to fight the protests coming from every fibre of my body which were telling me to hide back under the covers and get a couple more hours’ sleep.
Nobody should be getting up at 4am. 4am was a time for horny teenagers to be giving each other Covid-19 in poorly-ventilated nightclubs, not for proper grown-ups to be getting out of bed.
My son had shared my distaste for early mornings and had been equally unwilling to wake from his slumbering starfish impression. So much so, that I was tempted to call the whole thing off and go back to bed.
“Bond wouldn’t have stood for this”, I muttered to myself.
I tried to put myself in the designer shoes of an anachronistic, misogynistic, heavy-drinking, public-schooled propaganda relic from a long-forgotten Cold War era…and decided I was not going to quit at the first hurdle.
But father and son shared our fondness for our beds and dislike for early mornings, and this had put us behind schedule.
Now, I was screaming around dark country lanes, teaching my son a whole new Urban Dictionary of words that I would later be bribing him to forget and never repeat.
I had no idea where the car-park was. I’d looked it up on Google Maps the night before, found a postcode, entered it into the Sat Nav and been reassuringly-informed that I had ‘reached my destination’ by the computerised voice that carried all the joy of a letter from HMRC .
Except I found myself standing in the middle of a farm like a Glastonbury festival reveller who had been following a Ketamine-based diet for the last three days, no idea where I was, and certainly no mountain in sight.
With the sky starting to lighten, I threw the car into reverse and headed back the way I’d come.
The Villain’s Lair
I spotted the dark monolith standing against the amber sky like a monument to all the fallen middle-class fathers who had mistakenly believed a weekend in the countryside would be a good bonding experience.
“There it is!”, I shouted to my distinctly-bored son, pointed my car at the rocky pyramid and headed for the structure like a peat-seeking missile.
Skidding into a layby with all the panache of Bond going for his morning dump in the marbled bathroom of a Mayfair hotel, I leapt from the car.
“Where’s the path, daddy?”, my son asked curiously.
“We don’t need a path, the sun will be rising soon!”, I yelled. “The only way we need to go is UP!”
Despite all my energetic clapping, thigh slapping and jumping up and down like a Butlins entertainer who is on his final warning, my boy couldn’t be encouraged to increase his pace.
My perfect plan was falling to pieces faster than a government lockdown policy, so I knew drastic action had to be taken. Hauling my son onto my back and immediately wishing I hadn’t allowed him that second piece of Rocky Road the day before, I started to march up the slope.
Waist-high in ferns and bracken, I tried to concentrate on the feeling of hidden thorns tearing at my flesh to distract me from the recurring thoughts of Adders being the only poisonous snake inhabiting the UK.
Then the rocks started to appear.
Before I knew it, I was clinging onto boulders like Stallone in Cliffhanger and cursing myself for ever thinking this was a good idea.
My perfect mission falling to pieces around me. I cursed myself for being too foolish, ill-prepared and risking too much on a stupid attempt to impress my son.
Had I really embarked on this mad adventure for his sake at all? Or had I allowed myself to be seduced by a honeytrap of an Insta-perfect photo opportunity with my eldest as an unwilling accomplice?
I knelt down, gasping for air as I provided an all-you-can-eat buffet for the local mosquitoes, my son looked at the sky and yawned.
“Can we go home yet?”
I knew we couldn’t abort the mission now, the final battle was about to commence.
You Only Live Twice
I gripped the rock with bloodied fingertips and hauled us over the edge. The summit was now in sight.
The delight and sheer relief of surviving the ascent was short-lived, as I saw the sun above the distant horizon. I had failed to win the race against its rising.
Holding my son’s hand as we took the final few steps towards the peak of the mountain, I couldn’t help but feel dejected. My plan was in tatters and my hopes of a perfect morning creating a lifetime’s-worth of memories were chewed-up and smouldering like a discarded cigar.
But the view was still enough to take our breath away.
Beams of deep orange sunlight penetrated the early-morning mist and illuminated the rolling countryside that surrounded us. The distant sea glimmered and shone like a million diamonds and the nearby mountains reflected the sun’s rays in purples and blues as if silently saluting our achievement.
We had done it. But we’d completed our mission the hard way.
I dug out our picnic but quickly discovered that my secret weapon hadn’t survived. Jam sandwiches, biscuits and crisps had all mashed together to resemble the contents of a hoover bag following the clean-up operation after a children’s birthday party. To add insult to injury, my water bottle had leaked, leaving me with a mess that looked and felt as if I had wet myself. Who knows, maybe I had. I was beyond caring.
Sensing my despondence, my sun hugged me and we both shivered in the cold breeze.
“Thanks Dad”. He said. “I’ll never forget this. Now can I go home and play on my iPad?”
Never Say Never Again
I sat on the sofa, covered in a patchwork of plasters and bandages, my nose stinging with the aroma of antiseptic ointment.
Overcome with a mixture of elation that we had survived the ordeal on the mountain, disappointment that it hadn’t been as I imagined, tinged with anger that I hadn’t been more organised, I reflected on the events from a few hours earlier.
I realised: life doesn’t go as we plan. We can spend days, weeks and months dreaming and imagining the perfect event, but things rarely happen this way. But does this mean we have failed?
After all, I’d certainly achieved my outcome of giving my son an outdoor adventure he would never forget. We’d spent some precious time together and he’d seen that his dad was human after all.
Did I really want him to believe his father was perfect? Did I really want him to assume that life would always go exactly to plan, that hidden dangers wouldn’t arise, that he would never have to think on his feet and take action when shit started to happen?
Perhaps we had both learned a lesson in the power of preparation, and also in the importance of understanding that sometimes we make a plan, but life has something different in store.
We also discovered that life is so much more than a photo opportunity, a chance to greedily grab a few more likes or to portray the lie of an easy adventure.
As my son came over to the sofa and snuggled into me, I wondered how many more moments we would have like this. How many more years until a cuddle with his imperfect dad was the most embarrassing thing he could imagine? How many more occasions would we get to undertake an amazing challenge together?
I had no idea, but I wanted to make sure there were many, many more adventures for us to face.
“Did you enjoy the sunrise this morning?”, I asked.
“Yeah dad, it was great”, he replied. “Now can I watch a movie?”.
“Sure”, I smiled, “There’s nothing I’d rather do with you right now”.
I groaned as I fumbled around for the TV controller, certain I’d left it somewhere nearby.
“Try the freezer”, my son replied.