As previously mentioned, Thursday was S`s 4 birthday. It is almost impossible to convey how excited he has been in anticipation of the completion of his 4th circuit around the sun. Imagine a guitar string tightened to near breaking point and then plucked by the plectrum that is his 8 year old brother. As much as the presents S has been looking forward to sitting on the 'Birthday Chair` at nursery. He is not one to shy away from being centre of attention.
M was off school that afternoon. A legacy of the chicken-pox has been a virus that has a similar affect to asthma. He has been given an inhaler and a regime of puffs to be taken at specific times. Under the circumstances his teacher was reluctant to take him out of school to a local playing field and was visibly relieved when Polly said she would take him home. M, deprived of an afternoon running around a field in the baking sun just about managed to contain his glee whilst remembering to cough and wheeze appropriately.
Which is how we ended up at Kidscape that afternoon. Kidscape is one of those indoor play areas that consists of vast multi-coloured climbing frames that look as if marines might use them for training purposes. There were tunnels, rope bridges and a maze of mesh covered aerial passages. Because it was mid-afternoon in term time the place was virtually deserted. We had some lunch and I settled down with a coffee to watch the boys vanish in to the mass of ladders, plastic, wood and rope.
When I was a kid my brothers and I dreamed of a place like this. In addition to the climbing frames there was a mini go-kart track, computers and one of those climbing walls with plastic stuck on it like bits of coloured chewing gum. All we had was the odd round-a-bout and see-saw set on knee grazing, bone breaking gravel and concrete. Typically none of the climbing equipment was wheelchair accessible so my childhood fantasy of scrambling around like a mix of Tarzan and James Bond would go unfulfilled yet again.
M was desperate to go on the climbing wall. He was strapped into a harness and fitted with a helmet. A wire hooked to the harness led to a pulley fixed to the ceiling. and a young girl offered encouragement. M climbed slowly but steadily up and up like a slow motion Spiderman. It was with a mix of fear and pride that I watched my 8 year old son cling to an over hang some 30 feet up in the air. Memories of my own meagre experience of rock climbing came flooding back. I was 13 and the Dystrophy was becoming physically noticeable for the first time. I was developing a distinctive gait, the left leg flicking forward and a slight inward curve of the spine caused by the muscles in the lumber region beginning to weaken. I was attending a church based youth organisation called the Covenanters, which usually met in the school gym on a Friday evening and in the church on a Sunday morning. This week however, in the summer of 1974, we had been taken to the Avon Gorge in Bristol, to go abseiling. The Avon Gorge is one of those places where serious mountaineers go to train. We were in a part of the gorge that was considered relatively safe and easy. We took turns abseiling down a 20 foot drop. I can't say I enjoyed the experience that much but I did it. While others had their go and the grown ups attention was else where some of us went for an impromptu rock climb. I carefully made my way up the cliff, reaching the giddy height of some of 15 feet or so. And then I got stuck. Very very stuck. I couldn't haul myself up to the next hand hold and I was too paralysed with fear to climb down.
In 1974 if you'd mentioned heath and safety people would think you were talking about a magazine featuring naked people playing volley ball. Safety equipment consisted of taking a coat with you in case you got a bit chilly and “best practice” was not using two hands to light a cigarette whilst climbing. If you got stuck like I did there was no procedure to set in motion, no protocol to refer to, you either got down safely or you fell down. Or you stayed stuck. After 15 minutes my friend Paul (he of the marathon saga - see previous posts) noticed I was missing and came to find me. Full of adolescent sympathy he said something along the lines of “get down you idiot, if they (the leaders) catch you we'll all be in big trouble and we'll have to pray about it on Sunday.” And with that he guided me down, foot hold by foot hold, inch by fear filled inch. From that time forth I swore I'd never rock climb again. Now a days that decision is academic since very few mountains are wheelchair accessible, but at the time it was an acknowledgement of my limitations.
M of course didn't get stuck. When he reached the limit of his ability he simply let go and was gently lowered downwards. If such a thing as a climbing wall had existed in 1974 he would still be 30 feet up in the air, clinging on for dear life, and swearing never to climb again. Instead he started right on back up, confident and fearless.