Scaring the Family

26th September 2003 at 01:00
The fact that there were 200 feet of sheer rock between me and my objective didn't strike me as problematic.

There's a tale my mum is fond of telling about my sister Michelle's first taste of alcohol. It was at an aunt's wedding and two year old Michelle insisted on having a sip of champagne. A short while after, apparently, she began to crawl backwards. So cute.

Mum's not so keen on the story of my first taste, aged 10. Indeed the merest mention of the incident is still enough to turn her disturbing shades of pale.

It was the seventies and the summer holidays. We were a family of five caravanning in sunny Scotland. Near Aviemore we had a frightening experience. In the middle of the night we were woken by police urging us to shift our caravan with all speed. A dam had released a deluge upstream. By morning the riverside site was deep under water and caravans were floating down the swollen river. Shaken but unscathed, we headed north west to the Sutherland coast.

Whether you were on the road all day or parked at a campsite, meals were enormously important. Cooking in a caravan was difficult and often fraught because of restricted kitchen space and the limited utensils and ingredients. But with little else in the way of entertainment or comfort, eating took on huge significance.

Dinner was invariably tinned casserole or Fray Bentos pies, accompanied by instant mash. "Instant" desserts had recently been invented too. Just add milk to the powder, whisk to a creamy froth and leave to set for an hour.

Talk about fast food! Exciting new flavours were being introduced every week; mint chip, lemon and lime, and butterscotch were the latest. My sisters loved them, but nothing anyone could say or do would convince me they were edible. They tasted plastic. So that night, as my sisters gleefully scoffed Angel Delight, I was given a small compensatory glass of my parents' cider.

Some caravanners had portable generators and TVs even then, but not us.

Getting away from all that was part of the point. After dinner we set off en famille for a walk along a cliff top path. In a world of my own, I skittered off ahead. I usually did. But on this particular evening it meant that when it was time to turn round and head back towards the caravan, I found myself suddenly at the rear with some catching up to do.

At a fork in the path, I decided to take the lower route, hoping it might allow me to overtake, find myself a hiding place and then jump out and scare my family.

The path descended lower and lower, but I convinced myself this was temporary and any moment it would climb back up to the cliff top.

Unfortunately it didn't. It was probably the route down to a beach, but the tide had come in and the path petered out amongst a cluster of rocks against which huge waves were crashing.

I had two choices. I could retrace my steps all the way back to the cliff top path, then race along to the caravan site. This required admitting defeat and I'd be sure to suffer a severe telling off and subsequent loss of privileges for getting back so late. The alternative was to take the more direct route straight up the cliff. If I acted quickly and climbed fast, it might still allow me to achieve my plan of getting ahead and giving my family a big surprise.

The fact that there were 200 feet of sheer rock between me and my objective didn't strike me as problematic. I started to climb. The first 100 feet were entirely soaked in sea spray thrown up by waves exploding on the sharp rocks below but this scarcely distracted me for a moment. As I paused to search for a hand hold three quarters of the way up, I do remember thinking there'd be little or no chance of surviving were I to fall. But rather than look down, I grabbed hold of a tuft of wild grass sprouting from a crevice and heaved myself up to the next ledge.

Hurrying to get ahead of my family, I didn't pause again till I reached the top.

As I scrambled up over the final edge I got my first shock - helmeted men carrying coils of rope. Behind them hung a small crowd looking stunned, horrified and relieved. I spotted Mum, frail and ghostly. The faces of Dad, my sisters and the other onlookers were various ghastly shades I'd never seen faces before - mint chip, butterscotch, lemon and lime. As one of the roped rescuers stepped forward and took a safe hold of my arm, I twisted to look back, still wondering what all the fuss could be about. Only then as I glimpsed the dizzying jagged verticality of what I'd climbed did I understand the horror on everyone's faces.

To this day I can't stomach so-called instant dessert. I'm not all that keen on cider either.

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