Ray squeezed her hand tighter, in what was meant to be in a comforting manner but ended up as some sort of boastful gesture. June loosened her grip on his fingers, feeling the dejection in his touch as his clasp loosened slightly. She could guess that his expression would have hardened to some extent, though the thought was only developed from words she had heard from others as she had never seen the action with her own eyes, or anything other than a total emptiness that was far beyond her ability to explain to the full for that matter.
Then Ray's grip tightened again, and this time his fingertips had regained their usual lively touch. "Don't worry; I'll be with you the whole time, and with this magnificent baby of a torch, there's no way we'll be getting lost."
The optimistic yet slightly arrogant tone in his voice was enough to tell June exactly what was going on through his head, and enough to bring out an eye-roll from her pale, milky gaze. Then his hand had pulled her along and June found her feet moving beneath her body - the ground was gravelly and rocky under her thick, hard-wear design walking boots. Even so, a small smile managed to creep it's way onto her lips at the prospect of exploit, even though she was slightly fearful about what was to come. Still, Ray was with her and had promised he would stay with her, and he had never let her down in the three-year period of time she had been with him before.
Then for a short moment Ray's hand had slipped from hers and her body tensed slightly, as she had had no need of recording her surroundings with his touch, and without him she was rendered alone and helpless. "Ray?" she asked cautiously, her voice barely scraping a whisper. Then there was a clanging and scraping of metal against rock before his hand had found hers again and she relaxed. She mentally cursed herself for ever doubting he had left; he wouldn't leave her, surely?
"I'm here, I'm here, June. I never left you."
His voice was still slightly condescending, and his pitch was the one someone would use when saying, 'duh!' June sighed and made sure her fingers were firmly intertwined with his. She wasn't taking any chances, and although his attitude was cutting it close, she depended on him like a newborn lamb would their mother in this situation. "I know Ray," she replied agitatedly, "I just wish that you'd tell me before pulling a stunt like that first."
"Alright, alright. Be careful here, there's a little step and it's rather slippery. Hold onto my hand and don't let go."
June snorted. "Do you think I was planning to?"
"Well, no," he admitted, "-but one can never be too careful!" he continued cheerily. June sighed and clutched his hand, drawing a great breath and closing her eyes momentarily even though it made no difference to her vision. At that moment her arm was pulled forward a little and her body unwillingly tilted, but the tug had loosened when Ray noticed she began to lose her balance. His hold constricted to help steady her and she felt a hand grip her arm. "Careful," he warned. But her arm was being stretched a little now Ray was further down than she was. "I'm down now. If you just take a little step forwards, then- stop, stop, STOP!"
"I have stopped! I stopped before you had starting saying stop!"
Brushing off her response, Ray ignored her. "Right, just a little step down now, there, okay, it's mainly just a gentle downwards slope from here. Be careful, it's very easy to slip. Just gonna turn my head torch on now, there we go, and now we can continue."
June made sure she could feel his fingers entangled with hers at all times, as they descended downwards. Entering the cave mouth had been like entering a portal; as soon as she had taken that first step, a chill breeze had swept her hair and the atmosphere went from being a neutral warm to shiver-worthy cool. She would have liked to have been able to see her surroundings, but June hadn't been able to see anything since the moment she was born so this one little caving trip wouldn't make any difference. Yet despite her other, more superior senses, her survival in this hazardous place relied entirely on Ray, and should he abandon her for some random reason- well, June didn't want to think about it.
Something cold fell from the cave roof and landed on June's nose; a single drop of icy water. In fact, all around her, her finely-advanced ears picked up the gentle plip-plop of drips everywhere, and she could feel the damp on her face. Ray's skin against hers was the only warmth in this deathly place, a place where no living thing grew naturally, a cold, empty place full of lifeless minerals. June shivered. She hadn't minded the idea of caving, but now... she wasn't so sure.
As they scrambled down further, the little gears in June's head were whirring and processing faster than Ray would ever have considered. Every turn, every corner, every ridge and every cove, the sound of the water dripping against the ground and Ray's steady talking echoed off the cave walls and allowed June to gradually build a mental image of her surroundings and the path they had taken. Every sound and tiny little noise, every familiar smell sent signals to June's brain where they were clicked into place to form an almost perfect idea of where they had been. It took more concentration than the average person was able to perform, but over the years June had built and developed her other senses and practised to a point where she was quite able at moving around an unknown area. She was still unable to transport herself around an unfamiliar territory without someone guiding her most of the time, but June was now more able to travel okay unattended.
Ray didn't know this of course, and probably wouldn't be able to understand if June ever tried to explain it to him, as he was talking incessantly as he guided her, often showing small signs of bragging slightly at the fact he was the only one who was able to control the situation. June knew that Ray knew full well that she depended on him even if she didn't admit it, and from his tone of voice June could tell he was enjoying the feeling.
"Right, now round this corner here is a little dangerous bit. Of course, it's nothing you can't handle with my help, 'cause, you know, I can see and all, but just make sure you stay by my side. I'm the only one who can get you through this, just follow my voice and instructions," and then he had continued, but June was just nodding along and trying to ignore the fact that he was acting so, so- patronising. So belittling, so arrogant. It was obvious: he could see and she couldn't, and he was relishing in the fact that without him, she was helpless. It would have been a topic she was sensitive about, but she had known Ray long enough to be fine around him and to know that he was fine around her when it came to the subject of her 'disability.' "Stay by my side;" he had said, "Without me, you won't survive."
Then, "This bit's tricky. I can do it, but you'll need my help."
The list continued. "Down here, my word is law. I have the advantage of us two, and you rely on me. Make sure you carry on listening to what I'm saying."
June was half-tempted to slap him.
Then he had directed her down a rocky slope, telling her softly where to put her hand and where to step, until they had reached the bottom and were now well and truly deep in the cave.
June knew that at this point, she wasn't the only one depending on something. She knew all too well that if Ray's head torch went out now, they would be plunged into complete darkness with no way to get back. Ray was the intrepid, adventurous kind who went free-lance caving and refused to take an instructor with him. Often he took June along with him on his escapades such as climbing and abseiling, but this was the first time he had taken her caving and they were both determined to make it go right.
But when June had reached the bottom with a proud sigh, Ray's hand suddenly squeezed hers so tightly she swore the blood circulation got cut off in her fingers.
"Ray?" she asked, but there was no answer. She could hear the faint tapping of fingernails against metal, and Ray muttering to himself frantically under his breath. There was panic in his voice. Worry began to bubble inside June like someone pounding a drum in her stomach, twisting her gut into knots and bounding her heart in chains. It pounded against her ribcage like a prisoner pounding against bars, and her head swam with all the worst-case scenarios. "Ray?" she asked again, her anxiousness evident in her voice. She began to lose all feeling in her fingers.
"Ray?" she demanded, her voice frantic with worry. He yelped next to her and June was surprised her hand was still attached to her arm.
"Yes?" he squeaked.
"Just a, um, minor malfunction!" he chuckled nervously, but June could tell he was lying.
"Ray?" she murmured. She could guess what had happened: the very thing she had been dreading. And it turns out Ray knew that she knew as well. There was a long moment of silence before he spoke again.
"June, it's dark, it's so, so dark."
"How do you think I feel, Ray?" she responded softly. "I have to live like this every day."
Although she could barely contain the worry about her impending death, the weight of 500 tonnes of earth above her head finally beginning to crush down on her, June did her best to keep calm, for Ray's sake.
"I know, June, but you're used to it. You've never seen anything else. Have you ever thought about how scary it would be to suddenly be able to see?"
Yes, she thought. Yes, yes I have. In fact, she thought about it every day. After being visually impaired her whole life, she realised that she probably wouldn't want to be able to see. It would be like learning how to live blind all over again. "But don't you experience this every time you close your eyes?" June asked.
"Not like this. I can always open my eyes then, I have the choice. And I know I'll be able to see in the morning. This, I-I don't know what to do."
June knew he was about to say about the fact that because of the lack of light, he might not ever be able to see ever again. Or do anything, ever again, for that matter. Trapped, in a shadowy grave no-one knew the whereabouts of. June only just understood how terrifying the thought was. But now, it could be reality. She decided to take matters into her own hands.
"Follow me. Don't let go of my hand, ever, and always, always, always, listen to what I'm saying. This could be life or death."
"But-" he started, but June cut him off.
"And you won't question me. Understand?"
He would have nodded, but neither of them would be able to see, so he managed a shaky, "Yes," instead. June took his hand in hers, her brain ticking away faster and harder than it ever had done before. "Stay by my side," she said, mocking him slightly in what was a non-playful manner- this wasn't a funny situation. "I'm the only one who can get you through this, just follow my voice and instructions."
As the full meaning of her words sank in, Ray's grasp slackened a little, before June made sure that her fingers were entwined with his tightly, because she wouldn't know what to do if he ever let go. "Don't let go," she whispered. Then she felt his hand clutch hers tightly and the shuffling of Ray moving forwards slightly.
"Okay," he exclaimed expectantly. "What next?" The fear in his voice was obvious.
But June wasn't listening. The clogs and gears in her brain were ticking away rhythmically, whirring and spinning fast and racking her memory for the only thing that could possibly save them. Her mind had built up a psychological likeness of the cave around her, remembering Ray's words and developing a basic image of her surroundings from noises and echoes. June recalled where they had just descended from and remembered Ray's instructions.
"Take..." she did a mental calculation, "two small steps forwards. Then stop."
She felt Ray move forwards through the vibrations in her fingertips, and followed him a little. "Put your left foot in a small foothold a little way upwards."
There was some more shuffling, before some scraping and scrabbling about the slope.
"You okay?" she asked.
"Yeah, I just-" he paused. "-scraped my hand."
"Have you got the foothold?"
"Yeah, c-could you tell me the next instruction, like, real soon, because my leg's beginning to ache."
June stepped forwards and felt around the slope, trying to remember where the next step was. "Up on your right, there's a handhold. Grab that and haul yourself up, then put your right foot in a foothold near your left."
There was some more shuffling, and June had to try and sort of clamber up the side, still holding onto Ray's left hand dearly. "There's another hand hold up above your right. Hold that, and you should be able to pull yourself up to the top."
More scrambling. "Have you got it?" she inquired.
There was a pause. "Yeah. Are you nearly here?"
"Yes, I'm up here, Ray," she sighed, annoyed. "I'm sat right next to you."
"Okay. We've done that bit, but we've still got a long way to go." She picked herself up by pushing her left hand against the floor. She could feel the dirt and grime between her fingers, and attempted at brushing it off against her waterproof trousers. Unfortunately, they were just as muddy, and made no difference, possibly even making it worse. She sighed in defeat and accepted the fact she had a dirty hand, averting her focus on staying alive.
They continued on their trek, June telling him where to go, where to turn and where to put his hands and feet from memory and sensory alone. The feeling and atmosphere of a cavern would ring out towards her like a telepathic signal, alerting her senses and banging bells in her brain, allowing her to sense if an area was large and spacious or tight and cramped. All the while he was a bundle of nerves, questioning her motives and worrying endlessly about the fact that she could have been leading them the wrong way all along, and it took a long while for June to force his worrying to cease.
"Look, just stop, alright? Everything so far has been where I said it has been, and we haven't died yet, have we? I'm your only chance, and unless you've got a better idea, we're going to carry on following my instructions."
He had shut up after that, grumbling under his breath.
They hurried along, anxiety growing in them both every second. June tried to contain it, not wanting any distractions, but Ray didn't make as much of an effort. "Are we nearly there yet? I don't recognise this area. Do you think we'll get out alive? Are you certain this is the right way?"
And so on and so on. June did her best to ignore him, concentrating and concentrating only on staying alive. Her instincts had gotten her this far, and she wasn't about to lose trust in them yet. She was relying on her highly-developed senses, the recognition of familiar noises and her ability to feel how spacious an area was. She would recognise wide, open caverns and tight, cramped caves that they had been through. Not only that, but she was following her nose. Slowly, as they delved further towards what she hoped was the surface, the dank, rotten smell of musty rocks began to develop into the sweet, airy scent of fresh air. Without Ray, they were both relying on June's developed senses that could sense things no average human could.
After a while, the hard, rocky outcrops began to cease until the ground beneath became nothing more than a steady, upwards climb. She knew where they were now, and was about to speak when Ray shouted, "Daylight!" and let go of her hand. Before, she would have protested, but she knew where she was going now and just followed him up the slope. It was a fantastic feeling. Like having a 100kg weight lifted off her shoulders. The syrupy smell of the outside world filled her highly advanced nostrils and allowed a sigh to escape her lips. Beforehand, there was around a 90% chance she and Ray would die down there, as Ray had no light to guide him. Only when the thought was put in front of her did June realise how frightening it was. To know that you were to die.
And now they were safe. Safe. They weren't going to die. The prospect seemed distant and far away, like a forgotten dream lurking at the bottom of a very deep, very murky lake. In the long time it had taken to reach the surface, June had forgotten how it had felt to know that you were probably going to die. But, there was no point on thinking about it now. What was the point in working so hard to stay alive, only to start trying to remember what if felt like to be about to die when you reach it?
So as June stepped through what she estimated was the cave mouth from the sudden change of atmosphere, it was like bathing in an ethereal light; she didn't know how long she had been down there, maybe five or six hours, but to go from the dark and the damp to feeling the sunlight caressing her cheeks softly was fantastic. She closed her heavy, tired yet so underused eyes and embraced the sudden warmth, feeling it begin to dry her wet clothes and water-filled boots. She didn't want to say anything, but just spent a couple of minutes of enjoying being alive and on the surface. Her lungs no longer felt constricted and her bones were no longer chilled and cold.
Then June felt a pair of strong arms wrap around her and Ray bury his face in her hair. "I'm sorry," he breathed into her neck. "I got too full of myself. I-I would have died without you there," he admitted, somewhat sheepishly. She smiled to herself, glad that he couldn't see. "I guess it's funny though, isn't it?" Ray asked, pulling away. "You were the one with a major disadvantage in there, and then it ended up being you who got us out alive, in the end. Funny thing that."
She nodded slowly in a slight agreement. "Let's not go caving for a while," Ray said, moving away from her. June heard the familiar scraping of metal against rock as he shut the metal door that barred the entrance to the cave. Then he took her hand again and they started walking, slowly and leisurely now there was no rush. "And next time we do, I'll make sure to check that there are new batteries in that bloody headlamp."