Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.1
R o d e r i c k G o r d o n
B r i a n W i l l i a m s
Schlark! The pickax hit the wall of earth and, sparking on an unseen shard of flint, sank deep into the clay, coming to a sudden halt with a dull thud.
"This could be it, Will!"
Dr. Burrows crawled forward in the cramped tunnel. Sweating and breathing heavily in the confined space, he began feverishly clawing at the dirt, his breath clouding in the damp air. Under the combined glare of their helmet lamps, each greedy handful revealed more of the old wooden planking beneath, exposing its tar-coated grain and splintery surface.
"Pass me the crowbar."
Will rummaged in a satchel, found the stubby blue crowbar, and handed it to his father, whose gaze was fixed on the area of wood before him. Forcing the flat edge of he tool between two of the planks, Dr. Burrows grunted as he put all his weight behind it to gain some purchase. He then began levering from side to side. The planks creaked and moaned against their rusted fixings until, finally, they bellied out, breaking free with a resounding crack. Will recoiled slightly as a clammy breeze bled from the ominous gap Dr. Burrows had created.
Urgently they pulled two more of the planks out of place, leaving a shoulder-width hole, then paused for a moment in silence. Father and son turned and looked at each other, sharing a brief conspiratorial smile. Their faces, illuminated in each other's light beams, were smeared with a war paint of dirt.
They turned back to the hole and stared in wonder at the dust motes floating like tiny diamonds, forming and re-forming unknown constellations against the night-black opening.
Dr. Burrows warily leaned into the hole, Will squeezing in beside him to peer over his shoulder. As their helmet lamps cut into the abyss, a curved, tiled wall came into sharp focus. Their beams, penetrating deeper, swept over old posters whose edges were peeling away from the wall and waving slowly, like tendrils of seaweed caught in the drift of powerful currents at the bottom of the ocean. Will raised his head a little, scanning even farther along, until he caught the edge of an enameled sign. Dr. Burrows followed his son's gaze until the beams of their lamps joined together to clearly show the name.
"'Highfield & Crossly North' ! This is it, Will, this is it! We found it!" Dr. Burrows's excited voice echoed around the dank confines of the disused train station. The felt a slight breeze on their faces as something blew along the platform and down onto the rails, as if sent into an animated panic by this rude intrusion, after so many years, into its sealed and forgotten catacomb.
Will kicked wildly at the timbers at the base of the opening, throwing up a spray of splinters and hunks of rotting wood, until suddenly the ground below him slid away and spilled into the cavern. He scrambled through the opening, grabbing his shovel as he went. His father was immediately behind him as they crunched a few paces on the solid surface of the platform, their footsteps echoing and their helmet lamps cutting swathes into the surrounding gloom.
Cobwebs hung in skeins from the roof, and Dr. Burrows blew as one draped itself across his face. As he looked around, his light caught his son, a strange sight with a shock of white hair sticking out like bleached straw from under his battle-scarred miner's helmet, his pale blue eyes flashing with enthusiasm as he blinked into the dark.
Dr. Burrows himself was a wiry man of average height — one wouldn't have described him as tall or, for that matter, short, just somewhere in the middle. He had a round face with piercing brown eyes that appeared all the more intense due to his gold-rimmed glasses.
"Look up there, Will, look at that!" he said as his light picked out a sign above the gap through which they had just emerged. way out, it read in large black letters. They turned on their flashlights, and the beams combined with those of their weaker helmet lamps, ricocheting through the darkness to reveal the full length of the platform. Roots hung from the roof, and the walls were caked with efflorescence and streaked with chalky lime scale where fissures had seeped moisture. They could hear the sound of running water somewhere in the distance.
"How's this for a find?" Dr. Burrows said with a self-congratulatory air. "Just think, nobody has set foot down here since the new Highfield line was built in 1895." They had emerged onto one end of the platform, and Dr. Burrows now shone his flashlight into the opening of the train tunnel to their side. It was blocked by a mound of rubble and earth. "It'll be just the same down the other end — they would've sealed both tunnels," he said.
"Dad, Dad, over here!" Will called. "Have you seen these posters? You can still read them. I think they're ads for land or something. And here's a good one… 'Wilkinson's Circus… to be held on the Common… 10th day of February 1895.' There's a picture," he said breathlessly as his father joined him. The poster had been spared any water damage, and they could make out the crude colors of the red big top, with a blue man in a top hat standing in front of it.
They walked farther along, stepping around a mountain of rubble that spilled onto the platform from an archway. "That would've led through to the other platform," Dr. Burrows told his son.
They paused to look at an ornate cast-iron bench. "This'll go nicely in the garden. All it needs is a rubdown and a few coats of gloss," Dr. Burrows was muttering as Will's flashlight beam alighted on a dark wooden door hidden in the shadows.
"Dad, wasn't there an office or something on your diagram?" Will asked, staring at the door.
"An office?" Dr. Burrows replied, fumbling through his pockets until he found the piece of paper he was searching for. "Let me have a look."
Will didn't wait for an answer, pushing at the door, which was stuck fast. Quickly losing interest in his blueprint, Dr. Burrows went to the aid of his son and together they tried to shoulder open the door. It was badly warped in the frame, but on the third attempt it suddenly gave and they tumbled into the room, a downpour of silt covering their heads and shoulders. Coughing and rubbing dust from their eyes, they pushed their way through a shroud of cobwebs.
"Wow!" Will exclaimed quietly. There, in the middle of the small office, they could make out a desk and chair, furred with dust. Will moved cautiously behind the chair and, with his gloved hand, brushed away the layer of cobwebs on the wall to reveal a large, faded map of the railway system.
"Could've been the stationmaster's office," Dr. Burrows said.
Two of the walls were lined with shelves stacked with decaying cardboard boxes. Will selected a box at random, lifted off the misshapen lid, and looked in wonder at the bundles of old tickets. He picked one of them out, but the perished rubber band crumbled, sending a confetti of tickets spewing over the desktop.
"They're blanks — they won't have been printed up," Dr. Burrows said.
"You're right," Will confirmed, never ceasing to be amazed at his father's knowledge, as he studied one of the tickets. But Dr. Burrows wasn't listening. He was kneeling down and tugging at a heavy object on a lower shelf, wrapped in a rotten cloth that dissolved at his touch. "And here," Dr. Burrows announced as Will turned to look at the machine, which resembled an old typewriter with a large pull handle on its side, "is an example of an early ticket-printing machine. Bit corroded, but we can probably get the worst off."
"What, for the museum?"
"No, for my collection," Dr. Burrows replied. He hesitated, and his face took on a serious expression. "Look, Will, we're not going to breathe a word about this, any of this, to anyone. Understand?"
"Huh?" Will spun around, a slight frown creasing his brow. It wasn't as if either of them went around broadcasting the fact that they embarked on these elaborate underground worki
Because his son hadn't made any sort of response, Dr. Burrows fixed him with a stare and went on.
"I don't have to remind you what happened last year with the Roman villa, do I? That bigwig professor turned up, hijacked the dig, and grabbed all the glory. I discovered that site, and what did I get? A tiny acknowledgment buried in his pathetic effort of a paper."
"Yeah, I remember," Will said, recalling his father's frustration and outbursts of fury at the time.
"Want that to happen again?"
"No, of course not."
"Well, I'm not going to be a footnote on this one. I'd rather nobody knew about it. They're not going to nick this from me, not this time. Agreed?"
Will nodded in assent, sending his light bouncing up and down the wall.
Dr. Burrows glanced at his watch. "We really ought to be getting back, you know."
"All right," Will replied grudgingly.
His father caught the tone. "There's no real hurry, is there? We can take our time to explore the rest tomorrow night."
"Yeah, I suppose," Will said halfheartedly, moving toward the door.
Dr. Burrows patted his son affectionately on his hard hat as they were leaving the office. "Sterling work, Will, I must say. All those months of digging really paid off, didn't they?"
They retraced their steps to the opening and, after a last look at the platform, clambered back into the tunnel. Twenty feet or so in, the tunnel blossomed out so they could walk side by side. If Dr. Burrows stooped slightly, it was just high enough for him to stand.
"We need to double up on the braces and props," Dr. Burrows announced, examining the expanse of timbers above their heads. "Instead of one every three feet, as we discussed, they're about one in ten."
"Sure, no problem, Dad," Will assured him, somewhat unconvincingly.
"And we need to shift this pile out," Dr. Burrows continued, nudging a mound of clay on the tunnel floor with his boot. "Don't want to get too constricted down here, do we?"
"Nope," Will replied vaguely, not really intending to do anything about it at all. The sheer thrill of discovery resulted all too often in him flouting the safety guidelines his father tried to lay down. His passion was to dig, and the last thing on his mind was to waste time on "housekeeping," as Dr. Burrows called it. And, in any case, his father rarely volunteered to help with any of the digging itself, only making an appearance when one of his "hunches" paid off.
Dr. Burrows whistled abstractedly through his teeth as he slowed to inspect a tower of neatly stacked buckets and a heap of planking. As they continued on their way, the tunnel climbed, and he stopped several more times to test the wooden props on either side. He smacked them with the palm of his hand, his obscure whistling rising to an impossible squeak as he did so.
The passage eventually leveled out and widened into a larger chamber, where there was a trestle table and a pair of sorry-looking armchairs. They dumped some of their equipment on the table, then climbed the last stretch of tunnel to the entrance.
Just as the town clock finished striking seven, a length of corrugated iron sheeting lifted a couple of inches in a corner of the Temperance Square
parking lot. It was early autumn, and the sun was just tipping over the horizon as father and son, satisfied the coast was clear, pushed back the sheeting to reveal the large timber-framed hole in the ground. They poked their heads a little way out, double-checking that there was nobody else in the parking lot, then clambered from the hole. Once the sheeting was back in place over the entrance, Will kicked dirt over it to disguise it.
A breeze rattled the billboards around the parking lot, and a newspaper rolled along the ground like tumbleweed, scattering its pages as it gained momentum. As the dying sun silhouetted the surrounding warehouses and reflected off the burgundy-tiled façade of the nearby housing projects, the two Burrowses ambling out of the parking lot looked every inch a pair of prospectors leaving their claim in the foothills to return to town.
* * * * *
On the other side of Highfield, Terry Watkins — "Tipper Tel" to his friends at work — was dressed in pajama bottoms and brushing his teeth in front of the bathroom mirror. He was tired and hoping for a good night's sleep, but his mind was still somersaulting because of what he'd seen that afternoon.
It had been an awfully long and arduous day. He and his demolition team were pulling down the ancient white leadworks to make way for a new office tower for some government department or other. He'd wanted more than anything to go home, but he had promised his boss that he would take out a few courses of brickwork in the basement to try to make an assessment of how extensive its foundations were. The last thing his company could afford was an overrun on the contract, which was always the risk with these old buildings.
As the portable floodlight glared behind him, he had swung his sledgehammer, cracking open the handmade bricks, which revealed their bright red innards like eviscerated animals. He swung again, fragments spinning off onto the soot-covered floor of the basement, and swore under his breath because the whole place was just too damn well built.
After further blows, he waited until the cloud of brick dust settle. To his surprise he found that the area of wall he'd been attacking was only one brick thick. There was a sheet of old pig iron where the second and third layers should have been. He belted it a couple of times, and it resounded with a substantial clang on each blow. It wasn't going to give up easily. He breathed heavily as he pulverized the bricks around the edges of the metal surface to discover, to his sheer amazement, that it had hinges, and even a handle of some type recessed into its surface.
It was a door.
He paused, panting for a moment while he tried to figure out why anyone would want access to what should rightfully be part of the foundations.
Then he made the biggest mistake of his life.
He used his screwdriver to pry out the handle, a wrought-iron ring that turned with surprisingly little effort. The door swung inward with a little help from one of his work boots and clanged flat against the wall on the other side, the noise echoing for what seemed like forever. He took out his flashlight and shone it into the pitch-blackness of the room. He could see it was at least twenty feet across and was, in fact, circular.
He went through the doorway, stepping onto the stone surface just inside it. But on the second step, the stone floor disappeared, and his foot encountered nothing but air. There was a drop! He teetered on the very edge, his arms windmilling frantically until he managed to regain his balance and pull himself back from the brink. He fell back against the doorjamb and clung on to it, taking deep breaths to steady his nerves and cursing himself for his rashness.
"Come on, get a grip," he said aloud, forcing himself to get going again. He turned and slowly edged forward, his flashlight revealing that he was indeed standing on a ledge, with an ominous darkness beyond it. He leaned over, trying to make out what lay below — it appeared to be bottomless. He had walked into a huge brick well. And, as he looked up, he couldn't see to the top of the well — the brick walls curved dramatically up into the shadows, past the limits of his little pocket flashlight. A strong breeze seemed to be coming from above, chilling the sweat on the back of his neck.
Playing the beam around, he noticed that steps, maybe a foot and a half wide, led down around the edge of the wall, starting just below the stone ledge. He stamped on the first step to test it and, since it felt sound, began to descend the stairway cautiously, so as not to slip on the fine layer of dust, bits of straw, and twigs that littered it. Hugging the diameter of the well, he climbed down, deeper and deeper, until the floodlit door was just a tiny dot way above him.
Eventually the steps ended, and he found himself on a flagstone floor. Using his fla
He slowly approached the window, a circle of thick glass mottled and scored with time, and peered through. He couldn't believe his eyes. Through its undulating surface, there was a scene resembling a scratchy old black-and-white film. There appeared to be a street and a row of buildings. And, bathed in the light of glowing spheres of slow-moving fire, people were milling around. Fearsome-looking people. Anemic phantoms dressed in old-fashioned clothes.
Terry wasn't a particularly religious man, attending church only for weddings and the odd funeral, but he wondered for a moment if he had stumbled upon some sort of purgatorial theme park. He recoiled from the window and crossed himself, mumbling woefully inaccurate Hail Marys, and scuttled back to the stairs in a blind panic, barricading the door lest any of the demons escape.
He ran through the deserted building site and padlocked the main gates behind him. As he drove home in a daze, he wondered what he would tell the boss the next morning. Although he had seen it with his own eyes, he couldn't help but replay the vision over and over in his mind. By the time he had reached home, he really didn't know what to believe.
In a grim turn-of-the-century dentist's chair in the Highfield Museum, Dr. Burrows settled down to his sandwiches, using a display case of early twentieth-century toothbrushes as a makeshift table. He flicked open his copy of The Times and gnawed on a limp salami-and-mayonnaise sandwich, seemingly oblivious to the dirt-encrusted dental implements below, which local people had bequeathed to the museum rather than throwing them away.