Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.18
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.18

           Roderick Gordon
 

  Rebecca shivered. It wasn't just because of the chill wind, but because she was about to be delivered to what she considered one of the worst places in the world.

  By now, the social worker had given up pressing the grimy doorbell and had started knocking loudly. There was still no reply, but the sound of the television could clearly be heard from within. She knocked again, more insistently this time, and stopped as she finally heard the sound of coughing and a woman's strident voice from the other side of the door.

  "All right, all right, for gawd's sake, giv' us a chance!"

  The social worker turned to Rebecca and tried to smile reassuringly. She only managed something approaching a pitying grimace.

  "Looks like she's in."

  "Oh, good," Rebecca said sarcastically, picking up her two small suitcases.

  They waited in awkward silence as, with much fumbling, the door was unlocked and the chain removed, accompanied by mutterings and curses and punctuated by intermittent coughing. The door finally swung open, and a significantly disheveled middle-aged woman, cigarette hanging down from her bottom lip, looked the social worker up and down suspiciously.

  "What's this all about?" she asked, one eye squinting from the smoke streaming from her cigarette, which twitched with all the vigor of a conductor's baton as she spoke.

  "I've brought you niece, Mrs. Boswell," the social worker announced, indicating Rebecca standing beside her.

  "You what?" the woman said sharply, shedding ash on the social worker's immaculate shoes. Rebecca cringed.

  "Don't you remember… we spoke on the phone yesterday?"

  The woman's watery gaze settled on Rebecca, who smiled and leaned forward a little to come within her limited field of vision.

  "Hello, Auntie Jean," she said, doing her best to smile.

  "Rebecca, my love, of course, yes, look at you, 'aven't you grown. Quite the young lady." Auntie Jean coughed and opened the door fully. "Yes, come in, come in, I've got something on the boil." She turned and shuffled back into the small hallway, leaving Rebecca and the social worker to survey the haphazard piles of curling newspapers stacked along the walls, and the huge number of unopened letters and pamphlets littering the filthy carpet. Everything was covered with a fine film of dust, and the corners of the hallway were festooned with cobwebs. The whole place stank of Auntie Jean's cigarettes. The social worker and Rebecca stood in silence until the social worker, as if pulling herself out of a trance, abruptly bade Rebecca good-bye and good luck. She seemed in a great haste to leave, and Rebecca watched her as she made for the stairs, pausing on the way to glance at the elevator doors as if she was hoping that by some miracle it was back in service and she weren't facing the long trek down.

  Rebecca gingerly entered the apartment and followed her aunt into the kitchen.

  "I could do with some 'elp in 'ere," Auntie Jean said, picking out a packet of cigarettes from among the debris on the table.

  Rebecca surveyed the tawdry vision that lay before her. Shafts of sunlight cut through the ever-present fog of cigarette smoke that hung around her aunt like a personal storm cloud. She wrinkled her nose as she caught the acid taint of yesterday's burned food lacing the air.

  "If you're going to be staying in my gaff," her aunt said through a fit of coughing, "you're going to 'ave to pull your weight."

  Rebecca didn't move; she feared any motion, however slight, would result in her being covered in the grime that coated every surface.

  "C'mon, Becs, put down your bags, roll up your sleeves. You can start by putting the kettle on." Auntie Jean smiled as she sat down at the kitchen table. She lit a fresh cigarette from the old one before stubbing out its glowing stump directly on the Formica tabletop, completely missing the overflowing ashtray.

  * * * * *

  The interior of the Jerome household was surprisingly rich and comforting, with subtly patterned carpets, burnished wood surfaces, and walls of deep greens and burgundies. Cal took Will's backpack from him and set it down by a small table on which an oil lamp with an opaque glass shade stood on a creamy linen doily.

  "In here," Cal said, indicating that Will should follow him through the first door leading off the hallway. "This is the drawing room," he announced proudly.

  The atmosphere in the room was warm and muggy, with tiny gusts of fresh air coming from a dirt-encrusted grille above where they now stood. The ceiling was low, with ornate plaster moldings turned an off-white by the smoke and soot from the fire that even now roared in the wide hearth. In front of this, sprawled on a worn Persian rug, was a large, mangy-looking animal asleep on its back with its legs in the air, leaving little doubt as to its gender. "A dog!" Will was slightly stunned to see a domestic pet down here. The animal was the color of rubbed slate; it was almost completely bald, with just the odd patch of dark stubble or tuft of hair erupting here and there from its loose skin, which sagged like an ill-fitting suit.

  "Dog? That's Bartleby, he's a cat, a Rex variant. An excellent hunter."

  Astonished, Will looked again. A cat? It was the size of a well-fed, badly shaved Doberman. There was nothing the slightest bit feline about the animal, whose large rib cage slowly rose and fell with its regular breathing. As Will bent over to examine it more closely, it snorted loudly in its sleep, and its huge paws twitched.

  "Careful, he'll take your face off."

  Will swung around to see an old woman in one of two large leather wing chairs positioned on either side of the fireplace. She had been sitting well-back when he had come in, and he hadn't seen her.

  "I wasn't going to touch him," he answered defensively, straightening up.

  The old woman's pale-gray eyes twinkled and never left Will's face.

  "He doesn't have to be touched," she said, then added, "He's very instinctive, is our Bartleby." Her face glowed with affection as she glanced at the luxuriating and oversized animal.

  "Grandma, this is Will," Cal said.

  Once again the old lady's knowing gaze returned to Will, and she nodded. "Of that I am well aware. He's a Macaulay from head to toe and has his mother's eyes, no mistake about it. Hello, Will."

  Will was struck dumb, transfixed by her gentle manner and the vibrant light dancing in her old eyes. It was as though some part of him, a vague memory, had been lit, just as a dying ember is rekindled by a faint breeze. He felt immediately at ease in her presence. But why? He was naturally wary when meeting adults for the first time, and down here in this strangest of places he couldn't afford to let his guard drop. He'd decided to go along with these people, to play their game, but he wasn't about to trust any of them. However, with this old woman it was different. It was as if he knew her…

  "Come and sit yourself down, talk to me. I'm sure there's lots of fascinating tales you can tell me from your life up there." She lifted her face momentarily toward the ceiling. "Caleb, put the kettle on, and let's have some fancies. Will's going to tell me all about himself," she said, motioning toward the other leather chair with a delicate yet strong hand. It was the hand of a woman who'd had to work hard all her life.

  Will perched on the edge of the seat, the lively fire warming and relaxing him. Although he couldn't explain it to himself, he felt as if he'd reached a place of safety at last, a sanctuary.

  The old lady looked intently at him, and he unselfconsciously looked straight back at her, the warmth of her attention every bit as comforting as the fire in the hearth. All the horror and the trials of the past week were forgotten for the moment, and he sighed and sat back, regarding her with mounting curiosity.

  Her hair was fine and a snowy white, and she wore it in an elaborate bun at the top of her head, held in place by a tortoiseshell comb. She was dressed in a plain blue long-sleeved gown with a white ruffled collar high up on the neck.

  "Why do I feel as though I know you?" he asked suddenly. He had the oddest feeling that he could say whatever was on his mind to this complete stranger.

  "Because you do." She smiled. "I held you as a baby;
I sang you lullabies."

  He opened his mouth, about to protest that what she'd said couldn't be true, but he stopped himself. He frowned. Once again, from deep within him came a glimmer of recognition. It was as if every fiber of his body were telling him that she was speaking the truth. There was just something so familiar about the old lady. His throat tightened and he swallowed several times, trying to control his feelings. The old woman saw the emotion welling up in his eyes.

  "She would have been so proud of you, you know," Grandma Macaulay said. "You were her firstborn." She inclined her head toward the mantelpiece. "Would you hand me that picture? There, in the middle."

  Will stood up to examine the many photographs in frames of different shapes and sizez He didn't immediately recognize any of the subjects; some were grinning preposterously, and some had the most solemn faces. They all had the same ethereal quality as the daguerreotypes — old photographs showing the ghostlike images of people from the distant past — that he'd seen in his father's museum in Highfield. As the old lady had asked, he reached for the largest photograph of them all, which held pride of place in the very center of the mantelpiece. Seeing that it was of Mr. Jerome and a younger version of Cal, he hesitated.

  "Yes, that's the one," the old woman confirmed.

  Will handed it to her, watching as she turned it over on her lap, unclipped the catches, and lifted off the back. There was another picture concealed within it, which she levered out with her fingernails and passed to him without comment.

  Turning it to catch the light, he studied the print closely. It showed a young woman in a white house and a long black skirt. In her arms, the woman held a small bundle. Her hair was the whitest of whites, identical to Will's, and her face was beautiful, a strong face with kind eyes and a fine bone structure, a full mouth, and a square jaw… his jaw, which he now touched involuntarily.

  "Yes," the old lady said softly, "that's Sarah, your mother. You're just like her. That was taken mere weeks after you were born."

  "Huh?" Will gasped, nearly dropping the picture.

  "Your real name is Seth… that's what you were christened. That's you she's holding."

  He felt as though his heart had stopped. He peered at the bundle. He could see it was a baby, but couldn't make out its face clearly because of the swaddling. His mind raced and his hands trembled as his feelings and thoughts bled into one another. But through all this, something definite emerged and connected, as if he'd been wrestling with a hitherto insoluble problem and suddenly discovered the answer. As if, buried deep in his subconscious, there had been a tiny question hidden away, an unadmitted suspicion that his family, Dr. and Mrs. Burrows and Rebecca, all he'd known for his life, were somehow different from him.

  He was having problems focusing on the picture and forced himself to look at it again, scouring it for details.

  "Yes," Grandma Macaulay said in a gentle voice, and he found himself nodding. However irrational it might seem, he knew, knew with absolute certainty, that what she was saying was true. That this woman in the photograph, with the monochrome and slightly blurry face, was his real mother, and that all these people he'd so recently met were his true family. He couldn't explain it even to himself; he just knew.

  His suspicions that they were trying to deceive him, and that this was all some elaborate trick, evaporated, and a tear ran down his cheek, drawing a pale, delicate line on his unwashed face. He hurriedly brushed it away with his hand. As he passed the photograph back to Grandma Macaulay, he was aware that his face was flushing.

  "Tell me what it's like up there — Topsoil," she said, to spare him his embarrassment. He was grateful, still standing awkwardly by her chair as she put the frame together again, then held it out for him to replace on the mantelpiece.

  "Well…," he began falteringly.

  "You know, I've never seen daylight or felt the sun on my face. How doest that feel? They say it burns."

  Will, now back in his chair, looked across at her. He was staggered. "You've never seen the sun?"

  "Very few here have," Cal said, coming back into the room and squatting down on the hearth rug at his grandmother's feet. He began gently kneading the loose and rather scabby flap of skin under the cat's chin; almost at once a loud, throbbing purr filled the room.

  "Tell us, Will. Tell us what it's like," Grandma Macaulay said, her hand resting on Cal's head as he leaned against the arm of her chair.

  So Will started to tell them, a little hesitantly at first, but then, as if a torrent had been unleashed, he found he was almost babbling as he spoke about his life above. It astounded him how easy it was, and how very natural it felt, to talk to these people whom he'd only known for such a brief time. He told them about his family and his school, regaling them with stories about the excavations with his father — or rather, the person he'd believed was his father until this moment — and about his mother and his sister.

  "You love your Topsoiler family very much, don't you?" Grandma Macaulay said, and Will could only bring himself to nod in response. He knew that none of this, none of these revelations that he might have a real family down here in the Colony, would change the way he felt about his father. And no matter how difficult Rebecca made his life, he had to admit to himself that he missed her terribly. He felt a tremendous surge of guilt, knowing that by now she'd be racked with worry about what had happened to him. Her small and well-ordered world would be unwinding around her. He swallowed hard. I'm sorry, Rebecca, I should have told you, I should have left a note! He wondered if she'd called the police after it was discovered that he was missing, the same ineffective procedure they'd put into motion when their father had disappeared. But all this was pushed aside in an instant when the image of Chester, alone and still incarcerated in that awful cell, flashed before him.

  "What will happen to my friend?" he blurted out.

  Grandma Macaulay didn't answer, staring absently into the fire, but Cal was quick to respond.

  "They'll never let him go back… or you."

  "But why?" Will asked. "We'll promise not to say anything… about all this."

  There were a few seconds of silence, and then Grandma Macaulay coughed gently.

  "It wouldn't wash with the Styx," she said. "They couldn't have anyone telling the Topsoilers about us. It might bring about the Discovery."

  "The Discovery?"

  "It's what we're taught in the Book of Catastrophes. It is the end of all things, when the people are ferreted out and perish at the hands of those above," Cal said flatly, as if reciting a verse.

  "God forbid," the old lady murmured, averting her eyes and staring into the flames again.

  "So what will they do with Chester?" Will asked, dreading the answer.

  "Either he'll be put to work or he might be Banished… sent on a train down to the Deeps and left to fend for himself," Cal replied.

  Will was about to ask what the Deeps were when out in the hall the front door was flung open with a bang. The fire flared and threw up a shower of sparks, which glowed briefly as they were drawn up the chimney. Grandma Macaulay peered around the side of her armchair, smiling as Cal and Bartleby both leaped to their feet. A powerful man's voice bellowed, "HELLO IN THERE!"

  Still sleep-ridden, the cat blundered sideways against the underside of an occasional table, which crashed to the ground at the same instant that the drawing room door burst open. A massive, thickset amn entered the room like dirty thunder, his pale yet ruddy-cheeked face beaming with undisguised excitement.

  "WHERE IS HE? WHERE IS HE?" he shouted, and locked his fierce gaze on Will, who rose apprehensively from his chair, uncertain what to make of this human explosion. In two strides, the man had crossed the room and clasped Will in a bear hug, hoisting him off his feet as if he weighed no more than a bag of feathers. Letting out a deafening roar of a laugh, he held Will at arm's length with his feet dangling helplessly in midair.

  "Let me look at you. Yes… yes, you're your mother's boy, no mistake; it's the eyes
, isn't it, Ma? He's got her eyes, and her chin… the shape of her handsome face, by God, ha-ha-ha!" he bellowed.

  "Do put him down, Tam," Grandma Macaulay said.

  The man lowered Will back down to the floor, still staring intently into the startled boy's eyes and grinning and shaking his head.

  "It's a great day, a great day indeed." He stuck out a hug ham of a hand toward Will. "I'm your uncle Tam."

  Will automatically held out his hand and Tam took it into his giant palm, shook it in an iron grip, and pulled Will in toward him, ruffling his hair with his other hand and sniffing at the top of his head loudly in an exaggerated manner.

  "He's awash with Macaulay blood, this one," he boomed. "Wouldn't you say so, Ma?"

  "Without a doubt," she said softly. "But don't you be frightening him with your horseplay, Tam."

  Bartleby was rubbing his massive head against Uncle Tam's oily black pant legs and insinuating his long body between his and Will's, all the while purring and making an unearthly low whining sound. Tam glanced briefly down at the creature and then up at Cal, who was still standing next to his grandmother's chair, enjoying the spectacle.

  "Cal, the magician's apprentice, how are you, lad? What do you think of all this, eh?" He looked from one boy to the other. "By God, it's good to see you two under the same roof again." He shook his head in disbelief. "Brothers, hah, brothers, my nephews. This calls for a drink. A real drink."

  "We were just about to have some tea," Grandma Macaulay intervened quickly. "Would you care for a cup, Tam?"

  He swung around to his mother and smiled broadly with a devilish glint in his eye. "Why not? Let's have a cup of tea and catch up."

  With that the old woman disappeared into the hall, and Uncle Tam sat down in her vacated chair, which groaned under his weight. Stretching out his legs, he took a short pipe from the inside of his huge overcoat and filled it from a tobacco pouch. Then he used a taper from the fireside to light the pipe, sat back, and blew a cloud of bluish smoke up at the ornate ceiling, all the while looking at the two boys.

 
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