Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.19
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.19

           Roderick Gordon
 

  For a time, all that could be heard was the crackling of the burning coal, the intrusive purring of Bartleby, and the distant sounds of the old woman busy in the kitchen. No one felt the need to talk as the flickering light played on their faces and threw trembling shadows over the walls behind. Eventually Tam spoke.

  "You know your Topsoiler father passed through here?"

  "You saw him?" Will leaned toward Uncle Tam.

  "No, but I talked to them that did."

  "Where is he? The policeman said he was safe."

  "Safe?" Uncle Tam sat forward, yanking the pipe from his mouth, his face becoming deadly serious. "Listen, don't you believe a word those spineless scum say to you; they're all snakes and leeches. The poisonous toadies of the Styx."

  "That's quite enough, Tam," Grandma Macaulay said as she entered the room rattling a tray of tea in her unsteady hands and a plate laden with some "fancies," as she called them — shapeless lumps topped with white icing. Cal got up and helped her, handing cups to Will and Uncle Tam. Then Will let Grandma Macaulay have his chair and sat next to Cal on the hearth rug.

  "So, about my dad?" Will asked a little sharply, unable to contain himself any longer.

  Tam nodded and relit his pipe, unleashing voluminous shrouds of smoke that enveloped his head in a haze. "You only missed him by a week or so. He's gone to the Deeps."

  "Banished?" Will sat bolt upright, his face filled with concern as he remembered the term that Cal had used.

  "No, no," Tam exclaimed, gesticulating with his pipe. "He wanted to go! Curious thing, by all accounts he went willingly… no announcements… no spectacle… none of the usual Styx theatricals." Uncle Tam drew a mouthful of smoke and blew it out slowly, his brow furrowed. "I suppose it wouldn't have been much of a show for the people, no ranting and wailing from the condemned." He stared into the fire, his frown remaining as if he was profoundly baffled by the whole affair. "In the days before he left, he'd been seen wandering around, scribbling in his book… bothering folk with his foolish questions. I reckon the Styx thought he was a little…" Uncle Tam tapped the side of his head.

  Grandma Macaulay cleared her throat and looked at him sternly.

  "…harmless," he said, checking himself. "Reckon that's why they let him roam around like that. But you can bet they watched his every move."

  Will shifted uneasily where he sat on the Persian rug; it felt wrong to be demanding answers from this good-natured and friendly man, this man who was purportedly his uncle, but he couldn’t help himself.

  "What exactly are the Deeps?" he asked.

  "The inner circles, the Interior." Uncle Tam pointed with the stem of his pipe at the floor. "Down below us. The Deeps."

  "Its' a bad place, isn't it?" Cal put in.

  "Never been there myself. It's not somewhere you'd choose to go," Uncle Tam said with a measured look at Will.

  "But what's there?" Will asked, desperate to learn more about where his father had gone.

  "Well, five or so miles down, there are other… I suppose you could call them settlements. That’s where the Miners' Train stops, where the Coprolites live." He sucked loudly on his pipe. "The air's sour down there. It's the end of the line, but the tunnels go farther — miles and miles, they say. Legends even tell of an inner world down deep, at the center, older towns and older cities, larger than the Colony." Uncle Tam chortled dismissively. "Reckon it's a load of codswallop, myself."

  "But has anyone ever been down these tunnels?" Will asked, hoping in his heart of hearts that someone had.

  "Well, there've been stories. In the year two twenty or thereabouts, they say a Colonist made it back after years of Banishment. What was his name… Abraham something?"

  "Abraham de Jaybo," Grandma Macaulay said quietly.

  Uncle Tam glanced at the door and lowered his voice. "When they found him at the Miners' Station, he was in a terrible state, covered in cuts and bruises, his tongue missing — cut out, they say. He was almost starved to death, like a walking corpse. He didn't last long; died a week later from some unknown disease that made his blood boil up through his ears and mouth. He couldn't speak, of course, but some say he made drawings, loads of them, as he lay on his deathbed, too afraid to sleep."

  "What were the drawings of?" Will was wide-eyed.

  "All sorts, apparently; infernal machines, strange animals and impossible landscapes, and things no one could understand. The Styx said it was all the product of a diseased mind, but others say the things he drew really exist. To this very day the drawings are kept under lock and key in the Governor's vaults… though no one I know's ever seen them."

  "God, I'd give anything to look at those," Will said, spellbound.

  Uncle Tam gave a deep chuckle.

  "What?" Will asked.

  "Well, apparently, that Burrows fellow said the selfsame thing when he was told the tale… the selfsame words, he used.

  24

  After the talk, the tea, the "fancies," and the revelations, Uncle Tam finally rose with a cavernous yawn and stretched his powerful frame with several bone-chilling clicks. He turned to Grandma Macaulay.

  "Well, come on, Ma, high time I got you home."

  And with that, they bade their farewells and were gone. Without Tam's booming voice and infectious guffaws to fill it, the house suddenly seemed a very different place.

  "I'll show you where you'll be sleeping," Cal said to Will, who only mumbled in response. It was as though he were under some kind of spell, his mind teeming with new thoughts and feelings that, try as he might, he couldn't keep from rising to the surface like a shoal of hungry fish.

  They wandered out into the hallway, where Will perked up slightly. He began to study the succession of portraits hanging there, working his way gradually along.

  "I thought your granny live in this house," he asked Cal in a distant voice.

  "She's allowed to come visit me here." Cal immediately looked away from Will, who wasn't slow in noticing there was more to this than Cal was letting on.

  "What do you mean, 'allowed to'?"

  "Oh, she's got her own place, where Mother and Uncle Tam were born," Cal said evasively, with a shake of his head. "C'mon, let's go!" He was halfway up the stairs with the backpack hooked over his arm when, to his exasperation, he found Will wasn't following him. Peering over the banister, Cal saw that he was still hovering by the portraits, his curiosity piqued by something at the end of the hallway.

  Will's hunger for discovery and adventure had taken hold of him again, sweeping aside his sheer fatigue and his preoccupation with all he'd so recently learned. "What's through herre?" he asked, pointing at a black door with a brass handle.

  "Oh, it's nothing. Just the kitchen," Cal replied impatiently.

  "Can I have a quick look?" Will said, already heading for the door.

  "Cal sighed. "Oh, all right, but there's really nothing to see," he said in a resigned tone and descended the stairs, stowing the pack at the bottom. "It's just a kitchen!"

  Pushing through the door, Will found himself in a low-ceilinged room resembling something from a Victorian hospital. And it not only looked but smelled like one, too, a strong undercurrent of carbolic blending with indistinct cooking smells. The walls were a dull mushroom color, and the floor and work surfaces were covered with large white tiles, crazed with a myriad of scratches and fissures. In places, they had been worn into dappled hollows by years of scrubbing.

  His attention was drawn to the corner, where a lid was gently clattering on one of a number of saucepans being heated on an antiquated stove of some kind, its heavy frame swollen and glassy with burned-on grease. He leaned over the nearest saucepan, but its simmering contents were obscured by wisps of steam as it gave off a vaguely savory aroma. To his right, beyond a solid-looking butcher's block with a large-bladed cleaver dangling from a hook above, Will spotted another door leading off the kitchen.

  "Where does that go?"

  "Look, wouldn't you rather…," Cal's voice trailed off as
he realized it was futile to argue with his brother, who was already nosing into the small adjoining room.

  Will's eyes lit up when he saw what was in there. It was like an alchemist's storeroom, with shelf upon shelf of squat jars containing unrecognizable pickled items, all horribly distorted by the curvature of the thick glass and discolored by the oily fluid in which they were immersed. They resembled anatomical specimens preserved in formaldehyde.

  On the bottom shelf, laid out on dull metal trays, Will noticed a huddle of objects the size of small soccer balls that had a gray-brown bloom to them.

  "What are these?"

  "They're pennybuns — we grow them all over, but mostly in the lower chambers."

  "What do you use them for?" Will was crouching down, examining their velvety, mottled surfaces.

  "They're mushrooms. You eat them. You probably had some in the Hold."

  "Oh, right," Will said, making a face as he stood upright. "And that?" he said, pointing at some strips of what appeared to be beef jerky hanging from racks above.

  Cal smiled broadly. "You should be able to tell what it is."

  Will hesitated for a moment and then leaned a little closer to one of the strips; it was definitely meat of some description. He sniffed tentatively, then shook his head.

  "No idea."

  "Come on. The smell?"

  Will closed his eyes and sniffed again. "No, it doesn't smell like anything I—" His eyes snapped open and he looked at Cal. "It's rat, isn't it?" he said, both pleased that he was able to identify it and, at the same time, kind of appalled by the finding. "You eat rat?"

  "It's delicious… there's nothing wrong with that. Now, tell me what kind is it? Cal asked, reveling in Will's evident disgust. "Pack, sewer, or sightless?"

  "I don't like rats, let alone eat them. I haven't got the slightest idea."

  Cal shook his head slowly, with an expression of mock disappointment.

  "It's easy, this is sightless," he said, lifting the end of one of the lengths with his finger and sniffing it himself. "More gamey than the others — it's a bit special. We usually have it on Sundays."

  They were interrupted by a loud, machine gun-like humming behind them, and both spun around at the same time. There, purring with all his might, sat Bartleby, his huge amber eyes fixed on the meat strips and drops of anticipatory saliva dripping off his bald chin.

  "Out!" Cal shouted at him, pointing at the kitchen door. The cat didn't move an inch, but sat resolutely on the tiled floor, completely mesmerized by the sight of the meat.

  "Bart, I said get out!" Cal shouted again. The cat snarled threateningly and bared his teeth, a pearly stockade of viciously sharp pegs, as his skin erupted with a wave of goose pimples.

  "You insolent mutt!" Cal snapped. "You know you don't mean that!"

  Cal aimed a playful kick at the disobedient animal, which dodged sideways, easily avoiding the blow. Turning slowly, Bartleby gave them both a slightly scornful look over his shoulder, then padded lethargically away, his naked, spindly tail flicking in a gesture of defiance behind him.

  "He'd sell his soul for rat, that one," Cal said, shaking his head and smiling.

  After the brief tour of the kitchen, Cal showed Will up the creaking wooden staircase to the top floor.

  "This is Father's room," he said, opening a dark door halfway down the landing. "We're not supposed to go in here. There'll be big trouble if he catches us."

  Will quickly glanced back down the stairs to assure himself the coast was clear before following. A huge four-poster bed dominated Mr. Jerome's room, so tall it almost touched the dilapidated ceiling that sagged ominously down toward it. The space around it was bare and featureless, and a single light burned in one corner.

  "What was here?" Will asked, noticing a row of lighter patches on the wall.

  Cal looked at the ghostly squares and frowned. "Pictures — there used to be lots of them before Father stripped the room out."

  "Why'd he do that?"

  "Because of mother — she'd furnished it, it was her room, really," Cal replied. "After she left, Father…" He fell silent, and because he didn't seem inclined to volunteer any more on the subject, Will felt he shouldn't probe further — for the moment, anyway. He certainly hadn't forgotten how the photograph Grandma Macaulay had shown him of his mother had been inexplicably hidden away. None of these people — Uncle Tam, Grandma Macaulay, or Cal — were divulging the whole story. Even if they were indeed his true family — and Will once again found himself questioning the fantastical notion that they were — there was evidently more to all this than he was being told. And he was determined to find out what it was.

  Back out on the landing, Will paused to admire an impressive light orb supported by a ghostly bronze hand protruding from the wall.

  "These lights, where do they come from?" he asked, touching the cool surface of the sphere.

  "I don't know. I think they're made in the West Cavern."

  "But how do they work?" Dad had one looked at by some experts, but they didn't have a clue."

  Cal regarded the light with a noncommittal air. "I don't really know. I do know that it was Sir Gabriel Martineau's scientists who discovered the formula—"

  "Martineau?" Will interrupted, recalling the name from the entry in his father's journal.

  Cal carried on, regardless: "No, I couldn't really tell you what makes them work — I think they use Antwerp glass, though. It has something to do with how the elements mix under pressure."

  "There must be thousands of these down here."

  "Without them we couldn't survive," Cal replied. "Their light is like sunlight to us."

  "How do you turn them off?"

  "Turn them off?" Cal looked at Will quizzically, the illumination bathing his pale face. "Why in the world would you want to do that?"

  He started down the landing, but Will stayed put. "So are you going to tell me about this Martineau?" he demanded.

  "Sir Gabriel Martineau," Cal said carefully, as if Will was showing a distinct lack of respect. "He's the Founding Father — our savior — he built the Colony."

  "But I read he died in a fire in… um… well, several centuries ago."

  "That's what they'd have you Topsoilers believe. There was a fire, but he didn’t die in it," Cal replied with a scornful curl of his lip.

  "So what happened, then?" Will shot back.

  "He came down here with the Founding Fathers to live, of course."

  "The Founding Fathers?"

  "Yes, the Founding Fathers, OK?" Cal said in exasperation. "I'm not going into all that now. You can read about it in the Book of Catastrophes, if you're so interested."

  "The Book…?"

  "Oh, just come on already," Cal snapped. He stared at Will and ground his teeth with such irritation that Will refrained from asking any further questions. They continued down the landing and went through a door.

  "This is my room. Father arranged another bed when he was told you had to stay with us."

  "Told? Who by?" Will asked in a flash.

  Cal raised his eyebrows as if he ought to know better, so Will just looked around the simple bedroom, not much larger than his own back home. Two narrow beds and a wardrobe almost filled it, with very little space in between. He perched on the end of one of the beds and, noticing a set of clothes left on the pillow, glanced up at Cal.

  "Yes, they're yours," Cal confirmed.

  "I suppose I could do with a change," Will muttered, looking down at the filthy jeans he was wearing. He opened the bundle of new clothes and felt the fabric of the waxy trousers. The material was rough, almost scaly to the touch — he guessed it was a coating to keep out the damp.

  While Cal lay back on his bed, Will began to get changed. The clothes felt strange and cold next to his skin. The pants were stiff and scratchy, and they fastened with metal buttons and a belt tie. He wrestled into the shirt without bothering to undo it, and then slowly wriggled his shoulders and arms as if trying to get a new skin to
fit. Last of all, he shrugged on the long jacket with the familiar shoulder mantle that they all wore. Although glad to be out of his filthy clothes, the replacements felt stiff and restrictive.

  "Don't worry, they loosen up once they're warm," Cal said, noticing his discomfort. Then Cal got up and clambered across Will's bed to get to the wardrobe, where he knelt down and slid out an old Peek Freans cookie tin from beneath it.

  "Have a look at these." He put the tin on Will's bed and pried off the lid.

  "This is my collection," he announced proudly. He fished around in the tin, taking out a battered cell phone, which he handed to Will, who immediately tried to turn it on. It was dead. Neither use nor ornament: Will remembered the oft-used phrase his father would trot out on such occasions, which was ironic considering most of Dr. Burrows's prize possessions didn't fit into either category.

  "And this." Cal produced a small blue radio and, holding it up to show Will, he clicked on the switch. It crackled with tinny static as he swiveled one of the dials.

  "You won't pick up anything down here," Will said, but Cal was already taking something else out of the tin.

  "Look at these, they're fantastic."

  He straightened out some curling car brochures, mottled with chalky spots of mildew, and passed them to Will as if they were priceless parchments. Will frowned as he surveyed them.

  "These are very old models, you know," Will said as he browsed through the pages of sports cars and family sedans. "The new Capri," he read aloud and smiled to himself.

  He glanced at Cal and noticed the look of total absorption on the boy's face as he lovingly arranged a selection of chocolate bars and a bag of cellophane-wrapped candies in the bottom of the tin. It was as if he was trying to find the perfect composition.

  "What's all the chocolate for?" Will asked, actually hoping that Cal might offer him some.

 
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