Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.2
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.2

           Roderick Gordon
 

  In the cabinets around the main hall where Dr. Burrows now sat, there were many similar arrangements of spared-from-the-garbage articles. The "Grannie's Kitchen" corner featured an extensive assortment of tawdry eggbeaters, apple corers, and tea strainers. A pair of rusty Victorian mangles stood proudly by a long-since-defunct 1950s Old Faithful Electric washing machine.

  On the "Clock Wall," though, there was one item that caught the eye — a Victorian picture clock with a scene painted on a glass panel of a farmer with a horse pulling a plow — unfortunately the glass had been broken and a vital chunk was missing where the horse's head would have been. The rest of the display was made up of 1940s and 1950s windup and electric wall clocks in dull plastic pastel hues — none of which were working, because Dr. Burrows hadn't quite gotten around to fixing them yet.

  Highfield, one of the smaller London burroughs, had a rich past, starting as it had in Roman times as a small settlement and, in more recent history, swelling under the full impact of the Industrial Revolution. However, not much of this rich past had found its way into the little museum, and the burrough had become what it was now: a desert of single-room-occupancy apartments and nondescript shops.

  Dr. Burrows, the curator of the museum, was also its sole attendant, except on Saturdays, when a series of volunteer retirees manned the fort. And always at his side was his brown leather briefcase, which contained a number of periodicals, half-read textbooks, and historical novels. For reading was how Dr. Burrows occupied his days, punctuated by the odd nap and very occasional clandestine pipe smoking in "The Stacks," al large storage room chock-full of boxed postcards and abandoned family portraits that would never be put out on display due to lack of space.

  Other than the occasional school group desperate for a local outing in wet weather, very few visitors at all came to the museum and, having seen it once, they were unlikely ever to return.

  Dr. Burrows, like so many others, was doing a job that had originally been a stopgap. It wasn't as if he didn't have an impressive academic record: a degree in history had been followed up with yet another in archaeology, and then, for good measure, topped off with a doctorate. But with a young child at home and few positions offered in any of the London universities, he had happened to spot the museum job in the Highfield Bugle and sent in his résumé, thinking he had better get something, and quickly.

  Finishing off his sandwich, Dr. Burrows crumpled the wrapper into a ball and playfully launched it at a 1960s orange plastic wastepaper basket on display in the "Kitchen" section. It missed, bouncing off the rim and coming to rest on the parquet floor. He let out a small sigh of disappointment and reached into his briefcase, rummaging around until he retrieved a bar of chocolate. It was a treat he tried to save until midafternoon, to give the day some shape. But he felt particularly forlorn today and willingly gave in to his sweet tooth, ripping off the wrapper in an instant and taking a large bite out of the bar.

  Just then, the bell on the entrance door rattled, and Oscar Embers tapped in on his twin walking sticks. The eighty-year-old former stage actor had formed a passion for the museum after donating some of his autographed portraits to the archives.

  Dr. Burrows tried to finish his crammed mouthful of chocolate but, chewing manically, he realized that the old thespian was closing in far too quickly. Dr. Burrows thought of fleeing to his office but knew it was too late now. He sat still, his cheeks puffed out like a hamster's as he attempted a smile.

  "Good afternoon to you, Roger," Oscar said cheerfully while fumbling in his coat pocket. "Now, where did that thing go?"

  Dr. Burrows managed a tight-lipped "Hmmm" as he nodded enthusiastically. As Oscar began to wrestle with his coat pocket, Dr. Burrows managed to get in a couple of crafty chews, but then the old man looked up, still grappling with his coat as if it were fighting back. Oscar stopped trawling his pockets for a second and peered myopically around the glass cases and walls. "Can't see any of that lace I brought you the other week. Are you going to put it on display? I know it was a little threadbare in places, but good stuff all the same, you know." When Dr. Burrows did not answer, he added, "So it's not out, then?"

  Dr. Burrows tried to indicate the storeroom with a flick of his head. Never having known the curator to be so silent for so long, Oscar gave him a quizzical look, but then his eyes lit up as he found his quarry. He took it slowly from his pocket and held it, cupped in his hand, in front of Dr. Burrows.

  "I was given this by old Mrs. Tantrumi — you know, the Italian lady who lives just off the end of Main Street

  . It was found in her cellar when the gas company was doing some repairs. Stuck in the dirt, it was. One of them kicked it with his foot. I think we should include it in the collection."

  Dr. Burrows, cheeks puffed, braced himself for yet another not-quite-antique egg timer or battered tin of used pen nibs. He was taken off guard when, with a magician's flourish, Oscar held up a small, gently glowing globe, slightly larger than a golf ball, encased in a metal cage that was a dull gold in color.

  "It's a fine example of a… a light… thing of some…," Oscar trailed off. "Well, as a matter of fact, I don't know what to make of it!"

  Dr. Burrows took the item and was so fascinated that he quite forgot Oscar was watching him intently as he chewed his mouthful of chocolate.

  "Teeth giving you trouble, my boy?" Oscar asked. "I used to grind them like that, too, when they got bad. Just awful — know exactly how you feel. All I can say is I took the plunge and had them all out in one go. It isn't so uncomfortable, you know, once you get used to one of these." He started to reach into his mouth.

  "Oh, no, my teeth are fine," Dr. Burrows managed to say, quickly trying to head off the prospect of seeing the old man's dentures. He swallowed the last of the chocolate in his mouth with a large gulp. "Just a little dry today," he explained, rubbing his throat. "Need some water."

  "Ohhh, better keep an eye on that, y'know. Might be a sign that you've got that diabetes malarkey. When I was a lad, Roger" — Oscar's eyes seemed to glaze over as he remembered — "some doctors used to test for diabetes by tasting your…" He lowered his voice to a whisper and looked down in the direction of the floor. "…waters, if you know what I mean, to see if there was too much sugar in them."

  "Yes, yes, I know," Dr. Burrows replied automatically, far too intrigued by the gently glowing globe to pay any attention to Oscar's medical curiosities. "Very strange. I would venture to say, offhand, that this dates from possibly the nineteenth century, looking at the metalwork… and the glass I would say is early, definitely hand-blown… but I have no idea what's inside. Maybe it's just a luminous chemical of some type — have you had it out in the light for long this morning, Mr. Embers?"

  "No, kept it safe in my coat since Mrs. Tantrumi gave it to me yesterday. Just after breakfast, it was. I was on my constitutional — it helps with the old bowel mov—"

  "I wonder if it could be radioactive," Dr. Burrows interrupted sharply. "I've read that some of the Victorian rock-and-mineral collections in other museums have been tested for radioactivity. Some pretty fierce specimens were uncovered in a batch up in Scotland — powerful uranium crystals that they had to shut away in a lead-lined csket. Too hazardous to keep out on display."

  "Oh, I hope it's not dangerous," Oscar said, taking a hasty step back. "Been walking around with it next to my new hip — just imagine if it's melted the—"

  "No, I don't expect it's that potent — it probably hasn't done you any real harm, not in twenty-four hours." Dr. Burrows gazed into the sphere. "How very peculiar, you can see liquid moving inside… Looks like it's swirling… like a storm…" He lapsed into silence, then shook his head in disbelief. "No, must be you know… thermoreactive."

  "Well, I'm delighted you think it's interesting. I'll let Mrs. Tantrumi know you want to hang on to it," Oscar said, taking another step back.

  "Definitely," Dr. Burrows replied. "I'd better do some research before I put it out, just to make sure it's safe. But
in the meantime I should drop Mrs. Tantrumi a line to thank her, on behalf of the museum." He hunted in his jacket pocket for a pen but couldn't find one. "Hold on a sec, Mr. Embers, while I fetch something to write with."

  He walked out of the main hall and into the corridor, managing to stumble over an ancient length of timber dug out of the marshes the previous year by some overzealous locals who swore blindly that it was a prehistoric canoe. Dr. Burrows opened the door with curator painted on the frosted glass. The office was dark, because the only window was blocked by crates stacked high in front of it. As he groped for the light on his desk, he happened to uncurl his hand a little from around the sphere. What he saw completely astounded him.

  The light it was giving off appeared to have turned from the soft glow he'd witnessed in the main hall to a much more intense, light green fluorescence. As he watched it, he could have sworn that the light was growing even brighter, and the liquid inside moving even more vigorously.

  "Remarkable! What substance becomes more radiant the darker the surroundings?" he muttered to himself. "No, I must be mistaken, it can't be! It must be that the luminosity is just more noticeable in here."

  But it had grown brighter; he didn't even need his desk light to locate his pen because the globe was giving off a sublime green light, almost as bright as daylight. As he left his office and returned with his donations ledger to the main hall, he held the globe aloft in front of him. Sure enough, the moment he emerged back into the light, it dimmed again.

  Oscar was about to say something, but Dr. Burrows rushed straight past him, through the museum door, and out onto the street. He heard Oscar shouting, "I say! I say!" as the museum door slammed shut behind him, but Dr. Burrows was so intent on the sphere that he completely ignored him. As he held it up in the daylight, he saw that the glow was all but extinguished and that the liquid in the glass sphere had darkened to a dull grayish color. And the longer he remained outside, exposing the sphere to natural light, the darker the fluid inside became, until it was almost black and looked like oil.

  Still dangling the globe in front of him, he returned inside, watching as the liquid began to whip itself up into a miniature storm and shimmer eerily again. Oscar was waiting for him with concern on his face.

  "Fascinating… fascinating," Dr. Burrows said.

  "I say, thought you were having an attack of the vapors, old chap. I wondered if maybe you needed some air, rushing out like that. Not feeling faint, are you?"

  "No, I'm fine, really I am, Mr. Embers. Just wanted to test something. Now, Mrs. Tantrumi's address, if you'd be so kind?"

  "So glad you're pleased with it," Oscar said. "Now, while we're about it, I'll let you have my dentist's number so you can get those teeth seen to, pronto."

  3

  Will was leaning on the handlebars of his bicycle at the entrance to a stretch of wasteland encircled by trees and wild bushes. He glanced at his watch yet again and decided he would give Chester another five minutes to turn up, but no more. He was wasting precious time.

  The land was one of those forgotten lots you find on the outskirts of any town. This one hadn't yet been covered by housing, probably due to its proximity to the municipal waste station and the mountains of trash that rose and fell with depressing regularity. Known locally as "the Forty Pits," owing to the numerous craters that pitted its surface, some almost reaching ten feet in depth, it was the arena for frequent battles between two opposing teenage gangs, the Clan and the Click, whose members were drawn from Highfield's rougher housing projects.

  It was also the favored spot for kids on their dirt bikes and, increasingly, stolen mopeds, the latter being run into the ground and then torched, their carbon black skeletons littering the far edges of the Pits, where weeds threaded up through their wheels and around their rusting engine blocks. Less frequently, it was also the scene for such sinister adolescent amusements as bird or frog hunting; all too often, the creatures' sorry little carcasses were impaled on sticks.

  As Chester turned the corner toward the Pits, a bright metallic glint caught his eye. It was the polished face of Will's shovel, which he wore slung across his back like some samurai construction worker.

  He smiled and picked up his pace, clutching his rather ordinary, dull garden shovel to his chest and waving enthusiastically to the lone figure in the distance, who was unmistakeable with his startlingly pale complexion and his baseball cap and sunglasses. Indeed, Will's whole appearance was rather odd; he was wearing his "digging uniform," which consisted of an oversized cardigan with leather elbow pads and a pair of dirt-encrusted old cords of indeterminate color owing to the fine patina of dried mud that covered them. The only things Will kept really clean were his beloved shovel and the exposed metal toe caps of his work boots.

  "What happened to you, then?" Will asked as Chester finally reached him. Will couldn't understand how anything could have held up his friend, how anything could possibly be more important than this.

  This was a milestone in Will's life, the first time he'd ever allowed somebody from school — or anywhere else, for that matter — to see one of his projects. He wasn't sure yet whether he'd done the right thing; he still didn't know Chester that well.

  "Sorry, got a flat," Chester puffed apologetically. "Had to drop the bike back home and run over here — bit hot in this weather."

  Will glanced up uneasily at the sun and frowned. It was no friend to him: His lack of pigmentation meant that even its meager power on an overcast day could burn his skin.

  "All right, let's get straight to it. Lost too much time already," Will said curtly. He pushed off on his bicycle with barely a glance at Chester, who began to run after him. "Come on, this way," he urged as the other boy failed to match his speed.

  "Hey, I thought we were already there!" Chester called after him, still trying to catch his breath.

  Chester Rawls — almost as wide as he was tall, and strong as an ox, known as Cuboid or Chester Drawers at school — was the same age as Will, but evidently had either benefited from better nutrition or had inherited his weightlifter's physique. One of the less offensive pieces of grafitti in the school bathrooms proclaimed that his father was an armoire and his mother a bowfront desk.

  Although the growing friendship between Will and Chester seemed unlikely, the very thing that had helped to bring them together had also been the same thing that singled them out at school: their skin. For Chester, it was severe bouts of eczema, which resulted in flaky and itchy patches of raw skin. This was due, he was told unhelpfully, to either an unidentifiable allergy or nervous tension. Whatever the cause, he had endured the teasing and gives from his fellow pupils, the worst ones being "'orrible scaly creature" and "snake features," until he could take no more and had fought back, using his physical advantage to quash the taunters with great effect.

  Likewise, Will's milky pallor separated him from the norm, and for a while he had borne the brunt of chants of "Chalky" and "Frosty the Snowman." More impetuous than Chester, he had lost his temper one winter's evening when his tormentors had ambushed him on the way to a dig. Unfortunately for them, Will had used his shovel to great effect, and a bloody and one-sided battle had ensued in which teeth were lost and a nose was badly broken.

  Understandably both Will and Chester were left alone for a while after that and treated with the sort of grudging respect given to mad dogs. However, both boys remained distrustful of their classmates, believing that if they let their guards down, the persecution would more than likely start all over again. So, other than Chester's inclusion on a number of school teams because of his physical prowess, both remained outsiders, loners at the edge of the playground. Secure in their shared isolation, they talked to no one and no one talked to them.

  It had been many years before they'd even spoken to each other, although there'd long been a sneaking admiration between the two for the way they'd both stood their ground against the school bullies. Without really realizing it they gravitated toward each other, spendin
g more and more of their time together during school hours. Will had been alone and friendless for so long, he had to admit that it felt good to have a companion, but he knew that if the friendship was going to go anywhere he'd sooner or later have to reveal to Chester his grand passion — his excavations. And now that time had come.

  Will rode between the alternating grassy mounds, craters, and heaps of trash, careering to a halt as he reached the far side. He dismounted and hid his bicycle in a small dugout beneath the shell of an abandoned car, its make unrecognizable as a result of the rust and salvaging it had endured.

  "Here we are," he announced as Chester caught up.

  "Is this where we're going to dig?" Chester panted, looking around at the ground at their feet.

  "Nope. Back up a bit," Will said. Chester took a couple of paces away from Will, regarding him with bemusement.

  "Are we going to start a new one?"

  Will didn't answer but instead knelt down and appeared to be feeling for something in a thicket of grass. He found what he was looking for — a knotted length of rope — and stood up, took up the slack, then pulled hard. To Chester's surprise, a line cracked open in the earth, and a thick panel of plywood rose up, soil tumbling from it to reveal the dark entrance beneath.

  "Why do you need to hide it?" he asked Will.

  "Can't have those scumbags messing around with my excavation, can I?" Will said possessively.

  "We're not going in there, are we?" Chester said, stepping closer to peer into the void.

  But Will had already begun to lower himself into the opening, which, after a drop of about six feet, continued to sink deeper, at an angle.

  "I've got a spare one of these for you," Will said from inside the opening as he donned a yellow hard hat and switched on the miner's light mounted on its front. It shone up at Chester, who was hovering indecisively above him.

 
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