Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.20
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.20

           Roderick Gordon
 

  "I'm saving it for a very special occasion," Cal said as he lovingly handled a bar of Mars Bar. "I just love the way it smells." He drew the bar under his nose and sniffed extravagantly. "That's enough for me… I don't need to open it." He rolled his eyes in ecstasy.

  "So where did you get all this stuff?" Will asked, putting down the car brochures, which curled slowly back into a disheveled tube. Cal glanced warily at the bedroom door and moved a little closer to Will.

  "Uncle Tam," he said in a low voice. "He often goes beyond the Colony — but you mustn't tell anyone. It would mean Banishment." He hesitated and glanced at the door again. "He even goes Topsoil."

  "Does he now?" Will said, scrutinizing Cal's face intently. "And when does he do that?"

  "Every so often." Cal was speaking so softly that Will had difficulty hearing him. "He trades things that…" He faltered, realizing that he was overstepping the mark. "…that he finds."

  "Where?" Will asked.

  "On his trips," Cal said obliquely as he packed the items back into the tin, replaced the lid, and pushed it once again under the wardrobe. Still kneeling, he turned to Will.

  "You're going to get out, aren't you?" he asked with a sly grin.

  "Huh?" Will said, taken aback by the abruptness of the question.

  "Come on, you can tell me. You're going to escape, aren't you? I just know it!" Cal was literally vibrating with excitement as he waited for Will's response.

  "You mean back to Highfield?"

  Cal nodded energetically.

  "Maybe, maybe not. I don't know yet," Will said guardedly. Despite his emotions and everything he felt for his newfound family, he was going to play it safe for now; a small voice in his head was still warning him that this could be part of an elaborate plan to ensnare him and keep him here forever, and that even this boy who claimed to be his brother could be working for the Styx. He wasn't quite ready to trust him yet, not completely.

  Cal looked directly at Will.

  "Well, when you do, I'm coming with you." He was smiling, but his eyes were deadly serious. Will was taken completely unawares by this suggestion and didn’t know how he was going to answer, but at that point was saved by a gong sounding insistently from somewhere in the house.

  "That's dinner, Father must be home. Come on." Cal leaped up and ran out the door and down the stairs to the dining room, Will following closely behind. Mr. Jerome was already seated at the head of a deep-grained wooden table. As they entered, he didn't look up, his eyes remaining fixed on the table in front of him.

  The room couldn't have been more different from the sumptuous drawing room Will had seen earlier. It was spartan and the furniture basic, appearing to be constructed from wood that had endured centuries of wear. On closer inspection, he could see that the table and chairs had been fabricated from a mishmash of different woods of conflicting shades and with grains at odds to each other; some parts were waxed or varnished, while others were tough with splintery surfaces. The high-backed dining chairs looked particularly rickety and archaic, with spindly legs that creaked and complained when the boys took their places on either side of the sullen-faced Mr. Jerome, who barely gave Will a glance. Will shifted in his seat, trying to get comfortable and wondering idly how the chairs could accommodate someone of Mr. Jerome's impressive bulk without giving up the ghost.

  Mr. Jerome cleared his throat loudly and without any warning he and Cal leaned forward, their eyes closed and their hands folded on the table in front of them. A little self-consciously, Will did likewise.

  "The sun shall no longer set, nor shall the moon withdraw itself, for the Lord will be your everlasting light and the dark days of your mourning will be ended," Mr. Jerome droned.

  Will couldn't stop himself from peeping at the man through his half-closed eyes. He found all this a little odd — no one would have ever thought of saying grace in his house. Indeed, the closest they ever got to anything resembling a prayer was when his mother yelled, "For God's sake, shut up!"

  "As it is above, so it is below," Mr. Jerome finished.

  "Amen," he and Cal said in unison, too quickly for Will to join in. They sat up, and Mr. Jerome tapped a spoon on the tumbler in front of him.

  There was a moment of uncomfortable silence during which no one at the table looked at anyone else. Then a man with long greasy hair shambled into the room. His face was deeply lined and his cheeks were gaunt. He was wearing a leather apron, and his tired and listless eyes, like dying candle flames in cavernous hollows, lingered briefly on Will and then quickly turned away.

  As Will watched the man make repeated trips in and out of the room, shuffling to each of them in turn to serve the food, he came to the conclusion that he must have endured great suffering, possibly a severe illness.

  The first course was a thin broth. From its steamy vapors, Will could detect a spiciness, as if copious amounts of curry powder had been ladled into it. This came with a side dish of small white objects, similar in appearance to peeled gherkins. Cal and Mr. Jerome wasted no time in starting on their soup and, between loud exhalations, they both made the most outrageous noises as they sucked the liquid from their spoons, splashing large amounts of it over their clothes and simply ignoring the mess. The symphony of slurps and loud gulps reached such a ridiculous crescendo that Will couldn't stop himself from staring at both of them in utter disbelief.

  Finally, he picked up his own spoon and was just at the point of taking his first tentative mouthful when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw one of the white objects on his side plate twitch. Thinking he'd imagined it, he emptied the contents of his spoon back into his bowl and instead used the utensil to roll the object over.

  With a shock he found it had a row of tiny, dark brown pointed legs neatly folded beneath it. It was a grub of some kind! He sat bolt upright and watched with horror as it curved its back , its miniscule spiky legs rippling open in an undulating wave, as if to greet him.

  His first thought was that it had gotten there by mistake, so he glanced at Mr. Jerome's and Cal's side plates, wondering if he should say something. At that very moment, Cal picked up one of the white objects from his own plate and bit into it, chewing it with gusto. Between his thumb and forefinger, the remaining half of the grub twitched and writhed, oozing a clear fluid over his fingertips.

  Will felt his stomach heave, and he dropped his spoon in his soup dish with such a crash that the serving man came in and, finding that he was not wanted, promptly exited again. As Will tried to quell his nausea, he saw that Mr. Jerome was looking straight at him. It was such a hateful stare that Will immediately averted his eyes. As for Cal, he was intent on finishing the still-writhing half-grub, sucking it into his mouth as if he was devouring a very fat strand of spaghetti.

  Will shuddered; there was absolutely no way he could bring himself to drink his soup now, so he sat there feeling distinctly unnerved and out of place until the serving man cleared the bowls away. Then the main course appeared, a gravy-soaked mush just as indeterminate as the broth. Will prodded suspiciously at everything on his plate just to make sure that nothing was still alive. It seemed harmless enough, so he began to pick at it without enthusiasm, quailing involuntarily with each mouthful, all the while accompanied by his fellow diners' gastronomic cacophony.

  Although Mr. Jerome hadn't said a single word to Will during the whole meal, the unbridled resentment radiating from him was overwhelming. Will had no idea why this was, but he was vaguely beginning to wonder if it had something to do with his real mother, the person no one seemed to be prepared to talk about. Or perhaps the man simply despised Topsoilers like him? Whatever it was, he wished the man would say something, anything at all, just to break the agonizing silence. From Mr. Jerome's demeanor, Will knew full well that it wouldn't be pleasant when it came; he was prepared for that. He just wanted to get it over with. He began to sweat and tried to loosen the starched collar of his new shirt by running his finger inside it. It seemed to Will as if the room were filling wit
h a chilled and poisonous aspic; he felt suffocated by it.

  His reprieve finally came when, finishing his plate of mush, Mr. Jerome downed a glass of murky water and then abruptly got up. He folded his napkin twice and tossed it carelessly onto the table. He reached the door just as the wretch of a serving man was entering with a copper bowl in his hands. To Will's horror, Mr. Jerome elbowed him brutally aside. Will thought the man was going to fall as he lurched against the wall. He fought to regain his balance as the contents of the bowl tipped out, and apples and oranges rolled around the floor and under the table.

  As if Mr. Jerome's behavior was nothing out of the ordinary, the serving man didn't so much as murmur. Will could see a cut on his lip and blood trickling down his chin as the unfortunate man crawled around the base of his chair, retrieving the fruit.

  Will was flabbergasted, but Cal seemed to be ignoring the incident altogether. Will watched the pathetic man until he left the room and then, deciding there was nothing he could do, turned his attention to the bowl of fresh fruit — there were bananas, pears, and a couple of figs in addition to the apples and oranges. He helped himself, grateful for something familiar and recognizable after the first two courses.

  At that moment the front door slammed with such a crash that the casement windows shook. Will and Cal listened as Mr. Jerome's footsteps retreated down the front path. It was Will who broke the silence.

  "Doesn't like me much, does he?"

  Cal shook his head as he peeled an orange.

  "Why—" Will stopped short as the servant returned and stood submissively behind Cal's chair.

  "You can go," Cal ordered rudely, not even bothering to look at the man, who slipped quietly out of the room.

  "Who was that?" Will inquired.

  "Oh, that was just Watkins."

  Will didn't speak for a moment, then asked, "What did you say his name was?"

  "Watkins… Terry Watkins."

  Will repeated the name to himself several times. "I'm sure I know that from somewhere." Although he couldn’t quite put his finger on it, the name triggered a sense of foreboding in him.

  Cal continued eating, enjoying Will's confusion, and then Will remembered with a start. "They went missing, the whole family!"

  "Yes, they certainly did."

  Taken aback, Will quickly looked across at Cal. "They were snatched!"

  "They had to be, they were a problem. Watkins stumbled onto an air channel, and we couldn't have him telling anybody."

  "But that can't be Mr. Watkins — he was a big man. I've seen him… his sons went to my school," Will said. "No, that can't be the same person."

  "He and his family were put to work," Cal said coldly.

  "But…" Will stuttered as he juggled the mental image of Mr. Watkins as he used to appear with how he looked now. "…he looks a hundred years old. What happened to him?" Will couldn't help but think of his own predicament, and of Chester's. So was that to be their fate? Forced into slavery for these people?

  "Just as I said, they were all put to work," Cal repeated, lifting a pear to smell its skin. Noticing there was a smear of Mr. Watkins blood on it, he polished it on his shirt before taking a bite.

  Will was regarding his brother now with renewed scrutiny, trying to figure him out. The warmth he'd been beginning to feel toward him had all but evaporated. There was a vindictiveness, a hostility even, evident within the younger boy that Will didn't understand or very much care for. One moment he was saying he wanted to escape from the Colony, and the next he was acting as if he was completely at home here.

  Will's train of thought was broken as Cal glanced over at his father's empty chair and sighed. "This is very hard on Father, but you have to give him time. I suppose you bring back too many memories."

  "About what, exactly?" Will shot back, not feeling an ounce of sympathy for the surly old man. That was where the notion of his newfound family fell apart — if he never saw Mr. Jerome again, it would be too soon.

  "About Mother, of course. Uncle Tam says she always was a bit of a rebel." Cal sighed again, then fell silent.

  "But… did something bad happen?"

  "We had a brother. He was only a baby. He died from a fever. After that, she ran away." A wistful look came into Cal's eyes.

  "A brother," Will echoed.

  Cal stared at him, any hint of his usual grin absent from his face. "She was trying to get both of us out when the Styx caught up."

  "So she escaped?"

  "Yes, but only just, and that's why I'm still here." Cal took another mouthful of pear and was still chewing when he spoke again. "Uncle Tam says she's the only one he knows who got out and stayed out."

  "She's still alive?"

  Cal nodded. "As far as we know. But she broke the laws, and if your break the law the Styx never let go, even if you make it Topsoil. It doesn't end there. One day, they will catch up with you, and then they will punish you."

  "Punish? How?"

  "In Mother's case, execution," he said succinctly. "That's why you have to tread very carefully."

  Somewhere in the distance, a bell began to toll. Cal got to his feet and glanced through the window. "Seven bells. We should go."

  * * * * *

  Once they were outside, Cal forged ahead, and Will found it difficult to keep up, his new pants chafing against his thighs with every stride. It was as though they'd stepped into a river of people. The streets heaved with them, all dashing frantically in different directions as if they were late for something. It looked and sounded like a confused flock of leathery birds taking flight. Will followed Cal's lead, and after several turns they joined the end of a line outside a plain-looking building that resembled a warehouse. In front of each of the studded wooden doors at the entrance a pair of Styx stood in their characteristic poses, arched over like vindictive principals about to strike. Will bowed his head, trying to blend in with the crowd and avoid the jet-black pupils of the Styx, which he knew would be upon him.

  Inside, the hall was deceptively big — around half the size of a football field. Large flagstones, shiny with dark patches of damp, formed the floor. The walls were roughly plastered and whitewashed. Looking around, he could see elevated platforms in the four corners of the hall, crude wooden pulpits, each with a Styx in place, hawkishly scrutinizing the gathering.

  Halfway down the left and right walls were two huge oil paintings. Because of the sheer mass of people in the way, Will didn't have a clear view of the painting on the right, so he turned to examine the one nearer to him. In the foreground was a man dressed in a black coat and a dark green vest, sporting a top hat above his somewhat lugubrious and mutton-chopped face. He was studying a large sheet of paper, which might have been a plan, spread open in his hands. And he appeared to be standing in the midst of some kind of earthworks. Huddled at his sides were many other men with pickaxes and shovels, all of them looking at him with rapt admiration. For no particular reason, it brought to Will's mind pictures he'd seen of Jesus and his disciples.

  "Who's that?" Will asked Cal, motioning toward the painting as people bustled past them.

  "Sir Gabriel Martineau, of course. It's called the Breaking of the Ground."

  With the ever-increasing crowds of people milling around in the hall, Will had to jig his head from side to side to make out more of the painting. Other than the main figure, who Will now knew was Martineau himself, the ghostly faces of the workmen fascinated him. Silvery rays of what could have been moonlight radiated from above and fell on their faces, which glowed with a soft, saintly luminosity. And adding to this effect, many of them appeared to have an even brighter light directly above their heads, as if they had halos.

  "No," Will murmured to himself, realizing with a start that they weren't halos at all, but that it was their white hair.

  "Those others?" he said to Cal. "Who are they?"

  Cal was about to reply when a portly Colonist barged rudely into him, spinning him almost completely around. The man continued determinedl
y on his way without so much as an apology, but Cal didn't seem to be the slightest bit annoyed by the man's conduct. Will was still waiting for an answer as Cal wheeled back to face him again. He spoke as if he were addressing someone who was irretrievably stupid.

  "They're our ancestors, Will," he said with a sigh.

  "Oh."

  Despite the fact that Will was burning with curiosity about the picture, it was hopeless — his view was now almost completely blocked by the massing crowd. Instead, he turned to the front of the hall, where there were ten or so carved wooden pews, packed with closely seated Colonists. Going up on tiptoes to try to see what was beyond them, he caught sight of a massive iron crucifix fixed to the wall — it seemed to be made from two sections of railway track, bolted together with huge round-headed rivets.

  Cal tugged him by the sleeve, and they pushed their way through the gathering to a position closer to the pews. The doors thudded shut, and Will realized that the hall had been crammed to capacity in scarcely any time at all. He found it stifling, squashed against Cal on one side and bulky Colonists on the others. The room was warming up quickly, and wraithlike wisps of steam were beginning to rise from the damp clothes of the crowd and encircle the hanging lights.

  The hubbub of conversation died down as a Styx mounted the pulpit by the side of the metal cross. He wore a full-length black gown, and his shining eyes lanced through the foggy air. For a brief moment, he closed them and inclined his head forward. Then he slowly looked up, his black gown opening, making him look like a bat about to take flight as he extended his arms toward the congregation and started to speak in a sibilant monastic drone. At first, Will couldn't quite catch what he was saying, even though from the four corners of the room the voices of the other Styx were reiterating the words of the preacher in scratchy whispers, a sound not unlike the massed tearing of dry parchments. Will listened more intently as the preacher raised his voice.

  "Know this, brethren, know this," he said, his gaze scything through the congregation as he drew breath melodramatically.

 
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