Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.23
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.23

           Roderick Gordon
 

  They had all gone their separate ways — the family had fallen apart. Did they seriously think she was going to stick around to babysit Auntie Jean, someone even more slothful and demanding than Mrs. Burrows?

  "No," Rebecca said aloud. "I'm done here." A thin smile flickered momentarily across her face. She glanced at the photographs one last time and then drew a long breath.

  "Props," she said, and threw them with such vehemence that they struck the discolored baseboard with a tinkle of breaking glass.

  Twenty minutes later she was dressed and ready to leave. She put her little suitcases next to the front door and went into the kitchen. In a drawer next to the sink was Auntie Jean's "cig stash." Rebecca tore open the ten or so packs of cigarettes and shook their contents into the sink. Then she started on Auntie Jean's bottles of cheap vodka. Rebecca twisted off the screw caps and poured them, all five bottles, into the sink, dousing the cigarettes.

  Finally she picked up the box of kitchen matches from beside the gas stove and slid it open. Taking out a single match, she struck it and set light to a crumpled-up sheet of newspaper.

  She stood well back and chucked the flaming ball into the sink. The cigarettes and alcohol went up with a satisfying whoosh, flames leaping out of the sink over the fake-chrome faucet and the chipped floral tiles behind them. Rebecca didn't stay to savor it. The front door slammed, and she and her little suitcases were gone. With the sound of the smoke alarm receding behind her, she made her way across the landing and into the stairwell.

  * * * * *

  Since his friend had been spirited away, Chester, in the permanent night of the Hold, had passed beyond the point of despair.

  "One. Two. Thre…" He tried to straighten his arms to complete the push-up, part of the daily training routine he'd started in the Hold.

  "Thre…" He exhaled hollowly and sank down, defeated, his face coming to rest against the unseen filth on the stone floor. He slowly rolled over and sat up, glancing at the observation hatch in the door to make sure he wasn't being watched as he brought his hands together. Dear God…

  To Chester, praying was something from the self-conscious, cough-filled silences at school assemblies… something that followed the badly sung hymns, which, to the glee of their giggling confederates, some boys salted with dirty lyrics.

  No, only nerds prayed in earnest.

  … please send someone…

  He pressed his hands together even harder, no longer feeling any embarrassment. What else could he do? He remembered the great-uncle who had one day appeared in the spare room at home. Chester's mother had taken Chester to one side and told him that the funny little twig-like man was having radiation treatments at a London hospital, and, although Chester had never set eyes on him before, she said he was "family" and that that was important.

  Chester pictured the man, with his Racing Post pamphlets and his harsh "I don't eat any of that foreign filth" when he was presented with a perfectly good plate of spaghetti Bolognese. He remembered the rasping cough punctuating the numerous "rollies" he still insisted on smoking, much to the exasperation of Chester's mother.

  In the second week of car trips to the hospital the little man had gotten weaker and more withdrawn, like a leaf withering on a branch, until he didn't talk of "life up north" or even try to drink his tea. Chester had heard, but never understood why, the little man had cried out to God in their spare room in horrible wheezing breaths, in those days before he died. But he understood now.

  …help me, please… please…

  Chester felt lonely and abandoned and… and why, oh why, had he gone with Will on this ridiculous jaunt? Why hand't he just stayed at home? He could be there now, tucked up warm and safe, but he wasn't, and he had gone with Will… and now there was nothing he could do but mark the passage of days by the two depressingly identical bowls of mush that arrived at regular intervals and the intermittent periods of unfulfilling sleep. He had now grown used to the continual thrumming noise that invaded his cell — the Second Officer had told him it was due to machinery in the "Fan Stations." He had actually begun to find it kind of comforting.

  Of late, the Second Officer had mellowed slightly in his treatment of Chester and occasionally deigned to respond to his questions. It was almost as though it didn't matter anymore whether or not the man maintained his official bearing, which left Chester with the dreadful feeling that he might be there forever, or, on the other hand, that something was just around the corner, that things were coming to a head — and not for the better, he suspected.

  This suspicion had been further heightened when the Second Officer slung open the door and ordered Chester to clean himself up, providing him with a bucket of dark water and a sponge. Despite his misgivings, Chester was grateful for the opportunity to wash, although it hurt like crazy as he did it because his eczema had flared up like never before. In the past it had been limited to his arms, only very occasionally spreading to his face, but now it had broken out all over, until it seemed that every inch of his body was raw and flaking. The Second Officer had also chucked in some clothes for him to change into, including a pair of huge pants that felt as if they were cut from sackcloth and made him itch even more; if that was possible.

  Other than this, time tottered wearily by. Chester had lost track of how long he'd been alone in the Hold; it might have been as much as a month, but he couldn't be sure.

  At one point he got very excited when he discovered that by gently probing with his fingertips he could make out letters scratched into the stone of one of the cell walls. There were initials and names, some with numbers that could have been dates. And at the very bottom of the wall someone had gouged in large capitals: I DIED HERE — SLOWLY. After finding this, Chester didn't feel like reading any more of them.

  He'd also found that by standing on his toes on the lead-covered ledge, he could just reach the bars on a narrow slit window high up on the wall. Gripping these bars, he was able to pull himself up so he could see the jail's neglected kitchen garden. Beyond that there was a stretch of road leading into a tunnel, lit by a few ever-burning orb lampposts. Chester would stare relentlessly at the road where it disappeared into the tunnel, in the forlorn hope that maybe, just maybe, he might catch a glimpse of his friend, of Will returning to save him, like some knight-errant galloping to his rescue. But Will never came, and Chester would hang there, hoping and praying fervently, as his knuckles turned white with the strain, until his arms gave out and he would fall back into the cell, back into the shadows, and back into despair.

  26

  "Wakey, wakey!"

  Will was rudely awoken from a deep and dreamless sleep by Cal shouting and shaking his shoulder mercilessly.

  Will's head throbbed dully as he sat up in his narrow bed. He felt more than a little fragile.

  "Get up, Will, we have duties."

  He had no idea what time it was, but he was certain it was very early indeed. He burped and, as the taste of the ale from the night before soured his mouth, he groaned and lay back down on his narrow bed.

  "I said get up!"

  "Do I have to?" Will protested.

  "Mr. Tonypandy's waiting, and he's not a patient man."

  How did I end up here? His eyes firmly shut, Will lay still, longing to go back to sleep. It felt to him exactly like the first day of school all over again, such was the sensation of dread that flooded through him. He had absolutely no idea what they had in store for him, and he wasn't in the mood to find out.

  "Will!" Cal shouted.

  "All right, all right." With sickening resignation he got up and dressed and followed Cal downstairs, where a short, heavyset man with a severe expression stood on the doorstep. He regarded Will with a look of overt disgust before turning his back on him.

  "Here, put these on quickly." Cal handed Will a heavy black bundle. Will unfolded it and struggled into what could only be described as ill-fitting oilskins, uncomfortably tight under the arms and around the crotch. He looked down at himself
and then at Cal, who was dressed in the same clothing.

  "We look ridiculous!" he said.

  "You'll need them where you're going," Cal replied tersely.

  Will presented himself to Mr. Tonypandy, who didn't utter a word. He stared blankly at Will for a moment and then flicked his head to indicate that he should follow.

  On the street, Cal headed off in a different direction altogether. Although he was also on a work detail, it was in another quadrant of the South Cavern, and Will was seized with trepidation that he wouldn't be accompanying him. As irksome as Will sometimes found his brother, Cal was his touchstone, his keeper in this incomprehensible place with its primitive practices. He felt terribly vulnerable without him by his side.

  Following unenthusiastically behind, Will stole occasional glances at Mr. Tonypandy as he walked slowly along with a pronounced limp, his left leg heaving waywardly in its own orbit and his foot beating the cobbles with a soft thwack at each step. Practically as broad as he was tall, he wore a peculiar black ribbed hat that was pulled down almost to his eyebrows. It looked as though it was made of wool but, on closer inspection, appeared to be woven from a fibrous material, something similar to coconut hair. His short neck was as wide as his head, and it suddenly occurred to Will that, from behind, the whole thing resembled a big thumb sticking out of an overcoat.

  As they progressed along the street, other Colonists fell in behind them until the troop was as dozen or so in number. They were mostly young, between the ages of ten and fifteen, Will estimated. He saw that many of them were carrying shovels, while a few had a bizarre long-handled tool that looked vaguely like a pickax, with a spike on one side but a long, curved scoop on the other. From the wear on the leather-bound shaft handles and the state of the ironwork, Will could see that the tools had evidently been put to a great deal of use.

  Curiosity overcame him, and he leaned over to one of the boys walking beside him and asked in a low voice, "Excuse me, what's that thing you've got there?"

  The boy glared charily at him and muttered, "It's a pitch cleaver, of course."

  "A pitch cleaver," Will repeated. "Uh, thanks," he added as the boy deliberately slowed his pace, dropping back from him. At that point, Will felt more alone than he could ever remember and was suddenly overwhelmed by the strongest yearning to turn around and go back to the Jerome house. But he knew he had no alternative but to do what he was told down here in this place. He had to toe the line.

  Eventually they entered a tunnel, the tramping of their boots echoing around them. The tunnel walls haad diagonal veins of a shiny black rock running through them, like strata of obsidian or even, as he looked more closely, polished coal. Was that what they were on their way to do? Will's head immediately filled with images of miners stripped to the waist, crawling into narrow seams and hacking away at the dusty black coal face. His mind swam with apprehension.

  After a few minutes they crossed through into a cavern, smaller than the one they had just left. The first thing Will noticed was that the air was different in here; the humidity had increased to the point that he could feel the moisture collect on his face and mingle with his sweat. Then he noticed that the cavern walls were shored up with huge slabs of limestone. Cal had told him that the Colony was made up of an interlinking series of chambers, some naturally formed and others, like this one, man-made with partially reinforced walls.

  "I hope Dad's seen this!" Will said under his breath, longing to stop and savor his surroundings, perhaps even to do a sketch or two to record it. But he had to be content with taking in as much as he could as they tramped quickly along.

  There were fewer buildings in this cavern, giving it an almost rural feel, and a little farther on they marched by some oak-beamed barns and single-story houses like little bungalows, some freestanding but most built into the walls. As for the residents of the cavern, he saw only a handful of people carrying bulky canvas bags on their backs or pushing loaded wheelbarrows.

  The troop followed Mr. Tonypandy as he veered off the road and down into a deep trench, the bottom of which was full of sodden clay. Slippery and treacherous, it clung to their boots, hampering their progress as they weaved their way through a meandering course. Soon the trench opened into a sizable crater at the base of the cavern wall itself, and the work party drew up beside two crude stone-built structures with flat roofs. The boys seemed to know that they should just wait, leaning against their shovels and pitch cleavers as Mr. Tonypandy began a lively discussion with two older men who had emerged from one of the buildings. The boys in the troop joked and chatted noisily together, sometimes giving Will sidelong glances as he stood apart from them. Then Mr. Tonypandy left, limping off in the direction of the road, and one of the older men shouted over at Will.

  "You're with me, Jerome. Go to the huts."

  The man had a livid red scar in the shape of a crescent across his face. It began just above his mouth and ran up across his left eye and forehead, parting the man's snow-white hair and ending somewhere at the back of his head. But for Will, the man's eye, permanently weeping and shot through with a mottled cloudiness, was the most distressing aspect of his appearance. The eyelid over it was so torn and ragged that each time the man blinked, it was like a defective windshield wiper struggling to function.

  "In there! In there!" he barked as Will failed to acknowledge the order.

  "Sorry," Will answered quickly. Then he and two other youngsters followed the scar man into the nearest building.

  The interior was dank and, except for some equipment in the corner, appeared to be empty. They stood idly around as the scar man kicked at the dirt floor as if looking for something he'd lost. He began to swear wildly under his breath until his boot finally struck something solid. It was as metal ring. He pulled at it with both hands, and there was a loud creaking as a steel plate lifted to reveal an opening three feet square.

  "OK, down we go."

  One by one they filed down a wet, rusty stepladder, and once they had all reached the bottom, the scar man took the lantern from his belt and played it around the brick-lined tunnel. It wasn't quite high enough to stand up in and, judging by the state of the masonry, was clearly eroded and badly in need of repointing where the chalky mortar had crumbled away. Will guessed that it must have been in use for decades, if not centuries.

  Five inches or so of brackish water stood in the bottom of the tunnel, and it wasn't long before it plunged over the tops of Will's boots as he tagged behind the others. They had sloshed along for about ten minutes when the scar man stopped and turned to them again.

  "Under here…" The man spoke condescendingly to Will while the others watched. It was as if he were explaining something to a young child. "…are boreholes. We remove the sediment… we unblock them. Yes?"

  The scar man swung the lantern to illuminate the tunnel floor, which was heavily silted with little aggregations of flint and limestone shards rising out of the water. He slipped several coils of rope off his shoulder, and Will watched as each boy in turn took an end from him and tied it securely around his waist. The scar man tied the other end of each rope around himself, so that they were connected like a group of mountaineers.

  "Topsoiler," the scar man snarled, "we tie the rope around ourselves… we tie it well." Will didn't dare to question why as he took the rope and looped it around his waist, knotting it as best he could. As he tugged at it to test it, the man held out a battered pitch cleaver for him.

  "Now we dig."

  The two boys began to hack away at the floor of the tunnel, and Will knew he was meant to do likewise. Probing with the unfamiliar tool, he edged his way along the brick lining under the swilling waters until he came to a softer patch of compacted sediment and stones. He hesitated, glancing at the other boys to reassure himself he was doing the right thing.

  "We keep digging, we don't stop," the scar man shouted as he shone the lantern on Will, who immediately began to dig. It was hard going, both because of the cramped conditions and becau
se the tool he was using, the pitch cleaver, was unfamiliar. And the job wasn't made any easier by the water, which, however fast he worked, would keep washing back into the deepening hole after every stroke.

  It wasn't long before Will had come to grips with this new tool and mastered his technique. Now well into his stride, it felt good just to be digging again, and all of his worries seemed to be forgotten, even if only for a short while, as he threw load after load of stone and sopping soil out of the hole. With the water rushing in after every scoopful, he was soon thigh-deep in the borehole, and the other boys had to work furiously just to keep up with him. Then, with a bone-shaking judder, his pitch-cleaver jarred against something immovable.

  "We dig around it!" the scar man snapped.

  With sweat running down his dirty face and stinging his eyes, Will glanced at the scar man and then back at the water lapping against his oilskins, trying to work out the reason for their task. He knew he'd get short shrift from the scar man if he asked, but his curiosity was getting the better of him. He was just looking up to pose a question when there was an urgent cry, cut off almost as soon as it started.

  "BRACE!" the scar man screamed.

  Will turned just in time to see one of the other boys completely vanish with a loud gurgling as the water gushed down into what now looked like a huge drain the size of a manhole. The rope yanked tight, cutting into Will's waist and jerking with the fallen boy's desperate movements. The scar man leaned back and dug his boots into the grit and debris of the tunnel floor. Will found he was pinned to the edge of his borehole.

  "Pull yourself up!" the scar man shouted in the direction of the swirling hole. Will watched with alarm until he saw grimy fingers snaking up the rope as the boy heaved himself out against the flow. As he got to his feet again, Will saw the terrified look on his mud-streaked face.

 

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