Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.3
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.3

           Roderick Gordon

  "Well, are you coming or not?" Will said testily. "Take it from me, it's completely safe."

  "Are you sure about this?"

  "Of course," Will said, making a show of slapping a support to his side and smiling confidently to give his friend some encouragement. He continued to smile fixedly as, in the shadows behind him and out of Chester's sight, a small shower of soil fell against his back. "Safe as houses. Honest."


  Once inside, Chester was almost too surprised to speak. A tunnel, several feet wide and the same in height, ran at a slight incline into the darkness, the sides shored up with old timber props at frequent intervals. It looked, Chester thought, exactly like the mines in those old cowboy films they showed on TV on Sunday afternoons.

  "This is cool! You didn't do all this by yourself, Will, you can't have!"

  Will grinned smugly. "Certainly did. I've been at it since last year — and you haven't seen the half of it yet. Step this way."

  He replaced the plywood, sealing the tunnel mouth. Chester watched with mixed emotions as the last chink of blue sky disappeared. They set off along the passage, past stores of planks and shoring timbers stacked untidily against the sides.

  "Wow!" Chester said under his breath.

  Quite unexpectedly the passage widened out into an area the size of a reasonably large room, two tunnels branching off each end of it. In the middle was a small mountain of buckets, a trestle table, and two old armchairs. The timber planking of the roof was supported by rows of Stillson props, adjustable iron columns scabbed with rust.

  "Home again, home again," Will said.

  "This is just… wild," Chester said in disbelief, then frowned. "But is it really all right for us to be down here?"

  "Of course it is. My dad showed me how to batten and prop — this isn't my first time, you know…" Will hesitated, catching himself just in time before he said anything about the train station he'd unearthed with his father. Chester regarded him suspiciously as he coughed loudly to mask the lull in the conversation. Will had been sworn to secrecy by his father, and he couldn't break that confidence, not even to Chester. He sniffed loudly, then went on. "And it's perfectly sound. It's better not to tunnel under buildings — that takes stronger tunnel props and a lot more planning. Also, it's not a good idea where there's water or underground streams — they can cause the whole thing to cave in."

  "There isn't any water around here, is there?" Chester asked quickly.

  "Just this." Will reached into a cardboard box on the table and handed his friend a plastic bottle of water. "Let's just chill out for a while."

  They both sat in the old armchairs, sipping from the bottles, while Chester looked up at the roof and craned his neck to look at the two branch tunnels.

  "It's so peaceful, isn't it?" Will sighed.

  "Yes," Chester replied. "Very… um… quiet."

  "It's more than that, it's so warm and calm down here. And the smell… sort of comforting, isn't it? Dad says it's where we all came from, a long time ago — cavemen and all that — and of course it's where we all end up eventually — underground, I mean. So it feels sort of natural to us, a home away from home."

  "Suppose so," Chester agreed dubiously.

  "You know, I used to think that when you bought a house, you owned everything under it as well."

  "What do you mean?"

  "Well, your house is built on a plot of land, right?" Will said, thumping his boot on the floor of the cavern for effect. "And anything below that plot, going right down to the earth's core, is yours as well. Of course, as you get nearer the center of the planet, the 'segment,' if you want to call it that, get smaller and smaller, until you hit the very center."

  Chester nodded slowly, at a loss for what to say.

  "So I've always imagined digging down — down into your slice of world and all those thousands of miles that are going to waste, instead of just sitting in a building perched on the very crust of the earth," Will said dreamily.

  "I see," Chester said, catching on to the idea. "So if you were to dig down, you could have, like, a skyscraper, but facing the wrong way. Like an ingrown hair or something." He involuntarily scratched the eczema on his forearm.

  "Yes, that's exactly right. Hadn't thought of it like that. Good way of putting it. But Dad says you don't actually own all the ground under you — the government has the right to build subway lines and things if they want to."

  "Oh," Chester said, wondering why they had been talking about it in the first place, if that was the case.

  Will jumped up. "OK, grab yourself a pickax, four buckets, and a wheelbarrow, and follow me down here." He pointed to one of the dark tunnels. "There's a bit of a rock problem."

  * * * * *

  Meanwhile, back up at ground level, Dr. Burrows strode purposefully along as he made his way home. He always enjoyed the chance to think while he walked the mile and a half or so, and it meant he could save on the bus fare.

  He stopped outside the newsstand, abruptly halting in midpace, teetered slightly, rotated ninety degrees, and entered.

  "Dr. Burrows! I was beginning to think we'd never see you again," the man behind the counter said as he looked up from a newspaper spread out before him. "Thought you might've gone off on a round-the-world cruise or something."

  "Ah, no, alas," Dr. Burrows replied, trying to keep his eyes off the Snickers, Milky Ways, and Mars bars that were displayed enticingly in front of him.

  "We've kept your backlog safe," the shopkeeper said as he bent below the counter and produced a stack of magazines. "Here they are. Excavation Today, The Archaeological Journal, and Curator's Monthly. All present and correct, I hope?"

  "Tickety-boo," Dr. Burrows said, hunting for his wallet. "Wouldn't want you to let them go to anyone else!"

  The shopkeeper raised his eyebrows. "Believe me, there isn't exactly an excessive demand for these titles around here," he said as he took a £20 note from Dr. Burrows. "Looks like you've been working on something," the shopkeeper said, spotting Dr. Burrows's grimy fingernails. "Been down a coal mine?"

  "No," Dr. Burrows replied, contemplating the dirt encrusted underneath his nails. "I've actually been doing some home repairs in my cellar. Good thing I don't bite them, isn't it?"

  Dr. Burrows left the shop with his new reading matter, trying to tuck it securely into the side pocket of his briefcase as he pushed open the door. Still grappling with the magazines, he backed blindly out onto the sidewalk, straight into somebody moving at great speed. Gasping as he rebounded off the short but very heavyset man he'd blundered into, Dr. Burrows dropped his briefcase and magazines. The man, who had felt as solid as a locomotive, seemed totally unaffected and merely continued on his way. Dr. Burrows, stuttering and flustered, tied to call after him to apologize, but the man strode on purposefully, readjusting his sunglasses and turning his head slightly to give Dr. Burrows an unfriendly sneer.

  Dr. Burrows was flabbergasted. It was a man-in-a-hat. Of late, he had begun to notice, among the general population of Highfield, a type of person that seemed — well, different, but without sticking out too much. Being a habitual people watcher, and having analyzed the situation as he always did, he assumed that these people had to be related to one another in some way. What surprised him most was that when he raised the subject nobody else in the Highfield area seemed to have registered at all the rather peculiarly slope-faced men wearing flat caps, black coats, and very thick dark glasses.

  As Dr. Burrows had barged into the man, slightly dislodging his jet-black glasses, he'd had a chance to see a "specimen" at close hand for the very first time. Apart from his oddly sloping face and wispy hair, he had very light blue, almost white, eyes against a pasty, translucent skin. But there was something else: A peculiar smell hung around the man, a mustiness. It reminded Dr. Burrows of the old suitcases of mildewed clothes that were occasionally dumped on the museum steps by anonymous benefactors.

  He watched the man stride purposefully down Main S

  and into the distance, until he was only just in view. Then a passerby crossed the road, interrupting Dr. Burrows's line of sight. In that instant, the man-in-a-hat was gone. Dr. Burrows squinted through his spectacles as he continued to look for him, but although the sidewalks were not that busy, he couldn't locate him again, try as he might.

  It occurred to Dr. Burrows that he should have made the effort to follow the man-in-a-hat to see where he was going. But, mild-mannered as he was, Dr. Burrows disliked any form of confrontation and quickly reasoned with himself that this was not a good idea given the man's hostile manner. So any thought of detective work was quickly abandoned. Besides, he could find out on another day where the man, and perhaps the whole family of hated look-alikes, lived. When he was feeling a little more intrepid.

  * * * * *

  Underground, Will and Chester took turns at the rock face, which Will had identified as a type of sandstone. He was glad that he'd recruited Chester to help with the excavation, since he really seemed to have a knack for the work. He watched with quiet admiration as Chester swung the pickax with immense force and, once a fissure opened up in the face, seemed to know exactly when to pry out the loose material, which Will quickly shoveled into buckets.

  "Need a break?" he suggested, seeing that Chester was beginning to tire. "Let's take a breather." Will meant this literally, because with the entrance to the dig covered up, it all too soon became very airless and stuffy where they were, twenty feet or so from the main chamber.

  "If I take this tunnel much father," he said to Chester as they both pushed loaded wheelbarrows before them, "I'll have to sink a vertical shaft for ventilation. It's just that it's such a drag putting one of those in, when I could be making more headway down here."

  They reached the main chamber and sat in the armchairs, drinking the water appreciatively.

  "So what do we do with all this?" Chester said, indicating the filled buckets in the wheelbarrows.

  "Lug it to the surface and tip it in the gully at the side."

  "Is it all right to do that?"

  "Well, if anyone asks I just say I'm digging a trench for a war game," Will replied. Taking a swig from his bottle, he swallowed noisily. "What do they care, anyway? To them we're just a bunch of dumb kids with buckets and shovels," he added dismissively.

  "They would care if they saw this — this isn't what ordinary kids do," Chester said, his eyes flicking around the chamber. "Why do you do it, Will?"

  "Take a look at these."

  Will gently lifted a plastic crate for the side of his chair and onto his lap. He then proceeded to take out a series of objects, leaning across to place them one by one on the tabletop. Among them were Codswallop bottles — Victorian soft-drink bottles with strangely shaped necks that contained a glass marble — and a whole host of medicine bottles of different sizes and colors, all with a beautiful frosty bloom from their time in the ground.

  "And these," Will said reverentially as he produced an entire range of Victorian jars of differing sizes with decorative lids and names in swirly old writing that Chester had never seen before. Indeed, Chester seemed to be genuinely interested, picking up each jar in turn and asking Will questions about how old they were and where exactly he'd dug them up. Encouraged, Will continued until every single find from his recent excavations was laid out on the table. Then he sat back, carefully watching his newfound friend's reaction.

  "What's this stuff?" Chester asked, probing a small pile of heavily rusted metal with his finger.

  "Rosehead nails. Probably eighteenth century. If you look carefully, you can see that each one is different, because they were handmade by—"

  But in his excitement Chester had already moved down the table to where something else had caught his eye.

  "This is so cool," he said, holding up and turning a small perfume bottle so that the light played through its wonderful cobalt blue and mauve tones. "Incredible that someone just chucked it out."

  "Yeah, isn't it?" Will agreed. "You can have it if you want."

  "No!" Chester said, astonished by the offer.

  "Yeah, go on, I've got another one just like it at home."

  "Hey, that's great… thanks," Chester said, still admiring the bottle with such rapture that he didn't see Will break into the widest grin imaginable. Will practically lived for the moments he could show his father his latest crop of finds, but this was more than he could have ever hoped for — someone his own age who seemed to be sincerely interested in the fruits of his labors. He surveyed the cluttered tabletop and felt a swell of pride. This was what he lived for. He often pictured himself reaching back into the past and plucking out these little pieces of discarded history. To Will the past was so much nicer a place than the grim reality of the present. He sighed as he began to replace items in the crate.

  "I haven't found any fossils down here yet… anything really old… but you never know your luck," he said, glancing wistfully in the direction of the branch tunnels. "That's the thrill of it all."


  Dr. Burrows whistled, swinging his briefcase in time with his brisk pace. He rounded the corner at precisely 6:30 p.m., as he always did, and his house came into view. It was one of many crammed into Broadlands Avenue

  — regimented brick boxes with just enough room for a family of four. The only saving grace was that this side of the road backed onto the Common, so at least the house had views of a big open space, even if one was forced to see them from rooms barely large enough to swing a mouse, let alone a cat.

  As he let himself in and stood in the hall, sorting the old books and magazines from his briefcase, his son was not far behind. At breakneck speed Will careened onto Broadlands Avenue

  on his bicycle, his shovel glinting under the first red glow of the newly lit streetlights. He skillfully slalomed between the white lines in the middle of the road and banked wildly as he shot through the open gate, his brakes reaching a squealing crescendo as he pulled up under the carport. He dismounted, locked up his bicycle, and entered the house.

  "Hi, Dad," he said to his father, who was now poised awkwardly just inside the living room, still holding his open briefcase in one hand as he watched something on television.

  Dr. Burrows was unarguably the biggest influence in his son's life. A casual comment or snippet of information from his father could inspire Will to embark on the wildest and most extreme "investigations," usually involving ludicrous amounts of digging. Dr. Burrows always managed to be "in at the kill" on any of his son's digs if he suspected there was going to be something of true archaeological value unearthed, but most of the time he preferred to bury his nose in the books he kept down in the cellar, his cellar. Here he could escape family life, losing himself in dreams of echoing Greek temples and magnificent Roman colosseums.

  "Oh, yes, hello, Will," he answered absentmindedly after a long pause, still absorbed in the television. Will looked past his father to where his mother was sitting, equally mesmerized by the program.

  "Hi, Mum," Will said and then left, not waiting for a response.

  Mrs. Burrows's eyes were glued to an unexpected and rather fraught turn of events in the ER. "Hello," she eventually replied, although Will had already left the room.

  Will's parents had first met at college when Mrs. Burrows had been a bubbly media student dead set on a career in television.

  Unfortunately, these days television filled her life for a completely different reason. She watched it with an almost fanatical devotion, juggling schedules with a pair of VCRs when her favorite programs, of which there were so very many, clashed.

  If one has a mental snapshot of a person, an image that is first recalled when one thinks of them, then Mrs. Burrows's would be of her lying sideways in her favorite armchair, a row of remotes neatly lined up on the arm and her feet resting on a footstool topped with television pages ripped from the newspapers. There she sat, day after day, week after week, the flickering light of the small screen, occasionally twitc
hing a leg just to let people know she was still alive.

  As he did every night, Will had beaten a path to the kitchen or, more specifically, the fridge. He was opening the door as he spoke, but didn't so much as glance at the other person in the room as he acknowledged her presence.

  "Hi, sis," Will said. "What are we having for dinner?" I'm starved."

  "Ah, the mud creature returns," Rebecca said to him. "I had the funniest feeling you'd show up about now." She rammed the fridge door shut to stop her brother from nosing inside and before he had a chance to complain, thrust an empty packet into his hands. "Sweet-and-sour chicken, with rice and some vegetable stuff. It was on sale, two for one, at the supermarket."

  Will looked at the picture on the packet and, without comment, passed it back to her.

  "So how's the latest dig going?" she asked, just as the microwave have a ting.

  "Not great — we've hit a layer of sandstone."

  "We?" Rebecca shot him a quizzical glance as she took a dish out of the microwave. "I'm sure you just said we, Will. You don't mean Dad's working on it with you, do you? Not during museum hours?"

  "No, Chester from school is giving me a hand."

  Rebecca had just placed a second dish in the microwave and very nearly trapped her fingers in the door as she was closing it. "You mean you actually asked somebody to help you? Well, that's a first. Thought you didn't trust anybody with your 'projects.'"

  "No, I don't usually, but Chester's cool," Will replied, a bit taken aback by his sister's interest. "He's been a real help."

  "Can't say I know much about him, except that he's called—"

  "I know what they call him," Will cut her off sharply.

  At twelve, Rebecca was two years younger than Will and couldn't have been more different from him; she was slim and dainty for her age, in contrast to her brother's rather stocky physique. And with her dark hair and sallow complexion, she wasn't bothered by the sun, even at the height of summer, while Will's skin would begin to redden and burn in a matter of minutes.

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