Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.4
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.4
 

           Roderick Gordon

  The two of them being so completely dissimilar, not just in appearance but also in temperament, their home life had something of the feel of an uneasy truce, and each showed only a passing interest in the other's pursuits.

  There weren't the family outings that you would ordinarily expect, either, because Dr. And Mrs. Burrows also had completely divergent tastes. Will would go off with his father on expeditions — a habitual destination was the south coast, where they would go fossil hunting.

  Rebecca, on the other hand, would arrange her own vacations — where, or to do what, Will did not know or care. And on the rare occasions Mrs. Burrows ventured out of the house, she would just trudge around the shops in the West End of London or catch the latest films.

  Tonight, as was the case most nights, the Burrowses were sitting with their meals on their laps watching an oft-repeated 1970s comedy that Dr. Burrows seemed to be enjoying. No one spoke during the meal except Mrs. Burrows, who at one point mumbled, "Good… this is good," which may have been in praise of the microwave food or possibly the finale of the dated sitcom, but nobody made the effort to inquire.

  Having wolfed down his food, Will left the room without a word, placing his tray by the kitchen sink before he went bounding up the stairs, a canvas sack of recently discovered items clutched in his hands. Dr. Burrows was the next out, walking into the kitchen, where he deposited his tray on the table. Although she hadn't finished her food yet, Rebecca followed closely behind him.

  "Dad, a couple of bills need paying. The checks are there on the table."

  "Have we got enough in the account?" he asked as he dashed off his signature on the bottom of the checks, not evben bothering to read the amounts.

  "I told you last week, I got a better deal on the house insurance. Saved us a few pennies on the premium."

  "Right… very good. Thanks," Dr. Burrows said, picking up his tray and turning purposefully toward the dishwasher.

  "Just leave it on the side," Rebecca said a little too quickly, stepping protectively in front of the dishwasher. Only last week she'd caught him attempting to program her beloved microwave by furiously jabbing at the buttons in random sequences, as if he was trying to crack some secret code, and ever since then she had been making sure she unplugged all the major appliances.

  As Dr. Burrows left the room, Rebecca shoved the checks in envelopes and then sat down to prepare a shopping list for the next day. At the tender age of twelve, she was the engine, the powerhouse behind the Burrowses' home. She took it upon herself not just to do the shopping but also to organize the meals, supervise the cleaning lady, and do just about everything else that, in any ordinary household, the parents would have taken responsibility for.

  To say Rebecca was meticulous in her organization would have been a gross understatement. A schedule on the kitchen bulletin board listed all the provisions she required for at least two weeks in advance. She kept carefully labeled files of the family's bills and financial situation in one of the kitchen cupboards. And the only times when this smooth operation of the household began to falter were on the occasions that Rebecca was absent. Then the three of them, Dr. and Mrs. Burrows and Will, would subsist on the food Rebecca had left for them in the freezer, helping themselves when they felt like it with all the delicacy of a pack of marauding wolves. After these absences, Rebecca would simply return home and put the house back in order again without protest, as if she accepted that her lot in life was to tidy up after the other members of her family.

  Back in the living room, Mrs. Burrows flicked a remote to commence her nightly marathon of soaps and talk shows while Rebecca cleaned up in the kitchen. By nine o'clock, she had completed her chores and, sitting at the half of the kitchen table that wasn't taken up by the numerous empty coffee jars Dr. Burrows kept promising he'd do something with, had finished off her homework. Deciding it was time for bed, she picked up a pile of clean towels and went upstairs with them under her arm. Passing the bathroom, she hesitated as she happened to glance in. Will was kneeling on the floor, admiring his new finds and washing the soil off them using Dr. Burrows's toothbrush.

  "Look at these!" he said proudly as he held up a small pouch made of rotten leather, which dripped dirty water everywhere. He proceeded to very gently pry open the fragile flap and lifted out a series of clay pipes. "You usually only find the odd piece… bits the farm laborers dropped. But just look at these. Not one of them is broken. Perfect as the day they were made… Think of it… all those years ago… the eighteenth century."

  "Fascinating," Rebecca said, without the vaguest suggestion of any interest. Flicking back her hair contemptuously, she continued across the landing to the linen cupboard, where she put the towels, and then into her room, closing the door firmly behind her.

  Will sighed and resumed the inspection of his finds for several minutes, then gathered them up in the mud-stained bathroom mat and carefully conveyed them to his bedroom. Here he thoughtfully arranged the pipes and the still-sopping leather pouch next to his many other treasures on the shelves that completely covered one wall of the room — his museum, as he called it.

  Will's bedroom was at the front of the house, Rebecca's at the back, and it must have been about two o'clock in the morning when he was woken by a sound. It came from the garden.

  "A wheelbarrow?" he said, immediately identifying it as his eyes flicked open. "A loaded wheelbarrow?" He scrambled out of bed and went to the window. There, in the light of the half-moon, he could make out a shadowy form pushing a barrow down the path. He squinted, trying to see more.

  "Dad!" he said to himself as he recognized his father's features and saw the glint of moonlight from his familiar specs. Mystified, Will watched as his father reached the end of the garden and passed through the gap in the hadge and then out onto the Common. Here, Will lost sight of him behind some trees.

  "What is he up to?" Will muttered. Dr. Burrows had always kept strange hours because of his frequent catnaps in the museum, but this level of activity was unusually lively for him.

  Will recalled how, earlier that year, he had helped his father excavate and lower the floor of the cellar by nearly three feet and then lay a new concrete floor to increase the headroom down there. Then, a month or so later, Dr. Burrows had had the bright idea of digging an exit from the cellar up to the garden and putting in a new door because, for some reason or other, he'd decided that he needed another means of entry to his sanctuary at the bottom of the house. As far as Will knew, the job had finished there, but his father could be unpredictable. Will felt a pang of resentment — what was his father doing that meant he had to be so secretive, and why hadn't he asked Will to help him?

  Still groggy with sleep and distracted by thoughts of his own underground projects, Will put it from his mind for the time being and returned to bed.

  5

  The next day after school, Will and Chester resumed their work at the excavation. Will was returning from dumping the spoils, his wheelbarrow stacked high with empty buckets as he trundled to the end of the tunnel where Chester was hacking away at the stone layer.

  "How's it going?" Will asked him.

  "It's not getting any easier, that's for sure," Chester replied, wiping the sweat from his forehead with a dirty sleeve and smearing dirt across his face in the process.

  "Hang on, let me have a look. You take a break."

  "OK."

  Will shone his helmet lamp over the rock surface, the subtle browns and yellows of the strata gouged randomly by the tip of the pickax, and sighed loudly. "I think we'd better stop and think about this for a minute. No point in banging our heads on a sandstone wall! Let's have a drink."

  "Yeah, good idea," Chester said gratefully.

  They went into the main chamber, where Will handed Chester a bottle of water.

  "Glad you wanted to do some more of this. It's pretty addictive, isn't it?" he said to Chester, who was staring into the middle distance.

  Chester looked at him. "Well, yes and no, reall
y. I said I'd help you get through the rock, but after that I'm not so sure. My arms really hurt last night."

  "Oh, you'll get used to it and, besides, you're a natural."

  "You think so? Really?" Chester beamed.

  "No doubt about it. You could be nearly as good as me one day!"

  Chester punched him playfully on the arm and they laughed, but their laughter petered out as Will's expression turned serious.

  "What is it?" Chester asked.

  "We're going to have to rethink this. The sandstone vein might just be too thick for us to get through." Will knitted his fingers together and rested his hands on top of his head, an affectation he had picked up from his father. "How do you feel about… about going under it?"

  "Under it? Won't that take us too deep?"

  "Nah, I've gone deeper before."

  "When?"

  "A couple of my tunnels went much farther down than this," Will said evasively. "You see, if we dig under it, we can use the sandstone, because it's a solid layer, for the roof of the new tunnel. Probably won't even need to use any props."

  "No props?" Chester said.

  "It'll be perfectly safe."

  "What if it isn't? What if it collapses with us underneath?" Chester looked distinctly unhappy.

  "You worry too much. Come on, let's get on with it!" Will had already made up his mind and was starting off down the tunnel when Chester called after him.

  "Hey, why are we breaking our backs on this… I mean, is there anything on any of the blueprints? What's the point?"

  Will was quite taken aback by the question, and it was several seconds before he replied. "No, there's nothing marked on the ordnance surveys or Dad's archive maps," he admitted. He took a deep breath and turned to Chester. "The digging is the point."

  "So you think there's something buried there?" Chester asked quickly. "Like the stuff in those old garbage dumps you were talking about?"

  Will shook his head. "No. Of course the finds are great, but this is far more important." He swept his hand extravagantly in front of him.

  "What is?"

  "All this!" Will ran his eyes over the sides of the tunnel and then the roof above them. "Don't you feel it? With every shovelful, it's like we're traveling back in time." He paused, smiling to himself. "Where no one has gone for centuries… or maybe never gone before."

  "So you've no idea what's there?" Chester asked.

  "Absolutely none, but I'm not about to let a bit of sandstone beat me," Will replied resolutely.

  Chester was still flummoxed. "It's just… I was thinking if we aren't heading for anything in particular, why don't we just work on the other tunnel?"

  Will shook his head again but offered no further explanation..

  "But it would be so much easier," Chester said, a tone of exasperation creeping into his voice as if he knew he wasn't going to get a sensible answer out of Will. "Why not?"

  "A hunch," Will said abruptly and was off down the tunnel before Chester could utter another word. He shrugged and reached for his pickax.

  "He's crazy. And I must be crazy, too. What on earth am I doing here?" he mumbled to himself. "Could be at home, right now… on the PlayStation… and warm and dry." He looked down at his mud-sodden clothes. "Crazy, crazy, crazy!" he repeated several times.

  * * * * *

  Dr. Burrows's day had been the same as usual. He was reclining luxuriously in the dentist's chair with a newspaper folded in his lap, on the brink of slipping into his post-lunchtime nap, when the door of the museum burst open. Joe Carruthers, former major, strode purposefully in and scanned the room until he located Dr. Burrows, whose head was lolling drowsily in the dentist's chair.

  "Look sharp, Burrows!" he bellowed, almost taking pleasure in Dr. Burrows's reaction as his head jerked up. Joe Carruthers, a veteran of the Second World War, had never lost his military bearing or his brusqueness. Dr. Burrows had given him the rather unkind nickname "Pineapple Joe" because of his strikingly red and bulbous nose — possibly the result of a war injury or, as Dr. Burrows sometimes speculated, more likely due to his consumption of excessive amounts of gin. He was surprisingly sprightly for a man in his seventies and tended to bark loudly. He was the last person Dr. Burrows wanted to see right now.

  "Saddle up, Burrows, need you to come and have a look at something for me, if you can spare a mo'? Course you can, see you're not busy here, are you?

  "Ah, no, sorry Mr. Carruthers, I can't leave the museum unattended. I'm on duty, after all," Dr. Burrows said sluggishly, reluctantly abandoning the last vestiges of sleep.

  Joe Carruthers continued to bellow at him from across the museum hall. "Come on, man, this is a special duty, y'know. Want your opinion. My daughter and her new hubby bought a house just off Main Street

  . Been having work done on the kitchen and they found something… something funny."

  "Funny in what way?" Dr. Burrows asked, still irked by the intrusion.

  "Funny hole in the floor."

  "Isn't that something for the builders to deal with?"

  "Not that sort of thing, old man. Not that sort of thing at all."

  "Why?" Dr. Burrows asked, his curiosity roused.

  "Better if you come and have a gander for yourself, old chap. I mean, you know all about the history hereabouts. Thought of you immediately. Best man for the job, I told my Penny. This chappie really knows his stuff, I said to her."

  Dr. Burrows rather relished the idea that he was regarded as the local historical expert, so he got to his feet and self-importantly put on his jacket. Having locked up the museum, he fell into step beside Pineapple Joe's forced march along Main Street

  , and they soon turned onto Jekyll Street

  . Pineapple Joe spoke only once as they turned another corner, into Marrineau Square

  .

  "Those darn dogs — people shouldn't let them run wild like that," he grumbled as he squinted at some papers blowing across the road in the distance. "Should be kept on a leash." They arrived at the house.

  Number 23 was a terraced house, no different from all the others that lined the four sides of square, built of brick with typical early Georgian features. Although each property was rather narrow, with just a thin sliver of garden at the rear, Dr. Burrows had admired them on the occasions he'd happened to be in the area and welcomed the chance to have a look inside one.

  Pineapple Joe hammered on the original four-paneled Georgian door with enough force to cave it in, Dr. Burrows wincing with each blow. A young woman answered the door, her face lighting up at the sight of her father.

  "Hello, Dad. You got him to come, then." She turned on Dr. Burrows with a self-conscious smile. "Do come down to the kitchen. Bit of a mess, but I'll put the kettle on," she said, closing the door behind them.

  Dr. Burrows followed Pineapple Joe as he stomped over the tarpaulins in the unlit corridor, where the wallpaper had been half stripped from the walls.

  Once in the kitchen, Pineapple Joe's daughter turned to Dr. Burrows. "Sorry, how rude, I didn't introduce myself. My name's Penny Hanson — I think we've met before." She emphasized her new surname proudly. For an awkward moment, Dr. Burrows looked so totally mystified by this suggestion that she flushed with embarrassment and quickly mumbled something about making the tea, while Dr. Burrows, indifferent to her discomfort, began to inspect the room. It had been gutted and the plaster stripped back to the bare brick, and there was a newly installed sink with half-finished cupboard units along one side.

  "We thought it was a good idea to take out the chimney, to give us the space for a breakfast bar over there," Penny said, pointing at the wall opposite the one with the new units. "The architect said we just needed a brace in the ceiling." She indicated a gaping hole where Dr. Burrows could see that a new metal joist had been bedded in. "But when the builders were knocking out the old brickwork, the back wall collapsed, and they found this. I've contacted our architect, but he hasn't called me back yet."

  To the rear of the fireplace
a heap of soot-stained bricks indicted where the hearth wall had been. With this wall removed, a sizable space had been revealed behind it, like a hidey-hole.

  "That's unusual. A second chimney flue?" he said to himself, almost immediately uttering a series of no's as he shook his head. He moved closer and looked down. In the floor was a vent about three feet by a foot and a half in size.

  Stepping between the loose bricks, he crouched down at the edge of the opening, peering into it.

  "Uh… have you got a flashlight handy?" he asked. Penny fetched one. Dr. Burrows took it from her and shone it down into the opening. "Brick lining, early nineteenth century, I would venture. Seems to have been built at the same time as the house," he muttered to himself as Pineapple Joe and his daughter watched him intently. "But what the blazes is it for?" he added. The strangest thing was that at he leaned over and peered down into it, he couldn't see where it ended. "Have you tested how deep it is?" he asked Penny, straightening up.

  "What with?" she replied simply.

  "Can I have this?" Dr. Burrows picked up a jagged half-brick from the pile of rubble by the collapsed hearth. She nodded, and he turned back to the hole and stood poised to drop it in.

  "Now listen," he said to them as he released it over the vent. They heard it knocking against the sides as it fell, the sounds growing quieter until only faint echoes reached Dr. Burrows, who was now kneeling over the opening.

  "Is it—?" Penny began.

  "Shhh!" Dr. Burrows hissed impolitely, giving her a start as he held up his hand. After a moment he raised his head and frowned at Pineapple Joe and Penny. "Didn't hear it land," he observed, "but it seemed to bounce off the sides for ages. How… can it be that deep?" Then, seemingly oblivious to the grime, he lay down on the floor and stuck his head and shoulders into the hole as far as he could, probing the darkness below him with the flashlight in his outstretched arm. He suddenly froze and started to sniff loudly.

 
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