Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.7
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.7

           Roderick Gordon


  Chester lounged in one of the two broken-down armchairs in the main chamber of the Forty Pits tunnel. He formed yet another little marble of clay between his fingertips, adding it to the growing pile on the table next to him. He then began to aim them halfheartedly, one after another, at the neck of an empty water bottle that he had balanced precariously on the rim of a nearby wheelbarrow.

  Will was long overdue, and as Chester threw the little projectiles he wondered what could have possibly gotten in the way of his friend's arrival. This alone wasn't of great concern, but he was anxious to tell Will what he'd discovered when he had first entered the excavation site.

  When Will finally appeared, he was walking at a snail's pace down the incline of the entrance tunnel, his shovel resting on his shoulder and his head hung low.

  "Hi, Will," Chester said brightly as he lobbed a whole handful of the clay balls at the defiant bottle. All of them predictably failed to hit the mark. There was a moment of disappointment before Chester turned to Will for a response. But Will merely grunted, and when he did look up, Chester was disturbed by the marked lack of sparkle in his friend's eyes. Chester had noticed something wasn't right over the past couple of days at school — Will seemed to be avoiding him, and when Chester had caught up with him, he had been withdrawn and uncommunicative.

  An uneasy silence grew between them in the chamber until Chester, unable to stand it any longer, blurted out, "There's a block—"

  "My dad's gone," Will cut him off.


  "He locked himself in the cellar, but now we think he's gone."

  Suddenly, it became clear to Chester why his friend's behavior had been odder than usual. He opened his mouth and then shut it again. He had absolutely no idea what to say.

  As if exhausted, Will slumped down in the other armchair.

  "When did this happen?" Chester asked awkwardly.

  "Couple of days ago — he had some sort of fight with Mum."

  "What does she think?"

  "Hah, nothing! She hasn't said a word to us since he went," Will answered.

  Chester glanced at the tunnel branching off the chamber and then at Will, who was contemplatively rubbing a smear of dried mud from the shaft of the shovel. Chester took a deep breath and spoke hesitantly. "I'm sorry, but… there's something else you should know."

  "What's that?" Will said quietly.

  "The tunnel's blocked."

  "What?" Will said. In a flash, he became animated again. He sprang out of the armchair and dashed into the mouth of the tunnel. Sure enough, the entrance to the peculiar brick room was impassable — in fact, only half of the passage still remained.

  "I don't believe it." Will stared helplessly at the tightly packed barrier of soil and stone that reached right up to the roof of the tunnel, closing it off completely. He tested the props and stay immediately in front of it, tugging at them with both hands and kicking their bases with the steel toe cap of his work boot. "Nothing wrong with those," he said, squatting down to test several areas of the spoil from the pile with his palms. He cupped his hand, scooped up some of the earth, and examined it as Chester watched, admiring the way his friend was investigating the scene.


  "What is?" Chester asked.

  Will held the dirt up to his nose and sniffed it deeply. Then, taking a pinch of the soil, he discarded the rest of it. He continued to rub it slowly between his fingertips for several seconds and then turned to Chester with a frown.

  "What's up, Will?"

  "The props farther into the tunnel were completely sound — I gave them a once-over before we left last time. And there hasn't been any rain recently, has there?"

  "No, I don't think so," Chester replied.

  "No, and this dirt doesn't feel nearly damp enough to cause the roof to slip in — there's no more moisture than you'd expect. But the weirdest thing is all this." He reached down, plucked out a chunk of stone from the pile, and tossed it over to Chester, who caught it and examined it with a bewildered expression.

  "I'm sorry, I don't understand. What's important about this?"

  "It's limestone. This infill has bits of limestone in it. Feel the surface of the rock. It's chalky — totally the wrong texture for sandstone. That's particulate."

  "Particulate?" Chester asked.

  "Yes, much more grainy. Hang on, let me check to make sure I'm right," Will said as he produced his penknife and, folding out the largest blade, used it to pick at the clean face of another piece of the rock, talking the whole time. "You see, they're both sedimentary rocks, and they look pretty much the same. Sometimes it's quite hard to tell the difference. The tests you can use are to dropacid on it — it makes limestone fizz — or look at it with a magnifying glass to see the coarser quartz grains you only get in sandstone. But this is the best method by far. Here we go," Will announced as he took a minute flake of the stone he'd pried from the sample and, to Chester's amazement, slipped it off the blade and into his mouth. The he began to nibble it between his front teeth.

  "What are you doing, Will?"

  "Mmmm," Will replied thoughtfully, still grinding it. "Yes, I'm pretty sure this is limestone… You see, it breaks down into a smooth paste… If it was sandstone, it'd be crunchier, and even squeak a little as I bit it."

  Chester winced as he heard the sounds coming from his friend's mouth. "Are you serious? Doesn't that crack your teeth?"

  "Hasn't yet." Will grinned. He reached into his mouth to reposition the flake and chewed on it for a little longer. "Definitely limestone," he finally decreed, spitting out what was left of the flake of rock. "Want a taste?"

  "No, I'm fine, really," Chester replied without a moment's hesitation. "Thanks anyway."

  Will waved his hand in the direction of the roof over the cave-in. "I don't believe there'd be a deposit — an isolated pocket of limestone — anywhere near here. I know the geology of this area pretty well."

  "So what are you getting at?" Chester asked with a frown. "Someone came down here and blocked up the tunnel with all this stuff?"

  "Yes… no… oh, I don't know," Will said, kicking the edge of the huge heap in frustration. "All I do know is that there's something very funny about all this."

  "It might've been one of the gangs. Could it be the Clan?" Chester suggested, adding, "Or maybe even the Click?"

  "No, that's not likely," Will said, turning to survey the tunnel behind him. "There'd be other signs that they'd been here. And why would they just block up this tunnel? You know what they're like — they would've wrecked the whole excavation. No, it doesn't make sense," he said, bemused.

  "No," Chester echoed.

  "But whoever it was, they really didn't want us to go back in there, did they?"

  * * * * *

  Rebecca was in the kitchen doing her homework when Will returned home. He was just slotting his shovel into the umbrella stand and hanging his yellow hard hat on the end of it when she called to him from around the corner.

  "You're back early."

  "Yeah, we had some trouble in one of the tunnels and I couldn't be bothered to do any digging," he said as he slumped down dejectedly in the chair on the opposite side of the table.

  "No digging?" Rebecca said with mock concern. "Things must be worse than I thought!"

  "We had a roof fall in."

  "Oh, right…," she said remotely.

  "I can't figure out what happened. It couldn't be seepage, and the really odd thing was that the infill…," he trailed off as Rebecca rose from the table and busied herself at the kitchen sink, clearly not listening to a word he was saying. This didn't bother Will unduly; he was used to being ignored. He wearily rested his head in his hands for a moment, but then raised it with a start as something occurred to him.

  "You don't think he's in trouble down there, do you?" he said.

  "Who?" Rebecca asked as she rinsed out a saucepan.

  "Dad. Because it's been so quiet, we've all assumed he's gone somewhere,
but he could still be in the cellar. If he hasn't eaten for two whole days, he might have collapsed." Will rose from his chair. "I'm going to take a look," he said decisively to Rebecca's back.

  "Can't do that. No way," she said, spinning around to face him. "You know he doesn't let us go down there without him."

  "I'm going to get the spare key." With that, Will hurried out of the room, leaving Rebecca standing by the sink, clenching and unclenching her fists in her yellow rubber gloves.

  He reappeared seconds later. "Well, are you coming or not?"

  Rebecca made no move to follow him, turning her head to look out the kitchen window as if mulling something over.

  "Come on!" A flash of anger suffused Will's face.

  "Fine… whatever," she agreed as she seemed to come to again, snapping off her gloves and placing them very precisely on the drainer at the side of the sink.

  They went to the cellar door and unlocked it very quietly, so their mother wouldn't hear. They didn't need to worry, though, since the sound of a barrage of gunfire was coming thick and fast from inside the living room.

  Will turned on the light and they descended the varnished oak stairs he had helped his father fix into place. As they stood on the gray-painted concrete floor, they both looked around in silence. There was no sign of Dr. Burrows. The room was crammed with his belongings, but nothing was that different from the last time Will had seen it. His father's extensive library covered two walls, and on another were shelves housing his "personal" finds, including a railwayman's lamp, the ticket machine from the disused railway station, and a careful arrangement of primitive little clay heads with clumsy features. Against the fourth wall stood a workbench, on which his computer sat, with a half-consumed candy bar in front of it.

  As Will surveyed the scene, the only thing that seemed out of place was a wheelbarrow filled with dirt and small rocks by the door to the garden.

  "I wonder what that's doing in here," he said.

  Rebecca shrugged.

  "It's funny… I saw him taking a load out to the Common," Will went on.

  "When was that?" Rebecca asked, frowning thoughtfully.

  "It was a couple of weeks ago… in the middle of the night. I suppose he could have brought this in for analysis or something." He reached into the wheelbarrow, took some of the loose soil into his palm, and examined it closely, rolling it around with his index finger. Then he held it up to his nose and breathed in deeply. "High clay content," he pronounced and sunk both hands deep into the soil, lifting out two large fistfuls, which he squeezed and then released, sprinkling them slowly back into the barrow. He turned to Rebecca with a quizzical expression.

  "What?" she said impatiently.

  "I was just wondering where this could have come from," he said. "It's…"

  "What are you talking about? He's obviously not here, and none of this is going to help us find him!" Rebecca said with such unnecessary vehemence that Will was left speechless. "Come on, let's go back upstairs," she urged him. Not waiting for Will to respond, she stomped up the wooden steps, leaving him alone in the cellar.

  "Women!" Will muttered, echoing a sentiment his father often imparted to him. "Never know where you are with them!" Rebecca in particular had always been a total mystery to Will — he couldn't decide whether she said the things she did on a whim, or if there was really something much deeper and more complex going on inside that well-groomed head of hers, something he couldn't even begin to understand.

  Whatever it was, it was no use worrying about that now, not when there were other, more important things to consider. He blew dismissively and rubbed his hands together to get the soil off, then stood motionless in the center of the room until his inquisitiveness got the better of him. He went over to the bench, flicking casually through the papers on top of it. There were photocopied articles about Highfield, pictures of old houses in faded sepia tones, and ragged sections of maps. One of these caught his eye — comments had been scribbled on it in pencil. He recognized his father's spidery handwriting.

  Martineau Square

  — the key? Ventilation for what? Will read, frowning as he traced the network of lines drawn in pencil through the houses on each side of the square. "What was he up to?" he asked himself out loud.

  Peering under the bench, he found his father's briefcase and emptied out its contents, mostly magazines and newspapers, onto the floor. In a side pocket of the briefcase, he found some loose change in a small brown paper bag and a clutch of empty chocolate bar wrappers. Then, crouching down, he began to check through the archive boxes stored under the bench, sliding each one out and flicking through its contents.

  His search was cut short by his sister's insistence that he come and eat his supper before it got too cold. But before returning upstairs, he made a short detour over to the back door to check the coats hanging there. His father's hard hat and overalls were gone.

  Back up in the hallway, he passed a cacophony of applause and laughter from behind the closed living room door as he went into the kitchen.

  The two of them ate in silence until Will looked up at Rebecca. She had a fork in one hand and a pencil in the other as she did her math homework.

  "Rebecca, have you seen Dad's hard hat or his overalls?" he asked.

  "No, he always keeps them in the cellar. Why?"

  "Well, they're not there," Will said.

  "Maybe he left them at a dig somewhere."

  "Another dig? No — he would've told me about it. Besides, when would he have had the chance to go off and do that? He was always here or at the museum — he never went anywhere else, did he? Not without telling me…," Will trailed off as Rebecca watched him intently.

  "I know that look. You've thought of something, haven't you?" she said suspiciously.

  "No, it's nothing," he replied. "Really."


  The next day, Will awoke early and, wanting to forget about his father's disappearance, donned his work clothes and ran energetically downstairs, thinking he would grab a quick breakfast and maybe meet up with Chester to excavate the blocked tunnel at the Forty Pits site. Rebecca was already lurking in the kitchen; by the way she collared him the moment he turned the corner, it was obvious she'd been waiting for him.

  "It's up to us to do something about Dad, you know," she said as Will looked at her with a slightly startled expression. "Mum's not going to do anything — she's lost it."

  Will just wanted to get out of the house; he was desperately trying to pretend to himself that everything was normal. Since the night of the argument between his parents, he and Rebecca had been getting themselves to school as usual. The only break from the norm was that they had been eating their meals in the kitchen without their mother. She had been stealing out to help herself to whatever was to be found in the fridge and had been eating it, predictably enough, in front of the television. It was clear what she'd been up to, because pies and chunks of cheese had gone missing, along with whole loaves of bread and tubs of margarine.

  They had seen her on a couple of occasions in the hallway as she shambled to the bathroom in her nightgown and her slippers with the backs trodden down. But the only acknowledgment Will or Rebecca received on these chance encounters was a vague nod.

  "I've decided something. I'm going to call the police," Rebecca said, standing in front of the dishwasher.

  "Do you really think we should? Maybe we ought to wait a while," Will said. He knew the situation didn't look good, but he wasn't quite ready to take that step yet. "Anyway, where do you think he could have gone?" he asked.

  "Your guess is as good as mine," Rebecca answered sharply.

  "I went by the museum yesterday and it was all closed up." It hadn't been open for days now — not that anyone had called to complain.

  "Maybe he just decided he'd had enough of… of everything," Rebecca suggested.

  "But why?"

  "People go missing all the time. Who knows why? Rebecca shrugged her slim shoulders. "But we're going t
o have to take the matter in hand now," she said resolutely. "And we have to tell Mum what we're going to do."

  "All right," Will agreed reluctantly. He glanced at his shovel with longing as they entered the hallway. He just wanted to get away from the house and back to something he understood.

  Rebecca knocked on the living room door and they both shuffled in. Mrs. Burrows didn't seem to notice them; her gaze didn't waver from the television for an instant. They both stood there, unsure what to do next, until Rebecca went up to Mrs. Burrows's chair, took the remote from where it rested on the arm, and turned off the television.

  Mrs. Burrows's eyes remained exactly where they had been on the now-blank screen. Will could see the three of them relected in it, three small, unmoving figures trapped within the bounds of the darkened rectangle. He drew in a deep breath, telling himself he was the one who should take charge of the situation, not his sister as usual.

  "Mum," Will said nervously. "Mum, we can't find Dad anywhere and… it's been four days now."

  "We think we should call the police…," Rebecca said, quickly adding, "…unless you know where he is."

  Mrs. Burrows's eyes dropped from the screen to the video recorders below it, but they could both see that she wasn't focusing on anything and that her expression was terribly sad. She suddenly seemed so very helpless; Will just wanted to ask her what was wrong, what had happened, but couldn't bring himself to.

  "Yes," Mrs. Burrows replied softly. "If you want to." And that was it. She fell silent, her eyes still downcast, and they both filed out of the room.

  For the first time, the full implications of his father's disappearance came home to Will. What was going to happen to them without him around? They were in serious trouble. All of them. His mother most of all.

  Rebecca called the local police station, and two officers arrived several hours later, a man and a woman, both in uniform. Will let them in.

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