Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.9
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.9

           Roderick Gordon
 

  "Well," he began slowly, "two things have been bugging me. First is, I saw him working on something at home very early one morning — 'bout two weeks before he disappeared. I figured he was digging on the Common… but that doesn't stack up."

  "Why?"

  "Well, when I saw him, I'm sure he was pushing a barrowload of spoil to the Common, not away from it. Second thing is, I cant find his overalls or hard hat anywhere."

  13

  "Oi, Snowflake, I hear you old man's done a runner," a voice shouted at Will as soon as he entered the classroom. There was an immediate hush as everyone turned to look at Will, who, gritting his teeth, sat down at his desk and started to take books out of his bag.

  It was Speed, a vicious, skinny kid with greasy black hair who was the self-appointed leader of a gang of similarly unpleasant characters.

  "Can't blame him, can you? Probably got sick of you!" Speed sneered, his voice dripping with derision.

  Hunched doggedly over his desk, Will did his best to pretend he was searching for a page in his textbook.

  "Sick of his freak of a son!" Speed shouted, in that horribly guttural yet slightly squeaky way that only someone whose voice is in the process of breaking can do.

  The fury welled up inside Will. His pulse raced and his face felt hot; he hated that it would be betraying his anger. As he remained with his eyes fixed steadfastly on the absolutely meaningless page before him, he experienced, just for a fraction of a second, a moment of incredible self-doubt and guilt. Maybe Speed was right. Maybe it was his fault. Maybe he was partly to blame for his father's departure.

  He dismissed the thought almost immediately, telling himself that it couldn't have been because of him. Whatever the reason, his father wouldn't have just walked out. It must have been something serious… something deadly serious.

  "And totally over you mental mum!" Speed bawled on even more loudly. At this, Will heard gasps and the random giggle around him in the otherwise completely silent classroom. So it was already general knowledge about his mother…

  Will gripped his textbook with such force that the cover was beginning to buckle. He still didn't look up, but he shook his head slowly. This was only going one way… He didn't want to fight, but the little creep was pushing it too far. It was a matter of pride now.

  "Hey, Vanilla Ice, I'm talking to you! Are you or are you not fatherless? Are you or are you not a b—"

  That did it! Will suddenly stood up, sending his chair shooting back. It scraped across the wooden floor and then toppled over. He locked eyes with Speed, who also rose from his desk, his face contorted with spiteful relish as he realized he'd hit the bull's-eye with his gibes. Simultaneously three of Speed's gang leaped excitedly out of their chairs with predatory glee.

  "Has Snow White had enough?" Speed sneered, moving with a swagger between the desks toward Will, his cackling entourage in tow.

  Reaching Will, Speed stood close to him, his fists clenched by his sides. Although Will wanted to take a step back, he knew he had to stand his ground.

  Speed pushed his face even closer, so that it was inches away from Will's, then arched his back like a second-rate boxer. "Well… have… you?" he said, emphasizing each word with a finger jab at Will's chest.

  "Leave him alone. We've all had enough of you." Chester's imposing bulk suddenly moved into view as he positioned himself behind Will.

  Speed glanced uneasily at him, then back at Will.

  Aware the whole class was watching him, and that he was expected to make the next move, Speed could only think of hissing dismissively through his teeth. It was a lame attempt to save his pride, and everyone knew it.

  Fortunately at that very moment the teacher entered and, realizing what was afoot, cleared his throat loudly to let them know he was in the room. It did nothing to deflate the standoff between Will, Chester, and Speed, and he had to march over and order them in no uncertain terms to sit down.

  Will and Chester took their places and, after a few seconds, Speed and his followers skulked back to their desks, too. Will leaned back in his chair and smiled at Chester. Chester was a true friend.

  * * * * *

  Returning from school later that day, Will stole into the house, taking pains not to alert his sister that he was home. Before he opened the cellar door, he paused in the hallway to listen. He heard the strains of "You Are My Sunshine": Rebecca was singing to herself as she did the housework upstairs. He quickly descended into the cellar and unbolted the door to the garden, where Chester was waiting.

  "Are you sure it's all right for me to be here?" he asked. "Feels sort of… well… wrong."

  "Don't be stupid, course it is," Will insisted. "Now, let's see what we can find in here."

  They searched through everything stored on the shelves and then in the archive boxes that Will had already made a start on the last time. Their efforts were fruitless.

  "Well, that was a complete waste of time," Will said despondently.

  "So where d'you think the dirt came from?" Chester asked, going over to the wheelbarrow to examine it more closely.

  "Haven't figured that out yet. I suppose we could search the Common. See if he was up to something there."

  "Big area," Chester said, unconvinced. "Anyway, why would he bring that dirt down here?"

  "Don't know," Will replied as he happened to run his eyes over the bookshelves one last time. He frowned as he noticed something at the side of one of the units.

  "Hang on a minute… that's odd," he said as Chester ambled over.

  "What is?"

  "Well, there's a plug in a socket down here, but I can't see where the cord goes." He flipped the switch next to the outlet and they both looked around; it didn't appear to have had any effect.

  "What's it for, then?" Chester said.

  "It's definitely not an outside light."

  "Why's that?" Chester asked.

  "Because we don't have any," Will replied as he went to the other end of the shelves, peering into the dark corner between the two units, then stepping back and regarding them thoughtfully. "Funny. The cord doesn't seem to come out again on this side."

  Taking the stepladder from beside the garden door, he set it up in front of the bookshelves and climbed up to inspect the top of the unit.

  "No sign of it here, either," he said. "This just doesn't make sense." He was about to climb down when he stopped and ran his hand over the top of the shelves.

  "Anything?" Chester asked.

  "Lots of brick dust," Will replied. He hopped down from the ladder and immediately tried to pull the end of the shelf unit away from the wall.

  "There's definitely a bit of give. Come on, lend me a hand," he said.

  "Maybe it's just badly attached," Chester suggested.

  "Badly attached?" Will said indignantly. "I helped put these up."

  They both pulled together with all their strength and, although a thin sliver opened at the rear of the unit, the shelves appeared to be firmly secured at the top.

  "Let me check something," Will said as he mounted the stepladder again. "There seems to be a loose nail lodged in this bracket." He yanked it out and let it fall onto the concrete floor by Chester's feet. "We used screws to secure this to the wall, not nails," he said, looking down at Chester with a bewildered expression.

  Will leaped down from the ladder, and they both pulled on the unit again. This time, shuddering and creaking, it swung out from the wall to reveal that it was hinged on one side.

  "So, that's what the cord's for!" Will exclaimed as both of them stared at the rough-hewn opening in the bottom half of the wall. The bricks had been removed to form a hole approximately three feet square. Inside, a passage was visible, illuminated by a motley array of old neon strip lights burning along its length.

  "Wow!" Chester gasped, his face a picture of surprise. "A secret passage!"

  Will smiled at Chester. "Let's check this out." Before Chester had time to say anything, Will ducked into the passage and was crawlin
g along it at a steady pace. "There's a bend here," came his muffled voice.

  As Chester watched, Will started to go around the corner and then, very slowly, came back into view again. He sat back and turned his head to Chester, his face disconsolate in the glow of the strip lights. "What is it?" Chester asked.

  "The tunnel's blocked. It's caved in," Will said.

  Will slowly crawled back out into the passage, then clambered through the hole in the wall and into the cellar again. He straightened up and sloughed off his school blazer, dropping it where he stood. It was only then that he noticed his friend's grim expression.

  "What is it?"

  "The cave-in… you don't think your dad's under it, do you?" Chester said almost in a whisper, barely able to contain a shudder as he pictured the horrific possibility. "He might have been… crushed," he added ominously.

  Will looked worriedly away from his friend and thought for a moment. "Well, there's only one way to find out."

  "Shouldn't we tell someone?" Chester stammered, taken aback by his friend's seeming detachment. But Will wasn't listening. His eyes had narrowed with the look of preoccupation that meant his mind was churning away, formulating a plan of action.

  "You know, the infill is exactly the same as in the Pits tunnel — it's all wrong. There are lumps of limestone again," he said, loosening his tie and pulling it over his head before discarding it next to the crumpled blazer on the floor. "This is too much of a coincidence." He returned to the mouth of the passage and leaned in. "And did you notice the props?" he said, running his hand over one that was just within reach. "This was no accident. This has been hacked at and pulled in on purpose."

  Chester joined his friend at the opening and examined the props, which had deep notches sliced into them. They were cut almost clear through in places, as if someone had been swinging an ax at them.

  "Blimey, you're right," he said.

  Will rolled up his sleeves. "Better get started, then. No time like the present." He ducked into the passage, dragging behind him a bucket he'd found just inside the opening.

  Chester looked down at his school uniform. He opened his mouth to say something, but then thought better of it, removed his blazer, and hung it neatly on the back of a chair.

  14

  "Go!" said Will in an urgent whisper as he crouched low within the shadows of the hedge bordering the Common at the bottom of the garden.

  Chester growled with the effort as he heaved the overladen wheelbarrow into motion and then weaved precariously between the trees and shrubs. Reaching open ground, he veered off to the right toward the gullies they were using to dump the spoil. From the mounds of fresh earth and small cairns of rock already deposited there, it was evident to Will that his father had been using these gullies for the very same purpose.

  Will kept a watchful eye open for any passersby as Chester swiftly emptied the barrow at the top of the gully. He deftly spun it around for the return journey, while Will remained behind to push in any large pieces of rock or clumps of soil and clay.

  Once that was done, Will caught up with Chester. As they were retracing the well-trodden route back to the garden, the wheel on the old barrow began to squeal piercingly, perhaps protesting the countless trips it had been forced to make. The noise cut through the peaceful calm of the balmy autumn evening.

  Both boys froze abruptly in their tracks, looking around to check whether it had attracted any attention from the nearby houses.

  Trying to catch his breath, Chester bent forward with his hands resting on his knees as Will stooped to examine the offending wheel.

  "We'll have to oil that stupid thing again."

  "Duh, do you think so?" Chester puffed sarcastically.

  "I think you'd better carry it back," Will replied coldly as he straightened up.

  "Do I have to?" Chester groaned.

  "Come on, I'll give you a hand," Will said as he grabbed hold of the front of the barrow.

  They lugged it the remaining distance, grunting and cursing under their breath but maintaining a strict silence as they crossed the back yard. They trod lightly as they negotiated the small ramp down to the rear entrance into the cellar.

  "My turn at the face, I suppose." Will gasped as they both flopped with exhaustion onto the concrete floor. Chester didn't answer.

  "You all right?" Will asked him.

  Chester nodded groggily, then squinted at his watch. "I think I should be getting home."

  "S'pose so," Will said as Chester slowly pulled himself to his feet and began to gather his things. Will didn't say so, but he was very relieved that Chester had decided to call it a day. They were both dog tired after the intensive digging and tipping, to the point that he could see Chester was a little unsteady on his feet from fatigue.

  "Same time tomorrow, then," Will said quietly, flexing his fingers and then stretching one shoulder in an effort to reduce the stiffness.

  "Yeah," Chester croaked in reply, without even looking at Will as he shuffled out of the cellar by the back door.

  * * * * *

  They went through this same ritual every evening after school. Will would very carefully open the garden door, without making a sound, to let Chester in. They would get changed and immediately begin working for two or three hours at a stretch. The excavation was particularly slow and tortuous, not only because of the limited space in the tunnel and the fact that they couldn't let anyone above hear them, but because they could tip the excavated material onto the Common only under cover of nightfall. At the end of every evening, after Chester had gone home, Will made sure that the shelf unit was pushed back into place and secured and the floor swept.

  This night he had an additional task: As he saturated the axle of the noisy wheel with oil, he wondered how much farther it was to the end of the tunnel and, not for the first time, whether there would be anything there. He was concerned that they were running out of supplies; without his father's help with materials, he had been forced to salvage as much timber as he could from the Forty Pits, so as the tunnel beneath the house progressed, the other one became more and more precarious.

  Later, as he sat hunched over the kitchen table, eating yet another dinner that had gone stone-cold, Rebecca appeared in the doorway as if from nowhere. It made Will start, and he swallowed noisily.

  "Just look at the state of you! Your uniform is filthy — do you expect me to wash everything again? " she said, folding her arms aggressively.

  "No, not really," he replied, avoiding her eyes.

  "Will, what exactly are you up to?" she demanded.

  "I don't know what you mean," he said, ramming in another mouthful.

  "You've been sneaking off somewhere after school, haven't you?"

  Will shrugged, pretending to examine a dry slice of beef curling on the tip of his fork.

  "I know you're up to something, all right, because I've seen that big ox sneaking around in the back yard."

  "Who?"

  "Oh, come on, you and Chester have been tunneling somewhere, haven't you?"

  "You're right," Will admitted. He finished his mouthful and, taking a breath, tried to lie as convincingly as he could. "Over by the town dump," he said.

  "I knew it!" Rebecca announced triumphantly. "How can you even think of digging another of your useless holes at a time like this?"

  "I miss Dad, too, you know," he said as he took a bite out of a cold roasted potato, "but it's not going to help any of us if we just mope around the house, feeling sorry for ourselves… like Mum."

  Rebecca stared at him distrustfully, her eyes shining with anger, then turned on her heel and walked out of the room.

  Will finished the congealed meal, staring into space as he slowly chewed each mouthful, ruminating on the events of the past month.

  Afterward, up in his bedroom, he took out a geological map of Highfield, first marking the spot where he thought the house stood, and then the direction he calculated his father's tunnel in the cellar was taking, and, while he was a
t it, the locations of Martineau Square

  and Mrs. Tantrumi's house. Will looked long and hard at the map, as if it were a puzzle he could solve, before he finally put it aside and climbed into bed. Within minutes he'd slipped into an uneasy and fitful slumber, in which he dreamed of the sinister people his father had described in his journal.

  * * * * *

  In the dream he was dressed in his school uniform, but it was covered in mud and tattered and torn at the elbows and knees. He'd lost his socks and shoes and was walking barefoot down a long, deserted terraced street, which felt familiar though he couldn't quite place where he knew it from. As he glanced up at the low sky, which was yellowy gray and formless, he fidgeted anxiously with the ragged material of his sleeves. He didn't know if he was late for school or for supper, but he was certain he was supposed to be somewhere or doing something — something very important.

  He kept to the center of the street, wary of the houses on both sides. They stood ominous and dark; no light shone from behind their dusty windows, nor did any smoke rise from their precariously tall and twisted black chimney stacks.

  He was feeling so very lost and alone when, far off in the distance, he spotted someone crossing the street. He knew instantly that it was his father, and his heart leaped with joy. He began to wave, but then stopped as he sensed that the buildings were watching him. There was a brooding malevolence to them, as if they harbored an evil force, like a tightly coiled spring, holding its breath and lying in wait for him.

  Will's fear grew to an unbearable pitch, and he broke into a trot toward his father. He tried to call to him, but his voice was thin and ineffectual, as though the air itself were swallowing his words the instant they left his lips.

  He was running at full tilt now, and with every stride the street was becoming narrower, so that the houses on either side were closing in on him. He could now clearly see that there were shadowy figures lurking threateningly in their dark doorways, and that they were beginning to spill out onto the street as he passed them.

 
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