AN UNFINISHED STORY
Some of the floorboards in my basement studio had woodworm and needed replacing. I had been using the basement as a photographic darkroom and studio; so I pushed my equipment to one end and pulled up the first board. Underneath were timbers above an earth floor. The earth looked loose and smelt damp. But the room always did smell damp, despite having a large window looking out into the area where two coal cellars displayed their dark interiors.
It was when I got hold of the next board to pull up that I had my first warning. I had a distinct urge to take my hand away in case I touched something I didn’t like. As a child I had killed a mouse once during harvesting. I had put it in my pocket and forgotten it in the excitement of chasing rabbits running out of the wheat. Days later I wore the jacket again and put my hand in the pocket where the dead mouse was, cold and soft. It was a great shock, and as I held the board my hand wanted to withdraw in case I did the same thing.
I thought it was a childhood fear of the unknown I was touching; waited until my heart slowed down and pulled the board up. There was nothing to see except earth. As the other boards came up I noticed an area where the joists were further apart. Quite a big area was thus left uncovered.
By that time I had taken up all the rotten boards and stood wondering what to do with them. They were too awkward to put in the dustbin. London dustmen seemed to me to be more outspoken than dustmen in general, so I decided to burn the wood. I didn’t need much of an excuse. I love fires, and the basement had a good sized grate. The daylight was fading and an evening chill setting in. I got a good blaze going and enjoyed the warmth and feeding the flames.
As the light from the fire and small bulb took over from the daylight that filtered through the area window, the earth beneath the joists took on a different appearance. It was dark, mysterious, and, I felt, very deep. Without consciously admitting this feeling I avoided walking across the joists as I collected more wood for the fire. Also, the open area of earth drew my attention. I must have stared several times before I realised what attracted me. The light bulb, being to one side of the gap, was casting a slight shadow on the surface of the bare earth. What I had missed seeing at first was that the unevenness of the earth was not random. A curving, hardly distinguishable mound was exposed by the angle of the light. It reminded me of the cartoons in which a mole is shown digging into the ground, and to show its whereabouts, a line of raised earth appears. Something, I thought, had dug a hole under our house. What sort of creature in Bloomsbury, London, would dig under a house? The bore of the hole appeared large; about three inches across. Picking up a piece of nearby wood, snapped from a plank, I gently poked the earth. I wanted to carefully look into whatever hole was there.
Have you ever stepped down a step you thought was there, but wasn’t? The wood went into the earth then stopped. I had thought it was going to penetrate a cavity. Instead I sensed something firm but slightly yielding.
After that I can’t account for my movements. I can only describe the images indelibly imprinted in my emotion. No, that’s not right. It feels to me they were carved into my body. The earth writhed and surged. Suddenly it was no longer earth but a great snake, as long as several men, powerful, devastating. But it was white. The sort of white some men’s flesh is when never exposed to the sun and they are dying. And that creature lifted out of the earth and looked at me. Such was my state of mind that the eyes may have considered me for hours, cocked and frozen, or perhaps a split second. I don’t know. But I am certain there was intelligence there, of a sort I had never encountered before. It was ancient and impersonal. I had the impression of it being more than it’s body, as if it were a power, the power of impersonal nature itself which can create the miracle of a new-born baby, then eat it alive with a strange disease, or crush it with an earthquake.
It was awe-full. I was impressed.
I must have cried out when it moved again. I can’t remember doing so, but apparently people two houses down the walk heard me.
I find that I can’t tell you this straight out. I’m not trying to apologise or make excuses for myself. I know from hard experience that people begin to cut off the conversation when I get to this point. I know it is difficult to believe, but I need to be able to explain the whole story.
When it moved I saw the body of a woman. She was naked and dead. In some way that I cannot be clear about, she was bound to that beast. I know this sounds contradictory, but I knew she could direct it, and she looked at me. Her eyes were alive. It was then I was overwhelmed with fear. I was paralysed by the feeling I had stirred up something which was evil, and I was now known to it and was a marked man.
The last image etched into me is of both of them plunging into the earth and disappearing. A rational explanation has been found for that since, but at the time it was another block of unbelievable experience for me to contend with.
Moments after that my wife Susan rushed into the studio. I was still kneeling on the floor looking down at the earth between the joists, with what expression I don’t know. All I know is that Su suddenly looked deflated and scared. She almost whispered, “What is it, Bob?”
Eventually Su and my parents called the doctor. I couldn’t stop trying to tell them what I had seen. I must have sounded crazy because at that time I couldn’t get my story laid out slowly and consecutively. I remember saying to my father, “But dad, I saw the bloody thing dive into the floor with the dead woman.” I could see he was frightened. Not of what I was describing, but because I was saying it. I even insisted they closed the shop early and go into the basement with me. When we got there I really didn’t know what to say. There were a few marks in the earth, but nothing to tell a story with. But when I poked the spot where I had seen the creature and woman disappear, the earth was waterlogged. With the stick I discovered what felt like a square well of bricks. Dad said it must be an old sewer.
I think my family decided the doctor was the lesser of three evils. After finding the well I really lit up again, and tried to get to the phone to contact one of the daily newspapers. The talk of possible murder must have put the idea of the police into Su’s mind at least. When I questioned them about this since they just say they were worried out of their wits, and wanted to help me.
Doctor Wyse is quite a big man. He looked athletic without being obviously muscular. He has never treated me as if I was a fool who knew nothing about the human body, or as someone incapable of making their own intelligent decisions. Because he never patronised me I was always able to talk to him easily and feel satisfied afterwards. Su hadn’t told me he was coming, so when the door bell rang and Su let him into our kitchen the whole event of the snake appeared to replay and I saw it from another point of view. A friend of mine, Geoff, unmarried and living with his sister and brother, one day had, as his sister put it, “suddenly started rambling on.” Then he had run around the house saying how many years they had wasted by not loving each other. When his sister shut herself in her bedroom, Geoff banged on the door shouting that’s what they had always done, shut themselves away from love. The doctor had called and given Geoff an injection. The injections were given each day until Geoff became normal again. Personally, I thought he had a point. The house reeked of unsatisfied desire and sexual tension. But the thought of injections made me suddenly very careful. There are even worse things than injections done to people who don’t conform to what is expected of them by the group they live amidst. I didn’t see any need to put myself in a straight jacket no matter what I had seen. Better be wise before the event.
The doctor came straight to the point as soon as he had entered the kitchen and sat down. Looking directly at me, watching my reactions, he said, “Your family asked me to call because they feel you have been disturbed by something you experienced earlier today.”
I smiled. I know a little bit about psychology. That he didn’t say I had seen anything made me aware how careful he was being not to have his own preconceptions. I relaxed some of the tension I had felt when I saw him walk in, and I noticed he relaxed too.
At that point my parents and Su left us, and I described what had happened. His opening sentence helped me to find a standpoint from which to meet him. So I told him that I felt it difficult not to believe I had seen the things I was describing. It was impossible to maintain my calmness though. As I described the central part of my story, I couldn’t keep my body still. I felt flushed and excited, and I noticed Wyse looking at my hands. I realised I was gripping the chair. By the time I had finished I felt it almost impossible to sit still.
Wyse looked away from me when I stopped talking, took a deep breath, which he let out slowly before returning his gaze and talking to me. “Whatever has happened to you has obviously left a deep impression. You have talked to me rationally, yet what you have talked about is extremely unusual. At the moment you also appear to be agitated by it. Is it correct that the agitation has arisen from recounting your story, or did it precede what you experienced?”
“I can’t remember feeling irritable or restless before this happened,” I said. “But Su would be a more independent witness of that than I.”
“I have already asked her,” he said thoughtfully. “She told me the same as you. So, what I am interested in now is how you explain this to yourself. What do you believe it means?” He paused, then went on, “I have to ask you that because your parents, and Su in a lesser degree, are obviously frightened you might be ill in some way.”
“You mean, they’re worried I might be mentally ill?”
A smile flickered across his face, and remained in his blue eyes as he replied, “They didn’t actually say that to me; and I’m not filling in the gaps they left. So for their sake and perhaps yours, you need to consider my questions.”
The tension had begun to drop from me again. I thought about what he had said, realising he would not have spoken my family’s doubts if he himself really believed them. By treating me as if I was rational enough to look at my own problems, he was in fact bringing me into a steadier relationship with what had happened. When I looked at him and said, “Thanks”, he seemed to understand what I meant and nodded his head. Seeing that, and seeing he was on my side; or at least not trying to trap me, I felt trusting enough-toward him to sit without talking for a while to consider his questions.
“Doctor, until you. . ‘
Call me Andrew” he interrupted.
“Okay, Andrew, until you asked, I hadn’t thought about what this might mean. I hadn’t explained it to myself, only other people. Even now though, having thought about it, at the risk of being thought crazy, I still see it as something real that happened to me.”
He interrupted my thoughts again, saying, “I’ve got no doubts about its reality. I can see you’re not lying. What I am asking is whether you are describing it to yourself as a physical reality or a psychological one.”
“Definitely a physical one. I have no sense of it being a hallucination at all. What I feel is that even if it was a hallucination, what could have caused me to experience such a whopper? Though I’m disposed to seeing it as a physical thing, either way I desperately need to understand how that creature and woman happened to be there, and in what way I am involved and responsible. Because if that was a real woman the police need to know.”
“So what do you propose doing?”
I sighed, closed my eyes and sat back in the chair for a moment. For the first time I felt despair and confusion about what had happened. “When you came in that door Andrew, I suddenly saw this whole thing from the viewpoint of someone who is sceptical.”
He crossed his legs and leaned toward me, chin on one hand. “I don’t feel sceptical about what you’ve told me,” he said.
“No, I don’t mean I see you as sceptical. Thank God you’re not. I’m beginning to feel unsteady about myself, and need to talk this over with someone. What I mean is that I realised there could be another attitude toward what I am saying happened to me. Can you imagine what a reporter would publish, or a policeman say, if I told them a dead woman looked at me? I can imagine I might just be believed if I left it at the snake, but with the woman as well – never!”
The doctor studied me a moment, then said, “As your physician, that’s the only thing that concerns me. Some people rise at eight, have two such experiences before breakfast, go to work at nine unshaken, and return at five to another episode. Take William Blake, for instance. If it doesn’t trouble you, there is no need for concern. If it drives you to a social situation which causes you conflict, and if it brings about a view of yourself that makes you ill, then you and I have a problem.”
“If I could be sure this was like one of Blake’s visions, it would be easier. But guessing what the reaction would be if I told my story to others, I think I can contain myself in that direction. But I’ve got to do something about it, otherwise I won’t sleep at night thinking.” Without quite knowing why, I hesitated and said, “I wish……” A decision was forming in me. It congealed and I said, “I wish you would come and look at the basement with me Andrew.”
He surprised me by laughing aloud. “I’ve been waiting for you to ask me ever since I arrived.”
“Why didn’t you say?”
“Well, if you were deeply uncertain about your experience, or doubted its reality, you would not want me poking around downstairs. So thanks for trusting me. I want to find out what is going on in your basement, or your mind, whichever one it is.”
I led the way. From the front of our house, at the side of the shop, a passage connects the front door with the back. The kitchen is off this on one side, and the stairs to the basement on the other. The stairs creaked as we went down. I felt a bit apprehensive as I opened the door, but the room was chill and empty of atmosphere. It looked a mess with the floorboards up.
Dr. Wyse unhurriedly examined the room. He looked at my cameras and lights, the books I had in one corner, then the uncovered joists. “Something has obviously disturbed the earth here”, he said, looking up at me from his kneeling position. “I can’t see any sign of a well formed tunnel the snake may have been in – just soft earth.”
I began to feel detached from what had happened, and in fact had an urge to nail down the new boards I had ready. Maybe it was a reaction to the turmoil I had been through, and which I now wanted to push away into the past; nail it into forgetfulness under the planks. But it would always seem strange photographing people down here standing above whatever it was.
I must have wandered off a long way into my thoughts because I heard Andrew’s voice saying, “Bob, have you got a pole?” It was said as if he had already asked me and was trying again. “What were you thinking about” he asked when he saw I had heard him.
“Oh, just that I want to get those planks down and bury this whole thing.”
“Well, before you do, let’s poke down into this wet earth to see how deep the well of bricks is that you said is here.”
Despite it being me who had asked Andrew to look at the basement, I felt reluctant to help him now he was here. I began to wonder whether he was right when he had said if I had anything to hide I wouldn’t want him poking around. Anyway, I decided there could be no harm in finding a pole, but I had to think for a while where I could get such a thing. Then I remembered that in the cupboard where grandfather left all his bottles of Lizzie wine, there were the remains of chimney rods. The cupboard was in the area next to the coal cellars. I found three rods that were usable, screwed them together and offered them to the doctor. He declined, saying “You know where it is.”
It was obvious really because the earth was waterlogged. I poked the rod into the water about a foot and banged the brass end against the four walls so we could hear it click. Then I slowly pushed it deeper, occasionally banging it against the sides as well as I could to hear if the bricks continued. It felt like they did. Altogether the rods were about ten feet long. At about seven feet I hit resistance. It felt like mud. I began to pull the pole up to push it down hard. That puzzled me because it was difficult to pull up, as if I was pulling up a weight. Andrew must have seen my expression change. “What is it?” he asked.
“I’m not sure, it feels like a weight.”
He was standing opposite me on the other side of the hole, and reached out his hand. “Let me try.”
I was just about to hand him the pole when I felt it quiver. I paused and pushed it down slightly. Suddenly it was torn from my grasp, almost wrenching me down the hole. I managed to let go when I was arm deep in the muck. I screamed and with convulsive movement, catapulted away from the hole.
Andrew came over to me with a strange expression on his face. “Why did you push it down the hole like that?”
I looked at him with my mouth open for a while before I realised he was serious, and my anger broke. “For God’s sake man, I didn’t push, I was pulled. Didn’t you see, I was nearly pulled down the bloody hole. There’s something down there I tell you, and all you can do is ask my why I pushed the sodding stick.” I got up off the floor and stamped around the room a bit. I wanted to kick something, preferably Dr. Wyse.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but when I asked you for the rod you paused for a moment, began to push it back down, then appeared to ram it into the hole.”
“I didn’t ram it in the hole,” I shouted. “I was bloody pulled.” I stood looking at the hole, which was now obviously a square pool of water. My anger subsided a bit as I thought about what Andrew had said. Maybe it had looked as if I pushed. At that speed it would be hard to tell the difference. “Look, Andrew, there is something down that hole. It pulled the rod out of my hands. Maybe that wasn’t obvious to you, but it was to me. I’m not going to rest until somebody other than myself is in on this. So stay there and watch that hole until I get back.”
Andrew looked at his watch, but stayed. I knew what I wanted and where to find it. Not more than a hundred yards from our house, along Dukes Road, there was a pile of scaffolding poles. They had been taken down a few days before, after being used in redecorating The Plaice Theatre. It was raining – it never seemed to stop raining lately – and the few people about at this late hour were at a distance in Euston Road. I figured nobody would mind me borrowing a pole – anyway, it was an emergency. I chose one about the length of the rods I had lost, and walked back, feeling more invigorated and alive than I had for a very long time. I believe I must have been smiling when I got back to the house. I was thinking that life had got boring lately and this certainly beat TV.
Andrew had started the fire going again, with the wood I hadn’t burnt. He grinned when he saw the scaffolding pole. “Good Lord, Bob what are you going to do with that – entice the ghoul up and whack it?”
I don’t know where I got the idea from, it had leapt ready made into my mind when Andrew had accused me of pushing the rods. I had all the necessary bits at hand. First I drilled a hole through the end of the metal pole. Through this I put a forged hook which was on the end of a length of chain I sometimes used to suspend background for photos. I had a spare screw hook, which I screwed into one of the beams in the ceiling. It didn’t take me long to locate one through the plaster. So I ended up with a large hook in the ceiling from which hung the chain over the hole. On the end of the chain was the pole. The whole operation had only taken me about twenty minutes. With legs wide, just in case – I didn’t want to fall in that hole – I pulled myself up on the chain to test it. It took my weight easily.
“I’m impressed,” Andrew said. He sounded as if he meant it.
“Well, here we go. Do you want to probe this time?” I said, offering him the pole.
He hesitated a moment, then shook his head. “I’m beginning to wonder if this isn’t like dowsing. Perhaps it only works for certain people. If I try we might be here till morning and I’ve got a surgery at nine.”
I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, but I wanted to get it over with too, so without hesitation I began to probe. With the pole it was easier to feel the hardness of the bricks. I was going down very slowly and realised I was scared of getting yanked down the hole again. I stopped and looked up at Andrew. He was watching my face. I think he felt tense too. Shifting my position I stood well away from the chain and held the pole as lightly as its weight would allow. Tentatively I pushed down. The pole was almost full length in the water now so I had to kneel. When I hit something I almost let go and fell back – but it was only nerves. Pushing the pole up and down I could feel something as hard as the brick walls. Maybe the pole had reached the bottom. Andrew came and knelt with me. Together we pushed, jerked, probed, wiggled – nothing. We did find that two of the walls did not go right to the bottom, but other than that, no result.
After about quarter of an hour Andrew gave up. I would have to also, but I felt foolish poking down a water filled hole with a pole on the end of a damn great chain. I didn’t know how to stop with dignity, or what to say to Andrew when I did. Eventually he did it for me by picking up his coat and saying, “Bob, I’d like to stay longer (but I must get some sleep before work tomorrow. Give me a ring if you need me tomorrow. I’ll come and see you anyway in three days.”
I pulled myself up using the chain, leaving the pole almost submerged in the water. I still didn’t know what to say and stood looking at the hole, swinging the chain so the pole disturbed the water.
Andrew stood watching me, in no apparent hurry to go now he had his coat on. “Why don’t you go to bed too?” he said.
I sensed he didn’t know how to wind this thing up without being patronising. Trying to help him feel easier about going I said, “Yes, I will, but I think I’ll take this contraption down first. I’m not sure how I would explain it to Su in the morning.”
I started to pull the pipe up by the chain. It felt heavy that way so I let it go to kneel and grasp the pipe. Instead of the chain taking the weight of the pipe again it hung slack. I reached out to it curiously. As I touched it I felt it tighten and quiver rigidly. Andrew was half turned, moving toward the door. I screamed his name. He turned and froze, looking at me.
After the scream everything was silent and motionless. Then a sound like the creaking of ships timbers came. With a rending explosion a piece of the ceiling beam was torn away, scattering plaster and dust, and smashing the water like a bomb. I saw Andrew’s face, eyes wide, lips grinning in awful shock as the noise of metal grating and rending burst up even out of the water.
Then all was silence again. “Good God!” Andrew said, without apparently moving and still staring at the hole. I felt he really meant it, and I needed a similar prayer. At that moment I was convinced that if all the ceiling beams had been connected to the pole, the whole lot would have been pulled down.
We left the basement pretty quick after that. In the kitchen we drank tea and ate a sandwich, neither of us saying much. Then Andrew left, promising to see me again as soon as possible. I went upstairs to our second floor flat, still with the day’s events playing over and over in my mind, but feeling complete now Andrew was part of the event. Before I climbed into bed though, I realised there was one thing I still needed to do. I went all the way down to the basement again and put as much wood and weight over the hole as I could manage.
If anyone had asked me, I would have said I didn’t sleep that night. Su and I cuddled up tighter, but I was restless, and my mind clattered away, through countless replays, and unnumbered considered answers to the questions in me. But I must have slept at some point, because I dreamt that beneath all London lay a mysterious underground lake. In it, as a force of evil threatening the population of the city, and perhaps the world, hid the woman and the snake. I alone knew their secret existence – and she knew I knew.
The ‘lid’ was still on the hole when I collected my equipment the next morning. I had two photographic appointments out of the studio. Woman magazine had commissioned me to photograph a couple of people for illustrations in coming features. One was a motherly looking housewife who had taken up painting when her children left home, and had quickly become a best seller in the art scene. The other was Arthur Sinn, the male vocalist. Usually I enjoyed such photo sessions in people’s own homes. I found it fascinating to explore their house for backgrounds and discover what sort of person they were from their decor and the way they lived. But during these two sessions I found myself pre-occupied with images of the living eyes in a dead body, and Andrew’s face when the hook tore out of the rafter. Looking at Gladys the painter, I considered her differently than I had ever thought about anybody before. I looked at her house and her personality, examining it to see whether she had links with or experience of anything deeper than buses, cooking the evening meal, making love on the sheepskin she had in front of her open fire, and enjoying a glass of gin. I wondered if the person she was could leap the gap which existed between the excruciating conversation and atmosphere of a ‘glasses all round’ opening of a painting exhibition, and the awful power of a white serpent erupting out of her basement. I imagined telling her the events of my previous day but my fantasy came to no good end, and I repressed the desire to share my secret. Instead I wondered whether I myself could jump the gap between the person I was, to the mystery that had emerged in my basement.
While photographing Arthur Sinn, these feelings deepened. I saw him as akin to a tree which had no roots, so was becoming dry, brittle and dead. Seeing him cut off from the earth and his sources of life made him appear as a body which had no person inside it. His body merely made movements and sounds which copied humanness. At one point the impression became so strong I felt I had to get away from him because of the abhorrence I felt. He must have noticed because he asked me if I were feeling okay. I excused myself by saying I wasn’t very outgoing because of a hectic day with my wife yesterday. He appeared to arrive at his own conclusions as to what I meant, and relaxed again.
Riding home to Euston on the top of a double-decker bus from Arthur’s Edgware house, my troubled feelings clarified. I realised they were connected in some way with my dream. I began to sense that people were puppets, their activities and moves invisibly directed by “Things” I felt a resistance against knowing. I didn’t want there to be a man hidden in the Punch and Judy booth of life making the figures move.
From the bus I saw placards displaying scantily dressed females. Using the sexual impulse thus stimulated, the unseen manipulations create a flow of our money to them. I felt the tightness of anxiety in my belly as I realised how fenced in I was — we all are — by the invisible but potent forces that direct us like unconscious cattle. I tried to imagine what would happen if I completely undressed on the bus, or walked naked down Oxford Street. In that way I was able to experience something of the enormous pressure pushing on me to conform. I realised that such influences were so subtle we may never notice how we are being led in what we buy, what we do, what we believe and who we are, until we push against them. I remembered the nurse who was murdered in the Middle East because she had tangled with one of the powers which direct human lives.
Getting off the bus at St Pancras Church, and strolling down Woburn Walk to our house, I felt on more familiar territory again and my troubled vision of people subsided.
When I entered the basement to start processing my films, Sue was in the last stages of cleaning up the ceiling plaster and bits of wood that had scattered when the chain ripped loose. Su is only five feet tall, and with ample breasts and slightly girlish face, can give the impression of soft femininity. However, I know her well enough to realise she has a quick mind and very penetrating way of expressing herself, especially if she is upset. I believe I’m slightly afraid of her, and when I sensed in her energetic movements signs of irritation, I wondered in what way she would dig at me. Without really looking at me she said, “What happened here last night?”
I put my equipment down and considered for a moment where best to begin. “It’s not easy to explain…” I began.
“I’m not asking you to excuse yourself for the mess. I only want to know what happened.”
I tried again from a different direction. “After talking to Andrew, I needed to show him what I had been describing, so he could see I wasn’t imagining it all. . . . .”
Su’s posture softened slightly and she said, “He rang up by the way. He wanted to assure me that you’re okay; you’re not ill or anything. He said he’s coming round about five, but he didn’t say anything about this!” She looked at the large hole in the ceiling and the hard edge came back again.
“I brought him down here and. …” I paused.
“And?” she prompted.
“And. …” I told her the basic outline of what had happened, trying to make it sound as ordinary as I could.
When I had finished she didn’t say anything for a while. She appeared to be struggling with a feeling inside herself. “I was afraid it was something like that”, she said. From the look of her I thought she was going to throw the dustpan and brush at me.
I stepped forward for half a pace. “Look, Su, I didn’t seek this out. I didn’t do it on purpose to upset you.”
“Didn’t you!” she demanded. “You certainly hung that chain up didn’t you? I felt something like this was going to happen right from the first.” She looked at me angrily, then suddenly walked out and banged the door shut behind her.
After a moment’s pause I ran out and called her, but heard the front door slam. I was half way along the passage trying to catch up with her before I realised she might want to be alone. Anyway, I needed to process the films I had taken to make sure the sessions were usable.
Su arrived back about half an hour before Andrew was due. Her eyes looked as if she had been crying. I wanted to get near, but she made it obvious she didn’t want me close. We spoke, but only things such as “Have you had anything to eat?” and “Were the films okay?”
Andrew looked very pleased with himself when he arrived, but he became more subdued when he saw the situation between Su and me. I explained that Su was upset because of what had happened the night before.
Because my parents were still working in the shop, we sat upstairs in our flat. Andrew started the conversation while Su made some coffee within hearing. “When I got to bed last night I lay awake wondering what could cause the sort of effect we saw. Eventually I decided that speculation held no guarantee of explaining what we experienced. What we need is facts and information, so I telephoned a few places. It’s amazing what you can get hold of if you know where to phone.”
Su arrived with the coffee. “You mean you’ve found an explanation?” she asked, her sharpness apparently melting.
“No, not a real explanation. That may take time. But I do have information which may lead us to finding out what happened.”
“Such as?” I asked.
“Well, the house is near several underground stations – Euston, Kings Cross, and Russell Square to the South. I know the presence of water seems to discount a railway tunnel, but we can’t leave out such an obvious answer.”
“Is there a line under the house?” Su asked.
“I telephoned London Transport on the pretext one of my patients was disturbed by what might be railway noises and vibrations. After a check they were certain no line runs under the house.”
“So we can tick that off as a no,” I said.
“I think so. After that I had no clear direction I could follow. What else would generate enough power to tear your ceiling out for instance. So I decided to try another approach. I phoned the Daily Telegraph library and asked if they had any reports on unusual events in cellars.
You’ve got no idea what goes on in peoples’ basements. The librarian came up with everything from secret love nests to illegal atom bomb shelters.”
“Are you saying you hit a blank there too?” Su asked.
Andrew took a note-book from his jacket pocket. “Not exactly. I telephoned several other papers, and altogether I collected five cases which might have connections with what happened. I have briefly noted them down here, with dates. I’ll read them to you.”
“January 20th, 1962. While digging in the basement of a house in Wandsworth in order to mend broken sewage pipes, workman Mike Hadley claimed the ghoul of a woman rose out of the earth. He refused to continue work, and another contractor was hired.”
“May 3rd, 1975. Zena Abogina lost a carpet and armchair down a large hole which suddenly appeared in the paved floor of her basement home in Bayswater. The hole was sixty feet deep, and no cause could be discovered; neither was her furniture recovered. The hole was filled in, but the basement was declared unfit to live in.”
“Oct 12th, 1980. According to Swami Krishna Triparthi, priest of a small HinduTemple, built in the cellar of a Soho shirt factory, a divine vision of the snake god Naga appeared to him. Swami Triparthi claimed the snake god knocked down a wall in its passing. A surveyor later stated that the wall was probably weakened by the vibrations caused by the frequent ritual stamping in the temple.”
“March 8th, 1981. During excavations for the foundations of a new hypermarket in KentishTown, remains of a pre-Christian temple were found. Archaeologist Samuel Norton believes it to have been dedicated to a goddess. Several witches covens have claimed right to worship at the site, and are holding sit-ins to delay building work. A deep well or pit lies near the temple. The covens state this is the doorway through which the goddess emerges, and a return to ancient worship is heralded by this find.”
“July 26th, 1982. Father Rory O’Donahue was called to the Islington house of Valerie Duggan, who claimed her cellar was haunted by a woman and serpent. Father O’Donahue performed an exorcism. He said there has been a spate of requests for exorcisms in cellars in recent months.”
Andrew looked up from his notes. “That’s the lot,” he said. “But for one afternoon’s work I thought that was a good start.”
“Good in what way?” I replied. “Listening to those I wondered whether I sounded as crazy as that bunch when I originally talked to you.”
Andrew put his notebook back in his pocket and drank his coffee. “It’s not my job or my intent to form opinions as to whether someone is crazy or sane, good or bad. That sort of value judgement is of no use in understanding why or how something happens to a person, and whether they can be helped. How would it help if I stuck a label on you saying ‘Bob is crazy’ or if I put a notice on your studio door saying ‘what happens in here is bad”?
“These cases I’ve quoted gave a hint that what happened to you is part of a phenomenon which is not limited to you personally. What it means, and how the business of the pole and rods is connected with it I don’t know, but I mean to find out. I believe that some epidemics aren’t due to bacteria or viruses. I’m talking about the sort of epidemic we witnessed in the world wars in which a major cause of destruction spread to nearly every country.”
“Surely you don’t think that what happened in our basement could be the beginning of a world war,” I said. “I thought I was the crazy one!”
Andrew looked at me but chose to ignore my jab. “Of course I don’t believe that. I only used the wars as an example. There are other psychological epidemics than war – perhaps the Wall Street Crash was one of them. The point is that maybe we have the beginnings of one here. The sample is small but can you see that the incidence has increased over the years?”
“You honestly think we might be involved in such a thing?”
“I don’t know. At the moment I’m guessing, but with further research I might find out.”
“Andrew, if you had kept quiet about your suspicions, perhaps I wouldn’t have told you this, but today I had very strange feeling about people, and what goes on under the surface of their life. Maybe that was why I said what I did about being the crazy one.” I proceeded to describe how I had felt when photographing Gladys and Arthur Sinn, and my thoughts about the murdered nurse. As I spoke he took his notebook out again and started writing hurriedly. I was also aware of Su gradually getting more agitated. By the time I got to mention my fear that powerful forces were invisibly at work in peoples’ lives, she could hold back no longer, and almost flung words at us like projectiles.
“Do either of you know what you’re doing?” She didn’t quite shout, but Andrew’s attention was jerked up to her face from his notebook. “Does it occur to either of you that you’re meeting something here you can’t handle?”
I started to say, “I thought that….” but she cut me off.
“No, you listen to me. While you were poking sticks down that hole like a couple of schoolboys, did you give one thought to me? Did you consider how I would feel if anything happened to you.”
She waited for us to reply. We didn’t, so she carried on. “I don’t know if what you described is psychological or mechanical, and I don’t care. If something needs to be done about it, let somebody else do it – the fire brigade or the health officer. If nothing can be done, cover it up and leave it alone.” There were traces of tears in her eyes, but she wiped them away energetically and looked at us as if challenging us to a fight.
Andrew spoke first. “Not knowing what I’m dealing with yet, I wouldn’t know who could handle the case Su. Don’t forget my original reason for being here was Bob’s mental health. What happened last night with the pipe may be something completely unrelated to his experience of the woman. But it might not. Until I have more information I want to do nothing more than observe. I’m certainly not going to poke more sticks in the hole, Su.”
“Feeling angry doesn’t make me a child, Dr. You are still refusing to face what I said, that there’s danger here.”
“Su, we live here. Whatever is happening is here in our house. Don’t you think that sometimes it’s more dangerous to ignore something than to find out what it is and deal with it? The basement is my workroom. What happened yesterday burst into my everyday life uninvited. Fortunately no real damage has been done. But what will it do tomorrow or next week? If I understand what it is, I might be able to dodge. We’re involved in this already; we can’t just forget it happened.”
Anger seemed to have gone from Su. Something else was replacing it which made me feel uneasy. She folded her arms in a way which appeared almost as if she were hugging herself to gain strength. “Danger isn’t always as you describe it Bob. You know as well as I do what happened to my father.” She looked at Andrew. “He was a mining engineer. When I was thirteen, one of the shafts he was responsible for had a higher than average accident rate. He personally inspected the shaft and was killed when part of the roof fell in. It was later discovered that a new cutting machine produced harmonic subsonics with some of the support system. The vibrations made much of the roof unsafe.”
She turned to look at me and I realised what it was that made me feel uneasy. In her eyes, underneath the determination, was a crumpled girl. I saw the pain and loneliness her father’s death had left her with. She had never let me see this before. Trembling slightly, she said, “I know what it’s like to lose a man. I watched my mother live with it. I lived with it. It’s not going to happen to me again. I married a photographer, not a commando, and if you want to play soldiers, Bob, tell me first because if you make that decision I’m going to leave you.”
The days that followed were difficult. Confronted by Su’s pain, I think Andrew and I both felt deflated, and could see some of the excited sense of adventure we had unconsciously invested in our plans. Su had sensed it and hit it for six.
At night in bed, Su was distant and unmoving. Usually we enjoyed the warmth and pleasure of holding and touching as we slept. Now, even her feet avoided mine in the sheets. It was as if she were surrounded by invisible but potent ‘keep off’ signs. Well, I kept off but I resented being emotionally battered into conformity. Explaining how she felt would have been enough I think, but I felt like someone in a cage, being poked through the bars and restrained from poking back. Part of me badly wanted to find out what was down the hole. Despite Andrew’s assurances and Su’s threat I couldn’t completely believe in my own sanity again without an explanation of what had happened. I didn’t really understand Andrew’s idea of social epidemics, and how I fitted into it. I repaired the hole in the ceiling and put the new floorboards down. I needed to because I had a few studio sessions to do. People don’t mind an untidy studio if it functions well, but not gaping holes. Despite difficult times though, I could not make myself board up the scene of my experience forever. I made a hinged trap door over the hole. I made it as flush and firm as I could, and covered it with a rug. There were signs of improvement in the communications system between Su and myself, and I had no wish to undermine that; yet for the sake of my own need to understand myself, the trapdoor was necessary.
It is so easy to understand things looking back. There was a spell of fine, dry weather as we moved toward spring. Nearly three weeks had passed since the conflict with Su. The ‘keep off’ signs had gone, and we were meshing well together again. Andrew was still working on his theory, but not in an intrusive way. At our last meeting he had said there was possibly a long term repressed national shock similar to Su’s repressed pain in connection with her father. Nations, he said, have to work out such shocks as they are involved in wider opportunity, just as Su would have to face her shock if I were to claim my independence. I’m not sure I really see evidence of what he is saying, but he promises that it will be clearer if he can gather more evidence.
Then, while enlarging photographs of a local publican’s baby, I noticed a difference in the sound of the room. Having dim lights for processing makes one more aware of what one hears, and the feel of the room. The studio felt less solid and had a hollow sound, like a room which has had all the furniture removed. I realised, in fact, that my walking across the floor was the source of the hollow sound. As a child I had lived in a house in hilly countryside. Across a small valley and opposite us was a partly wooded hill. The trees covered what had been a quarry dug into the hillside. In summer, even on a radiantly hot day, the trees kept the quarry shady and cool so that bird song in the trees reached us amplified, as if from a cool, liquid world.
Therefore, in the warm dimness of the studio I recognised the hollow sound as reflecting from a pocket of colder air somewhere. So, when my prints were in the fixer I switched the main light on, removed the rug, and opened the trapdoor.
The water had gone! For some moments I was seized by excitement. Strangely I felt I had found something precious to me. Yet all I could see was the mud covered bricks of the square hole leading into darkness. Hurriedly I switched on one of my studio lights and shone it down the pit.
I don’t know if I expected to see an answer to my questions displayed at the bottom. There was only an uneven rocky floor covered with fine silt like the bricks. A ragged hole crossed the bottom of the brickwork. There was no sign of rods, pole or chain, but I could see powerful gouge marks going down the bricks, presumably where the pole had been forced, for it would never have entered the tunnel unbent.
I must have lain on the floor looking down the pit for many minutes lost in thought and suffused excitement. During that period I realised the now obvious connection between the dry weather and the water disappearing. I understood that the tunnel at the bottom was most likely an underground river course. There were lots in London, but most of them were piped beneath the streets and houses. Much else was also understandable now. The winter had been particularly wet. So much rain had fallen, the Thames had twice risen above the protection height of the embankment. The water level in the underground sewers and rivers of London must have reached unusual heights too. Bloomsbury was quite a way above the Thames, beginning the rise of land towards the hills of Hampstead. The tunnel was most likely empty of water usually, and therefore the brick hole could have remained full of earth for years. With the flowing water, and my poking about, the plug had been removed. It seemed amazing to me how time and the cycles of nature worked together to hide and then reveal in this way; and how my own life was woven into the event.
I realised why I was excited.. The uncertainties I had suffered about myself had caused a yearning in me for understanding. When I had looked into the empty hole, the pieces of information were already rushing together to form the realisation described. But I stood up, with the elation disappearing. The snake, the woman and the pole were still not explained. There were still, figuratively speaking, waters which must recede further to reveal what I needed to discover. I decided I must look into the tunnel.
The pair of studio steps I had were not long enough to reach the bottom of the pit. But by cutting the cord holding the legs to the steps, I could fold the legs upwards, making an impromptu but sufficiently long ladder. It fitted into the hole and was strong enough to hold me as I stood on the crossbars of the legs. Climbing out I found my darkroom torch and had one leg in the hole again before I realised what I was doing. I didn’t know what was down that tunnel, yet I was ready to go into it alone, without even letting anyone know where I was. Yet I suppose if anyone were looking for me, seeing the studio light shining down the hole and the ladder descending, it wouldn’t take much to figure out where I was. But perhaps this was what Su meant by playing soldiers. She hadn’t realised I could get down the hole at the time, but she could just as well have said, “If you go down that hole – like my father did – I will leave you.”
I got my leg up out of the hole and put the torch down. Su was out till the evening. There was no way I could tell her. Anyway, was I some sort of schoolboy who had to get her permission for everything I did? No – that was simply how I felt. Su was frightened of getting hurt again, she didn’t want me to be a pet schoolboy. Perhaps if I telephoned Andrew he would come over. His good sense might make it clearer whether I should go down the hole or not. If I waited for Su to come back she was bound to say no anyway. If Andrew went down, I would at least have the excuse that he needed a partner. I rang his home number. An answering machine said that if I would leave a message, it would be passed to him as soon as possible. I swore at my luck, but said to the machine that I’d had a breakthrough in the basement saga. Come as soon as possible.
To pass the time I washed and dried the prints, got them ready and delivered them. I had only just got in again when the phone rang. It was Andrew ringing from a call box. He was on his way to Norwich to attend a medical conference. “I’ve got one of those gadgets you can ring in from any phone, and my answering machine plays its messages. It’s handy when I’m out on calls. Anyway, what’s this breakthrough?”
I told him about the water having gone, and my ideas about why.
“Good God, Why didn’t we think of that?”
“Probably because we’re not potholers, and its too simple. The pole disappearing left us in awe of it I suppose. By the way, there’s a bloody great gouge in the brickwork, and no sign of pipe or rods at the bottom.”
“You’re not thinking of going down are you?” he asked, as if the idea had suddenly hit him.
“Well, I was. That was why I phoned you. I was hoping you’d give me moral support.”
“For goodness sake, man, promise me you won’t go down until we have carefully organised ourselves.”
“Okay. Since the excitement has died down it seems a bit hare-brained anyway. But Su is due back soon and I think she would explode if she knew I even had a trapdoor. I’ll try to break it to her before you get back. When will that be?”
“Three days,” he said. “Sooner if possible. I’m as eager as you are to see what’s down there.”
When I went into the studio I locked the door in case Su got back before I had closed the trap. I walked to the spotlight, still pointing down the hole, to remove it. Doing so I realised I still had an argument going on inside myself. Despite what Su and Andrew had said I still wanted to have one quick look along that tunnel. In my mind I went through my conversation with Andrew again, and decided I had better wait. But there was no harm in just looking down the hole once more before closing the trapdoor. I switched the light on. There was a flash of movement. Something alive had jumped back into the tunnel. It was so unexpected I had not really seen what it was. But it was an animal, perhaps even a human. Either a large animal or a small person.
I grabbed the torch from where I had left it and quickly, but with as little noise as I could manage, went down the steps. When the creature had disappeared from sight I had heard only a short period of scuffling flight, so perhaps it was hiding where I could still see it. Whatever it was had gone along the tunnel behind the steps, so I had to squeeze past them. The tunnel was about four feet high and regularly shaped. By the light of the torch I could see that after about twenty feet it slanted slowly to the right. There was no creature and no visible hiding place. Switching off my torch, crouched and feeling my way carefully, I slowly moved to the bend. I listened for a while but could hear nothing except my own breathing. Pointing the torch at where I hoped would be the direction of the tunnel, I switched it on.
There was a small cry, then the sound of movement, but I couldn’t see from what. I was unprepared for the size of the area in front of me. It was a long cave, still only four or five feet high, but very wide. Frantically searching with my torch at last I found the creature. With a shock, as if I had pinioned it with my torch, it stopped, then faced me, about fifty feet away.
I cried out, without meaning to, for it was a child. All in one sound I wanted to tell it I was human, stop it from running, and communicate that I meant no harm. What came out was a loud “Hey!” The child turned and ran, perhaps all the better for the light of my torch. I thought it was a boy, about seven, but the uncut hair and mud spattered body and face made it difficult to tell. He was clothed, but again the mud made it impossible to see in what.
As well as I could, I ran after him, shouting “Don’t go, it’s all right… stop.” But my headlong chase came to a sudden halt when my head hit a projecting piece of the roof. Fortunately it was rounded; but I dropped the torch and had to sit and swear and hold my swelling head for a while. When I again became aware of other things than pain and anger, I thought that at least the child would not be able to run in the dark. But I could hear him moving purposefully away.
Eventually I found my torch again by feeling in wider circles around where I sat. It had gone off when I dropped it, but by shaking it I managed to make it work again. In its light I could see that the boy was now not the only one grimy with mud. In looking at my legs and shoes I also accidentally saw how I could follow the child. My fall had left its story in the silt. Turning my torch backwards to where I had come from, I could see my footprints. So surely the boy couldn’t help but leave tracks.
They were easy to find, but there were two sets. One leading to the hole under the Studio, and the other heading away. I followed these. At the end of the cave the only outlet was a narrow corridor or passage. I had to walk through sideways and at an angle because it sloped. At one point my feet were off the ground and I had to move crab-like from projection to ridge until I found the floor again. I looked down once, but I couldn’t see the bottom so I gave up trying. I didn’t think I was nervous, but I noticed when I stood on firm ground again I sighed heavily a number of times as if I had been holding my breath.
After that the corridor widened, and was high – about fifteen feet. It was still very irregular, but I could walk upright now. The tracks were still clear. They were the only marks on the ground. I couldn’t see the boy though because the corridor twisted and turned. At one point I had to wade through quite a deep pool of water. Fortunately it was clear. Just after that I walked for about a hundred yards before realising I was following only one set of tracks – the ones pointing back the way I had come. I was sure I hadn’t passed the child. I hurried back, and just my side of the pool the second set of tracks finished. I searched around for yards, but could find nothing; until my own tracks obscured any clues. Switching my torch off I listened. Nothing, except an occasional drop of water.
While listening I remembered playing hide and seek with my friend Eddie, around Cleopatra’s Needle. It was a most unlikely place to play the game as everywhere was so exposed. Yet when it was my turn to hide he couldn’t find me. The reason being that I had climbed up the steps of the column until I was above his head height. He had looked everywhere, scanned the horizon, but had never looked up.
Standing where the footprints ended I pointed my torch upwards. No boy to be seen. Then I noticed that what I thought was a shadow low down behind bulging rock, was an opening. Crouching, I could manage to get my head into it but the rest of me wouldn’t follow. In that uncomfortable position I managed to get my hand in too, and shine the torch upwards. Four feet above me, in a tiny cave at the top of the shaft, the boy crouched, peering down at me. He held a rather battered torch in one hand but no light came from it, and he reminded me of a treed wildcat because it looked as if he was ready to hit me with the torch if I managed to get any closer. I couldn’t. Even my extended arm would not have reached him.
Shining my torch on the wall of the shaft so it illuminated my face as well as his, I tried to make friends with him. “I wasn’t chasing you to hurt you,” I said. “I wondered what you were at first,” then “I was worried about your being down here.”
I paused but he didn’t reply, just watched me like the treed cat might, to see what move I made. “You must be hungry. Do you want some food?”
He replied “No.” His voice was completely emotionless and flat. It was almost as if he hadn’t spoken.
“Can I get you some batteries for your torch?” I tried.
After several more “No’s” I asked him his name; what he was doing in the tunnel; where he lived; weren’t his parents worried. He was silent.
My torch started dimming rapidly so I switched it off. My legs and back were killing me. I had to move, so I stood near the hole wondering what to do. I couldn’t just leave a child in a situation like this. “I’m still here”
I said. “I need to go home soon, but I’m worried about you. Why don’t you come home with me?”
He didn’t reply and I stood wondering what to do. I felt tired and wished Su were with me. Perhaps the child would trust her. I wondered if one could ‘smoke out’ someone from such a hole, or whether that would suffocate him. Unexpectedly the small flat voice spoke in the darkness. “This is my home.”
Being aware that time, darkness and my stillness had allowed him to speak, after a wait I tried another question. “You mean you live here in this hole?”
With less pause he said, “No. In the tunnel.”
“What about your parents, though? They must be looking everywhere for you.”
I heard him shift his position; maybe sit up. “I haven’t got no parents.. I lived in an orphanage.”
“Isn’t that better than living down here though?”
His only reply was, ‘No.” After a while he said, “Jus ‘cos I ‘ad a fight with Jimmy Duncan, they caned me. An’ Mr. Thomas said no wonder my parents didn’t want me if I was so evil. So I came and lived ‘ere.”
Wanting to give him a bit more respect than Mr. Thomas, I said “My name is Bob. What’s yours?” He didn’t reply. I thought perhaps he felt I would have power over him if I knew his name. “Look, whatever your name is, I can’t just leave you here without doing something about it. I won’t tell the police because obviously you don’t want that. You could come and live with my wife Su and me though.”
‘No”, he said.
“I run away before – not in the tunnels – an’ someone tol’ me that. Then they ‘anded me back to the orphanage.”
I glanced at my watch. It showed half past eight. “Oh, bloody hell,” I said.
“What?” responded the small voice.
“It’s half past eight. My wife will be going crazy wondering what’s happened to me. I’ve got to go, but I’m coming back as soon as I can. I’ll bring some batteries and food for you.”
He didn’t reply. Poking my head in the hole I had one last look at him. He was squatting, hunched up with his head on his knees. There appeared to be a small tear rolling from his left eye and he was sucking his fingers. I ached inside, but I had to go.
My torch battery had gone completely by the time I got back. I had to feel my way along the last part of the tunnel. As I neared home though, the glow from the studio light shining into the pit began to penetrate the darkness.
Climbing the ladder was exactly like leaving one world and entering another. Colours in the studio burst in upon me like waves of joy. I had an urge to send several of my friends down the tunnel for a few hours just for the pleasure of emerging into such a big, comfortable, noisy world.
My joy was short lived though. I noticed the door, which I had left locked, was open. The lock catch had been torn off. I noticed also that a photo of Su and myself which had been on the wall was now torn in small pieces and strewn on the stairs. Panicking, I ran up them, shouting “Su….. Su…. .I’m back.”
The kitchen door opened and mum stepped out, still in her shop coat.
She opened her mouth to say something, then stopped and stared at me. “Where the hell have you been? You look as if you’ve just climbed out of the grave.”
I’d forgotten how muddy I was. Feeling my way back in the dark had covered me and I saw later that a streak of blood had dried on my face from where I banged my head.
“I look worse than I am. I’m tired but okay. But I’m worried about Su. Is she upstairs?”
Mum took her implacable ‘now you’ve done it’ look, and ushered me into the kitchen, saying, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you about that girl. She’s gone, you know.”
“Oh, yes. An’ don’t tell me you don’t deserve it. She was up and down stairs like she’d got wasps up her backside, going on about how she’d told you. ‘I told him – I told him’ she kept saying. An’ there was no use talking to her because she never had no ear to hear.”
Dad was sitting with his feet up, also still in his brown shop coat, reading the evening paper. He looked up at me and shook his head. “Look at the state of you,” he said. “what is the matter with you? The doctor said you were okay, but look at you.” He pointed at me as if he wanted me to see what he was seeing. “You’ve got a wife who thinks you’re some sort of special gift from God, and what do you do? You go crawling around sewers frightening her stupid.”
“Dad, I can…”
“Listen to me.’ It was like a circus in that shop.” He took his feet off the chair and pointed at the shop. “She came in with her bags packed, sobbing right in the middle of the delivery men bringing in half a ton of potatoes. Then she starts saying how she’s going and not coming back. I tell you it was like a circus. There were so many people standing around with their mouths open watching, we could have sold tickets for seats.” He sighed, shook his head, and looked at his paper again. “Anyway, she’s gone,” he mumbled, to his paper.
Dad loved Su. I don’t think he had ever been as close to someone with Su’s girlish femininity and softness, yet who also had the strength to argue back at him when he got excited. Also, my being their only child meant he never had a daughter.
Mum was sitting with a cup of tea and a cigarette both in the same hand. When she put the cup to her mouth she had to squint because of the smoke. She looked like she’d been crying but I couldn’t tell whether that was because of the smoke or Su.
“I only went in the hole because there was a child down there.”
Dad’s apparent apathetic communion with the paper suddenly disappeared. He threw the paper down and stood up, glaring at me. “A child.’ That bloody does it’. First you come up with the story about a woman and now it’s a bleedin’ child.” He strode into the shop shutting the door noisily behind him.
“Why did you say that to him and upset him?” Mum said, squinting at me through the smoke again.
“I didn’t say it to upset him. It happens to be true.”
“If it’s true,” she said, “what are you standing around for? Why haven’t you called the police to get the kid out?”
I sat heavily on a chair that wouldn’t be harmed by my grime. “That’s the problem. He doesn’t want to come out. He said he hasn’t got any parents and has run away from an orphanage. He doesn’t want to go back. If I call the police they’ll definitely send him to the same type of place – maybe worse. I told him he could live with us, but he’s suspicious of people. I couldn’t catch him anyway. I think he’s gone a bit wild living underground.”
“Poor little beggar. Still, if he’s been down there some time, another day or so won’t hurt him. Meanwhile, what are you going to do about Su? I heard her talking to her friend Rosemary on the phone, so I think she’s staying there.”
“First I’m going to have a bath. After that I need something to eat. Then I’ll go to Rosemary’s.”
The apartment Rosemary rents is on the second and third floor of a house in Cheyne Walk, overlooking the Thames Embankment. She is one of those people who have everything – even to a small library and telephone in her toilet; and of course, an electrically warmed toilet seat. I could understand that Su had wanted to stay with Rosemary – her apartment is so warm and soft edged – it makes the noises of life seem far away. I purposely didn’t telephone beforehand. Rosemary is a businesswoman, a redhead, and an unadmitted feminist hiding within a soft face and lacy cuffs. She had no children of her own, so she might be as protective of Su as an irate mother defending her injured child.
Rosemary had one of those ‘speak to gain admittance’ gadgets on her front door. It was so much easier to keep somebody locked out if you weren’t facing them eye to eye with the door already open.
I took the Tube to South Ken. station, and walked the rest of the way rehearsing in my mind what I was going to say when I rang the bell. I had to cover as many of the possible responses Rosemary might give as I could imagine. It was a little like practising fencing. When I arrived I took a few slow breaths and smoothed my wrinkled nerves to give an impression of confidence even if I wasn’t feeling it. “Why”, I thought, “do they always place these voice gadgets so low down? You’ve got to assume a posture of subservience to get in.”
I pressed the bell……No response. I pressed it again, standing well into the door so I couldn’t be seen out of a window. A crackly “Hello” greeted me.
In my subservient position, trying to sound upright, I said “Rosemary, this is Robert. I would like to speak to Su.”
“After what has happened do you think you have any right to?” she asked. Rosemary’s microphone was nice and high, I could tell.
“I’m not claiming any rights, Rosemary. I am concerned about Su, and there’s something she needs to know for her own peace of mind.”
“If you are so concerned why didn’t you telephone the poor girl earlier? She has been almost prostrate with worry.”
I stifled a laugh at Rosemary’s choice of words. I could imagine Su smashing cups or pacing up and down, but only Rosemary herself would be prostrate in such a situation. Then I think it would be a tactic in her battle plan to bring her man to heel. Nevertheless, why hadn’t I telephoned? It was a response I hadn’t practised for. Ah, yes….. “I purposely avoided telephoning because I respected Su’s decision to leave me.”
“Then why do you wish to speak to her now?”
“As I have said, Rosemary, there is something Su needs to know for her own peace of mind.”
“If you tell me I will pass it on to her, then you can go.”
I felt myself being pushed back, but I dare not weaken at this point. “Rosemary, I am not asking to be allowed in. I merely wish to pass on some personal information to Su over this contraption. If she then asks me to go, I promise to do so. Please let me speak to her.”
Su must have been listening to the conversation because she suddenly spoke. “Don’t you think you’ve upset me enough today, without coming here? Nothing you can say can give me peace.”
This was it, the bite. Now I must play it very carefully. “If you stopped punishing me for what your father did that wouldn’t be true. That’s all I wish to say to you Su. Because while you treat me as if I were your father, you’ll find no peace.”
“You don’ t think you can excuse yourself with that one do you? You went down that bloody hole like a guilty child; you even locked the door. You didn’t even have the guts to tell me there was a trapdoor. You might be more of a man if you could just say sorry and go away!”
I felt blasted by her anger but I had to remain steady. “My only guilt is in not telling you about the trapdoor. For that I am sorry. But beyond that you are being a dramatic schoolgirl raging about the death of your father. I’ve no wish to be punished for that.”
“God help me, Robert, if I were down there I’d kick you!”
I relaxed. This was it. I couldn’t help a chuckle as I said, “I bet you would, but having said what I came to say I’m going. You know where to find me.” I didn’t move, but waited for Su’s anger to take her where I had hoped.
“Robert….Robert….you sod, wait, wait, I’ll open the door.”
When I went up, the apartment was warm, but the reception was icy. Still trying to avoid sounding as if I were justifying my actions or apologising, as soon as they were in a listening mood I told them about the boy. I ended by saying, “that is what I meant by your peace of mind Su. If you maintained the attitude I had gone down the hole purely for curiosity, then you would still be in a rage.”
Su didn’t respond directly to that, but said, “well, if I didn’t know from long experience that you’re not a liar, I would have thought you had invented this whole story. But I fail to understand why these things should suddenly happen to us.”
“Exactly,” Rosemary chirped in, “and all that matters is what you decide to do about it. That child is obviously being damaged by being underground the way he is. He needs help.”
Rosemary has an inbuilt aversion for any form of authority except her own. She looks upon other people such as policemen and school-teachers as if they were youngsters playing a game she is too mature to believe in, but needs to be tolerated. Strangely enough, at times of national stress or with foreigners, I have seen her defend criticised policemen. She almost hit one irate Frenchman with her umbrella because he called London bobbies imbeciles. Anyway, she had sided with the boy against his persecutors. Her reaction had made it much easier to tell my story and build a sense of unity with Su again. Therefore, between us we worked out a plan of action.
“We need to go down again soon,” Su said, “to continue the contact you started with the boy.”
“Did you say ‘we’?” I asked, amazed. “Are you coming down?”
“Oh, no,” she said with a sudden frown. “I’m going to sit and wait for you in the studio like I did today, chewing my fingernails down to my wrist. Of course I’m coming. I’m not going to wait through more hours of misery while you’re having all the fun.”
I fingered the bump on my head. “Most of the fun?”
“If you are going down again tomorrow,” Rosemary said, “you will need an anchor-man to wait at base for you. I have no inclination whatsoever to scramble through damp tunnels, and I am busy anyway, but I could act as an anchor. So telephone me at work just before you start your descent. Then ring again when you arrive back. If you are longer than eight hours I will start to worry people and organise a search party.”
The following day was Saturday. Rosemary would be working at her Boudoir Boutique. It was only a hobby for her as she had more than enough income. Her husband earned a satisfying amount as a foreign diplomat. His being away seemed to suit Rosemary as I never heard her complain, but it left her with time to play. Like so many people with money, her hobby turned out to be a commercial success too. It was Su’s work as a designer which had led them to meet.
Saturday business would also keep Mum and Dad out of our hair.
“Okay, we’ll do that,” I said. “Meanwhile, Rosemary, I think we had better go. It’s getting late and it’s only fair to let my parents know Su and I have settled our differences.”
Rosemary looked at Su, then at me. “You both look exhausted. You don’t have to be down the tunnel at the crack of dawn tomorrow, so stay here the night, you can phone your parents.” She paused and a tiny repressed smile came to her eyes. “It would be a pity not to use the room Su and I got ready earlier. It’s the one with the double bed next to the bathroom.”
I felt a momentary twinge of resentment. I decided not to allow it space in my life. Perhaps, after all, I had not been the only schemer. So what, I was happy. I accepted Rosemary’s offer.
The bedroom was like a soothing, warm cloud. The depth of the carpet, the colour and the heated bed enticed my weary flesh to relaxed pleasure. When Su slid into beside me and the tight softness of her skin pressed against me, I let my pleasure grow until it excited and penetrated hers. It was a lovely night.
It didn’t take us long to check our list of necessary equipment. We had bought batteries and a new torch for Su. Sandwiches had been made, and a hunk of home-made cake packed in a small knapsack. Two helmets we got from a local tool hire service. Wet-suit leggings were borrowed from Rosemary. Her husband was a keen skin-diver, and some of his gear was old and wouldn’t matter if it were scraped on rocks. I had sticks of chalk and a compass in my pocket, and I had wound rope round my waist to cope with the unexpected. Lastly, the overalls we already had from our efforts at DIY flat decorating.
“Oh, we had better ring Rosemary,” I said, as I struggled to get my knapsack on.
Su was still doing up the straps. “I just did when I went to get the cake, so I think we’re ready.”
I felt an excited pleasure that Su was coming with me. I tried to kiss her before we started, but our helmets banged and we couldn’t make contact.
I wondered what astronauts felt like kitted out for space. Going down the steps first I helped Su over the awkward first stretch. Her legs were shorter than mine, and she looked funny in all her gear, dangling her legs into the hole. As I guided her foot to a support I noticed the gouged bricks. She caught the direction of my gaze as she was looking out for the next foothold. “What a time to be thinking of that,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “Anyway, you survived yesterday and we’ve got a boy to find. So help me down the steps.”
This time I had a definite sense of transition from one world into another. It was the same feeling I often had when swimming in the sea, especially if I had a snorkel and goggles on. It was a feeling of being on the edge of a vast and unfamiliar element, whose depths were full of unknowns. Su’s quietness and cautious movements told me she was sharing a similar reaction.
This time it didn’t seem to take as long to reach the pool, wade through, and find the shaft. “It might not seem far to you,” Su reproached me, “but it seems to me as though we must be miles underground. And it’s so quiet.”
The cave in the shaft was empty. I hadn’t expected to find the boy still there, but I checked just in case. I realised as I looked that I didn’t have a clear picture in my mind of what he looked like. All I could recall were the brilliantly blue eyes. They had sparkled in contrast with the rest of his grimy self. Su looked up the shaft too. “What I don’t understand is how a boy of that age could dare to live down here by himself. I’d be terrified.”
“Maybe he’s frightened even more of what’s on the surface.”
It didn’t matter that the child had gone. The tracks in the mud were still clear. Continuing on from the shaft, beyond where my bigger tracks stopped, was the second set of the boy’s. From here on it was new territory for both of us. My compass indicated we were moving roughly south, but I had no idea where we were in connection with the surface. As we moved further along the winding tunnel I began to understand what Su had meant about the boy’s fear. The tunnel stretched on and on – up and down, crawling and standing. A sense of oppression settled on me which was not easy to combat. Su was trying to make bright conversation, but I found it difficult to respond. The realisation of the unthinkable weight of earth above us pressed on my emotions. At one point we heard a train approaching. It came closer and closer, and irrationally we both reacted as if it were coming along the tunnel we were in. Then it passed us quite near by. Knowing it must be the line to Russell Square didn’t help. It was one of the deepest stations in London. I only hoped we were above it rather than below.
We continued on for another twenty minutes, crawling for a good way of the distance, because the tunnel dropped to only three feet high. Then I was forced to admit to myself I couldn’t go any further. Su had remained silent for the last ten minutes and I knew she was only following because I was still crawling ahead. When I looked back at her with my torch, I could see she was near to tears. “I’ve had enough” I said. “If I knew how much further we had to go it might be different, but that boy has had a whole day to get ahead of us.”
“If you’re giving up because or me” Su said, crawling up to be near me, “I think I could manage a bit longer. I didn’t realise how I would feel being down here so long. I suppose this is what claustrophobia feels like.”
“It’s not just you” I replied, “the further we get away from home base the more risk I feel we’re taking. We’ve got to say stop at some point, and as far as I’m concerned this is it. Let’s turn back.”
Su sighed. “Okay, but let’s have a sandwich first. I think that might revive me a bit.”
Both of us were perspiring and needed the rest. Su undid the rucksack while it was still on my back. It would have been difficult to take it off in the confined space. My mouth started watering as I smelt the food. We sat as near to each other as we could. The sandwiches tasted like the first food I had eaten for a week.
“I’m glad Rosemary knows where we are” Su said, through her sandwich. “It really is like having an anchor.”
“Hmmm … I think my mother was right too. The police are the people to deal with this. I’m glad I’m a photographer. Sitting down here gives me a new zest for my work. Maybe that’s why some people go on crazy holidays. They get a new pleasure out of the safety of a desk job. I think I…”
“Hey” Su said, so suddenly I jumped.
“Can you feel anything?”
“Of course I can feel something,” I said irritably. “I can feel this rock penetrating my behind. It’s scary enough down here as it is without you shouting like that.”
“Sorry” she said. “What I’m trying to ask is whether you’re aware of one side of your face feeling different to the other.”
“I’m still not sure what you mean.”
“Well, as we were talking I realised one side of my face is colder than the other. It’s where I’ve bean perspiring-, but why aren’t both sides cold?
“It must mean there’s a draught down here.”
It was true. The right side of my face was colder than the left.
“I’ve got a lighter in my pocket here somewhere” I said. “Fold the bag the sandwiches were in and I’ll light it to see if the smoke shows a draught.” It did – quite a strong one blowing in the direction we had come from.
Still with the paper smouldering I crawled forward. After about twenty five yards the roof got higher and we could stand up. Walking slowly forward we came to a spot where the draught stopped. The footprints seemed to go straight on, but for some reason they drew to the right hand wall. Holding the almost burnt out paper higher, it suddenly flared up again. “There’s a hole up the wall,” Su shouted excitedly.
Suddenly our decision to quit was lost in the new discovery. I scrambled up easily. The hole was jagged, but wide enough to crawl through. As I started to cautiously look through, I realised with a start what I had my hand on.
“Su, this hole’s made of bricks.”
“How can a hole be made of bricks?” she said.
“You know what I mean,” I said, feeling as though I had found an island in the middle of the ocean of tunnel we had travelled through. “The hole is in a wall made of bricks.”
“What’s on the other side?” Su said, tugging at my ankle that was dislocating my none too firmly placed foot.
“Pack up pulling me off, I’m trying to see. Whatever it is I think we’re near to what we came for. Hey, there’s a tunnel here.”
‘There’s a tunnel here too, you idiot. Get down and let me look.”
“Hold on Su. This is amazing. It’s a man made tunnel. There’s a rusty railway line in it.”
The hole was just above the floor level of the new tunnel, which was roughly six feet square. We both scrambled through and stood up, feeling safer because there were bricks around us instead of cave walls. The water in our first tunnel had obviously eroded the bricks and burst through into this one. Although it was man made, it was obviously unused. The small gauge track was rusty and now silted from the water.
“D’you know, I believe I’ve read about this tunnel years ago,” Su said, flashing her torch along it. “If it’s the one I’m thinking of, it’s underneath Kingsway. It was used to transport money to banks, or some such thing. I can’t remember. But part of it filled with gas at one time and exploded.”
“Who’s the cheery one now?” I asked.
“Well, it smells clear enough at the moment. Anyway, which direction shall we go?”
“You still want to continue then?”
“Why not?” she said, “It will be quicker walking in here, and if we can’ t find him’ within an hour we can turn back. Right?”
There were footprints in both directions, but we chose to continue south. We hadn’t walked far when I felt sure I could hear sounds in the distance. Su was talking. “Stop talking” I said. “I’m sure I can hear noises along the tunnel.” Both of us could hear what might be music. It was difficult to tell.
“Switch your torch off” I said, “in case they can see us.”
“What d’you mean, they?” Su asked.
“Didn’t you notice there were a lot of footprints back in the mud where we got into this tunnel? I couldn’t make out whether they all belonged to the boy.”
“What a time to tell me” Su said, her voice suddenly a whisper. “Shall we go back?”
“If we creep along we should be able to see what’s ahead without being seen.”
Walking along with our torches out, we soon realised there was a glow of light ahead. Soon the sound and the light grew. We couldn’t yet see the source of either because they appeared to come through a doorway on the left of the tunnel wall. As we neared the door, something suddenly tugged at our legs, then stopped. Ahead something boomed. It sounded like a huge gong.
“Some sort or warning trip string,” Su said nervously. “I think we ought to go back, Bob.”
“With that crash it’s too late now, anyway,” I said. “If it’s workmen we can give some sort of explanation, and if it’s the boy, well, that’s why we came. Come on.”
We walked up to the door and looked in. “Good grief, what is this place?” Su whispered.
“Hell only knows,” I said.
Through the door was a huge area maybe a hundred feet square. It had most likely been used for storage at one time, with raised areas for loading and a many arched roof supported by columns. Now it was filled with a mass of objects and colours, I couldn’t comprehend immediately. Strung in no apparent order, but in a way that delighted the eye, were bulbs of different hues, on wires that must have come from building sites. There were Christmas lights on artificial Christmas trees. Music poured indiscriminately from several radios hidden from view by furniture and objects of the most amazing variety. Here and there real shrubs, flowers and trailing plants added green life. In one area, tailors window dummies – male and female – stood dressed in the strangest assortment of clothes. From the ceiling, disappearing into the arches, hung lampshades and chandeliers of every description; none in perfect order. Several stuffed crocodiles swung amongst them – perhaps they stared hungrily at the taxidermic delights below. There were birds nesting in the shrubs, squirrels climbing columns, even a whole tiger growling at a china dog. People were obvious by their absence; but I couldn’t help feeling hidden eyes were watching us.
“It’s Aladdin’s cave, Su.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw something moving stealthily toward us from the darkness of the tunnel. When I turned to directly look, I screamed. Prom the blackness was emerging something straight out of my childhood nightmares. It was a gorilla with black legs, blue chest and red arms, with an almost human face. Su screamed as the thing charged. I pushed her through the door and tried to follow, but it had me. I heard Su scream again as I was kicking and writhing. With a roar of what sounded like pleasure, the monster lifted me onto it’s head and carried me, still struggling, through the doorway. Once there, it ran to a column and, dangling me by a leg from one hand, it began to climb; I couldn’t see where to – everything was upside down.
A voice screamed and the thing stopped. As my nose was rubbing on the column I couldn’t see what was going on. “Lucy!” the voice shouted again. “Stop!” In my upside down world I gathered my captor was Lucy. “Drop him, Lucy,” the voice went on. “Lucy, drop!” I felt the crushing grip loosen on my ankle. “DROP!”
It dropped me – literally. I fell several feet into a large Victorian pram. With the helmet and the amount of clothes I was wearing, I wasn’t injured, and lay with my legs dangling out one end and my helmeted head the other.
Somewhat dazed, I remained motionless for a moment, and a large bosomed woman of indeterminate age but not young, with a plain, scrubbed face, came and started gently rocking the pram. Her face beamed as she looked at me. “Isn’t he lovely” she said, and started pushing the pram. I struggled to get out but she deftly pulled my legs up and wedged me back. “Now, now” she said in a rather sweet voice. “We don’t want you falling out and hurting your little legs, do we?”
Still in my recumbent position, I shouted, “Su, are you alright?”
Her reply came from nearby. “Yes, but I’m being held down. I’m scared. Help me.”‘
Before I could say anything the woman called out, “Mummy’s coming, darling. Don’t be afraid,” and pushed the pram faster.
At that moment the boy we had been in search of appeared at the side of the pram. I recognised him from his brilliant blue eyes. Otherwise he was unrecognisably clean and dressed in a track suit. “Don’t worry” he said. “You’ll be okay. Go along with what happens. You’re the one who followed me yesterday aren’t you?”
I didn’t reply because we arrived at where Su was being held down. I had never met with a situation like this before in my life, and was confused about how to respond. Su, looking somewhat like an alien in her green wellies, orange overalls and yellow helmet, was being held in the middle of a startling flowered carpet, by three startling people. Sitting on one of her arms was a dwarf dressed in running shoes, short pink socks, jeans cut off above the knee, a sweater which must nave been knitted out of odd pieces of wool of many colours, and a top hat. I’m sure he was only three feet high, but the hat made him appear taller. Holding her legs was a very thin man whose eyes and expression constantly shifted. I thought at first he had a twitch, but this was only an appearance given by the almost abrupt changes of his face.
Grasping her other hand was a youngish woman with a dreamy expression. She didn’t appear to be holding Su down, but abstractedly stroked her hand. Also, the creature who carried me off arrived just as we did and squatted at a little distance, watching. I tried again to escape from my pram, and was again pushed back by my nursemaid. The boy’s eyes warned me to keep still and let him handle it. The woman sat on me so I kept still.
Looking at the boy, the dwarf said “look what we caught, I. Q. It’s an invader.” He rubbed his hands with glee and looked at Su again.
“An invader” the thin man echoed, looking pleased with himself.
“Let me go” Su said, with a struggle. “I’m not an invader. We were looking for a boy.”
“She’s looking for a boy,” the thin man said, his face jerking into an expression of concern as he looked at the dwarf.
At this point, the woman who was sitting on me got up and walked over to them. “I’ve told you before, and I’ll tell you again” she said, standing over them with hands on hips, “you are not to play these fighting games. Now, let the poor dear go.”
The thin man didn’t say anything, but he mouthed some words and nodded at his companions with a cross look on his face. The dwarf looked at the woman towering above him. “Go and boil a dumpling, Mother. This is an invader. She donged the gong – didn’t you hear it? She’s got to be locked up and punished, same as that one you’ve got in the pram. Maybe we could put chains on them.”
For the first time, the younger woman stopped stroking Su’s hand and said “Oh, yes. Then I could visit them in their dungeon, tend their wounds and be their friend. I could smuggle a file to them.” With a flush of excitement she looked full at me. “Perhaps I could even…”
The boy butted in. “These people are visiting me Pill” he said, addressing the dwarf. “Didn’t you hear they were looking for a boy? That’s me, in case you’ve forgotten. I met this one in the pram yesterday. Remember, I told you about it.”
He pushed the pram and butted the dwarf with it. “So let her go Pill, and you Nerk.” He pointed to the thin one, who in turn pointed at the dwarf, and said, “Let her go Pill.”
Pill got up, threw his top hat on the floor and kicked it furiously. He picked it up and turned to the boy. “You’re always spoiling things, IQ,” he said, banging his hat with one hand as if it were IQ himself.
“It wouldn’t have hurt to chain them up first and then decide they were friends.”
“You know they’re Outsiders” IQ replied confidently. “If we’re not careful with these two there’ll be dozens of them down ‘ere. That’ll really spoil things then.”
Pill looked at Su who had sat up, and stamped his foot at her as if to frighten her. Then he turned to me, and with a growl, kicked the pram so hard I would have been tipped out if I hadn’t been holding on. But Pill was wearing soft running shoes and fell on the floor holding his foot because of the pain. He cried loudly, like a baby, without any attempt to hide his feelings. “Oh, I’m bleeding to death” he howled. “I’ve broken my leg, I’m dying.”
The woman he had called Mother bent solicitously over him and lifted him bodily from the floor. She carried him away, still howling. “I’m going to make it better” she said. “Then I’ll give you some cocoa and put you in a nice bed.”
So much had happened so quickly, I felt dazed. From what seemed like hours in the tunnels, we had been catapulted into a crazy whirl of events. I could see that Su, who was still sitting, felt the same way. I began to climb out of the pram, hampered by the knapsack I still had on, and noticed as I did so that my original captor, Lucy, had moved close to Su, and was looking at her with his deeply soulful eyes, but as little expression as an orang-utang. Almost offhandedly he reached out and felt her left breast, as if testing to see if it were real or what it was made of.
Su had been looking at me and had not seen him approach. “Hey” she said, “keep off,” and tried to slap his hand. He was too quick and moved back out of range, still bland faced.
“Lucy, don’t touch,” IQ said, without any malice in his voice. “He’s curious to find out whether you’re a girl or not,” he said to Su.
“Well, I am,” she said, getting up off the floor and taking her helmet off, letting her hair fail loose. “What do we do now?” she asked me.
“Now we’ve got involved in this place we had better explain to IQ why we came, and find out what’s going on here.”
We explained to IQ that I had been worried about him. I imagined him living alone in a dark and damp tunnel somewhere. I had no idea how he got food, and when I had left him he looked cold, damp and miserable.
“I was,” he said. “ When the water went down I went to explore the tunnel leading from the hole you must have come through to get here. I’m used to being underground, but when my torch ran out I got scared. I saw light, went toward it and saw you at the top of a shaft. I wanted to come
up, but it’s not good to be seen down below by an Outsider. But you saw me and started following. When you kept after me I hid in that hole. I dare not lead you back to here. It’s too chancy letting outsiders know where your base is.”
“So what’s going to be done now we are here?” Su asked.
The young woman who had been holding Su’s hand was now standing next to me, holding my arm. “Maybe we’ll have to keep you here,” she said, gazing into my eyes with a mischievous look.
“You might show the police where we are if we didn’t,” she added.
“If we had wanted to do that,” Su said, “we would already have done so instead of coming to look for IQ ourselves. The reason we didn’t was because he said he didn’t want to go back in the orphanage. We also have a friend waiting to hear if we arrive back safely. If we don’t she is going to arrange a search for us.” She glanced at her watch. “We’ve got three hours left.”
Nerk was looking from speaker to speaker, his face twitching with the conflict of whether we should stay or go. When IQ said, “We’ll have to trust you then,” Nerk echoed, “we’ll trust you then” and his face found peace in a smile showing corroded teeth.
“While you’re ‘ere though,” IQ. continued, “come and look round our place.”
“Okay, but first we’ve brought you some cake,” Su said, undoing the knapsack. It had withstood the journey and the pram quite well, and was big enough for everyone to have a slice. Lucy came forward and held out both his hands. His colouring, which had so disturbed me in the beginning, I could see was rubbed on. But he did look as if one of his parents had been a gorilla.
Pill and Mother turned up as if they smelt the cake. When he had his slice, Pill offered me an aspirin. He chewed one himself with his cake. When I refused he fished in his pocket and pulled out a packet of throat pastilles. I took the one he offered to show I had no hard feelings. He had a rather worn bandage wrapped around his shoe, and was limping theatrically.
The tour was worth the climb through the tunnels and the shock of our reception. As we explored the place I began to feel that these people were really creative in a disorderly sort of way. I would love to have been able to use some of the settings as photographic backgrounds. IQ began to appear in a new light; no longer a deprived, lonely child, but one living in a richly stimulating environment with hardly any of the barriers of a normal boy’s life. If an entrance fee had been charged, and ‘Outsiders’ allowed to come in, the strange little group could have been rich on the proceeds. Amidst the seeming jumble of objects were many different places or scenes. In one was an oversized Wendy house made out of odd pieces of wood. Inside reminded me of an old log cabin, with its simple wooden furniture. Elsewhere was a bedroom which give the impression of walking into a mist. There were so many chiffon drapes and soft things around. Apparently, Angie, the woman still holding onto my arm had made it. The walls were of different materials stretched on frames, and the ceiling was an old silk parachute suspended from the roof. Each of them had made areas of their own. There were fun places such as the tailors dummies which had clothes and fancy dress of all types, and was obviously used often; or there were quieter areas such as the wall of books or the sick quarters. There was even a workplace with all manner of tools, and also a bathroom. This was a plumbers nightmare – or delight – a mass of tangled pipes with a waterfall cascading down, various sinks, toilet bowls, urinals and fish tanks. Some of the sinks functioned, and hot water came up from a tank.
Gradually we learnt from whoever happened to be telling us about what we were looking at, how the place worked. The electricity came from a connection they had made with the London Transport electricity supply. Nerk, when he wasn’t echoing what everybody else was saying, had a passion for electricity. The furniture, clothes and mass of other objects had been collected over many years. They told us that almost anything can be found in dustbins and tips, if you know where to look, and are patient. At night they go to the surface through escape hatches they know and hunt for food and pickings. Nearly everything was used, they said, but occasionally they found new things that people had misplaced. And in some of the markets, food was left just ‘lying’ about.
Looking at my watch I suddenly realised it was time we left. We had an hour and a half to get back before we needed to phone Rosemary. The surface world and its needs seemed far away, but I knew we must remember it and get back. As we started, Mother, Pill, Angie and Nerk came to the tunnel door to see us off, and Lucy and IQ insisted on coming. with us.
IQ put the new batteries we had brought into his torch and we set off.
I suppose because we knew the way, and there were no unexpected’s to meet, the journey seemed quicker. Lucy followed Su like a devoted dog. He actually growled when I got near her. IQ chattered to us. He said there were others who lived in the tunnels we hadn’t met. Some moved around a lot, or preferred to live alone. Because of his uncouth appearance and habits, Lucy had been a virtual prisoner in a psychiatric hospital. His name, Lucy – from loose in the head – had originated there. I could understand why. Watching him following Su he looked like a prehistoric man, ancient enough to be almost pre-verbal. Considering that people in England felt it anti-social to breast feed a baby in public, anything as basic as Lucy roaming free would cause most people to call the police. For Lucy, the underground world gave a life of freedom and normality.
At one point I was last in line and noticed Lucy several times pause and sniff the air and the ground. “What’s he doing?” I asked IQ.
“‘E’s sensed somethin’” he replied. When Lucy stopped again he said, “What is it Lucy?”
The creature rocked his body and paced back and forth a few steps. ……. Big….” he said.
“Somethin’ ‘as been through ‘ere which makes ‘im restless,” IQ said.
Su, who was in the lead, said, “maybe he’s right. You probably can’t see it back there because we’ve all walked along this tunnel, but up ahead of us it looks as if something has wiped out our tracks.” She looked at Lucy who was still rocking. “That’s good, Lucy, to tell us that.” He stopped rocking and squatted nearer to her.
I felt uneasy, and as soon as the tunnel was wide enough, took the lead to look at the obliterated tracks. I briefly told IQ what had happened to make me interested in the tunnel in the first place, and asked if he or the others had seen such a thing. “No, never,” he said, “and if it’s like you say I wouldn’t want to neither. ‘Old on though, there’s one bloke you didn’t meet. We call ‘im O’Jesus because he’s always on about Jesus. Well, ‘e says there’s somethin’ stirrin’ and people don’t light candles enough to the Mother any more. An’ ‘e says we’ll need a new St. George to free ‘er from the dragon. But I never understood what ‘e meant. I thought ‘e meant Mother who you met. And why would we want to light candles for ‘er when she’s got all those lights Nerk put up?”
“Maybe we ought to talk to O’Jesus fairly soon” Su said.
“Okay,” I said, “but meanwhile let’s get home as quick as we can.” I took Su’s hand, as the tunnel was wide and we didn’t have far to go now; but was suddenly knocked over. As soon as I had touched Su’s hand, Lucy had leapt forward and pushed me aside. Now he stood apparently guarding her.
“Lucy,” Su shouted, “you mustn’t do that. He’s my husband.” Lucy didn’t appear to be convinced.
I stood up and Lucy growled at me. “Steady, Lucy” IQ said. “Bob, he doesn’t realise Su’s your mate.”
“Can’t you tell him?” I said, watching Lucy cautiously in the torchlight.
“‘E doesn’t work like that” IQ replied. “You’ve got to show ‘im.”
“Fight him you mean?” Su asked. “That’s crazy.”‘
‘No, not fight,” IQ went on. “It’s like the way dogs tell things when they circle around each other. Pill once said it was letting your body speak how it felt instead of your mouth.”
I felt like walking on and forgetting the incident. Having already been half way dragged up a column by Lucy, I didn’t want to repeat the scene in a tunnel with a six-foot ceiling. I realised though that if I didn’t meet Lucy with even a token strength now, I would forever be in fear of him. Grimed in mud the way he now was, he looked completely the part of a cave man. My heart pounded as my body got ready for a fight, and burning in my chest, almost stopping me breathing, was fear. Lucy reacted to the obvious tension between us by crouching slightly, and shifting his weight, getting ready for battle.
Seeing this, my fear reached a pitch where I thought for a moment I was either going to be paralysed by it or I would turn and run. Then something I had never experienced before overcame me. A violent trembling began in my legs and engulfed my body. When it reached my neck I felt it as if a wave which would swallow me if I relaxed. My neck was my last stronghold, but I couldn’t hold out, and as the wave shook my head a roar uttered from my throat. It felt wonderfully powerful. The shaking had dislodged the tension and fear. In its place was a sense of tremendous tingling. My body seemed more fully alive than before, and I was aware of Lucy, Su and IQ in a different way. An animal part of me, asleep all my life, had been awoken by Lucy’s challenge. Through its eyes, I could see IQ as a young male cub who gave no challenge, but who was watching with keen interest how men did business. Su appeared to be two people. One was a rather fragile thing that was her civilised, educated personality. This part of her I could see was anxious, and afraid of my roar. The other part of her was a healthy female, feeling pleasure in my challenge and understanding the strength of it.
Lucy roared back. A few minutes beforehand I would have felt frightened that I was facing a crazy and enraged man who was like a beast. Now I felt his noise not as an attack or a threat, but only an expression of his strength. The wave of trembling had transported me to a new world in which everything appeared different. The mind and emotions of the people around me was something I shared to the point of knowing what they were feeling. The sense of sharing IQ’s youthful growth, and Lucy’s powerful expression of his most basic feelings filled me with pleasure. I laughed aloud and knew my companions shared the happy feeling with me. Walking toward Lucy I took his semi-crouched posture and put my forehead to his. Without aggression, I let the strength in me push against him until we balanced each other. An experience of kinship flowered in my chest and I felt certainty that Lucy knew the same feeling. His great right hand lifted and rested on my shoulder.
Slowly moving apart I went to Su and put my arm around her, looking at Lucy. He made no move to protect her. The sleeping animal in me had awoken and by speaking in the language Lucy understood, told him Su was my mate. Through it I had entered Lucy’s world. It was a way of experiencing people I had never suspected. A way in which through emotions and movements, a communicating took place that was like sharing minds. Lucy and IQ appeared to be at home in that form of communication, but Su was almost completely unaware of what was occurring.
As I walked forward holding Su, she said, “Are you okay, Bob? I thought for a moment you’d flipped.”
“I thought I was going to, but I feel fine. I’ll explain when we get out of this hole. Come on, let’s move!”
When we crawled forward the light from the studio soon came in sight. As I climbed up the steps behind Su it felt as if we had been away from the familiarity of home for years. Clambering out of the hole was akin to emerging from an ancient world. Seeing the faces of Rosemary and Andrew, for long moments I had no understanding of who they were. I saw them still through the eyes of my awoken animal self. In Rosemary I glimpsed her struggle to find equal opportunity with males. I saw her body as slightly male, suppressing her woman-ness. Andrew looked like a great mind that was drawing strength from his physical functions. Then, suddenly my mind clicked over into its usual view of the world. I was home.
When I stood to my feet in the studio, Lucy’s head and shoulders appeared above the floor behind me. He growled low in his chest when he saw strangers. Andrew simple exclaimed “God!” and Rosemary dropped the cup of tea she was holding. When I looked back at the hole, Lucy had gone. I looked down the pit. It was empty and silent.