“Ready?” I said. Anna smiled and nodded as she finished fixing up her hair. Our second visit to the tunnels was about to begin. Even though I was expecting it, the draught of warm air that greeted us as Anna pulled back the trapdoor still shocked. It was so unnatural; cellars ought to be cool and mouldy, not hot and reeking of static electricity. I dropped through the hatch and landed lightly on the tunnel floor, leaving my torch off until the moment I absolutely needed it. The dust specks rose and whirled in the light beams streaming through the opening above. “I’ll catch you,” I called up. “It’ll make less dust.”
“Bag first,” Anna called down.
I fielded the plumber’s bag containing Hobbo’s hand tools, then cushioned Anna’s fall as she dropped through after it. We moved swiftly down to the T-junction and turned left. Anna led and I followed, carrying the tools. The dust muffled the sound of our footsteps. Our shadows, stark against the whiteness of the dust, deepened their blackness. The silence only added to the unearthliness of the place, and as we walked on, I wondered what might lie hidden in the darkness ahead.
As we went further, we shone our torches along each wall of the tunnel, looking for clues of any kind. At one point, a patch of dampness had stained the concrete. Long, dark strands of green algae hung like mermaid’s hair and interrupted the uniform greyness. Here and there, splashes of red paint with numbers chalked in their centre broke the monotony of the dreary concrete. In several places, the tunnel’s lining had fallen away, revealing the native limestone beneath. I knew this rock’s geology well, having spent enough time at Finlow Primary poking at its walls during playtimes – golden and shelly and not that difficult to scratch.
Before long, our destination came within torch range. “Let’s take a look at the wall first,” Anna suggested. I left the tool bag by the fuse box, and we approached the barrier. What we encountered was a construction completely at odds with the rest of the tunnel. They had built the wall using ordinary house bricks, and not very skilfully by the look of it. The courses of bricks were uneven and in several places mortar bulged from the joints. The wall stopped about a foot from the ceiling but was still too high to see over.
“Looks like it was built in a hurry,” I said.
“A good kick would probably knock it over,” Anna replied. “Shall I try?”
“No,” I said quickly. “One thing at a time. We’ve got a job to do, so let’s do it.”
“That’s my Sam,” she said.
“Wait!” I whispered. “Can you hear anything?”
We stood absolutely still, until the only sound was that of our own breathing. Then there, right at the far reaches of perception, there was something else, something extra, almost a feeling rather than a sound, but its pressure could not be denied. Anna nodded. She could hear it too, if hearing was the sense we were employing. The torches appeared dimmer now and I began to feel uncomfortably warm. My shirt stuck to my back and it felt harder to breathe. This felt wrong, somehow. I glanced at Anna and her eyes flicked back in the direction we had come. Time to go, they clearly said.
We turned back and found the recess where I had dropped the tool bag. Anna shone her torch up. There was the fuse box, black and ancient, with the words ‘CORRIDOR AND LABS’ faint and barely readable typed on a yellowed parcel label tied to the circuit breaker. “OK, let’s do it,” she said, “and then get the hell out of here.”
I handed Anna the screwdriver. “Did you know JJ is going out with Olivia?” I said partly to break the unpleasant silence of the place, but mostly because I felt nervous.
“Mmm, mmm,” came the reply. Anna held the screwdriver in her teeth while she shone the torch around the fuse box. I couldn’t really make out what she was saying. She pulled one of the fuses out of its socket and held it in the torch beam. She replaced it and picked out another. The ends of this one were soot-blackened. Plainly, at some time in the distant past it had received a voltage surge. She gave another unintelligible grunt and thrust the torch towards me. I exchanged it for the card of fuse wire and held the torch steady as Anna deftly unscrewed the melted remains of the fuse and unwound a new piece of wire. I fumbled in my pocket for the wire snips and had them ready when she held out the mended fuse for trimming. Tik, the snips went, and at that instant Anna glanced up at me. I became aware of just how silent it was, how warm it was. Her lips parted slightly as though she were about to speak and a smile began to form. It was like watching a diver breaking through the surface of a clear lake. “So, are you going out with anyone, Sam?” she said.
“Er, well, er,” I heard myself saying, before I felt the torch bounce off my boot. I watched as it clattered against the wall. I bent to retrieve it, thankful for a reason to look elsewhere. The passage felt smaller and narrower than before, and uncomfortably warm. I wondered what else I was going to say, but already Anna had picked up the torch and was relocating the fuse. With a blow from the side of her fist, the fuse clicked home and I swung the cover door shut. She handed me the torch and knelt to roll the tools up in their pouch. After checking that the lights now worked, I led the way back to the hatch in silence, the only sound the faint swish of our clothing.
We halted beneath the open hatch. I turned and glanced up, then looked at my companion. I breathed out and nodded my head. Suddenly I had an irresistible urge to giggle. Anna smiled and understood exactly. She held out her fist and we touched knuckles. “Teamwork,” she said. “Sorry about that personal question back there. It’s not like me to pry. What the hell does ‘going out’ mean, anyway? It’s not like people ever go anywhere, is it?”
Before I could think of a reply, she was leaning on my shoulder. I made a stirrup with my hands and boosted her up. She vanished, and then suddenly I saw her hand reappear and wave in front of my face. Holding it tightly I jumped and gripped the lip of the hatch as she pulled me up. After she’d closed the hatch, we sat for a moment, recovering our breath.
“Well?” Hobbo panted as he rolled down the rug and pushed a rack of stage props over the top of the closed hatch.
“Fine,” I said. “We’ve fixed the lights. It was a fuse, as Anna thought. God, it’s dusty down there. Not like the dust you get under the bed though. It’s fine and white and it has weight if you scrape a handful, together; like concrete maybe? Any ideas what it might be?”
“Beats me,” Hobbo replied. “I just hope to goodness it isn’t toxic.”
“It gets thicker as you go further down the tunnel,” Anna added. “I wonder if it’s being carried through on the draught coming from the other side of that wall.”
“Seems possible,” I said.
“Depends what’s on the other side, doesn’t it? Did you have time to investigate?”
“Didn’t really think about it,” I replied. “We must be covered in the stuff. Are we?” I glanced at Anna. She was muttering something to herself but looked presentable enough. I patted myself down and we headed for the door. One glance back to check the cupboard was back the way we’d found it and then out we went into the corridor.
It was a relief to return to the school proper. I noticed, as if for the first time, that it was a fine afternoon, meaning we could now go out and get some fresh air. I wondered if this was how a miner felt after a shift at the coalface, but then dismissed the thought. It was stupid even to think of comparing our tiny adventures with the life of a working miner.
We reached a corner and turned, and what we saw had an instant effect. Just when we thought we were safe, dead ahead lay our worst nightmare, because right in front of us stood the Principal, in conversation with Miss Robinson, the head of music. There was no way we could avoid them, not without causing suspicion. “Keep walking,” Hobbo hissed. None of us hesitated – we were too practiced by now to let this daunt us – we simply walked on, with all the casualness and innocence we could muster.
Julius Terry glanced up as we approached and continued his conversation with Miss Robinson until we drew level. His posture told me that he expected us to stop. “And what are you three doing inside on a fine Saturday afternoon, I wonder? I’d have expected you to be in Crow Wood, building dens and lighting fires, or making bird sightings.”
“We were just off to the hall, sir,” Hobbo said casually. “I’ve been practising Debussy’s Clair de Lune and wanted to show it off to Anna and Sam. I think I’m getting quite good.”
“Oh really? How commendable,” he said, his expression impenetrable, with a smile that could have gone either way, as he surveyed the faces standing before him. He looked at me, and then at Anna. Finally, he turned back to Hobbo. “Well, Master Hobson, if you are as good as you say you are, then perhaps you will play for the school at the next assembly?”
“Oh yes, sir. Be glad to, sir.”
Steady Hobbo, I thought, don’t overdo it. We walked on and entered the hall. The kitchen staff had already laid tables for dinner. A random percussion of cooking utensils and female voices radiated from the adjoining kitchen and formed the quiet accompaniment to our entrance. We crossed to the upright piano, parked between a vaulting horse and the cutlery table. Hobbo searched through a pile of sheet music stacked on top of the piano while we watched. Clearly, he actually meant to perform. We stood and watched him set the music up on the rest; then he began to play.
Anna and I stood on either side of him, and as he played, she turned the pages for him and I listened as the cascade of notes filled the room. I truly felt that I’d never heard anything so beautiful in all my life. It was better even than The Beatles, like a soothing balm flowing and swirling around me. It brought home just how tense I had been for the past few hours, and with Clair de Lune working its magic, I began to think about the afternoon. My immediate thought was that Julius Terry had decided to let us off the hook, and wondered if it was because of Anna’s presence. To me this sounded reasonable; after all, she was his niece.
Hobbo came to the end of the piece and looked up at me. “What do you think, Sam? Will it do?” he chuckled. Without waiting for a reply, he launched into Clair de Lune once more.
Anna had also been thinking. She looked at me over the head of an enraptured Hobbo, who was playing with eyes closed and clearly had no need for the sheet music. “I’ve got a theory,” she said. “I think the tunnels have more or less the same layout as the school corridors. I think that was how they built this place; it’s just that the lowest floor is underground. I paced out the tunnel as we walked back, and then the corridor above it, and they match more of less exactly.”
I tried to imagine this for myself. I thought about our underground journey to the fuse boxes and then the aboveground equivalent. “So the wall is about, oh, roughly where your uncle and Miss Robinson were standing a moment ago.”
“More or less, I suppose.”
Hobbo played on, oblivious to the conversation unfolding above him. I looked down and imagined what might be lurking beneath our feet at this very moment. Was there a huge room that mirrored the size of the hall we were standing in? And if there was, what might it contain?
Hobbo’s playing ended. He really was a fine pianist. I glanced across to say as much to Anna, but she was looking down with an expression of concern. I followed her gaze and ended by looking at my own feet. My walking boots, my pride and joy, which I kept supple and waterproof with copious applications of sticky dubbin, were completely coated with fine, white dust.