21 August 2021

Went to see an exhibition called 'Future Returns' by Dan Rawlings at the 20-21 Visual Arts Centre in Scunthorpe. Not been to Scunthorpe before. I got the impression the town centre may have suffered...

Black Cat Gang coverThe Wall

December 1971

It was Wednesday evening and dinner was over. JJ had begun the meal by sitting one seat away from the rest of us and poking listlessly at his food. Plainly, he wasn’t quite ready to forgive and forget after we’d abandoned him to his fate in Nelson dorm. I think he was mourning his set of chalk pastels as much as anything – the stampeding herd of sportsmen, who weren’t going to let anything stand between them and their dinner, had crushed every one of them to powder. As it turned out none of them had even spoken to him, and probably hadn’t even noticed him scrabbling for his scattered art materials. He’d also had his fingers stepped on several times. We had already planned to replace his pastels on Saturday, when Pam and I would take the bus into Larksbridge. Olivia went and sat next to him. They talked quietly through the meal and we left them to it.

The Black Cat Gang had reconvened in Pam and Anna’s room. It was my turn to take the minutes and, when everyone had settled, I read back Olivia’s notes from the last meeting. “There are two important items for discussion,” I began. “First, the threat to Crow Wood and the second…”

“You don’t need to read that out, Sam,” Hobbo intervened. We all know what it is and walls have ears, you know.”

“The Army have been snooping around again in the wood, that much we know,” Pam began, “and Sir Julius was seen out there with them.”

“Blokes in uniform with surveying gear have also been busy,” I said. “It looks like they are serious about fencing off the wood for the Army cadets to use.”

“Potts and Miller are already boasting about joining,” Olivia said contemptuously. “Imagine those two eejits being let loose with guns!”

“Maybe they’ll shoot each other,” JJ added brightly.

So far, Anna hadn’t spoken but had listened thoughtfully. “Hobbo, do you think the Army would go to that much trouble just to start up an Army cadet branch?” she said at last. “Uncle told me that they may even pay for the old wing to be brought back into use. Surely, they don’t have that kind of money these days. It would cost thousands.”

“Frankly, my dear, I completely agree. I smell a dirty great rat. And I can’t help but feel it is connected to the second item on the agenda.”

JJ bounced up. “The tunnels!” he yelled triumphantly while leaping between the girls’ beds and whirling a jumper round his head. We all shooshed wildly while Olivia rugby tackled him and socked him with Anna’s pillow.

 When order had been restored, Hobbo began holding forth on what we should do next. “That wall’s got to go. We can’t stop now, can we, chaps?”

“Perhaps we’ll discover a hoard of forgotten treasure,” JJ breathed excitedly, still pinned down on the bed by Olivia. JJ began to tickle her and soon pandemonium had once more enveloped the room.

“Or maybe we’ll find the TARDIS!” Olivia screamed and pushed JJ off the bed. The two of them tussled briefly on the floor in a flurry of arms and cushions and wild laughter before being dragged apart by Pam and Hobbo.

“Hang on a minute,” I chipped in. “This is all good fun, but aren’t we getting in a bit deep here? I mean, we are only children after all. I can’t believe that wall isn’t there for a jolly good reason. Supposing the tunnels are flooded, and when you knock a hole in the wall the Bristol Channel pours through and drowns the lot of us?”

The room went quiet as the others digested my contribution. Then Pam spoke up. “I don’t believe the tunnels can be flooded. My nose tells me that the whole system is dry as a bone. If it wasn’t then that draught coming through from the other side of the wall would smell damp, and it doesn’t.”

“All right then,” JJ said, “supposing you break through and discover that some horrible disaster had taken place on the other side, and it’s all dead bodies and dangerous chemicals or radiation, and that’s why they’d walled the place off. That might also explain the mysterious wartime fire.”

That argument was harder to counter. JJ might be right. And we had nothing to protect ourselves against radiation, even supposing we knew it was there in the first place. In the end, we listened as Hobbo summed up the situation. “First off, JJ is absolutely spot-on. We do need to be jolly watchful and use every safety measure we can think of, though it’s my feeling that whatever we might find beyond the wall it will not be immediately dangerous. As questionable as their actions might sometimes appear, I do not think the military would have allowed a school to open on top of a nuclear or chemical site. Their continuing close interest in St Mungo’s is inexplicable, unless there is something here they desperately want, or perhaps want to get rid of. What say the rest of you?”

“So are you thinking it could be some kind of weapon? Is that what they might have been working on during the war?” Anna asked.

 “The military are interested in all sorts of things, not only weapons,” Hobbo observed. “We need to find out more. We need to find out what’s behind that wall.”

“So,” JJ began. “Any volunteers, then? Me, I’ll go, I’ll go!” he cried, jumping up and down and waving his arms until Olivia casually punched him in the stomach.

“You’ll not get me down there,” she said. “I’m not good in confined spaces. I’ll do anything else though. How about as a lookout?”

Hobbo gave her a thumbs-up. “That’s fine Olivia, but rather than just be a lookout I think we need a general helper on top. After all, it’s extremely unlikely anyone will find us by accident – probably only if we are careless enough to be followed. However, something could go wrong down there, in which case the game will be up anyway, and we may need to call for adult help.” Hobbo had quite naturally assumed a co-ordinating role and so far, we all seemed happy to let him. “And I’ve got a special job for you, JJ.”

JJ clapped enthusiastically. “Ooh, a special job. What is it?” he twittered.

“It’s a vital role. I want you to sit on the shortwave radio and listen to the Army frequencies. It’s vital we know their movements. We don’t want to run into them down there, now do we?”

“Vital role,” he hummed to himself while doing a little dance. “Yep, count on me, count on me.”

I heard myself saying, “I’ll volunteer to go down.” Sam, you idiot. Remember last time?

“So will I,” Pam called over from by the kettle, which was about to boil. She looked at me and smiled. “What do you think, Sam, will we make a good team?”

“Yeh, fine,” I said. “We’ll make a good team.”

Anna hadn’t spoken yet. She was usually the first to volunteer for anything the least bit risky. “I think I will practise my drumming Saturday afternoon,” she said. I wondered if she was being serious, and I must have looked slightly confused, for she glanced across and winked. Of course, the music room was on the stretch of corridor above where we thought the wall was located. “I’ll make sure I leave the door wide open.”

I smiled and nodded, then turned towards Hobbo. “That only leaves you, my captain. What will you be up to on Saturday?”

“I, my friend, will be bird watching, or rather soldier watching. Despite whatever you find or don’t find down below, I feel there is a very real threat to our beloved wood from the boys in khaki.”

****

I wasn’t looking forward to this but couldn’t put my finger on exactly why. Saturday lunchtime had been event-free, although seeing the Tadpole stalking the dining room had been a little unnerving. It turned out she was only rounding up the girls’ first netball team for an away match at Bath.

We kept our heads down and even managed to hold a neutral conversation – you didn’t know who might be listening. Once having eaten, the Potts crew ran off to their games, which left us free to look like we were going about our Saturday afternoon rituals as usual. Hobbo had dressed in his combat trousers and olive jacket and looked ready for a session of bird watching. Anna had laid her drumsticks and brushes on the table in front of her, while Pam, and I had on our outdoor coats and looked dressed for a country walk. JJ had already left for his room with a packet of sandwiches he’d taken from the football teams’ snack table, to operate the shortwave for the afternoon.

Pam and I made our way separately to the old school, and met outside the storeroom. Olivia had already arrived and located a spot that allowed her to both see down into the tunnel and listen out for anyone approaching. We shed our school uniforms and donned the T-shirt and tracksuit bottoms Olivia had brought for each of us. These clothes would remain here for whoever went down next, so with a bit of luck there would be no more awkward moments with white dust. I slipped into my tennis shoes, with a silent appreciative thought for my beloved walking boots that I’d had to bin after they began to rot. A chemical reaction between the dust and the dubbin had put paid to them.

The plumber’s bag contained a range of metalwork tools borrowed from the senior craft room – a jemmy, a bolster chisel and two-pound lump hammer each, goggles, thick gloves and dust masks. And, most importantly, an aluminium canteen of water. “No helmets?” I said jokingly.

“With a thick skull like yours, you won’t need one,” Olivia replied cheerfully. “And remember what Hobbo said. You’ve forty-five minutes, and no longer.”

Pam finished tying her laces and looked up. “You first, or me first?”

“You first,” I said. “I’ll lower the bag down.”

I stood astride the hatch and gripped Pam’s hands while she sat on the edge. She pushed herself off and I allowed her to dangle and then released her for the short drop to the ground. The atmosphere in the tunnel reminded me of an overheated indoor swimming pool, the air tainted not with chlorine but high-energy oxygen. Pam had already turned on the lights and led the way into the gloom. Soon, she had invented a method of stepping that raised very little dust, and I copied her as best I could.

Before long, the wall blocking the tunnel came into sight, its rough brickwork etched with our long, dim shadows. The light closest to the wall was out, leaving our working area poorly lit by a bulb twenty feet back down the tunnel. I knelt and put down the bag, then opened it out flat. Pam donned her facemask, goggles and gloves and looked ready for business. She picked up a hammer and bolster and stood facing the wall. Just as her first blow was about to fall she paused and looked intently into the black space above our heads. Then she turned to me. “Can you hear it?”

I now stood, the hammer and bolster dangling from my gloved hands, and listened. From somewhere in the very far distance, muffled and faint, came a rhythmic beating, a throb somehow too alive to be machine-made. “It’s Anna!” I grinned. “Come on, let’s get cracking before her arms get tired.”

We took turns to strike the wall with our hammer, more to see what would happen than anything else, until we began to pant with the effort. The bricks neither cracked nor loosened. Anna’s ‘give it a good kick and it will fall over’ theory quickly proved to be wide of the mark, and although it had been built in a hurry the wall was proving to be annoyingly robust. Next, we tried chiselling between the brick courses near the top of the wall. This met with more success. Pam was first to remove a brick, which occasioned a small dance of triumph. My first loosened brick quickly followed and soon I overtook her, with bricks two and three falling in rapid succession at my feet. As I pried them loose, Pam began stacking the fallen bricks at the sides of the tunnel. I stopped and checked my watch. We’d been twenty minutes, which gave us another twenty-five to complete the job and get out. Soon, by standing on tiptoes I was able to peep over the top, but could see nothing. The ceiling lights did not extend beyond the wall or if they did, perhaps another light switch, located further down the tunnel, controlled them.

“Let’s take a break, Sam. I’m hot, and you must be boiling.” Pam sat down with her back against the wall and gratefully I joined her.

“Anna must be hot, too. She’s still pounding away.”

Pam took a swig from the canteen and passed it to me. “What will we find on the other side, I wonder?”

“Treasure, me hearties, gold and booty gathered from all the seven seas,” I said, doing my best Long John Silver impersonation. Pam gave me a dig in the ribs. “I have no idea. Probably nothing. It seems far-fetched to believe the Security Services would have left anything interesting down here after they got their marching orders. I don’t know about you, but actually, I’m kind of wondering why we’re doing this. I think we all know we aren’t going to get a BCG headquarters out of it. What do you think?”

“I simply want to know. I’m curious. Now we’ve come this far, I can’t imagine us pretending we had never discovered the place. Even if we learn it’s only more empty tunnels, I’ll be satisfied. At least we will have found out that there was nothing to be found.”

“I agree. But what if there are ray guns, spaceships, and other top-secret stuff that have just been forgotten about? I mean, we don’t know when they built this wall. It could have been long before the fire, couldn’t it? Perhaps we will find something interesting.”

Pam stood up. “That’s more like it. Sometimes you can be a bit of a wet blanket, Sam Smith. Did you know that?” She swung her hammer at the remaining brickwork and struck it a huge blow. To our surprise a large chunk broke from the wall and fell with an almighty crash into the tunnel beyond, kicking back a dense cloud of white dust. We dropped our tools and flattened ourselves against the tunnel wall to allow the dust to drift past.

“Whoa! Let’s stop and listen.” Apart from the expected low throb of distant percussion, the tunnel was silent. We trained our torches on the wall and viewed the results of our efforts. It was now possible to climb through into the space beyond, and I looked to see what Pam wanted to do next.

“Hold my torch,” she said, and sprung on to the remaining lip of brickwork. “Shine it through.” I did so and she stepped down on to the pile of bricks on the far side. “Give me my torch.”

“Ten minutes left,” I reminded her. “Enough time to clear up and get back.” I joined her on the other side and we began piling the bricks against the tunnel’s sides. When we’d finished we sat on the brick pile and shone our torches into the unknown.

“How long have we got?” Pam said.

“Five minutes, tops.”

“OK, you can time us. Two minutes there, two minutes back and one minute to look around. Coming?”

Of course I was. We walked side by side using Pam’s special gait, training our torches on the sidewalls for signs of anything interesting. A T-junction lay ahead, and when we reached the split, I looked to Pam for some guidance. She didn’t hesitate. “It’s left again. Can’t you feel it, Sam, the breeze? It’s this way.” I could feel it now, faintly blowing in my face and drying my sweat.

“How much longer do we have?”

“We’re doing OK,” I said. On my side, I could see a light switch a few feet ahead. With my still-gloved hand, I fumbled with it until it turned and suddenly on popped a sparse row of ceiling lights, very gappy but providing sufficient brightness to reveal an amazing and unexpected sight – ahead lay a series of alcoves or small rooms, set into the tunnel wall on the right hand side. Light shone out of some rooms but others were completely dark.

Pam pulled down her dust mask. “Wow. Oh, wow. Hobbo would wet himself if he saw this.” She stopped at the entrance to the first of the lit rooms. Huge, grey-painted metal cabinets lined the room on one side, filling the space from floor to ceiling. It reminded me of pictures I’d seen in one of Hobbo’s ‘Wireless World’ magazines, of the control room at a BBC radio station – a wall of knobs and dials and switches.

The second room was smaller, but also contained some racks of equipment, but this collection was quite gappy, as if at some point they had taken some of it away. There must have been about fifteen doorways in total. I looked at my watch. “We must go.”

Pam looked disappointed, but did not protest. “So, now we know,” she grinned. We turned and began to retrace our steps. At the wall, she paused. “Well, Sam, do we make a good team? What do you think?”

I held out my hand. “Skin.”

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