01 January 2018

New Year's Day, 2018. Lovely and quiet, so an ideal chance to have a mooch around the docks. I'm never quite sure if it's OK to walk around there or not, seing as there are security patrols and...

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boyGirlSilhouette4Beyond the Wall

March 1972

Only one week remained until the start of the Easter holidays, our last chance to find out more about the rooms we’d discovered on our last excursion into the tunnels. It was Hobbo and JJ’s turn to host the meeting. Not everyone was here yet, I noticed as I entered. It was my turn again to take the minutes and I fetched the book from Hobbo’s desk. He and Pam were busy making tea and Olivia had seated herself in the window seat with her back to us, headphones on, rotating the large tuning dial on Hobbo’s shortwave radio set. JJ was always late on a Wednesday because he had an extra drawing class with Mr Salmon, who considered JJ his star student. But where was Anna?

“Let’s start without the others,” Pam suggested, and we settled ourselves in a semicircle around the fireplace. The arrangement felt natural, even though the fire was not lit. “I want to go back down again and explore those rooms. Sam, what do you think?” From her expression, I knew that this was not really a question.

“I thought Anna was coming with me this time,” I said. “Not that we didn’t make a good team,” I added quickly, smiling across at her.

Pam smiled back, but her face showed determination. “Well, we’ll see,” she replied.

“I’ll start,” Hobbo said. “The good news is that Griff and I finished the ground survey of Crow Wood last Sunday. The bad news is that we only have one map now because Griff had an emergency on the far side of the wood and had to use the other one as toilet paper. No matter, the survey is complete. The map shows every rock outcrop, depression and sink hole we know about, to an accuracy of about five feet.”

“That’s great,” I said. “Any surprises?”

“Not really. Well, one I suppose. D’you remember that airshaft up by the pond that Griff found a while ago. Well, he insisted on investigating it further. He’d brought a rope and a torch and I waited topside while he lowered himself into the hole. He didn’t get far, only about ten feet down, in fact. Then apparently, the shaft does a right-angled turn and continues horizontally. Griff was all for going on, but the way forward was blocked by an iron grille that he couldn’t shift.”

“Worth going back one day, do you think?”

“I’d say so, even if only to satisfy our own curiosity. Perhaps JJ can find something when he’s rummaging in the back of the Army Land Rovers, to help persuade the bars to bend a little.”

At that moment, JJ fell in through the door, flushed and breathless. “Sorry I’m late,” he gasped, falling onto a beanbag and pulling loose his tie. We all watched as he wriggled the bag into a comfortable shape and leaned back, hands locked behind his head. It looked to me like he had something to announce, but instead of speaking he just grinned and blew air through pursed lips, like a cooling steam engine. His grin was irritatingly smug. In the end all he said was, “Did I miss anything?”

“Not much,” Pam answered. “We’ve been sorting out who was going to go on Saturday, to make an inventory of the equipment in those rooms. We’d half-agreed it would be Sam and Anna, but…”

I interrupted quickly. “No we’d fully agreed, I thought.” Where was Anna, though, I wondered. She ought to be here by now.

Pam got up and crossed the room, to stand behind Hobbo’s chair. “Well, I want to go. I found the rooms and I want to see this through. I can square it with Anna. Where is Anna anyway?”

“I don’t think she’ll be coming tonight,” JJ said innocently. “On my way here I saw her down by the lake with a friend.”

“But she’s never missed a meeting,” I said, a little bewildered. “What friend?”

“It looked like Henderson,” JJ replied. The room became still, the only sound a slight rustling as JJ settled down further into his beanbag.

“Henderson?” I faltered, in a manner that must have sounded not unlike a village idiot.

“Yep. It definitely looked like Henderson. And they were holding hands.”

****

That Saturday’s tunnel team consisted of Pam, Hobbo and me. Anna had pushed a note under Hobbo’s door on Thursday morning, apologising for her absence the night before but offering no explanation. As usual, JJ was going to be on the shortwave and Olivia would be quartermaster and lookout.

One by one, we slipped through the double doors that separated the new Hall from the old, and as I entered the cupboard, I tried my best to put all thoughts of Anna out of my mind. It was to be Hobbo’s first excursion into the tunnels, and of the three of us going down there, I wasn’t sure who was the most nervous. JJ and Olivia had made a sturdy ladder from poles we’d ‘borrowed’ from the gardener’s sheds, so at least he would be able to get down and back up without too much hassle. But it was the dust that worried everyone most. I had brought in some spraying masks from home, but nobody knew whether they would be effective protection against that dust for an asthmatic.

“Look, why don’t I take photos of the equipment instead?” I suggested. “I expect you would easily be able to work out what it’s all for, no problem.”

“We could carry one or two of the smaller contraptions back to the hatch,” Pam added.

Hobbo folded his arms. “I’m sorry, you two, but I’m going.” His face was set and I knew it was pretty much a waste of time to try to dissuade him. “The masks Sam has brought from the farm look perfectly good to me and besides, I have a brand new inhaler, still unopened, that I can take.”

Pam and I looked at each other. “OK, so be it,” I said. “Let’s suit up.” We donned the painters’ overalls we had found in a storeroom and checked our torches. Hobbo strapped on his tool belt, then knelt and opened the plumber’s bag to check through his tools and instruments. We formed a circle and exchanged looks; it was time to go.

Pam went down first, followed by Hobbo. I lowered the tool bag and quickly followed them. Pam had switched on the ceiling lights, but not every light worked, and the overall effect brought to mind the twilit gloom of a cinema in between films. She turned and addressed Hobbo. “Pick your feet up, man. Don’t shuffle or you’ll raise more dust.” Hobbo nodded, his expression hidden behind the facemask. Already, he was sweating.

Soon we reached the remains of the wall, stepped past the rubble of bricks and crossed through the gap. The warmth and dryness of the air was already oppressive enough to make me feel tired and nauseous. What must it be like for Hobbo, I wondered.

About ten or so feet beyond the wall, we came to the first of a series of rooms, some little more than alcoves really, that I guessed were once the haunt of Ministry scientists. The rooms varied in size but all were door-less and I counted sixteen. Pam and I had decided to split up and take half the rooms each. We took our clipboards and set off to explore and catalogue each of them, while Hobbo roamed free to investigate whatever took his fancy.

Some rooms were almost empty, apart from waist-high benching around the walls, while others contained racks of ancient electrical equipment. Even the emptiest of the rooms had a scattering of smaller items of furniture and other bits and pieces – wooden stools, a filing cabinet with its drawers hanging open, a yellowing newspaper in one, dated 17th March 1943, and a box of wireless valves in another. One room even had a cup and saucer sitting on the bench, empty apart from a brown film coating the bottom of the cup. In some rooms the light worked, while in others a torch was required, and always everything coated with a thin layer of the white dust we had been walking through.

We had not yet ventured beyond the last room, where the ceiling lights stopped and one’s perception quickly evaporated into the impenetrable darkness. Shining a torch made little difference – as far as you could tell, the tunnel just went on and on. Standing by the doorway of the last room, I began to realise that I felt very uneasy about going any further. I tried to imagine what might lay hidden in the hot, windy darkness. My head throbbed, while my stomach constantly reminded me of its existence. The indefinable sound seemed louder here. Its extreme pitch, on the very edge of awareness, nevertheless rose and fell in intensity, I realised, as if its source was continually approaching and receding. I felt drawn by the sound, mesmerised even. It was essentially machine-like in character, yet there was something else there too. I thought I could detect structure, something that could have been mistaken for a human voice, howling and sobbing in some far-off room.

Despite the heat, my skin prickled with waves of goose bumps. I looked down. The dust was about half an inch thick here. Pam and I had mastered a way of stepping through it that raised very little into the air, and as she came and stood beside me, I wondered what our next task should be.

“Hobbo’s busy in Room Three,” she said. “Compared to most of the rooms it’s huge, and packed with equipment.”

“So, what’s he found?”

“No idea. I don’t think he knows either. He’s muttering away to himself back there. I’ve also found something else interesting. Come and have a look at this.”

Pam led the way to a room about midway along. The light was on and I looked around. The room being practically empty, there was actually very little to look at and I shot Pam a quizzical look. She led me over to the bench and pointed. “What do you see?” she said.

“Not much,” I replied.

“Look again.”

I did, and then I saw what Pam had noticed: rectangles of bench that were practically dust-free. “Something was here,” I said in surprise.

“And now it isn’t,” she replied. “So, where is it, and who took it and when?”

I looked down. “Shouldn’t we see footprints?”

“I asked myself the same question. But look over here.” We squatted down and she pointed. “There, can you make it out?” she said. I shone my torch obliquely across the dusty floor. Faintly, in an undisturbed area of floor over by the bench, I could just make out the shape of a boot in the dust. “I think the draught must cover the footprints over time,” she said, “but it takes longer in here.”

“Nice going, Pam,” I said, smiling and giving her a mock punch on the arm. “But I don’t think it’s the draught that’s moving the powder. Watch this. I noticed it last time I had a drink.”

I unscrewed the top of my canteen and set the cup on the bench, then poured out some of the water until the cup was full to the brim. I shone my torch across the water’s surface. “Now, watch,” I said.

The water sat inert, its skin mirror-like and smooth, but then, while we watched, tiny ripples crazed the water’s surface, but only for a few moments, and then once again the surface was smooth. We watched for nearly a minute as the cycle repeated.

“It happens about once every eight seconds,” Pam said. “I was counting one elephant, two elephants. So you think that’s what’s causing the dust to move.”

“Yes, that’s my theory anyway. More questions to add to the list of a million we already have about this place. Let’s go and see what Hobbo’s up to.”

We found him in Room Three. He was lying flat out on the floor with his head inside a cabinet. For a split second, I thought he might have collapsed, but then a leg moved. “Hobbo?” I called. “You OK?”

Hobbo pushed himself out of the rack and sat up. His mask dangled around his neck and he looked very hot, but pleased. “I think this room must have been a communications centre,” he said. He tapped the thin grey steel of the cabinet with his torch. “It’s something like a switchboard – that’s my guess, anyway.” He pointed upwards. “Look in that corner; what do you see?”

I followed Hobbo’s gaze to the ceiling. Along the top of the wall ran open trunking filled with dozens of thin, grey cables. When it reached the corner of the room, it disappeared upwards through an opening. In front of us, the cables took a right-angled turn and disappeared down behind the cabinets.

“So those wires go to different rooms in the school?” Pam asked. “Probably most rooms, judging from the number of wires.”

“Exactly, old boy.” Hobbo reached in through the buttons of his overall, pulled out a shirttail and began wiping the dust from his spectacles. “The big question is,” and he tapped on the steel cabinet beside him, “does any of this still work?”

I stood and looked closely at the front of the cabinet. “So, is it like a telephone exchange, where an operator connects different people through a switchboard?”

“Yes, and no. I think it does that job but it also does a lot more. You don’t really need electronic circuits to run a telephone system, and this room is packed with them.”

“Do you think it could still work, then?” Pam asked. “I mean, it hasn’t been switched on for the best part of thirty years.”

“If there’s power then there’s absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t work. My grandparents are still listening to a wireless set they bought at the beginning of the war.” Hobbo turned and addressed me. “Now, when you and Anna mended the light fuse, were any of the others blown?”

“No, none. We checked them all.”

Hobbo shone his torch around the walls. Above the doorway was a small, red circuit breaker, its terse message DANGER – 415V picked out in faded silver lettering. The switch handle dangled vertically downwards in the OFF position. I looked at Hobbo. “You’ll never reach it,” he said, before I could say anything. “And anyway, I’m not sure if it’s a good idea just yet. Not until we’ve investigated further and maybe given it some more thought. I mean, who knows what’s on the other end of those cables? If an amplifier circuit is faulty, it could send a wave of howling feedback around the whole school. Imagine it – every room in the school with a squealing loudspeaker box hidden somewhere behind the wallpaper.”

The conversation paused. We listened, not because we wanted to but because it was becoming impossible to ignore that far-off, otherworldly sound.

“Well, you’re the expert,” I said finally. “I think that’s enough for one afternoon, don’t you?”

Pam nodded. “I’ve finished my survey. I’m ready for some fresh air.”

I took Pam’s clipboard and shoved it with mine into Hobbo’s bag. The very sound of those words ‘fresh air’ both oppressed and elated me. It brought home once more how alien this place felt, how unfriendly and somehow anti-life. Time was meaningless here – we might have embarked on this mission minutes ago, or days ago. Pam and Hobbo both looked tired, somehow older and more careworn, and I guessed that I probably looked equally exhausted. Silently, and with noticeable relief on everyone’s part, we packed up and headed for the hatch.

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