31 July 2020

I think we picked the right summer to have a pandemic. It has been non-stop sunshine for months. Naturally, that has helped everything to grow and flower and generally look splendid. With nowhere...

purple and yellowThe Tunnel

October 1971

I always looked forward to Saturdays. Even having lessons on a Saturday morning didn’t seem so bad, once you’d got used to them, and there was always the compensation of having longer holidays. I had science practical anyway, which was hardly work for Hobbo or me. We were in our element. And best of all, on Saturday afternoons we could spend time with our friends, with minimal restrictions on what we could do. Few students bothered to start their prep on Saturday afternoons – that would be a Sunday job for most of us – and that left seven glorious hours before the bus came. Most members of staff were off duty or even off site, which left ample scope for the Black Cat Gang to pursue its many interests around the school.

This particular Saturday afternoon found Anna walking with me down towards the boating lake. It was unusually mild for mid-November. The rest of the Back Cat Gang were inside, scouting the school for a place to establish our headquarters, which in reality was likely to end up being a few worn-out armchairs and a coffee table in a dusty cupboard somewhere on a corridor that nobody much visited. I figured that four people looking for a hideout was not much different to six, and anyway I wanted to talk to Anna about her Uncle Julius. I had seen men in uniform with tape measures and surveying instruments plodding about in Crow Wood and wondered if she could shed any light on it. If she couldn’t, my next question would be, could her uncle? The wood contained some of the oldest trees on the estate. Over the past weeks, JJ and I had been helping Hobbo to conduct a proper survey of the plant and bird life in there. I knew the school was hard up – everyone did – but surely, they wouldn’t sell the trees. Or would they?

I had brought my binoculars and kept a look out for unusual bird life while Anna talked about this and that. We ended up down by the lake, watching a few intrepid souls out dinghy sailing. The ground was quite dry and we settled down on the gravel bank.

“You’ve never really explained how you ended up at St Mungo’s,” I said. “Life on your Island sounds pretty good to me. So why did you leave? Something about an accident, you said?”

Anna lay on her back with her legs held vertically, crossing her ankles first one way and then the other. “Yes, an accident of some kind. There’s a lot I can’t recall. For a week, I couldn’t even remember my own name. That’s what Nanny Powers told me. She said I came off my scooter and I hit my head on a tree. She told me things about myself that I don’t remember ever happening.”

“So they may not be true?”

“Sure, I suppose so. But why would she lie? I’ve known her all my life. She’s the one person I trust above anyone.” Anna rolled on to her stomach and propped herself up on her elbows. She pulled a small mirror out of her shoulder bag and held it close to her face. “The cuts have all healed now,” she said, and turned her head first one way and then the other, eyeing herself with an expression of quizzical amusement. I half expected her suddenly to recall something from her lost past, a memory that had floated up from her unconscious like an old ship rising unexpectedly from the ocean depths, to break the quiet surface.

Then, as I watched, something completely surprising happened. Her expression changed slightly. Imperceptible to the casual eye, the corners of her mouth moved down and she pressed her lips together more tightly. Then, the mirror was gone. Still resting on her elbows, she had flung it over her shoulder, out into the lake. Her head dropped onto her forearms and, facing away from me, she lay still.

Her breathing hadn’t changed, so she wasn’t crying, and I watched her for a while and wondered, as always, what she was thinking. Her T-shirt, her favourite one with the faded stripes that she had brought with her from her island, had ridden up slightly, and I noticed a small scar, pale against her tanned skin, in the small of her back near her spine. Overcome with curiosity I leaned forward and put my finger on it. “How did you get that?” I asked.

“How did I get what?” came the muffled reply. The scar was about two inches long and curved, like a scimitar blade. You wouldn’t forget how you came by something like that, I thought, unless you were Anna. I ran my finger along it. “It’s rather beautiful, as scars go.”

She sat up quickly and fixed me with puzzled eyes. Her face then went through thoughtful, followed by determined. She looked around. “I want to see it. Where’s the mirror?”

“In the lake, remember?”

“Oh. Yes.” Her disappointment was palpable. She looked deflated, as if she had been handed a small piece of an unfinished puzzle, only to have it snatched away again.

I knew what might be coming next, and mentally I braced myself to wade out into the chilly water. However, I didn’t even get the chance to take off my shoes because wild shouts coming from the direction of the Hall interrupted the afternoon calm. It was Pam and Olivia, with Hobbo some way behind, running full tilt towards us, right across the cricket pitch.

“You idiots!” I shouted as they came within earshot. “If Blenkie catches you running across his hallowed…”

Pam arrived first. She threw herself down on to the ground, panting for air like a beached porpoise. “Sod Blenkie!” she managed to articulate between racking gasps. Olivia was next to arrive, followed eventually by a badly winded Hobbo. He collapsed on to his back and lay still, his chest heaving rhythmically like an upturned rowing boat bobbing on a heavy swell.

Anna glanced up at me with a quizzical look. I shrugged. “Let’s give them a minute,” I said. Nervously, I scanned the horizon for pursuing adults, but there were none. Hobbo spoke first. “JJ… Griff… cup… cupboard.”

Anna knelt down next to Olivia, who had managed to prop herself semi-upright against Hobbo’s juddering frame. “What on earth is it? What’s happened?” she asked.

 “Beh… behind… the… theatre props,” Pam gasped. She pushed herself along and flopped against Hobbo, the girls’ heads rising and falling like passengers in a storm-tossed lifeboat.

Soon, the story began to make sense as each of them added more of the details about their find. They’d come across a storeroom in an unused part of the school: strictly out of bounds of course, with big DANGER signs everywhere. They had been looking around in a cupboard filled with ancient books and theatre props, many of them dating back to before the school even opened. At the far end of the cupboard they’d found a rug, which JJ had pulled along to the middle of the floor to make it look a bit homelier.

“And that’s when we saw a door in the floor,” Hobbo said.

“Did it open? I take it you tried to open it?”

“Of course we bloody did, and yes, we got it open fairly easily.”

“And what did you see? What’s down there?”

“We don’t know,” Pam finished. “Yet, anyway. It was pitch black. You could see literally nothing. It could have been a thousand-foot drop for all we knew. Anyway, we wanted to wait for you two.”

“Oh, cheers,” I said.

Hobbo sat up, pitching the girls on to the grass, and dragged himself backwards to lean against a tree, folding his arms and exhaling noisily. “Well, you don’t sound very enthusiastic,” he said. “If it’s not too far down we might have got ourselves a safe Black Cat HQ, at last. Nobody would ever discover this spot, that’s for sure.”

Anna stood up and looked at her watch. “What’s the time? I make it three-fifteen, which gives us nearly two hours ‘til tea time. I want to see this hatch. It sounds very mysterious.”

“It is mysterious,” Hobbo agreed. “And do you know the oddest part? Listen to this. Now this is weird. You know when you open a cellar door and the place hasn’t been used for a while? It’s always cool and always smells damp and mouldy, doesn’t it? Well, I was right there when JJ pulled open the hatch. No smell of mould at all. None. But there was a smell, though. In fact, you know what it reminded me of?” Hobbo grinned happily. “It’s only just dawned on me. You know that warm gust you get when you’re standing on an Underground platform and the train’s about to arrive. It was just like that. Just like that: a warm gust and a blast of ozone made by electrical sparks.”

****

Hobbo had tipped the contents of his toolbox into a holdall, ‘just in case’, and Olivia and Pam raked out their torches. We made our way through empty corridors to meet JJ and Griff. They had stood guard in the doorway, to deflect anyone passing who might have noticed that the door had been forced. Nobody had bothered to mention that part of the proceedings. JJ practically squealed as we came in sight. Good old Griff had fetched a broom and swept all the dirt and dust away from the far end of the cupboard.

I understood immediately what Hobbo meant about the smell of the Underground. The whole cupboard was thick with it. We stood around the hatch and looked down into the blackness. Then JJ dropped to the floor. “Shine a light, Pam,” he said as he lay craning his neck into the void.

Pam’s torch beam cut a white path through the dust. It was hard to say what exactly we were looking at or how far away it was. “Let me have the torch a minute.” JJ took the torch and swung it around inside the space. Then he dropped it. “Whoops! Sorry Pam.”

“You clot. Get out of the way a minute,” I said, giving him some gentle persuasion with the toe of my plimsoll. I lay down and put my head into the hole. I could see Pam’s torch. It lay six or seven feet below on what looked like a concrete floor. The torch beam shone along the ground. I could see a few feet ahead of it, but beyond that, all was blackness. “Let me have your torch, Olivia, and somebody hang on to my feet, will you?”

Olivia obliged, and I inched forward until my waist was level with the hole. I could feel two pairs of hands securely around my ankles. I swung down as slowly as I could and let the torch do its work. You could see further with this one. The room wasn’t a room at all. In fact, it looked to be some kind of corridor, and our trapdoor was at its end. I could see at least three glass light fittings encased in wire mesh, connected by a steel pipe that ran down the middle of the corridor’s ceiling. I wondered if the lights still worked. “Pull me up!” I shouted, and the two pairs of hands yanked me back into the cupboard.

Five faces stared down at me. Nobody spoke, and then everyone spoke at once. “Keep your voices down,” I said. “One at a time.”

“What’s down there?” Hobbo asked.

“Not much,” I replied. “It seems to be the end of a corridor or tunnel. There are lights, though.”

“They might not work,” Pam said. “I’ll go down. After all, it’s my torch down there.”

I said nothing but did not object and neither did anyone else. Somebody was going to have to go down and it kind of made sense for it to be Pam. After Anna, she was probably the lightest and the most athletic of any of us. She was also slightly taller than Anna and that would make it easier to haul her up again.

“Why don’t we throw this old bookcase down first?” Olivia suggested. “Pam could use it to climb half way back up.” This sounded like a typical Olivia stroke of genius and we quickly got busy emptying the shelves of Latin textbooks.

“Let me get down first please,” Pam said. “I don’t want to land on that thing.” I estimated the drop to be about seven feet. Pam sat on the edge while Hobbo and Griff knelt on either side of the opening and grabbed an arm each. Anna held the torch and shone it down into the blackness. Pam nodded, and the boys lifted her gently and lowered her down until she was dangling by her wrists. “OK, boys, you can let go,” she called.

Then she was gone. There was a muffled thump followed by some coughing, then after a few seconds a torch beam shone upwards. “I’m down. Bloody hell, it’s dustier than under your bed, JJ.”

“Try not to breathe it in,” I called. We looked down and saw that she had put a handkerchief across her mouth and nose. She was shining the torch along the corridor and squinting into the gloom.

“I’m going for a little explore,” she called up. In a couple of seconds, she had disappeared into the dusty shadows. All noise ceased and we sat waiting, blinking and looking at one another, and as we sat there, it occurred to me to wonder what exactly we were doing. To judge from the others’ grim faces I was not the only one to have realised that ‘going for a little explore’, was an incredibly risky thing to do. What if Pam didn’t return? Would another of us need to go down to look for her? I opened my mouth to say something but then thought better of it. Expressing a note of caution now was pointless. But what was Pam doing? More than anything else I could think of, I wanted her back here with us, unharmed.

JJ had decided to take over the role of person half-hanging in the hole. “I can’t see her at all,” he reported. “No, wait. Here she comes.”

The sense of relief was physical. “Tell her to keep back and we’ll throw down the bookcase,” Hobbo called.

It was soon over and Pam was safely back in the cupboard. We closed the hatch and dragged the rug over the top, and simply stood for a moment and looked at one another. Then, as if we had rehearsed the timing, we all burst into a chorus of hysterical laughter. I laughed until my sides ached. JJ was in tears. Everyone was so relieved that we took turns to hug a very dusty Pam and then each other. All anyone wanted now was to be out of there and cleaned up and sitting around Hobbo’s fireplace with our tea.

Before we left we patted Pam down until she looked semi-normal, although if you looked closely it was obvious she’d been up to something.

“Let’s hope no one notices you’ve turned a whiter shade of pale,” I muttered to nobody in particular, as we came in sight of Hobbo and JJ’s room. By any reckoning, this would be a well-earned Saturday afternoon high tea.

****

That week’s classes dragged by at a glacial pace. Miller had been particularly nosey about our activities and I think he had begun to suspect that we had found somewhere to hide away from the attentions of his little crew. Thankfully, sport kept them busy on a Saturday afternoon. The only bright spot that week had been when JJ had spotted a pair of buzzards flying over Crow Wood on Tuesday afternoon. Hobbo and I were in time to see them too, circling and calling to one other.

Over tea, the previous Saturday, Pam had given us a full briefing of what she’d discovered. When you actually stood in it, she said, the corridor actually felt more like a tunnel, and the reason we had lost sight of her so quickly was that only a few yards from the hatch she had come to a corner. In fact, it was a T-junction.

“So, which way did you go?” JJ asked.

“I turned left.”

“Why did you go left?” I asked.

Pam thought about it. She lifted one shoulder. “No particular reason. No, wait. There was a reason. There was a distinct draught in the tunnel. You know, that warm air coming up through the hatch. It wasn’t very strong but I could definitely feel a slight breeze. So I headed in the direction it was coming from.”

“Did you get far?” Anna asked.

“I could have gone further, a bit further anyway, but about ten yards distant I could see a brick wall blocking the way. There was a gap at the top, which I suppose is how the draught is getting through.”

JJ said what we were all thinking. “Through from where, I wonder?”

“Did you see anything else?” Hobbo asked.

“Not much. Well, actually I do remember there was a kind of electrical box, painted black, set back in one wall: a fuse box, perhaps. Oh, and I found the light switch. I tried turning it but nothing happened.”

“That’s a pity,” I said.

“So, who’s going back down, and when?” Hobbo said.

It turned out that, apart from Hobbo, we were all keen to volunteer. He was concerned about the amount of dust and thought he might end up stuck down there until we had rigged up some kind of ladder, and so we drew lots to see who would go. We held out our fists while Hobbo did ‘one-potato, two-potato, three-potato, four, five-potato, six-potato, seven-potato, more’. Anna and I ‘won’. She had never seen this method of picking somebody to be ‘it’ before, and was most amused.

In the end, we all agreed. To draw as little attention to ourselves as possible, next Saturday just Anna and I would go, plus Hobbo who would act as lookout.



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