I lost myself today, which happens when the day is spent with people rather than words. Some people do double duty — rich connection AND words … but in their absence I need to find myself again in my writing.
So, here’s a chapter from the novel Wildwood, which crawls inexorably towards its completion in the first half of this year. Replete with bad language … you know, to redraw the borders.
Barry said I was ready for the tunnels.
‘You’re Justice the Brave,’ he said. ‘You’re ready for the tunnels.’
‘Nah,’ I said.
I didn’t believe Barry when he called me Justice the Brave. And I didn’t want to walk down Chart Lane all the way to the A24. I wasn’t ready.
‘Do it for Rocky,’ Bill the twin said.
‘Yeah,’ said Paul the twin. ‘Rocky always wanted to go to the tunnels.’
That was true. Rocky always wanted to go to the Deepdene. But his mum wouldn’t let him. It wasn’t my fault he always followed me.
‘We’re going anyway,’ said Barry. He set off up Wildwood Road. ‘Only gang members allowed to follow.’
Mash followed. Fanta followed too. Fraggle, Denk, Mop. They were all going. I was left by myself on Wildwood in front of Mrs Berry’s house. If Mo was around I would have gone and found him. But he wasn’t back off his holiday. I looked over at Rocky’s house and saw the net curtain move. They had two glass panes in their front door like we did, and someone was standing behind it ready to come out.
I followed the others.
Down St Paul’s. Up Chart Lane alongside the wall of the Dene. Under the trees that form a roof and block out the light. The boys reached the A24 before me. The road was clear and Barry and the Twinnies, Mash, Fraggle and Mop, all ran straight across. A Bedford van came howling round the corner and I held my breath. We waited on the side of the road, Denk, me, and Fanta. I couldn’t breathe. My chest was tight. I felt sick in my stomach.
‘Now!’ shouted Barry. The van had gone.
I ran first, like my life depended on it, around the place where I’d last seen Rocky, and safely over to the bank up into the wood. Fanta came soon after. Denk waddled across, because he had to, and because he wanted to. He walked right over the spot where Rocky was lying. The boys were off straight away, yahooing up the hill and howling like Indians. I followed but I was slower than all of them because I was still out of breath. They fanned out through the trees. I didn’t know the way to the tunnels so I kept my eyes on Barry. He was weaving in and out through the trees like an SAS. If anyone knew how to find the entrance to the tunnels, it was him.
The bank rose steeply and at the top everyone stopped for a breather. I caught them up.
‘We don’t want to be spotted,’ Barry said. ‘They’ll chuck us out if they see us.’
‘Who will?’ said Mop.
‘That Kuoni House lot,’ said Barry. ’Stick behind me.’
Barry charged down, over the crest and into the woods. The others fell in behind, following him through the thick bushes as the wood headed down towards the valley where the Kuoni House was. Barry veered off to the right and we all followed, and then there it was, hidden behind scrappy scrub and trees and wiry hedges—a brick blockhouse, like a backyard toilet in a small clearing in the wood.
‘Let’s get it open,’ shouted Barry.
The blockhouse had a gabled roof and a heavy rusted iron door that Barry and the Twinnies tried and failed to yank open, until fat Denk got in there and almost pulled it off its bolts. Inside the blockhouse was a rusty iron staircase, spiralling down inside what looked like a brick well, plunging deep underground. At the bottom was pure darkness. An icy draft blew up from underground and howled like a wolf.
‘This was how they got out,’ said Bill the twin, who knew more about the tunnels than anyone.
‘Doesn’t matter,’ said Barry. ‘It’s how we’ll get in.’
‘What’s down there?’ I said.
‘Tunnels,’ Barry said. ‘And bear pits.’
‘It was a communications bunker in the war,’ Bill said.
‘What do you know?’ said Fraggle.
‘Our dad told us about it,’ Paul the twin said.
‘He’s not your real dad,’ said Barry.
‘Well, he’s not.’
‘He still knows about the bunkers,’ Bill said.
‘Let’s draw straws,’ said Barry.
We drew straws for who would go down into the tunnels first. The straws were twigs that Bill and Paul snapped from the hedge behind the blockhouse. I drew the shortest twig.
‘Justice the Brave!’ Bill and Paul shouted.
I didn’t feel brave. I was shaking. It was freezing. The howls from underground got louder.
Barry drew the next shortest twig. He didn’t look so brave either.
‘What’s down there?’ I said again. We stood at the top of the staircase. Me and Barry. The rest of the boys squeezed around us. Mash and Fanta and Denk wouldn’t fit inside the blockhouse so they stood outside.
‘Things that kill you,’ Barry said. ‘Probably.’
‘Like what? Are there really bears?’
‘Nah,’ he said.
‘Will you stay with me?’
‘Swear on Rocky?’
Barry took a pocket knife from his pocket and sliced a small cut across his thumb. He took my thumb and did the same.
‘Yow, shit,’ I said and pulled away. Blood welled up like a fat raindrop and Barry squished his thumb on mine.
‘We look out for each other—no matter what,’ Barry said. ‘Not just today either.’
’Am I in the gang?’ I said.
Barry went first. He stepped slowly and carefully, testing the rusty steps. He placed one hand on the brick wall. It was trembling.
‘Soft cocks!’ shouted Mash from outside. ‘Get on with it.’
We had no torches and no one knew what was down there. The Wildwood boys talked about the tunnels all the time but none of us had been in them. Barry slowly disappeared into the darkness while I watched from the top. I was feeling more and more sick. And excited. I think. The bag of snakes was going mental.
Barry disappeared. The darkness swallowed him. I gave him a moment by himself. The iron steps echoed with a dull thud as my trainers hit them. Dong, dong, dong, like a cracked bell. All the way down, it felt like ages, until I was beneath the darkness too. It was like wading into a cold sea. My trainers hit concrete and my legs stopped wobbling. I looked up and could see the light coming from outside the blockhouse, but all around me was nothing. And it was cold. So cold that it went into my bones.
A draft from somewhere distant hit me and whipped upwards towards the outside. The floor felt uneven and chalky, covered in litter and leaves and bits and pieces of shit from the woods, blown there by winters or dropped there by litterers or left there by trespassers.
‘Justice,’ Barry said. His voice was crumbly like the ground. His hand reached out for my face and it felt like a bat. I flicked it away. ‘You go first,’ he said.
‘I’ve got your back.’
I held out my hands like a mummy and stepped forward until I reached the wall. It was cold like the wall of the blue john cave and there were cobwebs and bricks and switches that didn’t work. I felt my way along to a dog-leg. I followed it round, edging along, inch by inch, and a stronger draft hit me in the face. I couldn’t see a thing but the darkness seemed to open up, as if I’d walked into a cavern. There was a door frame, an opening into nothing, channels cut from the floor that I could feel beneath my feet, more switches in the wall to my right, and bits of old wire hanging there like the branches of a weeping willow.
‘Remember to hold your breath,’ I heard Barry say. ‘There’s deadly dust.’
I didn’t know what deadly dust was. And I didn’t get a chance to ask. Barry gave me a shove. I took a deep breath and stepped forward into the great space, and kicked a length of four by two that was lying on the ground. I grabbed it and waved it front of me like a heavy sword and hit the walls to my left and right. I was in a narrow tunnel. I blinked the moisture out of my eyes and looked for a glimmer of light. There was nothing at all. Just darkness. Darkness and cold. Darkness and cold and absolute noiselessness. Apart from the sound of our feet on the dusty concrete floor.
‘Keep going,’ Barry said. He was whispering, because of the noiselessness. ‘It isn’t far.’
It was so dark I couldn’t even imagine the light. It was so dark it was like I was blind. I edged forward, bit by bit, not even full steps. I felt openings in the wall to my right with the stick. My legs started to wobble again and I thought they might collapse. I needed a poo. I started to shuffle forward rather than step in case there were pits, like in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I remembered a memory verse from John Le Boutillier’s Sunday school. Well, a bit of it. I said it to myself. In my head, so Barry couldn’t hear.
‘The valley of the shadow of death. The valley of the shadow of death.’
We only see shadows because there’s a light. That’s what John Le Boutillier said. He was right. There were no shadows in the tunnels because there was no light. The tunnels were worse than the valley of the shadow of death. This was worse than being dead. This was worse than what happened to Rocky. I took in a big breath and it stayed there in my chest, trapped like a great big bubble. My belly rose high and pushed against it, and suddenly I couldn’t breathe. Not out, anyway. I could breathe in. But that just made the bubble bigger. It was suffocating me, pushing my lungs up into my neck, making my heart beat faster and heavier.
There were bear pits all over Dorking from when the Romans were here. That’s what we learnt at St Paul’s. Bears and wolves ran wild south of London when it was called Londinium. Dorking was Dorchings, which meant old farm, because that’s all Dorking was—a market full of cattle pens and wild animals. The town mascot was a cockerel because Dorking was famous for cockfighting. The Dorking chicken was a fat bird with five claws. The perfect warrior. Any second a fat Dorking chicken would fly out from the darkness and latch onto my face with its claws. I wasn’t worried about the pits anymore. I just wanted to find the way out.
Another tunnel came up on my right. I felt a gust of air and thought I could see some light. I blinked some more to clear away the cold. Yes. Yes, I could see light.
‘I think this is the way out,’ I said to Barry, who was so close behind me I could feel him breathing on my neck like in the railway tunnel. He’d brought his smell into the tunnels with him, where the air was stale and reeked of dust and damp and wet earth. The smell of Barry was stronger than all of it. His smell filled my nostrils as I tapped away at the wall and crept towards where I thought the way out should be. I fell over some old radio gear and slammed my knees into metal.
‘Fuck a duck,’ I shouted. I hit the gear with the stick and felt my way around it. ‘Watch it, there’s a ton of crap here,’ I said to Barry.
I was nearly there. The final tunnel. The shaft of light was suddenly brighter. I didn’t run though. I waited for Barry to catch up. But he wasn’t anywhere near me.
‘Barry!’ I shouted. There was nothing. Just the darkness and a long, low moan as the draft breezed past me and through into the tunnels. I shuffled back to the radio gear in case Barry had tripped and broken his face. He wasn’t there either. ‘Barry!’ I shouted again. Nothing.
I listened out for the others. They must have come down into the tunnels by now. If Barry had tripped they would find him. I needn’t worry. But we’d become blood brothers. That meant everything. Especially since he’d promised on Rocky.
‘Valley of the shadow of death,’ I said to myself again.
I waved the four by two and moved the air with it and banged the floor with it and tapped the wall with it. I went back in the direction I’d come to see where Barry had fallen. I went all the way to where the two tunnels meet and blinked into the darkness towards the direction of the spiral stairs. There was no noise, not from any of them. ,
‘Barry!’ I shouted again. Nothing. I wiped my eyes and legged it.
I emerged from the tunnels like a miner, blinking at the light and shielding my eyes from the sun and still shaking from the buzz and the fear and the bag of snakes. At the Kuoni House end the tunnels exited through a red brick bunker, with the Deepdene rising high on one side and the clearing to the left dotted with old buildings and what look like castle steps, rising up to the crest of the bank around the house. That’s where the boys were—all of them. Even Barry. Every one of them laughing at me because they hadn’t been into the tunnels at all but had run through the woods to wait for me like a pack of arseholes.
‘You’re all dickheads,’ I said. It only made them laugh even more.
‘I can’t believe you done it,’ said Bill the twin.
‘What’s it like in there?’ Fraggle said.
‘Come on, tell us.’
‘Fuck you. And fuck you,’ I said to Barry.
‘Justice the Brave,’ Paul the twin said.
But I wasn’t interested this time. I started up the old steps, dragging the overgrowth to the side so I could get away from them and go home.
The boys caught up with me. They pushed past up the corroded steps and I let them go.
’Seriously man, we’re impressed,’ said Bill the twin. ‘Almost gets you in the gang.’
‘Almost,’ said Barry, who didn’t look anywhere near as impressed as the others.
Mash passed me, and Fanta. Denk, as always, was last. He hung back and made me slow down so the boys could climb the hill ahead of us.
‘So what was down there?’ he said, but quietly, so the rest wouldn’t hear. I almost answered him. He looked at me like I’d become something. Something he never would.
But I said nothing. I kept my mouth shut. I looked at him so long he turned away as if he’d just been caught out. He climbed the steps without me. I just stayed there, watching him go. Near the top he stopped to catch his breath.
‘You’re not coming?’ he said. ‘You’ll be in the gang after that.’
‘I don’t wanna be in the gang,’ I said. ‘I’m starting my own. Why would I wanna be in a gang with a pack of pooftas?’
Denk said nothing to that. He just turned and wobbled away, shouting after Barry to hold up.