Weekend Fiction: The Tunnel
He pushed the staff down through the tangle of brambles and weeds that grew at the base of the wall. Dusk was falling. It was the best time of day to make an attempt. The watchers were tired, their shifts would end soon, they’d be losing focus. He inched along beside the wall, testing the earth with the staff as he moved forward, lifting it up, hammering it down, looking for signs of weakness.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
The ground was solid. He kept going. He must have walked a thousand kilometres over the last few weeks. Always on the move, he’d trudged through forests and fields, across streams and rivers, through burned cities, scarred towns, over hills and mountains. His broken boots hit the ground with a steady reluctance, his soul willing his body to take another step.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
His staff was a solid limb of oak, a branch cast to the ground by a storm. In the old life he didn’t know the names of the trees. In recent years he’d learnt most of them and what fruit they bore, the best use of their timber. Much of the forests had been stripped by now, of course, and most of the ancient landscape was blackened by fire, but you could still get lucky. His staff kept working steadily. He lifted it up and brought it down. Over and over.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
He’d heard whispers about a breach in the wall, a route under, several months ago, in one of the camps. Even if it had been true then, the entrance could well have been filled in by now, the underground security restored. He would still try to find it. He had to try. For Her.
Like countless others, he had attempted to cross the water. Everyone knew how dangerous that was. The boatmen wanted gold—jewellery, coins, any type of gold. They weren’t fussy, as long as it was real and you had enough. Everyone was a thief now, raiding any house left standing to search for a hidden stash that could be traded for freedom.
When he still had a voice, his wife had seen the war coming. “We must buy gold,” she said. “It’ll be worth something even if our currency has no value.” He’d laughed and told her they should invest in bricks and mortar. A roof over their heads meant security. That’s how it had always been.
“Don’t worry, love,” he’d reassured her, placing his hand on her naked, rounded belly. “I won’t let anything bad happen to us. I’m going to look after us. Always.”
He stopped walking and drew a long, deep breath.
The boatmen weighed out the gold and silver on some old iron scales. If they decided you had enough, you might get a place on one of their flimsy craft, if they could squeeze you on next to all the other miserable souls whose features had been worn away by endless war, their hair matted, their eyes dark with sadness. The boatmen didn’t care about overcrowding, whether their human cargo lived or died. If you complained, he’d heard, they’d push you out into the drink.
He’d been lucky. He’d had just enough. “Where are you headed?” said the boatman. His beard was thick. A gold tooth gleamed through the fur as his mouth formed an unkind smile. When he provided no answer, the boatman gave a stifled laugh, pushed him towards the rubber craft and he clambered over the side. The boat was small, with no shelter from the elements, little more than the dinghy he’d once taken to the beach on the roof of his car. She’d laughed as he pulled it through the shallows. It had bobbed up and down in the gentle waves as the sun burnt brightly.
The sky that day was grey. A stream of people climbed aboard. A woman sat down beside him, making her body as small as she could to fit the space. An infant was tied to her breast by an old pink scarf. He tried to make eye contact, to reassure her that the boat was safe, that her child would survive the crossing. She cast her eyes down. The boat groaned with the weight of human sadness as it was dragged out into the waves.
The light was failing now. He strained to see the route ahead and felt for the wall with his right hand. It was rough and cold. His bones ached and the scars on his legs smarted as he walked. The ground was hard, mud, stones, rock, thick vegetation. His staff kept at its steady work.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
A dog howled. She’d been afraid of dogs, more so after the war started and feral animals hunted in packs, mismatched hounds, big, small, brown, white, grey, mongrels and pure breeds, all famished, always searching for food. At first, they had taken cats and chickens, wild birds of course, mice, rats. As the populations dwindled, he’d heard about them taking children. She must have heard it too. When she saw a dog, her small hand gripped his a little more tightly and she moved her body into his, trying to become a part of him.
A few kilometres after the boat’s launch, somebody started shouting. There was terror in the young man’s voice as he cupped his hands and tried to bail out the boat, which was taking in water. Women stood up and screamed. “Sit,” said a man nearby, trying to calm them down.
“My baby. My baby. My baby,” whispered the woman with the pink scarf. He was the only one who heard her.
Moments later he was in the sea. Salt water filled his nose and mouth. He couldn’t breathe. He swam to the surface and pushed his head out, gasping for air. Limbs flailed around him.
The woman was still crying. “My baby. My baby. My baby.” Her voice was louder now. The pink scarf floated on the surface of the water.
He woke on a stony beach, washed up with the rest of the ocean’s detritus. His arms and legs were bleeding, blood poured from a gash in his head. He walked a short distance and stumbled upon a makeshift camp. Four men sat around a fire. Like his, their clothes were tattered and torn. They eyed him with suspicion and spoke in a language he could understand. He had not made it.
Darkness now surrounded him. A searchlight lit up. Its beam swept across the ground, scouring the night for people like him. Bad people. Illegals. People who wanted something they shouldn’t want. Shelter, food, freedom. Dignity. Peace. The anger rose in his throat. He tried not to let it take him over.
He felt a pang in his belly. When had he last eaten? He couldn’t remember. These days he ate when he could. In the early days, he’d joined in with others, raiding shops and factories for whatever he could find. Lately he’d taken to stealing potatoes from fields, although the farms were heavily guarded by dogs and razor wire. If he was lucky enough to dig up a potato or two, he’d build a fire and cook his bland bounty in river water.
It was because of the hunger that he’d lost Her. She was becoming thinner every day, her eyes sinking into her celestial face, her hair dulling and thinning until she was too weak to cry.
The woman seemed kind. He met her in a bar, one of the few left, a small candlelit room with space for about 20 customers. It sold weak coffee and sometimes offered it’s regulars a bowl of thin soup—as long as they promised not to tell.
“She’s a lovely girl, isn’t she?” the woman said, gesturing towards Her with a warm smile. The woman wore a smart suit and a blue scarf. She was clean. She even seemed to sport a flash of pink lipstick. He hadn’t seen make-up for some time. His wife had liked to wear red lipstick. It beautifully complemented the dark brown of her eyes.
“She looks hungry, though, poor little thing.”
“We get by.”
They drank their coffee in silence for several minutes.
“You know,” she ventured after a while, “there is a way that things can change—for her.”
He took another sip. He didn’t look up.
“You just have to know the right people.”
The searchlight eyed its territory once more. He rested by the wall and dabbed his forehead with a rag, then reached into his pack and pulled out an old plastic bottle. He took a swig. River water. It tasted sour and muddy. It quenched his thirst well enough all the same.
The night he met the woman, he’d seen that there was still another world, a better world. They talked for a while in the bar. She told some jokes. She had a dangerous, bawdy sense of humour. Then she looked at her watch and stood up to leave. But before she did, like a magician, the woman produced a boiled sweet from her pocket and gave it to Her. She smiled. He hadn’t seen her smile for the longest time.
“Such an intelligent looking girl. It’d be a shame to let that all go to waste,” sighed the woman.
For weeks he ached. He missed Her small warm body lying beside him every night. He regretted what he’d done almost immediately. Whenever he could borrow a phone, if he could get a signal, he called the number the woman had scribbled on a scrap of paper in exchange for Her. There was never any answer.
Thud. Thud. ___. He lifted his staff up again and pushed it down. It went through the undergrowth easily. There was a hole in the ground, he was sure of it. He scrambled on to his knees and felt the area with his hands. The brambles tore at his skin. He didn’t care. He could feel it, the nothingness, a gaping hole in the earth. It was well hidden by foliage but it was there.
He assessed its dimensions. It was just big enough to fit a body his size, no more. He’d have to take off his pack to get through. He rooted inside it for a piece of string, attaching one end to the pack, the other to a belt loop. He’d have to pull it through behind him.
He took a deep breath and slid in head first. Inside it was pitch black. He used his hands and feet to propel himself forward, blindly scratching at the earth with his fingernails, digging into the sides where he could, pushing against root and rock.
Progress was slow, and soon the passage seemed to narrow. Soil fell from the ceiling, filling his eyes, nose and mouth. Breathing became difficult. He battled on. The channel began to slope upwards, which made forward motion even harder. He would not be deterred. He could not go back now - even if he’d wanted to. The passage had become unstable. It was collapsing behind him. More debris fell on to his head. Is this how I die? He wondered.
Finally he pushed his fingers through what felt like vegetation. He inched forwards bit by bit until his head was out and he could feel the breeze on his skin again. He wiped the mud from his eyes, spat out the earth from his mouth and enjoyed a greedy gulp of air, allowing himself a half smile as he pulled the rest of his body out of the hole.
The searchlight woke again. He lay down close to the wall, trying to conceal the shape of his body with the weeds that grew on this side as they did on the other.
A dog barked. He heard muffled voices in the distance. Many people had got this far, he knew. Most didn’t make it any further. There were only one or two trains a week now, a small amount of trade keeping the channel open. It was just freight; no passenger cars. Now the only way for a human to make it through was on foot.
If he could make it past the watchers, and stay concealed all the way through, he knew he would be faced with a heavily armed military guard on the other side. They would not think twice about ending his life. He tried not to think about the end too much. He had made it this far, hadn’t he?
If he could make it through alive, he could look for Her.
The searchlight’s beam passed over again. It briefly illuminated an old metal sign, abandoned in a muddy puddle near his hand, its welcoming message faded by sun and rain.
He could just about make out what it said: 50km. Underneath was a name he knew well, the town at the end of the Tunnel. Its final letter had rusted away. If he could just get there.
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