Robert sat on top of the garden wall, looking over at the field. The old barn looked dark and forbidding alone at the edge of the field, next to the wall. He could see a large black bird strutting along the roof of the barn. He guessed it was either a rook or a crow. But he was not even sure whether rooks and crows were different birds or different names for the same bird.
Just as Robert was beginning to get bored with just sitting on the wall, Susan, the girl from next-door, climbed the wall at the rear of their garden. She stepped over the top of the fence and sat down beside Robert. Susan was thirteen, a year younger than Robert, but – somehow – Robert always felt that she was the wiser of the two of them, if not the elder.
“What shall we do today?”
“I… I dunno really.” Robert couldn’t really make sense of why she wanted to be with him. It had not been that long since he had started noticing girls. There had been a period in his life when girls just seem to have disappeared from the world around him. But now they suddenly seemed to be appearing everywhere.
“What about those tunnels in the barn you were talking about yesterday? I think I’d like to see them.”
Robert shifted uncomfortably. Something about being with Susan in the dark claustrophobic tunnels seemed to make him feel unusually warm. He could feel the heat spreading up the sides of his neck.
Earlier in the summer holiday, Robert and his friend John had sat on the same wall watching the barn as it was filled with bales of hay. It had taken two lorry loads to fill the barn. The boys had hidden in the long grass at the base of the wall as the farm hands returned to the farmhouse, rubbing straw from their hands. When it seemed as though the men would not be returning to the barn, the two boys crept around to the back of the barn and squeezed in through a broken window.
For several days, the two boys secretly constructed a tunnel through into the centre of the mound of hay bales, shifting and rearranging the bales to make a large room deep in the middle. They made a roof for the room by using old abandoned fence posts as rafters to hold the bales above it.
Robert and John had sat silently close together in the pitch-black room they had created, listening fearfully to the rough bantering voices of the farm hands as they walked and climbed over the hay bales above the boy’s heads. The boys shared a great deal of relief and excitement when the men left. The roof had held and they had remained undetected. The elation had spurred another frantic bout of tunnel making, with secret exits all around the barn. If the farm hands did return, and if they did find the tunnels, the two boys believed they could be out anywhere around the barn in a few seconds and away safe over the garden wall in less than a minute.
John was away with his parents for the last two weeks of the summer holiday and Robert had been lonely for a while. He spent most of the first few days just sitting there on the garden wall watching the sheep and waiting for time to pass.
“Okay. Let’s go then.” He jumped down into the field, before Susan could notice the reddening of his neck and cheeks. He was shocked to find that he was holding out his hand to help her down from the wall, but Susan overlooked his gaffe and jumped down beside him as he pretended to continue with his stretching exercises.
“It gets very dark, cramped in there,” Robert said as they walked across the field.
“It’s all right I’m not scared of the dark. She turned to face him. “Are you?”
“No, ‘course not.” Robert swung at some nettles with a stick, decapitating them. “I just thought I’d better warn you, ‘cos there’s no turning back once you’re in there.” They arrived at the barn. The old wooden walls were grey with age, warped and broken in places. Susan pointed at the locked doors. Robert shook his head and led the way around to the side of the barn farthest away from the other farm buildings.
Halfway along that wall there was a window frame that had fallen out. It six small panes had all been broken. Using the frame as a ladder, Robert climbed up through what used to be the window and onto the hay bales that were stacked up inside level with the window ledge. He sat down on a bale and watched as Susan struggled through the window. This time he did not attempt to help her.
Once she had hauled herself in, she lay on the straw, looking up at him. She spat straw out of her mouth and smiled at him before sitting up. “Where are these tunnels then?”
Robert smiled “The entrance is secret, hidden. Can you see it?”
Susan looked around. “No.”
Robert’s smile widened in triumph. He stood up and pulled the bale he was sitting on to one side. “Look.”
“It’s very dark down there.” For the first time there was a hint of uncertainty in Susan’s voice. She looked up at Robert and saw something in his face that spurred her into action. She jumped forward and turned to clamber down into the hole.
“When you get to the bottom, move over that way….” Robert pointed to the left. “There’s a space over that side.” As Robert clambered down, he could just see Susan as a darker mass in the darkness. He reached up and pulled the bale back over the entrance. There was silence, and stillness, for a while.
Susan’s voice was barely above a whisper. “I’ve never known anything this dark, this is really dark.” She laughed nervously. “I really can’t see my hand in front of my face!”
Robert put out his hand, reaching for her. His fingers touched something soft. “The tunnel is over here,” he said.
“Give me your hand, here.” He touched the softness again.
“Is that your hand that keeps touching me?”
“Yes… sorry, I can’t…” He felt the cool soft skin of her hand brush against his and then fold around it. He was sure he could smell something beyond the dense smell of the straw dust, something like the soft perfume of soap. “It’s… it’s here,” he said finally, taking her hand towards the tunnel entrance and letting her feel around its edges.
“All right. I think I know where it is now,” she said.
Robert felt her brush past him and the rustle of straw as she began to crawl forward. He counted to thirty and then followed her. He noticed again how the whole notion of time passing seemed to become meaningless. Once inside the tunnels, time and space seemed to disappear. If it wasn’t for the sharp pressure of the spiky straw on his hands and knees, the soft rustle of their clothes brushing the straw and the sound of their breathing then, Robert felt, he could have been floating free in space, or in a black hole; some place where up, down, time, space, today, tomorrow, school, home no longer existed.
He bumped into Susan’s back. “Sorry.”
“It’s a dead end,” There was a hint of panic in Susan’s voice.
Robert began to creep past her legs. “What? Let me through, the roof has probably just colla… sssh.” He lay still, halfway past Susan. He could feel her breath in his hair as she whispered.
“There’s someone coming, up above.” He felt himself pointing and smiled at the absurdity of the gesture, then felt foolish for smiling in the darkness. “Keep quiet, and still.”
The muffled voices sounded slightly clearer as they moved closer. Robert could hear at least two voices and the rustle of feet on the straw above them. There were a few thumps and bumps, the last of which seemed to pour down a shower of straw and dust all over his face. He could hear Susan trying not to cough. He held his nose tightly, trying to muffle his sneeze.
The voices faded away into the distance. A few moments later Robert sneezed, this time not bothering to muffle it. Susan coughed, almost in reply.
“I think they’ve gone.” Robert moved on up, he caught a hint of a toothpaste-like smell as his face drew level with Susan’s. He was suddenly very aware of how narrow, how tight, the tunnel was. They were pressed tight together, closer than he had ever been to a girl before.
“The roof has collapsed,” he managed to say after easing his arms up past Susan. “All I need to do is to push this one part of the bale out of our way. Yes, I can feel the string all loose where the straw has slipped out. I’ve almost done it, no…. Shit!”
The tumbling bales above them sounded muted and distant at first, but the rumbles grew louder and straw dust began to poor down all over Robert’s face. He could feel a sharp grittiness in his eyes and mouth. There was a loud thump and then silence. The loose straw seemed to hiss by him as it fell.
“I… I can’t move,” Susan said quietly, sounding almost calm. Robert put out his hand to where he thought she was. He could feel only straw. Panicking, he grabbed handfuls of straw, tearing at them. He could feel blood on his palms where the sharp straw cut into them. His left hand reached out for more straw and he touched Susan’s hair. Carefully, with both hands, he cleared the straw from around her face, feeling carefully with tentative fingers; hair, nose, lips, eyes.
“Are you all right?” Robert could hardly form the words, his mouth felt thick and choked with dust.
“I… I think so, but I still can’t move my legs.”
“Hang on, don’t worry.” Robert was surprised by how calm he sounded. His heart was thumping wildly in his chest, but – somehow – he seemed to know what to do. “Can you move at all?”
“I can move my top half, twist around… and my feet, up and down a bit, but that’s all.”
Slowly Robert eased himself back down the tunnel next to Susan. He could smell the warmth of her body. The soapy smell was mixed with a faint sour trace of fresh sweat. His hand touched bare skin, it shivered under his touch and he felt the slight trace of a rib under the skin.
His feet hit a blockage in the tunnel and he curled up on himself trying to reach down between his knees and feet to find it. He felt down the jeans on Susan’s legs until he touched the hard corner of the hay bale lying across the backs of her legs, pinning them. There was something else there as well, he discovered, as he managed to lift the bale slightly. But he could only brush it with his fingertips. He pressed down farther and managed to wrap a couple of fingers around it. It felt cold – metallic – and slightly knobbly with rust. He tried to move it.
“What? what’s the matter, Susan?”
“Whatever you did then, it hurt. Sorry.”
“Sorry.” Robert could feel the panic rising again. He knew what it was – rusty barbed wire and the old wooden fence-post it was attached to. John and Robert had used the old fence posts to support the roof of the tunnel in a few places.
Gingerly he felt down her trousers again. There was a place, just below her knee where the material was ripped. He touched her bare skin and she jerked the leg, it felt damp and sticky, but luckily – he thought – there was no sign that the barbed wire was actually cutting her. It was, he discovered, all tangled up with the material of her jeans. He could not hold up the hay bale and disentangle the jeans at the same time though.
“What’s… what’s the matter?” Susan sounded almost on the edge of panic.
“It’s all right, not that bad at all really,” Robert said. “Some wire has scratched your leg, that’s all. We can get you out, if you crawl forward while I hold the fallen bale up off your legs. Are you ready?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“Right, go on then, crawl as fast as you can… Now!” Robert grunted as he lifted the bale up as high as he could. Susan kneed him hard in the thigh as she tried to squirm out from under the bale. There was room. He could feel her legs scrabbling for purchase on the floor of the tunnel.
“It’s no good. I… I can’t move, something has caught my trousers.”
“I’m going to have to drop the bale. I can’t hold it anymore.” Robert let it go with a sigh and laid his head down on the straw, breathing hard. He could feel his hands throbbing where they had been cut by the straw. He wanted to be out of there, back home, lying in bed with crisp clean sheets. The bright sun streaming in through an open window where the curtains were trembling in the breeze. He closed his eyes, opened them, closed them again.
There was no difference.
“Hang on. I know what to do,” Susan said. Robert opened his eyes, or at least he thought he did. Susan was squirming next to him, he felt her hands and arms brush against him a couple of times. “When I say, lift the bale again,” she said.
“Okay.” Robert got into position and waited.
There was the same amount of scrabbling, but this time Robert felt Susan’s legs move past him.
“Hang on,” Susan said. “All right. You can let it go.” He heard her sigh of relief and let the bale go. He could hear Susan scrambling through the tunnel in front of him. He began to crawl. His hand touched something, almost jerking away before he realised it was her jeans, abandoned half under where he had let the bale fall. He tried pulling them out, but they were still stuck fast.
He caught up with Susan a few feet up the tunnel. She was frantically pulling handfuls of straw from a blockage in front of her, frantically hurling them behind her. One handful hit Robert in the face. He could hear her heavy breathing.
“Calm down,” he said softly, easing his way up to lie next to her. She was still tugging at the straw with frenzied hands. Fistfuls flew around Robert and into his face. Eventually he managed to grab both of her wrists.
“I can’t… I can’t find a way through!” It sounded as though she was very close to tears.
“Calm down. This is – I think – where the tunnel changes direction. Turn around. It is behind you.”
Eventually, he felt her arms relax slightly and Robert let go of her wrists as she turned. He listened to her crawling into the new tunnel. While he waited there he realised just how much his body ached. He wondered if he would ever be able to stand upright ever again. Sighing, he changed position and crawled up the new tunnel.
“Wait,” he said as he felt the tunnel widen out in front of him. He reached out and touched Susan’s leg. “You can sit up in this bit, just here. It’s like a room. Sit here with your back against these bales.” He pulled her towards the side of the room. “Just wait there a second.”
Robert scrambled over to the other side of the room-like structure and felt along the side for the two crossed fence-posts. Finding them, he pulled hard.
“Shit!” The light was blindingly bright. He screwed up his eyes and turned away. After a few tentative blinks he managed to open his eyes and keep them open. It was not really that bright, the old window was thick with grime, but it was still glaringly bright after so long in the darkness. He could see Susan sitting a foot or so away. She sat with her arms wrapped around her legs and her knees brought up close so her face rested on her thighs. He could see the long red scratch down the side of her calf and the red blot of blood on her sock. He touched her arm gently with his fingertips.
She looked up at him, her eyes blinking rapidly, sending fresh tears down the dirty tracks on her cheeks. “I can see you.” Her voice was fragile, tentative. “Can we get out? Come on. I want to
get out of here.”
“We can’t get out here. That window faces the farm house. We have to go over the other side, and anyway….” Robert glanced down at her bare thighs.
Susan’s face reddened and she seemed to draw her legs tighter against her body.
“I tried to get the jeans free, but I couldn’t. They were caught on the barbed wire.”
“What are we going to do then,” she said. “We can’t just stay here. I don’t want to go back through any more of the tunnels either.”
Robert nodded and crawled over to the opposite corner of the room. “Just up here there is a way up to the top of the hay. We can go up over the top and out the other side. Come on.”
He scrambled up through the narrow opening until he could stand up. He paused for a moment, letting the knotted muscles slowly straighten themselves out, before pushing the bale off the top of the hole. He could see the grey wooden beams and planks of the roof. A powerful beam of sunlight shone like a laser through a knothole. He was almost laughing as he pulled himself out of the hole and lay back on the top of the straw. The air up there tasted cleaner too, almost no dust. He rolled over and looked down the hole. Susan’s filthy tear-streaked face looked up at him. He held out his hand to her. He pulled her up and they rolled together over the packed bales away from the hole.
They lay on their backs, looking up at the peak of the roof, the thick grey beams a few feet above them. Robert turned to look at Susan.
She stared up at the roof, unblinking. “I – for a while – didn’t think we would ever get out of there,” she said. “I didn’t think I’d ever see anything ever again.”
As Robert watched, a single tear created a new track down the side of her face. He put his finger out and stopped it. Susan turned to face him. She smiled.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Maybe these tunnels weren’t such a good idea after all. Before you came over this morning I was wondering why we had made them. They seemed a bit childish really. But now…. Now, they seem so scary. Perhaps a grown-up, an adult, would have more sense. We could have died.”
“We would have just disappeared,” Susan said. “No-one would come to rescue us – they wouldn’t know where to look. We could have died, slowly, suffocating in that pitch darkness and no-one would have thought of searching for us in here.” She turned and wrapped her arms around Robert, resting her head on his shoulder. Robert could still smell the slight scent of perfume and soap. She held him tightly and he wrapped his arms around her as she began to shiver.
“It’s all right,” he said. “We are out now, safe.” He closed his eyes, but the darkness was too frightening, almost a weight bearing down, thick, choking, suffocating. He felt himself shiver and held Susan tighter.
He felt her head lift and he turned to look at her, she nibbled her bottom lip as she stared back at him. Their heads moved together slightly, almost. Time really did seem to stand still for him as he stared into her unblinking eyes. Susan blinked and looked away. Robert felt some tension fall out of his body as she lay back down.
“Will you be all right, going home like that?” Robert said eventually. “I mean… your trousers…?”
“What time is it?” Susan looked at Robert’s watch. “If I go now, I should be able to get inside before my mum comes back from work.” Susan was suddenly on her feet and walking over to where the bales were stacked around the broken window. Robert stood up and followed her out, his legs still feeling unsure of how to walk. She strode across the field and climbed her garden wall almost without breaking stride.
On the top of the wall, she turned briefly as Robert caught up with her. “I have to go, or else mum’ll…” She glanced down at her bare legs.
Robert noticed her knickers had small red roses on a white background that was stained dusty grey in places, one of the seams was ripped. “Yes, right.” Robert didn’t know what to do. It seemed, after all they had just been through, that a simple good-bye could not be enough.
“Bye.” Susan was halfway down her garden, turning back away from him and limping towards her house.
“Bye,” Robert dropped his hand from the half-wave he was giving to her retreating back and turned. Between the houses he caught a glimpse of the street and Susan’s mother coming slowly around the bend. He ran back to his own garden and jumped off the wall.
“Robert! Come and see this!”
Robert sighed and walked out of his bedroom, still clutching the book he had been attempting to read. His mother was standing at the foot of the stairs.
“Come on! Quickly!” She led him by the hand into the kitchen. The whole night sky outside seemed to glow red. “Look!”
Robert walked out into the garden after his mother. The whole barn was on fire. Huge red and yellow flames leaping up out of the windows. Thick smoke was blowing across the garden. He could hear the shouts of the farm hands and the clank of buckets. Off in the distance he could hear the urgent siren as the fire engine made its way through the village.
He looked away from the barn and saw Susan’s family in their garden. Her father held her mother close as he shouted something into her ear. Susan saw Robert and she limped over towards the garden wall. Robert went over to meet her.
“What about that?” He said.
Susan nodded. “Every time I closed my eyes I could feel myself back in those tunnels. Sorry, but I had no choice.” She glanced up at the barn once more, smiled briefly at Robert, then slowly limped back into the house and shut the door.
[This, and other stories can also be found here as well]