'How unutterably tedious he'd like us!' one of the pupils had hissed at William as they were dismissed. William paid no attention. In the months that followed he had held on to Bazalgette's words, repeating them to himself until their shape acquired the metre of a magic charm. William no longer trusted in prayer.
Where the floor of the tunnel levelled out once more William paused, holding his lantern up to the wall. The water tugged impatiently at his boots. Where the light caught it, the masonry bulged with overlapping wads of fungi. They sprouted fatly from between the spongy bricks, their fleshy undersides bloated and blind, quilting the holes that pocked the walls. They were the closest that the tunnels came to plant life but William could find no affection for them. He ducked further, pulling in his shoulders to avoid brushing against their pallid flesh. Their cold yeasty smell rose above the privy stench of the filthy water. William's throat closed. For a moment he felt the tilt of the ship and his hair crawled, alive with vermin. Men moaned all around him, crying out for help that never came. He had a sudden urge to dash the glass of the lantern against the wall. A shard of the broken glass would be as sharp as a knife. It would slice through the stinking fungi until their flesh fell away from the wall. Would it bleed or would it simply yield the yellowed ooze of a corpse too long in the sun? The craving quickened within him and his breath came in shallow dips. He imagined his fingers closing round a dagger of glass, tight and then tighter until his blood ran in narrow black streams between his knuckles. The hunger pressed into his throat, and crowded his chest. He stared into the lantern, watching the worm of flame curl as he swung it slowly backwards and forwards. Just one hard blow. That was all it would take. He pulled back his arm . . .
No! The lantern swung dizzily as he snatched in his hand and a pale fragment of mushroom swirled away in the stream. A fine crack ran upwards through the glass of the lantern but the light did not go out. Unhurriedly the flame stretched, shivered and then steadied. Sweat trickled from beneath the brim of William's hat. He gripped the handle of the lantern tightly, angry at his imprudence. Without the lantern he would never find his way back to the shaft. Forcing his mouth full of saliva he licked his lips. Regular in his habits, steady, disciplined, methodical in his problem-solving. Equable and law-abiding. He repeated the words to himself as he moved further into the tunnel. His knees were unsteady.
Once again the tunnel narrowed. Here there was barely room to accommodate the spread of William's shoulders and the water rushed over his knees. At high tide the flow would fill the channel almost to the roof. Where the stream scoured the walls there were no more mushrooms. Instead the walls were slick with a fatty dew of nitre that gleamed silver in the lantern's light. In the darkness beyond, a row of stalactites hung like yellowing teeth from a narrow lip of brick in the curve of the roof. This was the place, the place where young Jephson had finally gone to pieces.
It had not come quite without warning. Jephson, a gangly surveyor with the raw oversized knuckles of the not-quite man, had been discomfited for at least a half-mile, the perspiration standing out on his forehead as he complained of stomach aches, headaches, of difficulty breathing. He had insisted that the ganger pause every few yards and hold out his lantern on its pole in the darkness, checking and rechecking for the presence of choke-damp. While the measurements were being taken his hands had trembled so violently that William had taken the spirit level from him, anxious it might be lost in the underground sludge. But it was not until they reached this point that the boy finally lost his head. His fear had travelled backwards through the tunnel like gas, poisoning the other men, but not William. William had watched with a detached disinterest as Jephson flailed, screaming, in the filthy water. He had noted the lettuce-green tinge of his pinched face as his hat was carried off by the current. He had observed the spots of red flaring on each of his sharpened cheekbones, the bony white fingers clutching at the crumbling walls. He had felt nothing but a faint impatience as Jephson thrashed and shrieked in the restraining grip of the ganger and his assistant. The flushers were stout as butchers and their great fists encircled Jephson's arms as easily as if they were axe-handles but for a time the young man's movements were so violent that it had been as much as they could manage to hold him at all. At last Jephson's wild legs had kicked out with such force that he had dislodged a welter of bricks. 'Get 'im out of 'ere!' There had been no mistaking the edge of warning in the ganger's habitually lugubrious tone. When finally they bundled him up into the street, the rest of the surveying party following in subdued silence, Jephson's hair was clumped with filth and his nails had been quite torn away.
Copyright © Clare Clark, 2005. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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