EPISODE 57 - WHEN THE LIGHTS GO OUT
by Michael Braccia and Jon Markes
‘Edward, you meant what you said earlier at Clara’s?’
‘The transfer should be going through about now.’
Ethel leans forward in the armchair, touching his knee.
‘That’s not what I meant.’
‘So, you’re definitely going? There’s no way you can cancel?’
‘I have to go, Ethel. Of course, you know how it works with exchange of contracts and completion dates. Cancellation is possible, but it causes so many problems for people – I could even be sued.’
‘When do I go? I’m popping down tomorrow to sign some papers, but it should be no more than five or six weeks to completion.’
‘Can you live there straight away, or is there much work to do?’
‘Kitchen, bathroom and the main bedroom are okay. The living room needs decorating and new carpet.’
‘That’s it then, Edward.’
‘Suppose it is.’
Zack, though reluctant to continue the underground trek, does not want to let his friend down. The reason for his hesitance – he has kept this from everyone except his father – stems from a childhood experience with his schoolmates.
It was in Year 5 at Spring Hill Junior when he started playing with friends outside school. The summer holidays provided the opportunity to develop football and cricket tournaments with ever more complicated competition rules and league tables. Before one such event, Zack was outside Chris Harper’s house, waiting for Stephen Wingfield and someone called ‘Arnie’. Zack either didn’t know Arnie’s full name or had consigned it to his brain’s recycle bin. Arnie was a joker – many of his jokes utterly practical. He had been known to strategically place live frogs down the backs of girls’ dresses, cover toilet seats with cling film and generally make a nuisance of himself. Zack, until now, had not been subject to the practicality of Arnie’s jokes.
Stephen and Arnie approached the side of the house where Zack was waiting, as Chris came out to greet them.
‘How long have you been waiting, Zack?’ said Arnie.
‘Not long. Five minutes maybe. Chris is ready now.’
‘Got the stumps and bats?’
‘In the shed,’ said Chris, throwing the key to Zack.
‘Come on, Zack, make yourself useful,’ snapped Stephen.
‘Keep your hair on,’ replied Zack
As he entered the shed, Arnie snatched the key from his hand, shoved him through the doorway, slammed the door and swiftly placed the key in the lock and turned it.
‘Gotcha!’ he shouted.
The three lads bolted – with the key – and decided to let Zack stew. He had never previously allowed himself to show signs of panic, anxiety or cowardice, but this was the moment that his claustrophobia reared its head. His screams – not heard by close neighbours who were safely ensconced on beaches around Britain’s coastline – and the bangs and crashes he created with a range of garden implements only served to increase the hilarity experienced by his friends.
One of his new friends – Arnie – was soon to be stripped of that title. After thirty tortuous minutes – that seemed like hours to the ten-year-old Zack – the damage he was inflicting on the walls of the shed (the pride and joy of Chris’s dad) prompted Chris to override the director of the operation (Arnie) and he grabbed the key to set the prisoner free.
To describe Zack’s reaction as aggressive, vigorous or violent would be an understatement. He exited his temporary cell not only with speed and anger-fuelled strength, but also with a sense of purpose – to try to kill Arnie. He went at him with arms flailing, his feet striking the intended target in a number of places. A punch to the side of Arnie’s head laid him out on Chris’s lawn. It took Stephen, Chris and a passing postman to drag him off, preventing further suffering for the erstwhile practical joker. Arnie recovered, never spoke to Zack again, but at least left him alone.
Now Zack, once again, has the feeling of being trapped. This time, no practical joke, but a situation potentially worse than being imprisoned in Chris Harper’s shed. He is underground, in the dark – almost, save the light of Simon’s mobile – and the tunnel seems to be getting lower and narrower as they progress.
‘Are we there yet, Simon?’
‘Just something to say.’
‘Are you okay, Zack? You look clammy.’
‘Thanks, mate, I’d say the same for you, but I can only see where you’re pointing your phone – like on my clammy face.’
‘Look, if you’re getting nervous…’
‘Who says I’m getting nervous?’ snaps Zack.
‘I’m only saying, we could turn back if you like, but the thought of what we might find…’
‘I’m fine. It’s a bit stuffy down here, that’s all. Where do you think we are?’
Simon points his phone in all directions on the ceiling and walls, and suddenly realises that there are three entrances to the area in which they find themselves, in addition to the one they have just used. He doesn’t want to admit it to Zack, but he can’t remember which one they came through.
‘We must be under the shops in Market Street. The chemist, maybe the bank.’
‘Gold bullion in the bank vault?’ jokes Zack, trying to stay positive.
‘Do they have gold bullion these days?’
‘In the Bank of England, perhaps.’
As Simon utters those words, both hear a rumble, like rocks tumbling down a mountain in slow motion. They pause, and, glancing back to the pathway they think they took, a cloud of dust appears. Another rumbling noise, then a crash.
‘Christ, Simon, what was that?’
‘Sorry mate, but I think we have a problem.’
Three metres above Simon and Jack’s temporary world, on the pavement near Leeford Cross, outside the Oxfam shop, cracks have appeared, with a depression in the ground evident to shoppers bustling by. George, busy at his stall, has seen this before. He knows there are tunnels under the village and sometimes the roof of a tunnel will give way.
He does what all the villagers do in a crisis. He calls Stephen Miller. Inside twenty minutes, the lucky-to-still-be-a-copper, Constable Gary Carr, is setting up a barrier to stop the bustling shoppers falling in any holes the tunnels might provide. Meanwhile, Zack and Simon find that their way forward to the right is also blocked. They are forced to take a left turn, down another avenue that, thankfully, seems to be opening out into a larger space, able to take their full height and wide enough to allow them to walk side by side. They turn another corner – this time to the right, and are surprised to see part of the tunnel wall shored up with planks.
‘There’s a gap in the middle, Zack. Let’s have a gander.’
‘Si, shine your phone through this bit.’
Simon shines his phone to where Zack is pointing.
‘What does it look like to you?’ Zack asks.
‘Call me crazy, but it looks like a storeroom of some sort.’
‘That’s what I thought. Let’s get in there and have a closer look.’
They manage to prize away two planks – enough to enable them to climb through. Simon’s mobile light blinks twice, and he notices that his signal has gone.
‘Battery’s Low. Sorry, Zack, I should have charged it for longer.’
Simon doesn’t reply to Zack’s insult, distracted by something unexpected.
‘Hang on, what the hell’s that – in the corner!’
As they approach, the mobile blinks again. They become increasingly concerned that the lights will go out in their subterranean prison, but still have time to be stunned when faced with the object before them. A shop sign: Thornton’s Chippy.
‘I don’t believe this,’ says Zack. ‘That must be from Cody’s dad’s old business.’
‘Yeh, he’s always telling us how he got started. Hey, what’s that underneath it?’
As the light finally fades, they just have time to see an old chest covered in dust and rubble. As Simon attempts to open the lid, the lights go out.
‘Zack? No, I haven’t seen him since this morning. Why, is everything alright?’
‘He was supposed to ring me at lunchtime. We’re going out tonight, but we hadn’t agreed where. Anyway, thanks, Jason.’
Clare continues through the market and notices the barriers.
‘What’s that, George?’
‘That, my dear girl, is to stop people falling into the legendary Leeford Tunnels.’
‘They are supposed to go the length of Market Street and possibly beyond. Going where no man has…’
‘Okay, George, I get the Star Trek analogy.’
She walks past him, pauses, and turns.
‘Does anyone go down there?’
‘Not for years. I don’t even know where the entrance is. One thing’s for sure – it’s not safe down there.’
‘Every now and then, we get subsidence in the village. Today’s incident isn’t the first. Holes appear randomly. Last one was two years ago.’
‘No, but I wouldn’t want to get trapped down there.’