Fiction | Tunnel by Will Ashon

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Tunnel scene, from The Great Escape (1963)

Will Ashon


Tunnel


We began the tunnel behind the bunk bed in the back bedroom. We chose the back bedroom because the guards went in there less often. They were lazy and also had to queue outside the supermarket for an hour or more, which made them lazier still. Some of them were eating cat food straight from the squeezy pouches. It dribbled down their chins and made their eyes go funny. I wonder sometimes if they even knew what they were guarding.

We took the soil and put it down our trousers. We walked to the exercise yard and shook it out while we milled around. Then we stamped it down, but nonchalantly, as if we were feeling the cold in our feet. We hummed as we did this, though the exact tune was hard to determine. Probably something jaunty we remembered from a war film. We shook and stamped, shook and stamped, an extremely polite sect of nonconformist co-religionists, and when we stopped humming, we chatted loudly about something unrelated, like Dialectical Materialism. The guards’ funny eyes glazed over at the mention of Dialectical Materialism, which meant we never had to get into it in any depth. Some of us were more relieved about this than others. And it wasn’t always the ones you’d think.

The tunnel itself was strengthened using glue and cocktail sticks. We arranged the cocktail stick walls in a herringbone pattern, or sometimes a zigzag—we chose sides on the issue of which was better, as if more than the structural integrity of our tunnels depended upon it. A dissident group argued that herringbone and zigzags were much the same thing, but that if theologians served a real purpose, we could have prayed our way out of there. We were using floating tealights to see by and, let’s be honest, the ambience was delightful. The digging itself was done with a spoon and the person excavating was always a little way beyond the cocktail sticks and tealights, in that zone the psychogeographers describe as liminal, the remains of cheese and tomato sandwiches still visible in the liminal gaps between their badly-spaced teeth. Some of the diggers began to say that coming back to the tealights and cocktail sticks was actually the hardest part. They were probably just showing off.

First we dug directly downward for two weeks. Then we turned right and went along for six months. Finally, we turned left and kept going for a year. Then we repeated the process, only this time in the opposite order. Then back to the first and so on. It was hard work, and boring, but also hard. At some point in proceedings, some of us began to give up on the strict fundamentals of the plan and freestyle a little. This wasn’t without a degree of controversy, but then nothing much was. We argued viciously in whispers at the back of every room, and when the look-out by the door waved a hanky, we made him or her put it straight in the wash. Those of us in the freestyle camp felt we were expressing something fundamental about the nature of humanity, and this made us excellent, if not actively important. Eventually we split. The Planners continued planning. We went where the mood took us. For a while, we all managed to coexist.

It began to take a long while to get from the furthest point in the two separate diggings all the way along the tunnels and up into the back bedroom. We had to inch out in reverse, wiggling our behinds. It was both slow and embarrassing, especially to those of us with outsize behinds. Luckily, we’d begun building in passing-places quite early on, otherwise we would have had to wait for a complete reversal before beginning entry, and the hours of lost labour would have fatally undermined our programme. We crouched in there, waiting for the rustle of movement, the feet emerging from the darkness, the undulant rump, then finally the smile and wave as our comrade passed, huffing with the effort. To save more time, we took to filling every passing place and moving up one-by-one, a beautiful, slow motion choreography, as though we were ants or some other cooperative species. As we waited, we extended these passing- places, expanded them so that they could hold two, then four people, fitted new bunks and rudimentary kitchens, carried on hollowing them out for eight, then sixteen, then thirty-two people. We began circulating without ever bothering to return to the back bedroom, or only occasionally, to hand over the earth to those of us whose jobs still kept us marching around the exercise yard, our trousers tatty now and our legs crackling with a thin, impermeable layer of dried earth.

The exercise yard was getting higher. It took us a while to notice. A hill began to form despite all our stamping, then grew. At first it looked like the cornea of an old person, mildly convex but bulging with expectation. Next it became the back of a blue whale, as if we had murdered the last one and failed to dig a deep enough grave. After that it became an archetypal earthwork, waiting for us to build a castle on its crown. We realised it was now high enough to see over the walls. The guards joined us to take a look, too, swigging on the homemade hooch we had brewed in their discarded cat food pouches, and we saw the world beyond. In every direction, as far as we could make out before the haze turned everything to a pastel smudge, were high-walled prison camps, each with an identical hill at the centre of their exercise yards, a gaggle of stick figures at the top, caught between waving and sinking to their knees. Our knees. After that we stopped looking.

I’m telling you all this as if I was there, which is a little disingenuous of me, though as it’s the way we all tell the story, I’m not sure who it’s disingenuous to. It’s not like you haven’t heard it before. We are told it while we suckle, long before the words mean anything to us beyond their singsong sound. We are told it again and again until we in turn start telling it. We know the shape of how it all works, even if we each have our own way with a particular line. Some time after the Hilltop Revelation (some people call it the Epiphany on the Mount), our tunnels began intersecting. At first we would hear a distant scraping and scratching, as if our brains were itching, then over the coming hours the sounds would grow less subliminal, closer, more insistent. Finally, a section of cocktail sticks would be broken through by a spoon and in the new hole would be revealed another dirty face, eyes shining as they reflected our flames. Sometimes the new tunneller would cut through the far wall and continue unperturbed, sometimes we would all join forces. Areas of the ground became like Swiss cheese and, in order to make them safe, we ended up hollowing out huge chambers. Having made these caverns, we decided to fill them. Groups of us gathered and declared this one a library, that a banquet hall, a third for concerts, a fourth a meeting hall in which these decisions would from now on be made.

Those of you of a health-and-safety bent will have blanched at the continued mention of the proximity of cocktail sticks and tealights, and of course you are right. No one remembers the year of the Great Fire (or the Enormous Conflagration, or just The Burning) but it took us decades to recover from. Some were lost, some were trapped, our community, already fractured, was fractured further. There was a tendency to blame rival factions for the blaze, so that even those of us still in contact found our solidarity of purpose cracked and fragile. It was after that we introduced plumbing and electric lights. By now, most of the guards had joined us, so they were happy to let us run the cables down from the back bedrooms. We regrouped, re-formed, had babies down there in the dark, watched them grow up, died, saw or didn’t see our babies having babies down there in the dark, watched them grow up, die and so on.

One day the tunnellers began reporting back that they were now travelling through a new substance, completely different to the earth and rocks which had come before. It was much easier to move through, but much harder to maintain the structure of the tunnel walls. Hence the digging took less time, but the building more. We began to describe this new substance as ‘air’. It got thinner the further we went. Eventually we had to make the tunnel walls completely solid and start pumping oxygen all the way from the back bedrooms. These tunnels intersected with each other less than in the days when it was all grit and earth and stones and spoons. They twisted up and out, and now the chambers formed where we chose them and the only limit on their size was our imagination. (Or so we said at hubristic rallies and morale-boosting parties. Actually, it relied on our technical skill, too. But, I suppose, those rallies were important to our higher purpose, even if the speeches sometimes became a little purple).

I’m not sure we can be entirely blamed for it, but we developed a tendency to look down on the people who still took the dirt out to the exercise yard. I suppose we felt that staying above ground showed a lack of commitment to what we were trying to achieve—even though the soil had to go somewhere. This feeling hardened when there was less earth to get rid of. What were they doing up there when we needed help with the wiring and the plumbing, with oxygen supplies and the strength of the walls? That’s why we stopped listening to them, or at least stopped taking it in, although on some level it filtered through to us just the same. I suppose because they kept telling us, because they organised sit-ins and civil disobedience, because a point came when the jail chambers were full. I’m not sure why they did all that when they could have just carried on as before. I suppose they felt it their duty to let us know.

Now we weren’t adding much earth to the mountains in the exercise yards, those mountains had started to collapse. It had never occurred to us below, but those of us who worked up there had spent most of our time stabilising the earth piles, reinforcing and rebalancing, cutting paths to the summit. Once we left them alone, weather, erosion and the sheer impossibility of what we’d built and maintained led to slippages, landslides, avalanches. These collapses tore right through the perimeter walls, or buried them, until the towering, precarious heaps in the centre of our prisons had become rolling hills with nothing between them but narrow valleys with trees and bushes growing there. It turned out that things had been like this for quite some time. We’d been wondering where the wood for the cocktail sticks came from.

When we heard all this, finally heard it, every meeting hall in our network packed with tunnellers, we had a decision to make. We could turn our back on generations of work, reverse, and troop out one-by-one into what used to be the back bedroom. The bedroom was, of course, gone. Instead we would emerge on to a gentle slope down to a river, the grass interrupted by primroses, oaks and beech trees leaning forward over the water, swallows cutting the sky into curls of light. Or we could press on. We didn’t want to vote on something so important, we hoped that everyone would agree, and maybe a degree of arm-twisting went on, perhaps the pressure to conform was too great. We like to think, though, that we all came to realise, some more swiftly than others, that ‘getting out’ wasn’t in itself as important as the process of trying to get out, that escape meant less than the act of trying to escape. We will all live and die in the tunnels—indeed to live and die in the tunnels is more in keeping with the essence of the process than dying outside. We want to live and die in the tunnels. It’s how our parents lived and died, and our parents’ parents, and their parents before them, all spiralling through time, twisting towards that back bedroom which is now a perfect valley. This process is what makes us human, we believe. We have built our life in our city, the city we have built. And that city is also our cathedral.

For more from the author, read Not Far From The Junction by Will Ashon which is available to order here


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