It was the sound of the bombs that woke us, a big booming like titans fighting in the sky with the piercing air raid siren wailing overhead. Ma rolled her eyes, gathered up her pink nightdress and put on her large dark overcoat shaking her rolled hair as she did so. We peeled out of our beds, bleary eyed and anxious wrapped in large coats of grey and black and made our way out the front door. The whole street seemed to rumble and groan, people falling out of houses half asleep with panicked children wiping tears into their sleeves. ‘Right girls,’ said Ma in her commanding voice, ‘it’s the tunnels tonight, let’s have no fuss now’.
We made our way in an orderly fashion down to the seafront from Kings street to the Ramsgate tunnels, some had already made a temporary home there, it was safer than taking your chances topside. Mrs Baker from number 25 had lost her house in the last bombing run, all she had were the clothes on her back and her hard stare that she liked to give unruly children. I knew she’d be down there, tutting loudly at the noise overhead.
The tunnel entrance gaped like an empty mouth, darkness and shadows pulled you in as we followed the mass of sleepwalking people. It was a cold, bitter damp that clung to you as you made your way through the tunnels to the main section. Makeshift front rooms had sprung up clinging to the sides of the cavernous main area, neighbours still chatted to neighbours and children played games through the busy thoroughfare. Smells of cooking filled the air, evidently no one had planned on sleeping tonight. Mr Pankhurst had even set up a cobbled together bar at the end where some men sat solemnly looking at the new arrivals traipse in and settle.
Bertie gave me a grim smile when Ma, Alicia and I took up residence next to his family, his face was streaked with grime and his clothes were dusty. Usually he would punch me on the shoulder and shout silly things at me to make me smile but he seemed reserved, downbeat even, I chalked it up to it being the middle of the night.
“How is it topside?” he asked. Bertie and his family had been down in the dark light for about a week and a half. He looked skittish and pale in the glow of the dull lamps.
“Fine I guess,” I replied, “I shouldn’t wonder we won’t be down here soon with you.” Bertie’s eyes grew wide and he dropped a stone he had been playing with, it clattered on ground making me jump.
“Don’t come down here, it’s not safe,” he said trembling.
“Don’t be ridiculous, what safer place could there be?” I retorted.
Bertie looked at his feet and avoiding my eyes, quietly walked back to his mother, sitting next to her sullenly. I rolled over confused and got to my feet in a hurry, “well if you’re going to be a baby about it I’ll leave you to it.”
I walked over to my bunk and lay down on my back wondering if our house would be standing when this was all over. I suddenly had a horrible thought of all of us becoming trapped down here, a landslide or a bomb maybe, sealing us up in this grave as we struggle for air. I must have fallen asleep on these morbid thoughts because when I opened my eyes all I could see is blackness in front of me. My bare feet were dusty and my nightdress was torn, I had no idea where I was and it was terrifying.
Blinking harshly I tried to remember where I was but nothing came to me, it was blackness and empty. The tunnels were like a labyrinth, twisting corridors and flickering lights, dull chatter from the main tunnel draining out as the lights did. The damp smell was worse here a slimily mossy stench that dripped down the walls and pooled in unseen places. There was space at the end where the lights disappeared, the dark was penetrating and swallowed you whole like a python. It was like standing on the edge of a cliff, plunging into the deep water below. How did I get here?
Looking behind me there was a soft orange glow of a lamp I had obviously bought with me, it was my only warmth in a cold dark space. I had no idea how big the tunnel was, how far reaching or even where I was. A creeping feeling of dread prickled at my skin it felt like I was in ice, a frozen solid icicle stuck on a cavern ceiling. I turned around slowly and peered into the dark, it grinned a toothy black smile and reached forward its spidery fingers. I took an involuntary step back, like it was growing and growing all around me.
A figure started to form in front of me, walking slowly till I could make out a shape of a young boy in a dark pair of shorts and shirt. I let out a sharp breath and wondered why he was down here, maybe he had got lost on the way to his Ma. It happened all the time- kids wandering off only to be found hours later crying with their stick arms wrapped around their tiny forms. Even in the gloom I could tell something was wrong with the boy, he walked like he was on strings- some puppet master pulling his limbs this way or that- marching him forwards. His arms were outstretched as he came nearer and nearer the light dancing off his shaking legs and crooked arms. Finally all but his face was lit up by my lantern, it picked up his dusty clothes, bloodied knees and shoeless feet. My heart thundered into a quick beat and I realised I was unable to move as his face slowly came into horrifying view of the flicking light.
A scream caught in my throat as his pale featureless face drifted out of the dark and into the light in front of me. It was completely smooth like cathedral stone, no mouth, nose or eyes to penetrate the ghoulish skin, like someone had wiped it clean. A stolen face, hungry and taut with pain somewhere in the darkness of this foul place. The boy reached for me, his long fingers like spider legs slowly and deliberately searching in the glow of the lamp. A low guttural moan rumbled within him, animalistic and loud it seemed to scream at me ‘I want you! I want your face!’. The hovering finger was mere inches from my nose, I smelt the rancid rotting skin beneath a yellowed nail and let a small tear crumble down my cheek. I was powerless trembling and crying in front of a biting blackness that was going to pull me under and drown me.
I suddenly felt a hand on my shoulder pull me roughly backwards, tripping over the lantern and smashing it on the cool ground, I shook my head and met Bertie’s terrified eyes. Taking my hand we ran through the dark, our feet pounding the hard chalk until they bled never daring to look behind us at that ghastly apparition. We didn’t stop until we saw the warm glow of the main tunnel, tumbling breathlessly through makeshift beds, stoves and playrooms when Ma’s cot came into view. Bertie had fallen behind by then, shuffling quietly back to his bunk his head low and his shoulders heaving. I jumped into Ma’s bed next to her burying my face into her sweet smelling hair with her covers over my head.
Bertie and I never spoke of what occurred in the tunnels, we kept quiet vigil for the remainder of our time there making sure no one wandered off alone. I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking, they betrayed me at every turn, I was on edge every minute in case the boy reappeared to take me.
I will never be thankless for the light again.
© 2020 Rachel Fellows
Rachel a poet and short story writer taking inspiration from the horror and mystery genres.