Lucy couldn’t help pulling a face as they made their way into the entrance of the old railway tunnels in Ramsgate. It was early spring, but the tunnels were always a chill eleven degrees, whatever the season or time of day.
She pulled her trusty old sheepskin coat more tightly around her and clenched her partner Gerry’s hand as they stood in the long ante hall, which is where they would be spending the night; it was also the location of the shop and café with its various display cases and artefacts dotted around enticed daily visitors to enter the Ramsgate Tunnel attraction.
The stillness of the midnight hour was broken by their guide and ‘mentor’ Derek.
“Here we are in the Tunnels. Your initiation is about to begin, my friends,” Derek began with a hint of menace in his voice.
“Poseur,” thought Lucy, “he’s doing a poor Vincent Price imitation to try and scare the crap out of us.”
She was not scared at the prospect of spending a night in the tunnels as part of their admission to the Kent Ghost Hunters Society, she was more worried about being bored – not scared – to death by this pompous buffoon who wore a kind of steampunk frock coat, complete with a topper and, decorating his face, a ludicrous pair of mutton chops. The prospect of several hours in his company was making her deeply regret her promise to accompany Gerry on this vigil as a thirtieth birthday gift.
Gerry whistled loudly. “Here we come, spirits, ready or not,” he cooed.
Lucy looked at Derek’s companion, Evaline, who was a pleasant, birdlike creature wrapped up in a gorgeous fake fur coat that reached to her knees.
Evaline smiled. She was busily lighting the kerosene lantern that looked to Lucy liked the ones railwaymen used to carry in the old days.
They made their camp just at the start of the first tunnel some metres from the entrance but within running distance to safety ‘should anything go amiss’, as Derek gleefully pointed out as they erected their camp chairs.
Lucy clutched at her coffee flask and water bottle. No alcohol was allowed.
“Only one type of spirits allowed tonight,” Derek had pointed out on the way there and guffawed, as though this pun was incredibly original.
“Just a brief introduction to the Tunnels and why we use them then for our new members’ vigil. In the War this area was the ARP centre but the maze of tunnels goes much further back to Victorian times; they go on for miles and have been used, on and off, for over a hundred and fifty years. You could easily get lost here and never find your way out, but more of that… later,” he said, again in a pseudo creepy voice allowing the last word to hang in the chill night air.
“Derek, the man who put the ham in Hamlet,” Lucy thought.
Lucy didn’t think she was a particularly nervous person, but she just felt depressed at the prospect of waiting for the dawn chorus to relieve the ordeal of being in the company of these quacks. Gerry made fun of her exercise bike and Pilates, but his interest in horror movies and books was just a bit too weird for her.
She cursed herself for having seen the advert in the Information Centre for the Kent Paranormal Society when they had moved down to the town a couple of months ago from London. The chill had started to get to her, despite her heavy coat.
Lucy had been so lost in her thoughts that she had not been listening to most of Derek’s monologue about the terrors of the Tunnels. She pricked up her ears when she heard the phrase ‘the wandering child’ for some reason.
Despite herself and her scepticism of the whole ‘spirit world scam’ as she called it, Derek’s current anecdote had a kind of morbid fascination, as she tuned back into the talk.
“One of the saddest tunnel stories is the one about the small boy, perhaps no older than five years old who got separated from his older brother and his friends when they were playing in the tunnels. They go on for miles as you know.”
“When did this happen?” said Gerry.
“I think it was the mid-sixties,” said Derek hesitantly, momentarily non-plussed, “but despite the efforts of the police and hundreds of volunteers they poor lad was never seen again.”
“That’s because the boy never existed,” chimed in Lucy, who then felt bad because she might be in danger of spoiling Gerry’s treat.
“Local people,” Derek continued , now in control again of his narrative again, “have, from time to time, heard the echo of tiny footsteps at different points along the tunnel network.”
“So, have you heard it? You used to play down these tunnels didn’t you,” Gerry asked.
“I have seen and heard many things in these tunnels since I was young and more recently when they reopened and we were allowed to hold our vigils here.; many of which I could find… no rational explanation for.”
Pat, the birdlike member who had remained silent throughout the talk then chipped in:
“Derek believes that ghosts needn’t be the surviving spiritual remnant of real people; he thinks if people believe in it enough, the psychic energy can actually create the phenomenon, the thing you’re thinking about. So, ghosts aren’t what’s left of people after death; they are a creation of your own mind.”
I’ve been cast as the cynical DFL here, thought Lucy. I have to keep shtum now.
As they settled down on the canvas chairs trying to get as comfortable as possible, Lucy wondered how she would last the hours of cold and boredom. There were no mobile phones to distract them – against the rules of course – just the kerosene lamp, in the centre of the chamber where they sat.
She knew, for all his enthusiasm for the paranormal, Gerry would soon be asleep; he could snore through the Apocalypse. He looked so huge but cuddly in his big turtleneck sweater, baggy jeans and hiking boots and she felt bad about pouring cold water on the occasion with her cynicism.
As the minutes crept along, the chill air started to do its work; Lucy felt she should stretch and walk around more, but a kind of lethargy had taken hold and her mind started wandering; she even began even thinking about the obviously concocted tale of the lost child.
Lucy began to think she could hear sounds in the depths of the vast tunnel complex.
Gerry seemed content enough and was only semi awake; she could tell, because his frame swayed slightly, rocking gently back and forwards.
What was worse was the kerosene lamp seemed to be getting very dim.
Derek’s voice broke the silence.
“I should’ve put more kerosene in the lamp. I’ve got some more in the car park. Pat you don’t look so well. I think you’re coming down with something. You’d best go home. Will you two be ok while I get the kerosene? I shan’t be more than about fifteen minutes.”
“Fine,” muttered Lucy.
Gerry was twitching and had almost left Thanet for the nearby Land of Nod.
As Derek stomped off with Evaline, Lucy was sure this was a deliberate ploy; the idea was to leave the ‘newbies’ alone in the dark after setting the scene to see if they’d run scared.
Gerry would be fine, of course. He would sleep through it all.
She was now drawn fascinated to the waning light, trapped in the lamp, watching it grow discernibly dimmer. She shivered despite herself and started to think her scepticism was a lot stronger in a clean well-lit room at home when they’d first talked about joining the Scooby Doers. The image of the child lost in the endless tunnels kept coming back to her. What sound would his tiny feet make echoing through the seemingly endless subterranean chambers, searching for his lost siblings?
What if Evaline, the little bird woman was right about psychic phenomena? If you believed in it you could somehow will it into being.
If only Gerry would stay awake. She stared into the blackness of the tunnel opening. If anything did come out it would be impossible to see with the tiny flickering wick in the lamp.
And then the lamp died.
She was in darkness – they were in darkness – even though her partner slept blissfully on.
Lucy didn’t want to panic; she didn’t want to imagine what her overactive mind could create in this atmosphere.
Lucy felt surprised at herself and began to wonder if she could find the main light switch in the entrance hall to switch on the huge lights suspended from the ceiling.
She needed Gerry to wake up, but she felt scared of calling out in the darkness in case someone, or something else heard her voice.
Lucy was really becoming agitated now. Her rational mind seemed to have vanished along with the meagre light.
She groped blindly for Derek’s gloved hand for several seconds. With a great sense of relief, she finally found it.
But it wasn’t warm and reassuringly big. It was cold and damp and very small.
© 2020 Robert Taylor
Robert has spent many years teaching in various settings and has always had an interest in creative writing as a past time.