This story could be read on its own but it’s a sequel to ‘Cellar’ which opens this collection of ‘isolation stories’, and works better if you’ve read that too. This is the last story I’m going to post here, and it seemed an appropriate note to end on (The two stories bookend my Spring Tide collection also.)
I’ll leave these stories up there at least until the lockdown is over. Hope you enjoyed them.
Jeremy Burnet’s neighbours were concerned about him, and the woman who phoned the police said she was calling on behalf of them all. They were fairly sure Mr Burnet was in his house –his car was parked in the street and his bike locked in its usual place– but he hadn’t been sighted since a Saturday afternoon just under four weeks ago, when some of them had seen him going out in his car and returning with items from a builder’s merchant, power tools and such, although there’d been no sign or sound of any work going on in the house either before then or since. Mr Burnet had looked as if he hadn’t washed or shaved for weeks. The woman who called the police had tried to greet him –she’d known him a number of years– but he’d just stared right through her as if he didn’t know she was there. And he’d always been such a tidy man, too, the sort that didn’t like anything out of place, and yet the garden was now completely overgrown, and the living room curtains at the front had been drawn for months, day and night, while the bedroom curtains were never closed at all.
What had finally prompted this call, though, was that one of the other neighbours had received a call from Mr Burnet’s elderly mother who was too frail to visit him for herself. She said she was worried because her son didn’t call her any more, and never picked up when she tried to call him. And surely, said the neighbour who’d phoned the police, even if Mr Burnet had somehow managed to slip away without any of them noticing, he’d have let his own mother know where he was going?
Two police officers went to Jeremy Burnet’s house, a policewoman and a policeman. Their names were Cheryl and Pradeep. They rang the doorbell for several minutes, and then called through the letterbox. “Hello Mr Burnet? Are you there? It’s the police. Could we have a word? You’re not in trouble of any kind, but we’re just checking everything’s alright. Your neighbours are worried for you.”
There was no answer, though, not even that indefinable feeling of presence, that sense of something listening deep inside the house, that in Cheryl’s experience you tended to get when someone was in but didn’t want to be intruded upon. “Either he’s not there or he’s not well at all,” she decided. Pradeep nodded. He was the younger of the two by some years, and tended to defer to his colleague’s wider experience.
Cheryl was about to make a call to the station about a warrant to break down the door, when one of the watching neighbours remembered he had a key. Jeremy had given it to him one hot summer several years ago, he said, “before all of this started”, so he could come in and water Mr Burnet’s patio plants for him when he was taking a holiday in Spain with his then-girlfriend. Mr Burnet had asked the neighbour to keep it in case he ever locked himself out.
The key turned in the lock, and the two police officers entered, stepping over a drift of mail. The door of the living room was open and, the curtains being drawn shut, the light was switched on even though it was the middle of the day. There were cream-coloured sofa and chairs, and expensive-looking curtains. However what they immediately noticed was the wide-open hatch in the middle of the floor, from which a rug had been rolled back and shoved aside. There was a concrete staircase descending inside it, and light shining up from below. It was a very strange place to put a set of cellar stairs, but there they were, and it seemed exceedingly probable that they would find Mr Burnet at the bottom of them.
Cheryl leaned over the hatch and called down the staircase. “Mr Burnet? Are you down there?”
“We’re just checking to see if you’re okay,” added Pradeep.
There was no answer, no sense of presence at all, though the echo was surprisingly deep and strong.
Cheryl drew in breath. She had dealt with a few corpses in her time –self-hangings, traffic accidents, a knifing once, a couple of people who’d jumped in front of trains– but you never really got used to that initial shock of stark primitive horror. “Okay, Prad. Let’s go down and have a look.”
They’d assumed they’d descend for the equivalent of one storey, and perhaps find two damp low-ceilinged rooms down there. But that wasn’t what happened. A storey down, the stairs just turned and carried on their descent. The same thing happened again at the next level. It wasn’t until the third storey, when there was enough space between then and the living room above to insert another whole house, that everything suddenly opened up. Long corridors, well lit by office strip-lights, radiated out in four directions, with doors and the openings of side corridors arrayed on either side. And the staircase continued on down.
They could feel goosebumps rising on their skin, and a strange, pure, abstract kind of terror.
“Jesus Christ,” muttered Cheryl. “What is this?”
“We need to call for help,” said Pradeep in the particular, slightly strangled, voice he used on the rare occasions he asserted his recent training over Cheryl’s considerable experience. He would have been hard-pressed to say what they needed help with. Corridors, rooms, stairs: where was the threat in that? Yet Cheryl concurred at once, as almost anyone surely would have done in the same position. The police exist to maintain order, after all, to enforce boundaries. What the two of them had discovered wasquite clearly so strange and inexplicable, that more than two people were going to be required to keep a solid boundary in place between reality and hallucination, sanity and delusion. Two people were simply not sufficient to reassure one another that what they were seeing was actually there.
“I’ll do it,” Cheryl said. There was no signal down there, so she climbed up the stairs again to Mr Burnet’s living room and stepped out of the front door to make the call. It was good to see the daylight and hear the sound of traffic on the main road nearby.
Four neighbours were standing out there now. Several more were watching from their own front gates up and down the street. They all searched Cheryl’s face for clues.
“We haven’t found him yet. Do all these houses have cellars?”
“Cellars, no. We don’t have a cellar.”
“Us neither. I don’t think anyone has one on this street. I’ve never heard of one.”
* * *
Soon two whole van-loads of police arrived, along with an ambulance, while a second patrol car brought a uniformed inspector to take charge. Blue lights flashed importantly and Mr Burnet’s house was quickly separated from the everyday world by a magical strip of blue and white tape. Yet what was the emergency? A missing man, and a cellar of implausible magnitude!
A small crowd was beginning to form. Passers-by from the main road at the end of the street saw that something was going on and came up wandering up, with a slightly furtive air, to find out more. Several police officers remained outside the house to enforce that stripy blue boundary, while the inspector, a sergeant, a dozen other police officers and two paramedics, accompanied Cheryl back into Mr Burnet’s living room, and down those strange concrete stairs.
“I had a quick look further down,” Pradeep told them when they joined him in a well-lit corridor, three flights of stairs below the surface. “Two storeys down actually. It’s exactly the same as this on the next two levels –doors, corridors, lights – and the staircase carries on down even after that. I don’t know what’s going on here, but–”
“Mr Burnet?” the inspector interrupted him, cupping his hands round his mouth. “Mr Burnet? It’s the police! Are you alright?” There was a long deep echo and then a silence, which all of them felt a vague need to cover up with activity and talk.
“It must have been here a long time, or people would–”
“I thought I’d seen some pretty strange things in my time, but–”
“Let’s try some of these rooms,” the inspector said.
Several officers began opening doors in the corridors. Most of the rooms were completely empty, their white walls and grey lino as pristine as if they had yet to be used. One had a bucket and a mop inside it, another an empty water bottle. Oddly, each door had a blank yellow post-it note stuck to it.
Cheryl glanced at Pradeep. “Inspector, how about myself and Pradeep finding out just how far down how far the stairs go?”
The inspector shrugged. Of course he had no more idea of what they were dealing with than anyone else. One of his staff back at the station had made a call to the M.O.D. to ask if this was a nuclear bunker or some such, unlikely as that seemed, others had called the city’s planning department, the land registry and a well-known local historian, but no one knew anything about it. There was no record of Mr Burnet’s house having any kind of cellar at all, and it had stood there since 1923.
“Sure, why not,” the inspector said. “Go down to the bottom and report back. If you see anything that worries you on the way, just come straight back up. Meanwhile we’ll begin a room by room search of each level from the top down.”
* * *
Cheryl and Pradeep counted twenty-two storeys before they finally reached a floor where there were no more stairs going down. Well-lit corridors radiated out from the staircase as they’d done on all of the other twenty-one floors.
“Okay,” Cheryl said, “so this–”
Pradeep interrupted. “Cheryl, look!”
A couple of yards into one of the corridors, the lino had been torn back and there was a hole with lumps and crumbs of rubble scattered around it. Feeling very isolated suddenly, very aware that all their colleagues were twenty-one storeys above them, and that all the levels in between were silent and empty, the two police officers crept towards the hole and peered down. It had been roughly cut through about four foot of rock or concrete. There was an aluminium ladder propped up in it, fully extended to a length of about four metres, and its feet were standing in another corridor below them, which looked just like the one they were in.
“Sweet Jesus,” murmured Cheryl.
“I’ll call the inspector, right?”
“You won’t get a signal.”
“We’d better go up and tell him, then, yeah?”
“Up twenty-one flights of stairs? For him to ask us what’s down the ladder, and why didn’t we look? Wouldn’t it be better to check it out first? Mr Burnet’s down there, I’m sure of it. ”
Pradeep nodded. He leant over the hole. “Mr Burnet? It’s the police. We’re just here to see if you’re alright.”
All around them, above, below and on every side, huge empty spaces devoured the sound of Pradeep’s human voice –small, sentient, anxious– and turned it back into something pure and inanimate and eternal, like the boom of wind in a deserted canyon, or the echo of a rockfall on Mars.
“Come on,” said Cheryl. “Let’s get this over with. I don’t like ladders.”
* * *
There were more stairs again down there. They descended another twenty-two storeys, with the same four corridors radiating out from the staircase on each level. Down at the bottom, they found another roll of ripped lino, another hole with a ladder in it, and another corridor beneath. It was if a row of office blocks had been plucked up from the centre of a city and buried, not side by side, but in a stack, one above the other.
“Right,” said Pradeep firmly. “So now we get the inspector.”
“If you want to climb forty-four storeys,” said Cheryl, “be my guest, Prad. But surely it’s obvious that Mr Burnet is still somewhere below us? ”
* * *
They found him at the bottom of the third block, almost seventy storeys below the surface. He’d been at work on another hole –it was already about a foot deep– and his pneumatic drill lay nearby, along with a diesel generator and an empty fuel can. Burnet himself was slumped against a wall, bearded and emaciated, his clothes filthy, his lips dry and cracked.
Cheryl squatted beside him to feel his pulse. “Mr Burnet? Jeremy?”
His eyes flickered slightly and closed again. One of his hands moved slightly. He was alive, but whether he was conscious or not was hard to tell. When Cheryl took his hand, the fingers seemed to make some effort to close over hers, but perhaps that was just a reflex.
“I’ll stay with him,” she said. “You get up there. We’ll need water –he’s very dehydrated–and some way of getting him safely up through the holes. Take it steady on those stairs, though, Prad. Sixty-six floors is a lot to climb, even at your age.”
As Pradeep began the ascent, she turned back to Jeremy Burnet. Why had he tried to keep this place a secret? Surely it would be obvious to anyone, as it had been to her and Pradeep, that just the business of being here at all was a task that required a whole team?
“What were you thinking of, Jeremy? Why didn’t you tell anyone? No one should keep a thing like this to themselves?”
She glanced at the hole he’d been making when he finally collapsed.
“Yes,” she said. “And what on earth were you looking for down here? What did you hope to find?”
* * *
Thirty or forty onlookers stood out in the street now, beyond the blue and white tape. Several more patrol cars had arrived with lights flashing, along with an outside broadcast van from a local TV station.
A hush descended as the paramedics emerged with the stretcher. Revived somewhat by water and glucose, Jeremy couldn’t move his head much because he’d been tightly strapped him in to keep him safe while he was being manoeuvred through the holes and up the stairs, but he could hear the people out there murmuring to one another, and the crackling voices from the police radios, and the traffic passing on the main road nearby. He raised a tentative hand in greeting and, to his surprise, there was a cheer from the crowd in response
Cheryl bent over him briefly as the paramedics lifted the stretcher into the ambulance, checking that he knew where he was and what was happening. Her face was kind but puzzled. Hundreds of metres above her, long white clouds, tinged with grey, were blowing by. Two crows were flying beneath them, calling out to one another from time to time as they crossed that immense vault beneath the sky.
Copyright 2018, Chris Beckett