The Long, Dark Tunnel
I went up to Hertford town to meet some mates one night.
I was supposed to be a doing deal, picking up a box of gear en-route, dividing it up at a mate’s flat and dishing it out to lined up buyers, but it didn’t happen. You know how those things go, there’s no guarantee either way. Let down.
Instead, I turned up for a night out carrying a set of weighing pans and a few grand cash in my pocket. I met my mates in the town and we all got fucked up. Usual suspects, coke, pills, booze. Proper fucked! My generally altered state had once again, been altered a lot fucking further.
I caught a lingering look from a pretty girl in a short dress, but I was too out of it for that kind of communication. The moment passed, my look turned into a glass eyed, crooked stare. She sensed my strangeness and moved away. The streets and pubs were noisy, action everywhere. Drunk girls wearing next to nothing, stumbling awkwardly on high heels, a group of men squaring up to each other, people here and there, exchanging last minute drugs and money, friends laughing and screaming, couples groping and kissing, policemen standing by a car watching it all.
I must have lost time; everybody had gone. It was just me and some other feller I didn’t recognise, left on a silent street corner. I stood there swaying, trying to focus and for some reason staring at the man, who was standing very close to me. He looked up at the black night like I wasn’t there. Old man face, caught in a street light glow, wispy, long white hair blowing about cold smooth cheeks. The buildings shuddered behind him and I leaned against the wall to steady myself, as time seemed to stop. He turned his head to me in slow motion, smiling, glazed eyes and yellow teeth. The old boy leaned in, put his hand on my shoulder, and with his fine white hair gently tickling my face, I felt like I was in love, as he whispered, “You’re going to Hell.”
“Ha, I knew that years ago!” I said, looking down to light a half smoked spliff. I watched the flame catch as I shielded it from the wind with my hand.
“What else?” I asked, looking up. I’d said it to no one. The man was gone. I took a deep pull on the joint, eyeing the pavement where he had stood. I wasn’t sure of anything. Glancing up and down the road, knowing he couldn’t have got that far, I laughed. Nothing. Stranger things have happened. I looked about me, Friday night aftermath, desolate, empty street, like every soulless, dead end town in England 1991.
The pubs were all shut, the parade was quiet and still.
Nobody about. Dead.
The cab drivers had all gone home. I decided to walk to the station, if I could find it, and set off through deserted streets. Blood rushing in my ears. The only sound drowning out my footsteps was my heart beating loudly, reminding me again that it will one day stop.
A carrier bag took off on slow motion wind; a cat walked by ahead. It stopped, frozen still, ears back, eyes black, watching me approach, then ran under a parked car. A shadow man stepped back behind a tree. I heard a dog barking somewhere in the distant night, a man shouting, then silence. I found the station, but the trains had finished.
“Oh fuckin’ hell!”
What are you gonna do now, prick?
“Dunno, everyone’s gone home.”
I didn’t really know the town that well then, or where people lived. I knew a couple of places, like Vinny’s, but it seemed like a long shot and I was too fucked to think properly.
I had three choices.
Walk to the A10, fucking miles away and make my way home down there. That did not seem appealing. Dual carriageway, no path.
Cut across country, but I didn’t know the fucking way in the dark.
That didn’t seem appealing either.
Or, follow the train track.
In my fucked up head, that was the most attractive idea of the three. At least I wouldn’t get lost and I was already there on the platform.
So I climbed down to the sleepers and rails and started walking. I walked and walked, treading stones, metal and wood uneven under my drunken pace. Mile after mile of the same track scene, lines tapering off to unreachable horizon, dark country either side. I’d been walking for what seemed like hours. My feet and ankles were buckled from the track and I was knackered. The pain and exhaustion dulled by drink and drugs, but there still, nagging. I wanted to stop and rest, but I had to keep going.
I passed through Bayford station, all lit up bright in the surrounding night and came to the mouth of a tunnel.
The black arch, huge and terrible, so dark, you couldn’t see in. Just empty blackness, with the silent sound of nothing echoing just inside.
I looked around. On either side of the tunnel were dark fields and, above it, woodland thicket and thorny bushes.
There was no way to cut through above and the country fields looked easy to get lost in.
I decided to enter the tunnel.
Inside, the darkness was overwhelming. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. I had to feel my way along the wall and had no idea if there was any dangerous, exposed electrical equipment I might accidentally touch. It was slow going, treading the small, moving stones and feeling along the wall, like a blind man. I had been in there for quite a while when I became aware of the creeping fear that anyone, or anything could be in there with me and I couldn’t see them, or it. Without sight I experienced a strange disorientation. I had no sense of space and the area around me could as easily have been small and claustrophobic, or infinitely vast.
Time had lost meaning in there. I felt like the tunnel went on forever and with all these thoughts of space and eternity, darkness and death, twisting around in the swirling patterns of my lost mind, I was fighting off a heightened level of anxiety.
The fear was interrupted by a heavy thundering noise, getting louder and louder, as it approached. Rumbling sound, like the aftershock of an explosion coming my way. A fucking train!
The tunnel must have been on a slight bend, because I couldn’t see what direction it was coming from. The noise echoed everywhere, deafening.
I had already noticed the recesses in the wall, for workmen to stand and let a train pass. Without light you had no chance of finding one quick enough.
Them trains were on you fast!
With no time to think, I knew if the train was on the same side as me, I had to run for the opposite side of the tunnel.
The lights were on me, my side.
I couldn’t see shit in there and I ran so fast with fear, that I smashed into the opposite wall and fell over.
Running into a brick wall at full speed is a rare occurrence.
Even if you wanted to run into a wall, seeing it, you’d slow, at the last second. I hit that tunnel wall so hard, my hands, face, knees, elbows and chest all impacted silently, the noise of the goods train louder than my flesh and bones crunching against brick. The dull thud in my head the only sound I noticed, as the wind was knocked out of me. I got up and hardly knew if I was facing the right direction.
Standing next to it down on the tracks, the cargo train looked immense, like a huge metallic serpent, lit against the dark. An industrial monster rumbling by and the thunderous, echoing noise was frightening, my guts vibrated as it passed.
“Fuckin hell, that was close!”
Are you going the right way?
“I hope so. I think so.”
What if one’d come the other way at the same time?
“I’d be fucked!”
What are you gonna do?
“Hope for the best.”
Ten minutes later, another train came the other way, the side I was now on. I ran, this time with arms outstretched, crashed, fell, hoped I was going the right direction and kept on going.
They seemed to come every ten minutes.
You’re gonna die in here!
I kept going and the trains kept coming. I was terrified. Not of the trains, nor death, but of the never-endingness of it all.
In between the trains, only the crunching sound of my feet on the stones disturbed the silence.
Broken, exhausted and weary, there was nothing to say.
I was doomed.
After a long distance of immeasurable time, I saw a light at the end of the tunnel and felt the relief and hope of survival.
It was tiny in the distance.
It looked so far away.
I kept on towards it, but it didn’t look like it was getting any nearer. I didn’t want to think it, to jinx it, so I walked on in silence. After a while I said it out loud,
“It’s not getting any bigger!”
I got there eventually.
It was a tiny little light at the top of the arch of the tunnel.
It was so small in the vast blackness, that it didn’t even light anything up.
Just a faint glow around it.
Still total darkness.
I was devastated. Hopeless dread of endlessness began to grow in my heart. I never stopped though, just kept on walking. Slowly feeling my way along the wall. All along battling the need to stop, sit down and rest, never to get up again, never to see the sky again, knowing that I was in there forever.
After going on for unknown miles and hours, of feeling my way along in that terrible darkness, I did eventually come to the end of the tunnel.
I didn’t see the light from far off, coming towards me, slowly getting bigger as it neared. It just appeared round a bend, big and near.
It looked enormous, like a negative of the dark mouth I entered. An arch of bright light, a strangely lit station scene, mystic, like an apparition from the darkness. I hardly trusted my vision as I walked out into the light. Overwhelmed with joy, I couldn’t believe I’d made it out of there.
I stopped outside the tunnel on the tracks, looking down at myself, covered in soot from the tunnel walls and laughed. I bent double, hands on knees and rested a moment, trying to take in what I’d just been through. I realised that the small light high up at the top of the tunnel, must have been the halfway mark.
“I can’t fuckin’ believe I got out of there man, I thought I’d be in there forever.”
I started to walk again and had only gone a few steps when I heard noises from the bushes, of people coming up the bank.
There was Old Bill everywhere, with dogs, held on leash, straining on hind legs. “Stop or I’ll let the dog go!”
I stopped. “All right, all right,”
The policemen came up to me and started asking questions, “What’s your name?”
“Fucking hell, what’re the dogs for?”
“Shut up and tell me your name!”
“Rob True. What’ve I done?” I knew this wasn’t for trespass, not with the dogs an’all.
“Don’t try and be funny mate, we just chased you up here.”
“No, you didn’t!”
“Yeah,” another chimed in, “and we got your van down there, full of the charcoal you just stole out the garden centre, with your finger prints all over the steering wheel!”
“It weren’t me.”
“We caught you up here, covered in charcoal dust, and it weren’t you?”
“No. It’s soot. I didn’t just run up that bank either. It weren’t me you was chasing.”
“Oh yeah, soot? Where did you just come from then?”
“Out that tunnel.”
“Yeah, alright mate.”
“I did. I walked from Bayford.”
“There’s no way you could walk through that and live.”
“Cargo trains come through there every ten minutes and it’s the longest tunnel in Southeast England!”
“I came through the tunnel.”
“What’s your address?”
I told them I was homeless.
“Have you got anything on you, you shouldn’t have?”
They searched me and found the set of scales and the money I had.
Luckily I had no drugs left.
“What’s this?” the copper asked me holding the scales up.
“It’s an ornament.”
“An ornament? I thought you were homeless!”
“I am. That’s why I have to carry me ornaments around with me.”
“Very funny. What about the cash?”
“Can’t get a bank account without an address, so I carry that around too.”
“Bit of a joker aren’t you. I think you’ve got these for drugs.”
“Yeah, but I ain’t got no drugs. Anyway, why would I have this on me to break into greenhouses?”
They nicked me for the burglary, but I didn’t give a fuck. I couldn’t help being amused. Not after the journey I’d just come through.
I was just relieved to get in the van and go to a nice cell, have some of that dishwater tea and lie down. I’ve been nicked a few times over the years, but never have I felt so relieved to be picked up by the police.
Rob True was born in London 1971. He left school with no qualifications, dyslexic and mad, in a world he didn’t fit into. He got lost in an abyss, was sectioned twice and spent the best part of a decade on another planet. He returned to earth just in time for the new millennium, found a way to get on in life, married a beautiful girl and lived happily ever after. She taught him how to use paragraphs and punctuation and his writing has been a bit better ever since. Find him on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/robjtrue
*Featured photography courtesy of Brian Michael Barbeito*