The sea has a glassy stillness as I walk along the path. The horizon joins the sky in a dark band of incoming rain, the sandwich filling between the pale water and the massed cloud, and the wind murmurs and brushes around me with delicate paint strokes. Nothing moves out there, the white horses sleeping under the surface, the birds gathered in pockmarked lesions of white and grey against the dull landscape, nestling and bracing for another winter storm.
To my left, the ground seethes and writhes in deep scoops of old quarries now overgrown with trees and scrub as though the land itself is embarrassed by the scar tissue. These are dim places remembered only by the long dead, whose bones gained the ultimate revenge on the bourgeois by tumbling from the clifftop graveyard during a storm into the back gardens of the horrified middle classes in their seaside villas.
Ahead of me I can see the deep green V carved out of the hillside ahead. The old railway ran through here; coming the other way you would emerge out of The Tunnel, into this narrow valley with its sharp sides until it gradually fell back to reveal the sea, the town and the dreams of escapism – all those coal miners on their week holiday, their tired eyes now allowed to stretch as far as the sea will allow. How many of them left the pits where the rock pressed against their noses and the dust hacked their lungs, saw the ocean and cried? Not many, probably, but maybe a few.
I enter the valley and I can see The Tunnel ahead, bricked up except for a single rusting padlocked door. The air smells bland as I leave sunlight and the sea behind. All sound is dimmed except for the low hum of a generator. Dead ivy hangs down over the arch like long talons. I approach the door, remove the padlock and walk inside.
Two spotlights illuminate an iron lung. Inside, a man with long grey hair nearly touching the floor. He leans his head over to me and smiles, two beads of bright blue crinkling in his face. I drop my rucksack to the floor and remove a foil-wrapped piece of cake, and a bottle of mineral water. He nods to me and quietly says yea yea yea. Brushing loose hairs from his cheeks and mouth I feed him the cake, stroking his scalp as he chews and mulches the sponge into a paste that dribbles down one corner of his face. A sip of water here, another small piece there. I kiss his forehead – it tastes like old vinegar – and listen to the muffled clattering of the machinery.
When he’s finished I wipe the spit and crumbs from his face and he goes back to staring up at the ceiling, smacking his lips content. I sit down on a nearby crate and open a bottle of cider. Getting drunk in an old tunnel is codeine for the senses – every drip of water, every little piece of brickwork crumbling, the dank smell of cold air through musk and plants who exist without light. I think about masturbating but it doesn’t seem appropriate given the circumstances. Maybe I’ll climb into the bathtub later when it is empty and try then.
I stand up and walk further into The Tunnel, away from the safety of the spotlights. As I move further away his every noise becomes louder. I can hear his nose whistling as he breathes, I can hear every little movement that makes the iron lung creak. The generator, keeping everything alive, now buzzes in my ears like mosquitos after a monsoon. Looking back I see the beams of white illuminating this weird distorted shape, like a tomb but without the solemnity of cold marble.
I finish the cider and throw the bottle into the black void. I walk back towards the old man and rest my head on his metal chest. He looks anxiously at peace, the jaw clenched, still tonguing a piece of cake jammed into a cavity. He never really says anything except to agree or disagree with things. He knows yes and no, yea and nurrrrr, a weird little growl he does when he’s unhappy or when I accidentally hurt him when combing his long tangled hair.
It’s been a special day and he knows it, those little blue marbles twinkling away, a smile flicking at the corners of his mouth. Cake and a little water and a cider for me. The iron lung sighs and rattles as his breathing begins to increase. I give the tomb another cuddle and, reaching underneath, I unplug it from the generator. Electricity freed, the spotlights now glare and hiss as the old man’s face blanches bright white, the mouth open and agape filled with a red tongue. I stroke his hair one last time as he begins to make a strange new noise; a primeval grunt of indignation, desperation and terror.
I can’t imagine he will be too long, but nevertheless I don’t want to stick around. Turning my back to the rhythmic flailing of someone almost buried alive, the gnugh gnugh gnugh getting louder, I open the door to the real world and get a blast of cool air. The rain pats and taps against the old brick, and I can smell renewal, rebirth; something to cleanse us all. I close the door behind me, lock it securely, and begin the walk home. A piece of cake.