Water Over the Tunnel
by Sian Brighal
This ain’t no rock or land I’m familiar with. It’s as though the stone has steeped too long in the river above it, becoming soft and corrupted on what the city adds to the brew. From which stinks and damps rise up like disturbed spirits to tighten round our throats or drown our thinking. The subtle and vicious ways this earth works to keep us in our place.
I’m used to solid rock that knows when and where to split and crack. Here, we grind away, scooping as much as shovelling, feet wet and lungs clogging, to gouge out this tunnel. Being Cornish men, we’re meant to know, be wiser than most, but I’m lost in these parts. This is strange land. Not for the clay or these pockets of limestone and the loam on which London balances, but for the way it fights us. It’s as though we’re some splinter needing pushing out.
But both Brunels, father and son, are fighters, I’ll give them that. They’re not afraid of this earth…even if she’s tried to kill them both. Aye, she’s breathed gases for one and summoned the Thames to take the other. We’ve come to see them as purpose made flesh, but truth is, better to make them heroes than fret about madness and pray to St Jude.
Boys, younger than I dare think on, shuffle around me, their eyes like shined-up pearls against the dirt of their faces and the dark of the tunnel’s throat. Aye, that’s what it feels like now, like we’re morsels in her mouth, just waiting for her to swallow. How I have come to miss the comfort of granite!
With each passing day, I see more of my brothers throwing pieces of their meals into the darkness, and this is as close to prayer some of these wizened miners get, pleading silently while their bellies growl.
Aye, this is a dark place…darker than a tunnel has a right to be. Us older folk look over shoulders for the thieves that used to hide in here, dragging unfortunates with them to be robbed or worse. The young uns muck around, burying their dreads in base and solid things. They joke on when whores gathered here and dream and gossip on how far ha’penny would let them up long skirts.
Sometimes, I swear I hear the woes of victims flow down this tunnel, and that’s no better for a man’s soul than straining to hear for Knockers tapping out doom. But you can’t knock so good on these soft seams and crumbling walls, and we’re all going mad from listening.
I’ve seen the plans and this Thames Tunnel will be glorious. I won’t use it, having already spent meself on it. But when you do, take a pause and listen. You’ll hear in the creaks and groans the haunting sounds of labours and loss in the muck beyond iron and brick walls, but if faith is well-placed, then you’ll no’ hear me knocking in the tunnels beneath the city.
Sian Brighal moved from teaching science to writing fiction along with a move to Germany, where she now lives with her family. Writing has become a significant part of her day, as she continues to learn and volunteers as an editor. A few of her short stories can be found in The Infernal Clock: CalenDark, and The Infernal Clock: DeadCades; and Ellipsis Zine Online’s anthologies One and Four. In her free time, she tries to master crocheting, cooking, and dabbles in drawing. Find her on Twitter @sian_ink.
Illustration of Thames Tunnel Construction circa 1830, by an unknown artist, in the public domain.