A dry dust-cloud churned up as a Green Line bus pulled away from the Request Stop. The solitary passenger who had alighted there stood, hesitant. She watched the bus disappear around a distant corner. The dust settled slowly upon the deserted road.
The girl was young, not more than nineteen. Her hair was of that light colour that just avoided the term ‘mousey’. It was the type of hair at which advertisements for tints, colour-rinses and bleaching agents were directed. The girl, however, had never been tempted. Her eyes were blue, her face freckled and she was dressed, simply, in a cotton frock. She wore sandals but no stockings and carried a small leather case as well as a handbag. In the case was a picnic lunch. Sandwiches, cakes, some chocolate, a thermos of tea, a plastic mac and a selection of Sunday newspapers. She was set for a day in the country as she preferred it, alone.
Although barely eleven-o’-clock, the day was warm with the sun swinging to the zenith. It was very quiet but the silence was a country stillness in which an awareness of bird-song, insect noises, leaf rustlings and the slow sigh of wind through grasses became gradually apparent.
The girl stood, legs slightly astride, savouring the sweet tranquillity of the scene. Before her, on the other side of the road, the wide undulant sweep of countryside stretched in a pattern of light fields splashed with a darker shading of woods. The horizon merged its blue distance with the blue of the sky. And both were reflected in her happy eyes.
There was, however, one jarring note. One hideous incongruity. A long, diminishing line of newly erected pylons. Like grey giants, they strode with an ugly arrogance, marring the gay tapestry of fields and woods from the blue distance, at precisely measured intervals, right up to the edge of the road where, awaiting erection, one pylon lay on its side, huge, alien, monstrous.
The girl turned her back to the road and the encroachment of utilitarian ugliness. She crossed a narrow grass verge and entered a wood.
Here it was cool. A dim green cavern shot with shafts of wavering light that dappled the ground. She revelled in the calm solitude of trees and the benediction of peace. The way through the wood was long, of deep, shadows and startling sunlight. She wandered, oblivious of time and direction, simply absorbing serenity. She was happy.
Eventually emerging from the wood, she stepped to the edge of the broad meadow that was brushed over with a smear daisies. Here, she decided, she would picnic. Then she saw the hole. Like a putrescent tumour in the field, surrounded by a filthy pus of earth and stones and clay, it was a vile disfiguration. Another pylon, she thought. But no grey giant lay alongside.
She was dismayed at the intruding ugliness and thought to revise her plan to picnic there. Her intention had been to rest at the conclusion of her meal, to browse through the papers, drowse a little in the sunshine and, then, to make her way, deviously through fields and woods, to the village which was about two miles from the Bus Stop at which she had alighted.
Wondering whether or not to ignore the hole, involuntarily she strolled towards the cause of her small dilemma. With a start she pulled up short as her foot scuffled against a stone. She was at the base of the mounds of earth that surrounded the hole. As for most people, any kind of excavation fascinated her. She had to look.
The pile of earth was soft and yielding, crumbling at each step as she clambered to the top. She dug her feet firmly in and studied the immense pit.
It was about eight feet square and fully ten feet deep and had, obviously, been dug by experts with mathematical precision. The sides were smooth and vertical; the surface of the base as clean as a table-top; the edges of the hole, she observed, were meticulously trimmed to the bevel.
She gazed into the depths with a feeling of awe until a sudden vertigo assailed her. She tottered, struggled to maintain a balance, but the earth slid away from beneath her feet. She floundered and slipped down towards the rim of the hole, arms flailing. She plunged over the side and screamed, just once. The thud of her landing was a dull, unechoing sound.
Slowly, her dazed senses recovered. She was lying face downwards. The sour smell of ancient clays was in her nostrils. Her outstretched fingers gripped the cloying dampness of clay. There were smears of clay on her cheeks. Her clothes were spattered by the lifeless messiness of clay.
She eased herself into a sitting position. Her body ached but there appeared to be no serious injury only a few superficial bruises and abrasions.
She stood up and, automatically, started to brush her soiled dress then, realizing the futility of the action, she allowed her clay-caked hands to drop to her sides. She looked about her.
Her case, flung from her hand during the fall, had bounced against the side of the hole and had burst open. Polythene packets, the compact bundle of plastic mac and newpapers were scattered around. The thermos was still in the case, tightly wedged. Her handbag lay open in a corner. Cigarettes, matches, keys cosmetics and handkerchiefs were strewn in piled profusion. She bent down and began to collect and retrieve the contents of the bags.
She gave no immediate thought to her predicament. She was concerned only with restoring some semblance of order and busily tidied her belongings. When she had finished she extracted a cigarette from the battered packet, lit it, inhaled deeply and proceeded to take stock of her position.
The sheer walls of the hole, glistening with steamy damp, towered above the ramparts. She could barely discern the tops of the mounds of earth and they looked like drab and distant hills. She sensed that she was irrevocably trapped.
With realization came panic. Blind and unreasoning. She leaped at the slimy side of her prison, scrabbling against the steep unyielding surface with urgent fingers. She tried to dig her feet into the clay. She beat with impotent fists on the hard walls. She jumped. She yelled. She screamed. And then, exhausted, she slithered down with arms outstretched, sinking to the floor in a sobbing agony of frustration and fear.
Barely two hours had elapsed since the girl had left the bus looking forward to the carefree enjoyment of her Sunday picnic but now the afternoon sun blazed fiercely down. In the limited confines of the hole it was stiflingly hot. The girl, recovered now from the first fearful reaction of panic, was sitting upon some outspread newspaper with her back against the clay wall. It felt cool through her thin dress and she was glad of that small degree of comfort. She was thirsty and, unscrewing the thermos, poured a beaker of hot tea. The warm fluid calmed her. She lit a cigarette and, laying back her head, she began to review the situation more philosophically.
It was certain, she had decided, that nobody would likely to cross that particular field today. Equally certain was the impossibility of getting out of the hole without assistance. It was likely, though, that the contractor who had dug the hole would return to it on Monday morning to lay in the concrete base for the erection of a pylon. That, of course, meant at least another seventeen hours of lonely waiting. But she was now more resigned to her position and, although it was a serious plight in which to be, it wasn’t hopeless.
In consequence of these deliberations, in a purely feminine manner, she proceeded to tidy up. Not the least of these activities was the application of a moderate make-up.
Then, methodically, she allocated her meagre stock of provisions to last, she estimated, until noon the following day at the most. She spread out the plastic mac and took her first meal of a couple of sandwiches and an apple. Drink was the big problem so she prepared to reserve the tea to a strict ration.
During the long afternoon and into the evening she dozed, read the newspapers, dozed again and, about eight o’ clock, yielding to the pangs of hunger, she had her second meal. This time she allowed herself a beaker of tea. For exercise, she walked around the area for which she mentally termed her cell. At times she had difficulty in quelling a rising panic prompted by an incipient claustrophobia. By sheer willpower she resisted the urge to shout and to make again the abortive attempt at clambering up the impossible walls. At these times she directed her thoughts forcefully into the probability of rescue. No! The certainty of rescue! She visualized a gang of brawny labourers arriving suddenly in the early morning with the accoutrements of their trade, laughter and ribaldry. She could imagine them relating to each other, with uninhibited bawdy detail, their weekend adventure. The first intimation of their arrival would be the heavy chugging of lorry dragging a cement mixer. She could imagine the deep scars that would disfigure the meadow but she had no idea from what direction they would arrive or how they would reach the location. Then she thought of the consternation, the shocked surprise that would appear on the face of the first one to look into the hole. She could almost hear the voice, “Ere, Bill, there’s a girl darn ‘ere.” And the answer. “Come orf it”. Then the subsequent activity of rescue. The sympathy. The solicitude. Her own relief expressed in the almost hysterical laughter. The making of jokes about the whole unpleasant episode.....
She paced up and down. Up and down. Her mood alternating between anger and self-pity, deep despair and optimism. And the long evening dissolved into darkness. Above her, framed by a rectangle of earth, the stars, appeared, so remote and so impersonal, the sight of the distant points of light served only to emphasise her feeling of loneliness.
She huddled herself into a corner. It was cold. She wrapped the plastic mac about her shoulders.
Night sounds increased. The mournful cry of an owl, the rustling of a stealthy body creeping through the grasses. The distant bark of a fox. The swish of wings as a bat wheeled above her. She glimpsed the swift silhouette and shuddered. The small noises of the night, borne on the wind, seemed to swell in volume as they vibrated into the darkness of the hole. They beat upon her ears, louder and louder, to burst into her brain with a violent crescendo until she cringed in a sweating terror, her hands clasped about her head. Then she slept.
She awakened to the first tentative trilling of the birds rousing to greet the dawn. The stars had disappeared. Morning above was an opalescent patch.
She stretched her cramped limbs and stood up. Taking the thermos flask she carefully poured half-beaker of tea. It was barely warm. She took out a cigarette, noting, with some dismay, that only three were left in the packet, and lit it with trembling fingers. She couldn’t stop shivering. She walked impatiently up and down, stamping her feet to restore circulation. Urging time to speed up; willing her rescuers to hurry.....
The world above was alive now. A surge of bird-song swept through the air as the sky brightened to blue. There was a whirring of wings in the lively flight and the dull monotonous cooing of pigeons. A blackbird landed upon one of the mounds and cocked a speculative eye into the hole. An impulse prompted the girl to reach upwards, with what motive she didn’t know. The bird flew away.
She sat down again. She thought of the bed in her digs. Mrs Thoms would dismiss her non-appearance at breakfast with a knowing wink at her husband. “ I thought she was a deep ‘un. Like all the teenagers, drugs and sex, that’s all they live for”. And she would shuffle around grumbling and criticising, happy to have a new subject for her cantankerous opinions. The girl had been with them for only a fortnight but she had no illusions about them. If she never returned the Thoms would not concern themselves apart from, perhaps, pawning her belongings.
She considered what her employers would do when she failed to report for work. She was a typist at a small City firm, cooped up in a stuffy office from nine to five, Monday to Friday, twelve on Saturday. Taking dictation, typing, filing. Dreary repetition in the sweltering City heat. Jumping to the imperative demands of the director and evading the unwelcome approaches of a lecherous junior partner. Enduring the insane chatter and dirty innuendos of a pimply office-boy. She realized that the boss would fume and fret for an hour and then ring up the nearest agency for a replacement. Her cards would be waiting for her when she returned.....when she returned. She looked at her watch. Five o’ clock.
Then six o’ clock.
Seven o’ clock. Soon men would arrive for work and she would be rescued.
Eight o’clock. And no sign, no sound of anything.
Nine. Ten. Eleven o’ clock. Twelve o’clock. The day dragged on. The girl lay against the cool surface of the hole in an apathy of despair. Her food was gone. There was a half-beaker of tea left. And one cigarette.....
In a wooden hut, about three miles from the site of the hole, the General Manager of Digwell Excavations Limited, contractors to the Electricity Generating Board, was prodding an Ordnance Survey Map with a pencil. With an angry gesture he made a rough circle on the map. He glared at his field foreman who watched and waited, with some trepidation, for the withering abuse from his superior. He didn’t wait long. The General Manager excelled himself in the kind of vituperative sarcasm at which he was so expert. The foreman bore the tirade patiently and only deigned to look up when the preamble was finished.
“Yes, Sir,” he muttered.
“What in the blue blazes prompted you to excavate on that site, God alone knows,” The General Manager snorted. “Get it filled in as soon as possible – I’ve had a rocket from Board, the farmer intends to sue – get it filled in right away. And get another hole dug in the right place,” He prodded the circled area on the map, “Here”.
“Yes, Sir.” Said the foreman, “First thing in the morning. Is there anything else, Sir?”
The General Manager gave a rueful smile.
“I do carry on, don’t I? I know I wasn’t exactly your fault but you have to carry the can, eh? Like I do higher up. O.K., George, as soon as you can.”
The foreman left and, in order of priority to him, made the arrangements for an immediate excavation at the correct location. Tuesday would be soon enough for the other job.
Unfortunately it rained heavily on Tuesday, the inevitable violent thunderstorms of summer in England. And on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
On Saturday morning the rain was intermittent. The foreman despatched two men to the site of the hole in the field with the admonition to get it filled in as quickly as possible.
“We’re not paying time and a half for a dead-loss job, so get back by twelve!”
The two men reached the edge of the wood where it adjoined the field. It was still raining. They hesitated. Then one said, “Let’s get crackin’, it won’t take long”.
Shouldering their shovels, the two raced across the field. When they reached the hole, they were breathless. The rain became torrential but the men were undeterred. They started at the nearest mound and they shovelled and shovelled. And moved to the next mound.
The pitiful sodden bundle, crouched in a corner, barely stirred as the first shovelfuls of earth spattered into the hole. The two men toiled without ceasing. They shovelled and shovelled.....
Other work by Namur King