Robert sat on top of the garden wall, looking over at the field. The
old barn looked dark and forbidding alone at the edge of the field,
next to the wall. He could see a large black bird strutting along the
roof of the barn. He guessed it was either a rook or a crow. But he was
not even sure whether rooks and crows were different birds or different
names for the same bird.
Just as Robert was beginning to get bored with just sitting on the
wall, Susan, the girl from next-door, climbed the wall at the rear of
their garden. She stepped over the top of the fence and sat down beside
Robert. Susan was thirteen, a year younger than Robert, but - somehow -
Robert always felt that she was the wiser of the two of them, if not
"What shall we do today?"
"I... I dunno really." Robert couldn't really make sense of why she
wanted to be with him. It had not been that long since he had started
noticing girls. There had been a period in his life when girls just
seem to have disappeared from the world around him. But now they
suddenly seemed to be appearing everywhere.
"What about those tunnels in the barn you were talking about yesterday?
I think I'd like to see them."
Robert shifted uncomfortably. Something about being with Susan in the
dark claustrophobic tunnels seemed to make him feel unusually warm. He
could feel the heat spreading up the sides of his neck.
Earlier in the summer holiday, Robert, and his friend, John, had sat on
the same wall watching the barn as it was filled with bales of hay. It
had taken two lorry loads to fill the barn. The boys had hidden in the
long grass at the base of the wall as the farm hands returned to the
farmhouse, rubbing straw from their hands. When it seemed as though the
men would not be returning to the barn, the two boys crept around to
the back of the barn and squeezed in through a broken window.
For several days the two boys secretly constructed a tunnel through
into the centre of the mound of hay bales, shifting and rearranging the
bales to make a large room deep in the middle. They made a roof for the
room by using old abandoned fence posts as rafters to hold the bales
Robert and John had sat silently close together in the pitch black room
they had created, listening fearfully to the rough bantering voices of
the farm hands as they walked and climbed over the hay bales above the
boy's heads. The boys shared a great deal of relief and excitement when
the men left. The roof had held and they had remained undetected. The
elation had spurred another frantic bout of tunnel making, with secret
exits all around the barn. If the farm hands did return, and if they
did find the tunnels, the two boys believed they could be out -
anywhere around the barn - in a few seconds, and away safe over the
garden wall in less than a minute.
John was away with his parents for the last two weeks of the summer
holiday and Robert had been lonely for a while. He spent most of the
first few days just sitting there on the garden wall watching the sheep
and waiting for time to pass.
"Okay. Let's go then." He jumped down into the field, before Susan
could notice the reddening of his neck and cheeks. He was shocked to
find that he was holding out his hand to help her down from the wall,
but Susan overlooked his gaffe and jumped down beside him as he
pretended to continue with his stretching exercises.
"It gets very dark, cramped in there," Robert said as they walked
across the field.
"It's all right I'm not scared of the dark. She turned to face him.
"No, 'course not." Robert swung at some nettles with a stick,
decapitating them. "I just thought I'd better warn you, 'cos there's no
turning back once you're in there."
They arrived at the barn. The old wooden walls were grey with age,
warped and broken in places. Susan pointed at the locked doors. Robert
shook his head and led the way around to the side of the barn farthest
away from the other farm buildings.
Halfway along this wall there was a window frame that had fallen out.
It six small panes had all been broken. Using the frame as a ladder,
Robert climbed up through what used to be the window and onto the hay
bales that were stacked up inside level with the window ledge. He sat
down on a bale and watched as Susan struggled through the window. This
time he did not attempt to help her.
Once she had hauled herself in she lay on the straw, looking up at him.
She spat straw out of her mouth and smiled at him before sitting up.
"Where are these tunnels then?"
Robert smiled "The entrance is secret, hidden. Can you see it?"
Susan looked around. "No."
Robert's smile widened in triumph. He stood up and pulled the bale he
was sitting on to one side. "Look."
"It's very dark down there." For the first time there was a hint of
uncertainty in Susan's voice. She looked up at Robert and saw something
in his face that spurred her into action. She jumped forward and turned
to clamber down into the hole.
"When you get to the bottom, move over that way...." Robert pointed to
the left. "There's a space over that side." As Robert clambered down he
could just see Susan as a darker mass in the darkness. He reached up
and pulled the bale back over the entrance. There was silence, and
stillness, for a while.
Susan's voice was barely above a whisper. "I've never known anything
this dark, this is really dark." She laughed nervously. "I really can't
see my hand in front of my face!"
Robert put out his hand, reaching for her. His fingers touched
something soft. "The tunnel is over here," he said.
"Give me your hand, here." He touched the softness again.
"Is that your hand that keeps touching me?"
"Yes... sorry, I can't..."
He felt the cool soft skin of her hand brush against his and then fold
around it. He was sure he could smell something beyond the dense smell
of the straw dust, something like the soft perfume of soap. "It's...
it's here," he said finally, taking her hand towards the tunnel
entrance and letting her feel around its edges.
"All right. I think I know where it is now," she said.
Robert felt her brush past him and the rustle of straw as she began to
crawl forward. He counted to thirty and then followed her. He noticed
again how the whole notion of time passing seemed to become
meaningless. Once inside the tunnels, time and space seemed to
disappear. If it wasn't for the sharp pressure of the spiky straw on
his hands and knees, the soft rustle of their clothes brushing the
straw and the sound of their breathing then, Robert felt, he could have
been floating free in space, or in a black hole; some place where up,
down, time, space, today, tomorrow, school, home no longer
He bumped into Susan's back. "Sorry."
"It's a dead end," There was a hint of panic in Susan's voice.
Robert began to creep past her legs. "What? Let me through, the roof
has probably just colla... sssh." He lay still, halfway past Susan. He
could feel her breath in his hair as she whispered.
"There's someone coming, up above." He felt himself pointing and smiled
at the absurdity of the gesture, then felt foolish for smiling in the
darkness. "Keep quiet, and still."
The muffled voices sounded slightly clearer as they moved closer.
Robert could hear at least two voices and the rustle of feet on the
straw above them. There were a few thumps and bumps, the last of which
seemed to pour down a shower of straw and dust all over his face. He
could hear Susan trying not to cough. He held his nose tightly, trying
to muffle his sneeze.
The voices faded away into the distance. A few moments later Robert
sneezed, this time not bothering to muffle it. Susan coughed, almost in
"I think they've gone." Robert moved on up, he caught a hint of a
toothpaste-like smell as his face drew level with Susan's. He was
suddenly very aware of how narrow, how tight, the tunnel was. They were
pressed tight together, closer than he had ever been to a girl
"The roof has collapsed," he managed to say after easing his arms up
past Susan. "All I need to do is to push this one part of the bale out
of our way. Yes, I can feel the string all loose where the straw has
slipped out. I've almost done it, no.... Shit!"
The tumbling bales above them sounded muted and distant at first, but
the rumbles grew louder and straw dust began to poor down all over
Robert's face. He could feel a sharp grittiness in his eyes and mouth.
There was a loud thump and then silence. The loose straw seemed to hiss
by him as it fell.
"I... I can't move," Susan said quietly, sounding almost calm. Robert
put out his hand to where he thought she was. He could feel only straw.
Panicking, he grabbed handfuls of straw, tearing at them. He could feel
blood on his palms where the sharp straw cut into them. His left hand
reached out for more straw and he touched Susan's hair. Carefully, with
both hands, he cleared the straw from around her face, feeling
carefully with tentative fingers; hair, nose, lips, eyes.
"Are you all right?" Robert could hardly form the words, his mouth felt
thick and choked with dust.
"I... I think so, but I still can't move my legs."
"Hang on, don't worry." Robert was surprised by how calm he sounded.
His heart was thumping wildly in his chest, but - somehow - he seemed
to know what to do. "Can you move at all?"
"I can move my top half, twist around... and my feet, up and down a
bit, but that's all."
Slowly Robert eased himself back down the tunnel next to Susan. He
could smell the warmth of her body. The soapy smell was mixed with a
faint sour trace of fresh sweat. His hand touched bare skin, it
shivered under his touch and he felt the slight trace of a rib under
His feet hit a blockage in the tunnel and he curled up on himself
trying to reach down between his knees and feet to find it. He felt
down the jeans on Susan's legs until he touched the hard corner of the
hay bale lying across the backs of her legs, pinning them. There was
something else there as well, he discovered, as he managed to lift the
bale slightly. But he could only brush it with his fingertips. He
pressed down farther and managed to wrap a couple of fingers around it.
It felt cold - metallic - and slightly knobbly with rust. He tried to
"What? what's the matter, Susan?"
"Whatever you did then, it hurt. Sorry."
"Sorry." Robert could feel the panic rising again. He knew what it was
- rusty barbed wire and the old wooden fence-post it was attached to.
John and Robert had used the old fence posts to support the roof of the
tunnel in a few places.
Gingerly he felt down her trousers again. There was a place, just below
her knee where the material was ripped. He touched her bare skin and
she jerked the leg, it felt damp and sticky, but luckily - he thought -
there was no sign that the barbed wire was actually cutting her. It
was, he discovered, all tangled up with the material of her jeans. He
could not hold up the hay bale and disentangle the jeans at the same
"What's... what's the matter?" Susan sounded almost on the edge of
"It's all right, not that bad at all really," Robert said. "Some wire
has scratched your leg, that's all. We can get you out, if you crawl
forward while I hold the fallen bale up off your legs. Are you
"Yes, I suppose so."
"Right, go on then, crawl as fast as you can... Now!" Robert grunted as
he lifted the bale up as high as he could. Susan kneed him hard in the
thigh as she tried to squirm out from under the bale. There was room.
He could feel her legs scrabbling for purchase on the floor of the
"It's no good. I... I can't move, something has caught my
"I'm going to have to drop the bale. I can't hold it anymore." Robert
let it go with a sigh and laid his head down on the straw, breathing
hard. He could feel his hands throbbing where they had been cut by the
straw. He wanted to be out of there, back home, lying in bed with crisp
clean sheets. The bright sun streaming in through an open window where
the curtains were trembling in the breeze. He closed his eyes, opened
them, closed them again.
There was no difference.
"Hang on. I know what to do," Susan said. Robert opened his eyes, or at
least he thought he did. Susan was squirming next to him, he felt her
hands and arms brush against him a couple of times. "When I say, lift
the bale again," she said.
"Okay." Robert got into position and waited.
There was the same amount of scrabbling, but this time Robert felt
Susan's legs move past him.
"Hang on," Susan said. "All right. You can let it go." He heard her
sigh of relief and let the bale go. He could hear Susan scrambling
through the tunnel in front of him. He began to crawl. His hand touched
something, almost jerking away before he realised it was her jeans,
abandoned half under where he had let the bale fall. He tried pulling
them out, but they were still stuck fast.
He caught up with Susan a few feet up the tunnel. She was frantically
pulling handfuls of straw from a blockage in front of her, frantically
hurling them behind her. One handful hit Robert in the face. He could
hear her heavy breathing.
"Calm down," he said softly, easing his way up to lie next to her. She
was still tugging at the straw with frenzied hands. Fistfuls flew
around Robert and into his face. Eventually, he managed to grab both of
"I can't... I can't find a way through!" It sounded as though she was
very close to tears.
"Calm down. This is - I think - where the tunnel changes direction.
Turn around. It is behind you."
Eventually, he felt her arms relax slightly and Robert let go of her
wrists as she turned. He listened to her crawling into the new tunnel.
While he waited there he realised just how much his body ached. He
wondered if he would ever be able to stand upright ever again. Sighing,
he changed position and crawled up the new tunnel.
"Wait," he said as he felt the tunnel widen out in front of him. He
reached out and touched Susan's leg. "You can sit up in this bit, just
here. It's like a room. Sit here with your back against these bales."
He pulled her towards the side of the room. "Just wait there a
Robert scrambled over to the other side of the room-like structure and
felt along the side for the two crossed fence-posts. Finding them, he
"Shit!" The light was blindingly bright. He screwed up his eyes and
After a few tentative blinks he managed to open his eyes and keep them
open. It was not really that bright, the old window was thick with
grime, but it was still glaringly bright after so long in the darkness.
He could see Susan sitting a foot or so away. She sat with her arms
wrapped around her legs and her knees brought up close so her face
rested on her thighs. He could see the long red scratch down the side
of her calf and the red blot of blood on her sock. He touched her arm
gently with his fingertips.
She looked up at him, her eyes blinking rapidly, sending fresh tears
down the dirty tracks on her cheeks. "I can see you." Her voice was
fragile, tentative. "Can we get out? Come on. I want to get out of
"We can't get out here. That window faces the farm house. We have to go
over the other side, and anyway...." Robert glanced down at her bare
thighs. Susan's face reddened and she seemed to draw her legs tighter
against her body.
"I tried to get the jeans free, but I couldn't. They were caught on the
"What are we going to do then," she said. "We can't just stay here. I
don't want to go back through any more of the tunnels either."
Robert nodded and crawled over to the opposite corner of the room.
"Just up here there is a way up to the top of the hay. We can go up
over the top and out the other side. Come on."
He scrambled up through the narrow opening until he could stand up. He
paused for a moment, letting the knotted muscles slowly straighten
themselves out, before pushing the bale off the top of the hole. He
could see the grey wooden beams and planks of the roof. A powerful beam
of sunlight shone like a laser through a knothole. He was almost
laughing as he pulled himself out of the hole and lay back on the top
of the straw. The air up there tasted cleaner too, almost no dust. He
rolled over and looked down the hole. Susan's filthy tear-streaked face
looked up at him. He held out his hand to her. He pulled her up and
they rolled together over the packed bales away from the hole.
They lay on their backs, looking up at the peak of the roof, the thick
grey beams a few feet above them. Robert turned to look at Susan.
She stared up at the roof, unblinking. "I - for a while - didn't think
we would ever get out of there," she said. "I didn't think I'd ever see
anything ever again."
As Robert watched, a single tear created a new track down the side of
her face. He put his finger out and stopped it. Susan turned to face
him. She smiled.
"I'm sorry," he said. "Maybe these tunnels weren't such a good idea
after all. Before you came over this morning I was wondering why we had
made them. They seemed a bit childish really. But now.... Now, they
seem so scary. Perhaps a grown-up, an adult, would have more sense. We
could have died."
"We would have just disappeared," Susan said. "No-one would come to
rescue us - they wouldn't know where to look. We could have died,
slowly, suffocating in that pitch darkness and no-one would have
thought of searching for us in there." She turned and wrapped her arms
around Robert, resting her head on his shoulder. Robert could still
smell the slight scent of perfume and soap. She held him tightly and he
wrapped his arms around her as she began to shiver.
"It's all right," he said. "We are out now, safe." He closed his eyes,
but the darkness was too frightening, almost a weight bearing down,
thick, choking, suffocating. He felt himself shiver and held Susan
He felt her head lift and he turned to look at her, she nibbled her
bottom lip as she stared back at him. Their heads moved together
slightly, almost. Time really did seem to stand still for him as he
stared into her unblinking eyes. Susan blinked and looked away. Robert
felt some tension fall out of his body as she lay back down.
"Will you be all right, going home like that?" Robert said eventually.
"I mean... your trousers...?"
"What time is it?" Susan looked at Robert's watch. "If I go now, I
should be able to get inside before my mum comes back from work." Susan
was suddenly on her feet and walking over to where the bales were
stacked around the broken window. Robert stood up and followed her out,
his legs still feeling unsure of how to walk. She strode across the
field and climbed her garden wall almost without breaking stride.
On the top of the wall, she turned briefly as Robert caught up with
her. "I have to go, or else mum'll..." She glanced down at her bare
Robert noticed her knickers had small red roses on a white background
that was stained dusty grey in places, one of the seams was
"Yes, right." Robert didn't know what to do. It seemed, after all they
had just been through, that a simple good-bye could not be
"Bye." Susan was halfway down her garden, turning back away from him
and limping towards her house.
"Bye," Robert dropped his hand from the half-wave he was giving to her
retreating back and turned. Between the houses he caught a glimpse of
the street and Susan's mother coming slowly around the bend. He ran
back to his own garden and jumped off the wall.
"Robert! Come and see this!"
Robert sighed and walked out of his bedroom, still clutching the book
he had been attempting to read. His mother was standing at the foot of
"Come on! Quickly!" She led him by the hand into the kitchen. The whole
night sky outside seemed to glow red. "Look!"
Robert walked out into the garden after his mother. The whole barn was
on fire. Huge red and yellow flames leaping up out of the windows.
Thick smoke was blowing across the garden. He could hear the shouts of
the farm hands and the clank of buckets. Off in the distance he could
hear the urgent siren as the fire engine made its way through the
He looked away from the barn and saw Susan's family in their garden.
Her father held her mother close as he shouted something into her ear.
Susan saw Robert and she limped over towards the garden wall. Robert
went over to meet her.
"What about that?" He said.
Susan nodded. "Every time I closed my eyes I could feel myself back in
those tunnels. Sorry, but I had no choice." She glanced up at the barn
once more, smiled briefly at Robert, then slowly limped back into the
house and shut the door.