Jan/Feb 2020  •   Fiction


by Robert Stone

Borrowed image

Dr. Lochhead was anxious to be inside. North Sea weather was blowing round the campus straight off the bone fields, and it was bitter. He stumbled on the steps and saved himself from a nasty fall by grabbing for the rail. He made himself stop. He should not run. He would be taken for one of the students, he thought.

He looked around the campus from the vantage of the concrete stairway. Ziggurat after ziggurat like a cartoon mountain-scape. The university might have been built from a box of gigantic toy bricks. By an ungifted child. He saw Calvert ascending an adjacent stairway and raised a hand, but his colleague had evidently not noticed him. Everyone had his head in the clouds. Lochhead had been teaching here for only two full years, and he still felt able to damn the place without seeing he was included in it.

He was preoccupied, hence the trip. He was planning his lesson, which was due to begin in 15 minutes, and he had his photocopying to do. He was going to introduce a discussion of a story called "Intrusion" by Paul Hare. The story concerns the intrusive burial of an Iron Age man who was killed by being thrown or possibly falling into a fissure. Or he may have been killed in a landslide while exploring a tunnel. Hare allows for a variety of alternatives. At any rate, his body, when it is discovered centuries later, is in the "wrong" geological layer, as though he had lived at a much earlier time.

Lochhead did not trust his students, whom he was about to meet for only the third time, to have read this material with any attention. It was not a story about people like them, and they were single-minded in their self-obsession. So, he would have to explain what he liked to think of as the "documentary" component of the story quite carefully. But he also wanted to stress that for Hare, the idea of the intrusive burial was metaphorical and, moreover, the matter which was being addressed by that metaphor was itself of a metaphorical value. He knew he risked losing a couple of them here.

It was a good story to teach, he felt, because it had never been collected and so was not even available in book form. It had been written in the last three years, and there was nothing in the literature about it and almost nothing about Paul Hare. Its readers were thrown back on their own resources. Explorers without maps.

The students had already written short pieces about "Intrusion," most of them simply repeating what Lochhead had said, not always even in their own words, but one essay had caught his eye. By Alice, wasn't it, the fresh-faced, sporty girl? She had picked up on something of the story's erotic nature. The illegitimate insertion. Historically, a number of intrusive burials had proven to be archaeological frauds. She had been shy about being too explicit on this and Lochhead could see why, but she had brought something of her own to this work. She had also identified one of Hare's disguised allusions, a wholly unattributed and unacknowledged quotation from Patrick White, lethal as dreams can be with their load of personal buried threats. And that was very promising.

He had taught this course twice now and wondered how many more times he could pull off the coup he had planned for today's lesson. Some students discussed such things, and none of today's class were first years. He would now reveal that Hare had written two other stories called "Intrusion," both of them. One concerned an intricately devised burglary, or home invasion, which goes awry with horrific consequences almost too dark to teach. And the other was the misadventures of an Egyptologist, mischievously named William Golding, lost among the pyramids, the story itself woven from the real Golding's little read travelogue writing. At no point would he reveal, at least not to the whole class, that he, Dr. Tom Lochhead, the student body's favorite, most challenging yet approachable young lecturer, was actually the provocative story-teller and literary prankster, Paul Hare.

The title of the course was Astonishing Tales. Hare had declared that the purpose of literature was to astonish the reader. The ostensible subject matter of the course was provided by the novels of JG Ballard.

Now, Tom realized that although he was not lost, he was on the wrong floor. All of these corridors looked the same. He really needed a cup of wretched coffee from the wretched machine.

He arrived in his little office before any of the students and arranged his chairs in a rough, democratic circle. He put a cushion on his own chair, sat down and awaited the first knock. He looked over at his notice-board and saw something was wrong, something missing. One of his cards had fallen down. It was a photograph of Rodin's The Kiss which Rhona had sent to him. It must have fallen down the back of the filing cabinet, in which case he would never see it again. At any rate it had disappeared. He and Rhona had communicated for a time by exchanging postcards of this famous sculpture, and now another one was lost. He remembered what she had written on this one, which had been one of the first: The trouble with The Kiss, she thought, is that the flesh is too, too solid. The bodies are masses. They lack a sense of hollowness, so they cannot be real bodies. No auscultation possible.

Dear Rhona.

Tom needed to go to the lavatory. He glanced at the digital clock on the wall. He needed a massive, hungover, alcohol-fuelled fart. He was alone in his office, but he knew that if he allowed the explosion to take place there, that evidence of the poisonous hell within us all, he would have to cancel his supervision. Perhaps for more than one day.

When he came back, the whole class was sitting on the chromium-legged banquettes in the corridor. They always gathered like this. They would not knock and go in as they arrived, one at a time. He ushered them inside.

Part of Tom's nervousness, bashfulness almost, on meeting a new class was that he needed to know if they had heard about Rhona and, naturally, could not ask. Especially the girls.

Alice was there of course, a small girl wearing a colossal and shapeless jumper. The students settled like a flock of anxious birds, tucking bags away, searching for pens and pads, retrieving their copies of High-Rise in all of its varied editions and tattered conditions. When they finally seemed ready to begin, Alice stood up in their tight half-circle and pulled the enormous jumper over her head. It was already too hot. As she did so, she also pulled her t-shirt up to expose her midriff, a neat, rippling wall of toned muscle.

Sometimes teachers react with a theatrical show of exasperated impatience when a student does something distracting and irrelevant in a seminar. They could simply ignore it and carry on, but they don't; they wait in a parody of politeness. Tom did this now, and it gave him an opportunity to watch Alice wriggle from these woollen toils.

He had to admit, that for all of his intellectual sophistication, his most heartfelt interests were those of the average teenage boy.

The lesson proceeded, and the students, largely, were engaged. Several had done some work, and one or two were clever. Tom had no difficulty in leading the discussion and in attending to this intriguing young woman at the same time. Courses in contemporary fiction attracted a certain type of student: laconic, bohemian hipsters with fashionable hair-cuts. Many of them interesting and able people. But Alice was not like them. She seemed a little gauche, goofy even, next to them, disarmingly so. But she also had that bright-eyed, clean-complexioned self-assured elegance that can only have been natural in a woman so young. She looked very healthy compared to everyone else. An outdoor type. She reminded Tom of Rhona. Something about her. He admired the shape of her skull, her pretty head.

The discussion was pleasing to Tom. A nugget or two was dug out. They admired Paul Hare. Alice made a sharp point he liked: the monster in the abyss, the chthonic horror, was not a creature we discovered, but one we had imprisoned and nurtured in his lair. That was Nietzsche, but it was still good. Her t-shirt was purple, and written across her chest were the words, It's supposed to be fun..., and some initials he did not understand.

Fun and games, thought Tom.

One of his seduction techniques was to stare into a girl's eyes as though he were trying to burrow into one of them. He stared at Alice now. He was uneasy about the way he combined, almost self-consciously, the romantic and the callous in his sexual life. He insisted to himself that his students were not children, but he was aware of his need to insist.

He had to set them something to think about for next time. He gave them a quotation from Ballard and watched them dutifully copy it down:

...the high-rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly "free" psychopathology.

He asked them to consider environment and psychopathology in the context of the fiction on their list. Rhona had written a spectacular response on this theme.

The cold heart of this campus was a great concrete dish, the sides of which were steps on which the students sat and drank in the fine weather. Standing on the lip, Tom thought he saw Alice on the other side. He almost called out when he saw her raise her hand and put it to the chest of the man facing her, but it wasn't Alice; it was another slim girl in a purple t-shirt.

Then he saw a boy with It's supposed to be fun... written on his sweat shirt, disappearing into the JCR, and he followed him. There the Societies Fair was being held, and all was revealed.

There were four people behind that table on which their literature was spread, three in purple t-shirts, one of whom was Alice. This was the caving club. Tom hovered some yards back and sized them up. They wore name tags: Alice, Henry who looked especially youthful and eager to please, Niamh who was apple-cheeked and red-faced, and Doug who did not wear a t-shirt, but did have on what another person would have called a miner's helmet. He had an impressive beard and was older.

Tom approached Henry,

—A caving club? I did not know the university had such a thing.

—We're quite new, and this is our first time at the fair.

—Isn't this rather dangerous and frightening for a student club?

Henry's happy face encouraged this immediate teasing. Niamh, on the other hand, was looking at Tom disapprovingly. She may have been made unhappy by having to wear a name tag while having a name that no one knew how to pronounce, not properly anyway. She had the face of an anxious baby. But it was Doug who butted in, while Alice shuffled leaflets and did not glance in Tom's direction.

—It is a dangerous sport, Doug said, which is why it is safer than almost any other. The football club has more accidents and injuries than we do. So which is the more dangerous really?

—Still frightening, though.

Tom looked at Niamh and at Alice. Since Rhona, he felt guilty when he spoke to girls in public like this, as if he might be judged. He thought Niamh might be doing this now. He also thought that Alice's throat was clear and smooth like a bell.

—It can be frightening. That's part of it. It's not for everyone, offered Henry.

—Where do you go caving?

—All over the country. And we went to Wales and the Mendips last year, said Henry, again.

—We have an itinerary, said Doug. Access to the caves is strictly controlled.

He glanced at the girls as though he controlled access to them, too.

—It must be quite expensive. All the equipment.

—It's not as bad as you might think, answered Henry. You can borrow, and you don't really need all of the specialist stuff for the easy caves. That's where we would take you first.

Tom did not care for all the talk of "sport" and "fun." He looked at Alice now. Had he ever seen her with Rhona? The thought plagued him.

—Well, I think you're pretty brave to go into those caves.

And am I brave enough to go in there after you?

Henry looked pleased.

—If you are interested, you can put your contact details down here, and we can let you know about meetings and events, and you can ask questions.

—I shall write down my personal email.

It was not clear if lecturers were allowed to join student societies, but Tom made sure to write his email address very neatly.

And it was as simple as that. He got an email from Alice telling him there was a meeting to discuss the first field trip of the season, and Tom replied, saying he would like to discuss the ins and outs of caving, first of all, with someone who was not so fierce and beardy as Doug.

She thought that was funny. As simple as that.

Tom and Rhona had not been so obviously compatible. When he got drunk with his friends, they would sing "Swords of a Thousand Men" as they marched back to their rooms. Only when they were drunk. When Rhona wrote her first postcard to him, she had told him of her astounded heart. They had both taken shelter in literature.

He had once told Rhona how his friends had shut him in the boot of a car and driven him round, all drunk, and when they got him out, they pretended to shoot him. Then he forgot he had told her this and told her again, but this time he was one of the yobs doing the driving. She called him a Neanderthal.

She had noticed him at a party, the one with all the nibbles, canapés, hors d'oeuvres, and he had got some bread from somewhere and made a massive sandwich of it all and sat solemnly eating as if it were the most normal thing in the world. His performance had impressed the students, but it cannot have gone down well with the faculty.

He joked about mining the seam of pretty undergraduates in search of precious ore (with a wink). There had been more than one crush. His lecherous cstoneng. He knew he could be what had once been called a cad. More playfully, a bounder.

He had sent the first Kiss postcard: those hard bodies made to look soft. She would have harrowing nightmares. She would lie next to him and whimper like a lost child. He put his hand to her shaking shoulder and whispered it was okay, over and over again, although he knew it was not. She must often have woken afraid.

Now he began referring to Alice as the cave girl, as though she were an earth elemental. She told him the cavers became different people when they went underground. They must not be judged by how they behaved socially. They were transformed by the subterranean. He had a dream of pushing through soft tunnels, as though he were swimming through a great sponge, and the walls would grow hard around him if he stopped moving.

He told Alice he had been in the Neanderthal cave in Thessaloniki, and she smirked. He hoped it was because a show cave was not real caving and not because she thought he was a Neanderthal. He told her of the man's skull placed on a pedestal in that cave. A placement that could not possibly have been an accident. He stroked Alice's head. A tender and sensual but not blameable gesture. He had done the same with Rhona, and on one occasion he thought he overheard Alice saying to a friend, "He touches my head."

A lesser man would have patted her bottom, which he longed to do.

He dreamed that the other cavers, all in helmets like Doug's, knocked him down in a tunnel and jumped upon him. He felt no pain, but he could hear his bones cracking and breaking, and the sound disgusted him.

He persisted with his story of the Greek cave.

—It was in a remote spot near the coast but in the mountains, or up a hillside at least. A very narrow path with many difficult steps, but not so bad except every climber was terrorized by a tribe of little black pigs appearing always from who knew where and squeezing their hot fat bodies through your legs to send you teetering and staggering against the wall, all squealing like the devil was after them, pinching their chub with his horny nails.

—But they did not have it all their own way, for twice a day, once up, once down, came the serious donkeys with their incredible loads, scraping each wall in their impossible passage, like glacial boulders, routing the protesting pigs. These solemn and industrious creatures stepped not one inch out of their way, nor paused one second for thought as they sent the little black porkers reeling down those steps without allowing themselves one snicker.

Alice was charmed. Tom was being so charming he charmed himself. This apparent familiarity with the backstreets of the real and secret Europe.

—You don't know what squeal means until you have heard a gang of black pigs squeezed to death by an unstoppable donkey.

They read Kubla Khan together. "Where Alph the sacred river ran through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea." They could both recite the poem.

He had a formidable dream of Alice sticking her finger in his arsehole. He was brutally excited by this. When he turned to look at her, as one can in dreams, to remonstrate with her, he saw the mischievous concentration on her face as she bored seriously away at her work. That lewd minx.

He kissed her on the lobe of her ear and stared at the side of her pretty head. He touched her ear with his tongue. But that was that. He knew he had to go with her into a cave. She had made that quietly clear.

So Tom was to be a guest of the club. A novice and a tourist. This absolved him of much responsibility and got him out of numerous and tedious chores, but he was also placing his trust and personal safety in the hands of people he considered as plausible idiots. He ordered two books for independent reading. That was his response to that.

Know the Game: Potholing and Caving by Don Robinson. 1st edition 1967, reprinted 1974. An absolute gem. It immediately occurred to him that selling a guide to a dangerous activity 60 years out of date is more than a little irresponsible. Like selling someone a gun liable to explode in their hand.

Tom could see the censoriousness of the post-war schoolmaster in Robinson. A veteran, impatient with children insufficiently grateful they had never had to fight. Telling everyone they needed to be jolly sensible about everything, as though life were a who-can-be-the-most-sensible competition. Lots of good advice about wearing wool next to your skin and carrying emergency rations, by which he appeared to mean a large bag of sweets. Here's a flavor:

Occasionally people die of exposure trying to be tough—or were they just foolish?

Nothing can measure up to the thrill of exploring a cave or pothole for the first time.

Nothing? Tom sniggered. Schoolmasters make schoolchildren of people.

Best of all:

Stupid people do not deserve to be rescued.

The table of contents ended with the two headings, "In the Event of an Accident," and finally, "If You Want to Enjoy Caving and Live."

Robinson was known for his rescue work. You would have got such a telling off from him when he rescued you, you might have preferred to stay buried alive.

It was hard for Tom not to examine even such a practical book for its language. He liked "reptate," to wriggle through a tunnel like a worm, but he felt sure there could be no reptation in the cave where he was going. Some of this language was inadmissible. An inky blackness, used to describe a quality of darkness rarely experienced anywhere else, was "bathos." Where was the poetry in this? Has no one read Lovecraft, even? There was some glimmer of the unconscious at work and some grim humor:

Descending a very narrow cleft is easy—just relax and slither down—gravity is on your side. The return is harder, if not impossible...

Your energy and skill against the agents and climate of subterranean nature in the game of potholing.

Too much sport, too much science.

Candles provide a little comforting warmth in an emergency.

What would comfort Tom in an emergency of that nature would be a sure and painless way of killing himself, not a candle.

Still he was glad to be told how caves were formed and what a Karabiner was.

Tom needed something more up to date and turned to Selected Caves of Britain and Ireland by Des Marshall and Donald Rust. 1997. These two were photographed together. At least they looked like people you might see in the street and not in an Ealing comedy. This guide had a very brief description of the cave the club was planning to visit. All of the caves were graded one to seven for difficulty. One was the easiest, and their cave was a two.

There was a bibliography with suggestive titles. Ten Years Under the Earth and Wilderness Under the Earth. No time to consult these. He made a sketch of the cave and tucked it in the pocket of his goon suit, a kind of tight-fitting boiler suit he had been advised to buy. He did not want to rely entirely on that sap Doug.

He read on to detect a tone in Marshall and Rust. There was a bluff sportsman's cheer, "This climb leads down to the famous Cheese Press. Fatties keep out!"

A guide to the Allt Nan Uamh Stream cave was abbreviated to its acronym without comment. But they mentioned a cave in Wales where the bodies of eight Bronze Age humans were found.

The sections of each cave had been given names. The banal Piccadilly Junction or Oxford Street. Also Coitus Corner and Gormenghast. So someone had read a book.

There was some grudging acknowledgement that the caves were frightening and not only dangerous:

There is an air of foreboding here.

Moss Chamber, where Neil Moss descended a tight vertical tube, got stuck and died.

Several tight squeezes exist beyond the second choke and rescue after this point would be impossible.

Beware of flash floods, loose boulders and Weil's Disease. A collector's item.

It was still dark when they gathered at the mini-van. Doug was there, of course, with his clipboard. At least he seemed pleased Tom had shown up. Another new recruit had not. Niamh and Henry were present, and Henry said hello. Alice kept her distance from Tom. They were not like that yet. Sometimes she called him Dr. Lochhead. There were others whom Tom did not know. No one had tags on today. They reckoned the other novice was not there because he had got laid or got drunk. On reflection they thought drunk was most likely. The faces of the other cavers seemed geological to Tom: craggy, cheeks like molten lava, overhanging eyebrows and lips, nostrils you could take shelter in. One of them seemed to have a pointed skull, like a Pan. Tom had been to the dentist the day before, and his filling still hummed a little and his jaw ached from having held it open so obediently, but otherwise he felt fine. He had made it here, so he would make it altogether.

There was a purpose to this expedition. Digging tools had been packed. Of course, the cave was easy, which is why Tom had been allowed to come along, but a point would be reached when the cavers hoped to make a little excavation, to go a little further than anyone had ever been before. This is what cavers did, apparently. With great luck they would extend the cave, clear some débris and find another chamber or a length of tunnel. Be in the earth where almost no living thing, let alone a human being, had ever been. If they got that far, then they would stop, but that would be something.

In the van, Tom sat by the window and Henry sat next to him. He pretended to sleep while cheerful Henry chatted with Alice.

As it got lighter, people got friendlier. The austere but lovely hill country emerged all around them from a silvery mist. The merest hint of rain blew against the metal box of the van from time to time like gauze. They were getting excited. They actually looked forward to this, and it didn't always come off. Someone put a tape in the van's crusty player, and there were groans but understanding ones. Tom soon realized the music was a joke, and he received a few sidelong glances to check if he was getting it or not. Nick Cave. "Going Underground." An instrumental came on and he garnered a little credit for recognizing David Bowie's "Subterraneans."

He listened to them talk until it became a drowsy blur-like drizzle. He found his fellows boring. He hoped Alice did not really belong here. These were adventurers of the most trivial kind. Caving to them was like bungee jumping.

I want to talk about books. Or being under the world. They are talking about TV programmes and pop music, thought Tom. Rhona had liked books, loved them. He should never have told her to leave.

Henry turned to Tom, but speaking to the van in general, and said, "Wouldn't it be amazing if an archaeologist in the distant future found the body of an entombed caver at an impossibly deep level? He would think it was a ceremonial burial with all of that inexplicable equipment. A crashed astronaut or the last survivor, the king of an older technologically advanced civilization that had been overtaken by apocalypse and reduced right back to stone tools again."

"No," said Tom, "it wouldn't. An anatomically modern human in a stratum where not even a mammal had been found would not give any competent archaeologist pause for even a moment."

Tom had silenced Henry and everyone else. He realized he had been cruelly rude to the only person there who had ever offered him a welcome. He was saved when Dr. Feelgood came on the tape. Doug turned it up and they all sang along;

I'm a hog for you baby
I can't get enough of your love
When I go to sleep at night
You're the only thing I'm dreaming of

"That's nothing to do with caves," said Tom, and that got a laugh.

There was still a couple of miles to walk from where they parked the van, and the rain was a touch heavier now. He was able to walk with Alice. A wood pigeon rowed hoarsely over their heads. He found it suddenly forbidding to be walking on that land, knowing that soon he would be beneath it. Tom and Alice talked about being wet. She said it would not be that wet in the cave, although caves were rarely very dry places.

"Walking in the rain is something no "normal" person ever does, unless they get overtaken by some minor unanticipated disaster. But once, people would have walked in the rain all of the time, because they were outside all of the time. What it means to have a normal human experience has changed and it has not been noticed."

They discussed Paul Hare a little. Tom had still not told Alice.

"He's a very difficult writer to find out anything about," she said. "We should send out a search party for him."

Despite the rain, this had the makings of a lovely day. There was a patch of sky that really was Titian blue, he thought, breaking through the contagion of oyster tones. The mist had come off the green hills and revealed them a promise not broken after all. It was almost impious to turn your back on such a day. Tom noticed the colors as he prepared to enter a world of no color. He hummed to himself, "I see trees of green. Red roses, too."

He was getting cold feet. He was trying to reassure himself. Marshall and Rust had said that most British caves were only a mile or so long and a hundred feet deep. No way could he get lost. Or "entombed." Even so, why go inside? Why enter this obvious trap? Stay out here where the birds sing. Just say you will never fuck this ordinary if pretty girl and that it does not matter at all. Stay out of your grave a little longer. So, these people would mock him for his cowardice. What did he care what they thought about anything?

Then they were there, and it was time to get changed and to step into the bushes for a minute. Alice and Niamh changed round the other side of the van, and instead of saying anything, Tom got into his goon suit and made sure his lamp was working.

The entrance to the cave was kept locked. There was a grating. This was for the protection of fools and animals. Doug had the key, and the cavers would lock the grating behind them, then leave the key on a hook a yard or so from the entrance. You wouldn't want to lose the key in there. They were about to go into a different kind of world.

Henry did not change. He was to stay at the gate, and he knew what to do in case they should not return by a certain time. This was the protocol, even for an easy cave. No wonder Henry had seemed so relaxed, thought Tom, although he was most likely disappointed.

Each of them carried a whistle, and signals were arranged in case of mishap. Tom listened carefully.

The locked gate enhanced the sense the cave might be the lair of a ferocious animal or an ogre's den. The darkness quickly closed around them. Tom wondered if anyone else shared the feeling that this was like entering a giant intestine.

—Into the bowels of the harmless earth, he said.

—Abandon hope, an unknown voice came back, which may have been in reply.

There were six of them. Doug led the way, Alice third and Tom fourth. Niamh brought up the rear. Almost immediately, they came upon the first pitch, a more or less vertical drop of around three meters. This was why the cave was dangerous to animals. Tom knew it was there, he had marked it on his map, but it was quite invisible in the dark. They let themselves down on a rope rigged by Doug to a rubble-strewn tunnel in which it was just possible to stand. Tom offered the remark that it was a lot easier to slide down that rope than it would be to climb back up it again in a few hours' time. Niamh told him not to worry about it.

Now they clipped themselves together with the Karabiners. These were attached to belts so that the cavers were threaded like a string of beads and they could be unclipped without going to the trouble of tying and untying knots.

They went just a few yards before they came to the first thing to see, which was a small chamber on the left with what had once been an impressive show of stalactites. Many of these had been broken off and carried away by cavers insistent upon having a souvenir. It staggered Tom that anyone might do such a thing. People dropped litter in caves. Perhaps nothing else he saw in this cave would surprise him more than that.

One of the cavers took a photograph, which was just possible in the light of their lamps. Tom had seen such photographs in his books, and they could look spectacular, but he doubted their truth. There could be no right light, no right color in such a place. There was no human way of seeing this. He noticed everyone was quiet, saying nothing or almost whispering, even here at the beginning.

Tom did not know if they might find any animals: living fossils, blind fish, blind creatures with vestigial eyes, usually white, crayfish, shrimps, spiders, millipedes, crickets, and salamanders. A predatory world of hapless hunters and their quarry even more so. The parasites of this great stone body. Clearly there were not to be bats, and he knew that there was no record of people having made use of this place. This was an environment content to be unpeopled. They moved on from the stalactites with some reluctance. These formations took hundreds of thousands of years to achieve this state. The cave was a great clock, measuring the age of the Earth. Tom doubted that the bungee jumpers and the rugby club rowdies were thinking such things, but he determined to find out later. He was already contemptuous of those cavers who saw this fantastic journey into the Earth as derring-do.

They began to need to stoop. No place here for a manly strut. And then they came to what Tom thought of as the stone bed. This was a place where it was necessary to lie down flat, feet and head to the walls and to edge along on the floor with the roof of the cave just three or four inches from one's face. You touched ground with heels, buttocks, shoulders, and the back of the head, and bent your spine to the side to make what quickly became painful progress. You had to take off your pack and pull it along with your left hand. This was the first bed on which they had lain down together. Did she think of that? Tom was not frightened here and did not think of fear. He did think of what it would be like to lie on top of Alice here and not to have the room to arch himself, to screw into her. A tantalizing Dantesque punishment. Fortunately, the stone bed was not very wide, and they were soon able to roll from it into a space only a little higher. Here they could get on their hands and knees.

This crawl had been described in Tom's guide as monotonous but easy progress. A little more than 200 meters. It was muddy here, sticky. Why would it not be? The lamp of Tom's helmet illuminated Alice's bottom. This could have been any bottom, but it was not. He could not help but think of his dream of this girl's intrusive finger. He tried to turn his mind away from that. Ballard says the topography of the high-rise building corresponds to a psychic event, so into what kind of mind did the layout of a cave give us an insight? Here the wall of the cave looked like rippling muscle. Limestone he supposed, and therefore organic, or organic once, the débris of hundreds of millions of aquatic animals and plants. The tunnel was circular in section, which meant it had been formed below the water table, Tom remembered, from his reading. He wanted to reach out to her here, to kiss her here. The tunnels of the cave were like the soft tunnels of the body. A pyramid or labyrinth of soft, collapsible tunnels. Alice's bottom was an Ariadne's thread, but leading him into this crazy maze no human mind would have invented. This was not a human space. They crawled, they crept, they slid a little. How squashable the cavers were, as vulnerable as spiders or worms in this hard world.

As they emerged, Doug gave them a "well done." They gathered at the top of what had been dubbed Idiot's Leap. Another pitch of three meters, like the first, and negotiated in the same way. From here, for the first time, they could hear rstoneng water, modest cascades feeding the shallow lake of the Great Chamber. Flooding was a fear in general, but not today. The horror of drowning in this stony place.

Here was the Great Chamber, one hundred meters across, its floor all chilly black water of a treacherously various depth. It was noisy here and seemed darker than the tunnels because their lights did not penetrate to the furthest wall. Alice had to put her mouth right close to Tom's ear when she wanted to remind him of the traverse. Her lips almost touched him, and her warm breath tickled. He stirred with desire so incongruously.

He imagined a shot being fired in the cave. Or a firework exploding. The report would echo and echo again and might almost seem never to have even a possibility of being silenced. Alice was a firework in this dark place.

To get around the lake, it was necessary to perform a manoeuver known as a traverse. There was a very narrow path along the right hand shore, the footholds actually beneath the surface of the water, a path too narrow to be walked normally. It was like edging around the outside of an upper story of a tall building. The caver had to put his back to the wall and find the next foothold to his side as he stepped sideways, looking out over the water.

Just a few meters beyond the end of this traverse, soaked almost to the knees despite the loan of Henry's gaiters, they came to the thrutch known as the Squeeze, a gorge or ravine, a painful spasm in the entrails of the cave. Tom knew that if the faint heart was going to freak out, he was going to do it here. At this fault. You stripped off down to the goon suit and helmet. Doug would go first. He attached his pack to his left foot so that he could drag it through behind him at floor level where the passage was a little wider. This was a tight place. Birth canal style. Tom had been told that if he found himself unable to get further, or back, then he should attempt to relax his body, almost as if he were trying to fall asleep, that there was a kind of natural way of allowing yourself to be peristaltically expelled so long as you didn't fight it. This was one for the thrill seekers.

They undid the Karabiners, and Tom realized then that these connecting cords had been helping him. Alice pressed his hand, which was kind but also convinced him of the seriousness of this. Her face looked spectral, even skeletal in this lamp light, but still attractive. He had tied his pack to Alice's, and she had pulled it through after her so that he had one thing less to negotiate. When Doug and Alice had disappeared, he was left with Niamh, who would go last, and another. He did not envy Niamh, apple-cheeked, standing here alone.

His hands by his sides, as he had seen the others do, he pushed himself into the ravine, his face turned back towards Niamh and the other boy, who watched him without obvious interest. He lost sight of them within a few feet and now felt alone in the cave. It was as tight an embrace as they said. The stone ran a finger-nail along his cheek while it cradled the back of his head. Now he was truly in the world, as flat as a fossil, he thought. This was being buried; lost and found. He had something here which he wished to do. He had promised this to himself, and it was this that he would offer to Alice as a token and a validation. He reached up to his helmet and switched off his light. He could hear nothing, or perhaps the lapping of the shallow lake, unless that was his own blood, thrumming. The darkness was absolute. Only when he closed his eyes could he see light, a vision of the universe inside him from the shelter of the womb. This is what the first men had come into the caves to see. Never before had he had such an invincible sense of being in a place where he was not meant to be, and that that would not change no matter how long he stayed there. He switched the light back on and inched through the next few minutes to the other side. When he freed himself from the grip of the rock, he stood to face Alice and his other companions, waiting to be welcomed as one of them, only to find he was standing alone in a narrow passage, wet and stony and awkward underfoot.

Of course he walked along in that place in the hope, which was hardly a hope at all, of seeing them perhaps admiring a stone drapery or a patch of the celebrated moon milk, but he knew he would not find them, and he did not, nor his pack. What foolishness was this? He felt all of Don Robinson's post-war contempt for these stupid children. Wicked children. But he felt tears come to his eyes also. Alice was gone, and he was afraid, petrified. His warm core went cold. He was like a child himself: in the playground, knowing he was wrong about those he had thought his friends. No one liked him. He was lost.

He had only to wait for Niamh and the other kid to come through. Then what would they have to say? He waited. They did not come through. He conceived the notion that he had somehow lost himself in the Squeeze. He had found an unknown fork in that so constricted a space and had wormed his way into a chamber never before explored, as though he had slipped himself through a crack in time, pressed himself through the solid rock as a ghost could do. If so, if this desperate idea were a valid one, then his friends were innocent of his abandonment and Alice might still come to love him.

He remembered a message on a Kiss postcard he had sent to Rhona, or she to him, in which one of them had said what a terrible thing it was to be alone. He would make his way back. He blew his whistle. To alert Niamh he was coming, or to tell Alice and Doug enough was enough. They must have heard him. He could not convince himself the echo was an answer.

Tom made his way back through the dreadful thrutch. The achievement was not a formality. He did not pause to turn off his lamp, and he knocked his knees on unexpected bevels and jags of stone and felt his ribs dug at by a knuckle he had not known was there. He had been plunged into an obdurate sheath. He was gouged, scalloped and nipped, and pinched. He could hear the voice of the cave telling him, in its stiff utterance, that it owed him nothing.

Back on the other side, he was still alone. Niamh and the boy were gone. This was both not possible and he had known it would be so. Had those two gone back to the traverse? He did not know. Was there another way, in fact, from the Great Chamber, farther into the cave, bypassing the Squeeze? He did not know. How could he?

What Tom now hoped was that this would be enough. That if, yet again, he pressed his weary self through that split in the world, that on the other side would be Doug, surely, Niamh, the lost Alice and the others. They would have done with him what they wanted and be content with this much of a defeat. He went back. Still alone.

He found a stone which he considered to be roughly the shape of a coffin lid and sat down. He was cold—his feet wet, the feeling iced out of them—and now so tired.

He was putting Alice away from him, but he needed to know what she had had in mind for him. Was she a cruel person? Was this just cruelty? Some cavers were in search of the unforgettable experience that would change them forever. Alice may have been on the trail of something like this. An opportunity to be terribly cruel. Was it so unusual to wish to humiliate? To degrade the sexual partner he had not in fact been? Tom thought of the female monsters who dwelled in caves in Spenser and Milton. This place was a gigantic sex dungeon.

He made an effort at pulling himself together. Some of those other cavers were just boys, and Tom felt sure they would have managed better here than he had so far. He got up off the coffin slab and began to look about him. He examined the tunnel and felt with his hands the invisible threads of water trickling down the muscular walls. He found a number of apertures in the left hand wall that could be the beginnings of tunnels. He could squeeze himself into one of these. He could reptate there. Should he explore them? He was not afraid anything would come out of them. Water, sometimes, maybe. This was a sterile place. He remembered Neil Moss trapped in a tube while exploring a cleft. He did not dare. He reasoned Alice and the others would come back for him and that he needed to be where they could find him.

Of course they would come back for him. It was absurd to suggest they had chosen to murder him. Obviously he would be rescued, so it was essential he should be in a position to be found. Might they be so ashamed they would not come back? He wondered how long his light was going to last. The longevity of his lamp must be the extent of his ordeal. They would come for him before it faded. Of course, he could switch it off while he was sitting still, which those pranksters might expect him to do. He wished he had a candle.

If they tried to leave the cave without him, what would Henry say? Henry had been kind, and he would not stand for this. But he was soft. They would walk all over him. He recalled the remark about not having to worry about being too tired to climb the pitch back to the entrance. He thought that he had been intended to think of that here, in this cell. This catacomb for one. Tom remembered the dream he had had when the cavers had trounced him and broken his bones. The occasional cracking noise in the cave sounded now like a snapping limb. Cave music from before rhythm. He looked at his map, which he had in his pocket. It was different when you looked at it here. It was just a piece of paper. It had no correspondence with the world. He did not know where he was.

Tom was struck now with the fear that he did not know even on which side of the Squeeze he was sitting. When he had made the decision to go through again to see if Niamh and the boy were there with Alice and Doug, had he actually done that, or had he merely thought of doing it and imagined what it had been like? He looked at the stone on which he was sitting. Did it really look like a coffin? It did not look like a coffin at all. He went to the wall to look for the entrances to the possible tunnels and could not find them, and when he did find one, it did not look the same. Tom was now astonished by what had happened to him.

He blew his whistle. Again and again. He could not start a landslide could he? He filled his lungs and howled. He had needed to do that. He could move their pity. He began to talk to himself.

—Perhaps I have died already. Crushed in the Squeeze. Drowned in the lake. Tumbled from Idiot's Leap. This is Hell, and this is the torment I must suffer.

He caught himself humming the chorus of "Swords of a Thousand Men." He thought of his own body, preserved for millennia on this coffin-shaped stone, like the skull of the Neanderthal he had seen in Greece. Not the relic of an arcane rite, an indication of magical respect, but of a practical joke. He heard the noises of the cave as the beating of a stone heart, the ticking of an ancient clock. He would never hear a real clock again.

Tom began to weep. His life was very precious to him. It was the treasure he had found in this cave. His weeping sounded to him like the squealing of a piglet. He wondered if Don Robinson could rescue him. Or Paul Hare. The cave presented itself to Tom as a great, dark weight. He felt like a man on the ground floor of a tower block with half a mile of shuddering stone pressing down on him. He whinnied. He hissed. He began to whimper like Rhona having a nightmare, but there was no one there to put a hand on his shoulder and to lie to him.

Perhaps he could get used to the darkness, and it would become his medium. He had the idea that if he could find the other cavers, he would separate Alice from them and they would live together in the cave and never leave this place. He curled up on the stone tight, like a minuscule snail inside a shell as big as the world. He put his hands between his thighs and comforted himself.

Tom may have fallen asleep or into some exhausted trance, because he was in the Great Chamber once more, although he knew now it was called the Landslide Chamber, with the water around his calves, and across this amazing cathedral space he could see Alice and Henry on the opposite shore. He might wade across to them. He hailed them, but his voice was choked and inaudible. He could hardly make out what he was saying himself. Alice and Henry would be good together. He must put a stop to that. They raised their hands to him as though they had heard him, but they could not have done so. Then Henry put his hand on Alice's breast and turned to smile at Tom. Was this so? They all looked the same in their muddy goon suits.

Tom woke, or came to himself, keening again like a trapped animal. He put his hands to his head and counted the beats in his temples. A small stone bounced off his body and pattered away among the rubble. He thought for a moment that he had brought the roof down with his shameful wails. Another small stone pinged from his helmet. The bones of the cave were crumbling. He stood up quickly on his pedestal. Meters above him, only now illuminated by the light of five helmet lamps, was Alice and the four other cavers, sitting on a ledge overlooking this chamber with the coffin-shaped stone. They were tossing stones down at him, having grown bored with his inactivity.