by Judy Darley
Her little brother’s favourite game is The Tunnel, which goes likes this: he closes his eyes and as she guides him along the sloping road that goes from their house to the park, she fills his head with stories. She whispers in his ear as they walk, telling him about bats swooping, cockroaches and spiders skittering by, and stalactites hanging down like swords. Her fingers patter on his head, feigning droplets of water seeping through rock.
She knows he likes it best when she tells him they’re in terrible danger, like when a grizzly bear rushes by, its breath hot and sudden on his neck. Other times the path threads alongside a crevasse so deep and sheer that she has to pull him suddenly one way or another to prevent him falling. His body in her arms feels small and trusting, and she vows that whatever happens, she’ll keep him safe.
She describes what she imagines until she almost believes it too, and she knows he can see it all behind his closed lids – a secret subterranean land that only he and she can ever pass through.
But today is different. Today Carl Matthews appears when Pippa is focused on the caves, and calls out: “Pippa, isn’t it? What you up to?” so she jumps.
Humiliation burns through her. Carl used to go to her school and occasionally comes in to do odd jobs. If he finds out the babyish game she’s playing, she’s got no doubt he’ll make sure everyone knows what a freak she is. It’s bad enough already with her dad being gone, and her having to wear ugly old hand-me-downs that don’t fit properly and having to babysit her brother every weekend while everyone else is out having fun.
Jonno’s eyes snap open, but Pippa wraps her hands over them. “Keep um closed for me, Jonno,” she says. “All right, Carl, just taking my kid bro for a stroll. He reckons he’s in a cave!”
Pippa giggles along with Carl, even though she feels her brother squirm under her hands. She doesn’t think he’ll tell Mum. She’s done her best to make sure he knows she’s the boss. Last time he embarrassed her, she took his Thor doll and pushed the plastic eyeballs inwards with the tip of a nail file. The action figure sits gazing at his bed with its blank blind stare and sometimes she wonders if that’s what gives him nightmares. She wonders why he doesn’t throw it out, whether he’s scared she’ll somehow bring it back and make the dreams far worse. God, eight-year-olds can be dumb. The power she has over him is mad, but useful sometimes.
Carl says he has an idea. “It’ll be right a laugh,” he tells her, and then whispers soft so she has to lean in close and leave her brother standing stock still and all alone on the kerb, waiting with his eyes screwed up tight. The plan is proper mean, but Carl is grinning so wide that she can’t help smiling back. She needs him to like her. That’ll make all the difference to the kids in her class.
Carl suddenly bends down and plants her one, right on the lips. Pippa’s caught by surprise but she manages to go with it, moving her tongue around his and trying to not think of when you give Granddad sponge pudding with custard and he’s hell bent on sucking it dry.
“All she can think about is how dense the darkness was. How all those tunnels wriggled off different directions. How her little brother trusted her.”
After a bit there’s a pause in the slippy sucky sensation, and Pippa lets out a soft sigh like the girls in films.
Carl shouts: “See ya, Pips!” and heads off.
And Pippa’s hands are back on Jonno’s shoulders, guiding him through the tunnel deep underground while bats wheel overhead.
The plan takes place on a Saturday when Pippa and Jonno’s mum is at work and Pippa’s in charge. She’s arranged to meet Carl at the corner near the Ostrich Pub, overlooking the docks. Before they start she takes one of Mum’s scarves and ties it over Jonno’s eyes, “just to make sure you don’t peek and ruin the game,” she says.
“I’d never!” he protests, but he doesn’t stop her tying the scarf good and tight. It smells a bit of Mum’s lily of the valley perfume and Pippa wonders if that makes him feel secure.
A bubble of remorse rises from her belly, but she swallows it down.
Carl leads Pippa to the entrance to Redcliffe Caves. Where he’s got the key from, she doesn’t know, and doesn’t want to know. She carries on muttering her spiel in Jonno’s ear as they walk into the darkness. He shivers as the shadows deepen over them. The air’s different down here. Just a few feet in she comes to a stop, but Carl shakes his head, flicking on a torch and nodding to the tunnel winding onwards. They walk for five minutes or more, passing guttered out tea lights and the blankness of more tracks stretching on and out beneath the city’s streets.
At last Carl motions for her to step away from her brother. He takes hold of Jonno’s narrow shoulders and spins the boy three times. Then he grabs Pippa’s hand and runs with her out of there. They burst into the sunlight, and Carl hoots with glee.
“How long do you reckon before he takes the scarf off?” he asks. “Ten minutes? Twenty? Gonna be a shock when he does. I’d love to be a fly on the wall.”
“No flies down there,” Pippa says, and she tries to laugh, but all she can think about is how dense the darkness was. How all those tunnels wriggled off different directions. How her little brother trusted her.
“We’ve got to go and get him,” she stammers.
Carl stares at her. “Thought you were up for a laugh.”
“I am,” she exclaims, “But I’m not sure this is funny.”
Before she can say more he’s kissing her again and this time it’s like Granddad eating mashed potatoes and gravy, with extra squelch. The heat of Carl’s breath in her mouth makes her dizzy, and his stubble is like grit across her face.
When he releases her, she stumbles backwards. “Give me the torch. Now.”
He holds it above her head, out of reach. “Don’t be a baby, Pips.”
“Did you know I’m only thirteen? Give me the torch or I’ll tell everyone you’re a dirty pervert.”
He scowls, and flings the torch so it rolls into the cave entrance and she has to scrabble after it. “You’re a waste of a pretty face, you know that?” he snarls, but she ignores him.
She runs down the tunnel with the torch bouncing puddles of light off the reddish rock walls. It all looks pretty much the same. “Jonno!” she yells. “Game’s over. Come on, time to go home!”
The caves swallow up her words and she has to call again and again. She’s scared of getting lost, so she picks up the spent tea light tins and begins to leave a Hansel and Gretel trail.
Panic is starting to splutter inside her, making her heart jolt. The strain of staring into the blackness beyond the torch beam is causing her head to throb. “Jonno!” she whimpers.
Then she breathes in hard, trying to fill her lungs, and she screams out: “Bears! There are bears coming, Jonno. Help me! Please help!”
She waits, hearing the dregs of her shout ebb away, her ears ringing with the effort of trying to hear her little brother’s voice.
She doesn’t know where he comes from, or how they’ve found each other in the labyrinth of caves, but suddenly she feels his skinny arms around her waist. His tear-sodden face presses against her t-shirt. “I’ve got you, Pippa,” Jonno says. “Whatever happens, I’ll keep you safe.”
Judy Darley is a British fiction writer, poet and journalist whose work appears in magazines and anthologies and in her short story collection Remember Me To The Bees. Her second collection Sky Light Rain will be out from Valley Press in 2019. Judy has shared her stories on BBC radio, as well as in cafés, caves, an artist’s studio and a disused church.