Lisa followed Duncan up the road, shining her torch beam down to dodge the clumps of horse manure. The thrill of sneaking out of their house in the middle of the night was fading; they walked up this road every morning to catch the school bus.
“This is a stupid idea,” she mumbled.
Duncan’s torch was fixed on the tall, shaggy hedge beside them, and when he stopped she stumbled into him.
“It’s a superb idea,” he said, covering his hand with his jacket sleeve and tearing at the brambles and nettles in the hedge. “Ha! Found our portal.”
Lisa watched him pulling away more clumps of vegetation and snapping back brambles and branches. When he stood back, and she could see the hole in the hillside, its earthy edges fringed with torn leaves.
“It’s smaller than I expected,” she said. “Are you sure this is it?”
He nodded and snapped off another tendril of bramble. “It’s exactly where Tom said it was, he came up here with his stepdad last summer.” Then he grinned, holding the torch under his chin to make his face gargoyle-ish. “Let’s go inside!”
They had to bend almost double to squeeze through the opening, but after a metre or so the tunnel opened up into a small cavern which they could stand up in. Two arched passageways branched away from the cavern ahead of them. It was dry and cool, and the rich brown earth of the walls and floor was packed solid. A fine dust like cocoa came off on Lisa’s hands where she touched the wall. She wrinkled her nose and wiped her palms on her jeans.
Duncan rummaged in his backpack and pulled out a tent peg and a ball of bright orange twine. He drove the peg into the ground of the entrance passageway with his heel, and tied the end of the twine to it before walking backwards a couple of paces, letting it unravel.
“So we won’t get lost,” he said, pleased.
“What about the roof?”
“Well, it’s been there for two hundred years, I don’t see why it would fall down now.”
Lisa looked uncertain.
“It’ll be fine,” he said brightly and started down one of the passages.
“What about your bag?”
“Just leave it there, no one’s going to nick it are they?” he called over his shoulder. “I want to see if we can find part of the actual mine.”
Lisa followed him, treading gingerly on the packed earth. “Is this not the mine?”
“No, just an adit. They cut them to drain the water away. The mine proper is further in.”
Lisa tried not to trip over the twine that he reeled out behind him like plastic spider thread. She thought about people digging these tunnels by hand, burrowing into the hillside.
“Grandad was a miner, wasn’t he?” she asked, hoping Duncan’s cheerful chatter would fill the gloomy corridors.
“Yeah! Well, Great Grandad. Bill Bennett. He was a hero.”
“Tell me the story again.”
“There was a cave-in up at Boswellen, and three men were trapped behind a wall of rubble, and Bill took his lamp and his pick and he dug them out. Took three hours. One had died but the other two survived. They were all in the paper, Mum got that photocopy from the library.”
The passage had started to grow narrower, and Lisa had to turn sideways so that her shoulders didn’t scrape the dirt from the walls.
“Hey, look – I think this is where the adit joins the mine!”
She looked over his shoulder and saw the passage ended in a rounded wall with a slanting, oval-shaped hole about half a metre wide and a metre high. Duncan crouched down, shining his torch through the crevice.
“It is! The walls are rock, and I can see the supports. Look!”
She crouched down beside him and peered through the hole at jagged walls glistening in the torchlight, logs jammed in at odd angles. She looked down.
“Train tracks?” she said, frowning, and Duncan tilted the torch beam downwards and laughed in excitement. “Did they have trains down here?”
“Yeah, kind of. Not engines. They had tracks like these and they’d run carts up and down to get the copper up to the surface.” He stood up and stepped back, sizing up the hole. “We can get through there.”
“Are you sure it’s safe?” she murmured as he knelt down and reached into the crack, twisting his torso to fit the slant. He didn’t answer, wriggling through the gap until his legs and then his trainers disappeared. She crouched down and peered into the hole. Duncan’s face appeared on the other side, bleached in her torch beam.
“See? Easy! You’ve got to come through, Lise, it’s wicked.”
As Lisa stumbled to her feet on the other side she coughed and brushed at the earth on her arms and her legs, then stepped carefully out of a loop of the orange twine they had brought through with them, like threading a needle. It was colder here, and when she reached out to touch the rock it was damp. It looked black, streaked with dull greens and reds and she tapped it with her fingernail. She couldn’t imagine how anyone had carved a whole tunnel into something so hard. How could a man, someone tall as their Dad maybe, even swing a pick in this cramped space? She thought about Bill Bennett and the miners trapped behind a wall of rubble.
“Did lots of miners die in the mines?” she asked Duncan, who was inspecting one of the wooden supports a few feet away.
“Oh yes,” he said, picking at a bit of sodden wood. “Thousands.”
She swallowed. “Are there ghosts, then? Do you think?”
“Probably! Let’s go a bit further.”
As Duncan started walking down the track and whistling, picking his way between the rusted sleepers, she felt a pit in her stomach as cold and dark and damp as the one they were standing in. She picked the twine up from the floor and let it run through her hand as they walked. It made her feel safer somehow to be tied together like mountaineers.
They reached a sharp curve in the track and Duncan stopped. He turned around and said “Hey, I have an idea. Let’s switch our torches off. Just for a few seconds. It’ll be completely dark, really pitch black!”
“I- I guess. Can we go back after though? I don’t really want to be down here any more,” she said quietly, trying to sound casual. Duncan looked surprised.
“Sure. Yeah, ok. We can always come back.”
“All right,” he said and held his torch aloft, thumb on the switch. Lisa did the same and squeezed the twine with her other hand. “On three: 1… 2… 3!”
Lisa screamed as a pale face swam out of the blackness where Duncan had been standing moments before. Then it was Duncan again, in the torch light, worried and holding her arm, the twine dropped at his feet.
“Are you ok? What happened?”
“I saw one! A ghost!” she cried, hot tears prickling in her eyes.
He squeezed her shoulder. “What did you see? Exactly?”
“His face,” she said, miserably. “Right where you are. It was really close!”
“Was it definitely a face?”
“Well,” she sniffed. “It was kind of blurry.”
He smiled. “It’s ok, I know what happened. I think you saw an after image. You were looking at me, right? When we switched the torches off? It’s kind of an echo in your eyes. An optical illusion.”
“Yeah. Nothing to worry about. I’m sorry, I should have thought.”
“S’ok,” Lisa said biting her lip and staring at her trainers. She felt like a little kid.
“Let’s get out of here,” Duncan said and swung the torch around the passage one more time. “Goodbyyye!” he called out in a spooky voice. They listened to the echo until it had faded, then stood in silence. Lisa noticed a sound she hadn’t heard while they were walking, the sound of water ticking on stone. Drip drip drip.
It seemed to be getting louder. Or maybe closer.
She glanced at Duncan, who was frowning. So he’d heard it too. Around the noise the silence was stifling. She wanted to say something – or rather, she wanted Duncan to say something – but the words stayed curled in her throat. It was louder, and longer, and the drips didn’t sound clean and clipped any more, but more like ragged crunches.
Footsteps, she realised, as her stomach twisted. They were footsteps.
She opened her mouth but no sound came out and she clutched at Duncan’s arm in the dark. They stared ahead to where the tunnel curved away. Now they could hear other sounds accompanying the trudging steps: a low rumble, the scrape of metal on metal, the faint squeak of a wheel. They waited, watching down the trembling torchlight beam, unable to move, unable to blink. As the steps reached the corner of the tunnel Lisa felt her heart stop.
She saw a boy, a little boy. His hair stood out in damp tufts, and he was naked from the waist up, skinny body smeared with grime, sweat, and bruises. He was in a kind of harness, pulling a cart loaded with rocks. Behind him and behind the cart was a girl, even younger, dressed in stained rags with hair hanging down in oily strings beside her sunken face. Sweat beaded on her brow as her small arms strained, pushing the cart forward. They looked at Lisa and Duncan with hollow eyes, but they didn’t stop.
“Run,” Lisa said, grabbing Duncan’s hand. He stared at her blankly, mouth hanging open. “Now!” she yelled and tugged him backward. He seemed to come out of his trance and they ran back down the track. The scraping, creaking, rumbling behind them never stopped, and never slowed, and they didn’t look back.
When they reached the crack in the wall into the adit Lisa pushed Duncan into it and he scrambled through. She wriggled through the gap as soon as his trainers were clear and they pelted along the tunnel. Lisa could see the grey glow of moonlight ahead and with a new surge of energy she dived through the entrance, brambles scratching her cheeks and catching at her hands. Then she was out in the air again under the fresh bright stars. Duncan emerged from the hedge too and they stood panting on the tarmac.
He grimaced. “My bag!”
Before Lisa could say anything he ducked back into the brambles and disappeared.
She shifted her weight from foot to foot as she counted out the seconds, and the minutes, and started to feel panic rising in her throat.
There was a rustle and Duncan reappeared, clutching his bag. He started walking fast down the hill. When she caught up with him she tried to catch his eye but he just looked ahead.
“What happened?” she asked, finally.
He said nothing.
“Duncan!” she demanded and he flinched.
“When I grabbed my bag,” he started to speak, not looking at her. “I tried to get the twine too, I hadn’t noticed I’d dropped it. So I started pulling it back along the tunnel. I’d reeled up a few metres of it and then I couldn’t get any more,” his voice dropped to a whisper. “Like someone was holding the other end.”
They walked on in tense silence. Soon they could see down the hill to the cluster of houses that made up their hamlet. She could see a light was on in their house. That meant they wer in trouble, but right now she didn’t care. She even felt glad. She was just happy to be out of the ground and walking away from the adit.
She glanced at Duncan, who was still hurrying and looking at nothing.
“The twine was probably just stuck. Maybe it got caught in the tracks or something,” she offered. “No.” Duncan shook his head and turned to look at her, eyes lit with fear. “When I tugged on it, something tugged back.”
Sarah Jackson writes gently unsettling stories. Her short fiction has been published by Wyldblood Magazine, Ghost Orchid Press, and Tales From Between. She lives in east London UK and has a green tricycle called Ivy. Her website is https://sarah-i-jackson.ghost.io.