This month sees the debut of my novel, eco-thriller ‘The Conways at Earthsend’ , published by Pegasus. [The Conways at Earthsend by Jane Deans | Waterstones, or The Conways at Earthsend: Amazon.co.uk: Deans, Jane: 9781784659615: Books]. For more information, please visit my author page on: Facebook. In celebration of this event I’m posting up a new short story for readers, followers and visitors.
This story describes a different kind of journey:
When he wakes it’s dark. He waits for an outline, for a glow or a contrast but there is none. He becomes aware by degrees, lying on his back, his right hand caught underneath him so that he must shift. He is able to move a little but his hand and arm that are trapped feel numb. He reaches across with his left hand and tugs at his right, a coat sleeve, some kind of woolly fabric. He needs to stop and rest between tugs but at last his arm is freed, although there’s no sensation in it. He rubs his left hand and arm until prickly pins and needles run up and down his fingers and his wrist, then some feeling begins to return.
He moves his head from side to side and touches the floor where he’s lying. It’s a little warm and smooth with a few knobbly protuberances and it’s damp with some kind of viscous deposit. Reaching up and to the side it feels identical, except that the wall he’s lying against seems to curve inwards as it rises and has the same, slimy residue. It is odourless.
Can he sit up? Should he try? His arm and hand are restored and he tries rolling, throwing his right shoulder across until he’s on his front then pushing up on his elbows. He’s out of breath now and stays, leaning down on his elbows to wait for the panting to subside. That’s when he feels the vibration under his fingertips and hears a dull, pounding beat like a machine.
He sways a little and some awareness seeps in. Where is Judy? Is she here in this place with him, or is he alone? How did he get here? He takes a shallow breath and pushes himself into a seated position. Now he’s gulping and heaving with the effort but if there was a glimmer of light, he’d have more chance of spotting it by seeing both ways. He leans back against the curved wall until he’s recovered his breath.
Every part of him aches; every joint, muscle and organ heavy and sore, as if he’s been run over by a steamroller. Is that it? Has he been in a road traffic accident, pushed into a drainage pipe? Perhaps he should try and call for help? Does he have a phone? He roots around, feeling for a pocket in the woolly coat and finding one, but with nothing in it. His legs though, are bare and he is not wearing shoes. Where is Judy? He tries to remember where he was before he came here and what he was doing. The dull throb continues in a relentless rhythm, the beat familiar, a song he knows, music he’s played himself, with the band. The band! Of course, he is a musician and plays a stringed instrument-a banjo! And something else; it’s his name. His name is Banjo, too.
When he tries to hum the tune, nothing comes out but he moves his fingers as if on the banjo strings and in his mind’s eye there is an image of Judy, next to him, playing bass and belting out a harmony to the chorus. Now he knows the song. It’s ‘Copperhead Road’, Steve Earl’s country number about bootlegging and drug running and he runs through the lyrics in his head: ‘Now my name’s John Lee Pettimore…’ He can hear Judy’s strong vocals as she stands by him at the mike, close enough to smell her fresh, citrussy scent and see the light dusting of freckles across her cheek.
He has to find a way out. And he has to find Judy.
He turns his head to the left and stares long and hard into the dark void but can make out no shape or line, then turns to the right, thrusting his head forward and gazing, holding his laboured breathing back until there, at last he detects a minute, white pinprick.
It’s something. Maybe it’s a light or maybe not. But to ascertain the source is better than sitting here doing nothing. He takes stock. He is neither hungry nor thirsty, which is just as well as there is nothing here. Nothing except darkness.
He takes a breath before manoeuvring back onto elbows and knees facing the white dot and begins to move towards it, Copperhead Road playing in his head along to the pulsing throb of the tunnel. After a few seconds he must rest, flopping down on his stomach this time and it seems as if the vibrating beat is faster as he listens. Then it slows again. He pushes up, labouring to get back on his knees and moves forward.
Banjo has no idea of time here or how much has elapsed since he began to move, resting between bursts. Sometimes, when he stops he sleeps, waking on his stomach, neither hot nor cold, thirsty or hungry. Whenever he wakes the pounding of the tunnel is slow.
It occurs to him that he might be dead, in which case, what is he crawling towards? Is he making his way towards an afterlife? He feels himself crumple inwards like an eggshell. It’s too soon; he hasn’t said goodbye to Judy. There is still so much to do. He’s not ready. He frowns and grits his teeth. ‘Get on with it, Banjo!’ he tells himself. Whatever is there, he needs to find out, needs to get there and this is no time to wallow in self-pity.
Next time he stops he pulls up into sitting again for a proper rest and to check the dot. The curve of the tunnel wall supports his back as he leans in, noting that his clothes are soggy with slime from the deposit he’s picked up. Now, when turns to look at the white speck he sees that it’s bigger and when he concentrates, he thinks there may be faint, pale shafts radiating inwards from it. If he’s correct this will be a light. His heart pounds. If it’s a light can it be the tunnel entrance?
He’s encouraged, and crawls on with renewed energy, his heart beating along with the tunnel’s throb…’Now Daddy ran whisky in a big, black Dodge’…the lyrics ring through his head as he goes, coming back to him now. Other than aching he’s not injured so he couldn’t have been in an accident. Was he abducted? Imprisoned here? But why would he be? He is neither rich nor famous.
He doesn’t allow himself another look until he’s managed another five bursts of crawling, but when he does stop to sit up the circle has grown much larger, light shafts illuminating the tunnel entrance, enabling him to see a grey and purplish glow, textured with something like threads. It’s puzzling, almost as if the tunnel was a living thing; the inside of a creature. Has he been swallowed up by an enormous beast? That would explain the warmth, although not the fact that he is still alive-if he is alive. If he isn’t alive, he has not much further to go to discover what the afterlife has in store for him. Either way he must plough on.
When he stops again to gather strength it’s clear that one more effort will take him to the tunnel entrance, and now he can see that outside is a clear, pale blue, indicating that the tunnel will exit to the outside somewhere and that it is a bright, sunny day. He considers this, feeling around in his woolly pockets once more for something that will help when he’s out. He has no means of communicating with Judy. He can remember where he lives but will he know the way back from wherever this is? Supposing he’s miles from anywhere? It could be a desert, or a mountaintop. And the lack of footwear is going to be a problem. He shivers, in spite of the tunnel’s warmth.
Banjo readies himself for the last push and crawls towards the big, blue mouth, his heart beating fast and his eyes squinting in the blinding light as he arrives at last, breathless, lying on his back across the threshold. He squeezes his eyes closed for a moment against the glare.
The pounding has stopped. There is a voice.
“Banjo? Are you with us at last? Hello!”
He stares into the blue, realising it isn’t as he’d thought, sky. It’s blue fabric on the arms and torso of a person. Now he can hear a high-pitched bleeping and when he plucks at the woolly sleeve of his coat, he finds it’s a blanket. He frowns as the someone leans down to peer at his face.
“Do you know where you are? You’ve been asleep a long time. Lie still now and we’ll let your wife know you’re awake. Judy, isn’t it?”
Banjo blinks, looking around at the array of tubing and machinery surrounding his hospital bed, remembering nothing of the circumstances that brought him here but feeling that the journey he made as he fought his way along and out of the tunnel has been the hardest of his life. He looks up at the blue-clad nurse and mouths the words, ‘thank you’, and she places her gloved hand on his arm for a brief moment and smiles.