Laura’s had enough…
Joseph turned and started walking.
Laura turned too and set off after him, scowling crossly. He looked quite normal from the back, six foot-ish, thirtyfive-ish, but clearly delusional. Soon she was stumbling along in the darkness of another brick lined tunnel. It was narrow, damp under foot, and lit only by an occasional torch on the wall.
“Slow down please. It’s too dark and I can’t keep up with you.” Laura fell further behind and then came to a halt.
“Why are we going this way – it isn’t the way we came is it? I need to go back to the cemetery and get my bag. And whatever is that disgusting smell?”
Joseph stopped and made his way back to her. “Anything else?” He sounded impatient.
The adrenalin that up until now had been coursing through her suddenly dissolved into a dull lethargy. Her shoulders sagged and she felt tired and afraid. She shook her head silently and Joseph was sorry he’d snapped at her.
“The smell is the oil in the lamps. Used cooking oil is dumped down the drains by fast food places and even some of the better restaurants. It solidifies in the sewers and pipes under the centre of town and the water companies have to spend a fortune clearing it away to prevent blockages. It makes perfect lamp oil, just a bit smelly – you get used to it.”
“And you can’t go back the way you came. I don’t know if the shaft you fell down is safe without investigating properly, so I’ll take you out this way and then back to the cemetery. I doubt your bag will still be there though – where did you leave it?”
“I hid it in a bush.” Laura knew she was sounding rather feeble now so she decided to say as little as possible, and pushing past Joseph she started walking again.
“Let me go first,” he said, “I’ll take it a bit slower this time.”
He led the way, and eventually it started to get lighter as the tunnel joined another broader passageway. Up ahead Laura could see daylight at last and then they reached a iron gate, overgrown with ivy. Joseph fiddled with a catch, lifted the gate slightly off its rusted hinges and pushed it open a few inches. He looked round cautiously, squeezed through and held out his hand to pull her through after him. Then he pushed the gate closed again. They had emerged onto a small patch of scrubland beside a railway arch. The ground sloped down towards an alleyway where a battered red van sat next to a burnt out car with no doors or wheels. Behind the van was a pile of dirt and rubble from which a scrawny plant was growing, its purple flowers a defiant splash of colour.
“Now where are we?” asked Laura.
“We’ve come out through what was an old storm drain from the River Fleet, but it’s not been wet here for years.”
He led her towards the red van. “Come on I’ll drive you.”
Laura barely even hesitated, after what had happened so far this morning she might as well get into a dodgy looking van with a complete stranger. She sank into the passenger seat and felt behind her left shoulder.
“No seat belts. Sorry.”
The engine coughed and growled and then spluttered into life. Joseph crunched it into gear and reversed until they bumped into the heap of rubble. He hauled on the steering wheel and with another grinding gear change and a final lurch they were on the move.
Laura closed her eyes, her head reeling as a hundred mad thoughts and questions crowded through her mind and competed for attention. At last one of them won:
“So I saw you – them – from the train on Monday. But what did he mean by ‘you can listen’?”
“He thinks you have the capacity to understand, to see and hear what’s really there. It’s sort of like wisdom, or intuition, and they know that it’s very rare now and therefore very precious.”
“And you’ve got it I suppose?” she snorted. Joseph said nothing and Laura did not bother to open her eyes.
“This is all clearly the biggest load of bullshit I have ever heard. I don’t know what you and your weirdo mates are doing down in the sewers, but I guess you’ve succeeded in making yourselves appear so totally barking that you know I’ll never tell anyone in case I get sectioned myself.”
The van stopped and Joseph turned off the engine. “We’re here”.
Now Laura blinked and looked up. They had parked beside the wall of Highgate Cemetery, on the opposite side from the main gates she’d used when she went in that morning.
“You can squeeze in through here, there’s a loose railing. Head north and you’ll soon be on one of the main paths.”
“North? I’m sorry mister but I left my compass at home this morning.” Laura wasn’t sure how much more of this she could take before she really lost it.
“Sorry. Just go straight ahead, away from the railings. Will you be alright? Do you need a lift home?”
“Where do you live?”
“Muswell Hill,” Joseph glanced across at her, “King’s Avenue. Actually you know what? I don’t want to talk to you any more. Good bye.”
And with that Laura scrambled out of the van and pushed past the loose railing into the cemetery. It had stopped raining and the sun had come out, and she managed to find her bag and the shears without falling down any more holes or coming across any of the other volunteers…After brushing herself down as best she could, she went back to the caretaker’s hut and returned the tools to the scary woman with apologies for a sudden headache. Half an hour after slamming the door of the red van she was on her way home.