A slender white arm descended down a deep black hole in the ground. Amidst a pile of toppled stones, ankle deep in grass four boys stood by patiently.
‘Can you feel anything Felix?’ enquired Tòmas. Felix didn’t respond, he just lowered himself further to the ground and sent his thin arm even deeper down the hole.
‘Anything at all, like a lever or a rope or latch or something’, Felix ignored Tòmas again, pressing his pale cheek against the wet grass gaining a few more inches. The boys that stood around could hear him straining with effort, though he lay fixed to ground completely still. Until, like a bottle-rocket Felix let out an almighty screech, flew up onto his knees and then leapt backwards howling. Knocking Tòmas over in the process out of sheer fright and sending the rest of the boys into hysterical fits of laughter.
Scrambling to his feet Tòmas rushed over to Felix, who was currently rolling around on the grass with his hand pressed between one arm and his eyes clenched tight holding back tears.
‘What was it, what happened, was it a trap?’ Felix didn’t respond, Tòmas looked around expectantly at the other boys all of them much older than him. Gareth knelt down and began peering into the black hole in the ground.
‘I think it was a rat, this is a rat hole’ Gareth turned to the twins sharing with them a look of amusement. The twins immediately started laughing again, their fat bellies barely contained within thick cotton jumpers jiggled from left to right, then up and down. Tòmas stared at them, he wondered why they were laughing. Felix stormed past Tòmas making his way back to the hole, knocking him over again in the process.
‘Maybe we should set a trap, and catch it? How big do you think it was Felix? I dare say we could eat six rats between the two of us. Do you think there are more down there?’ The twins chirped and chattered. Felix ignored them and knelt down on the ground before the hole, calmly he let his bloody hand descend into the dark. Tòmas was still kneeling on the grass where Felix had been tossing and turning. Gareth sat atop a fallen stone pillar. The twins waited in anticipation for the next bout of laughter. Felix all at once clenched his eyes shut, drove his forehead into the ground and in complete silence tore from the hole a large grey rat, which he promptly dashed across a pale white masonry stone. The rat let out a distorted squeak as it was crushed by the impact and loosed a streak of fresh red blood across the stone.
They stayed amongst the ruins that night. Tòmas sat beside Felix facing away from the blood stained rock and towards the open fire. Gareth sat with the twins who stared longingly at the squired rat cooking slowly amidst the flames.
‘Where should we look tomorrow Felix?’ Tòmas was sitting beneath a thick blanket, though the night wasn’t cold and the fire would keep them warm even through the chill of the morning should they all choose to sleep under the stars.
‘Back to the wall, we will start from the beginning.’ Felix threw into the fire a handful of twigs that he had been tossing into a heap on the grass where he sat. He would throw the sticks, watch where they fell, then scribble something into his warn black journal and toss the sticks into a heap again. Tòmas watched him the whole time without the faintest understanding.
‘Back, why back. Back he said. Why would we go back? There is nothing back there. We have checked, we told you there is bound to be an entrance out here. And if not at least it’s nice out here. That’s right, nice green grass, nice friendly forest full of fat lovely rats.’ The twins broke their eye contact with the squired rat for long enough to turn and nod in agreement with one another. Their hands plump and pink, sat propped under their chins as they resumed staring. The squired rat licked by tongues of flame was reflected in each one of their four fixed eyes.
‘You’re right, it’s been weeks and we haven’t found a single trace of a tunnel.’ Gareth stood up and inspected the rat with a small knife, pulling away some of the flesh to check the colour of the meat.
‘Better to have it burnt than raw, you never know what these things have been eating. How is your hand feeling?’ Gareth sat down next to Felix who showed him his wounded hand.
‘I think it will be fine, just hurt like all hell at the time.’ Felix held his hand up to the light and revealed a mess of coagulated blood and two large but shallow gashes. Gareth laughed and looked over towards Tòmas with a warm smile. It was the same smile that he always shared with the twins; Tòmas never understood what Gareth was smiling about. He had been searching with Felix for three months, Gareth and the twins had joined them only one month prior.
Their meeting had been abrupt. Tòmas had woken one morning to find their camp site occupied by strangers. The twins had been busy picking over his belongings while Gareth sat by the fire next to Felix. Gareth was smiling broadly, while Felix gazed down at the dyeing fire. Tòmas had sprung up and tried to shoo the twins away from his bags. But they had simply turned, snorted, and returned to their pilfering.
‘Felix!’ Tòmas had cried. Felix had remained sitting by the dying fire and Gareth with a familiar glance had called out to Tòmas, asking him to join them. One twin was holding Tòmas’ clothes out at arms length and shaking them as if to dislodge something or other, the other twin was attempting to thrust his bare swollen foot into one of Tòmas’ boots.
From that day on, Gareth and the twins had haunted every moment of their search. Tòmas had not dared speak to Felix about his discomfort. Indeed Felix had with every passing day withdrawn further and further within himself. For days on end the only person he would speak to would be Gareth. Each discourse ending in a terrible grin by Gareth and the further decent into solitude by Felix.
News that they would be heading back to the wall had in an instant filled Tòmas with a low sense of hope. Perhaps a return to the wall would also return Felix to how he was before. But Gareth’s support for the idea spoke to Tòmas in unequivocal language that this was not the case. That this return to that terrible wall was in fact a symptom of this odd malaise that had descended upon his friend Felix.
On the following morning the twins had woken Tòmas with gnashing teeth and dragged him before Gareth. Gareth was sitting on top of a large stone with his usual grin, tapping Felix’s warn black journal against his chin thoughtfully.
‘Where did he go?’, Gareth asked inquisitively. ‘Put the boy down, you two. Please Tòmas, where did he go?’ Gareth continued tapping the journal against his chin rhythmically.
to be continued…