The Disappearance of Henry Sullivan
By Sophie Green
After the world ended, Henry Sullivan sat for a long time in his chair before realising that he wasn’t yet ready to die. He had been a prisoner in a war once, long ago, and he knew that there were few situations so black that they were inescapable. He also knew that this time there was no one to help him; he would have to do it alone. From now on he would have to do everything alone. It would take longer. The key, he remembered, was to divert all the energy that would have been wasted on despair into planning the escape. He knew that even the faintest glimmer of hope could keep a man alive. And so he started digging.
He began work on the entrance shaft, chiselling through damp concrete and compacted ballast and into the cold heavy earth. He scraped away and burrowed downwards. A shallow indentation became a hole, the hole became a pit. The pit reached across beneath the earth and became a tunnel. He made it wood-lined with old floorboards and bed boards wedged into the sides and spread out like a ladder, just wide enough for one person and a bag. He carved out a crouch space at the bottom and dug into this nook with a shovel, stowing buckets of earth in secret places on the surface to clear the way.
At the beginning his priority was to be as quiet as possible; he could not risk drawing attention. If they knew what he was up to someone might raise the alarm before he had a chance to get away. They would try and stop him. Once there was enough room to live underground he put all of his energy into progress and survival.
Now the tunnel is three feet high, dug through sandy subsoil and supported by props and trusses. It widens in three places: there is a hollow dug near the entrance and this is a workshop; it holds a makeshift bench, short planks, and a saw to cut them. Near the working end is a toilet; a small space with a deep hole, above which Henry has drilled an air vent, 15 feet high to the surface.
In between these two, set a little way back, is a storage chamber, six foot by four with curved edges and a wide ledge. This is a functional bed, covered with tarpaulin, made comfortable with honeycomb blankets, sheets and pillows. There is food in the corner, tins mainly and jars, a tin opener and a fork, a canteen and some bottles of water. There is a bowl with soap and a razor and a plastic beaker. There is a lantern which stands next to a photograph of a young woman on a bicycle.
There are no books. Reading is a luxury he can’t afford; He has to eek out the lamp oil and the batteries for the torch which is already growing dim. Any time he has spare must be spent digging, but he keeps his mind sharp reciting poems he learned by heart at school, under his breath. Listing rivers and mountains, rated by size, length, depth. Capital cities, their language and currencies. He recalls his times tables, the answers follow the rhythm of his shovel as it strikes the earth. He names the planets and their moons and other celestial beings which have already died or will endure long after he has gone. In his mind he takes apart and reassembles engines and electrical circuitry.
The working end of the tunnel is much narrower than the beginning. There Henry sits, his back braced against the wall beside the hole and scrapes at the surface with tin cans. He loosens the earth with a garden fork and scoops it away with a trowel; there is no room for shovels or buckets. Sometimes he digs in the dark to save the lantern, closing his eyes and deciphering the earth with his hands. When he is too tired to go on, it is night, when he wakes it is day. He remembers to breathe shallowly and eat sparingly
The dirt won’t come out of his clothes or off his skin. He spits on his hands and rubs them until they turn brown. He likes the smell of the ground and the coolness of the earth. He leaves his teeth in the beaker. He plans to put them in when he escapes or if he is caught. He also shaves and cuts and combs his hair. He knows it’s important to retain a sense of humanity and of self-worth. It can help, afterwards.
He makes wooden braces for the tunnel; as he gets further along they get further apart. Once or twice it has caved in. When this happens Henry keeps breathing slow and steady until he has dug himself out again. He isn’t afraid of being trapped down there, or of dying in the attempt. He likes the solidity and the closeness of the walls. Down in the tunnel all he has to do is dig for as long as he can. He doesn’t know how much farther, or for how much longer.
He makes a transport; the bottom tray of a hostess trolley. He lies on this and pulls himself backwards and forwards on a rope. He leaves a loose pile of earth in the crouch space. If he has to, in an emergency, he can pull the earth into the tunnel and use it to block the shaft. It wouldn’t stop them but it might slow them down when they come for him. And he knows that they will come because he has heard them.
First it was just a speculative tapping, to see what was there, or who. In time it became more persistent; a hammering that echoed menacingly through the thick silence, magnified in the blackness. Whenever he hears it Henry freezes. He doesn’t even breathe, in case they are listening. He doesn’t care if they block him up in the tunnel, as long as they don’t pull him out.
The further away from the entrance he goes, the quieter they become, until there is silence again, but he knows that doesn’t mean they’re not there. Sometimes he hears voices through his air vent, he knows they are looking for him; he hears them tap, tap, tapping, testing the ground. He thinks they might have buried listening devices or seismometers; they could be tracking him now.
The last time he heard them was when he emptied the trolley: He had been digging all day, his hands were stiffened into shape, gripped around an invisible handle and his body was bent over and curled up. He rolled over onto the trolley and cranked himself straight in stages, like a deck chair. The flow of acid from his joints almost took his breath away. He had pulled himself most of the way to the entrance shaft when, over the rattling of the trolley, he heard something from above.
He stilled the trolley and let the pulley rope hang limp, straining to hear. His heart hammered warningly against the boards. He had to keep calm, to control his breathing. There were voices, getting louder; they were calling him. He tried to quiet the beating of his heart because the sound of it, in the tunnel, was deafening. The panic was suffocating and he fought the urge to draw great gasping breaths.
Suddenly there was silence. Either they were gone, or they were already inside, looking noiselessly over the mouth of the tunnel. Would the next voice he heard be just a few feet away? He waited until long after the memory of the last sound had faded and then slowly took up the rope and started forward again.
That was yesterday. He knows from past experience the safest time to go to the surface is just after they’ve gone. He has one last trip to make before he can seal the tunnel forever. After that he just hopes that he will have enough; enough air, enough light, enough supplies.
Now he pulls himself up the shaft, his legs are unused to supporting him, they are weak and unreliable. Once he’s out it takes him a few minutes before he can stand. His body has been recast into a crouch; he can’t put his shoulders back or lift his head. He can’t straighten his legs. His head swims; the air on the surface seems clean and rich compared to the tunnel. He moves slowly, easing himself forward, his fingers tracing the walls, catching at dusty webs and flaked paint, until he finds the stairs. Pulling at the handrail he begins climbing again, and when he finally reaches the door at the top he opens it.
On the surface the light is incredible, piercing the backs of his eyes, making them ache and water. The sun bursts through the glazed front door, casting a spotlight in the hallway. He catches his reflection in a long mirror and it frightens him, he’s hunched over like a crone.
He hobbles down the pink and brown carpet, following the path of dried earth as it bends round to the kitchen. The cupboard is almost bare, there is no fresh food left, but he finds some tins of fish, fruit and milk, and he refills his canteen from the tap.
He knows that there is an emergency supply of candles at the back of the left hand drawer. He reaches in for them and lays his hand instead on a small cardboard box. Grief coils itself around his heart, and he remembers the comfort of a familiar hand in his. Without looking he knows he is holding souvenir playing cards, bought on their honeymoon. She kept them all these years in the drawer with the candles, so they could find them in a power cut.
She had jumped out on him again, and with her she brought suitcases of unwanted memories; contentment and normality, fear and despair. He knew that if he stayed he would just sit in his chair surrounded by them, until he died.
He leans back against the wall and lowers his eyes from the dirt he has walked into the carpet, smeared across the linoleum, over the drawers and the walls, and he is ashamed.
A sudden noise explodes into the silence. Dark shapes pass the windows and he hears voices, low and impassive. They are planning something, he thinks. This time they will find a way in.
He waits in the hallway, in the shadows. This is the closest they’ve been, only a few feet away. He reaches for the cellar door, his hand shaking erratically, and opens it just enough to slip through. He tries not to imagine them pressing their faces against the glazing, he doesn’t know if they can see him moving. They start knocking again and calling for him to answer the door. They want to know if he’s there.
Maybe the dirt had started to settle in his lungs, but the air seems suddenly much thinner on the surface and he misses the warmth and the darkness of the tunnel. His legs tremble as he hurries down the steps, and he makes for the entrance shaft as if it was a single lifeboat drifting out of reach. Once inside he clambers down and then crouches in the space still, like a rabbit in a bolt hole, as they shout ‘Mr Sullivan, are you in there? Mr Sullivan?’ through the letterbox.