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Burrowing Machines

There was a strange agitation to London that summer from the very beginning, a hormonal moodiness, a belly heat, if cities could be said to go through such things. We had enough sunshine to roll around in, but twilight snapped to dark between one sentence and the next, like someone’d tossed a quilt over the giant lamp of the sun. They’d found all those new fossils while digging up the duck pond at Hampstead Heath and they shut the footpath the whole way round. People like me who were barely getting themselves out the door for a jog in the park in the late afternoon haze gave up on exercise entirely.

By May I was sleeping from the end of my night shift all the way through to my final cut-the-bullshit alarm at 8pm. I’d crawl out of bed feeling like death warmed up. I’d put on my orange hi-viz and cargoes, and a stripe of lipstick, God knows who for, and walk down to Camden Town Station with my hard hat’s suspensions pushing against the blood-beat of a headache at my temples.

The drilling work in the tunnel, at least, started miraculously on schedule. I lost myself for underground hours that summer planning the reroute of London’s Victorian water mains around the burrowing machines’ trajectory, the construction of temporary wall struts and the boring of holes for soil samples. I spent most of my waking hours fifteen meters below ground in a dark punctuated by machine headlights, flashlight beams, and shadows, and on the rare occasions I met Adarsh at the Old Man’s Arms for a fish supper and a dry cider before work, he’d give me that look that told me he thought I was in urgent need of rescue from my life.

“No one but you would be this into burrowing, Jo,” he said when I met him in early June.

“We haven’t had a new tunnel for the Northern Line in three decades,” I reminded him around a tartar-sauced chunk of battered cod.

“How filthy is that dirt you’re shoveling anyway? All London’s millennia of shite, and bones, and bubonic plague, and more shite.”

“It doesn’t bother me. If you saw these giant tunneling machines do what they do, I think you’d appreciate it.”

Adarsh sipped his craft ale, eyebrows high enough on his forehead that they almost skimmed his turban.

“And you hear the river through some of the walls,” I added.

“The Thames?”

“No, you numpty. The River Fleet.”

“The underground stream.” Adarsh poked a stuffed olive with a toothpick. Made me think of Fran, who’d hated all foods that didn’t belong in sandwich bread.

“Proper river. High and low tides. Currents. Everything. At high tide it vibrates in the stone.”

The River Fleet—London’s geologic minotaur, winding North to South, fallen out of favor, diminished and trapped underground in its labyrinth of sewers back in the eighteenth century. The tourist-friendly experience was the faint hush of it through a tiny sewer grate on Ray Street in Clerkenwell. Being separated from the Fleet by just an underground tunnel wall in the small hours of morning was an entirely different thing.

But that was just trivia. None of it would matter until later.

In late June, we started to slip behind on the tunnel expansion project.

When I looked at Annabel’s Gantt charts, it all seemed minor—engineers taking unexplained sick days, a pervasive anxiety that stretched ten-minute breaks to twenty. Like that same out-of-sortsness that had been weighing on me was spreading.

The first really observably weird thing happened on a Saturday night, two hours after the last Northern Line train. We were doing a tunnel walkthrough when one of our junior engineers, Philip, noticed a hole punched in the wall of the existing southbound Tube tunnel.

Grey moon rocks of concrete and a pile of dust dampened in the maintenance crawlspace beside the train tracks. We stuck our flashlights through the hole, wide as a crockpot, to the void on the other side. Our beams spotlighted the adjoining space. Glaze and slime on old brickwork. Water babbled along well below the level of the hole.

“I didn’t know the Fleet flowed right alongside here,” Philip said, and ran a hand round the hole’s ragged edge. “That’s maybe half a meter of concrete.”

“Are there burrowing machines on the other side? In the Thames Water tunnels?” I asked no one in particular. I knew there weren’t. There shouldn’t be.

“Nah,” said Philip.

“Structural weakness,” I said. But the concrete around the hole was sound. No sagging, no hairline cracks, no subsidence.

What it looked like to me? Like someone had battered through the tunnel wall—from the River Fleet’s adjoining tunnel, into ours.

They filed a police report and launched the obligatory Health and Safety investigation, but by mid-July, nothing. After another week, Thames Water’s guys patched up the hole. We bolted in some steel mesh to reinforce the concrete along that segment of the Northern Line.

The tunnel expansion was finding its feet again. We had a thirty-meter span of freshly excavated tunnel we could walk into upright, arms outstretched, and more importantly, we hadn’t burst a single Thames Water pipe under my watch.

Privately, I tried to adjust myself out of my funk.

Adarsh talked me into a deal on twenty hot yoga passes at a studio in Chalk Farm. I stupidly showed up for the first lesson in tracksuit bottoms and a cotton sweater (Adarsh hadn’t told me what hot yoga was), and left so dehydrated I barely went to the loo for two days. I gave Adarsh nineteen passes back. Then I got together with his friend Aman a few times—awkward daytime rendezvous because of my flipped schedule. I bought myself an urban spa retreat, booked a week off in autumn, signed up for a wine delivery service. Cheap screw-top bottles of picpoul. The crates took over my tiny kitchen, but what do you do.

Did it help? I thought so. I did. I felt cared for, if only by my own self. But the world wasn’t done with me, and neither was my brain.

So, I suppose, first, the dreams. About Fran. Dream-Fran. Fish-Fran.

That July she turned up night after night, carrying the blue fishing rod, our Christmas gift to our father, the one I’d been toying with when she wandered off. Glossy as a brand-new car, that rod, and I can still see the polish of it nearly three decades on. In dream-Fran’s other hand was the tin bucket we used for treasure unearthed on mudlarking adventures along the bank of the Thames.

When I remember my sister, I remember her with her braids and wellies, her missing teeth. But dream-Fran wasn’t like that. She was indistinct—not like she’d been rubbed out or sun-faded, but sort of like she was made of squid skin. Her eyes were black dots in jelly flesh, her nose two upward punctures you’d miss if you weren’t looking. The bucket and rod were what tipped me off that it was her.

Fish-Fran didn’t do anything in the dreams, just hung around me. I couldn’t see where we were exactly, but it felt like we were in the tunnels, that same cozy swaddled feeling and layering of shadows.

“Where did you go?” I asked her, every night.

“I went to find the mouth of the Thames that daddy talked about,” she said.

Or, “I was hunting for rubies and sapphires in the mud.”

Or, “I went to look for something important in the water.”

“Are you alive?” I asked her.

But instead of assortments of answers, I got nothing, or once, the touch of her jelly skin on mine.

London is so rammed with stories it’s hard to connect the dots across the width and depth of it. But now that I’ve pieced it all together, something else happened in July, the first clue to really hang onto. A piece of a puzzle no one wanted to see completed.

The fossils from Hampstead Heath went to the paleontologists. They measured and prodded them and said: an ancient organism, amphibious, big, really big. We don’t have a name for it yet.

Anyway. That’s what there was. Dad had let us fish with the glossy blue rod, but said we couldn’t eat anything we caught in the Thames: too sickly, too poisoned. Throw it back, he’d say.

London and its millennia of shite and history, like Adarsh said.

On the night of Saturday July 23rd, the red LED of the station clock showing a half hour to midnight, I was an endless up-escalator away from both the trains and engineering crew, chatting to the station supervisor in the ticket hall over a cup of Darjeeling and a pack of chocolate digestives. It was some banter about the new line, how convenient it would be to have a direct route from Camden Town to Luton Airport once our work was done.

There was a slight rumbling beneath my work boots and then a metallic scraping sound. More rumbling. A short time later a ruffled announcement rang out on the tannoy.

“Inspector Sands to Northern Line southbound platform four.” Inspector Sands: code for an emergency at a Tube station, among Londoners an open secret.

We were already on the escalator, taking the steps as nimbly as our boots would allow, my stomach a bony fist.

Downstairs, pandemonium. It was the last southbound service on a Saturday night. Drunk passengers hammered wildly on the windows of the train from within and from the platform; its doors were still closed. The train driver had abandoned her cab, was shouting I don’t know at the platform supervisor, then, louder, at the station supervisor who arrived along with me.

Below the periodic shattering of glass under blows from the train’s emergency escape hammers, there was a sound like a faint waterfall, and a stench like a swamp. The waterfall noise was loudest at the dark maw of the tunnel where the train had been holding at a red signal.

The rails flooded in a minute. Grey water began to rise toward platform level. We had engineering crews not far away reviewing plans and prepping the night’s work, as well as passengers onboard the stricken train. There weren’t enough people at that time of night for a crush, but I remember a lot of panicked milling and a nervous kind of shouting that reminded me of the animal pens at my aunt Calista’s dairy farm. After we got the train’s doors open, we focused on the most critical thing: getting everybody the hell out of the station.

Upstairs, after every passenger had been evacuated and emergency services had arrived, it was Philip who was first to realize it.

“Jo, can I talk to you for a minute?” He pulled me aside. “Hopefully I’m all muddled up, okay? But that was a nine-car service. The last service is always nine cars. I left the excavation as soon as I heard it. Ran down to see. Counted the carriages.” He counted idly on his fingers now, hesitated on the second set of five. “The eighth carriage I could see was still sort of in the tunnel, it hadn’t come all the way out, and it was dark behind.” Philip could barely look at me. There was an awful look in his eyes, a burden I could tell he was about to pass to me, a live grenade.

“There were only eight. Only eight cars.”

“Where was the ninth?”

Philip shook his head. He was two years out of apprenticeship, a competent, honest kid from South London whose mother had forced him into the vocational program when all he wanted was to record drill albums and chase his sliver of fame from club to club.

“No ninth carriage back there, Jo,” he said. “Just water and stink and fucking darkness.”

Within a week there were names and pictures: fifteen souls who’d made the mistake of choosing the wrong carriage, the wrong train, the wrong bloody night. I scrolled past the news story because I couldn’t look at their faces. Most were university students; there were two cousins on a stag night; a pensioner coming back from the theatre with his grandson.

There was a protracted search: divers, the Fire Brigade, daily press briefings. They’d keep looking, they said. They wouldn’t give up. But they found nothing. The ninth carriage had disappeared.

The Northern Line was out of service citywide, our worksite off-limits. I made sure to take no pleasure from rejoining the world of the living. I barricaded myself in bed with the curtains drawn and experimented with sleeping pills that would stop me from dreaming of fish-Fran.

Adarsh called enough times that I switched my mobile off. I didn’t have the stomach for him, for anyone. Or, not quite: I would have talked to my father if he were still alive. I would’ve done anything to speak to him.

Another week and an emergency dam was put into the River Fleet’s tunnel. This allowed an engineering team—thankfully not mine—to drain the southbound Northern Line track.

In early August, they’d drained enough water and shifted enough rubble that they found the hole.

It was massive, a breach tall and wide as a Routemaster. It was in the same section as the last hole, an implosion of concrete that’d torn through our mockery of a reinforcement mesh like a tongue through a sheet of tissue. Measurements confirmed the hole was well big enough to let through a train carriage, if you could get around the logistics of a twenty-five ton block of metal detaching from train and track and maneuvering through to a parallel tunnel.

The search operation scoured as much of the underground river as it could. And found nothing. All of London turned its attention to the River Thames, especially where the Fleet let out into its postcard-perfect sibling through the embankment wall beneath Blackfriars Bridge.

“How can a whole train car of people go missing underground?” asked Adarsh, when he’d insisted on a fish supper enough times that I had to oblige or risk him attempting some kind of intervention.

“I don’t know.” Speech tasted wooden. I couldn’t touch my dinner, nursed a double vodka soda even though the late daylight was obscenely cheerful. “It doesn’t make sense.”

But of course I speculated—all I did lately was speculate—trying out ideas too laced with impossibility to be anything but thoughts I had in private. I wondered how many of us had made the same leap, sensed the same wrongness about the city in spite of the smiling glare of its streets.

I wondered what we’d upset. What history we’d woken.

No brand of sleeping pills was strong enough to make Fran go away.

By the muggy middle of August I was becoming accustomed to her following me around the subterranean tunnels of my dream world.

“Where are we going, Jo?” she asked one night in her five-year-old voice, skipping ahead of me down a tunnel, the flashlit shadow of the fishing rod extending long and black and hook-ended before her.

“Anywhere. Shall we go and find you?”

She reached a grey, oozing hand toward me. “I’m right here.”

“And other times?” I asked. “Where are you when I’m awake?”

“I’m nowhere there. I don’t live there. It’s too wet.” I took my sister’s hand. We walked side by side. The feel of her repulsed me, but I clung to my memory of real Fran as hard as I could.

“And I like swimming, but not that kind of swimming,” said Fran.

“What kind of swimming?” I asked. The tunnel was tight. My shoulders scraped wet brick.

“Swimming until you can’t see London Bridge Is Falling Down. Till you can’t see Jo or Daddy. Swimming until you get hurt.”

“But there’s none of that bad swimming now,” I said.

Fran stopped. She set down the mudlarking bucket and put steamed-dumpling fingers to the damp wall of the tunnel.

“Yes there is, Jo. I feel it. It’s back. You and daddy can’t make it go away.”

“Can you?” I asked.

“No,” said Fran in a singsong. “Nobody can.”

We went back to work on the tunnel that week. It was almost too somber to bear. Not a single joke, not a sloppy innuendo, not a crack about the weather, not even the reliable no-daylight vampire analogy. Not once. But the vibrations of the burrowing machines still soothed me, I suppose. I felt more myself than I had in a long time.

The project was two months behind, but no one mentioned it. Not even Annabel-of-the-Gantt-charts dared breathe a word about deadlines after what had happened.

And late was better than never. Our fresh thirty-meter excavation was soon double that. We were doing good work.

One night we got a little careless, detonated a badly calibrated blasting emulsion to loosen stubborn bedrock too close to the soft side wall. And we had on our hands another breach between Tube tunnel and river tunnel, this time a small one, fist-sized, likely harmless.

Philip brought me over to assess the damage.

“The Fleet must be at low tide,” I said.

“How do you want to fix it?” he asked.

“I reckon cement, this time,” I said. Ancient brickwork on the Fleet’s side had been damaged by the blast, chunks of it missing. There was a peephole gap clear through. I put my ear against it as if it were a subterranean conch shell.

The dirge of the buried river, soft and insistently there.

“Jo?”

“Go get the drilling crew and Thames Water’s engineer, please.”

“Yes boss.” Philip’s flashlight beam bounced away toward the mouth of the excavation.

I was alone.

I knelt in front of the breach, waterlogged rock and silt cool against the padded knees of my cargoes.

I can’t describe why I got so close. I felt turned around, turned upside down, like the furniture of my life was hanging from the ceiling. I wanted to sleep in the sunshine and rave all night. Wanted to compress London to a snow globe, then to a point. Wanted to swim in the Thames and take that impure brown water into my lungs.

There was dripping and burbling and my breathing overtop, a symphony.

I shone my flashlight through. On the other side, a blinding, slick, prismatic reflection, no depth. Bulk, right up close.

I took a work glove off. And I touched. Felt the give and muscle of an enormous living thing.

I suppose all stories are passed along with cheap words, tinsel and streamers. I know there’s nothing I can really say. And maybe the moment you touch a monster and don’t draw back is the moment you become one, molt your humanity. But I’d never felt so old and I’d never felt so buried alive. The expanses and alleys and green spaces of London were at that moment barely pockets of oxygen, barely enough for a day’s survival in a very, very long life.

And then it was gone. And Philip was back.

“You probably have this under control,” I said, because I didn’t, and I hurried toward the industrious snake of the up-escalator, my body a bundle of broomsticks wrapped in leather.

We completed the tunnel in the autumn of the following year. I attended the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Northern Line service—Camden Town to Luton Airport—in a pinstripe jacket and pencil skirt I’d dry-cleaned for the occasion. They stood me somewhere near the back, which was fine by me. I’d been offered a plus-one but didn’t invite Adarsh. I wanted to be there by myself.

Then, around Christmas, under a frosted Blackfriars Bridge, curls of metal chassis still glossy with the livery of a Northern Line train began to let out into the Thames where the mouth of the Fleet was. They ran dragnets at the outlet for a month or more. No human remains were recovered.

Around the same time a new species of amphibian was discovered in the shallows of the Thames. The Royal Society wanked and self-congratulated for weeks. The specimens were thought to be juveniles, or, crazy as it sounded, larvae. They were proper big babies, long as a human arm.

The tabloids published an exposé, all of them printing the same pixelated photo of an alleged specimen alongside a strip of measuring tape. It had hundreds of needle teeth and kind of sad, mopey, monochrome eyes and a keratin knob on its forehead and—most importantly—what appeared to be the yellow strap of a carriage handle embedded in its eel-like, translucent flesh. But tabloids are tabloids, and London is chock full of stories. So people forget.

Oh, and the fossils in Hampstead Heath’s duck pond had a name now. They called the prehistoric beast the Dendan, after a mythical fish in the Arabian Nights. Said it was likely king of the aquatic food chain in its time, being bigger than a galleon, with a carnivore’s teeth and a stomach the size of a hotel room. A good one. A penthouse suite.

You’d think more people would have made the connection. Maybe I find it easier to believe impossibilities than others do. I don’t know.

I climbed out of my funk, little by little. The dreams mostly stopped. I like to think Fran had told me all I needed to know.

Now when I think about our terrible last day with Fran on the bank of the Thames, I can’t help but see it differently. Less like me being distracted and losing my little sister when our father went to fetch a pail of bait from the car. Less like her being picked up by a dirty and depraved pervert. More like Fran seeing the prismatic writhe of fish in the shallows, wading out to try to catch one, or to play.

I force myself to imagine it was quick after that, the bad swimming, the hurt.

Anyway, it’s all guesswork and fantasy. I don’t see the harm in building a sand fortress that protects your heart a little better.

That’s that. They asked me to work on the eastbound expansion of the Central Line, but I said no thanks. I enrolled in a paleozoology diploma course. Lectures at 9am every other day. I’d forgotten how frantic London is during rush hour, how many lives there are to be shuttled along its roads and its bridges and tunnels. Deaths, births, seasons. How many stories the city can absorb like a sponge.

About the Author

Sara Saab was born in Beirut, Lebanon. She now lives in North London, where she has perfected her resting London face. Her current interests are croissants and emojis thereof, amassing poetry collections, and coming up with a plausible reason to live on a sleeper train. Sara’s a 2015 graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. You can find her on Twitter as @fortnightlysara and at fortnightlysara.com.