An Urban Fairytale
The locations and dwarf holes mentioned in this tale are based on fact. The people and all the rest are not.
I walk along the canal and look above wondering how much concrete is necessary to prevent the entire elaborate junction from collapsing. The pillars holding up metal and flesh appear to be the legs of giants while the traffic travels along their spines. The graffiti at the bottom gives it the look of elaborately painted nails. Or like a tattoo that marks the owner’s individuality.
I look at my right hand and frown at what I’m holding. Have I been drinking? Focusing on the bottle of vodka it suddenly occurs to me that my mind is in the process of being drowned by a tsunami of ethanol. I look at the water rippling on the breeze. My attention is drawn to the sound of a bell from a cyclist. I move out of the way. The cyclist nods at me. The universal body language of greetings, acknowledgement and thanks. A small attempt to make a connection with a human being that you would in all probability never see again. I walk towards the darkness created by the cavernous arch of a large bridge.
It had always felt like huge cave when we used to play as kids. Billy used to call it the Bat Cave. He was Robin to my Batman and the adventure was always the trek to get here. Granny’s house was on the corner of Wheelwright Road and Gravelly Hill so it wasn’t far. Our parents didn’t mind as when I reached thirteen, I was considered capable and mature enough to look after myself and a ten year old. A different time that seems an aeon away. I smash the bottle against the wall of the bridge. I’m in the dark. I have been for days.
I think about granny and her stories about the building of Spaghetti Junction. Me and Billy always thought the Giant’s Junction was a better name as we never liked spaghetti. Unless it was in tomato sauce that we both did like and that granny always had tins of when we visited. It was during such a meal that we both heard about the dwarf holes. We splashed sauce while eating as we were told about where Copeley Hill is now, there were caves dotted around the landscape. People used to live in them and the caves were there for centuries. Then they built the motorway and were not seen again. Granny kept saying that they were now gone forever but children always have the impression that adults say such things to stop them from exploring. We had already made up our minds that we were going to find them.
On a Spring day, we went looking for the hidden. We told granny that we were going to play and would back before five o’clock. She gave us fifty pence each in case we wanted something to eat. We knew the canal paths around Salford Circus well and although overgrown and unused, there were still clear tracks that had been made by adventurers like us. Billy was convinced that there would be dwarfs. I pointed out that the caves were called that because they were small and not because of who lived in them. Billy didn’t think that made any sense.
“What’s the point of calling something that it isn’t?”
I didn’t understand what he meant but I just said that he was being childish. He sulked for a half an hour until I gave him some sweets that I had in my pocket. We then spent another half an hour hitting various things with sticks that we had found. A good stick can be many things and on that particular day, we took it in turns to be Luke Skywalker. Our skills as navigators were not exactly honed as we walked further away from Copeley Hill. We had convinced ourselves that wherever we went, we would find what we wanted.
My memory of what happened next is rather unclear. Like looking through frosted glass. We came to a hilly bank where bushes and trees were growing. We could hear the traffic of the motorway above our heads. I sat on the bank thinking about where to go next when I felt the ground move. About ten feet away from where I was sitting a hole appeared. No collapsing of soil or grass or tree. It was simply a case of first there wasn’t a hole and then there was one. I shouted to Billy who came running. It was only the size of a dinner plate in diameter but the hole itself seemed to reach back into forever.
“Do you think that’s where the dwarf lives?”
“I told you. There are no dwarfs. They just call the holes that.”
“So what lives there then?”
“I don’t know. Probably nothing.”
Billy peered intently and then turned his head to listen. He had a look of extreme concentration.
“What are you doing?”
“I can hear something. It sounds like the sea.”
“You’ve never been to the sea.”
“I heard it in a shell.”
I was going to push him out of the way when his body suddenly became very still. He turned towards me with a look on his face that I had never seen before.
I turned to around to see if anyone was near us but then I realised that he was talking about the inside of the hole. Arms that looked like tree roots grabbed Billy. I know now as I knew then that trees don’t have arms but somehow on that day, the trees were alive and holding onto him. A voice that came from the very depths of the earth spoke.
“Only one can go back.”
It sounded like a million woodlice crawling under a rotting thing. I tried to pull him away but something hit me across the face and I fell.
I got up but my legs felt as though they were being held by the ground itself. I was trying to move and at the same time grab Billy but then I saw him get dragged through the hole. The hole disappeared too. The traffic above kept moving.
I was asked many questions and many times by lots of people. Billy was never found despite police searches and pleas from my parents on television. As for me, the story that I told about what had happened became a symptom of shock. Doctors explained that it was due to me creating a fantasy to deal with the horror of my brother being abducted. I don’t recall how long it took me to believe them but eventually I did.
I got older. I worked and earned a reputation for myself as a leading expert in complex psychological trauma. It didn’t require a PhD for people to deduce that it was a way of dealing with the past. There is lots of evidence of my bravery and ability to overcome a difficult childhood incident. A large house, cars, women who I never get close to but always treat right. And now, in my forties, Billy is still a space in my psyche that cannot be erased. But I’ve managed to come to terms with the fact that there are some very bad people in the world.
A phone call tore all that coping structure down. My mum had called me to say that they had found Billy’s body. I traveled back from London the very same day. I tried to ignore the fact that it was the anniversary of his disappearance. I spoke to my parents and then spoke to a CID Sergeant. Billy’s body had been found floating in the canal. The police were convinced that he was placed there recently, as it would be impossible for a body to remain hidden for so long in that location. There had been so much work done in the area that someone would have stumbled across him eventually. I knew the answer even if they didn’t.
And so I find myself walking along shadows of the past. I’m not sure who or what is guiding me but I know that I will find the same bank in the same place that I found before. I also know that the same hole will be waiting for me. It was made clear from the very beginning.
Only one can go back.