FICTION: The Digger by Matt Gore

Pop was always in his cave. That was what Nana called it, his cave. It wasn’t really a cave though, because caves are dark and scary places, full of spiders and hand-sized wetas. Pop’s cave was nothing like that. It was warm and dry and smelt of pipe smoke, and I always thought of it as his tunnel. Tunnels lead somewhere, and this one led to Pop.

The entrance was through the coalbin behind the house, beside the porch outside the back door. You pulled up the double wooden doors to reveal a deep dark hole in the ground. But there was a light switch there, just inside, and once you flicked it on, this hole became an intriguing entrance. The rough steps led down to a narrow tunnel, just tall enough for an adult to stand up in. Light bulbs in cage frames lined the walls, casting a warm yellow glow, and you couldn’t help but want to explore.

The tunnel was about fifty feet long and it split off like a shamrock into three individual rooms at the end. The room on the right was piled to the ceiling with firewood, carefully stacked so as to fit in as much as possible, and it smelled of pinesap and sawdust. The room on the left was where Pop stored his tools and his endless array of rusting bits and bobs in old biscuit tins. And the room in the middle, which was my favourite room, was Pop’s room. It was the largest of the three and it was where Pop spent most of his time. In there is how I remember him best: sitting back in his beaten chair, smoking and smiling contentedly, his eyes listening as I told him about something that had happened at school.

He seemed to like having me down there, but I noticed early on that the rest of the family generally stayed away from Pop’s tunnel. When Dad came to pick me up he would stay at the kitchen table with Nana, drinking coffee and waiting for me to come back up. Sometimes, if he was in a hurry, he would call down to me. When that happened, Pop would glance towards Dad’s voice and give me a wink before I left. I never really knew what he meant by it, if it meant anything more than a wink between grandfather and grandson, but it said to me that the tunnel was ours, mine and Pop’s.

Pop had been old. He was seventy-seven when he died. I remember that the skin under his eyes was saggy and that they were usually red and runny. His hair was white and there was white hair in his ears too. He never really acted like an old person though. Nana did – she was a bit hunched and slow, and always seemed to forget things. Pop was different. He walked very upright, his mind was sharp, and he was always doing something, and I usually tagged along when I was there. Sometimes we went on long walks and sometimes we went to the hardware store, where I would listen to him talk to the salesperson about things I didn’t understand before he would buy a new tool or some nails or screws – but mostly we were down in the tunnel. He would tinker at his workbench or just sit in his chair and smoke with the radio on in the background, while I would play with my toys or explore amongst the endless tins of odds and ends he had down there.

I stayed a lot at Nana and Pop’s back then because I didn’t have many friends. My parents were worried about this, but if I stayed at Nana and Pop’s it was kind of like they could pretend that I was over at a friend’s place, I think. Adults are good at imagining stuff like that, always ignoring reality the best they can if it doesn’t quite fit with what they want it to be.

I liked it there. Nana and Pop’s house was an old wooden villa. Pop bought it when he was only twenty-three, and he and Nana had lived there ever since. I sometimes wondered why there was a tunnel under the house, but I just assumed that it was normal for houses to have tunnels under them. It made sense because it gave you more room to store things. Later on though, a while after Pop died, I realized that it was a bit strange. I’d started to make friends by then and none of their houses had tunnels under them. I asked Dad if the tunnel had been there before Pop had bought the house, but he said that it hadn’t, and that Pop had dug it himself.

‘Did you help him dig it?’ I asked.

‘No, I was still a baby then. Pop did it all by himself. It was easy for him.’

‘It doesn’t look like it would have been easy.’

‘It was for Pop. He dug deeper and much longer tunnels in France.’

‘In France?’

And then Dad told me about when Pop was a soldier. Pop had fought in World War One and had been a tunneler. The tunnelers had dug underneath the bad guys, Dad said, and stopped them before they could attack.

‘How did they do that? How did they stop them?’ I asked.

‘They put mines underneath them and then exploded them from a safe distance.’

‘They blew them up?’ I imagined Pop pushing down on a box like in the cartoons and then a big explosion in the distance.

‘Yes they did.’

‘Wow. Are there any mines in Pop’s tunnel?’

‘No,’ Dad laughed. ‘There aren’t any bad guys here for Pop to dig under.’

I thought about that for a bit.

‘But if there were, Pop could dig under them, right?’

Dad laughed again. ‘I’m sure he could,’ he said.

I was intrigued. Pop had dug tunnels in the war and I wanted to know more, but no one in the family seemed to know very much, not even Nana. I asked them all sorts of questions about where he’d been and what he’d done, about how he’d felt about setting off mines that killed other people, but they didn’t have any answers because Pop had never talked about the war.

When Pop died I hadn’t been staying at their house quite as often as I used to, but I started to stay a bit more after the funeral. I wanted to keep Nana company, but it was also because the house had taken on a new mystery since my discovery about Pop. His time in the war fascinated me and I felt myself even more drawn to his tunnel under the house. Nana had cleared out most of Pop’s things by then because it made her sad to think of them down there. I still went though; it didn’t make me sad to go there. I had good memories down there. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that Pop had left something behind for me. I guess I was looking for whatever it was.

This next bit is a bit strange. I’ve never told anyone about it because of how strange it sounds, but Pop did leave something behind for me. I’m still not really sure how it happened, how I came to have it, but it was Bill who showed me how to find it.

Bill was Nana’s big ginger tomcat and when I wasn’t there, the spare bedroom was his. He spent most of his time snoozing at the end of the bed atop a ginger fur blanket of his own making. When I was younger I remember Bill not liking my visits. He would stare at me with an unimpressed look on his face and leap off the bed and stay away, waiting for the bed to be all his again. But cats don’t stay grumpy for long and he soon accepted me and we became friends. At night he slept on the bed at my feet and I would fall asleep to the sound of his steady purring.

The spare room was at the top of the long hall, far away from the kitchen and the lounge, and I always woke early when I stayed there. I think it was the removal and the silence that went along with it. At home, my room was close to everything and I’d developed the ability to sleep through anything, so the silence at Nana’s was like an alarm to me, I guess. So when I woke up in the dark on this particular morning, I wasn’t very surprised, because it was something that happened every time I stayed there. The silence always woke me. But this time there was something different.

There was a weight on my chest and then I felt something rubbery touch my forehead. I pulled my head under the covers in shock but then realised that it must have been Bill. I popped back out and could see the dark outline of his fluffy head – he was standing above me on the blanket and prodding at my face with his paw.

‘What’s wrong? Do you want out?’ I asked, sleepily. Bill normally slept right through until morning like me – he had never woken me up before. He batted at me twice more and jumped off the bed and I heard him scratching at the door. It was cold in the room and I didn’t want to get up, but Bill jumped back on the bed and let out a little meow before batting at my face again.

‘Okay, okay,’ I said, getting up. I opened the door to the hall and stepped out. It was strange. There was a glow to the darkness, but there weren’t any lights on and there aren’t any windows in the hallway. The darkness just seemed lighter and bluer than it should have been.

Bill ran ahead of me. He trotted quickly for such a big cat and soon he was at the end of the hall, waiting. I walked uneasily towards him – I knew that he just wanted outside, but it seemed like there was more than that going on. There was something about his eyes that implored me to follow. He continued around the bend as I approached and I found him waiting at the front door when I came around. I opened it and he darted out, and I was about to close it again, but then I heard him meow, and when I looked out I saw him waiting in the moonlight with that same imploring look in his eyes. I followed him, of course. I was far too curious not to.

Outside, everything seemed different and distorted. The trees were taller, much more jagged, and they loomed high above me. It was a pleasant yard during the day, but somewhat scary at night, and that night the trees that surrounded the house were even scarier than usual. It was like an extra lens had been put over the world that stretched and pulled everything towards me. The trees looked like a massive wave that was about to break over the house. It was hollowly quiet too: I couldn’t hear anything – no breeze, no calling from the owls, no creaking from the trees – just my feet crunching on the gravel driveway, but even that was being sucked away into nothing.

I followed Bill until he reached the coalbin. Its doors were open and he glanced back at me before disappearing down. Looking down into that dark hole, I felt uneasy, but I knelt and flicked the switch and entered anyway. I had come this far after all.

Inside, the tunnel seemed a lot longer than I remembered. I couldn’t see the end – the dim light from the light bulbs along the walls narrowed to a point in the distance – but Bill was waiting just in front of me. He meowed and trotted on and I watched his big fluffy tail swaying side to side and away. Something very odd was happening but I didn’t feel scared, just curious. It felt like a dream rather than real, and that made me feel better because nothing can hurt you in a dream.

I quickened my steps until I caught up to Bill. Soon I had to slow and crouch though because the ceiling of the tunnel was starting to get closer to my head, and then I had to crawl as it got even lower. I could still hear the patter of Bill’s feet ahead so I closed my eyes to shut out the claustrophobia, and then my head struck something hard and I felt Bill beneath me. I opened my eyes and saw that I had crawled into a small wooden door. Bill was squirming beneath me and I backed up to let him free.

Bill was scratching at the door so I reached my hand towards it. I thought: not long ago I was warm and asleep in bed, now I’m underground in a narrow tunnel, crouched before a small door that shouldn’t be here. I wondered if this is what always happened at night-time. Everything behaved itself during the day, but at night no one was watching, so tunnels could go where they pleased, trees could contort and stretch their branches out, and cats could amble around and keep witness to all of this strangeness. I hadn’t been outside this late before, and the thought that maybe all of this was as it should be made me feel a bit better; I pushed at the door and it swung inwards.

It was dim in the room. I could see a candle flickering atop a crate but this was the only source of light. I heard someone cough and then what sounded like someone shifting their weight in a chair, and then a voice:

‘You’d better come in then.’

It was a man’s voice and it sounded friendly, so I crawled through the door and stood up. The ceiling was much higher in the room than in the tunnel. There wasn’t much in there though: just the crate, the candle, and an armchair in the middle of the room, facing away from me. I could see the outline of hair poking over the top of it.

‘Who are you?’ asked the voice. It sounded young.

‘I’m…who are you?’

The man in the chair rose up and craned around to see me. He surveyed me quickly up and down, but I couldn’t make out his features in the dimness.

‘Oh, a boy. Okay, come on around,’ he said, turning away and settling back into the chair.

I should have been afraid – none of this made any sense after all – but I wasn’t. Bill had jumped up on the arm of the chair and I could see the man’s hand patting his head and hear Bill purring contentedly.

I walked around the chair and the light from the candle shone on the man’s face. He was about twenty years old I supposed. There were red spots on his chin and patchy stubble along his jaw. He wore a white t-shirt and old-fashioned formal pants that had creases down the front. He looked at me with green eyes brighter than any eyes I had ever seen, as if there were a candle sitting behind each eye. They were familiar eyes, eyes that I knew, but much younger, and with a start I realised that it was Pop who was sitting in front of me.

‘There isn’t another chair, I’m sorry,’ he said.

‘That’s okay,’ I replied. I sat down cross-legged on the floor in front of the chair. He continued to look at me, stroking Bill’s head. It was definitely Pop, just a much younger Pop. His eyes weren’t saggy and they weren’t red and drippy. There was a cigarette in his left hand and he raised it to his lips and sucked in, letting out a stream of smoke over my head. I looked up and watched it coil and twist in the candlelight.

‘I like watching it too,’ he said. ‘Sometimes I feel like I’ve been down here for days on end, just watching the smoke drift. I’m amazed I’m still alive really. There’s more smoke than air sometimes.’

‘It seems okay,’ I said. We were both looking at the smoke patterns now.

‘Yeah,’ he replied. ‘I figured you were coming tonight, so I tried to smoke a bit less.’

‘How did you know I was coming?’

‘I don’t know,’ he said, looking momentarily confused. ‘I just had a feeling. The cat was acting strange.’

‘Does Bill come down every night?’

‘Bill?’

I pointed to Bill, still purring on the armrest.

‘Oh, is that his name?’ He sucked on the cigarette again. ‘I’ve been calling him Red, but really I don’t talk to him much. He comes down most nights though. He seems to like me.’

I nodded and looked away and around the room. It was Pop’s room, my favourite room in the tunnel, but it didn’t have any of Pop’s things in it yet, just his chair. And Pop of course.

‘Did you dig this tunnel?’ I asked.

‘Yes, this was all me.’

‘It must have taken you awhile.’

Young Pop was hunting in the pocket of his shirt and pulled out a packet of cigarettes. He opened it and then glanced at me.

‘Sorry, a habit. I’ll wait till you go,’ he said, slotting the pack back into his pocket. ‘It took a while to dig but not too long. I’m used to having others to help me.’

‘Like in the war?’

‘Yeah. You know about that?’

‘My dad told me.’

Young Pop nodded and sat back and closed his eyes. With his neck stretched back he looked thinner, younger.

‘You were a tunneler in the war,’ I said.

Young Pop nodded but kept his eyes closed. I thought maybe he had gone to sleep and I remembered that it was late and I suddenly felt tired too. My eyes started to flicker but then he spoke again.

‘Yeah, a digger,’ he said. ‘I wrote about it.’

‘Really?’

Young Pop opened his eyes. He looked at me carefully, as if he was weighing me up, deciding if he could trust me. His deep green eyes entranced me, and I felt like he was seeing right through me, seeing everything, but then he coughed and the spell was broken. He leaned forward and crushed his cigarette out on the floor.

‘I kept a journal. Do you want to see it?’

I nodded excitedly, though I wondered if Nana knew about the journal. I didn’t think so. Nana had proudly shown me all the bits and pieces she’d kept: the photos of Pop in his uniform, his medals, the letters he’d sent back. She would have mentioned the journal, I thought.

‘Yes please, I would,’ I said. ‘If you don’t mind.’

‘No, I don’t mind. I keep meaning to bring it out. But I’ll have to find it and I’m a bit tired now.’

‘That’s okay, I can wait.’

Young Pop smiled and closed his eyes again. Soon he started to breathe more slowly and I knew that he was really asleep. I shuffled back against the wall and watched the candle flicker across his familiar but younger features. It still felt like a dream. I was excited but soon my eyes got heavy and I thought I would have a nap before going back up. I could hear Bill’s rhythmic purring and then everything went black and when I opened my eyes it was morning and I was back in my bed in the spare room and I could feel Bill on my feet at the end of the bed. It must have all been a dream, I thought, because it was too strange to be anything else, but when I sat up I saw that there was a book on the dresser, a book that I had never seen before.

I got up in a rush and when I flicked through the pages I recognized Pop’s handwriting right away, all loopy and messy. I read the dates and saw that the entries were all written between 1916 and 1918. It hadn’t been a dream at all – I don’t know how, but Pop had somehow reached me!

I went back to the first page of the journal, but I hesitated as I started to read. Pop had given the journal to me, but I didn’t think that he had meant it just for me. Maybe I’d just been the easiest to reach. The Pop I’d met the night before was just back from the war and still young, and I think that was when it would have been best for him to talk about what had happened, but instead he’d stayed quiet and kept it all to himself. Maybe he hadn’t known the right words, or maybe he’d thought that it was too much to share, too much to burden his family with. He’d carried the memories all by himself and I think he’d regretted that and wished that he’d shared.

I closed Pop’s journal and sat back on the bed beside Bill. The rest of the family had waited a lot longer than I had to see it, to be let in on Pop’s secrets – I didn’t think that it was fair for me to be the first to read it. So I patted Bill and waited for Nana to get up so that I could show it to her. I knew that it would be hard for her to read, that it would make her sad, but I also knew that it would give her some happiness and peace. After all, I thought, she’d always been nagging at Pop to come out of his cave.

Matt Gore.jpg

Matt Gore is a kiwi currently living in the UK, as a lot of kiwis tend to do at a certain age. A law and history graduate from the University of Otago, he works as a librarian, but would rather write. Self-imposed unemployment has made this a lot easier lately. Matt is previously unpublished.

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