The Short Cut Through
Carlisle sat on the bench, waiting. Autumn drizzled against his jacket, as he listened to the splashing water of the memorial fountain. The sound lulled him.
“You know, that thing wasn’t working all summer.” The voice broke across his meditative wanderings, and he looked round to the source. It was the man he was here to meet. “Various reasons. Health and safety fears that someone would slip on the cobbles. That there was a water shortage. Other stuff.”
“Shame.” Carlisle responded, getting to his feet. “Still, summer’s loss, eh?”
They stood together in silence for a few moments, watching the arcs of water gushing up from the ground, splashing down into the circle’s gutter, a testament to a woman that most people remembered best crying on television. The ripples from the fountain-fall were intense and loud, but those of the worsening drizzle had the strength of numbers.
“You’re James?” Said Carlisle.
“Afraid so.” The man replied, giving a sad nod as he spoke.
“Shall we walk? I know you wanted to meet here, but there isn’t much for shelter. Besides,” He nodded away from the fountain, “I’d like to visit the site.”
James agreed, so they began to walk.
It wasn’t long before they stopped, and took shelter in a sad-looking bandstand, that neither could remember ever hearing music near. They looked across the short distance to a fenced-off demolition site, sleeping in the early evening. The massive yellow machines, that doubled as both tools and vehicles, were washed grey in the dim light.
The inside of the bandstand was muddily lit by a plastic covered bulb in its dome. James watched as Carlisle took a folded piece of paper out of his pocket, and opened it out, revealing a photocopied photograph. The image had the tell-tale dots of something printed in a newspaper, and then blown-up. He held it up, offering a side-by-side comparison with the diggers and cranes, and the rubble.
“Looks different, doesn’t it?” James said, and Carlisle nodded.
James didn’t seem to want to look at the photo, but Carlisle took it in again, for what seemed like the hundredth time since finding it earlier that day, in the library archives. It showed a squared-off tunnel, dark, the detail you could see revealing it as one of those throwbacks to the architectural misery of the sixties – a passageway through a brutal concrete building, the sides made of dirty glass, most of it boarded over, which told you that these had been shops, but were now deserted.
Carlisle remembered it well – everyone in Southerton over a certain age did – as the Lewis building. It had been the largest department store any of them had ever seen, situated a stones throw from the city center proper. And then it had been empty for nearly a decade, when the distance it took to throw a stone seemed too far to go for quality goods and sundries, and nobody thought much about it, except as a huge, dirty obstacle between the park and the pubs.
The tunnel in the photo had been the only shortcut through it. Going through there had always been a slightly surreal experience – you entered from greenery into darkness, and exited onto a brightly lit and wide-open space, the sun reflecting off the bright marbled frontage of the council buildings nearby. In the photo, the other side was an intense, bright square, with a cluster of three or four people silhouetted at the exit. Or the entrance, Carlisle had thought.
“You took the photo, then, huh?”
“Yeah.” James replied. “The people in it, they were my friends. Harris told you that, right?”
Carlisle nodded, and said “I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s okay. Does it sound callous if I tell you that I barely remember them, now?”
“No, I understand. I’m both the reason why Facebook exists, and the reason why it won’t ever take over the world, myself. I don’t remember the people I know from week to week, let alone nearly ten years.” James had grinned at that. Carlisle smiled, then grimaced. He hated asking the hard questions. “Does it sound callous if I ask you what you remember about the day itself? When you took the photo?” Carlisle took the pause as an opportunity to re-fold the piece of paper, and slide it back into his pocket.
“I guessed that that was why you wanted to meet me, Mr Carlisle. Honestly, though, as I told the police back then, there isn’t really much to tell. We were on our way to the pub for lunch – we’d had a full morning of lectures, so a pint was practically compulsory – and we were going through the cut-through.
I had hung back to check my phone – a text message had come through, and the Lewis building was always a bugger for reception. I read it, looked up, and saw that the others had walked on a way ahead of me. And… this sounds daft, I know, but you remember when phones first started having cameras on them? And when you got your first one, suddenly you were taking pictures of bloody everything. Even if you already had a proper camera?”
Carlisle nodded, even though he had never been all that good with phones. Or computers. Or much of anything technical.
“So, anyway,” James continued, “there they were, and it was noon, so the sun must have been on the other side of the building, and the light was just incredible. So I thought, I’m having that. My phone was already out, so I popped the camera bit open, and took the picture. I didn’t take my time over it, either.
If I’d known it was going to be in the papers…”
James paused for a moment. Carlisle was starting to wonder whether he should prompt him when he started talking again.
“…And so I ran – half jogged, honestly – to catch up to them. And they weren’t there. Or anywhere on the street that I could see. I mean, I hadn’t been that far behind, and there wasn’t anywhere that they could have gone, without running for it.
Course, that’s what I’d thought they’d done, as a joke or something. I went on to the pub, cursing them, and didn’t think anything of it. When they didn’t show up there, or for their afternoon lectures, I started feeling a little left out – I guess I thought they’d skived off back home or somewhere. I didn’t start to think anything was properly up until the next day, when they hadn’t surfaced. Then the day after that, the police showed up, asking questions.
It turned out I was the last person to see them. And I haven’t thought about it much in years, but I guess if you’re here, they never did turn up, eh?”
“Lisa Brevin’s parents hired me. I don’t think they expect much, but, you know…” He waved a hand at the demolition works. “I guess they heard about this, and felt like they had to give it one last try. You shouldn’t feel bad about it… I think they’re just looking for one last reason to give up.”
“S’probably just something totally mundane and horrible that happened to them, you know? Millions of reasons and ways to vanish, aren’t there?” James said, a shrug in his voice. “It’s stupid to think that the tunnel had anything to do with it. It’s not like the Pied Piper came down and spirited them away through some magic portal to Narnia.”
Carlisle looked at him, unable to stop an eyebrow from raising. James noticed this, and laughed hard.
“Sorry. Stupid, I know, but at the time I was doing a project… it… about fairy tales and that. That story was on my mind.”
“Oh.” Carlisle said, only sort-of relieved.
“Still, funny to think isn’t it? A tunnel, or a gateway, it’s just an absence of stuff. An open door is just an unfilled hole. It’s strange to think that now that they’re finally pulling the the Lewis building down, the cut-through is gone, when it wasn’t ever really there in the first place. When that was the point of it.” As he spoke, James was looking intently at a single point somewhere beyond the fence, where Carlisle thought the tunnel must have been.
Carlisle had already decided that he was going to buy the man a pint for his trouble. Now, he felt suddenly nervous, here in the deserted park, so near to the half-gone building. As the evening darkened, the need for warmth, alcohol, and the sound of raised voices seemed much more important.
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