The Refuge – chapter one

Chapter One

They came out of the dark night of the caves into, not bright sunlight, but slanting shadow beneath an outcrop of rock. Deep shade, and the air was almost as cold outside as it had been inside the mountain, although much fresher. This would be the perfect place to store their food, being dry and cool as well as spacious, they realised.

Stepping carefully across the floor of broken, sliding shale and onto the springy mat of grass was an experience that conjured an array of feelings: a sense of achievement, a sense of arrival, and even an awareness, an anticipation of a whole new world of possibilities, and more poignantly, a deep sense of relief.

What lay before them seemed to be perfect, a paradise. Already the crazy plan seemed not merely possible but probable. But there was so much they didn’t yet know. Was there a reliable supply of fresh clean water? Would the soil support a crop? Was there the possibility of building a strong shelter? Anna looked around her.

There, right in front of her, was a vista of the kind only a refuge can offer. Nothing pleases the eye or the heart so much as a safe haven, and the knowledge it is accessible.

They moved forward, emerging from the shadows and found themselves unexpectedly standing in bright sunshine, on green grass, the shadows of rock and the tunnels receding. Glancing down Anna caught sight of a small wildflower bobbing in the gentle breeze. A bee hovered, then landed on the flower’s open centre.

She wanted to cry. She wanted to laugh. It was all too much. The simple beauty of the everyday world seemed so much more than the sum of its parts, her heart was captivated, and the thought of going back, if only for the few days it would take to gather all that they needed—if there truly was water—was repugnant. Already after two minutes, she felt as though she never wanted to leave this place.

If only there was water.

‘Even if there isn’t any water,’ he said, breaking into her thoughts, ‘I would still rather be here.’

‘Even if there’s no water?’ Surprised, she looked into his face, into his eyes scrunched half-closed against the strength of the sun, half-expecting to find a poet hiding there.

He tried to explain. ‘It’s not as if we’ve got anywhere else to go, so I think I would rather die of thirst here, or starvation even, in this beautiful spot,’ and he laughed a little self-consciously at his own words, ‘in this—kind of paradise—than die back there in rubble and carnage.’

And she understood what he meant. She agreed. She took his hand, pulled him back to the caves.

‘In that case, there’s no need to look for water. As you say, live or die, this is the better place. It’s getting late. If we don’t go back now we’ll break the curfew. And if I don’t go back now, I won’t want to go back at all.’

Back inside the cave it was cold. The air was stale and damp. The lamps on the front of their helmets lit up small patches of the rocky path. It was a good thing they had marked their way with chalk, as on the way back they noticed other turnings here and there, which they had not noticed on the way in.

The opening of one of the tunnels was quite large.

‘Wait for me,’ he said, and before she’d had the time to protest, he’d stepped off into the other tunnel, leaving her with no choice but to lean against the cave wall and wait.

The small gleam of her own lamp seemed little comfort as she sat there. He had quickly disappeared from sight. There must be bends in the tunnel. She felt annoyed too, both with herself and with him. With herself for being afraid, with him because he knew she was afraid. She was angry with herself for being so girly, so clinging, but he should have remembered she hated being inside the mountain. He should have remembered that she, like everyone else in the world, had irrational fears.

All these fears now surfaced as she stood there forcing herself to remember he would not be gone for long, that neither of them was likely to come to any harm, and that he would never abandon her or leave her stranded. He would come back.

She tried to concentrate on the list she’d made of equipment they’d need. It was hard to know what to bring and what to leave behind, as they had no way of knowing how long they would be there in the refuge as she was already calling it to herself.

Obviously they would need cooking implements, and food, quite a lot of dried or preserved food. Dry goods and staples. Flour. Rice. Sugar, salt, tea, coffee. Dried milk, dried fruit, oatmeal. Water purification tablets, just in case, she told herself. Soap. String and rope. Scissors, knives, tools, ground sheets, tents, sleeping bags, kettles.

A small scraping sound on rock reached her alert ears and she straightened up, relieved to see him coming back towards her.

‘That one comes out not far from the entrance to this one, on the inner plain,’ he told her, and he was excited. ‘There are several other tunnels leading off. At some point we’ll need to explore those and make a map, so we don’t get lost. Now isn’t the time, but I think the new tunnel will be more useful than this one as the mouth of the opening onto the plain is very wide and quite deep so it will make a good shelter, take the pressure off us a bit, we can stay there for a day or two whilst we put together our own shelter.’

‘Can I see it?’

‘Um. You can, but I’m wondering if we ought to get back? What do you think?’

It was man-speak for no, obviously. But he was right, they ought to get back. She didn’t want to be away long enough to be missed. The curfew was only two hours off. Soon, after all, they would have plenty of time for exploring the tunnels of their new environment.

It was a tedious journey back, and the point where the tunnel narrowed and shrank to only a little more than a foot high was every bit as terrifying an ordeal for her on the way back as it had been the first time, even though she now knew that this narrowest point only continued for twenty metres or so before opening out both wider and taller.

The walls had not shown the smallest sign of being about to collapse on her, but this knowledge didn’t save her from sweating and shaking with nerves, her logic hiding somewhere out of sight at the very moment she needed it there to steady her. She told herself it would be easier the second time, but it wasn’t at all. She wasn’t even halfway into the tunnel when her carefully bolstered nerve failed. She couldn’t move. She bumped her head on the ceiling and knocked her lamp out of alignment, but she wasn’t able to move her hand to adjust it. She closed her eyes, couldn’t bear it and opened them again, but the sight of her own profile bouncing back at her from the ceiling, larger than life and less than eight inches above her, was terrifying. For a second she couldn’t remember if the silhouette was herself for not, her mind wouldn’t function, wouldn’t be rational.

She took a few deep breaths and told herself she was being ridiculous, she could hardly just stay where she was. And next time, she wouldn’t try to do it on her back, she’d crawl in on her front. She had always loved climbing, surfing, loved hang-gliding, enjoyed going on the scariest rides at theme parks, so why was this such a problem for her? That’s why it’s called an irrational fear, she reminded herself, duh! She trembled. The rock was only inches from her nose. Surely it was getting closer? Her stomach lurched uncomfortably. She felt dizzy. She shut her eyes again, even though it didn’t help. She remembered her mother had told her about trying to visualise open pastures strewn with wild flowers when she had an MRI scan. It had helped her. Anna tried that now. But she couldn’t seem to picture anything other than her own fragile body consumed by the tons of rock.

‘What’s up?’ Mark called, and a distant part of her consciousness registered his voice and the concern in it.

‘I can’t move,’ she said, but her voice came out as a whisper. She knew he wouldn’t hear that, but she couldn’t seem to speak again. She clenched her fists and told herself everything would be fine. She found herself whispering the Lord’s Prayer, what she could remember of it from Kindergarten.

‘Are you okay?’ he called again. She shook her head, then realised that was no use either.

‘No.’ Her voice broke and she bit her lip to force back the sobs. If she let herself lose control completely… She registered the sound of him scrabbling closer. She felt the pressure of his hands on the soles of her feet and he pushed her hard, budging her along a few inches. She closed her eyes and allowed her body to be moved. He pushed again then again, and her brain kicked into gear and she took a deep breath and began to push herself through, sobbing to herself, ‘I can do this, I can do this.’

By the time they emerged from the narrowest part of the tunnel into the far wider cavern that was immediately beyond it, she was shaking, exhausted and close to tears.

‘Let’s stop and rest for a while,’ he said. He poured her hot sweet coffee from a small flask, giving her time to compose herself. She sat hunched miserably on a rocky hump poking out of the wall, if only she could banish the images of the tunnel from her mind, if she could forget for just five minutes that she would need to negotiate the tunnel at least once more: when they made their final escape.

But she couldn’t seem to tear her thoughts away from the memory of it. She was afraid of a repeat of the panic attack she had experienced on the way in. She had scrabbled at the sand-sprinkled rocky ground until her nails tore and her fingers bled, fighting to breath slowly and calmly whilst sobbing with fear as her mind played over and over pictures of the mountain closing its mouth on her frail human body. Her memory of it filled her with shame at her cowardice.

‘I don’t think I can do that again,’ she told him, her voice barely above a whisper. ‘Even the second time, it was no easier than before. If anything… I just don’t think…’ She felt weak and humiliated. She shivered, frozen.

He came to sit near her, put an arm around her and pulled her close to him. He said nothing, and she was grateful for that.

 

Later that evening, she sat in the hush of the dark house, thinking about the tunnel. She told herself she could do it, would have to do it, just once more, the last time. She would be distracted by the need to get not just herself but also their equipment through there. And of course, her mother.

She gasped, her hand coming to her mouth. Why hadn’t it occurred to her before? Her mother! Her mother would never be able to get through that narrow tunnel.

The older woman was a little plump, certainly, but that was not the problem. The difficulty would be with her mother’s arthritic hip. It would mean she would find it almost impossible to bend down low enough, and then she would have to manoeuvre herself on her belly along the tunnel which Anna was sure would be too much for her.

True the main passage went up at an angle, which made it a little easier to enter the narrow tunnel, but then they would have to stoop as they walked, then as the roof came down and the floor went up and stooping was no longer possible, they would be obliged to get onto their stomachs or their backs and drag and claw their way through in the nightmarish frantic way that Anna found so terrifying. Her mother slept upstairs now, unaware her daughter was below deciding their fate.

Her mother would never be able to manage that tunnel.

Yet to leave her mother behind was impossible. She refused to consider it. For a mad moment, she even pictured her mother living inside the cavern. It was large, dryish, safe, they could take food and water to her.

Anna shook her head sane. What kind of life would that be? She was at war with herself over it. Surely an existence in the dark, even one in the black dullness of the cavern would be better by far than remaining in the house during the events that were surely just weeks, possibly mere days away from unfolding? In despair, she let her head sank into her hands. She had no idea what to do.

Thinking about that tunnel again gave her another pause for thought. She had not told Mark, knowing he would never agree, but she had been secretly planning on bringing her two cats along. She knew it was sentimental, but she couldn’t bear the thought of leaving them behind. She had already decided to put them both into one carrier. A bit of a squeeze but that wouldn’t hurt them for the short time they’d be in there. She was not planning on taking much food along for them, they were perfectly well enough equipped to hunt for their own food, or eat scraps if need be. She could not abandon them.

But she wondered about how easy it would be to get the carrier through the narrowest point. She went to rummage in a drawer and found a tape measure to measure the height of the carrier. It was seventeen inches tall. Picturing the tunnel again she thought about it. Was it seventeen inches high? She didn’t think so. Fifteen inches, possibly the slightest fraction more, but seventeen? That felt like too much of a stretch.

‘Oh God.’

She cupped her face once more as misery and frustration washed over her. She should have taken along the tape measure with her. But she had not. Anyway part of her knew if she had been able to control her fear and stop to take measurements in the middle of the narrow tunnel, Mark would have wondered what she was planning, which would have led to the confrontation she wanted to avoid as long as possible.

Shaking these thoughts away, she realised they just weren’t prepared enough and the realisation terrified her. She saw for the first time the enormity of what they were planning to do. They were not ready. All they had fixed was the date they planned to leave. They had fixed on the following evening, simply because it didn’t seem safe to wait any longer. But apart from this they had nothing. She had made lists of things to take, but there had not been time for discussion, and discussion was needed as she did not trust herself to anticipate everything that might be needed, nor had they started to gather these items together yet.

They must have been crazy! How could the plan succeed when there was no actual plan?

She got to her feet and ran to the back door of the house, grabbing her jacket on the way. She unlocked the door, relocking it behind her as she slipped out into the cold dark air of the early spring night. There was a light frost. The ground crunched a little beneath her careful feet.

She had to find Mark. But she could not risk being seen. Slowly she made her way along the street in the direction of his place. Keeping to the shadows she took great care to avoid making the slightest noise or drawing attention to herself in any way. Mercifully the street was deserted. Those who were out risked incarceration for disobeying the newly imposed curfew.

She heard the sound of engines, and stepped back to hide in the deeper shadows, breathing shallowly, her hand over her mouth to disperse any tell-tale clouds of breath that might reveal her position. A convoy of military vehicles rumbled by. Anna felt vaguely surprised that they were heading out of town. A few minutes later, and the faintest of sounds pricked her ear and sent her scurrying for cover once more. Someone was coming.

No uniform buttons or braid glistened in the chilly moonlight, no cap was silhouetted against the sky. As the figure drew nearer, she held her breath, leaning closer into the shadows, trying to make herself invisible.

It was Mark. She was certain. The way he breathed, the shape of his head and shoulders, the way his body moved as he walked. She had called his name before she remembered how dangerous it could be if she was wrong.

It was Mark. He grabbed her tightly and thrust her back into the shadows.

‘Anna! What the fuck are you doing out here?’

His ear was cold against her lips as she turned to whisper, ‘We need to talk. I’ve been thinking, we won’t be ready in time.’

‘I know, I was on my way to tell you the same thing. Go back home. I’ll be there in a few minutes.’

She was home in two minutes. She left the door unlocked, but it seemed an eternity before he slid in the back door and turned the key in the lock.

They went into the sitting-room. Just a few short weeks ago it had not been illegal to have visitors in your home. You could have had friends round to watch a movie or celebrate a birthday, share some food and a few glasses of wine, laugh, talk. You could have had a party. She wished she had held more parties in her home. It was amazing how quickly normal life had become a crime, and everyone had been forced to adjust to that. Life was different now.

They sat close together on the sofa. Keeping one another warm, they could also hear each other’s whispers.

‘Why were you coming to see me?’ she asked him. She could feel his breath on her cheek.

‘For the same reason you were coming to see me, I guess. I suddenly realised there was so much to organise. So much we hadn’t talked about.’

‘Like?’

‘Like what we’re going to take, what we might need, what we might need to leave behind.’

She nodded. Then she turned her head to whisper back, ‘I suppose it depends how long we think we’re likely to be gone?’

He was silent so long she thought he hadn’t heard her. She opened her mouth to repeat herself but then he said,

‘I think we have to assume we won’t be coming back.’

She swallowed hard, and clenched her hands together, shocked to hear her own worst fears put into words. They sat in silence. Eventually Mark said,

‘We can’t go tomorrow night. We’ll never be ready in time.’

She protested. ‘But we don’t know how much longer…’

‘I know that’s a big delay…’ he began

‘Exactly. What if it’s too late by then? Surely we could still manage to be ready for tomorrow night? I don’t mind how hard I have to work.’

She felt his whole body move as he shook his head.

‘No. We’ve got to be properly prepared. I’m as keen as you are to get out while we still can, but it’s no good leaving without enough supplies and equipment, and what we’re going to need is a lot more than we can carry between us in a couple of rucksacks. We’ll just have to hope we’ve got time.’

She sighed. ‘Okay.’

‘So what do we need?’

‘Food. Water.’

‘Sure, but what sort of food? And water, well, maybe just a couple of those huge bottles, because if we don’t find water as soon as we get there, then this is all academic—we just won’t see out more than a week without a proper, reliable supply of water. I know I said I would rather die there than here, but I’d really rather live.’

‘I know. Well, the grass was lush, and I could see further away across the plain a few clumps of trees and shrubby things. Surely that means there’s more than just rain? But of course we can catch and store rainwater. If it rains. If there’s a drought, we’re stuffed.’

‘Right. So we’ll need to take a couple of tarpaulins. They’ll fold up really small, they’re useful for providing shelter, collecting water or making a nice dry floor.’

She smiled at his pragmatism. ‘Okay, so two large tarpaulins. I’ll go to a camping store in town. What else?’

‘A sharp knife. Scissors. A saw. A hammer. Maybe even nails?’ he suggested.

She shrugged. ‘I’ve no idea. I’ll bow to your judgement. But tools are heavy.’

‘We’ll need something to build our log mansion.’

She smiled again. ‘True. You bring your tools. But more than anything else we’ll need food.’

‘Grow our own,’ he said, ‘we’ll buy seeds.’

‘But that takes time, we’ll need enough to eat while the crops are growing. And all I’ve ever grown is a few tomatoes in patio planters, I’m not exactly a market gardener. And what will get us through the winter? Not to mention what we’ll have to eat before our bountiful harvest.’

‘We’ll buy some dried foods that will keep, plus take along a small supply of fresh stuff, apples, cabbages, that kind of thing.’

‘Okay,’ she said, ‘is there a limit to how much we take with us?’

‘We’re limited to what we can carry. I might be able to get hold of a small trolley or barrow.’

‘We need to start taking stuff up tomorrow night, we can hide it in the tunnels and take it through to the refuge when we’re ready.’

‘Good idea. The refuge?’

‘Oh yes, sorry, that’s kind of how I think of it. I know it’s crazy but I don’t know how else to refer to it.’

They talked for a little longer, making plans, and when he left, she felt excited and reassured. She prayed he would make it home safely. It seemed like a long time to wait until the following evening.

**