City of Desolation, Chapter 21: Across the Abyss

Jake’s attempt to cross the nightmare bridge began badly and soon got worse. So steep was the initial descent that the only way to do it was to clamber down ladder-fashion,using the wooden slats as rungs. Unfortunately, the slats were too wide to grip easily with his hands, while the gaps between them were too narrow to admit his feet beyond the slightest edge of the tip of his toe: every change of position was an agonising fumble for a toe-hold while his fingers clung desperately to the rough wood.

He had not gone far when he missed his footing altogether, hung for a moment with his full weight supported by the extremes of his fingers, then went rasping and slithering downwards at great speed, his whole body pummelled by the undulating slats, his chin abraded and his fingers lacerated by the friction of his fall. As he slid backwards down the narrow track an even greater fear came on him, that any attempt to stop himself by catching at the ropes on one side or the other would skew him sideways and sling him off the bridge altogether to leave him hanging over the void.

When at length the easing of the slope slowed him and he was able to bring himself to a stop, he looked up and saw that he had come a long way: the ledge where the bridge began was high above him and seemed very far away. He lay for a long time face down, clinging to the walkway, unable to slacken his grip in the paralysis of fear.

When finally he moved again it was by crawling backwards, as he did not dare turn round or attempt to stand lest he should slip in doing so and fall through the space at the side of the bridge: he could not bring himself to abandon the reassuring solidity of the slats.

After an age of miserably slow progress, he forced himself to kneel, then pulled
himself upright and at last, with infinite slowness – his knuckles white with gripping the side ropes – he manoeuvred himself round to face the way he was going.

The sight made his head reel and his stomach heave: he had come scarcely a quarter of the way across. In front of him, the bridge swooped down to its lowest point, then rose up, up, up with a steepness almost vertical to the huge dark rampart ahead. All about him yawned the abyss: he dared not look down.

He stood a long time,completely daunted, unable to put one foot in front of the other.

In the end, it was the rain that came to his rescue: it began as a chill drizzle, but soon developed into a battering downpour that drenched him to the skin and cut off any view beyond a couple of feet with a hissing curtain of wet. Cocooned in drenching misery, he shuffled onwards, fearing to raise his feet from the slippery slats.

Soon he was chilled to the bone and could think of nothing beyond the mechanical action of moving his arms and legs: he could not tell if he was even making progress; for all he knew he might be stationary, his hands and feet slipping constantly in an illusion of forward motion.

The wet cold must have numbed his imagination too, and with it his fear, because
when he came to a point in the bridge where the slats were missing and the void gaped a footstep in front of him, all that occurred to him was that now he must either turn back, or work his way along the side, his feet on the lower rope, his hands on the upper.

Since there was no question of going back, it was a simple matter of logic that
he must make his way along the slippery swaying rope, and he set out to do so in the same dogged manner that had driven him on through the rain. Some way in he found that a length of the footrope was missing, so he swung his legs up over the handrope and inched his way along it, hanging upside-down over the abyss.

There was a tricky moment extricating himself at the other end where the slats resumed – the bridge began to sway alarmingly as he shifted his weight, and for a time all he could do was hang on until the oscillations ceased.

He was by now on the upward slope, and the greatest challenge lay ahead, where the final ascent of the bridge grew steeper and steeper, so that at some point he would have to make the decision to scale it like a ladder. Before he could block it out, the memory came back to him of what had happened on the descent, and he had an excruciating vision of himself slipping back perpetually when he reached a certain point, until he became too tired to continue, and finally let himself slip headlong into the emptiness below.

He wondered if perhaps he ought to rest, but the fear of turning over in his sleep and rolling off into the void so terrified him that he decided to press
on.

When he reached the critical point, he took off his shoes and hung them around his neck, reasoning that his bare toes would make more of the minimal holds available. Whether because of that, or perhaps because the slats were more widely spaced, he found he made better progress on this side – he had also evolved the technique of gripping the ends of the slats with his hands, which gave a surer purchase – but the fear of slipping was always on him, and it grew as the steepness of the slope increased.

Now he had to revert to curling his fingers over the top of the slats again, and his whole world, his entire existence, was reduced to the repetition of the same
sequence of tiny movements: right hand, left hand; right foot, left foot; right hand, left hand –

Then his right foot missed its toehold and flung him off balance so that his right hand slipped too and for the space of a heartbeat he hung one handed, his toes scrabbling to regain their hold, and then he saw that he could not support his weight in that position and for a full second before it happened he knew he must fall.

In that second a voice in his head told him plainly and calmly that his only hope was to abandon the slats altogether and try to catch the ropes that joined the bridge deck to the hand-ropes, which were like the rungs of a rope ladder, but too far apart to use for one; he saw that he must twist to one side or the other as he fell in order to grab at them –

and then he did fall, and his foot encountered a side rope almost at once and slipped off it again, so that he came down painfully straddling it, but with one hand gripping the hand-rope, so that he was able to hang on, though he could not prevent himself from swinging far out into space: the shoes round his neck unwound and he saw them falling, falling, falling until they were the merest speck – and for a space it was as if some part of him had fallen with the shoes, and was falling still, looking up at the bridge and the boy who clung there.

For a long time he sat astride the rope, cursing and weeping by turns, too terrified to move; then he fell silent, and saw that he had a choice: he could let go now, and follow his shoes down into the darkness below (were they still falling? What would it be like to fall so far, for so long?) or he could resume his climb, and keep going until he reached the top or his strength gave out.

All right, I’ll do that, he said, as if there was someone else there who had actually offered him these choices and was waiting for his reply. He imagined this person’s being pleased at his decision, and proceeded to explain to him how he was going to manage it – I’ll get a hold with my left hand, here, then move my left foot here – then I can pull myself up until my right foot is on the rope, and I can put my right hand up there –

It was simple, really: all he had to do was keep on repeating the same movements, concentrating all the time, and he must surely get somewhere in the end.

And in the end, he did: at last there was no more bridge to reach for, but instead a hard, sharp lip of rock, onto which he pulled himself gratefully and with a final effort dragged himself away from the edge before collapsing into an exhausted slumber.

When the rain woke him, he had no notion of how long he had been asleep – it might have been days, or only minutes – at any rate, it had been long enough for him to recover sufficient strength to stand up and propel himself along the broad stone roadway in the lashing rain.

As he went, the feeling of solid ground beneath his bare feet sustained him: whatever might lie ahead, he told himself, it could scarcely be any worse than he had already gone through on the bridge. He wondered, looking down at his toes, if his shoes were still falling.

He had followed the roadway through the vast arched tunnels that pierced the
buttresses twice already and could see the third looming up ahead when he was forced to a halt: the road in front of him was riven by a huge fissure hundreds of yards across; from far below he could hear the roar of water, and thought he could just make out, a lighter patch on the darkness, a cloud of vapour spray.

The wall on his right hand side was pierced at intervals by doorways, and to the first of these he now retraced his steps. He passed through a short tunnel, its roof just a little way above his head, its walls in easy touching distance; it ended in a flight of steps leading downward.

Don’t go down, Ulysses had said, but Jake could see no alternative. He went
cautiously down the steps and soon emerged onto a flat stone pavement. His first
thought was that although he had come indoors, as he imagined, it was still raining; his next was that the depth of darkness was less here – a sort of murky brown twilight prevailed, and he felt sure that if he gave his eyes time to adjust, he would be able to see his surroundings.

He stood and waited in the drizzling rain.

As his vision cleared, he saw that the rain was very localised, and indeed seemed to be falling only where he was: he took a few steps to the side, and found himself in the dry. Looking up, he saw that the shower of drops seemed to issue from a leak somewhere high above.

He was standing on a long stone pavement reminiscent of a railway platform, but beside it, where the railway should have been, there was a canal of dark water, bounded on the other side by a low parapet: there was empty space beyond. In the brownish murk – it was like being inside an old sepia photograph – he could just make out that he was on the edge of a great ravine or gulf on the other side of which was another vast stepped rampart like the one outside; but here, the space
between was not empty, but criss-crossed by a fantastic network of stone bridges
supported by impossibly tall arches. These were at every level: looking up, he could make out at least four layers above him; looking down, he saw that the bridges were in fact aqueducts, carrying canals across the gulf – there were perhaps half-a-dozen layers or more visible below.

To one side of the platform, he saw that the steps he had descended continued in a downward spiral; the other side ended some way off in a blank wall. Looking at the dark waters of the canal, he wondered what manner of craft travelled on them, and for what purpose.

As he watched, his eye was caught by something on the surface, and he saw that it was a raft of debris, a kind of mat of twigs and rubbish. What struck him
was that it was moving, very slowly but quite definitely, to the left.

He knew enough about canals to realise that was unusual: they were supposed to be level, without any current. Was it possible that in this incredible place the canals were tilted very slightly, in one direction or the other, to create a current that boats could move along?

As he was wrestling with the stupendous feat of engineering that would be necessary to create such a system, as if to confirm his surmise, a dim light appeared to his right and he saw that it was on the bow of a barge, the head of a long train of them, that was slowly gliding towards him.

Avoid the canals, Ulysses had said. Don’t go down.

It seemed now that he could only avoid the canal by taking the spiral stair, which certainly went down a lot more rapidly than the canal; and the canal at least went to the left. He crossed the platform and clambered on board the slow moving train of barges, settling himself in the bow, behind the light.

He must have fallen asleep again: when he woke, he was in darkness, though up ahead a weak horseshoe of light hung like an arch for the barge to pass through, only it never seemed to draw any closer. Had they stopped moving altogether? He reached up his hand and it brushed rough stone: he must be in a tunnel. The light ahead was thrown by the bowlamp; it served only to deepen the darkness around it, and gave no gauge of whether they were moving or stationary.

He reached up again, letting his hand trail against the roof, and in time became convinced that they were still moving, though very slowly.

So we will get there eventually, he told himself: I am in a long dark tunnel, but it must end sometime, and I will come out into the light. He visualised the end of the tunnel up ahead: a pinpoint of light that would slowly grow until it assumed the shape of an arch, gradually becoming larger as it drew nearer: even when it was still very far off, he would be able to see it, and would know that the tunnel must end eventually.

So there is always hope, he told himself, and settled back to wait.

As he sat crosslegged, eyes gazing into the darkness, he must have passed into some sort of trance-like state: he seemed to have become detached from his body, so that he now heard his own breathing as if it was a little to one side of him. The sensation was odd, and rather disturbing; it made him catch his breath to think of it – and when he did, the breathing beside him carried on.

There was someone sitting beside him in the dark.

Fear like paralysing cold washed over his scalp, then encased his neck and chest: he found it difficult to breathe. Who or what was beside him? He feared to reach out his hand, dreading what it might encounter – what if it was something scaly, or worse, covered in hair? He shuddered. Then a voice spoke, close to his ear.

– I don’t think this tunnel comes to an end, do you?

It was a slightly hoarse, insinuating voice – not pleasant, but the fact that whatever it was could talk filled Jake with relief. This lessening of his fear made him bold enough to answer

– Every tunnel has an end.

– Not this one: it goes down and down into the dark.

Something in the tone of the voice, and also the situation, stirred a memory of long, long ago: he had just started school and was sitting on a wall at playtime when another boy came and sat beside him and began talking, in the same sort of pretend-friendly way, about all sorts of bloodcurdling things.

He’s trying to frighten me,thought Jake, and the scale of his fear reduced still further: he knew how to play this game.

– How do you know? he asked.

– I live here

– So do I, ventured Jake.

The response was a low laugh.

– You do now.

– You wouldn’t know if a tunnel had no end, because you’d never reach it to
find out – you’d just keep on travelling.

– What do you think we’re doing now? asked the voice.

Jake began to feel slightly unnerved.

– The only way it could have no end is if it’s circular, he said firmly, and even then it must have an end because it had a beginning.

– What makes you think that?

– I remember going into it, back there.

Despite the dark, he gestured behind him.

– You’ve been asleep.

Jake did not quite know what to make of this sudden change of direction.

– So?

– So all that about going into the tunnel could have been a dream.

– It wasn’t!

– If you think about it, that’s just what you would dream about if you were
caught in an endless tunnel.

– I didn’t dream it! he shouted.

Jake could hear the note of desperation in his own voice. The insidious thought crept into his mind that the voice might be right – how did he know how long he had been here in the dark? How could he be sure that everything he thought he remembered was not just a dream he had just wakened up from? Perhaps he had done this before –

perhaps this was all he did – travelled in the dark, slept for a time and dreamed, woke and travelled on.

– How do you know you didn’t dream it? asked the voice.

He tried to be calm. He’s just winding you up, he told himself, like your brother used to do coming home from church when he would say he had the doorkey even though you knew you had it in your pocket, but he managed to sound so certain that you got angrier and angrier and always ended up pulling it out of your pocket to show him, and then you felt a fool because he’d made you do it, just by his tone of voice –

this recollection cheered him. I didn’t dream that, he thought: part of him could still feel the intense frustration of all those years ago, though he could laugh at it now. He did laugh, aloud. Two can play at that game, he thought.

– But the tunnel has an end now, he asserted boldly. I just made it have one: I

can do that, with my mind. I just think of a thing and there it is.

– Where is it then?

Was it just his fancy, or did the voice seem a little less sure of itself?

– Just up ahead.

– I don’t see it.

– Wait and see, he said, as smugly as he could.

And it is there, he told himself: every tunnel has an end, like a little pinpoint of light that slowly gets bigger. Instead of straining his eyes into the dark, he closed them, and concentrated on the pinpoint of light in his mind’s eye. It gets bigger and bigger, he told himself, until you begin to be able to make out its shape, like an inverted shield hung there in front of you –

a slight, disgruntled sound from his invisible companion made him open his eyes again. There ahead, just as he had imagined it, was the shield of light. Soon the interior of the tunnel had lightened enough to allow him to make out the brickwork overhead, and at last the train of barges emerged into the open again.

He turned and saw that his companion was a boy who, by his size, was younger than he was; but his face had a wizened, aged look, and for a moment Jake wondered if he was a boy at all and not some kind of midget. He was swathed in rags, and his skin was filthy.

– I was just joking about the tunnel, he said.

– I know, said Jake.

– Are you going to the city?

– Yes.

– It’s lucky you’ve got me with you then – this is where you want to get off, just up here.

The barge was gliding in alongside another platform, with stairs leading down from it, though none, as far as Jake could make out, leading up.

– Well, hop off then, if you’re for the city, said his wizened companion. That
stair on the left is the quickest way.

His voice was friendly, even warm. Jake considered. Avoid the canals and don’t go down. He shook his head.

– I don’t think so, he said.

– You’d better jump now, or you’ll miss it, said the other.

– Nah.

– I’m telling you, this is the stop for the city! his tone was harsher now.

– Changed my mind, said Jake. Don’t think I’ll go to the city after all.

His companion lapsed into a sulk.

– That’s what you think, he said after a time. I was just joking you – the city’s still up ahead: the canal stops there. You can’t go any further.

– I know, said Jake, with infuriating sweetness.

They entered another short tunnel from which they emerged into a vast space like a railway terminus: overhead there was a huge vaulted roof of steel and glass, while on the ground canals like flooded railway lines ended in long channels between platforms. Everywhere there was a great bustle of unloading and movement, and Jake was in no doubt that this must be his objective: only the proximity of a great city could generate this kind of activity.

– Over there, said his companion, emerging from his sulk. Go left!

Jake saw that the canal branched up ahead, like a letter Y; further on, each branch also forked, so that the approach was like a river delta.

– left, left! yelled his companion.

– How? shouted Jake.

– The tiller!

He pointed back: Jake saw that there was indeed a long tiller arm that came almost the length of the barge. He jumped up on the canopy had put it hard over.

– No, no! The other way – push it right to go left!

– Sorry! said Jake, wrenching it back in embarrassment.

The bow caught in the jaws of the left hand channel; the barge bounced from one wall to the other, then slid in. His companion made a contemptuous noise.

– Where’d you learn to steer?

Jake, on his mettle, was determined to do better next time.

– What way now? he asked.

– Just keep going left. The terminal we want is on the far side.

He made a better job of it this time, though he still scraped along one side. He

concentrated furiously at the next branch, and made a clean entry. He grinned in

triumph at his companion, who grinned back.

– This is it coming up, he shouted. I’ll go astern to unhitch – you steer the barge into the caisson.

– The what?

– The caisson, shouted the other, darting nimbly along to the other end of the
barge. That big iron thing at the end of the line!

Looking ahead, Jake saw that the canal divided once more, into two branches of
unequal length: the left-hand one was shorter, and seemed to terminate in a big iron tub that was open at one end; the right-hand one ran past this, ending in a solid gate.

– Which one is it? Jake yelled back.

– Left! Left! came the shouted reply.

Jake steered left, and felt the barge move forward with a sudden lurch: looking back,he saw that his companion had detached the train and tied it to a bollard, so that he was now moving alone into the waiting dock. He took particular care in steering a centre course and was pleased to enter without touching either side; however, there was no way of stopping the forward motion, and he had to be content to run into the far end of the caisson, which he did with a resounding boom.

At almost the same moment, he was aware of a whirring noise behind him, and looking round he saw an iron gate descend to block off the entrance: he was now floating in what was effectively a giant bathtub. He looked round for his companion and saw him come running up, grinning and waving. Jake gestured to him to come aboard, but instead he turned aside to a huge lever – taller than he was – on which he swung with all his might.

There was a rumble of machinery; the tub jolted, slopping the water so that the
barge dunted the side. For a moment, Jake could not work out what was happening,
then the motion became unmistakable: the entire caisson, barge and all, was rolling sideways down a steep ramp.

– What’s this? he yelled to the figure who stood beside the lever, a grin splitting his face.

– It’s called an incline plane, he shouted back, gleefully. It takes you down!

– Down where?

But the caisson was descending at such speed that the boy was lost to view over the top of the ramp; Jake clung to the side of the barge in terror. He thought he heard a distant shout of ‘just joking you!’ from above as he plunged away.

He had been descending for some time, without slackening speed, when he became
aware of a noise coming up to meet him – a mechanical rumble, overlaid with voices shrieking. All at once another caisson swung up from the darkness below and shot past him on a parallel track, the barge it was carrying laden with figures like the wizened boy, hooting and jabbering and pointing scornfully at Jake. As their caisson climbed away from him, they leaned over the side and waved to him in mocking farewell.

He shot downwards into the dark.

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