20 Jul The Underpass
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"The Underpass"Written by
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Estimated reading time — 6 minutes
Leo had mixed feelings about moving to the other side of the motorway. On the one hand, the new house was closer to where his friends lived; at least, closer than he had been when he was in Cowdenridge. He was also closer to the school, even though he was now on the opposite side of the road. However, the walk there and back would take just as long.
When it came to the walk to and from school, he had two choices. Either go through the Knightsmount Underpass, up to Park Brae, or through the woods on his side of the motorway and across the Woodlands Bridge. On the morning after his first night in the new house, Leo decided that the underpass would be the quick morning option and the Bridge the scenic afternoon option.
It was the middle of September. Fast-fading autumn. Leo crossed the main Ecclesburn road and walked towards the Knightsmount Underpass. The road was a cul-de-sac; it ended suddenly and did not seem to have much purpose. It was as if they had wanted the road to go on, and had meant to build houses at either side. As it was, on either side of Leo were plantations of bone thin pine trees, and on the right side they gave way to real woods, those woods he would walk home through.
A tarmac path brought him within the early morning roar of the motorway and the north side of the Knightsmount Underpass. He had not been through the underpass in a while, mainly because he had had no reason to cross to the outskirts of the town. As he approached the tunnel, memories of this place came back to him. When he was a child, walking the dog in the woods by the motorway with his father and brothers, Leo had never liked going through the underpass. Standing at the north end now, he remembered how slow and uncertain the walk through that long, dark place had seemed. He would stay close to his father, too old to hold his hand but too frightened and too apprehensive to stray very far. His brothers would deepen their voices and send eerie echoes along that open-ended concrete casket, putting on a sinister show for him. He had to clutch the dog’s lead and close his eyes and walk sightless, as fast as he could, out of that place.
He stood, just looking into the underpass, which had a distant but reassuring square of light at the other end; he could laugh at his childish terror. But it was an unsettling place. He walked.
The sickly orange lights which used to cast a fuzzy glow through the tunnel were long gone. It was dark from opening to opening and, because of its length, the very centre the underpass was a few degrees away from pitch-black. The floor was gnarled tarmac with suspicious stains. The walls were grey concrete, with large, square indents in some brutal pattern which must have been fresh and modern in 1968.
As he neared the centre of the tunnel, a fragmented memory came back to him; the memory of a feeling. He remembered exactly why he did not like that place. It was clear now. When he was five or six he could not understand that sense, but, as he stopped in the dead centre of the underpass, he recognised that sickly, uncertain feeling that he was being watched. No, not watched. Stared at, at close quarters.
There was no one in front of him. He wheeled round. No one behind. Everything was dark, musty and unnatural. The sound of the traffic above was muted by layers of concrete. The cars made soft noises on the tarmac, like silk skimming over velvet. Leo thought, as he hurried out of the underpass, that he could hear another sound; like scratching.
That night, Leo had a dream. He could not remember it all, only that it felt very real. He smelled petrol and oil and cigarette smoke. There was a pale man with greasy hair, looking at him as if he were looking down a microscope. And the man was listening. Listening very, very hard. There was some noise, but it was only scratching.
For almost two weeks after this, Leo walked across the Woodlands Bridge. That was an altogether more pleasant experience, strolling across the gleaming white bridge and looking out over the motorway, straight on its way to Glasgow. It was better than creeping underground. However, the bridge was not the fastest way home. This did not matter usually, but it did matter on that Friday night.
Leo had been out with friends and had just said goodbye to the group. They lived close by, but on the other side from him. He was lighter than air, content, and full of just enough drink. Nothing could scare him; not even that bloody underpass. It was an unpleasant place, sure enough, but it was nothing to be scared of. Nothing evil. Dreams were bizarre things, anyway. It was an underpass going under the M8 leading to and from Anderton, gateway to sunny Central Scotland. It was not Glamis with its monsters and secret rooms or Mary King’s Close with its immured plague-ridden Edinburghers. It was shabby and dull, and normal. Like the town itself.
He walked into the tunnel.
Those stains, that charming sectarian graffiti. Those smashed bottles of tonic wine. Such local colour! Yes, the ghost tour companies over in Edinburgh should try this spot. Leo’s thoughts danced. The tales they could tell! “And here,” the guide would say, pointing a trembling finger, “is the residue of Jakey Bill. No matter how much water and bleach the council uses trying to eradicate the stains, they always reappear mysteriously the next day!” Gasp!
Leo laughed out loud, and the sound echoed back and forth through the Underpass, muffled by the concrete. He was half way through. He was alright.
And then he was not.
Leo’s senses snapped to attention out of his half-cut glow. He stopped for no reason at all, like a wanderer in a strange place, and was in the dead centre of the underpass. He could smell and taste the musty air of the tunnel. He wished that he could not. All alone, he sensed that vulnerable loneliness that we feel in a dark room when we wake in a strange bed. It was worse than that, though. At least then we remember why we are there in the dark after a minute. Leo did not know why he had stopped, and why he waited.
But the worst part of it all was the sound. The scratching noise came again, thin but insistent, from the west wall. He did not want to hear this and he did not want to stay, but he had to. Something made him. Straining to hear the sound, he felt like some awful driver gazing at a crash on the road above. It was coming from a certain spot, right in the very centre of the tunnel wall.
Leo put out his hands and touched cold, dry, brutal concrete. His knees buckled. The sound was no longer a sound. He could feel the scratching, feel it as if it were inside his own skull. Then he heard the sound, the sound, unbearable, like someone screaming, shrieking with their mouth full, their mouth full of something. But now he could not move he could not move a single step forward or backward, there was no way, no way out, no way, no way out. A dead end. He felt as if his lungs were filling up, not with water, but something so heavy. He could not breathe.
A calm, hard voice said, “Let him scream. I want to hear him scream.”
Leo was on his back, and all he could hear was his own fast, deep breathing, and the cars above.
Two weeks later, as a car drove over the Knightsmount Underpass, the tarmac split apart and a hole opened up. Luckily the driver was relatively unharmed. However, the subsequent excavation and reinforcement work caused havoc on the M8 for weeks and weeks.
It seems that the road had been weakened by a gap in the “reinforced” concrete down below. Those distant planners of fifty years ago were not always honest, or good. We know that now. Some knew it back then. They pulled away part of the west wall of the underpass, the part in the dead centre, and found the bones of a man, skull staring at them with blank eyes and hands and feet shackled together. His hands were stretched, like he was reaching out. The tips of his fingers had been inches away from the west wall. There were no marks of violence on the bones; no breaks, no fractures. He had most likely been alive when he was put in there, apparently. Three weeks later they filled up the Knightsmount Underpass with enough concrete to fill an Olympic swimming pool. Then they built a bridge.
Credit To – Andro Lothian
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