Where the channel snaked to the right it was no longer possible to stand upright, despite the abrupt drop in the gradient. The crown of William’s hat grazed the slimed roof as he stooped, holding his lantern before him, and the stink of excrement pressed into his nostrils. His hand was unsteady and the light shuddered and jumped in the darkness. Rising and rushing through the narrower gully, the stream pressed the greased leather of his high boots hard against the flesh of his calves, the surge of the water muffling the clatter of hooves and iron-edged wheels above him. Of course he was deeper now. Between him and the granite-block road was at least twenty feet of heavy London clay. The weight of it deepened the darkness. Beneath his feet the rotten bricks were treacherous, soft as crumbled cheese, and with each step the thick layer of black sludge sucked at the soles of his boots. Although his skin bristled with urgency, William forced himself to walk slowly and deliberately the way the flushers had shown him, pressing his heel down hard into the uncertain ground before unrolling his weight forward on to the ball of his foot, scanning the surface of the water for rising bubbles. The sludge hid pockets of gas, slop gas the flushers called it, the faintest whiff of which they claimed could cause a man to drop unconscious, sudden as if he’d been shot. From the little he knew of the toxic effects of sulphuretted hydrogen, William had every reason to believe them. The pale light of his lantern sheered off the black crust of the water and threw a villain’s shadow up the curved wall. Otherwise there was no relief from the absolute darkness, 1 525H_text 29/10/04 9:52 am Page 1 not even in the first part of the tunnel where open gratings led directly up into the street. All day the fog had crouched low over London, a chocolate-coloured murk that reeked of sulphur and defied the certainty of dawn. In vain the gaslamps pressed their circles of light into its upholstered interior. Carriages loomed out of the darkness, the stifled skitters and whinnies of horses blurring with the warning shouts of coachmen. Pedestrians, their faces obscured by hats and collars, slipped into proximity and as quickly out again. On the river the hulking outlines of the penny steamers resembled a charcoal scrawl over which a child had carelessly drawn a sleeve. Now, at nearly six o’clock in the evening, the muddy brown of afternoon had been smothered into night. William was careful to close the shutter of his lantern off beneath the open gratings, as furtive as a sewer-hunter. It was bad enough that he was alone, without a look-out at ground level, in direct contravention of the Board’s directives. It would be even harder to explain his presence here, in a section of the channel recently declared unsafe and closed off until extensive repair work could be undertaken. William could hardly protest to be innocent of the decision. He had written the report requiring it himself, his first official report to the Board:
Within the southern section of the King-street branch deterioration to interior brickwork is severe, with the shoulder of the arch particularly suffering from extensive decomposition. While tidal scour can be relied upon to prevent undue accumulation of deposits, the high volumes of floodwater sustained within the tunnel during periods of full tide and heavy rainfall pose a grave threat to the stability of the interior structure. Underpinning of the crown is urgently required to prevent subsidence. DANGER.
The precision of the words had satisfied him. Within them was contained the evidence of a world where method and strapped down chaos. On their very first day as assistants to the Commission the group of young men had been taken to meet Mr Bazalgette himself. One of their number, eager to ingratiate himself with the master, had begged him to disclose what he considered the characteristics of a successful engineer. Bazalgette had paused, his fingers against his lips. When he spoke it was quietly, almost to himself. The great engineer, he said, was a pragmatist made conservative by the conspicuous failures of structures and machines hastily contrived. He was regular in his habits, steady, disciplined, methodical in his problem-solving. He was equable and law-abiding. Carelessness, self-indulgence, untidiness and fits of temper were foreign to him. From the turmoil of his natural instincts he brought order.
‘How unutterably tedious he’d like us!’ one of the pupils had hissed at William as they were dismissed. William paid no attention. In the months that followed he had held on to Bazalgette’s words, repeating them to himself until their shape acquired the metre of a magic charm. William no longer trusted in prayer.
Where the floor of the tunnel levelled out once more William paused, holding his lantern up to the wall. The water tugged impatiently at his boots. Where the light caught it, the masonry bulged with overlapping wads of fungi. They sprouted fatly from between the spongy bricks, their fleshy undersides bloated and blind, quilting the holes that pocked the walls. They were the closest that the tunnels came to plant life but William could find no affection for them. He ducked further, pulling in his shoulders to avoid brushing against their pallid flesh. Their cold yeasty smell rose above the privy stench of the filthy water. William’s throat closed. For a moment he felt the tilt of the ship and his hair crawled, alive with vermin. Men moaned all around him, crying out for help that never came. He had a sudden urge to dash the glass of the lantern against the wall. A shard of the broken glass would be as sharp as a knife. It would slice through the stinking fungi until their flesh fell away from the wall. Would it bleed or would it simply yield the yellowed ooze of a corpse too long in the sun? The craving quickened within him and his breath came in shallow dips. He imagined his fingers closing round a dagger of glass, tight and then tighter until his blood ran in narrow black streams between his knuckles. The hunger pressed into his throat, and crowded his chest. He stared into the lantern, watching the worm of flame curl as he swung it slowly backwards and forwards. Just one hard blow. That was all it would take. He pulled back his arm . . .
No! The lantern swung dizzily as he snatched in his hand and a pale fragment of mushroom swirled away in the stream. A fine crack ran upwards through the glass of the lantern but the light did not go out. Unhurriedly the flame stretched, shivered and then steadied. Sweat trickled from beneath the brim of William’s hat. He gripped the handle of the lantern tightly, angry at his imprudence. Without the lantern he would never find his way back to the shaft. Forcing his mouth full of saliva he licked his lips. Regular in his habits, steady, disciplined, methodical in his problem-solving. Equable and law-abiding. He repeated the words to himself as he moved further into the tunnel. His knees were unsteady.
Once again the tunnel narrowed. Here there was barely room to accommodate the spread of William’s shoulders and the water rushed over his knees. At high tide the flow would fill the channel almost to the roof. Where the stream scoured the walls there were no more mushrooms. Instead the walls were slick with a fatty dew of nitre that gleamed silver in the lantern’s light. In the darkness beyond, a row of stalactites hung like yellowing teeth from a narrow lip of brick in the curve of the roof. This was the place, the place where young Jephson had finally gone to pieces.
It had not come quite without warning. Jephson, a gangly surveyor with the raw oversized knuckles of the not-quite man, had been discomfited for at least a half-mile, the perspiration standing out on his forehead as he...