Door in the Wall
There was a door in the wall.
It had always been secured with a padlock, but this evening the shackle had not been pushed home.
Ben lifted the padlock from the hasp and opened the door. He had no idea what was on the other side, he only knew that he needed somewhere to sleep for the night. Several interlopers had moved into the underpass and they were beginning to attract too much attention. With only one or two of the regulars dossing down there, the locals didnít feel threatened and passed by without comment. Now, to make matters worse, a local gang had started to loiter at the end of the underpass, obviously with trouble in mind. None of the regulars - or interlopers - were in a fit enough state to fend off an attack and the police, when they did turn up, would only find a few bloodied victims and bedding strewn the length of the tunnel.
That scared Ben more than the unknown on the other side of the secret door. He peered in and could just make out what seemed to be a storeroom beneath the University campus car park. It was dry, secret, and would suit him for those few risky hours before dawn.
He could find no light switch, so took out the old windup torch given to him by a well-wisher and went inside. There was another door in the far wall, but Ben was too tired to explore. He tossed his bedding into a corner, replaced the open padlock in the hasp of the outer door and pulled it to. It was unlikely anyone else would notice. Not even students visited the rear of the university grounds bordering the railway sidings where there was nothing but ragwort and piles of ballast for the tracks. Ben was the only one of his group who still had enough curiosity to investigate such unlikely places. He was a survivor. In fact, given his young years, he had survived enough adversity for several lifetimes.
That had taken its toll. Ben was always exhausted. He fell asleep as soon as his head hit the rolled blanket he used as a pillow. When outside he usually managed to wake before the owner of the shop whose porch he was dossing down in arrived to open up. Most business owners took exception to down and outs using the front of their shops as dormitories, the more fastidious scrubbing the tiles with disinfectant as a precaution against fleas, scabies and Ebola.
Ben felt secure enclosed in the pitch darkness of his new hideaway. He carried on sleeping until morning when a noise on the other side of the internal door roused him. It sounded, and felt, as though something was drilling deep into the ground. Surely the University wouldnít allow an oil company to drill beneath its campus? The students would have rioted if they found out. Ben pulled the half bottle of flat Lucozade from his knapsack and took several swigs to wake himself up. He quickly rolled up his bedding and delved about in the bottom of his knapsack for the discoloured eraser, which often proved useful when finding a new bolthole from the unfriendly night. He sliced a sliver from it with his penknife and packed it into the padlock keyhole. It didnít work every time, but anyone careless enough to not secure the shackle wouldnít notice that the tumblers had not engaged.
After a quick glance about outside to make sure the coast was clear, Ben pulled the door to after him and replaced the padlock in the hasp.
First things first. He needed to find out how his acquaintances had fared the night before in the underpass.
As soon as he arrived it was obvious that it had not been well. A uniformed PC was watching several smug faced youths. He caught Benís eye and indicated he should take a different route. After making a mental note of the thugs responsible for the mayhem of the previous night, Ben followed the PCís advice and doubled back to find some biscuits for breakfast at the food bank - Bourbons if they had them.
The next night, safely behind the door in the wall, Ben felt guilty at not sharing its location with the others attacked in the underpass the previous night. But that was a law of the street; survival first, friends in adversity, second.
Again Ben was woken by drilling. It was much louder this time. A quick glance outside told him that the sun was about to rise and in the light of his windup torch he could see steam seeping under the inner door. Unlike others who were ethanol dependent, he didnít imagine things. Benís dreams might have been turbulent, but they werenít about subterranean hells. He had to know what was going on down there. A slight push at the inner door opened it slightly.
Light and steam flooded the storeroom, giving Ben an instant sauna. It was impossible to see what was happening below. Against his better judgement, he had to find out. There was a metal walkway, which fortunately had a railing to prevent its users plunging into the shaft where the drilling was taking place. Ben carefully eased his way along it, hoping to catch a glimpse of what was going on beneath the steam. He had been an apprentice engineer before having to hit the road and understood geothermal energy. This steam was being generated by water being pumped from deep in the ground. The University above wasnít only researching solar and wind power. Since the fracking controversy, which involved sinking boreholes under peopleís property, it was hardly surprising they were keeping quiet about this project. Perhaps the new uni had chosen its isolated location to test their experimental drilling rig, albeit at an ungodly hour in the morning, and not just to give refuge to down and outs. What next? Admit they had been drilling without authorisation, or create a company to declare the success of a cheap new way to sink bores at a Ďfutureí date?
For the first time in years Ben felt engaged with something. This was far more important than the thugs terrorising his companions or wondering where the next meal would come from. He had to see more and felt his way through the steam.
Further along the walkway there was another door. He pushed it open and a brilliant shard of light from the rising sun cut through the steam. Ben quickly dodged outside before someone below noticed, jamming his foot in the door to ensure it didnít slam shut on him.
Shading his eyes from the rising sun, he found he was standing by the disused bridge over a derelict railway station.
Propping the door open with a brick, Ben went to investigate this forgotten, derelict corner of railway history where trains were being moved from their sidings to collect the first passengers of the day. Even the drivers shunting the engines from their night-time berths under the rusting footbridge probably didnít give this deserted platform and overgrown tracks beyond it a second glance. They were all that remained of a branch line after the Beeching cuts. Ben decided against crossing the bridge over the trains below. Its supports were rusty and the screws half hanging out of them.
The sun was getting higher so he returned to the storeroom. He rolled up his bedding, replaced the sabotaged padlock, and left to find breakfast.
No one slept in the underpass any more. Even the hardiest of its night-time residents had taken police advice and accepted beds at a hostel. The local thugs had lost an easy target to terrorise, but were not yet willing to risk injury by fighting another gang. Without their ringleader, Conan, they would have gone back to spraying graffiti and playing Grand Theft Auto. The bodybuilder had crossed Benís path two years previously when he had been fit enough to fend him off. Now Ben wouldnít have stood a chance. All he could do was keep looking over his shoulder and ensure he was safely in his bolthole before the streetlights were turned off. Conan might not have possessed a great intellect, but knew how to hold a grudge.
Several nights passed, Ben snug in his secret hideaway and the others safely under a charityís roof.
As dawn broke one morning, Ben took his regular stroll along the walkway through the steam and out to view his secret kingdom on the far side of the derelict station. He felt uneasy. He didnít know why. But that instinct for survival was finely honed and never ignored. He went back to the storeroom, rolled up his bedding and quickly left.
Turning the corner from the universityís entrance were a student and older man. They headed to the storeroom door. Ben wondered why they were there so early in the morning and tried not to panic. What if they found out the padlock had been sabotaged and had it replaced? No more refuge for the night.
He darted behind the bushes on the other side of the road and watched the couple enter the storeroom. At least leaving earlier than usual meant he hadnít been caught.
Then Benís worst nightmare appeared. His early-morning foreboding had also saved him from encountering Conan. The only reason the thug had for being there was because he had discovered Benís secret hideaway. Now the chance to sleep there again had really gone.
Benís immediate instinct was to run and not come back. Then a sickening thought stopped him. It was dark in the storeroom. Conan wouldnít have thought twice about beating up the elderly professor and his young female student if he believed that they were getting between him his quarry. There was no way to contact the police. Everywhere was deserted and the credit on Benís last mobile had expired months ago.
Conan entered the storeroom.
Ben pulled a metal strut from the ancient railings holding back the bushes and darted across the road.
There were raised voices, and then a girlís scream.
Ben hurtled to the storeroom and threw the door wide like an emaciated fury. There was blood on the old manís face after he had attempted to come between his student and Conan.
The bodybuilder had the girl by the arm and would have struck her as well if Ben had not lashed out with the metal bar. Conan fell back. This gave Ben just enough time to open the inner door and dash through it, shouting obscenities over his shoulder to ensure that the thug chased him.
The body builder charged like an enraged bull along the metal walkway and out of the other door.
Ben was already running across the rusty bridge, over the trains being shunted out to their stations, and down to the derelict platform. He jumped onto the disused tracks and hid amongst the buddleia colonising them. Conan assumed he had dashed off into the wilderness beyond and loped along to the far end of the platform.
Taking his chance, Ben jumped back up and onto the bridge. But Conan saw him leave his hiding place and charged after him. Benís intention had been to get inside and slam the door shut before he could reach it. By the time Conan had discovered a way round to the door of the storeroom, he and the other two would be well away. But one of Benís torn trainers snagged on a loose tread.
He went sprawling.
With a roar of triumph, Conan pounded his way across the bridge towards him.
It shuddered dangerously.
Suddenly Ben felt helping hands pulling him clear of the rickety structure as the bridgeís struts snapped.
It turned turtle, pitching Conan onto the rails below. Dazed and disorientated, he managed to get to his feet and spin round just in time to see the carriages bearing down on him.
The look of amazement on Conanís face shortly before he was mangled by their wheels would live with Ben forever. The driver at the far end of the train may have felt a slight bump, but obviously wasnít aware that he had struck anyone. Why would he have been? There was never anybody about at that time of day. He was even less aware of Ben, the professor and his student gazing down in horror at the bloody tangle of what had once been a bodybuilder.
Their appalled silence continued until Benís sense of self-preservation kicked in. He ushered the professor and his student back inside.
†They had to decide what to do. Telling the police what had happened would have meant revealing the Universityís illicit research into geothermal energy. The consequences would have been the loss of numerous grants at best, and prosecution at worst.
Ben knew that nothing much would happen if he told them about Conan. The police were aware that he wanted to kill him and it would be plausible he died attempting to do it. Ben would either spend several nights in a warm cell with full board, or they would shake his hand.
Despite being convinced that the young man knew what he was doing, the other two were reluctant to leave him to shoulder the responsibility of what had happened. But Ben insisted: his life was already screwed up, there was no point in the same thing happening to the student, so the professor handed Ben his card with instructions to call him.
After the professor and his student had returned to the University, he picked the eraser from the padlock, pulled the door of the storeroom to, put the shackle through the hasp and snapped it shut. His knapsack and bedding were well hidden in the bushes opposite and he could retrieve them at any time.
Ben followed the perimeter of the Universityís grounds, back to the sidings and derelict station. The bridge was now hanging precariously from a couple of loose bolts over where Conanís body lay. Ben scrambled down the crumbling wall it was attached to and ran along the track to attract the attention of the driver shunting the last passenger carriages from their overnight berth. He frantically gabbled out that the bridge had collapsed and there was a body on the track. Within minutes the yard was locked down. Nothing moved until the railway police arrived.
Benís explanation that Conan had been chasing him seemed plausible enough - it was unlikely to have been the other way round. He didnít even need to spend a night in a cell which, given that he had lost his regular spot, was inconvenient. However, after hearing what had happened, his companions in the hostel were only too willing to have him join them. With Conan gone they could safely move back to the underpass.
Ben had been through so many institutions during his early life, he had never expected much. The engineering apprenticeship was the most he had ever expected to achieve before fate intervened, and he hadnít anticipated anything more than a thank you when he did find a phone to call the professor. Those who have never had much expect little and have nothing to lose. But Ben did not count on the professor rating his IQ above average. So much so that, after explaining their geothermal drilling project to the young man, the professor managed to procure a grant for him to work with his legitimate research group. Despite Benís early training as an engineer, his skills were far from university standard, and he expected the job to be sweeping floors or cleaning condensation from the walls of the secret research chamber. But his brain had not been addled by drugs or booze and his prospects turned to be more promising. Best of all was having a warm bed for the night.