Josna Rege

91. Tunneling

In 1960s, 1990s, Books, Childhood, Inter/Transnational, reading, Stories on January 15, 2011 at 2:14 pm

The Home Under the Ground—illustration by Nora S. Unwin

I must have been a mole in a former life, I love tunneling so much; both tunneling itself and the idea of tunneling. As a child I spent countless happy hours burrowing into books, emerging only reluctantly, dazed and blinking, into the light of day. Drawn to tunnels in books, I was charmed by Mole’s and Badger’s cozy dens in The Wind in the Willows, safe from winter and the weasels; Peter and the Lost Boys’ underground hideout in Peter Pan, accessible only through the trunk of a hollow tree; Bag End, Underhill, Bilbo Baggins’ delightfully well-appointed earth-sheltered hobbithole in The Hobbit; caveman Stig’s quarry home literally dropped into by Barney in Stig of the Dump; and, aided by his younger sisters, Friday’s extensive earthworks in Friday’s Tunnel, the prize of my Puffin book collection and perhaps my all-time favorite.

illustration by Edward Ardizzone

In “real life”—not that I made a distinction between the worlds of my books and the world at large—I constructed tunnels and makeshift caves at home, using beds, blankets, and chairs. I tunneled into sandpiles at a construction site on the Hijli campus, stopping only by an innate sense of self-preservation when I realized that there was no way that I could have shored up the ceiling as Friday had. There was a culvert that was dry, or nearly dry except during the monsoons, and by crawling into it one could hide under the road, unnoticed by passers-by. I shudder now to think of the snakes and scorpions I could have disturbed there, but they were of no concern to me at the time.

In “Through the Tunnel,” a much-anthologized story by Doris Lessing, a boy tests his manhood by swimming through an underwater tunnel, holding his breath throughout the unknown length of it until he emerges triumphant at the other end. As a child I tested myself in other ways, but thankfully, having no manhood to prove, I felt no compulsion to risk my life. Riding into  subway, railway, and highway tunnels was always a thrill, though, when it went suddenly dark and one could peer out at the damp walls and sometimes catch a glimpse of mysterious underground passageways, the stuff of science fiction, known only to those who worked in their shadowy depths.

Late one summer when Nikhil was perhaps ten, he and a friend were helping Andrew dig out new potatoes from the rich, loose soil in the back garden when they accidentally unearthed a nest of newborn baby moles, pink and shiny and infinitely vulnerable. Their first impulse was sheer delight at the wonder of this tumble of new life; their second, protectiveness: they were yet too tiny, too young to be exposed to the world. Reverently, we covered them back over with our hands, setting aside the certainty that if these little mites survived they would wreak havoc in Andrew’s beautiful raised beds. And the sense of awe remained with us all that day.

Tunneling is Work—illustration by John Verney

Like Stig, who stepped out of his quarry into the modern world at great risk, like Bilbo Baggins, who longed for his hobbithole even as he did battle with goblins and engaged in high-stakes wordplay deep underground, and unlike the boy in Doris Lessing’s story, the light at the end of the tunnel had little appeal for me. When I was out in the world I certainly did fierce and joyful battle with it, but a stronger, more compelling desire drew me inward. Protective of myself as Nikhil was protective of that clutch of baby moles, I sought refuge in my books, and still do.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents


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  1. Jo,
    When I was about 9, I wove, with my friends at McLean, a low hut made of branches, thatched with deliciously fragrant long grass. Three of us at a time could crawl into it. It was spring and the baby rabbits were skittering like greased lightening along the edges of our fields. We were thinking of the rabbits’ world: low to the ground, sheltered by the arches of grass, enveloped by the green, hidden and protected by the green. We were going to live like them, in their beautiful world.

    To everyone outside, McLean kids were the looney-bin kids, living in a world apart. We were oddities in the world of our school friends, living as we did in a neighborhood bounded by intense, deep and pervasive fear. We McLean kids lived in a contradiction of trust. To the our friends outside, we lived within a terrible, dangerous circle. But we knew our beloved neighborhood was better than any other. We need no more proof than our years of daily interactions with our neighbors. We were lucky, and we knew we were especially lucky not to be afraid.

    In that contradiction, the space that it created between the conventions and fears of the outer world, and what we knew to be true, we could live distinctive lives. We were in a safe haven – in fact, we could extend our safe haven to wherever we wanted to go. And so we were allowed, by the grace of social boundaries, to be weird, to take the part of rabbits and live in a hidden, lush and pure world, directly connected without arbiters, to the grassy field. We were free.
    Ann

    • What a beautiful story, Ann! I can just imagine you and your friends, small and low to the ground, peering out through green tracery from a rabbit’s eye-view. And paradoxically, safe because the “normal” world left you blissfully to yourselves.

      Your grassy hideaway reminds me of two experiences at about the same age, one real, the other imaginary. The first was in an empty lot in our neighborhood in Athens where I met with a group of neighborhood boys once or twice on summer evenings. it too was sheltered from view by branches. We must have made a fire, but I don’t remember much else about it; only that the feel of it comes to me every time I hear Bob Marley sing: I remember/When we used to sit/In a government yard in Trenchtown/And then Georgie would make the fire light/Log wood burning through the night.

      The other memory is from another book, The Borrowers Afield, sequel to The Borrowers. In it, a family of little people, who in the first book lived like mice inside the walls of a big old house, are forced out and live out of doors for a season, in an old boot in a hedgerow.

      Thank you for sharing this memory. I wonder if that open space still exists on the Mclean grounds?

  2. My favorite spot was under our concrete front steps stairs in a tiny tunnel that was surrounded on either end by rhododendron and hydrangea bushes. There was something comforting about being outside yet safely hidden and happily alone.

    One fall Saturday I heard my older brother talking to his best friend Michael on the front steps. They couldn’t see me. I was in my hideout. It was dark and wet there, and…? There were spiders. That kept my mother and younger sister away. If Kevin had seen me, that would have been the end of my adventure. I would not have known anything. But he didn’t know I was there so I caught the buzz .
    I heard that they were going to Polliwog Pond. It was more of a swamp than a pond and we were not allowed there. It was far away from home, down the Old Road. It wasn’t that Old a Road, but it wend nowhere and was unpaved. And it was dangerous. People dumped things they no longer wanted there- old furniture, cars, big metal drums, and other trash. But Michael and Kevin didn’t care about any of that.
    “We ‘re making a raft, “ said Michael. Then he said Kevin could help.

    “Bring your hatchet.” said Michael.

    “And you get some more clothesline,” said Kevin.

    I loved boats even nmore than tunnels or forts or anything. The boys disappeared and I waited for them in a pear tree by the road. My sister wanted me to play with her. I told her to go away so she started crying. I had to give her a whole dime to get her to promise to leave me alone. She wasn’t happy but she went into the house. If she followed me then I would get in trouble. If I followed Kevin then he would get in trouble.

    Finally,Kevin and Michael and Stephen, Michael’s older brother walked past the tree. They were so busy talking they didn’t even notice me. I followed the boys at a safe distance. They turned down the Old Road.
    I waited a bit then I turned down the Old Road.
    They stopped to look at an old car and then walked on. I hid in some tall weeds and watched. They moved on and then I got up looked at the car too. The car was brown pile of metal so very old that the doors were hanging open and falling off. There was rust and broken glass and piles of old black tires all around. My foot slipped inside one of the tires.
    Aiiiiiiiiieeeeee. I stifled a screamed . I couldn’t help it. A small scream came out anyway. My foot hurt so much. I thought I had cut it. I looked up to see if the guys had heard me but they hadn’t. Then I looked at my foot. The pain was so sharp. But, instead of blood there was wriggling mass. A yellow and black mass that seemed almost green ringed my ankle and the top of my foot.
    Yellow jackets!
    I yanked my foot out and stomped to get them off. But then, I heard an angry buzzing sound. My stomping disturbed the nest and huge swarm of yellow jackets rose up from the ground and hung in a cloud an arms length from my face.
    I don’t even remember turning and running. But I am sure I never ran faster in my life. I ran and I screamed. I got to the end of the Old Road and turned towards our house. I ran all the way home.
    My mother was reading at the kitchen table when I burst in. My sister was eating a snack. Her eyes were as big as the sky.
    I fell into a chair and burst into tears. I had lost the yellow jackets but my foot was starting to swell. It was red and covered in tiny red dots. Some had little specs of blood on them. I could hardly breathe and I couldn’t answer any of my mothers questions.
    My mother was a nurse and in emergencies she was all business.
    She took off my shoe, she put ice on my ankle and then she got the story from me.

    I had caught the buzz of an adventure all right. I paid for it dearly. My foot was so swollen I could not even put my father’s sock on it. I had to miss a few days of school and then had to wear a flip flop for a week. Sometimes, I nursed my swollen foot, against the damp, cool dirt of of my hideout.

    • Aaaaaargh!! Your foot ankle-deep in a yellow-and-black wriggling mass of…Yellowjackets!

      What a story, Norah. How old were you? You did indeed pay dearly for your adventurous spirit, but thankfully you were undaunted and went on being adventurous nonetheless. And huddling unseen in your hideout under the steps listening to your big brother making secret plans with his best friend–delicious.

      Your story is so evocative, all the different parts of it. It reminds me of the nest of yellowjackets we disturbed at the Cave when Nikhil was little. And of the swarm of bees that settled on my cousin Carol’s lips while she was eating an ice-cream cone at the seaside. And of the thrills of sneaking unnoticed through a neighbor’s house with my best friend, or getting up quietly in the middle of the night with my sister to surprise our mother with a magically clean room in the morning. Of the old jalopy parked forever at the end of a little-used track in Winchendon and, in the woods across from our house now, the graveyard of old cars, their rusting bodies riddled with bullets.
      Thank you.

  3. This one reminded me of a very happy time when a family of American boys came and visited us in Shillong and we left the adults chatting in the old English style Shillong Club while we sneaked around the back of the club and crawled into a small dungeon-like room and explored all through some old passages down under the building. Years later my husband and I visited their mother, Liz Booz who lives now in a wonderful old house whose back wall is part of the village wall of a Medieval village on the French side of Lake Geneva. She wrote a children’s book called “A Treat in a Trout” which was set in this little village and that story and the memories of our adventures with the Booz boys are all mixed into my happy childhood memories. Thanks for reminding me!

    • Yes, I was with the Booz boys (and Marianne) exploring the catacombs under the Shillong Club. The Boozes and Hollingers and Pattens would all drive there together from Dacca (now Dhaka). I remember once exploring the basement with all the stage sets, and we climbed up a trap door in the ceiling into the middle of a bingo game, right behind the caller. The other place we’d vacation was Darjeeling, which I think you know well. And I have many fond memories from Yvoire over the decades (one from the early ’60s was making *tunnels* of hay bales in a loft in Yvoire). Rustam is now a neighbor a block away, just by coincidence; small world. Now our tunnels seem to be made of snow.

      Ben’s next book after “Treat” was “Josephine”, about an orphan monkey found by Matt & Pat (Mamoo & Paddy) in northwest Pakistan; then “Seal of Jai”. (Incidentally, she recently released an updated “A Treat in a Trout” to earn some euro, since she still spends half the year in Yvoire.

      • Peter! I knew that you had met the Nichols-Roys, but how amazing that you and Marianne played together all those years ago! And Seal of Jai–that’s the one I have. You might like to look at my stories set in Darjeeling, where Marianne and I met: “Hidden Places” (which has a trap door in a ceiling like your story in the Shillong Club), “Study Halls and Cinchona,” and “Himalaya.”
        Making tunnels from bales of hay sounds such fun. And tunnels in packed snow would be a whole lot sounder than my tunnels in damp sand. Did you ever see Andrew’s ice house in Concord, the one he built with blocks of ice from White Pond? (I mention it in “Everett the Ice Man.”)

  4. I love the thought of a gang of children creeping through dusty colonial passages behind the Club walls. And I have met all the Booz boys (men now!), who are childhood friends of our old friend Peter, I met them only once or twice, years ago, when I was an undergraduate, but Andrew’s siblings in the Boston area got to know at least one of the brothers much better. Eve in particular got to know them all, including their sister, and even visited their mother in France! A few years ago I came upon a copy of another children’s book by her, set in India, and this reminds me to dig it out now. I can imagine them getting on really well with the four of you as children. Small world.

  5. I would love to get hold of a copy of Seal of Jai and of the new Treat in a Trout! I wonder if you know where I could get one?
    I am glad to hear Rustom lives near Peter Hollinger! My mom and I visited his mom, Flora, when we were in Boston after a trip across the country by train. Steven and I enjoyed visiting Yvoire again a few years ago, as well, and hearing about Paddy’s adventures in China. That was also when I first heard about Mammoo’s sad passing.
    It really is a small world.

  6. What a wonderfully evocative story! Thank you for leading me to it. My most memorable “real” tunnel experience happened when I was 17 and living in British Columbia. The group I was with climbed up to an abandoned railway tunnel one Saturday morning and walked through it. I had never experienced such utter darkness. The only way to navigate through the tunnel was either to keep one foot on either side of the old rails, or to hold the hand of someone who was doing so. I truly learned the meaning of “light at the end of the tunnel” that day.

    • The abandoned railway tunnel sounds terrifically exciting. There was a live railway tunnel episode in The Railway Children, an E. Nesbit book I loved as a child. I’ve never walked in one, but the idea of being in utter darkness and having only the rails as a guide is so attractive. The time I remember being in complete darkness was on a visit to the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico back in 2004. The guide made us all turn off our flashlights and we just stood in the dark for a time, experiencing that darkness.(No chance of our eyes “getting used to” the dark, since there was no light at all.)

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