By Philippa Holloway
It starts with a circle. Holding hands, feeling one another’s sweaty palms. I close my eyes because I don’t want to see how everyone else is dealing with this. Every time I close my eyes, though, I feel like I’m falling backwards so I’m worried the people either side of me will think I’m scared if I grip their fingers too tightly.
The guy in charge is saying a prayer, giving a blessing, and I mumble a response like you do in church. No one else does. I feel heat spread to my cheeks and hope they all have their eyes closed too.
When the circle breaks people drift into smaller groups, chatting, discussing equipment, drinking coffee. It’s late, nearly midnight and I usually don’t drink coffee after lunchtime, but I need to stay alert, need something warm to hold. Bunting flutters over the counter in the mess hall. We serve ourselves; cardboard cups and UHT milk, the hot water in a massive steel urn. I stand alone, blowing the surface of my drink, and watch as people who already seem to know each other stick together. I sip until we are split into our groups and leave half a cup on the table as the groups move off to the first muster points.
The lights are out in the rest of the building, the bunker on lockdown. We each have a torch and I shine mine at the floor so as not to dazzle anyone. The sound of the blast door closing still seems to echo in my head. We’ve already had a tour of the whole bunker, but without light the corridors are longer, the sound different. Boots on concrete, people whispering instead talking normally. One of the Leaders is behind me; fatigues, hair pinned back, military boots. She keeps kicking my heels by accident as I walk, apologises. It’s so dark, even with the torches, that it’s hard to get the pace right, to sense when the group slows or speeds up. The bunker smells of mildew and must, and the coffee is giving me a headache. At the top of the stairs there is a moment of confusion, people jostling and working out where to get in line. We hold the handrails. Descend carefully, underground.
‘It’s getting warmer as we go down,’ someone observes.
‘That’s because it’s closer to Hell.’
It might be the woman behind me, trying to psych us out. It might be a joke meant to break the tension. Someone laughs, but the sound just echoes. I grip the handrail and glance back. Behind me, behind the Leader and a couple of men in their twenties perhaps, there is just darkness.
It isn’t a kind voice. Harry hasn’t heard a kind voice for months, not since he said goodbye to his mam and dad and boarded the bus. His name is a command now, a remonstration, an insult.
It’s late, he’s been asleep only a few hours. The dorm is pitch black and filled with the sounds of sleep; heavy breathing, the occasional fart, the creak of bed springs as someone turns over. He rubs his eyes, alert.
He’s on his feet in seconds, back straight, eyes seeking out guidance in the gloom. Harry can see his Commanding Officer, near the door. He has his own room, doesn’t have to doss down with the rest.
‘Uniform, bed made. You have five minutes. Report to the Comms Room.’
Then he’s gone, and Harry relaxes his shoulders, wonders if there was anyone there or if it’s another nightmare, anxiety induced. Best not risk it. He makes the bed like an automaton, routine movements. His uniform is cold, the fabric still stiff. He’s still the newest recruit, but it feels like he’s been here forever. The lack of natural light leeches out a sense of time, blurs perception. Every day the same. Walls, corridors, food in the canteen, standing to attention and saluting while senior officers pass by without acknowledging his existence. As he smooths his errant cowlick down with Brylcreem he thinks of the other men sleeping, of his brother back home. ‘You’ll make friends, Harry.’ His brother’s optimism was often misplaced.
The corridor is dark, low level lighting barely revealing the boundaries of walls and floor and ceiling. He can hear footsteps on the stairs, a late night drill perhaps. He walks towards the Comms Room, boots beating out a tattoo on the concrete, stomach tight.
At the bottom of the stairs we spread out a bit; the boys behind straggling, teasing each other, the Leader at the front calling us to gather. We stop halfway along a corridor and he sets up a small, wooden folding table. Some people try to get close, but I just want to watch, for now. I’m on the edge of the group, make the mistake of looking back. The bunker is locked, solid steel blast doors fastened, the groups tightly monitored, but when I look back along that corridor I swear I can feel something. The darkness at the far end is so dark, like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and my eyes are making up for it by presenting speckles and swirls to fill the void. I blink, daren’t turn my back on it. I’ve seen too many horror films to stay on the edge of a group. I move to the middle, press my back against the solid, cold wall, and watch.
There is a couple, plump and confident, already placing their hands on the table. They know what they’re doing.
‘It’s your night,’ the Leader says. ‘Gather round, use your energy.’
More people move in, press their fingers or palms to the wood. Someone beckons me but I’m a sceptic. I don’t want to spoil it. I’m already regretting this. Booked my ticket on a whim, in tears. Was too stubborn to let the money go to waste by the time I’d changed my mind.
‘Don’t you want to try?’
I shake my head, bite my lip.
‘Right, let’s see if there’s anybody here.’
The Commanding Officer sits with his back to the door, ignoring Harry deliberately. He knows what it is to be feel insignificant, knows why they do it. Doesn’t make it any easier. He can hear voices at the other end of the corridor, strains to listen. It isn’t the first time he’s been summoned in the middle of the night, and he isn’t the only one. He’s lain in bed and heard other names called, heard them scuffling about tightening warm sheets over an empty mattress and buttoning their jackets. It’s all part of the training, must be.
The chair squeaks, a metal whine as the occupant twists and gets up.
‘You’re late.’ Hot breath too close to his face for comfort. Why do they do this, he thinks. Why get so close you can smell their coffee, get flecked with spittle when they shout? Humiliation, a forced humbling. One day he might do the same, to a lower rank. A circular system. ‘Step forward.’ The voice is quiet, commanding.
Harry moves away from the wall, and the Officer walks around him, inspecting his uniform, his posture, his face for signs of disrespect or insubordination. He stands back and nods. Harry knows not to make eye contact.
‘Right, here we go again. Make an effort this time.’ A sack is slipped over Harry’s head and he fights the urge to claw it off and suck at the stale air of the bunker, to panic like he did the first time. He breathes carefully, through his nose, trusting enough oxygen will make it through the weave of the hessian to keep him alive. Trusting. It’s all he can do.
He feels a hand at his spine, pushing him forward, can hear the voices as they get closer. ‘Come on, we know you’re there.’ Taunting. Demanding. ‘Show yourself. Give us a sign.’
A final push from behind and he staggers forwards, knees crashing into something. Hears an intake of breath close by.
When the table tips for the first time I can’t help it, I gasp. I don’t know what I was expecting. The others are encouraged, clearly.
‘Come on! Is that all you’ve got?’
‘Lift it! Lift the table…come on, show us you’re there.’
‘We need more hands, more energy.’
Someone pulls my sleeve and for a second I almost lash out, but I’m in the circle, my hands reaching for the table. Fingers overlap, shoulders pressed together. Body heat envelops me. It’s intimate, somehow. Primal. I press hard on the table, feeling for a sign, for a tremor, not even sure I want there to be anything, or not. That first movement was probably one of the leaders deliberately moving it, putting on a show. After all, people have paid for this. And who wants to spend the night in an old nuclear bunker for nothing?
The table is still. My back is cold. Most of the torches are off, and only reflected light from one pointed at the floor allows me to see anything.
‘Don’t press so hard,’ someone whispers, ‘you only need to rest your hand lightly, so it can move.’
I relax my fingers, watching carefully to see if anyone is pushing on it, making it move. I glance back, down the corridor. In the dark I can see a shape, I think. Right at the far end of the corridor, but no. It must be my eyes playing tricks.
The Commanding Officer leaves him, walks away to stand at the end of the corridor. To watch. Harry feels him go, struggles to orientate himself, his knees humming from the impact. It’s a test, and he knows he failed it last time. He can barely hear them, strains to catch their voices as they give him his commands. Stands to attention and waits until it becomes clear. If he concentrates maybe he can find the frequency, like tuning a radio. He knows how to do that, how to triangulate a radar reading. The sack makes it hard, the static and white noise of his own breath causing interference. He holds perfectly still and waits. Better to wait and get it right, then start bumbling about and knock something over, get a bollocking from above.
Nothing. What was I hoping for? That it would be him, here? Why the hell would he be here? No matter what they say the table doesn’t shift. No more tipping and crashing back down. I feel stupid, a total tit. I could be home right now, sunk in my duvet, watching a boxset. Taking my mind off it.
‘Okay, let’s try the glass.’ The Leader places a small drinking glass upside-down on the table. ‘Come close, place a finger gently on the top.’ I do, because I’m squashed, because to tell them all it’s a con, a total waste of time, and walk off, would be to navigate the corridor and stairs alone. And I’m too afraid of the dark for that. Haunted or not, this place is creepy with the lights off.
The glass is cool, and I focus on my finger. Whisper while the others call out. ‘Please. If you’re there, show me.’
He hears it. Somewhere in the static and the shouts, a softer sound. Strains to hear.
He moves closer, reaches out. His knees knock the table again, ever so lightly. He puts a hand out and feels across the surface.
It moved! I watch carefully at the other fingers, convinced someone has pushed it. It moves again, just a fraction of an inch.
‘Come on, show us you are here.’ The voice takes charge, and I wait, wait to see if anything will happen. ‘Move it!’
He can hear them now, a group of maybe ten airmen bunched together, bolshy and confident. Their Commander is talking to him. ‘Come on. Move the glass!’
It’s a game, he thinks. Ritual humiliation in the middle of the night, payback from when they themselves were in training, had to be initiated. He knows he’s being watched though, so he plays along. Pushes the glass. Hears the cheer.
‘Right, let’s find out all about you.’ An interrogation. ‘Move the glass to me for yes, and towards Terri for no. Do you understand?’
He isn’t stupid, he knows the game. Tried it last time and ended up smashing the glass. It would be easier if he didn’t have the sack over his head, if he could see. He reaches out and pushes the glass towards the voice.
‘Are you male?’
The glass moves, slides over the table, and my finger nearly slips off.
‘Okay, it’s a male. Anyone else want to ask a question?’
‘Let’s find out his name.’
‘Move the glass to me when I say the letter of your first initial. Do you understand?’
The glass moves again. More powerful this time. I look as hard as I can in the half-light to see if the tip of anyone’s finger is whiter, showing they’re putting pressure on the glass, pulling it. But everyone’s fingers are loose and sliding on the top as it moves back to the centre of the table. ‘A – B – C-’ he says the numbers slowly and I know, I know the glass will move on H.
His face is hot inside the thick hessian sack, his hand shaking. The voices fade in and out. Questions. Surely they know who he is?
‘Harry?’ the soft voice. The clearest.
He pushes the glass.
It’s a common name. I mean, there were three Harrys in my class at school, and my Harry wasn’t the only one I knew. Someone holds out one of the instruments, an EMF meter, and the lights flicker.
‘There a spike in electro-magnetic energy. It’s getting stronger.’
I close my eyes and hope, and hope.
‘Can you see that? There’s something at the end of the corridor.’
Some of the fingers lift off the glass, but I keep mine steady, feeling for the tiniest vibration.
‘There is a shape. There’s something there.’ The person with the gadget moves away, down the corridor. I daren’t look, in case it isn’t him. In case it is.
He’s nearly tuned in fully now, can sense the movement of the group, a few walking away. He holds the glass and waits for the next question. Hears the soft voice, the kind one; comforting like a cup of tea or his mam’s cake.
‘Harry? Are you still there?’
He pushes the glass.
‘Are you okay?’
He pushes the glass.
‘Are you happy?’
He can’t lie. He pulls the glass slowly towards himself, until he feels it tilt on the edge.
He hears the change in her voice. ‘Are you alone?’ A tremor of grief.
He pushes the glass.
‘I love you.’
He pauses. This is a shitty thing to say, must be a set up to get a response. He’s sick of these midnight games, of the sack and the glass. He’s had enough.
Why is he here? Did he follow me? Or is this just a ‘thin space’ where anyone can reach through? I want to hold him, to reassure him, but all I have is the glass. And people are asking their own questions, too many questions. The glass starts to move in a circle, round and round on the surface of the table. It makes a whooshing noise as it speeds up, like a headache building. Here, underground, it’s humid, and I’m struggling to breath properly. My back hurts from leaning over the table for so long, and my finger is slipping on the glass. It starts to spin, in the centre of the table, and everyone moves around with it; tripping over each-other’s feet, stumbling. I can feel breasts pressing into my spine, smell the armpits of the big guy in front. Someone giggles. I’m caught up in it and can’t let go.
I don’t know what he’s trying to say.
‘There’s something coming, moving down the corridor.’
He can hear him, hear the anger in his stride as he gets closer. He doesn’t care if he’s blown it. Has had enough of these trials. He’s pulled away by the sack, the material tight across his face. He gasps and grasps at it. Is shoved him against the wall. He can hear more questions.
‘Are you still there?’
He stands as still as possible, to attention, breathing heavily. His own stale breath choking him. I love you. He wants her to mean him. He wants to feel loved again.
The glass is moving slowly again.
‘Are you male?’
‘Are you female?’
‘A non-binary ghost!’ someone laughs, and I slip out of the circle. Stand back against the wall. I’m not sure anymore, if it was him or not. If it was my imagination of a trick. I close my eyes and try to conjure him out of the darkness. The bunker feels outside of time and place, somewhere and nowhere, adrift from reality. It could be dawn already and we’d never know. I can imagine all too clearly what it would be like to be sealed in, a vast coffin, a sarcophagus with a café. The world above imploding. I’d go mad. I need fresh air, need a smoke. I wait for the others to finish and a break to be called. The wall is solid behind me, and I splay my fingers across the cold, painted concrete. Wish I could reach him.
He can feel her, next to him. Has no idea who she is, but senses she isn’t like the others, maybe wasn’t mocking him. He reaches out, touches her hand. The tiniest moment of comfort.
A hand on his spine, guiding him down the long corridor. In the Comms Room, the sack is removed. He tries his hardest not to change his breathing, not to flinch, not to show any signs that might invite criticise.
‘Back to bed.’
He can hear voices, retreating, as he slips into the stale air of the dorm. How long has he been here now? He can’t tell anymore, but knows he can’t move on until he gets it right. He pulls the blanket over him, tries to conjure her voice. He must try harder next time. If only he knew what they wanted.
Outside there is a mist hanging over the fields, the security lights reflected in the eyes of sleepy cattle beyond the barbed wire. I hunch against the cold, suck the cigarette and wonder if I should go home. The people from the other group are discussing their own experience, the servicemen and women they think they’ve contacted, a child from way before the bunker was even built, crippled and stuck in a time loop at the site where he died. We are going to swap locations in a minute, try the Ouija board.
I’ve had enough, stub out my cigarette and ask one of them to tell the organisers I’m leaving. Walk down the ramp and towards her car. I can hear the others going back in, the blast door closing behind them. Heading off to the corridor where we were.
I sit in my car, in the dark, then turn the key.
It isn’t a kind voice. Harry knows what to do, pushes back the blanket and stands.
Maybe this time he’ll pass the test.