It was a long hot day and we had nothing to do.
Whenever we used to tell El Tel that we were bored, he would look past our shoulders and go all distant, and say something like “Children, when you’re my age, you’ll miss those long hot days with nothing to do the way you’ll miss your teeth.” We didn’t really know what he meant, since he had all his teeth, and none of us had ever seen him do anything except sit in his rocking chair, singing strange songs to himself.
“Have you never heard Al Bowlly? I don’t need your photograph …”
Keggy told me once that his aunt had told him that the milkman had told her that El Tel had boxes and boxes of treasure hidden under his shed, but we dug down there once on another long hot nothing of a day and all we found was a chest of papers. There were letters in official-looking brown envelopes, large black books with rows of numbers, other large black books with rows of slightly different numbers, and sheets marked “Invoice” and “Receipt” and “High Court Notice of Proceedings”, which were words that we recognised only as words that were important but that we didn’t understand. Keggy showed two of the books to his aunt who went very pale and took them away, and we never found out what happened to them.
This particular long hot day was just like all the others. We’d spent what seemed like hours creeping around the side of Old Man Hughes’ shed, waiting for him to turn his back so we could snatch a lettuce, but he’d seen us and chased us with his fork, shouting words that we recognised as words that we weren’t supposed to understand but did anyway. We’d investigated Monsieur Domenech’s rhubarb, but Coppers said it looked like somebody had been messing about with it and Keggy said he’d heard somebody crying near there the other night and I never liked rhubarb anyway. Mr McLeish’s shed was empty and his carrots were wilting, and so after spending five minutes playing the drums on his empty flowerpots we just sort of started wandering. I suppose it all started when I threw one of Keggy’s shoes at a pigeon. I missed, and the bird flew lazily away.
He punched me on the arm, hard. “You’re going to go and get that, Curbs,” looking up at me with a strange sort of smile. He adjusted his braces. “Go on, now. Go and get my shoe. I’ll be in terrible trouble if I go home with one shoe. My aunt will flip.”
“He’s right, Curbs,” said Coppers, throwing a crab apple from hand to hand. “You got to go get it.”
“Don’t see why I should,” I said. “It’s a stupid shoe anyway. Give me the other one and I’ll be doing you a favour.”
“Go get it, Curbs,” said Keggy. “Else I’ll tell everyone you were too chicken to even go up to the outside of Mad Dog’s shed.”
Mad Dog had been away for ever — South America, so Keggy’s aunt had said — and we’d been getting braver. Six months ago, Coppers went up and touched the door, holding his hands there for a few seconds before strolling back down the path and into legend. Not to be outdone, Keggy had run up and tried to peek into one of the windows, but came back disappointed. Just dirt, he said. Dirt and dust and darkness. He and Coppers had preened for days about their courage. But a few months ago Mad Dog had returned, in the middle of the night, and nobody had gone near the place since.
“You go,” I said. “Mister I-Looked-In-The-Window-Once.”
“No way. I didn’t throw the shoe.”
Of course, nobody had seen Mad Dog come out again. But there had been noises. All sorts of noises — strange clankings, odd squelchings, weird grumblings, tinny shriekings — and all sorts of lights. Two days ago, green smoke had puffed from the windows for ten minutes, and the sound of trumpets had echoed around the allotment. Even El Tel had stopped singing, just for a moment, and turned to us as we sat kicking our heels. “What’s he building in there?” he’d asked, and we’d shrugged and carried on flicking pebbles at pigeons.
“You scared, Curbs?” asked Coppers. He gently lobbed the crab apple high into the air, and it landed near the shoe, rolling insolently up to the trailing laces.
“No,” I said, sullenly, but I was lying. The shed was quiet at the moment and had been all day, but it still made my heart thump on my ribs like an anxious woodpecker. The wood was dark with grime and spotted with mildew, and the windows were filthy, a few of them cracked. Fingers of ivy were beginning an assault on the left side of the door, while the hinges and the latch were furred with rust. But a new padlock, bigger than a man’s fist, gleamed in the afternoon light. I swallowed hard, and edged forward a few inches.
“What’s he building in there?” asked Keggy. “Go on and find out while you get my shoe.”
Coppers voice was soft and forceful. “Go on and take a look.”
Who throws a shoe? I thought to myself, as I stepped, slowly and carefully, down the broken, grassy path, never taking my eyes off the door. With each step I expected a new mad something, like a jet of flame, or a bark from a concealed guard dog, or a sudden clatter of bats. I was tense, and I knew that the first sign of that unknown something would see me skittering back down the path and off into the distance like a startled lizard. Coppers and Keggy would laugh, but they’d be right behind me.
But nothing came. I stood over the shoe, still staring at the door, and then in one smooth movement I knelt, and without averting my eyes grasped the apple with my right and the shoe with my left. Nothing happened. I stood, slowly, carefully, my breathing shallow and loud, and I was upright again, holding my prizes. Nothing happened.
I cracked a little smile, and felt the first tingles of relief along the back of my neck and down my arms. When nothing carried on happening, I laughed, and the shed was silent. I threw the apple up into the air, and snatched it from the sky, and was not struck down. I hurled the apple as hard as I could at the door.
And the door opened.
Keggy squealed, and Coppers called my name, but they sounded miles and miles away. The open door yawned in front of me, a dusty darkness that was so unexpected, so unnatural, that I was barely even frightened. And while a tiny part of my brain was thinking timid thoughts — why oh why wasn’t the padlock closed? — the rest had closed down, and I was a dumb spectator as my feet made their own way toward the gloom. I was at the door, and then I was through the door, and then I was inside, still clutching a shoe in my left hand.
A tumult of footslaps from outside ended in a tumble of breathless questions. “Curbs?” “Are you okay?” “Are you dead?” “Is he there?” “What’s he building?” “Where’s my shoe?” “Are you alright?” “Curbs?” “Curbs?” “What can you see?” “What’s in there?”
“Nothing,” I replied, and reached up a hand to a trailing cord. As they stepped carefully into the shed behind me I pulled, and a weak bulb cast its feeble rays on just that. Nothing. Beyond a battered spade in one corner, a couple of abandoned sacks in another, and two dusty shelves holding an ancient pot of paint on the facing wall, there was only but dust and cobwebs and the faint smell of mice. No trumpets. No green fire. No bats. And no Mad Dog.
So what did we do? Why, we burst out laughing, and set about desecrating the place. Keggy, who you honestly can’t take anywhere, started to draw a giant hairy cock-and-balls on the inside of the window, while Coppers began trying to pry open the pot of paint with the spade. I kicked the useless padlock, then carried on kicking up the dust that followed, until the room was a swirling cloud and we were all brown and coughing. I tried fanning the door to get some air in but it only made things worse, and eventually we all spluttered and giggled and stumbled back out into the sunshine. We lay on the overgrown weeds outside, flush with conquest.
“Sack race!” shouted Keggy, diving back inside. Coppers and I looked at one another and jumped back to our feet, and when Keggy didn’t immediately re-emerge we trundled after him. “What’s wrong?” I asked, as we went back into the shed. Keggy was stood with sacks in his hand, staring at something on the floor. “What’s wrong?” echoed Coppers.
He just pointed. He’d moved the sacks to reveal a dark brass ring set into the floor, glinting dully in the anaemic light. Without speaking, Keggy shuffled the dust with his foot, tracing first one line, then another, then another, until the outline was clear. A trapdoor, flush against the far wall of the shed.
“I think we should leave,” said Keggy, just as Coppers said “Open it.” They looked at one another, then at me. “Curbs?”
Maybe I was still giddy from my triumph over the forbidding door. Maybe I was feeling unusually brave. Maybe I was annoyed with Keggy for making me come up here in the first place. I don’t know. I don’t remember what I was thinking. But I do remember stepping forward and pulling the ring. I remember being surprised at how easily and quietly and smoothly it opened onto a stone staircase that vanished into darkness. And I remember blithely stepping onto the first step, and then the second, and the third, before looking up at Keggy, his white hair glowing faintly in the bulb’s pale light.
“Coming?” The underground air was cold and damp.
He looked to Coppers, and saw his eyes shining at the prospect; he looked back to me, and saw the same. Then he looked down to his feet, and sighed.
“Can I have my shoe back first?
To be continued …