Mel took in her surroundings as she shrugged off her coat. Horse brass on the walls, selection of ales and another selection of more ales, a gaggle of 60-something males taking up all the bar stools, their flab rolling over the seats, reminding her of a slaughterhouse with a more pungent smell. Goddammit, another waste of a good dress. Was it too much to ask that one of these online hook ups might take her to a cocktail bar, just once?
Julian had his wallet open and eyebrows raised in that “what can I get you” query.
“White wine, please” she said, pretending not to notice how his eyes slid over her chest as he turned back to the bartender, a girl of 20 or so with a fierce ponytail and slouchy t-shirt which revealed a black bra strap.
Julian returned to their table with their drinks.
“So, what do you think?” he asked, gesturing at the pub as though the proud architect. “Been coming here since my uni days.”
Mel gulped down a tannic mouthful. “Very cosy.”
Julian beamed as though she had just begat his firstborn. The pair shot the usual shit couples do on first dates; work, family, holidays, how they never thought they’d try online dating but so-and-so had met and married through the app…eventually Mel excused herself.
“Powdering your nose?” Julian asked, tapping the side of his with a wink.
“Nothing that exciting,” smiled Mel, wondering if it was too soon to leave yet.
Extricating herself from table and chair, she almost reversed into the bar girl, who was looking harried enough, being seemingly the only member of staff who’d bothered showing up that night.
Flustered apology issued (Julian smirking over the top of his Guinness, appreciating the free show of women wrestling), Mel then asked the girl where she could find the ladies. Unable to point, her arms full of empty glasses, ANGELA (her name badge stated) nodded towards the back of the pub. “Down the stairs.”
“Thanks,” said Mel. She wobbled on her heels as she made way for a pair of pugs who didn’t seem to be attached to any owner. She cursed under her breath.
“Oops, careful now! You drunk already? Cheap date, just how I like ‘em!” Julian brayed. Mel wouldn’t put it past him to slap his thigh next. She shuffled between him and the line of regulars propping up the bar like a crab, fearful he might slap something of hers.
She took her time descending the narrow steps, practically taking those sideways too. She immediately begun to breathe easier as the murmur of punters, clinks of glass and yaps of dogs faded behind her. The first unmarked door she came to led to the kitchen. The second was locked.
“No signs, no lights…actual nightmare.” She went to get her phone out to use as a torch. After scrabbling around getting ancient layers of handbag landfill stuck under her fingernails she remembered she had left it in her coat pocket. The coat she’d slung over the back of her chair.
“Can’t be far now,” she muttered, hands out in front of her like a mime. She comforted herself by thinking not long until she could get a taxi home and be tucked up in bed with some reality show drivel, texting her girlfriends about her dismal night. She often looked forward to the post-date analysis ritual more than she did meeting the men.
Her knee struck a barrel, making her shout. Instead of taking more care the pain made Mel more determined to get this business over with.
“Where are the damn toilets?!” She kicked a wall in rage. She heard an odd clang deep within the wall, then a click right next to her ear, making her almost jump out of her optimistically chosen and now probably torn stockings. There was a scraping of stone on stone that set her teeth on edge. The wall she’d kicked was no longer there, but a corridor was. A roughly hewn cobwebbed passage, lit by a solitary candle on a little saucer just inside the doorway.
Mel glanced back the way she’d come. Just darkness with god knows how many crates and barrels waiting to trip her up and crack her skull. Cobwebs were the more inviting option, and that’s saying a lot for someone tempted to ring the fire brigade whenever a spider scuttled around her flat. She bent down and took the candle, grateful she hadn’t quite given up smoking, so always had lighters (somewhere in the handbag sediment) should the candle go out. And there was that odd gust of wind blowing in from somewhere.
Not having her phone on her to be able to tell the time, Mel had no idea how long she was wandering the passageway which snaked on and on, reminding her of the one in Labyrinth minus any chatty worms. When her feet started to complain she slipped her heels off and carried them. She wasn’t afraid of stepping on anything sharp left by others; the passage looked like it hadn’t been used for a very long time. Which didn’t explain why a freshly lit candle had been in the entranceway, but Mel decided she’d ask questions about that later.
Julian would be getting restless by now. He had probably tried calling her phone and be pissed when he heard it sounding across the table from him. He’d have his joke about her having ‘fallen in’ wasted and would miss her buying the next round (something she was always determined to do. She felt it cancelled men’s expectations they’d be repaid in other ways).
After unknown minutes (hours? She felt in her bones the witching hour approaching), Mel came to a dead end and a ladder. “The only way is up, baby!” she sang crazily, glad she’d already taken care of the need to go to the bathroom a while back. And the less said about that the better, dear reader, although if you stumble upon a secret corridor you’d be best advised to keep your shoes on, unlike our heroine.
Placing her shoe straps between her teeth, Mel placed both hands on the ladder and tested its stability by giving it a good rattle, pretending it was whoever invented that damn app.
Luckily the trapdoor above wasn’t sealed shut, or she’d have faced a long walk back. The cold hit her as soon as she pried it open, wincing in case any debris should fall on her upturned face. Coming out into moonlight after the tunnel’s darkness was like emerging from some womb, and Mel wanted to bawl. The relief of hearing crickets and owls after hearing nothing but her own breath and footsteps for miles! And look – trees, living things – rather than dust and dirt. She hauled herself up and drank it all in.
Idly plucking at blades of grass she’d landed on, Mel tried to get her bearings. In one corner of the field was the disused water tower the neighbourhood kids liked to smoke pot in. Her new flat was only a couple of roads over. It definitely made more sense to head straight home and retrieve her coat and its contents another time. It was a decision between a hot bath and a four mile walk (she calculated), and she resented forking out for another taxi that night.
She turned to look for the trapdoor to close it before any teenage stoners fell down it, but could only see grass and a smattering of closed daisy heads.
She returned to The Penny Whistle the next day to collect her coat. Angela was there again, looking distinctly less harassed than the night before, in the post-lunchtime lull.
“Oh hello,” Angela said. “I thought we’d be seeing you again soon. Back for your coat?”
“Yes,” Mel replied sheepishly.
“You did a runner on that guy then? He wasn’t happy, y’know. Tried taking your coat before he went but I made up some cock ‘n’ bull story about lost property being the Whistle’s business.”
“And a good thing you did. I really didn’t want to face him again. You know when they’re nothing like their pictures?”
Angela um-hummed, busy going through a lost items box.
“What we couldn’t figure out was how you left. There’s literally no exit the way you went.”
Apparently no toilet either, Mel thought, but didn’t say, as she wanted her coat returned to her in one piece.
“I found a corridor.”
Angela wrinkled her diamond studded nose. “Corridor?”
“Yeah, it took me all the way back to my house pretty much – I’ve just moved in to Blane Hill.”
“Don’t know of no corridor down there. We-eeell, there might have been one back in olden days. But Cliff, that’s me boss, he said anything like that was blocked off years ago. And filled in, of course, in case anyone fancied a midnight stroll.”
“That’s so weird. I swear I –”
“He probably slipped something in your drink, love. And that’s why you’ve forgotten how you got home. Impressive trick though, giving us all the slip like that.”
Mel was too spun out to protest.
“I’m trying to remember what it was Cliff told me when he was showing me the ropes…do you want a drink while we wait for my memory to come back?”
Mel had the afternoon free. Why not? She asked for a shandy. She tried to elegantly hop on a bar stool and failed, so settled for placing her coat and bag on it instead.
Angela had her forefingers and middle fingers pressed to her temples. “Yeah, that was it. Something about a castle that used to be on this site, and there was a princess who had them build a tunnel for her so’s she could sneak out and mingle with the townsfolk in disguise. Was sick of her mum and dad parading endless suitors about in front of her, so she needed a breather once in a while. But, that’s like, hundreds of years ago.”
“This is fascinating,” said Mel, sipping her shandy. Angela shot her a look, then realised the remark was genuine. She continued rabbiting on, while wiping pint glasses. Probably glad of someone to speak to rather than being spoken over by rowdy drunks all day, thought Mel.
“Didn’t end well for her, mind,” said Angela. Her eyes were fixed in the past. “One day she didn’t come back. Them what knew about the tunnel thought a bit of it might have caved onto her. Or she’d got in some trouble up top with the peasants. But years later, when the entrance to the tunnel was discovered, there was a candle burning there in a little dish.”