There is a tunnel with worm-nibbled soil walls and it is hidden beneath my grandfather’s blue notebook. The tunnel smells of pencil shavings and stale cigarette smoke, and it gives birth to horrors both vast enough to devour the sky and intimate enough to burrow deep into my ear and disturb me as I try to snatch a couple of hours sleep in the damp and creaking spare bedroom.
Day after day my grandfather sits in his threadbare armchair, scribbling and chain smoking and muttering to himself. Smoke coils around his words, binding them. The tunnel gets deeper and wider. It is lit by flickering gas lamps and has wooden supports to stop it collapsing. It is a burrow; a tomb; a hole drilled a mile deep into sea ice, or bored through the jawbone of a long-dead queen. The tunnel leads to a black lake, or to a forest of torches topped with pale fire. It leads to the endless dirt mansions of the dead, and to the lower intestine of some minor god. It leads to my mind, and to yours. It leads down cracked marble steps to the Bakerloo line, though that isn’t a train grunting and spitting in the storm-heavy blackness of the tunnel.
The labyrinth beneath my grandfather’s words leads to all these places, and to more that I am unable to describe. But the man cannot dress himself anymore. Nor can he sing himself to sleep at night. He cannot breathe without the aid of a brass machine that sits in the corner of his room like a hissing, clanking little demon. His garden is thick with twisting thorns, some of the spikes as long and serrated as the teeth of a white shark, and his house is choked with grey-blue ivy the exact colour of his eyes.
My grandfather can no longer make his way down to the water of a morning; cannot feel our god’s stinging salt breath. When the time comes he will not be able to fill his pockets with stones and wade out to the shelf where the sea bottom falls away. He will not be able to find his sunken vaults. I will have to drag him out, stone-heavy and wheezing. I will watch his grasping hands sink beneath the waves, silver in the moonlight.
And then I will go back to his house with the biting thorns and the whispering ivy, and I will try to sleep in my tiny room above that infinite labyrinth.
Something in the mirror breaks my reverie. A shifting blackness behind my eyes. My reflection smirks at me.
I smell smoke, and rot.
There is frost on the stairs, and I can see my breath pluming in front of me. But I hear jungle sounds. The buzz of insects. Something howls in the kitchen.
Smoke rises between the floorboards in my grandfather’s room. It is so cold. He sits in the corner with a fag in his mouth, scribbling furiously. I’m glad the curtains are closed. I don’t want to see what’s outside. I look down, and see freezing blue fire licking at my toes. What have you done? I yell, as the floor gives way beneath me.
And then it feels as if I am underwater, drifting down like a sinking ship.
It’s cold down here, but not dark. The fire won’t leave me alone. I can hear water dripping and something up ahead whispers and grunts, but it is always just around the next corner.
I walk, following the voice. There is blue light, and it gets brighter and brighter. Eventually the tunnel ends and there is a vast plain of ice stretching out in front of me. I see a figure in the distance, hunched over, shambling away from me. It leaves a trail of four-toed footprints. The sun is black, and seems to cast a shadow over the ice.
I cloak myself in blue flame and set out onto the plain, staring up at the sky and cursing my grandfather.
The sky shifts in its chair, and I hear a cough like distant thunder.
The clouds look just like tangled ribbons of cigarette smoke.