Midnight Nell and the Tunnel of Dreams
They call me Midnight Nell, because that’s my name. You can barely see me in the dark, except for the glow of my eyes. You might take me for the black dog of legend, harbinger of misfortune and death, but I’m not saying that’s me.
Blind George, my master, just calls me Nell. He doesn’t care about colours. I do the seeing for him and he plays the fiddle and that’s how we eat. We’ve been working the highways and byways for a couple of hundred years now. You might have heard of us.
We’d just come out the pub and George was lurching a bit. I was licking my chops to get the last flecks of a steak pie crust that someone had thrown for me. We walked along the lane, not going anywhere in particular. And there, at the crossroads, was the Devil.
“Hello George,” she said.
“What do you want?” he grunted.
“That’s not very friendly,” she said and she bent down to stroke me and fuss my ears. She smelled of blood, and chocolate, two of my favourite smells.
She swished her long red hair and then took out an elastic and put it in a ponytail, to look more businesslike. She tapped the toes of her high-heeled boots. “I’ve got a job for you George,” she said.
“How much?” said George. “I may be blind but I ain’t stupid.”
I nudged his hand with my nose. I thought he should be nicer to her. After all, she did give him her best tunes. But she didn’t seem offended.
“You’ll be rewarded. Have I ever let you go without? Now, people are digging, George. Can’t you hear them?”
George’s head was muzzy with strong ale but I lifted an ear and listened. I heard, faintly, the dull crunch of a pickaxe on hard ground. It was in the town, 20 miles away (I have very good hearing).
“They’re underground, George. That’s my realm. I have interests down there I want to protect,” said the Devil. “They’re calling me, these diggers. But I’ve got things to do, places to go. I can’t attend to them. So I’m sending you. Take your fiddle George and play them a few tunes.”
“I got things to do too,” said George. He was in a bad mood. “I’m not at your beck and call.” Of course, that’s not true. He is human, still.
“One of them is a woman,” said the Devil. “Dark haired, slim, the sort you like.”
"Huh,” said George.
The Devil sighed impatiently. “Just get on with it.” She snapped her fingertips and a rabbit appeared. Not a fluffy white bunny out of a hat, but a rabbit from hell. A hell-rabbit, big as a pig, with red eyes streaming with pus and huge yellow teeth. An enormous rabbit hole opened up in the road and the enormous rabbit plunged down it.
“No Nell!” shouted George. But it was too late. I am a dog. Dogs chase rabbits. No matter that the rabbit was twice my size and carrying every known disease. I had to go after it. I dived down the hole after the rabbit and Blind George, holding fast to my lead like he always does, dived down with me.
The Devil laughed happily and the hole closed above our heads.
There was no sniff of the rabbit once we were down there. I should have known.
So, here we were again, underground. This is where it all started, where we were pressed into service, two hundred years ago. You probably know the story.
They had all been drinking, George and his mates, and they’d hatched this plan. There was a hole, in the side of a mound, just outside the village. People called it the cave and they said a tunnel led from it to the Hall, three miles away, where the squire lived. George’s mates wanted to creep through the tunnel and raid the squire’s brandy cellar, which was said to be the fullest in the county.
Problem was, George’s mates were scared of the dark. But they reckoned, George wasn’t. And anyway he had me. So the plan was to send George into the cave, playing his fiddle. We would make our way along the tunnel, George playing his fiddle all the while, so that the men up top could tell where we were. And we would move along like this, us below, them above, following the tune, until they could be sure that the tunnel reached the Hall.
George agreed. No one asked me what I thought of it. Into the cave we went; it smelled of chalk and beetles. I nosed along to the back and found the tunnel, in a waft of cold, subterranean air. George started to play and I led him down.
According to George’s mates, they heard the fiddle and began to track the notes under their feet. They followed the tune more than a mile, across open fields, around cows, over hedges and through ditches. George kept up a good pace, pulling them along with his magnetic music. Then, he stopped.
According to George’s mates, there was an unearthly shriek and four minutes later I came yelping out of the cave with my hair singed off and no tail. They never saw George again.
This is a complete fiction.
True, they never did see George again, but nor did they see me. I still have my tail. There was no shriek. We’re not babies. The cowards concocted that story to cover up the fact that none of them ever ventured down the tunnel to find out what had become of us. Not that it would have done them any good. We had gone, sent off by the Devil on our first mission. I can’t give you the details, but we’ve been busy, over the years.
Here we were then, down another tunnel. It was blacker than the bottom of a cauldron of pitch, but that didn’t bother me. I knew where to go. I could smell the town: I was getting petrol, pizzas, parking wardens. I could hear the digging. They call me Blind George’s eyes but really I’m his nose and ears. Much more reliable organs, I find.
It was a way to walk but George was playing his favourite tune, Brighton Camp. You probably know it as The Girl I Left Behind Me. He has his own ditty that he sings to it, in his rasping voice.
“So follow me and hear the song,
Don’t mind the wind and weather.
Oh stick with me, it’ll all make sense,
The ends they’ll tie together.”
Underground, you never know quite where you are. Or when. We were very deep, I could tell that. I sensed the weight of earth above us and it made the hairs on my back rise. I tugged George forward a little faster.
To begin with, I couldn’t detect much life in this underground world. There was the rock, of course: chalk, flint, some clay. Rocks have their smells but they don’t say much. From time to time I caught a whiff of something metallic. Buried treasure? Broken swords? Lost ploughshares? I couldn’t tell. George played his fiddle and the music floated through the passage, which spawned other tunnels as here and there openings appeared and paths branched off to left and right.
I smelled sweat; we heard running and a man blundered towards us. He grabbed George by the coat and pressed his face close. He was white as a corpse. “Have you seen anything?” he demanded.
“Like what?” said George.
“Jesuits. They’re everywhere, flooding in from France. They’re using the tunnels to infiltrate the whole country. Have you seen anyone?”
“No,” said George, confidently.
The man released him and stumbled off along the tunnel behind us.
I was getting hungry but there was nothing to eat in this place. Not even a root penetrated the earth above us and we were too deep for rats. Not that I would eat a rat. In the darkness, I was misled by some of the flints: they looked like bones. I smelled something. That was a bone, surely, poking out of the wall. I seized it eagerly. Ugh! It was a bone but turned to stone. Hippopotamus – Mesolithic period I would say. Pah! The sooner we got to town the better.
There seemed to be more things present in the tunnels. You’d be surprised what George can call with his fiddle. We came across two soldiers, sitting on a tea chest, playing cards. They looked up, their faces dull. “Is the war over yet?” one asked.
“Shouldn’t think so,” said George, and they went back to their cards. We moved on.
At a place where our tunnel met two others, we paused for breath. A man slipped out of the darkness, wrapped in a black cloak, clutching a silver cross.
“On me poursuit,” he whispered.
George nodded. “Il est passé par là,” he said, pointing to one of the side tunnels. (You didn’t know he could speak French, did you?).
“Merci,” breathed the man, and he began to run down the tunnel we had come from, unknowingly pursuing his pursuer.
George too could hear the pickaxe as we got closer. But then it stopped. We heard voices, a man, a woman. They didn’t sound like friends.
We came out into a cellar, lit by an unshaded light bulb. I could see cardboard boxes stacked up in a corner, tins of paint, a stepladder hanging from nails on a wall. The pickaxe lay abandoned on the floor. In the middle of the room was a tall man with a pneumatic drill and a mad gleam in his eye. “Stand back,” he barked, with the air of one born to command, and he clamped a pair of ear protectors over his head.
I took a good noseful of our man. I could smell public school boiled cabbage and unwashed rugby kit. I could smell rejection and loneliness. I sensed on him the static crackle of someone who spends long hours in front of the computer.
The other person in the room was a dark-haired woman. I couldn’t sniff her out. Her smells were odd: cherry juice, poppy seed rolls, strong coffee, old books.
“If you must,” she said to the man. Hearing her voice, George sighed. He sometimes sighs and tells me he’s thinking of his lost sweetheart, the one he left behind in the inn, two hundred years ago. I remember her: he never had a hope. She was stupid, but not stupid enough to marry him and he knew it. This woman was the sort George likes; not young, but attractive. He can’t see faces but he always manages to pick out the good ones.
She put on her own ear protectors.
“It is here!” yelled the man. “I know it. Years of research and painstaking fieldwork have led me to this spot!”
He switched on the pneumatic drill and attacked the concrete floor. Dust filled the air; the din was terrible. I had to get George out of there; a blind and deaf fiddler is no good to anyone. “All right, Nell,” said George. “Let’s go and get some dinner.”
Up the cellar steps, we came into the entrance hall of a large building. There were layers upon layers of smells here, going back three hundred years: boiled mutton, schoolmasters; dry rot; gas masks; disinfectant; memories. We seemed to be at the end of the 20th century, or perhaps the turn of the millennium.
A woman came towards us, smelling of tea and biscuits and bleach. “Can you believe it?” she shouted over the noise beneath her, “I’ve got these two digging for the Holy Grail in my basement. It’s hell.” She bent down to pat me and disappeared through a door marked ‘Office’.
George insisted on going to the burger van parked in the market square, because he is a cheapskate. Then we wandered back to the building.
I remembered it; we’d been here before. A long time ago. We’ve seen this town change over the past two hundred years but Blue Coats is still standing. It’s a red brick place, surrounded by a high wall, to keep people out, or in, though now the gates are always open. On top of the pillars either side of the gates are two painted statues, looking like girls, but they’re boys. George and I remember seeing the lads here in their uniform of long blue coats; the school was founded for the poor, I believe, but by our time the pupils were mostly gentlemen’s sons, as is the way of things, sent here from London for the clean air and the stern discipline.
In front of the building was a lawn, shaded by a horse chestnut tree, where four people were arguing.
“I don’t care what all the signs point to,” said the tea and biscuits woman, firmly. “You’re upsetting my residents. And you’re going to pay for the repairs to my cellar.”
“When I achieve my purpose,” the tall man said, “money will not be an impediment. Oh for God’s sake turn that thing off!”
He said this to another man, who was filming him with a large video camera hoisted on his shoulder.
The dark-haired woman spoke to the cameraman: “OK Willi,” and he slowly put down his equipment. Then she fixed the tall man with a stare. “But surely you are not intending to sell the Holy Grail?” I heard an accent in her voice.
“It will not be mine to sell. It is the birthright of all mankind,” he said. “But the revenue implications in terms of media rights and personal appearances will be immense.”
“I still don’t understand why you have to dig up my cellar, Mr Ditchbourne,” said the tea and biscuits woman. I reckoned she must be the manager of Blue Coats, which, according to the sign at the gates, was now a high quality care home for elderly people.
Ditchbourne sighed. “Beneath our feet is a tunnel, linking Blue Coats with the dungeons of the Castle, where the principal commanders of the Knights Templar in England, guardians of the Holy Grail since the twelfth century, were imprisoned in 1309. According to my sources, though I’m sure Mechtild will disagree as usual, the Knights were in possession of the Grail when they were incarcerated. When they were freed there is no mention of their having the Grail and it has not been seen since. Some believe it was smuggled out of the dungeons. I do not. My sources indicate it was hidden even deeper underground…”
The dark-haired woman – Mechtild, I deduced, cleverly – broke in. “If you could identify your sources to me…”
“I am not at liberty to do that, Professor,” said Ditchbourne. Her cheeks coloured scarlet. “Doctor,” she muttered.
“The point is,” he went on. “By my calculations, the tunnel passes directly under your cellar.”
The care home manager turned to Mechtild. “And you’ve come all the way from Berlin to film him digging a hole?”
“His press release indicated he had definitively located the Holy Grail,” she said. “It is all very unsatisfactory.”
“With your permission?” Ditchbourne asked the manager and they went inside. Within a few minutes the noise of the drill started up. Mechtild and her cameraman conversed.
George tugged my lead. “Let’s sit down for a minute.” I knew he wanted to start on the pack of lager he’d bought from the off licence.
We found a bench in the sunshine and George cracked open the first can. After a while we heard a voice: “May I?” A man, elderly, neatly dressed, sat down on the other end of the bench. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back in the sunshine for a few moments. “Fancy one?” asked George, offering him a can. The man declined, politely.
“Can you hear it?” he asked. “Terrible racket,” George agreed. “No, I mean, I think I can hear people speaking German,” the man said.
“It is German,” said George. “There’s a woman here, making a TV programme.”
“Oh good,” said the man. “I was afraid my mind was wandering more than usual. I could have sworn it was Elisabeth speaking.” He closed his eyes once more.
I trotted over to Mechtild and butted her hand. She looked down and smiled. “Hallo hundchen,” she said. “Where did you come from?”
She followed me over to the bench, where George was now snoring, still limply holding the can of lager. I managed to take it in my jaws, before he spilled it all. The elderly man stood up and held out his hand to her. “Guten tag,” he said. She shook his hand with a polite smile. “I was in Germany,” he said. “At the end of the war.” The smile froze on her face. “Happiest days of my life,” he said. “You’re a television presenter?”
She shook her head vehemently. “I’m a reader in medieval studies at the University of Göttingen. My specialism is the romance literature of the Grail so when this… this…” She waved her hand in the vague direction of the cellar. “… Announces he has found the hiding place of the Holy Grail, a TV company commissions me to see for myself.”
“But…” the elderly man hesitated. “I’m afraid I don’t know your name.”
“Pleased to meet you. I’m Peter. But do you believe the Holy Grail really exists?”
“It depends what you mean by the Grail. It might not be the golden chalice Mr Ditchbourne imagines. The early stories have it as a dish, a cup, a reliquary, a stone, or a head floating in blood.”
The burger repeated on me, unpleasantly.
“But I’m sure there is a Grail,” she went on. “Imagine, if it were found – it could be properly studied, dated. Our understanding of western culture and history would be transformed! The whole contradictory mess of legend, religious allegory, psychology, mysticism, Nazi nonsense, conspiracy theory and new age consumerism surrounding the Grail would finally be untangled and we would know the truth!” Her eyes were shining.
“And when this Ditchbourne announced that the Grail was in this town I knew – yes – it makes sense. That must be it. I always wanted to come here.”
Peter was surprised. “Here?” he said. “It’s not much of a town. We’ve got history of course, but so has every other town in England. Or Germany.”
“I feel it is here,” Mechtild insisted. “I knew as soon as I saw this place. I was meant to come here. The Grail must be here.”
At that moment the cameraman called out to her. I couldn’t make out the words, but I smelled the boredom and frustration of someone who suspects he’s not working at the cutting edge of world events.
“Does he want a beer?” grunted George, who had just woken up. Mechtild took him a can of lager.
“What a lovely girl,” said Peter. “She reminds me of someone. You know we walked, from Normandy to the Rhine. Then we stopped in this little town. And we stayed, nobody knew why. They never tell you anything, in the army. The war was over, chaps wanted to go home. But I didn’t want to go home because I met Elisabeth. My Rhine maiden.
“I wanted to marry her you know, rescue her from all that. But in the end she felt she couldn’t abandon her widowed mother. She was a heroine, Elisabeth.
“I’m reaching the end of my life and I think about her all the time. Some days that town on the Rhine is more real to me than Blue Coats. I wake up in the morning and I think if I could see Elisabeth again I would die happy. My one true love. At the end, that’s what we return to, isn’t it?”
“Wouldn’t know,” said George.
“I always felt sorry that I didn’t give her anything – jewellery maybe. But I hadn’t much money and there was nothing to buy. All I gave her was a postcard. I think my mother had sent it to me a couple of weeks earlier. I just said it was a picture of my town.”
“A postcard like this?” said George, producing one from inside his jacket.
“That’s the one”.
I had a look. It was a black and white photo, with the caption in white letters in one corner: ‘The Castle: Spring’. It showed the town’s small castle and its grounds, planted with beds of daffodils. The place looked much the same today.
“Come on Nell,” said George, and he hoisted himself off the bench. We left Peter gazing at the postcard and went inside.
Mechtild came with us. “He is going the wrong way about this,” she said.
“You want him to find the Grail, don’t you?” asked George, trying to be nice.
She sighed very deeply. “I don’t think it is something that can just be dug up,” she said, softly.
Ditchbourne had stopped his drilling. He stood in the middle of the devastated cellar, staring at the floor. He didn’t notice us coming down the steps until George tapped him on the shoulder and made him jump.
“Sorry to bother you, sir,” said George. “But I’m interested in what you’re about.”
The man looked annoyed. “None of your business,” he said. “And I don’t think dogs are allowed in here.”
George persisted. “Seems like it means a lot to you.”
“It means a lot to the world!” he burst out. “Do you think I am doing this for myself, for riches? Look at the state we’re in – civilisation is collapsing around our ears, we’re no longer safe in our beds, governments are in league with the very terrorists who plot our destruction. The Grail will restore order to the world. The knowledge and power it will bring have never been more urgently needed. Then people will see that people like myself, the ones they’ve ignored, the ones who’ve been a lone voice crying in the wilderness, were right all along.”
“It’s been your life’s work,” said George.
“I was a sickly child – asthma, you know. It’s what stopped me following my father into the RAF. Anyway, when other children were outside playing football, I was forced to stay in, watching television. I watched a lot of documentaries. I’ve done my research, whatever she says.” He glared at Mechtild.
Her cheeks coloured again and her voice rose. “You will not disclose your sources and I’m sorry but much of your Knights Templar theory appears to be based on an imperfect reading of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal…”
“This is not a story! This is real!” roared Ditchbourne. “Get your nose out of a book woman and face up to life!”
I scented something about Mechtild that made me see a sixteen-year old girl, awkward, dreamy, tongue-tied. She turned and ran up the cellar steps.
George looked thoughtful. “I may be able to help you. I used to work at the Castle, you know.”
True, he did once play for the Marquess there. Circassian Circle, The Dashing White Sergeant, and a rather chaotic version of the Heel and Toe Polka, if I remember right.
Ditchbourne was instantly alert. “Do you know anything about the tunnel?” he asked.
“Tunnels,” said George. “There’s a whole labyrinth down there, more intricate than you can possibly know. Look.”
He pointed to the floor. The broken lumps of concrete began to crumble, then melt away, and a small fissure appeared. It widened to a hole big enough to swallow a man.
“This is it,” said Ditchbourne. His eyes were glowing with inner fire.
The hole widened even further and we had to step back. Soon it took up most of the cellar floor and we were looking down at a large, deep space, like an underground hall. Crouched over the edge, I could see the black mouths of a dozen tunnels leading off from it in all directions. I made sure George didn’t fall in.
“This is one of the nodes,” said George, “the meeting point of numerous passageways. The tunnel from the Castle to here leads to Shire Hall and then onwards to Priory Street, site of the old Priory…”
“…Endowed by the Knights Templar who practised their mystical religion undetected by the prying eyes of the Roman Catholic church…” broke in Ditchbourne.
“Another tunnel leads from the magistrates’ court to the Salisbury Arms – the lawyers used to use that one at lunchtime. One goes north to All Saints Church and another west to St Nicholas Church. Others lead off to locations long since gone…”
“...Probably the houses of noble families secretly loyal to the Templar cause…” Ditchbourne offered.
“In all, if you plotted the lines of the tunnels on a map of the town, you would see that they form a star with eight points…”
“The sacred eight-pointed star of the Templars!” exclaimed Ditchbourne, his voice squeaking slightly.
He stood up, and then, without hesitation, jumped down into the hole.
George took up his fiddle, tucked it under his chin and began to play Brighton Camp:
“So follow me and hear the song,
Don’t mind the wind and weather.
Oh stick with me, it’ll all make sense,
The ends they’ll tie together.”
The tune echoed down the tunnels. It excited Ditchbourne, who began hopping from foot to foot like a small boy.
“The Grail is near,” he cried. “I feel it!”
“Wait!” called George. “There’s more! This network of tunnels is linked to a much wider network. Follow that one there and it will take you to Glastonbury, that one there goes to the Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland and that one to the south, if you follow it far enough, will take you to the mysterious village of Rennes-le-Château…”
Ditchbourne was hyperventilating, dashing from tunnel to tunnel. “Where do I start?” he yelled. “Which way should I go?”
“It doesn’t matter,” called George. “They all lead to the same place. There will be more tunnels as you go along – if you look for them, you will find them. But beware. They have guarded their secret for 700 years and may not be willing to share it now. Some of them may be booby-trapped, rigged to collapse on an intruder.”
“I will be on my guard,” breathed Ditchbourne. “The secrets will be revealed to me. I knew it. This is my destiny.”
And without saying goodbye, he dashed down one of the tunnels and disappeared.
We went back upstairs. Someone was going to have to repair the cellar, but that wasn’t our problem.
Outside, Mechtild was sitting under a tree. The cameraman was nowhere to be seen. Peter was asleep, the postcard lying loosely between his finger and thumb. I broke free of George and went to Mechtild. I nudged her over to the old man on the bench.
He was dreaming; his smell had changed. I scented bratwurst, ersatz kaffee and sweet wine. Mechtild looked at the postcard. “Where did you get this?” she said.
Peter woke up and gazed at her, his eyes unfocused. “Elisabeth,” he said.
She took the postcard from him. “We had this picture at home. My mother had it on her kitchen shelf, behind a vase. I used to look at it, The Castle, Spring. I wanted to be there, it looked so lovely, not like a huge German schloss, but a small castle, one you could live in and be a princess who could play among the daffodils.
“It looked so different from my home. We lived in an apartment block, like everyone else, with lots of rules. No flushing the toilet after 10 o’clock at night, no running up or down the stairs, no ballgames outside. There was some grass, a sandpit, no flowers. Where did you get this?”
“I gave it to Elisabeth.”
“You gave it to my mother? How could you have done?”
“Where is she now?”
“She died fifteen years ago.” Her voice had a catch in it. “But why did you give it to her?”
“I loved her.”
There was silence while Peter found the courage to ask another question.
“Did she ever mention me?”
Peter looked down. Mechtild stood. She was on the verge of tears now. “I had forgotten this postcard. When I got out of the car and saw the Castle and the green lawns I thought, this is where I am meant to be. The Grail must be here. And it was only a picture.” She seemed ready to tear the postcard up. I barked, gently.
“But we have our Grail. You must be my daughter,” blurted Peter.
Mechtild looked completely shocked. “When did you know my mother?”
“Then that is ridiculous. I was born in 1964. My father died only a couple of years ago.”
Again he was silent for a few moments. “Was it a happy marriage?”
She smiled. “Yes.”
Mechtild sat beside him on the bench and gave him back the postcard. “Did you marry someone else?” she asked.
“Have you children?”
“Two sons. One lives in London now, one in Aberdeen. But they visit.”
“And was yours a happy marriage?”
He smiled. “Yes.” And the scents of the Rhineland left him and I could smell his home town on him again: petrol and pizzas and malt from the brewery and daffodils and sweet tea. Mechtild took his hand.
George called me. “Come on Nell.” We walked through the gates, as the wails of the care home manager floated up from the cellar of tranquil Blue Coats.
On the corner of the street we met the Devil. She had just come from the gym; she was carrying a sports bag and smelled of shower gel. She looked cross.
“Well?” she said. “What about the other two – the old man and the German woman? You let them get away.”
George shrugged. “Nothing to do with us.”
He tucked his fiddle under his chin and drew the first notes of She Moved Through the Fair. It is one of my favourite tunes: when he plays, he fills it with such longing, such desire for the unattainable, that even I feel the pull of its delicious pain. And off we went down the street.