The Lost Men by Mick Jackson

It was never their intention to make a mark or to draw attention.  Their only goal had been to dig a well for water and when the water failed to materialize they just kept on digging, through two, then three, then four long years.  Until, by the time they finally found what they were after they’d created the deepest hand-dug well in Britain.  They were proud – and rightly so – but the achievement had been purely incidental.

Still, the Mayor of Brighton, having heard of their achievement, invited them to the Town Hall for a reception, and to mark the occasion the men’s wives embroidered commemorative badges which they sewed onto the breast pocket of their jackets.  Then, with shovels shone and propped over their shoulders, the men marched over the Downs and down into Brighton where they were welcomed by a sizeable crowd and there was applause and handshakes in the lobby, and tea and cake in the Function Room.  Then they strolled back home in the gloaming and wondered what they might do next with their lives.

The answer came along sooner than expected.  A letter arrived from the council, explaining that the well’s incredible depth, so recently regarded as an achievement, was now considered a hazard and how, besides, another well had been dug not a quarter of a mile out towards Rottingdean which required but a fraction of the winching and whose water tasted just as sweet.  Their own well, they were told, was to be capped off.

Naturally, the men were devastated.  They gathered at the well’s head, clutching the council’s letters in the same rough hands that had dug down through so much flint and chalk.  They stood in silence.  No-one knew whose idea it was, but, one by one, they slowly moved towards the well.  They stepped onto the ladders and began to go down, down, into the cold Sussex earth.

Some suggest that the men had in mind some sort of protest.  That they would occupy their beloved well until it was granted a reprieve.  Who can say?  Perhaps the men didn’t know themselves.  But down, down they went, into the darkness, with only half a dozen lamps between them all.  Down, down until they had gone as deep as they could go.

The men sat tight, huddled together so deep in England.  It’s said they had a sense that something was about to happen – some sense of impending incident – and that such a powerful pressure proceeded to build that it became hard to catch one’s breath.  Then the strangest thing: a sudden, unfathomable disruption.  A deliverance.  As if all earthly laws had been suspended, and something else took hold.

The first place they found themselves was some sort of grotto.  As if they had landed on another planet.  The walls and floor were wet and smooth, and shone just like their shovels.  Stalactite and stalagmite grew where roof and floor had been wrenched apart.  The men stood and turned, slack-jawed.  This wasn’t Sussex.  Was it possible that they all now shared the same strange dream?  There was fear abroad, certainly, but also a sense of exhilaration.  Time passed.  Then they brushed themselves down and carried on their way.

The next place they reached was a mine of some description, the walls hewn in a manner which was familiar to them.  But it had a different heat to the last place.  There were steps cut right into the rock, and as they ascended they passed other men – Orientals – who were so preoccupied with their own scratching and scraping that they barely turned from the task in hand.

Curiously, none of the Sussex men had spoken since that initial, all-encompassing disruption.  Most of the time they found they were simply not inclined to speak.  The few times that they tried to do so, the mechanism seemed to fail.

By now the lamp oil was running low and the whole expedition was becoming somewhat taxing.  Strange, but the journey had seemed both epic, yet not so very far at all.  At least, that is how it seemed at the time.  Some wanted to stop and rest, but the others kept them from sitting.  They persevered.

And the next thing they knew daylight, or some trace of it, was rattling down the walls towards them.  Then actual daylight, framed in a rocky aperture.  They kept on towards it.  The tunnel narrowed and kept on narrowing until they wondered if they would ever be released.  But they pushed on again and finally emerged out of the mountainside, just as Hamelin’s children had once been led into it.

The air was of a different order.  The colours, everything.  The men crept out and sat on the ground and looked about them, wondering where on earth they were and what on earth had come to pass.

We can only assume that the men were happy in their new world, for nothing more was heard from them.  Or perhaps they simply could not find their way home.  In Woodingdean, the men’s families kept a vigil.  After six weeks or so they took to gathering on the first Sunday of each month.  Then held an annual service on the anniversary of their disappearance.

Now and then a friend or family member would climb down all the ladders and examine the brickwork, just above the water.  Would sit and remember the men that they had lost.  But no word came through the walls.  No ghostly form loomed in the darkness.  No break or fissure ever came to light.  Around the Downs there was talk of how a portal had opened up, and how all sorts of dogs and monsters had flown back and forth.  But the men, it seemed, had somehow found their way through to the other side and remained there.  It is hard to bear, but that is the truth.

© Mick Jackson 2012