Sunday, November 15, 2020

The Undercollege, Part 2: Holes

Originally posted on Facebook Notes, 22nd October 2007

The day was beautiful, at least for the onlookers. Rudolf rarely had the chance to look up at the cloudless blue sky, where the sun beat down relentlessly. He had a job to do, and to do it well required keeping his head down and his muscles pumping.

It was the last day of May Bumps, an ancient rowing race in which the crews raced one behind the other, the object being to catch and 'bump' the boat in front. The race took place over four days, and a crew that bumped the boat in front would start the next day one place higher up the order, with the crew that finished the last day in first place being the overall winner. Third Trinity Boat Club had started that day in first position, and for the first time in years they had a real chance at finishing head of the river. As a rower, Rudolf's job wasn't particularly complex, but his strokes needed to be powerful and precise. The exhortations of the cox washed over him and spurred him on, although he didn't need much spurring. The joking wager of a lissom town girl, who had foolishly promised to do unspeakable things to him should he achieve the impossible and be a part of the winning crew, gave him all the motivation he needed.

Deep thought, while rowing, was a waste of valuable energy, so Rudolf kept his mind mostly blank. He was thinking about nothing in particular when it happened.

The boat suddenly slewed around, lurching wildly to the left. As Rudolf looked up, scanning the river ahead for the cause of the disturbance, the shaft of an oar swung out of nowhere and slammed into his forehead. Already a little disoriented, the tall rower temporarily lost his balance. It was only for a split second - but it was enough to allow another violent jerk to pitch him bodily out of the boat. The murky waters of the River Cam rushed up to meet him.

Rudolf hardly registered the cries of the spectators before his eyes and ears were filled with the green-brown liquid. He was a strong swimmer, so he wasn't worried, but the blow to his head had slowed him, and in the few seconds that he floundered something seemed to grab hold of his ankle from below and pull. And then, despite his best efforts, he found himself sinking, the scorching sunlight above rapidly becoming a distant memory.

Down he was dragged, past discarded prams, the bent spokes of spidery bicycle wheels and a forgotten mountain of tins that had once held beans. Down there, near the riverbed, liquid and solid merged together into a hideous brown conglomeration that sucked and clawed at its victims. Time wound out, and the rower's breath grew short as he was engulfed completely, tiny stars flickering at the periphery of his vision. Then they were gone, and he was left alone in the darkness.


Mike was unimpressed. He'd been following the cable for what seemed like hours.

The task was simple enough. The new term high-jinks of a few actors had caused some plaster to come away from the wall in one of the dressing rooms, and behind it a cable had been found. Since Mike was known to be a reliable and responsible techie, the theatre's Technical Director had asked him to dig out the rest of the cable and to find out where it went and what it did. In Cambridge's student-owned ADC Theatre, bewildering electrical weirdness was not exactly uncommon. But this particular cable looked set to break all previous records.

From the dressing rooms, it had proceeded to the kitchen and clubroom at just above head height, then along the corridor, bypassing the management offices, and into the gents' toilets, where it ran along inside the ceiling until suddenly deciding to rise up into the theatre bar above. After charting an erratic course up the west wall of the bar, it found itself in the roof void above the auditorium, where Mike had had to untangle several coils of it from an ancient and filthy piece of truss. It didn't stop there, however. It continued on through the patch room and along the counterweight gallery, then gradually down and around the back of the stage. Eventually it sank down into the empty space below the stage manager's desk, only a short way, in absolute terms, from where Mike had originally found it.

The SM floor void, as it was known, was a strange place. Devoid of any useful function, it was accessed only by means of a trapdoor from the stage, and inside it remnants of the theatre's hundred-and-fifty-year history abounded. In one corner was a pile of beige sheets, stinking of that strange chemical that stage managers sprayed on props to make them flame-retardant, and resting upon them was a tarnished silver tray holding sherry glasses wrapped in cling film. A rugby ball, six shovels, some mouldy chocolate muffins, some dusty white feathers, a box full of microphones and a number of black and white umbrellas held together by cork and paperclips completed the collection. The cable, however, pointedly ignored all of this. It made its meandering way across the floor to a wall, into which it disappeared.

Mike swore. That's a structural wall. At least two feet of something extremely solid separated the void from anything else. And yet the cable seemed to plunge rather effortlessly into a narrow hole through it. For Mike, enough was enough. He'd only come to the theatre in the first place to have a drink in the bar and chat to friends, and now it was nearing one a.m. and for all he knew he was no closer to finding the source of the mysterious cable. Worse, in the process he'd got himself covered in a layer of the ADC's omnipresent theatrical grime. What he was about to do was uncharacteristically stupid, but for once he was past caring. Gritting his teeth, he braced one steel-capped boot against the structural wall and gave the cable an almighty tug.

Something gave. There was a sudden, explosive crackle, accompanied by a flash of brilliant white light, and Mike was sent sprawling backwards. He briefly reflected that he seemed to be falling through the floor of the void... and then darkness came over him, and he knew no more.


Cat flopped against the bookcase and concentrated on holding back the tears.

She'd been in Cambridge for a week now, and already most of her hopes were in tatters. At school, her intelligence had always set her apart from any of her peers. The only downside had been that those peers had always felt extremely intimidated by her for that very reason, for all that she'd tried to instigate friendships. So she'd fantasised about going to university and meeting people who she could relate to, and who, more importantly, could relate to her. It had only taken a few days for that particular dream to be shattered. She'd been assigned a room on a staircase upon which only one other student was living, a gifted netball player and all-round sportswoman who was never in and who didn't seem to need sleep. Her fellow maths students were no better, soullessly calculating automatons with no interest in anything but the course they were doing, and her Director of Studies was a stern, upright old man who always seemed slightly bemused by the fact that she had breasts. In the bar after her matriculation dinner she'd been cornered by a smooth-talking Londoner who'd virtually force-fed her red wine; she'd thrown up the contents of her stomach (mostly red wine) and spent the rest of the evening in bed in a drunken haze, but it'd been worth it to escape his attentions. After wandering around the terrifyingly hectic University Societies Fair being handed free trinkets left, right and centre, she'd gone along to a meeting of the University Nordic Society in the hope of finding someone to practise her Norwegian with, but to her dismay they all turned out to be statuesque ice-blondes wearing viking helmets, swilling ale, singing songs about spam and laughing at their own jokes. Now Cat was seriously considering changing course, if not dropping out entirely. The cavernously huge University Library wasn't the best place to find solace, but at least it was quiet, everyone busily going about their business with as little regard for the life stories of others as for the many millions of volumes not intended for their knowledge.

Perhaps I'll switch to Philosophy. I've always wanted to try to find the answers.

Even as she thought this, her attention was drawn to a book on the wall opposite her. It was small (irregularly small, Cat thought, to be classed as 'b' with the other books in the bookcase) and bound in what looked like black leather. Its title was printed in neat capitals on the spine: The Answers. Intrigued, Cat stepped forward, reached out and slid the book from the shelf into her hands, opening it at the first page, which turned out to be blank.

She never noticed the tall bookcase against which she had been leaning as it detached itself from its fastenings on the wall and toppled forward, one shelf making savage contact with the back of her head. In fact, it all happened mercifully quickly. One moment she was leafing through the book; the next, darkness.


In the room at the top of the Library's great tower, a red light began to flash insistently. Meldreth reached over to the board and flicked a switch, and the light died. Two incidents in as many weeks. Bad. The first incident he'd glossed over as a one-off, despite its implications, but this had to be more than just coincidence. Time to get to work. Standing, the stocky man pulled his dull brown greatcoat from its peg and swept out of the room.

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