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©2017 by S Pearce

ALONE

 

One man’s quest to bolster his position soon spirals out of control in this darkly satirical political thriller. The Mayor of Solingham, flawed, impulsive and charismatic, has a controversial plan, setting in motion a series of events in which he finds himself increasingly isolated.

Friends, family, colleagues, strangers – the Mayor struggles to negotiate them all as tension spreads throughout the town. Then a routine day out takes an unexpected turn, and the Mayor must face his gravest challenge yet – survival in a cave, deep underground, and reliant on those he has hurt most to rescue him. This timely tale of political ambition warns against the dangers of disconnecting from those about us.

 

REVIEW









The third instalment of The Spotlight Tales will be released in November 2018.

Hopefully there will be some reviews posted here then!

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CHAPTER ONE

It was a series of ill-conceived ideas, continually missing the opportunities to change course, to put things right, to do things differently, that led to his present predicament. No-one could have imagined that what started out as a simple desire to improve the fortunes of one small town would end so disastrously. And yet here he was, the Mayor of Solingham, uncomfortably perched on a damp ledge above a pool of water, in a rocky chamber, who knows how far underground. In the dark. Alone.

     They had been exploring the tunnels for less than an hour. The water was cold and as clear as glass. They had to move through it very gingerly, pulling themselves along with their hands and with only the gentlest of swishes with their flippers to avoid stirring up the silt that had been resting undisturbed on the bedrock for aeons.

     Mary was ahead, picking up rocks before placing them cautiously back in place, while David was mapping out the shape and length of the tunnel on his underwater notebook. He could, he imagined, come here every weekend for the rest of his life, or at least until old age stretched out its withery hand and pulled him away from such exertions, and he still would not have completed mapping this enormous underground labyrinth.

     David looked from his notes to his companion up ahead. There was not a hair’s width between the tunnel roof, Mary’s body, and the floor of the tunnel, so tight was the space in this particular area. Yet, despite being now well into her forties, she turned with ease to glance back at the Mayor behind her.

     Her body language told him immediately that there was a problem. Her graceful, fluid movements became fixed; her expression, usually hard to read through the thick diving goggles, changed unmistakably. She thrust a finger in his direction, pointing frantically. David turned, and saw that bubbles were hissing out of his compressor tank. The oxygen was leaking. He checked the pressure gauge. The arrow was moving rapidly towards the empty mark. David tried to keep calm, but panic was overcoming him. Mary swam over, took a quick look at the gauge, grabbed him by the arm and motioned for him to follow her.

     They swam with more urgency now, Mary just ahead of the Mayor. Plumes of sandy brown silt rose up with each movement, encasing them in an increasingly obscure murkiness. It was getting very difficult to see. David relied on Mary’s assured guidance, not taking his eyes off her flippers, flapping in and out of his vision through the murk like bats flitting about at night.

     The mouthpiece felt tighter around David’s mouth, a sure sign that there was next to nothing left in the tank. Suddenly, the water cleared. Mary surged upwards, and David followed. It took an unexpectedly long time and a great degree of effort to climb through the body of water, but eventually they burst through the surface and out into a large chamber. It was far too deep to stand, so the two divers took off their goggles and looked about them, their headlamps lighting up the chamber, while treading water with steady and practised kicks.

     “What happened back there? Did you hit something?”

     “Don’t know,” replied David. “I don’t think so. It just started leaking.”

     “Let’s take a look,” said Mary, manoeuvring herself behind David. “You’ve got hardly any air left. There’s no way you can get back on that tank,” she said, solemnly.

     “Shit. What are we gonna do?”

     “We can share my one,” suggested Mary. They checked the gauge. It had about an hour of oxygen supply in the tank.

     “It would never work,” dismissed David. “It took us half an hour of swimming to get here. Sharing your tank would mean we would be much slower going back. I probably take in more oxygen than you. Perhaps we’d make it, but more likely we would both run out of air. It would be a suicide mission for us both.”

     A silence fell between the two, as the seriousness of their situation was becoming evident. They were in an underground chamber, filled with water, close to an hour away from the exit, and only enough oxygen for one person to escape.

     After a brief moment of reflection, David swam over to one side of the chamber, where a natural partially submerged shelf, offered a place to gather their thoughts. He undid the straps to his oxygen tank and removed a small bag in which he carried essential equipment. He placed both items on the rocky ledge and hoisted himself out of the water. Mary swam over to join him. Small waves rippled out from were they were sitting and rebounded on the other side of the chamber before imperceptibly disappearing somewhere in the middle of the clear pool.

     From two separate locations, somewhere in the dark gloom of the chamber, came the crisp sound of water dripping. The duration between each splash grew increasingly shorter, until they merged into one gloopy splash, and then departed once more into their own separate rhythms. It was a strange marker of time which the two divers listened two while they considered their options.

     David turned to Mary and put both hands on her shoulders.

     “I guess this is as good as time as any to say sorry to you, Mary. I know I haven’t been the easiest person to be around lately, what with the vote and my, well, many errors of judgement, but I just want you to know that I have really valued your friendship and your professional support throughout all of it.” Mary returned his intense gaze with a settled look of her own. She looked away from him and spoke into the darkness.

     “We’re like two seals here, stranded on this rock, looking all clumsy.”

     “And if I hadn’t been trying to fry bigger fish, we probably wouldn’t have ended up with this dodgy tank,” said David, patting the empty tank next to him.

     “Maybe,” agreed Mary. “But we’ve got to make the right decision now, or we’re both in a whole lot of trouble. One of us has to go and get help.”

     David nodded. It was just a question of who would go, and who would stay. For him, there was no need to discuss it.

     “You’d better get going. The sooner you leave, the sooner the rescue team can get here. You’re smaller and you’re faster. Anyway, I probably need the time to think about all that’s gone on recently.” He leant over to Mary and pulled her towards him. They had an awkward, uncomfortable hug and Mary slid on her goggles.

     “You’re right,” she said. “We’ve got no time to lose. People will know you’re here before too long, I’ll make sure of it.” She held his head, almost affectionately, seemed to readjust his headlamp, and then slipped into the water. Mary turned to say something to David, but he waved her off.

     “Go on, I’ll be all right here. Good luck and see you in a few hours or so!” he said.

     “Just one last thing,” she insisted. “I thought you should know. I’m going to get a cat.” Then she disappeared beneath the water.

     She’s an odd one, chuckled David to himself, and he watched as the beam from her headlamp left glowing but fading ripples on the pool’s surface until nothing was left of it or her: no light, no ripples, and no noise but the sound of dripping from somewhere in the far recesses of the chamber.

     David switched off his headlamp, soaking himself in the darkness of the underground cave. He allowed his eyes to scan the impenetrable gloom. Nothing. Not the slightest hint of light pierced the chamber. It was as if he had entered an unchartered world, unknown and indifferent to human exploration. The only thing that seemed to matter here was the drip, drip-dripping of the erratically consistent marker of time.

     He flicked his light back on and winced at the sudden change in brightness. The chamber was magnficent, but before he could marvel in its beauty, he needed to find somewhere else to wait out his rescue. Sitting where he was, with his lower half submerged in the water, was going to drain the warmth from his body and sap his energy. He estimated that he had about half a day to wait until the rescue party arrived. That was a long time to be sitting in the water. He needed to get to a dryer spot.

     David swam on the surface of the pool, gently propelling himself forward with his legs. The pool was roughly circular, with a diameter of approximately six metres. David explored the sides very carefully, weighing up if he could hoist himself up onto one of the many protusions, and whether they would support his weight. Almost exactly directly opposite from where he had started, David found the perfect spot, or at least as near to perfect as an underground chamber with rocky and jagged edges was going to provide.

     It was another ledge, this time about thirty centimetres above the water’s surface. Reaching up with both arms, he pulled himself out of the water and scrambled ungainly onto the small ledge. David shifted his position on the ledge. It was just big enough for him to sit on, but his legs hung loosely over the side, his feet breaking the surface of the water. He tried resting both feet on the ledge, too, tucking both knees under his chin, but there was not enough room. One foot just kept slipping off, so he decided that the most comfortable position was to sit as he was, splashing his feet absent-mindedly in the pool of cool water beneath him.

     His bag and broken air tank sat still half-submerged in the water on the opposite side of the chamber. David flicked his headlamp on and off, throwing his equipment into sudden light and darkness. Stupid air tank, chided David.

     Air! Thought David, with sudden realisation. How much air have I got in this cave? The uncertainty troubled him immensely. He had no idea. He tried to apply mathematics to the problem. I can breathe for two and a half hours on one tank. Let’s round it down to exactly two hours. How much is in the tank – fifteen litres. It’s compressed air with two hundred bars. That makes about three thousand cubic litres of surface volume. One cubic metre is one thousand cubic litres. How big is the chamber? Six by six metres. How high? Maybe two metres above the water? That’s seventytwo cubic metres. Is that a lot? How many cubic litres is that? Must be a thousand times more. So seventytwo thousand. I think. My head hurts. All this bloody maths in a dark and wet cave! I think that means about fortyeight hours of air in here. Two days. I’ll easily be out by then.

     Reassured by his calculations, David settled down onto his ledge and took a look about him. He had, by his reckoning, several hours to enjoy the view, so he spent his time shining his headlamp on different sections of the chamber to scrutinise it more closely. Above him were the unmistakable forms of stalactites, thousands of them, hanging like monstrous teeth. Most were about a foot in length, although one, near the back of the cave where David presumed the dripping was coming from, was a formation which was over a metre long, well on its way to breaking the surface of the pool. The walls were waxy and glistening, almost fleshy. David considered that this could be what the inside of a whale might look like. His light was not powerful enough to penetrate to the bottom of the pool beneath him. He had no idea how deep it was. He resolved to find out.

     He switched his light off for a moment, took a deep breath, jumped off his rocky seat with an ungraceful splash, twisted his body so that his head faced downwards, and swam with powerful strokes into the black depths of the pool. He guessed he was about three or four metres down, it was impossible to tell in such all-consuming darkness, when he started to feel the familiar pull on his lungs. He turned on his headlamp, and immediately tiny specks of energy scattered outwards as unidentifiable creatures fled the alien glare. But David could not see anything of note. It was as if he were suspended in a fog of light, and anything more than a few metres away faded into obscurity. I wonder if this is what being inside a lightbulb looks like, mused David. Then his lungs reminded him where he was. I need more air. And light. David swivelled around and let himself rise to the surface.

     His equipment was still on the other side of the chamber, so he swam over to it and from his bag retrieved a handheld torch. He switched it on, almost blinding himself in the process. He was very proud of this dive light. Compact, but extremely powerful, he often used it as a primary light when he could not manouevre his headlamp into the right position. The added brightness now lit up the entire chamber, bathing it in such a cheery aspect that, for a moment, David quite forgot that he was, in fact, underground with limited air and on his own. These concerns did not seem to matter anymore, for he was also in an unexplored cave, swimming in a beautifully fresh pool with time to enjoy himself for a few undisturbed hours.

     Taking in a deep breath, he plunged again into the water, swimming with strong and determined kicks to the bottom of his cold watery cell. One metre, Two metres, three metres. Down he went deeper into the abyss. He lost track of how far he had swum down, but was becoming very aware once again of the tug on his lungs. What began as an irritating ache within his body was rapidly turning into a tortuous pull on every fibre. In a moment he would have to turn back. Just a little further. Every kick shot a jab of pain from his leg through his entire frame, and he felt his lungs, his heart, his brain screaming for him to return. Maybe the bottom is just a few more centimetres away. But no. David had to admit defeat before his very being burst from its intense screaming for air. He shone his dive light one last time about him, hoping to spy some rocky crevice indicating he was near the base of the pool, but all he saw were shiny flecks suspended in a murky brown-green soup. He had to return to the surface.

     His ascent was much swifter than his downward swim, yet each reclaimed metre cranked up the strain on his burning lungs. He felt as if he were going to implode as the stinging constriction on his organs, desperate for oxygen, threatened to overwhelm him. Finally, with a huge intake of breath and a commotion the likes of which this chamber had probably never witnessed, he burst into the life-giving air of the cave and panted deeply. Quite deep, then, he mused.

     The ledge on which he had previously debated his options with Mary some time before, now served as a makeshift bed, albeit a very wet one, as David lay, exhausted, breathing with increasing composure and rhythm, allowing his body to recover from the ordeal. Suddenly David began to giggle, then laugh, then guffaw loudly and uncontrollably. His heaving chest sent ripples of water bouncing into the pool, the tiny unfolding waves mirroring with their playful undulations the Mayor’s sprightly mood.

            Why did I do that? He had to concede, diving on his own like that in his present predicament was a highy daft thing to attempt. Maybe he would try again later. He would ready himself for the deep descent next time, and perhaps there was a drop or two left in his tank, which might give him the edge he needed to overcome the watery barrier. Reaching the bottom of the pool before he was rescued had become a challenge which the Mayor was unwilling to give up.

 
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