The lamplight, such as it was, was barely adequate. Johnson’s torch had failed so Jack had lit a rusting storm lantern, which cast its wavering, oily glow onto the mouldering tunnel walls. The two ghosts had stumbled inebriatedly through the tunnels, straying farther and deeper into the labyrinthine factory depths than ever before.
A heady elixir of drunken bravado, genuine curiosity and the sharp, fresh frisson of discovery spurred them on down unfamiliar tangents, through half-blocked spurs and collapsing archways, until eventually, Jack and Johnson found themselves at a huge, imposing metal doorway. Johnson checked his pocketwatch:
“It’s been four hours now Jack. should we think about heading home?”
Jack held the lantern up to the open doorway. A flight of damp stone stairs led down from it, descending into an impenetrable darkness below.
“Hmm. I reckon we’d as best go on. I’ve got a feeling in my bones about this place.”
Jack gestured down the stairs.
“Jolly good”, Johnson said, lighting a woodbine, “let’s go and have a goosey-gander, shall we?”
He cast the match over his shoulder. It flared briefly in the gloom, illuminating a stencilled sign above the doorway:
FLIGHT TUNNEL XIII. BEWARE: HAZARDS.
The steps seemed to go on forever. On every fourth flight there was a small railed landing space, each one numbered in descending order from 50. Jack and Johnson had come to a stop at number 25. Jack took a couple of short nips from a hipflask, then passed it onto to Johnson.
“Any idea where these stairs’re headed?” Jack asked, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
Johnson drew thirstily on the flask.
“I haven’t the foggiest idea. Said back there it was a flight tunnel, but quite what anything to do with flight would be doing this far underground I don’t know. Are you sure you’ve not been down here before?”
“No, never.” Jack replied. “I was fair drunk when we left Kate back there and I can’t recall for sure what way we went. All I know is I never seen that particular tunnel before and I certainly’ve never been down here. Looks like your guess is good as mine.”
“Well there’s only way to find out what’s at the bottom really then , isn’t there?” Johnson said. Grinning, he took Jack in a mock-ballroom dance hold and dipped Jack forwards so that their linked hands pointed down the stairs.
Flight Tunnel 13 was a graveyard. A high-roofed, crypt-like half cylinder, the tunnel’s floor was stacked to head height with great hunks of rotting machinery: eight cylinder engines, propellers, pieces of corroding airframe, derelict wireless sets, twisted Browning guns and landing gear. Jack and Johnson snaked slowly between the rusting debris, their lamp’s meagre light giving the pieces of torn metal a menacing, sinuous air. Crazy, jagged shadows danced on the walls in the amber glow.
From the far end of the tunnel, a creaking, metallic sound rang out, its echo dancing on the concave walls. Johnson put a finger to his lips, then ducked down and beckoned Jack to follow him, between the decaying, whale-like skeletons of two derelict seaplanes. Moving with studied, stealthy ease, Jack followed Johnson past the aircraft, until both arrived in an oily-floored clearing, hemmed in on all sides by towering cliffs of scrap metal.
Blinking into the dim light, Jack stared at the vague, hulking shape that lurked in the shadows at the clearing’s centre. It was huge: high-winged and predatory, like a sea-beast, a monster, a bird of prey. Jack’s eyes widened in fright.
“What the…what the hell is that?” he hissed, his arm shaking, causing the lamp flame to gutter.
Johnson didn’t hear Jack. He was hypnotised by the sight of the huge, looming creature in front of them. Entranced, as if under a spell, he walked towards it, shaking his head and repeating
“Well I never. Well, I never.”
Jack realised that he was about to be left on his own and scampered quickly after Johnson, the fear of being alone overriding his fear of the ominous, hulking beast before them. When he caught up with Johnson, Jack found th airman affectionately stroking the creature’s belly, lost in thought, like a man in love at first sight. Jack was horrified:
“Blood and thunder! Don’t touch it, lord knows what might happen!”
Johnson was oblivious. “Eh? What? Oh”, her turned, smiling, to Jack. “Don’t worry old chap, It’s quite alright. I used to fly these things you know.”
Jack looked at Johnson as if he were the worst kind of lunatic.
“Fly?” he hissed, confused and just a little afraid.
With a reassuring smile, Johnson explained: “Yes, Jack: fly. This is an aeroplane, remember, I told you about ’em. Ships of the sky, mechanical birds, winged, horseless carriages. I used to fly planes like this in the last war.”
“So this is one of your aer-e-oplanes then, not some sea beast or owt like that?”
“Jack, you have nothing to worry about. This”, Johnson gave the aircraft’s hull shaped underside an affectionate pat, ” is a Short Sunderland Mark V. A fine piece of Great British avro engineering. You could fly one of these things through a force ten gale if you wanted to.”
Johnson reached up and opened a door in the Sunderland’s rear fuselage, then lowered a small set of metal steps to the ground. Jack took a step back and took in the plane’s shape: the huge, white wings, the four propellered engines, the elegant fish-belly curve of its underside.
“I’m not getting inside that thing,” he said. “I’ll never come out alive.”
Johnson snorted: “Oh poppycock! We’ll be safe as houses. Only thing you’ll have to worry about is bumping your head. These seaplanes are quite pokey on the inside. Come on.”
Johnson bounded deftly up the steps and into the plane’s interior. Jack gave the aircraft a last distrustful look, then followed Johnson into the Sunderland.