photograph of a deserted room
photo : Alan Kinsey

When I found it, it looked like a large mole. There was a wide earthy slit in the side of a small hillock, and I watched quietly as it picked earthworms from the roof of what was apparently a sizeable chamber. I poked in my arm, touching the velvet fur of a back leg. It crawled away but soon returned, cautious. Then, pulling a worm myself from the chamber roof I offered the gift, arm outstretched. Smiling, it accepted. Suddenly I realised that this was not a mole, but for some reason I felt no surprise. Not for a second did it appear out of place, down there in the chamber under the hill in the park; the sound of children playing in the distance.

With my head and shoulders inside, I could see two passages. The first led downwards and appeared to belong to the creature, which had settled in a corner with the worm. The second, on the right, was obscured by a narrowing of the tunnel. Too young to be afraid, I squeezed through and was surprised to find an old four-panelled door with an original coating of lead paint almost perfectly intact. It opened inwards to an average sized room with a table in the centre. There was an atmosphere of regular occupation, which I could sense even before noticing the newspapers and brown-stained empty mugs on the table. A door on the other side led to a further room of parallel proportions; this time bare. One similar room led to another—now bare, now sparsely furnished—each one quite unremarkable until I walked, astonished, through a final lead-painted four-panelled door into what appeared to be a huge pumping station. The pipes, tubes, meters and walkways gave this machinery the appearance of a pumping station I had once visited—the scale of the equipment evoked the comparison—but I knew at once that what was before me had nothing at all to do with water.
There was a fragile-looking gantry all around the walls, with a walkway wide enough for only one person. Beneath the latticed platform of the walkway was a drop steep enough to turn my stomach. The bottom was not lost in darkness (as I was expecting) but instead receded, like the background of some fragile landscape, into a luminous greenish haze. If everything around me was silently fulfilling some unknown function as I held on to the thin rail of the gantry, I could detect no activity; neither was there any trace of rust, staining, or the mechanical debris usually associated with large-scale engineering. Gazing at the mute obscurity of this enormous spectacle my thoughts clawed hopelessly at comparisons with more familiar machinery.

I searched for clues, trying to fathom the purpose of this surprisingly graceful assemblage of pipes, boilers and wires. I arrived at explanations I knew were wrong and, each time I felt a solution approaching, there arose an overwhelming sense of irrational fear, focussing upon the strange and subtle presence of the place. Uncomfortable, I began to search for a way off the gantry. I found a door, opening into a compact room. Although my exploration so far had seemed quite random, I gradually became aware that the route I was tracing must have seen regular use by those more familiar with the place (some kind of official personnel, I presumed). I looked for marks: on the floor, around the doorframe, and this room—like the others—showed some slight signs of wear. But there was no evidence of the kind of regular human traffic found in such public places as railway stations or shopping precincts.
“Perhaps” I told myself “the machine is designed to run itself, needing only occasional supervision”, but I was still struggling with inadequate explanations. Suddenly, the room darkened, and before I had reached the door on the opposite side, the muffled thud of a large floodlight threw a bright patch on the wall. This stark illumination assumed a fluid shape upon which my eyes could not focus (I would later remember a square or circle, perhaps a triangle; but at the time it remained quite indefinable). I waited, expecting pictures, but none came. It was apparently designed to serve a different purpose. I looked around the room, searching for clues.
Suddenly, behind me, a recorded voice began to dictate some unintelligible message. Words filled the room, but only when I looked back to the light on the wall did they begin to make sense. It seemed I was supposed to know this but I had already missed half the message. In an attempt to reactivate the mechanism, I went out and re-entered the room but the voice continued, oblivious in its certainty:

“… in all these chambers, some of them mine, but first you must lose your human…” human form? Frame? Life? I can no longer remember the word that came to mind, but still I understood. At the end I was asked—rather apologetically—if the message had made any sense. Although the tone of the question seemed incongruous, I found myself answering out loud. My answer, however, was disregarded—at least, there was no response—presumably because this final exchange was a commonplace formality requiring nothing more than a cursory reply.

By now I realised that I was being drawn along by the blind momentum of a long-established system; and that this was a process through which others must already have passed or, perhaps, have been consumed by. Presumably, the existence of this place would continue undetected—or obscured by disbelief—for many more years as the world went about its thoughtless business. It would be asking too much to expect anything but derision if I attempted to relate this to anyone who hadn”t been here. Yet who had, except me and the mole? Besides, it might be impossible to find the same sequence of doors a second time.

After witnessing the message on the wall it became obvious to me that I could explore no further without setting off a chain of events; or maybe even incurring some unfathomable responsibility for obscure consequences beyond my comprehension. Almost thoughtlessly I began to wander out, just as I had wandered in, and found my way through various other rooms back to the surface in what must have been a circular journey. There, waiting, was the mole. I fed it some more worms and it smiled, so I decided to take it with me—it now seemed willing to follow—and we stopped by the swings on the way back through the playground. It immediately began to attract attention, but not because of it”s size. By now it had begun to look alarmingly child-like; and with the facility of an articulate two-year old was enunciating the words: “worm” and “like”. Rather embarrassed, I sat it on one of the swings. It said “like” and demanded more, jiggling up and down in the seat.

Suddenly, two neatly-dressed men strode through the gates of the playground and demanded to know what I was doing with this creature. Somehow, they knew that it was not a baby. They muttered to each other about turning it over to determine its sex, then—to me:

“If you leave it here, we’ll have to examine it.” They displayed the quiet brutality of men who are quite capable of killing and gutting a freshly-killed mammal without regret or apology. Or of fulfilling a duty without remorse or ethical context. I could tell that life and death were to them simple everyday tools. Two things immediately became obvious. Firstly, they knew what it was; and secondly, they considered it to be some kind of pest. But as long as there were other people around they could do no harm without attracting unwanted attention since, by now, it closely resembled a toddler of indeterminate sex, cosily dressed in a snug brown playsuit. At a loss for a better response, in a loud voice I told them:
“I’m sorry, I don’t talk to strangers.”

They became nervous and glanced around. I hurriedly called to some older children to take care of the creature for a few minutes. They made a show of immediate indulgence, as if it were a younger child in need of protection. They also accepted without question the subtle signs which, to me, set it apart from all the other children in the playground. I found a quiet corner of the field and waited there alone until the two men—who were becoming increasingly conspicuous under the suspicious gaze of the children—gave up and walked off. The creature, enjoying the attention and the swings, didn’t want to leave. But I realised that returning it to the hole would be best, before the children’s questions (“where d’your your Mum and Dad live?”) became difficult for it to answer. I was afraid, if too many words were exchanged, that its eager attempts to find a passage into the everyday world would go beyond the point of easy return. It was not—and could never be—human; its adaptation to life above ground consisted of an unstable approximation of human form. Ignoring the men, I took it by the hand and told the children we had to leave. They patted it, then ran off chattering to each other. I walked away slowly, with the mole’s hand in mine, into the trees and bushes beside the path. Tiny trusting claws pressed into my palm.

I waited but no-one followed, so made my way back the place where I’d discovered the creature. As I placed it on the earth under the hill it turned, as animals sometimes do, to display it’s hindquarters as a sign of trust. I saw the fine, close-cut fur from which I made my first identification—it was a mole again. But as I walked away I was alarmed to see it standing on the edge of its burrow, grinning and waving enthusiastically with a look—and I’m sure I didn’t imagine this—with a look of childish triumph. Although no longer human enough to be conspicuous, I was nevertheless anxious in case it attracted attention, since it seemed to be innocently unconscious of any risk. I was troubled by my discovery; by the thought that I might have endangered the mole’s apparently innocent life and I could feel, through the soles of my feet, the inaudible vibration of massive machinery.