D e l i g h t

Excerpt -


From Dr M. Arkus's journal: the setting is the building site at Bjørvika, Oslo, early 2005 (now the Opera building).

© Barry Kavanagh 2010

Delight, a novel

The construction site had a busy road on one side and Oslo's main harbour on the other. Much of this dockland area was being used for shipping and cargo; eventually it will give way to the Fjord City. Cranes swung in the sky, to the backdrop of fjord and snow-covered forest. Gustaf was waving at us from his side of the road. Dodging the traffic, we walked quickly over to him at the site.

He was a tall, bearded, obelisk of a man, splendidly blonde but with enough grey hairs to put him at about forty years of age, by my reckoning. He shook our hands heartily and said, without getting into any chit-chat about the weather, which was just snow anyway, "I am hearing about these tunnels, yes, I am hearing about tunnels here. I think you have something, friends!"

From a sack at his feet he produced three hardhats. He put one onto his head and said brusquely, "We are going in!" and marched over to an area that had apparently been excavated, but where no building work was going on. He disappeared out of sight, down into a trench.

Confused, we put on the helmets and followed his lead. We found ourselves descending into a large hole about fifteen feet deep. Gustaf was at the bottom, spreading out his strong arms. Then he plunged them into the snow and the mud. With huge exertion, he lifted out a large wooden pallet, revealing a hollow space beneath it.

"The entrance!" he announced. For about ten seconds he wagged a finger at us, grinning all the while. "You are very clever, finding out about these tunnels! I am trying to keep them secret!"

Chuckling to himself, he went on in. Aedh and I exchanged looks. We were not so happy; instantly, the dream of a hoax to send to the International Almanac of the Ostensibly Real was gone, evaporated. At the same time, I was wondering what the hell Gustaf and these tunnels were all about. I'm sure Aedh was too. What could we do now but follow?

His pocket torch winked on. The tunnel had been fashioned rather roughly; it had evidently been hewn from raw rock. We went down into the hyperborean earth. Though the rock surrounding us was rough and uneven, protruding in places, the ground beneath our feet was relatively flat, which helped our steep descent. Also the tunnel was high enough for us to walk with our backs straight, which we did for ten, or fifteen minutes, before we reached a certain depth and the tunnel floor levelled out.

Gustaf plodded on purposefully, and eventually we thought we could see a flickering light ahead. This proved to be the case: he brought us into a vast empty cavern, lit with flaming torches, though with so few that we could not see the dimensions of the chamber properly. I shivered a little in the subterranean cold.

Aedh's breath drew in; she was obviously awed by the stark, dramatic cavity into which we had stepped. But that didn't prevent sarcasm. "Damn, so he wasn't going to give us a tour of his secret chocolate factory." Judging by the reverberation from her voice, the ceiling of this cavern was very high above us.

Gustaf removed his helmet then, and we did likewise. He strode across the cavern floor and hopped up onto a slightly raised area of rock.

"We are now under the National Theatre!" he announced. "On the surface, shoppers and tourists are walking past its doors, unaware that the city is hollow!"

"Yeah," said Aedh. "I'd say the grass is greener, but the toss-up is actually between bare rock 'n' snow. Not much of a choice."

"But what is this for?" I demanded to know.

Aedh had a couple of suggestions. "Weddin's? Funerals?"

"What is it for, what is it for?" Gustaf repeated derisively. Such a jolly fellow, having fun at our expense. "What is it for! Is it for the government? Stortinget - the parliament - is near. Is it a secret hiding place for them? No! They are having their own network of tunnels, under all the government buildings: the escape tunnels in case of war, leading them to a getaway place on the shoreline. Were the Nazis using this space during the occupation? No! They had other hiding places for their stolen goods, in old mines a couple of hours' drive from here. Is this place connected with the National Theatre above? Never! What names do you see adorning the theatre entrance? Ibsen, Holberg, Bjørnson: latter-day nonentities! This is an ancient chamber!"

Gustaf then lowered his voice, murmuring for a while in what I assume was Norwegian.

Aedh and I turned to leave, but then Gustaf ceased, and there seemed to be a slight disturbance in the light around the cavern; shadows were perceptibly moving, but seemingly without cause. There was definitely a palpable change in atmosphere, as if a warmth, a kind of heat, an alteration in the temperature, was closing in around us. There was a reverberation: the echoes of sounds unidentifiable in their origin. My ears strained to separate out the sounds, to decode them, interpret them. My hearing wanted me to believe I was hearing footfalls, and then the sound of breathing, but I was not certain; I could not quite believe it. I had put my faith in sight, a sense with a weaker range than hearing, but perhaps it is because our sight is weaker than our hearing that it is doubt's last line of defence. Seeing is believing, and finally I saw that people were emerging from the shadows! They had presumably been waiting in darkened alcoves, or in other tunnels that led here.

I find it hard to write this. I can hardly believe everything that happened underground really happened; it seems like a dream or an hallucination. It makes me reluctant, in a way, to keep typing.

What happened was men and women swarmed into the cavern. I could not see any of them in the gloom clearly enough to identify, but they were there.

The multitude chattered and gabbled in Norwegian, although it could have been just animal noises for all I could make out in the chaotic reverberation and din.

They may all have been glaring fixedly at us, but I couldn't see their eyeballs. I certainly felt conspicuous.

"Ah, ok, ok, I'm prepared fer situations like this," said Aedh to me, not looking at me, but instead nodding at the shadowy throng.

"How could you be prepared for situations like this?" I asked, severely disquieted, and exasperated by the unlikeliness, the improbability, the implausibility of this. She glanced at me, sidelong, it was very friendly, attempting, I believe, to reassure me, but a twinkle of mischief was in her eyes as she now proceeded with I knew not what.

She let her hardhat fall from her hands and I dumped mine too, letting it clatter down beside hers. Then she gave some kind of sign to her audience, stooping and making indistinct shapes with her hands on top of her head. I think this must have been seen, because the cavern quickly fell silent.

With a euphoric, jubilant smile, Gustaf jiggled his hands, motioning for her to continue.

Tossing her head back like an empress, she walked away from me, and I watched her dissolve into the obscure tenebrosity. First she was half-there, then she was invisible.

It was then I noticed that to my left, one of the burning torches illuminated the entrance to some kind of passageway or side-tunnel. A woman appeared in the light, a canvas bag slung over her shoulder. No light ever seemed so limpid, unreal, mystical. The woman turned her head towards me and then away, ghostly and slow. She looked like the daintiest waif in the world beside these high walls of dead rock. There was a swish of a blonde ponytail - a sound like a scythe cutting the air - and she exited the way she came, back into the passage, swallowed by the dark.

That woman was Delilah.

Astonishing! I approached with amazement.

It was a slim crack of a tunnel, and not much higher than my head. She drew me towards her. Hearing her voice again made me feel like I was in a peaceful meadow, listening to the life-affirming twitter of the birds of spring, accompanied by the singing of dryads in magical arcadian trees.

"This way, Arkus," she cooed in a sing-song intonation, then turned on her heels and went ahead through the darkness.

I stumbled along after her. Visibility faded, but the movement of her ponytail was the thing that helped me see how far ahead of me she was.