Under The Streets Of London – Episode 59


Niall looked up past the looming timbers to the careless stars above and sent up a swift prayer that Eliza was safe before another gush of water shot out, blasting him in the face in a cold, filthy rush that snapped his attention back to the terrible task in hand.

He and the other men were battling to block up the individual ruptures as they occurred. But it wasn’t working. No sooner did they block one than the water found another space to break through. He stood back, his eyes darting up and down the tunnel, then turned to Roary.

“Where’s the Thames?”

“What?”

“The river, man! How far away?”

Roary stared at him.

“Not far. Just over there. The men were dipping their toes in it at lunchbreak yesterday. Why? Are you not wet enough?”

But Niall was gone, scrambling up the bending timbers to get to the top of the trench and search for the heaving Thames. There it was, at the opposite side of the tunnel from the crowds that Eliza was somehow managing to keep away. The solution here was simple, surely.

Too simple? Henry’s voice floated back to him from the time he’d helped him with the load-bearing struts.

“We like simple.”

He raised his hands.

“Stop!”

Men looked up, hesitating.

“Stop!” he bellowed again. “Come here, quick.”

He saw them look at each other, but there was no-one else to take command. He knew that if they didn’t do something quickly the long-buried Fleet River would be in the tunnel and surging down it fast enough to snap timbers all the way along, creating who knew what carnage all along the Euston road and ending the chances of Fowler’s wonderful underground railway ever coming into being.

“Come here!” he urged again, and as men obeyed he pointed to the river. “We need to give the water somewhere to go.”

Blank faces.

“Like when you’re a wee child and you dig in the mud at the riverside, or the sand by the sea. The sewer is blocked and the water wants to escape – so we let it! Everyone with a shovel or a pick, or anything they can find, come this way. If we dig a channel, the water will rush into it and the tunnel will be left alone.”

Men were nodding now, grabbing tools and stringing out across the rough ground to the river and willingly thrusting their shovels into it. They were clearly pleased to do something more constructive than shoving earth into a wall just to have it spat back out at them seconds later.

Niall took his place amongst them, close up against the sewer. He could hear the water hissing and coughing, desperate to get out, and feared they were too late. But it was their only chance.

He thought of Brigid labouring to bring his niece or nephew into the world just a street and a half away and redoubled his efforts. He thought of Eliza, too close for her own safety, and loved her for it even as he dug to keep her from being washed away.

At his side he could see young Will, his slim shoulders straining as he fought alongside the bigger, older men, and he felt a tremor of responsibility for letting him come. But there was no time to fret now, only time to dig.

“It’s going to give!” someone shouted and fear trembled up the line.

“Work harder!” Niall cried. “The channel needn’t be wide – the water will do that for itself. Move down!”

The line of men obediently moved and as Niall glanced up he could see the last man almost at the river.

He remembered hours of play on the banks of the local stream back in Ireland, diverting the water to make courses for them to race twig-rafts down. Surely that principle would work here?

Water was lazy; it took the easiest route.

“It’s clear to the river!” someone called from the far end and Niall knew now was the time to find out if his plan truly would work.

“Stand back!”

The men did as they were told, leaning anxiously on their shovels to watch as Niall, Will and Roary cut into the earth right at the sewer’s edge.

Alan Spink

Alan is a member of the “Friend” Fiction Team. He enjoys working closely with writers and being part of the creative process which sees storytelling ideas come to fruition. A keen reader, he also writes fiction and enjoys watching football and movies in his spare time. His one aspiring tip to new writers is to “write from your imagination”.