They had been used a very long time ago – long before the long winter, longer even than the oldest soul in the tunnels could remember. There had been a war once, not like the last war but one that had lasted for years. People had sheltered in these chalk caves that lay below the towns of what was once known as Kent.
Down here, they had shared food, stories, and most importantly, the company of each other. Chalk was easy to dig out without sophisticated tools, and so there were traces of people who had sought shelter here for millennia. Those hiding from the Romans, the Celts, Anglo Saxons, Normans, Vikings, and the French.
Tunnels had been created to join forts above which stood on guard against Napoleon and his armies. A man could get lost down here and never return.
When the long winter had first appeared, no one had been sure what had happened. The skies had grown dark and it had snowed in July. Little by little, those who could not keep warm headed for the tunnels. It was easy to enter at first but soon, those folks who had built dwellings were unwilling to share with the newcomers. It seemed the fears from above followed them all into the depths.
As well as their misgivings, they had also brought down their possessions, photos, clothes, electronic readers, phones, televisions – some even brought books. But whatever had caused the long winter, it had also stopped anything electrical or electronic from functioning. Some saw this as sign from God that his children had strayed too far from the fold. The books and papers that they had brought were eventually burned in order to keep the caves and tunnels warm. When those too, dried up, there were hunting parties sent into the upper world to fetch wood. Some went and returned, many never came back. There were stories of cannibalism and slavery in the upper lands but no one was sure if these were only to control the movement of the tunnel souls. Those who did return would talk of lands devoid of animals and birds.
In the western sector was an old soul, by the name of Travis and like everyone else, had been born in the tunnels. When his father was sent to the dark place where souls were laid to rest – his dying wish was that Travis take care of their greatest possession – a book, ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens. It had been this book that Travis had been taught to read and write by his father, just as his father before him. It was their family secret.
Travis had read the book several hundred times until he could recite the whole thing by heart. It was one night in the late period of that year when a friend had suggested that Travis tell his group the Christmas Carol story. Many had never heard such an amazing tale before and there were those who had tears in their eyes, and everyone cheered at the ending.
Travis started to move through caves and tunnels telling each group the story of A Christmas Carol. One day, one of the younger members of his family suggested that he tell another story by the wonderful Charles Dickens and that was when Travis had trouble.
He decided to tell those who waited a new story which he had created in his head- but written in the same style and in the same era as Dickens. He called the first story, The Broadstairs Man in memory of his great, great-grandfather, who had apparently lived in such a place above their heads.
To his surprise, the crowds roared and cheered at the story as if it had been written by Mister Dickens, himself.
Over the years, Travis wrote many stories using the name Charles Dickens and when he finally was taken to the dark place to have his last sleep, someone inscribed, ‘Travis, Storyteller’ in the wall above.
And the hundred and one stories which Travis wrote under the name of Dickens, lived through the great winter and for many years beyond.
bobby stevenson 2017