“Argh! A wild animal! There’s a wild animal down there! Save me!”
I stared at the freshly dug badger sett for quite a while on Wednesday evening. There was something vaguely familiar about the way the soil was spread evenly around the large entrance, and the tunnel that seemed to spiral deep underground. The smoothness of the walls, against which the badger had wedged its back for support whilst digging, also tugged at my memory. I just couldn’t bring to mind why I should feel a connection with this particular hole in the ground. After all, I am very familiar with badger setts, and I don’t recall ever feeling an affinity with any of them. So what is so special about this new one? The sett played on my mind so much that I revisited again later in the evening. I wondered if subconsciously I had seen something, but failed to acknowledge it. My second visit revealed no more than the first.
Whist lying in bed last night, I made a connection. Whether this is truly associated with the following story, or just my mind inventing a plausible and easily believable scenario, I don’t really know. The story is true enough.
I was a child miner! I had a penchant for digging tunnels. As well as in my father’s garden and allotment, I carried out my mining activities in a huge field opposite my childhood home. I remember it was a blisteringly hot summer school holiday, when my friend and I honed our limited mining skills. I was fortunate to own a pressed steel spade, the type used with a tin bucket to make sand castles at the beach. My spade was particularly durable and an essential mining tool. It was painted red and had a ‘D’ handle. My friend John made-do with a pointed stick and a shovel carved from a wooden plank. I think we were both around ten years of age.
I was tunnelling into a vertical bank, and John worked away on his own tunnel fifteen yards to my right. I had a helper: Sammy, my wire-haired terrier, who went everywhere with me. When out and about on my push bike, Sammy would jump up and ride on the luggage rack behind the saddle.
John was not as avid a tunneller as I, and it wasn’t long before he had abandoned his excavations in favour of mine. After what seemed like a long hard day’s work – I doubt we laboured for more than a couple of hours, and we probably managed a few lie-down rest periods during this time – we went home for tea. It was a week or more before I went back to work on my tunnel. For a reason I can’t recall, John didn’t join me. It was just me and Sammy.
My usual summer garb was short trousers, a short-sleeved tee-shirt, and a pair of slip-on plimsolls; so it should be easy to imagine what I looked like at the end of a hard day digging. Anyway, I arrived at my tunnel early afternoon. Before staring work, I wandered over to John’s tunnel. There was a lot of soil spread around the entrance, as there was around mine. I dug a straight tunnel, directly into a vertical bank; I suppose a cave would be a more accurate description. John’s tunnel went down and turned right after a couple of feet. I wondered how he had managed to achieve this with his basic tool kit. I got down on my hands and knees and reached around the corner, expecting to find a dead end, but the tunnel seemed to continue. I guess I must have thought that John’s tunnel was technically superior to mine, so taking a firm grip of my spade, I got stuck in.
John was smaller than me, but not by much. I think I must have felt that he had been digging with his hands, because I had trouble getting around the tight bend with my spade. I remember stretching my hands out in front and trying to force my body through the bend, but I became stuck. My bum had wedged tight in the back of the bend. I couldn’t move in or out of the hole. I have never been one to panic in enclosed spaces, but the only body parts I could use were my legs. My legs were no good for pulling myself out, but I found I could use them to push my body further into the hole. My miniature spade was held firmly in front of me, and I tried to use it to push backwards against the tunnel walls. This only helped to force by backside further against the dirt wall at the back of the bend. I was stuck good and proper.
I don’t remember panicking. I probably felt I would be able to manoeuvre my way out of the hole, one way or another.
Obviously, I can’t remember too much detail about how it felt to be wedged down a dark hole when only ten years old. I was an experienced miner, though, used to my tunnels collapsing on top of me, so I was probably not over-worried.
What really put the fear of God into me was the realisation that something else was in the hole ahead of me. I heard scuffling, scratching and grunting from further down the tunnel, and excited heavy breathing that was not mine. I began to panic, waving and thrusting my spade in front of me to ward off the animal. I guess I had visions of a savage wild beast eating me alive, starting with my face. The thought of such a horrible death was enough to ensure that I wriggled my way out of that hole in double quick time, screaming something along the lines of, “Argh! A wild animal! There’s a wild animal down there! Save me!”
I ran off, terrified, to a safe distance, climbed a tree, and stared intently at the hole, waiting for the fierce wild animal to show itself. Suddenly a hairy head, followed by a very hairy body crept slowly from the entrance of Johnny’s tunnel, sniffing at the air.
What animal do you think was down in the hole with me?
I find it strange that a visual cue can initiate a hidden memory from way back in one’s past.
To read more about my childhood tunnelling, click here: http://thewildenmarshblog.com/2011/08/01/a-walk-on-the-marsh-2/