It’s easy to get used to something, to become blind to the beauty and majesty of everyday life. The poet Julian Sermava perhaps expressed the tragedy of this familiarisation in their 1965 work ‘On Returning Home’; ‘and here, these hedgerows/ the morning light on the cobwebbed dew/ was always here before/ I went away for so long/ that returning home is starting anew.’ So it is that you can tell the newcomers to Buentoille, speeding from district to district beneath those ancient streets in rail carriages, pressing their faces up against the windows to peer into the darkness. There are great delights to be seen beyond your reflection in the glass.
If you are travelling beneath the area around Ranaclois hill, where the other underground chambers and passages are particularly dense, you are quite likely to pass through or over several of these spaces on your journey. About halfway between Pilgrim’s Rest and Yerman Street, if you manage to angle yourself just right, you can see down into an old vertical mine shaft which has been intersected by the tracks. It has since been used to carry electrical cables down into sections of the Unfathomed Archive, but is a notoriously faulty section, so if you are lucky you might catch a glimpse of it when the maintenance lights are on, spiralling down into the earth.
There are less fleeting, more easily visible sections of wonder beyond the windows, such as The Hall, a large section of salt mine which the tracks run through on the way to Marcher’s Table. The lights from the fixed lamps that line the well-worn tables of each carriage bathe the remnants of salt that still cling to the walls of the man-made cave in warm light, causing them to sparkle lustrously. Even some of the most seasoned, those indurated against the beauty of the City, can be seen surreptitiously peering out of the windows there on their morning commute.
Perhaps the most popular underground route, the first part of any self-respecting Buentoillitant’s tour of the City, is the part of Saint Canticule’s Line that briefly breaches into the Hidden Library’s twenty third reading room. Since 1983 a toughened glass barrier has been built around the sweep of track which hangs above the lamplit desks and chained reference shelves, an attempt to keep out the fumes which were troubling the readers and (more importantly) leaving sooty residues on the books. The glass is regularly cleaned, and the train slows down on the bend for safety reasons, although you will often erroneously hear that this is in order to be quieter for the readers. There are some folk in the twenty third reading room who no longer even look up when the train passes, it briefly lending its light to the well-studied pages before them. For them it tracks time, down here where there is no sun; ‘I will read for seven train passes’ they might say. And then, glancing up hours later at the train which swings by in an arc, like the Ladies of Time Gone who pass in and out of their little clock face doors, they will wonder how many times it has been now – was it six or nine?
The underground is a tenebrous tangle, a knotted line with many of these pearls strung along it, if you know when and where to look. It’s easy to see how strange tales would grow down there in the dark, with all the half-glimpsed dark tunnels running off into nowhere. The abandoned, or half finished stations (of which there are certainly three, perhaps more) are notable breeding grounds for such stories. One of these disused stations (Houndlow’s Slump) is accessible from the surface, if you are willing to squeeze through a few rusted old bars and ignore the dust-covered ‘DANGER OF DEATH – KEEP OUT’ signs. It is a favourite haunt of teenagers, and has hosted many an illicit party over the years, which, glimpsed from a passing train carriage, have been misconstrued as ghost sightings, which in turn have fed more parties and visitations from ghost hunters.
The unnamed second station is only accessible via an old twist of the Hidden Library; it was intended to be an alternate access point to that cast repository of knowledge, but due to poor planning and map-keeping, the stubby tendril of track that leads off into the darkness from the empty platform never connected to the East Wending Line, which was actually over thirty metres above. They say that every six years a phantom train materialises through that rocky dead-end, ready to take the souls of departed Buentoillitants to their final destination.
There is only one day of the year that a train stops at the third station, Waitglim by the Tower (so called after the apparently inexplicably named road that lies overhead), which is fully finished, except that its route to the surface was blocked when a monarchist bomb went off in the building above and a memorial was built there instead. It was due to open a week after the attack, so when the rubble sealed the only entrance other than the tracks it became something of a time capsule, glimpsed in snatches.
It was 2001 when the video first surfaced. It was on the long-defunct eight grade format, so it took a while for Benni Rumshaw to get hold of something to play it. She had taken it from one of the tables at the Festival of Lost Property on a whim many years before, she doesn’t remember when. What the video shows is three teenagers (a girl and two boys, none of whom have ever been positively identified) walking down a train tunnel. The date stamp in the corner of the image shows ‘July 29th 1986.’ it’s filmed in snatches, presumably to retain battery life. A lot of the footage is quiet, just the sound of feet on gravel, dust falling through torch beams, close ups on their faces, shushing sounds and gestures, excited and just a little scared. Near the start, one says to the other ‘make sure you don’t touch the central rail or you’ll die.’ Later on, another says ‘we need to hurry up,’ then, ‘we have two minutes before the train comes.’ Then they are running, panting hard, torch beams swinging wildly, trying hard not to misstep on the central rail.
It’s probably spoiling it to say that they get there, to Waitglim by the Tower, without being hit by a train. You can hear the rails sing behind them, over their laboured breath. The train lamps on the wall as it rounds the corner. But they get there in time. The rest of the footage feels less interesting when the tension has dissipated. They look around the abandoned platform, pulling out old mouldering timetables from their slots on the walls, blowing fountains of dust into the air. They muck about with the ticket stamping machine for a while. Eventually, one of them says ‘we need to go,’ and the footage ends.
Today you don’t have to run along the tracks between trains to get to Waitglim by the Tower. For one night only you can get a special ride there, if you are at Two Coin Stop at 11pm; they put it on after folk started walking down the tracks themselves, trying to emulate the video that was copied, distributed through samizdat channels. There’s nothing about the train that seems special, no tour guide or anything to suggest it is going anywhere out of the ordinary – just the name of the station on the ticker. The passengers eye eachother excitedly as they approach.
The train doesn’t stay, but it does come back through at 12am and then 1am after, to pick up any stragglers. There’s no lighting to the platform but that which the revellers bring themselves; a few torches, perhaps an oil lamp or two. Some years there is a party, other times not. Some years folk clean up the dust and detritus of age. The parties are always clean and nobody breaks anything; the appeal of this place is its pristine nature, the way it feels stuck in time.
Most years there is a séance. They do it in the centre of the platform; they bring chalk and candles. It makes no sense – how would the video have reached the surface if the teenagers had not survived, had become trapped down here by some malevolent spirit of the overhead dead as the occultists believe? Yet belief rarely listens to reason. Even down here there are ways for lost things to become found, they say.
Other festivals happening today:
- The Festival of the Treasure of Saint Adennin
- The Wisp of Eventide Festival
- The Festival of the Red Klaxon.