Telling Tales

Telling Tales

Paddy Mendham

The tunnel took them clear of the wandering enemy soldiers and deep into the heart of the mountain. None of them had any experience of pot-holing and although they didn’t want to be seen as frightened rabbits, every one of them was having second thoughts about having set out on this journey. Suddenly there was a sharp sound from deep in the depths behind them and a blast of hot air seemed to propel them forward. One of them dropped his torch and the dark seemed to crowd in on them. They scrambled about on their hands and knees but no luck. They’d have to take even more care of the remaining sticks of light. They hadn’t spoken since they’d broken free from their cell and the hoarse voice of their leader came as a sudden shock. They had to strain to hear the words but anything was better than the omnipresent silence. That had only been broken by the skittering of small pieces of rock dislodged in their passage and the occasional cough or the clink of metal in their back packs. He said that he thought they must be about a quarter of the way through. He’d worked out that the whole journey, given no untoward hiccoughs, would only be about ten or twelve miles and surely, they could complete that in less than four hours. He said that they should stop for a break shortly, take on board some water and break out one of the bags of biscuits and even share a precious bar of chocolate. They’d been travelling downhill for some time and when the path levelled out and widened, they did stop and each found a convenient rock on which to perch. Slaking their thirst and munching the very welcome food lifted all their spirits and several of them began to talk at once. Gradually they went quiet and just left it to their leader to attempt to lift their spirits. He began by describing a night hike that he’d taken part in when he was in the scouts some years before. Their senior scouter had been a rough, tough sort of fellow who’d taken half a dozen of them across the fields and back lanes a few miles from their Head Quarters, for a ten-mile walk one November night. It hadn’t been raining but there was plenty of cloud about and every so often the moon had suddenly became lost behind a dark cumulo-nimbus. About the third time this had happened he’d let out a shriek and disappeared behind a thick hedge and off into the forest behind. Momentarily we’d stood there petrified, scared and not knowing what to do. Then we realised that it was a test, of a sort, that he’d set to test us. We decided that two could play at that game and we’d found a convenient tree, a giant lime tree and we’d climbed it and hidden in its capacious foliage. We’d eventually come down when his shouting out our names had begun to sound really frightened. The rest of that night walk had seemed very tame after the momentary adrenaline rush. Following this story one of us recalled a new-year’s eve mid-night swim in truly freezing weather. Perhaps not surprisingly that too had been part of a scout outing and the swim had been in the pool at a permanent camp outside Oxford not far from his scout hall. The ice on the pool had been broken up with scout poles before the skinny-dipping session. Sensibly they’d built and lit a large camp fire before their icy adventure. By the time that this story was over they were ready to move on in much higher spirits.

A couple of hours later they stopped once more, had some more sustenance in the form of a chunk of cheddar, a slab of fruit cake and a swig from a water bottle. They even continued to recall past adventures with somewhat exaggerated personal histories. By now they were feeling quite jaunty but the leader brought them back to earth by reminding them that their enemy was still out there somewhere and it was time to quieten down and begin to listen for outside sounds and take note of their surroundings, especially as the torch light was starting to wane. Then they became aware that the tunnel in front of them was becoming clearer and they realized that daylight was not far ahead. Now they went completely silent and slowed their pace.

They were lucky, extremely so and they did get out and the locals were well-disposed to them and the enemy soldiers had not followed them. In subsequent years, when they met to recall this time in their lives they invariably referred to it as the time that they kept their sanity and regained their freedom by telling tales.