I, a bricklayer have been instructed to examine the main drainage culvert beneath the quiet dark streets of our sleeping city. All afternoon a joiner and two men have been erecting a temporary sluice gate they call a stank to hold back the waters of the whole city which will be collecting as I work. We have chosen to work at night because, apart from the effects of heavy rain, that is when the flows are low. Now the heavy timbers are in place it is time for me to put on my thigh boots and make my way over to the others standing at the gaping manhole in the bright circle of the arc lights. The men look up as I approach and one steps aside to allow a late traveller to pass quietly by, the black round curves of the car momentarily reflecting the gentle activity, before being swallowed up in the rising mist. Natt steps forward with the lifeline, harness and lamp, and tells me that the sewer has been tested for gas, methane, the killer. Only a few weeks previously a man had passed out at the bottom of a manhole and his friend and colleague who had then gone down to rescue him had died with him. We were now being extra careful.
The tightness of the harness gives me confidence like a warm comforting arm around my waist, and with my hammer, chisel and lamp I descend the old, dirty and rusty, wrought-iron ladder to the bottom of the shaft. I am familiar with the tarry smell of sewers but I have never become accustomed to the loneliness and severance from those above. I stand on the concrete shelf and shine my torch at the almost still grey waters at my feet. A bubble of gas rises to the surface in the light of my lamp to form a grey sinister bulging eye in the viscous liquid and then, after surveying sightlessly the round red brick tube that is garlanded at every projection with the bunting of refuse, bursts silently as it passes down stream. I wade through the sticky silt towards the sluice that is holding in check tons of water, slowly rising, behind the timbers, like the shadow of an evil gene. It must not rain.
I have been down here some time now and I’m tired through the effort of lifting my legs in the sludge of years. I stop again and listen to the steady trickle of water through the joints in the temporary barrage. Has the noise increased? No! There are two noises. It must be the small pipe discharging as well. Perhaps it has started to rain after all. I stop and watch the level of water against the culvert wall with the bricks acting as a gauge, it is not rising. On I go again, tapping to see if the joints are sound, to see if the steel beams are still strong, to guess how long it will be before another inspection will be necessary, lifting each heavy leg from the clinging slime, easing my bent and aching back, surveying as I go, but all the time keeping an ear attuned to the trickling water. What was that? It was at my ear. I turn my torch and two beady eyes peer at me from a small pipe at face level. A rat. I have a childish fear of the creatures, bred of old wives’ tales. A rat in a field; a rat, dead on a railway line means no more to me than a sparrow on a pavement; but this intruder is assuming the proportions of a black panther. I clap my hands and struggle to hurry on. There is no one here to se my callow fear.
I think I hear a creak. My pulse is beating. I must control my imagination. The rat has shaken my confidence. Is the gushing louder?. Before I can reassess the sound, a thunder clap reverberates along the tunnel like a charge along the barrel of a gun and as I stand dumbfounded, for a brief second I hear the torrential rushing of the angry waters freed from their imprisonment. The timbers have cracked. The sluice can no longer hold the water in check. I turn and drop my tools in frantic flight. I tug the rope, all signals forgotten and feel the tension taken from above. I cannot run, I can barely walk. I can but flounder like a fly held in illicit jam. In my haste I splash but I care little if I mouth the water which is rising round my knees. I must take off my boots, but how? Is there time? Now in my haste I have fallen, my torch is lost. Dragged by the rope through the stinking blackness I lose my breath. I struggle once more but now the rushing waters carry me on as the rope never could and tiredness and exhaustion have seeped my will to fight. All is going black. Thank God!