The moment they entered the cavern, they were engulfed by the echoey, temperate feel of being underground. Turning to the left, they passed a display of ancient mining tools and samples of the minerals that had been extracted over the centuries.
They arrived at an iron gate, behind which a traditional blacksmith stood. He was hammering out a piece of the same iron that the gate had been forged from. A hot furnace burned behind, next to a large pair of bellows and several small anvils. They stood and watched for a while. Ollie was entranced. He’d never seen a blacksmith at work before and it made him think about his own menial employment, sitting behind a desk all day playing with a mouse and hitting copy then paste, awaiting the onset of RSI. Hardly on the same skill level, really. How far the gap had grown between the way mankind used to make his living and how he did today, in this technological age. Could anybody watch an ancient art like this and not feel a small pang of nostalgia for the olden days, when life was raw?
They moved into the first cave. It was a big cavern with a clear pool. A plaque explained that it used to provide water for the village before pipes were installed. It was filled with boxes in red, gold, and silver paper, tied up with bows, each with a different name on it. A life-sized representation of Rudolph stood high up, overlooking the scene, and fake snow had been sprayed decoratively over everything.
It could have been tacky, but it wasn’t. It was festive and welcoming. Soft carols played almost hauntingly from speakers hidden in the darkness. Ollie fleetingly thought of Suzie and her marzipan scent. She would have loved this. He made a mental note to bring her, to cheer her up.
They continued to walk through the caves, ever deeper into the earth. Animated Christmas displays were tastefully positioned both in the large cavernous rooms and the little hidden nooks. They told the story of a star who had fallen to earth and made friends with the local children. It generated a wonderful innocence about the world. Memories of the Christmas all adults yearn for – a time before Santa wasn’t real and action men and My Little Ponies gave way to bath salts and socks.
Halfway through, they stepped into a chamber that took his breath away. Despite the miniature Christmas figures, the cave’s natural beauty shone through. It consisted of a narrow path and an underground lake raised to chest level. Coins from all over the world glittered at the bottom of the crystal-clear water, causing light to dance on the rough stone overhead. They stood, staring at the water, whilst a family with four children raced on ahead.
“Hey, Amanda. Thanks for bringing me here. It’s special.”
“Do you come here a lot?”
“As often as I can. I like being underground. I find it relaxing. Sort of like the earth has pulled a big blanket over you, to hide you from the world. The geological equivalent of staying in bed on a Monday morning.”
Geological equivalent? He smiled. “Good for escaping the books?”
“Sometimes. But then books can be as good as caves for escaping the world.”
“You don’t like the world all that much?”
“Oh, no, I don’t mind the world at all. It’s just nice to get away sometimes. When I was a kid we used to have this triangular clotheshorse in the back room. My dad would drape a blanket over it. I’d spend hours in there pretending that it was a tepee and I was an Indian warrior. I used to love all those westerns. I think that’s where the obsession comes from. Caves are like giant tents. There’s something magical about them – you can be whatever you want to be underground.”
“I guess.” He fell quiet for a moment, looking at the ripples spreading from a droplet of water.
“Still, people don’t believe in dreaming anymore. We all grow up and become bankers, lawyers, or academics.” She flashed a surreptitious smile.
“Oh, I’m still a dreamer.”
“I dream all the time. Sometimes they seem more real to me than my waking life.”
“Does that bother you?”
“No. Yes. Sometimes. The dreams don’t scare me. Sometimes they’re of terrible things, but I’m not afraid of them. But sometimes there’s another dream when I wake. One that hunts me down.” He shivered. “That one I could do without.”
“You have it often?”
“Few times a month.” He choked out a laugh, shrugged his shoulders and looked at her. She sensed his withdrawal – the limits of what he would allow himself to say – and intuitively knew that it was time to move on.
“See, words just come tumbling out underground,” she said as they walked off.
Marion Grace Woolley is the author of several dark tales, including Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran, Creeper’s Cottage, and Lucid. Born in the UK, she currently lives in Kigali, Rwanda, where she is attempting to build pianos.