Baby & Pop


I’m awake, Baby, I say aloud into the dark.  I’m glad he can’t tell my legs are shaking beneath me.
I’m awake and I’ve decided on a new course of action.  You’ve scuppered our chances with God.  So we need to begin on coastal defences.
         Baby is listening, silent, somewhere beyond the Inner Circle.
         There are loose stones, big loose stones, in the Upper Tunnels.  I propose we begin to shift them downwards, and form a preliminary line of defence against the water.
         Where in the Upper Tunnels?
         I know there’s at least one past the Rolling Pin, close to a thousand paces from the Elbow Pit.  We tripped on it once.  It’s a long way but I think we can at least make two journeys before the Time to Sleep comes again.
         It is a long way, says Baby, and for once he sounds doubtful.  We’ll need to take food.  You can’t rely on finding it growing in the Upper Tunnels.  Stuff goes funny up there.
         We will need food.

         I leave Baby by the Inner Circle to mull over the physics of it.

         There’s something wonderful in being alone.  An empty place, and your endurance there.

         By the Pool I gather a great handful of moss, compressing it against my palm, snatching at as much as I can- as if, with this small crisis, the entire process of rationing has to break down.  Silly.  If I take too much I won’t be able to carry Baby at the same time.

         Then I slip down the stone to the waterline.

         It’s risen another three inches.  I run my hand over the partially submerged egg-rock.  Like stroking the carcass of a whale.  Just a protruding spine, already clammy with residue.  A new kind of lichen-tiny, springy tendrils- is beginning to grow here.  The water will drown it before it has a chance to sprout.

         This is worrying.


         When I tell Baby about the waterline he shakes his head.
         I’m not scared, Pop, he says, because I know you’ll deal with the situation.
         I realise, flinching at the touch of his outstretched plastic hand, that he’s being deliberately respectful.  He wants to give me confidence.  It makes me even feel a little cheerful.
         Come on, I tell him.  Let’s get started.


         I’ve been too greedy.  The moss flutters away from my hand as we shuffle, on my knees, Baby clasped beneath my elbow, up into the Upper Tunnels.  And when I stop to write on the stone, my fingers press down and the excess moss spills out from either side of my fist.

         When my knuckles bump against the Great Flat Rock- the Rolling Pin, I estimate, is still one thousand two hundred paces away, and the tunnel begins to lose some height from here onwards- we stop to eat.  My fingers roll hungrily about at my palm, but the moss that’s left is only just about the size of my coiled thumb.
         I give Baby the bigger half.

         I’m thirsty, I realise, but just up from the Great Flat Rock the roof curves over a vein of running condensation.
         Baby and I place our mouths beneath the tapping point and wait for the drips to come.

         Then, when I’ve drunk enough to carry on, we do.


         The ache in my limbs has become almost a rhythmic part of the exertion.  The tunnel is pressingly tight now, and it gets worse.  Squeezing on using only the friction of palms and knees pressing against the stone below.  Scraping the spine and the buttocks on the stone above. Once Baby gets caught in a crack just about wide enough for my body without him.  I manage to dislodge him.  All intact.  Thanks be.
         And then suddenly my body pushes out into space, and my feet touch down on smooth, lolling rock.
         Baby, I gasp.  It’s the Rolling Pin.

         The loose stone is further down the passage than I remembered.  But it is the same one I tripped over.  The angular edge loses its skin in onion-peel; the rounder edge is scratched.   I move onwards, feeling for the potholes, the crevices.  The places I’ve always avoided.
         Twenty paces on I come upon the cache.  I just put out my hand and the stone shivers.  Another loose stone.  And beyond that- testing gingerly- a third, a smaller one, about the size of four of my fists.  There may even be more.

         Back to the task at hand.  The original stone should be the first to go, for the sake of order.  I hurry back along the passage.
         Baby is waiting for me on top of the loose stone.  I feel for him.
         I’ll have to put you down, Baby, I explain, and roll the stone on, and then come back for you.  There’s no way I’m going to be able to do both.  Will you be all right?
         He grumbles, but accepts it.

         The stone is a little larger than my head.  It should just fit into the thinning tunnel if I keep it on its side.  But I’ll have to lift it first, to raise it onto the ledge.
         You used to lift all the time, Baby says accusingly. You said you used to lift weights.  Weights are heavy on purpose.  This is only heavy by coincidence.  It should be easy.
         I rub at my forearms.  Who’d have guessed muscle could come to so little?  Shrunken rubbery bulges, like the Mushroom By The Pool.
         Limber up, Pop, says Baby.  He’s being encouraging.  The little scamp.

         I feel for the edges of the stone.  I can roll it as close as it will go to the ledge itself.  But for one agonising moment I’ll have to let the momentum swing the thing up and about in my arms and onto the plateau of cracked rock at shoulder height.

         In the end, I push the stone with my feet to save my arms, lying on my back, and I sing as I push, with Baby echoing my song from back down the tunnel.

         Alive, alive-o
         Alive, alive-o
         Alive, alive-o
         Alive, alive-o
         Crying cockles, and mussels,
         Crying cockles, and mussels,
         Alive, alive-o.
         Alive, alive-o.

         Once the stone, veering to the left, knocks against something hard in the floor of the tunnel.  But the second time it hits a surface, it refuses to go any further.  I stick my feet out on either side to be certain.  A solid wall of rock.  I’ve reached the ledge.
         Success!  I shout.
         Baby’s answering cry in the distance;
         Easy as breathing!

         Clench your fingers beneath the stone.  Find your grip.  Every muscle tensed in readiness.  Now lift, and as your knees tremor under the immense weight use that same weight to unbalance your body in one, two, three steps to the ledge, and lower it.  It lands, too fast, and it traps my little finger and I cry out.

         Baby’s voice.
         Is everything all right?  Pop?
         I have to release my finger.  The pain is coursing outwards from the little tip.  Pain has hues.  Blues and reds as if I was back in the light.
         Pop?  Didn’t you hear me?
         I’ll have to roll it back to the left.  I feel for the gradient of the ledge with my free hand.  The stone is trying to shift to the right, further onto my trapped finger.  I press my feet against the side of the tunnel, shifting them up against the rock, and heave.
         Pop?  Talk to me, Pop!  Pop!
         The stone moves a little way, and rolls back onto my finger.  I scream, and it’s all at Baby.
         Fuck you, you little fucking bastard, I raised you, I raised you and all you do is whine and complain and want fucking grasping mouth in the dark, get the fuck away from me?  Do you hear?  Get fucking away from me.
         The scream is a goad to my own body, and I heave a second time.
         The weight of the stone begins to lessen.  It feels wonderful, so wonderful to mutter curses at Baby as an external force.
         Little cock, all he does is whine, and moan, and all he thinks about is himself-
         I heave again, and for a second the pressure’s gone and I tear away my hand.

         For an unknown time I’m sat, on the ledge, the stone beside me, clutching at my finger.  It feels soft.  The nail is shattered, and something raw and painful has been unearthed beneath it.

         Baby’s voice.  Tentative; a murmur of water through the dark.
         You all right?  Pop, I didn’t all right?
         I ignore him.

`         And that’s when I decide I’ll leave him alone up here, to teach him a lesson.  It’ll hurt him to be sat here by himself, knowing that he hasn’t run away but he’s been abandoned.
         He continues to cry.
         Pop?  Pop, are you there?
         I turn back to the stone, keeping my sore finger hovering just over the surface, and begin to push, first with my hands, then, swinging one leg carefully up after the other, my feet.
         Pop?  Pop!
         The stone begins to inch down the cramped passageway and I shuffle along behind it, pressing with both feet at once, flipping one hand forward at a time.
         Baby’s voice begins to grow quieter.
         Pop!  Pop!
         My back is aching but I keep shifting forward.  Almost acrobatic, I think.  I could never have done this Before The Caves. 
         The tunnel is narrowing.  I have to remember to keep my head down, twisting my spine earthwards in a grimace.
         The team-building exercise, I think, where we learnt how to put a plank across tyres in a muddy field and all cross safely.  The bit where we had to find logs and none-too-carefully hidden barrels to build a raft.  All of that, in its sad, ironic way, was leading up to this. 

The tunnel is curving slightly and I have to swing my legs to adjust for the decline.  My sore finger jars off the rock wall and I count to sixty on its agonised shivers afterwards.  A new way of keeping reliable time down here, perhaps.  Baby’s voice is gone.
         For a moment the stone grinds against the ceiling of the tunnel.  I press harder and it moves on.  Only for a few inches.  And it halts again.
         I hesitate, and then press again with my feet.  The stone doesn’t move. 
         With a great deal of difficulty, I curl into as small a ball as I can manage, and roll around on myself until my nose shaves the surface of the stone.  I feel around it.
         The stone fills the tunnel on almost all sides.  To the left, there’s about enough space for my arm to squeeze through.  On the right, there’s even less.  I feel for the roof of the passageway. 
         The stone is caught on a cut of rock that is lowest at this side, sloping upwards in the other direction.  I try and pull the stone back towards me.  There’s a growl of friction for a moment and then it goes silent and refuses to move.
         Oh, Baby, oh, no.

         The crawling journey back along the tunnel is sweat-drenched.  Then I begin to hear him again.
         Pop!  Pop!
         I don’t reply.  I don’t want to shout.
         I slip off the ledge, along the smooth stone of the Rolling Pin, and fumble for Baby.
         He can hear me.
         Pop?  Is that you?  Pop!
         My hands find him.
         Thank God, I murmur, and run a hand over his bald plastic head.
         I thought you’d gone, Pop, Baby says.

         I’m hesitant to tell him at first.
         The stone’s stuck in the tunnel.
         Never mind, Pop.  I always thought the dam idea was pretty awful anyway.
         No, Baby.  The stone’s stuck in the tunnel, and we can’t get past it.
         A moment of quiet.
         Pop!  Pop!
         I’m still here, Baby.  I’m holding you.
         So what do we do, Pop?
         I’m not sure.
         Maybe there’s another tunnel further out, says Baby, that connects somewhere and we just haven’t found it.  Maybe if we head out far enough we can make it into the light.
         There’s nothing there, Baby.
         Baby, I can’t sleep outside the Inner Circle.  That just can’t happen.  Do you understand me?  And soon I’ll need to sleep.  I’m not like you.  I’m tired, and I’m getting old, and I do need to sleep, and I can’t sleep outside the Inner Circle.
         So we need to move the stone, says Baby.  That’s all there is to it.
         I sigh.
         Yes, Baby.  We need to move the stone.  Somehow. 


         I nudge Baby gently forward so that his hands touch the immovable stone.
         What do you think?
         I can’t tell, he says.
         Well, it’s not going forward.  Which means we’re going to have to pull it back.  The problem is that it’s stuck fast.
         It went in, says Baby, so it has to go out.
         I’m beginning to panic.  My hands are shaking.
         It doesn’t work like that, Baby.
         I put him down and feel for the stone, positioning my feet carefully on either side of the tunnel.  Then I pull.
         It doesn’t move.
         Try turning it as you push, says Baby.
         I’d need to get it moving first.

         Working my hand through the left gap, I try to squeeze my fingers in between stone and ceiling.  A kind of dust patters off my wrist.
         Baby is beginning to panic.  I know I should stop and reassure him but there’s no time.  My arms are already sagging with weariness.
         Silly name, he giggles, the Rolling Pin.  I always think we should take the time, at some point when our schedule frees up, to come up with new names.  You could call it a Hooboo.  Or anything.
         I begin to scratch away, with my bare nails, intermittently at the surface of the roof, intermittently at the surface of the stone.  I’ll tear through the bedrock if I have to.
         What do you think, Pop?  We should rename everything.
         I like the old names, I say.  The stone is that chalky sort, a quarter of the way to being earth anyway, and slight but tangible residues are forming on my fingertips.  My nails seem to be wearing away faster. 
They’re human names, I add.  They make sense to me.
         But with respect, Pop, says Baby, you’re not human.
         What kind of animal am I, then?
         No, you’re not an animal yet.  Not quite.   You’re getting there but you’re not there yet.

         I pull at the stone again.  It doesn’t shift.  I return to scratching, this time with my other hand, pressing my chest against the wall of the tunnel and turning my head away in order to do so.  My damaged little finger kept aloft.
         The Caves have never seemed too small to me, Baby says quietly.  But now they do.
         Keep talking, Baby.
         Something liquid is trickling down the length of my finger.
         I wish you’d tell me where I came from, Pop.  You know I don’t believe it’s from a factory.  Sometimes I imagine the real place.
         I keep scratching.  The trickle is widening.  Refreshing my skin.
         Sometimes I think the little girl must have been my mother- logically speaking- because she kept me in a cradle.  Like a mother keeps her child.  And once I remembered floating in darkness, total, like the darkness here.  Then the doors opened up into light and suddenly I had a name.
         What was it?
         I switch hands again.
         I don’t remember, Baby says meekly.  Do you remember your name?  Before you were Pop?
         Not really.  I’m sure I could, if I thought about it hard enough.  But I’d rather not have to.
         I think, but don’t say,
         If I brought back my name, all of their names would have to come back too.  And the man who knew them is no longer around.  Baby’s right. I’m not human.  I’m the lichen clinging to the stone I once was.
I try to shift the stone again.  It grinds for a single moment against the ceiling and then halts.

         Nebuchadnezzar was a grand sort of name, says Baby.  Maybe that’d suit you best.
         Too grand, Baby.  I can’t remember how to spell it.
         Do you remember where you came from?
         No, Baby.  None of us remember it.  But we all know how it happens.  You’re in the dark and you’re one thing, with all these tubes in you pushing liquids in and out, and then you’re dragged out into the light and you’re something different and you’re independent and free.
         This time the stone chafes along the ceiling noticeably.  With growing excitement, I continue to scratch.  Both hands must be bloody.
         When we leave the Caves, Baby says, will we turn into something different?
         We’re not going to leave the Caves, Baby.
       Embrace this infernal stone like a lover and pull.

         It shifts for a moment, shrieking with friction across the rock, and I cling on, letting my whole weight pull it back, and suddenly I have to tear my hands and feet away because it’s going, at a steady trundle down the passageway’s sharp decline. 
Then I can no longer hear it, because Baby’s breaking into triumphant song.

         We are the champions
 My friend
         And we’ll keep on fighting
Till it ends


         We catch up with it just above the Great Circle, one thousand two hundred and fifty-four paces on, halted by a turn in the widened passageway.
         Aren’t we going to- says Baby, from my hand.
         But I reply, no, leave it, leave it till we’ve slept again, and we hurry on past it.  My limbs are singing.

         I drop Baby halfway across the Great Circle and stumble on, on to find that sweet smooth stone of the Inner Circle and fall upon it.