With a retch the shuddering vehicle disgorged the content of its innards and twenty six excited fifteen-year olds spewed out into the drizzling morning.
Clustering in groups of jeans and branded sportswear the GCSE students of St Oswald’s comp postured and pouted, revelling in being out of school and out of uniform for a whole day. Only Natalie seemed to notice how miserable the weather was, how the rocks stretched grey and cold all around them. How what little sunlight there was was filtered into something soupy and dark by the trees overhead. Only Natalie, it seemed, was not excited to be on the trip.
Potholing. She had nearly managed to duck out, just by not showing the permission slip to mum, but Aunty Janice had found it and insisted it would be good for her to get her nose out of her book and doing something adventurous for a change. She’d convinced mum it would be good for her and so here she was.
The guide was a tall thin bored man with a yellow hat and a healthy disdain for the group. He ran through the safety procedures in a monotone that the teenagers talked over.
“I’m a fully trained first aider and I’ll be bringing medical supplies, so there’s nothing to worry about when we’re underground”
Alec Knowles sniggered “Mate, if we get trapped underground or attacked by some kind of mythical beast down there I don’t think your box of plasters and antiseptic is going to do any good.”
The guide ignored him expertly, but Natalie’s stomach crunched. Soon they would be going down there, away from the soupy light and into the darkness below. It would be tight, she knew, and pitch black. There would be no air and now way back.
But she silently put on her safety helmet and vest and watched as the guide fastened them together, all in a long line, tethered by one long rope. She thought fleetingly of Ariadne’s thread as she disappeared into the darkness.
Of course she was at the back. Of course she was the last one. The weakest. If she got lost who would know? The guide was up front, droning on about something and Alec was snigering about the word ‘spelunking’ making obscene gestures in the torchlight.
Natalie, however, felt far away from all of that. Her breath came in short quick bursts and her vision swam alarmingly as the rocks closed in around her. Forced to her hands and knees to fit through the decreasing spaces she forced herself to stay quiet, tried to stay calm, to stop her from doing anything that would draw the attention of her classmates. Just one shuffle at a time. It can’t go on forever. You’ll soon be out and everything will be ok.
Until suddenly, from the pitch blackness behind her came an overpowering smell. It was a raw, animal smell of filth and sweat and fear and lust jumbled together in a rush of hot, foetid air filling Natalie’s mouth and nostrils. And out of the darkness a deep, bestial rumble as two gleaming eyes sparked red in the dark.