The Hades Hotel
It is my pleasure to introduce this subterranean tale by Rosie Dastgir author of A Small Fortune as the last of our three Ghost Stories of Old London written specially for the season by Spitalfields Life Contributing Writers.
“Tread carefully over the pavements of London for you are treading on skin, a skein of stone that covers rivers and labyrinths, tunnels and chambers, streams and caverns, piles and cables, springs and passages, crypts and sewers, creeping things that will never see the light of day.” – Peter Ackroyd, London Under
They worked around the clock, the tunnel gang of twenty men. It was vital, they were told, to reduce the likelihood of settlement while the tunnels were constructed. Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. Even on Christmas Day. Jake and Ivan were two of twelve tunnellers who worked below ground at the front of the machine, while the remaining eight worked from the rear to over ground. Ivan was from the Ukraine, and Jake was his one English mate, who’d befriended him in the early weeks, when everything was mysterious and alien. Ivan longed for his family, and was counting the days till Christmas, his life reduced to a timeline until he was reunited with them. It was grueling, the work, tunneling deep beneath the Eocene clay of the muddy Thames, dirty and exhausting, and he missed the comforts of home. His wife and four children were expecting him on Christmas Eve, but he dared not make promises. He needed the overtime, and as they’d offered him the work, he’d be mad to turn it down.
At first, it had seemed a great adventure, working on the visionary Crossrail project, and being part of such an astonishing feat of engineering. But Ivan suffered bouts of uneasiness almost from the moment the work began, with excavations uncovering things that should be left well alone. Charnel houses were unearthed, and a Roman baptistery discovered. Nearby, a skeleton of a baby. They’d come across a massive femur and joked that it must have belonged to a giant that had roamed the earth in prehistoric times, only to discover they’d been fooled: it was a mammoth’s bone.
Wherever you looked, you could not escape the dead down there, layered in sediments, packed into the darkness that surrounded the tunnel. Many an evening Ivan had drowned his fears in vodka laced beer, wondering what he was doing here, toiling in the underworld beneath a city that was opaque to him, a massive, inscrutable sprawl, linked by stations with baffling names. He did not like to think about the weight of water that pressed down upon them as he operated the slurry clearing machine, sealed in a tight tunnel snaking through infernal darkness. As the days had grown shorter, the nights longer, he had been plagued with insomnia, too fearful to fall asleep for what his dreams might bring.
He arrived at dusk for work that day, to find Jake waiting for him at the mouth of the works site, smoking a cigarette, as he finished his tea. The previous night, the two men had been out drinking at the Star of the East in Canning Town, downing shot after shot, until they were legless. That was a new word for Ivan. It was how they survived, the drinking, or so they told each other. After closing time, Ivan had wound his drunken way home to the rickety high rise in Stratford where he lodged, miraculously reaching his front door unscathed. But Jake was not so lucky. He’d taken a fall on the matt black ice that skimmed the streets, skidding headfirst into the gritty path. His grazed forehead shone in the floodlit building site, pink and raw as an exotic peeled fruit.
“What happened to you?” Ivan wanted to know.
“Had a fight with the pavement outside my house.”
Jake grinned through a cloud of fag smoke while Ivan worked out the idiom.
“Fell flat on my face, didn’t I? Don’t laugh!”
“But it sounds funny, fighting the pavement. ”
“Hurts, it does. So, you got back in one piece, then?”
Ivan shrugged. “Suppose so.”
Jake scrutinised his friend’s pallid features carefully. “You look like you could do with a fry up. Get something later at the caf, yeah? C’mon, Santa Claus, Christmas is coming, and we gotta get tunnelling.”
A flurry of fat snow flakes drifted down from the sky, flecking Ivan’s moustache as he looked up for one last glance of the outside world before going to work.
“What would I do without you, Jake?” he smiled.
The question was heartfelt. For it was Jake who had taken him on the bus to Moorfields Eye Hospital, when he had woken up a few weeks ago to find that he was unable to see in one eye. The inexplicable blindness had been experienced by other tunnellers, a hushed epidemic that nobody mentioned on site. At the hospital, a doctor had prescribed him a course of eye drops and, before very long, his sight returned. But something disturbing had happened to alter his vision, so that he began to suffer strange sightings when he went back to work in the tunnel.
He began to see things, granular and grey, at the periphery of his vision while he drilled out the tunnel. The shapes were indistinct, though at times he experienced the rushing sensation of people passing through him, as though he were ethereal. At first he wondered if it was his eyesight, or a drink too many, that was producing these sensations. As time wore on, the sightings became more ominous.
That evening, he was dead tired as he went to work, his head and eyes throbbing with the effects of his hangover. At the bottom of the shaft was a door, scarcely visible, that he’d noticed once before. Nobody else could see it but him, and he saw that something hovered and fretted upon the other side. Flooded with unease, and yet unable to resist, he took the plunge and went through the door.
What he saw horrified him. Vast gloomy caverns, filled with legions of men in cages, wiry and filthy, digging foul earth by the light of flaming torches, their faces red and contorted as they sang mournful shanties. The walls were beaded with oily water, and evil gases plumed from the depths of the earth. Ivan found himself choking for air, his eyes stinging so much that he feared he would be blinded. Yet he could not tear himself from the scene, horrifying though it was. Mesmerised, he gawped in awe, as flames spewed forth at the rock face, green and orange and strange colours he had never seen before.
Then something made him long to flee for his life, but he was rooted to the spot. It was the shape, like a man but gargantuan, that had been hovering at the edge of his vision. The giant stood seven feet tall, a brawny figure, with blackened torso and harrowed features, waist high in water in the penumbral cavern. When he opened his mouth to speak, Ivan could not see his face.
You can’t imagine it, the evil, the horror that lies underground! You fear the fire at the rock face even more than the river Thames that threatens to drown you! You fear the very ground beneath your feet will swallow you up into the dreadful darkness, a pitch black void that sucks out your soul.
The foul air made Ivan gasp as he tried to take in the giant’s pronouncements. He gestured towards him with his outstretched hand, only to see it vanish, swallowed in darkness. Looking up, his eyes met Phineas’ hollow, unseeing gaze, his pupils round as saucers, violet black, as he spoke.
The infernal gases are terrible, poisoning the eyes, destroying the vision and damning the body and soul. Mark my warning, Ivan. This is the Hades Hotel.
Terror bloomed in his chest. He would be blinded for life like this ogre!
Best left untouched, these depths, best left unchartered, left well alone. You are defying the natural world – you were not made to carry out this desecration of the earth.
In truth, Ivan had little idea what, if anything, he had been made for. To take care and support his family, to live a long and happy life. Simple, earthly things that made him yearn for home.
“Who are you? What is it you want from me?”
You know who I am. You’ve seen me many times –
“That was you? The dark form at my shoulder?”
It was. My name is Phineas.
“But what on earth are you? A devil? A spirit?”
The giant seemed to soften for a moment, his unseeing eyes illuminated with a fleck of gold in the gloom.
I am nothing, a wandering soul caught in limbo. I left my wife a widow, my children fatherless, fending for themselves in the workhouse. And I am one of hundreds, Ivan. The damp and the darkness hastened our early deaths, snatching us down to the underworld. Like you, we drank beer laced with gin, to survive the horrors.
“You know what I drink? Are you watching me? ”
The giant sighed.
Everything, yes, it is my curse, for I am blinded yet a seer, like my namesake, Phineas, the Thracian king, tortured by what I must carry with me, for centuries, my warnings going unheeded in these dark, desolate tunnels. They keep digging! They keep digging! Deeper and deeper into the darkness, hollowing out the precious earth!
Fading into the craggy folds of darkness, Phineas grew indistinct.
“Don’t go!” Ivan cried. “Finish what you have to say!”
But apparition was gone, leaving Ivan uncertain that it had been no more than a figment of his own dark imaginings.
* * * *
Jake and Ivan ate breakfast together at the end of their shift, at Jake’s favourite café in Limehouse, where they served chips with everything, even pasta. Usually it was Ivan’s favourite antidote to a hangover, but his nerves had destroyed his appetite. He watched as Jake stabbed his fried egg with a fork stacked with black pudding, chips, and half a sausage, sliding his omelette to one side of the plate.
Jake fixed his gaze upon the food. “What’s up? Innit any good?”
“We don’t eat these baked beans where I come from,” Ivan said gloomily. “I’m sorry.”
Jake shrugged. “Whatever you say. Give ‘em to me – silly to waste ‘em. What’s up?”
“Do you know much about this tunnel we’re building? I mean, is there…. Has there ever been another one built like it?”
Jake finished a mouthful.
“Yeah, there’s loads of tunnels up and down the Thames – bridges and that. London’s world famous for it.”
“And round here? In the Isle of Dogs?”
“Yeah. Famous one it was – my great, great, granddad was a mole man, digging out the tunnels, that’s what they called them. Lots of them died, drowned, buried alive –“
“They say he drowned, my great great granddad, when the shaft was flooded… that’s what my dad says.“
Ivan’s heart thudded. “So when was it?” he enquired, as if his interest were purely historical.
Jake paused for a moment. “1840, round then? The first tunnel ever built under the river.”
“Yeah, Isle of Dogs.” Jake paused for a moment. “Dreadful things went on down there, all for this railway, they said. My dad says there’s cousins of my great great granddad buried in the graveyard in St Anne’s, and there’s no trace of him. They never found his body.”
Ivan felt hot, and wiped his forehead with a ketchup stained napkin.
His mate grinned. “Nah, don’t be scared, mate, it’s safe as houses down there. Them engineers know a thing or two, they do.”
* * * *
Next day Ivan woke with dread. As the December greyness gathered outside, resolving into wooly darkness after a scant few hours of light, he knew he had no choice but to go to work as usual. He eschewed the eye drops for once, convinced that they’d been altering his vision and playing tricks upon him. As he approached the river, he was seized with the urge to turn back, go home to his wife and never return to this place again. Damn the job! Damn the tunnel! He fretted that he should find Jake and warn him of imminent danger that he felt sure would befall them if they continued their work.
He headed towards Poplar, where Jake lived, though he didn’t recall the address. Nothing seemed familiar in the orange-tinged fog, and he circled the streets without luck. He felt sure Jake lived in one of these squat blocks of flats, near a street with a Chinese sounding name. Amoy, was it? Or Canton? As the night stretched on, he grew despondent. And what was the point, telling his English friend? Jake would think him an idiot, dismissing his fears as madness. He’d told him it was fine down there, and he should know, shouldn’t he? An Englishman born and bred, the descendant of a tunneller himself.
A chill wind blew off the Thames, and the earth braced itself as snow began to fall, settling in a thick pall across the city. The landscape was illuminated, and Ivan felt his mood lift as he made his way into St Anne’s Church in Limehouse, drawn by the lamplit windows that glowed in the darkness. He settled himself in the churchyard amongst the weathered gravestones, their uneven granite forms glinting in the shadows. Reading the inscriptions of families perished centuries ago, he grew calm at last, safe in the knowledge that a boundary exists between the living and the dead. All would be well. He must go to work now, he thought, fending off his fears with a last cigarette, dragging slowly until his blood throbbed and buzzed in his veins. Never before had he felt so alive, or so alone. For a moment, he thought he heard voices, distant and haunting, but it was only the choir singing carols in the church, a skein of tones drifting into the ether.
The thought of the overtime he’d earn raised his spirits. He would leave in time for Christmas, just as he’d promised his wife.
* * * *
Christmas Eve crept up upon the world and held it in its grip. Hundreds of meters beneath the humming, light-spangled city, Jake and Ivan were working their last shift of the year before the holidays. Loyal cohorts, they kept watch for one another, as they toiled away, lulled into a stupor by the roar of the slurry clearing machine. Ivan shuddered, pushing away a fleeting image of Phineas, hovering beyond the door at the bottom of the shaft.
“Alright, mate?” Jake said, seeing his friend shiver. “Home in time for the Christmas goose, then?”
Ivan swallowed, clearing his throat of grit.
“Hope so, yeah.”
Midnight came. He and Jake were working alone, at the bottom of the deepest cavern, repairing hairline cracks in the concrete, when they heard the banging from the other side.
Ivan grew rigid with fear.
“What was that?” Jake cried. “That’s not right – “
The banging grew louder, intensified in its desperation, as the men listened in horror.
“The Thames is in! The Thames is in!” came a terrifying voice, booming from beyond the tunnel.
“Get out of here – quickly – Jake, run!” Ivan yelled. “Raise the alarm, warn the others! It is Phineas, come to warn us!”
A plangent boom that seemed to come from the earth’s core to the surface of the ground above the tunnel, so that the land flexed and writhed as though it were alive, or so people said later. Ivan would never know, for he was trapped underground. The great river Thames was in, enraged, engorged, flooding the tunnel, bursting its walls.
“Run! Jake! Run! Raise the alarm – they’ll be getting to work any minute!”
They’d practised the emergency drill many times, the tunnel gang, so that Jake did not have to think what to do, racing for the escape shaft.
It was the imprint of horror upon Jake’s features that never left Ivan. A look upon his face that he had never seen before, and never would again, as the wall of water rose up before him, sweeping him to his end. In the blink of an eye he was gone.
Without thinking Ivan gave himself up to the river, its awesome force, tossing him round and round in a whirlpool that never ended, centuries whooshing past in a watery blur, ancient flint and muddy reeds clogging his mouth, flooding his ears, his nose, his head, battering and waterlogging his brain. This was not the abyss he had feared, the blackness that annihilated you. This was water, brackish and gravelly, life giving water, buoying him back to the surface. Like the great engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who built the word’s first subaqueous tunnel under the Thames, he floated up to the top of the shaft, and survived.
When they pumped upon his chest and revived him, the metallic taste of blood mingled with mud filled his mouth, spewing out like a fountain. A front tooth was missing from his jaw, and in its place, he felt something incredibly hard. It was a fossil.
Photo of Brunel’s tunnel courtesy Urban 75
Medallion courtesy Where Thames Smooth Water Glide