As deep as they get

Later, when it became lighter and the sounds of life resumed, he decided to call out again.
– Help!
A rumble. Bus? Lorry?
– Help!
Cars. More of them now. Surely, people too?
– Help!
A greasy ball of a newspaper came down the hole, hit him on the cheek and fell in the water.
– Help!
More cars and buses. Who would hear him in this din? Had the road always been so busy?
– Help!
Some grit. A few pebbles. They stung. He closed his eyes. When he reopened them, there was a head haloed by the full daylight.
– Aloov! Somebody in there?
The head shifted a little to the side. Sunlight hit his face. It was going to be another hot day. The fag end of an Indian Summer that had lasted a month.
– Ulaaan! There is a feller in there, you know.
Another head joined the first one.
– Can’t see anything. You sure?
– You’re in the light, that’s why. Shift a little.
– Help!
– See. I told you.
The other head nodded.
– Are you in there?
– Yes! Will you help me get out?
– How did you get there? Did you fall down?
– Can you help me get out?
A hand appeared beside one of the heads and scratched.
– I don’t know about that. It looks pretty deep down there. How did you get in there anyway?
– I fell. Can you get some help?
– Wait there.
The heads disappeared.
Lorry. The rumble shook the ground. A few dislodged pebbles and some loose soil fell into the water. He braced his arms against the walls, hoping to stop a complete collapse. The sharp stones dug into his arms, back; damp soil slipped its fingers into his collar. The rumble died away slowly. Too slowly.
Three heads appeared, blotting out the light.
– Can’t see anything. Are you sure?
– He was there a minute ago. Are you still there?
– Yes. I am. Did you get help?
– This is my brother-in-law.
– Can he help?
– I used to be in the building trade.
– Can you help?
– It looks deep down there. How did you get down?
– I fell. Can’t you get someone to help?
The heads disappeared.
Cars. More cars.
Half a pasty wrapped in paper fell past him. The splash caught him on the chin.
Pressure on his bladder. How long could he hold on?

Three heads again, one topped by a peaked cap.
– Eyoovvv. Can you hear me down there?
– Yes, I can hear you. You don’t have to shout.
– How did you get down there?
– I fell.
– Didn’t you see the signs?
– What signs?
The peak cap disappeared. It reappeared a minute later.
– Never mind the signs. How are you keeping down there?
– It’s wet.
– What’s your name?
–  Kerim.
–  Kerim who?
–  Kerim Karabekir.
– Have you got id on you,  Kerim Karabekir?
– It was in my pocket. Must be wet by now.
– That’s a shame. Wait there.
The peaked cap went away. Smaller ones in its place. One of them nearly fell in. Someone else pulled him back but this did not stop the shower of sand, soil and pebbles that peppered his head and the water.
– Can someone get me out of here?
– The policeman’s gone for help.
Heads appeared and disappeared at random. The peaked cap returned. A sudden flash of light intruded his twilight domain. He blinked and looked away.
– Ah. There you are. Let’s see your face, Kerim Karabekir.
He looked up and blinked into the beam of the flashlight that swept backwards and forwards in an irregular pattern. The motes of dust floating in the beam made his eyes itchy. Why hadn’t the dust done that before? Did it come out only in the light?
– Help is on its way, Kerim Karabekir.
The light went off as suddenly as it had come on. It left a pair of purple blotches in front of his eyes. The blotches followed wherever he turned his eyes. For a while, he played catch with them. However quickly he made his eyes jump from one point to another, the blotches always caught up instantly. It was as if they were reading his mind. He tired of the game after a while. He closed his eyes. The blotches persisted even then for quite some time.
He wriggled his toes in his shoes. They were still there. He had stopped feeling them long before daylight. When he wriggled them, though, he could feel the dull pressure of the shoes on them. The shoes had been quite loose the day before. Cheap cast-offs from the flea market, they had made him look like a clown, he’d thought. Now, his feet had swollen to fill the shoes. The pressure was there even when he kept them still. He thought of taking the shoes off, but besides the difficulty of the manoeuvre in the confined space, the idea of what might lie in wait in the water dissuaded him.
For a moment, there was a little more light as the heads all pulled away from the rim. Another pair replaced them. A beam of light stronger than the earlier one blinded him.
– Are you down there?
– Yes.
– Can you hear us?
– Yes.
– Is your name Kerim Karabekir?
– Yes.
– Stand back, Kerim Karabekir. We’ll lower a ladder for you.
The light went off and the heads pulled away. A contraption blocked the light. He averted his eyes just as an avalanche of soil, sand and pebbles came bouncing off the walls and dislodging more debris in its wake. He kept his eyes shut and held his hands over his lowered head, just in case.
More clattering from above. More debris. Metal clanging against metal. Scraping. Silence. The drone of the traffic returned to fill the gap.
Muffled swearing.
He risked a look upwards, ready to close his eyes and duck as far as the confines permitted. The contraption was blocking most of the light. A couple of heads either side of it blocked the rest.
– I told you, didn’t I?
– It was worth a try.
– Kerim Karabekir. We’ll lower you a rope.
He averted his eyes before this avalanche.
More clattering. Silence. Traffic.
He risked another look. One head over the parapet. Another head joined it.
– Here it is!
Hard steel rope. A loop at the end, the size of his head. A noose, almost.
– Hold on to the rope and tell us when you’re ready.
He held onto it as best as he could.
– I’m holding on.
The rope went up slowly. His arms were pulled up to their full extent. He held on tighter. Mud sucked at his shoes. His shoulders felt about to burst out of their sockets. His numbed fingers were slipping. His feet popped out of the mud and the rope jerked him upwards. He looked down and saw his feet hover a hand’s breadth above the water. His fingers gave up and he fell back in. The rope sailed up without its load.
– We’ll try that again, Kerim Karabekir.
– No. No. My fingers are slipping. The rope’s too thin. Too sharp.
He clasped his hands together, hugging them close to his chest. His palms were on fire. He dipped them in the water, which made them burn just colder.
– We’ll lower something better.
A hard, heavy object hit him on the head, bounced off and dangled beside him.
His hand instinctively went to his head. A lump was already rising where the metal hydrant had landed. The scalp was hot to the touch. He looked at his fingers for blood. The skin had not broken.
When the sparks in front of his eyes had abated, he hefted the hydrant in his hand.
– Have you got the hose?
– Yes.
– Do you think you can hold on?
He grabbed the flat fabric and held on. He tried to haul his body up, without success.
– No.
– We’ll lower it a bit more. See if you can step on the hydrant.
The hose went down. The metal end disappeared under the water.
– How is that?
He hauled himself up with all his strength and hooked his feet on the extrusions either side of the bulky hydrant.
– Ok!
The hose went up. The occasional shower of soil and stones fell past his head.
He felt his feet slip. Sound of snapping metal. His feet dangled in mid-air. His hands slipped. The jagged end of the hose hit him under the chin, then on the temple. He fell back in the water. His right foot landed on something lumpy in the water, twisting his ankle.
He took the weight off his foot, leant against the wall and tried to regain his breath.
More swearing from above. Then bitter retort.
– That was our last working hydrant you broke, Kerim Karabekir.
– Can’t you lower a harness?
Bitter laughter.
– Paying customer, are you? Give me a minute while I get the paperwork together.
Muttering.
– Wait there, Kerim Karabekir.
The heads disappeared. More appeared in their place.
He found it harder to stand now. The broken hydrant took up half the standing room under his feet. He tried to stand on it, but kept slipping. He tried to stand beside it, but the hydrant pressed against his shin and rubbed his skin raw through his sodden trousers. He pushed it aside as far as he could, then stood with one foot in the mud and the other on the hydrant. When one leg tired, he turned round and swapped feet. He favoured his right foot; the ankle felt sore and did not bear well under the strain.
He felt his cheek and temple. There was blood on his fingers this time.
He changed feet and waited.
Bladder ready to burst. Unable to contain himself any longer, he relaxed his muscles. Some relief at least. The water warmed a little, but briefly, too briefly. By degrees, the chill came back. With that reminder of the warmth, the chill penetrated even deeper into his bones.
– Kerim Abi! Are you there?
A small head was pushing itself between others.
– Is that you, Selim?
– It’s me, Kerim Abi. How did you get in there?
– I fell.
– The boss was looking for you. He said if you don’t turn up in the next fifteen minutes, consider yourself fired he said. So, I came looking for you.
– Now you found me.
– What shall I tell the boss?
– Tell him to fuck off.
Tut-tutting. Some heads went away.
– Shall I tell him that, Kerim Abi?
– No. Tell him to get some help.
– There are some firemen out here, Kerim Abi.
– I know.
– Can’t they help?
– No.
The child’s head went away.

– Ulan, Kerim!
– Hello boss.
– What are you doing there?
– I fell in.
– Can’t you get out?
– No.
– I’ll call the fire service.
– Aren’t they there?
– No firemen here, mate. Have you been drinking or something?
The reminder made the dryness of his mouth more acute. There was water around him, but he was not that desperate, yet.
– No. I’m quite thirsty, too.
– Here.
A plastic bottle hit him on the top of the head, bounced off the wall, dislodged a clump of clay the size of his torso, then fell in the water. The clump rested against his shoulder. He tried to push it back against the wall, hoping that it would stick back. The clump split into two and fell into the water. His feet were buried in mud once more. Afraid he might get stuck fast, he put all his weight on the foot resting on the hydrant and heaved. The shoe came off his left foot, but his feet pulled free. The hose fitting had been mostly buried, making it easier to stand. He felt the wall where the clump had detached. There was a depression the size and shape of the fireplace he had fitted in a flat the day before, flueless, sterile and pregnant with an electric fire of its own. A stone embedded on top of the hole like a mantelpiece held back more soil. He tried not to worry about it, but the stone felt loose.
Remembering the water bottle, he groped around. It must have been buried. He tried to search in the mud. He even dared prod with his bare toes (clad only in the thick wool socks). Nothing.
– I lost the bottle.
– Sometimes I wonder why I employed you. You can’t even find a bottle in that space… How big is it down there again?
– I’m cold, too.
– Cold. Thirsty. I’ve just the thing for you. I’ll send Selim over.
Something blotted out the light almost completely.
– Don’t spill this one now. It’s good sahlep.
The round tray hit his head and stopped. He reached up, hooked his hand between the wall and the tray’s lip and lifted the cup. It burned his fingers but he hung on. The tray was nearly as wide as the shaft. The cup would not go around it. He toppled the tray to make more room. A rattle. A bump. Stars. The saucer fell in the water. Stunned, he hung on to the cup but could not hold it up straight. Hot milk spilt on his face and clung on with the sticky sweetness of sahlep. The orchids’ revenge.
– Thanks. I’ve got it now.
– Thanks to Allah, you got one thing right in your life anyway.
The tray went back up.
– Thanks.
He wiped his face as best he could, getting sand in his eyes. He rinsed his hand in the muddy water and wiped his eyes.
He sipped the hot drink. It warmed him up somehow, but the scalding of his face had made him forget the cold, anyway. The drink burnt his tongue, travelled down his gullet, burning all the way down. Perversely, it reminded of the cold still ruling his legs.
All but a couple of sips of the drink had been spilt.
– Thanks. That was nice.
The tray descended once more.
He managed to twist his hand between the wall and the tray without dropping the cup.
– OK.
The tray went back up.
– Kerim! Where is the saucer?
– I dropped it.
– Mustafa will dock that off the deposit. I’ll take it out of your wages. Try to get something right once, will you?
More cars. Buses. Another lorry. The rumble shifted the stone a little. More soil fell in.
– Listen, Kerim. We’ll get you out of there now.
– How?
– I’ve got a rope.
– The firemen tried that. I can’t hold it.
– I’m coming down for you. I used to be the fastest up the trees when I was a kid. A regular monkey I was, I tell you. I’m coming to save you, Kerim. Wait there.
The light went away. Soil and stones fell in. He closed his eyes, bent his head and put his hands over his head. The avalanche stopped. He looked up tentatively. Still no light. A voice. Distant. Muffled.
– Kerim. I’m stuck. How did you get down there? And I thought you a regular fat bastard. Help! Get me out of here!
Something heavy hit him on the nose. He ducked. Something else hit him in the nape of the neck. He tensed, waiting for anything else that might follow.
– My Cuban heels. My gorgeous Cuban heels. Kerim, you bastard! Don’t lose those, as well. They cost more than your month’s wages, those. All this is your fault, anyway.
He searched in the water and found one of the shoes.
– Is it dry down there?
– No. Wet.
– Ah, you bastard. The shoes will be ruined. You bastard!
Muffled siren.
More sand, soil, pebbles.
He averted his eyes.
A few large clumps bounced off the back of his hands protecting his head. One hardier clump of soil grazed the knuckles of one hand – not that it hurt more than they were already hurting.
The sounds outside clearer now. No more debris. He looked up. The light was back, unobstructed.
Sound of applause. The boss, thanking his rescuers. Cheers. Then only the traffic.

– Help.

– Heeelp!

– HELP!

– HEEEEELLLLPPP!!!

A lorry and more debris. The mantelpiece shifted and more soil came down. For how much longer would it hold?

The traffic did not abate with the dark. The lorries and the buses were less frequent, but the buzzing, hurrying sound of cars did not die down until much later. Then, it seemed that there was the full complement of traffic rushing past overhead one moment and silence the next. There had been a brief period when the occasional car had gone past fast. Now, nothing.
– Help.
He remembered the favourite Byzantine torture in the comics of his childhood. They would put the captured Seljuk raiders in a narrow well, not wide enough for them to sit nor narrow enough to support them standing. Then they would put the lid down, forcing their heads down and making them stand with knees constantly half bent. He could at least stand up if he wanted, but sitting was out of the question. Besides, he didn’t want to be in the water any deeper than he had to. It was already cold enough as it was. He moved his feet experimentally. They had sunk into the mud again. He went through the ritual of loosening his feet one at a time. After a few minutes, he was a foot higher out of the water. Didn’t help with the cold. The well felt draughty.
Silence.
A song. Something about buying gold bangles for a lover. Coming nearer.
– Help!
Going away.
– HELP!
Silence.
– HELP!
It was not so dark outside after all. A darker silhouette appeared over the edge.
– Anybody in there?
The voice sneering, mocking, challenging.
– Yes.
– Nooo. ‘ow did you get there then?
– I fell in.
– You did, did you? ‘ow many fingers am I ‘olding up?
– I can’t see your hand from here.
– Clever. Clever. I wasn’t ‘olding no ‘and up. You drunk?
– No.
– More is the pity. That makes two of us, mate. Can’t afford to, you see. Blown it all on drink. Get it? Blown it all on drink. Heh heh.
– Can you get me out of here?
– Can I? Heh heh. Can I?
A wet, sticky gobful landed on his face. When he dared open his eyes again, the silhouette was gone. Only the voice remained, and that, only a moment longer.
– All those years drinking. No shakes, no bugs, no nothing. Then I’m dry for a week and it’s the voices. Wait ’til I tell my missus. Yeah, just wait. She can wait and all.
Fainter until he could hear no more.
Silence.
Only not real silence. A hiss. The whisper of leaves stirred in the wind. But were there trees outside? No. It was concrete and mud. He could have sworn that was all there was outside. But that sighing still. Drizzle. It was a drizzle. He turned his face up and a spray fell on his cheeks, steady, slow and cool.
Before long, a more urgent, almost desperate downpour took over from the drizzle. With the summer long gone, he felt it would be too much to hope for a quick shower. Sure enough, the rain kept up the rhythm, and maybe even picked up the tempo. Soon, he felt water streaming down the walls, carrying mud. Was this mud from the outside or from the walls? Either way, it had a whiff of old sewers and mould. As if in answer to his question, he heard the large stone shift again.
The water was coming in faster now. It did not run like clear water. At best, it was gritty. Most of the time, it carried small twigs (where did those come from in this concrete jungle?), balls of paper, polystyrene containers. Some were carried down the walls, adhering to the path that the water took. Others, once they reached the edge of the well, fluttered down.
These were the leaves fallen to the floor of the evergrey forest up above. They fell, without regard for seasons – harbingers of the all the year round autumn.
Initially, these pelted him with alarming regularity, some clean, others still bearing the contents and the scents of meals long digested. Once the rain had scoured the street around the hole clean, the bombardment reduced. By then, he was waist deep in a collection of floating and sunk rubbish. As the water rose, this school of debris crept up his legs – now clinging as the water rose, now shooting up as the upward pressure became too big.
The stone shifted again. Sand and soil rained down on the crust that had formed in the water, forcing some of the floating debris down and allowing others to come up.
The water rose.
By the time the sky had lightened above him, he was chest-deep in water and rubbish. That was when the stone shifted one last time. He tried to prop it up with his shoulders, but it slid down, tearing his jacket and shirt on the way and taking a strip of skin. The water rose immediately to his chest, burying him in rubbish up to his neck. He managed to pull his feet out from under the rock before it had settled. He felt the stone sliding down into the mud under his feet. He stood on it for a brief respite before a section of the mud wall came down. The slab of hard mud leant on his shoulders, pushing him down. More soil piled on top of this plug, spilling over and burying his head. He twisted, trying to free himself. The mud slab, softened by the water, split and fell. The plug of soil followed. He was instantly waist deep in mud and up to his neck in water. The assorted flotsam buried his head, smothering him with the smells of old kebabs, tartar sauce and softened potato chips. He tried to move his legs. They were embedded in the mud and refused to budge. He thrashed in the water. He pushed his hands down but they went straight into the mud. The soil was too soft to push against but compacted enough not to let him pull out.
The water rose to his chin.
Above the rustle of the sodden wrappers and trays, he could hear the splashing progress of the traffic above now. He yelled for help. No reply.
He forced himself to calm down and think. What could he move?
His legs? No.
Bend at the knee? No.
Not even a little? No.
Waist? He could bend at the waist, which pushed his face into the water, but achieved nothing else.
Feet? Yes.
He discovered that he could rotate his feet a little. He rotated one foot and felt it slide deeper into the mud. He moved his toes up and down and felt some soil and sand slide under them. He thought he had moved up a fraction. He tried it again. He found that, by moving his toes up and down, he could loosen the soil above them. This flowed around his feet and under them. His feet, shored up by additional material and free to move into the loosened mud above, went up.
By wriggling constantly, he managed to keep up with the rise of the water, but no more.
After wriggling for what seemed an eternity, he realised that he could not keep this up indefinitely. He was already slowing down and the water was now rising faster. He held his nose with one hand, closed his mouth and eyes and dipped his head into the water. He groped with his other hand and failed to find the surface of the muddy bottom. He pushed his head above the water and took a deep breath. He tried to move his legs and succeeded this time. The mud reached only his knees. He braced against the wall on either side with his hands and heaved himself upwards. The mud kept on sucking his feet in. He pushed harder. His hands buried into the walls up to the wrist, but his feet remained embedded. He made one final effort and his feet suddenly popped out of the mud. He lost his balance and found himself under the water. Muddy water rushed into his open mouth, smothering his gasp. He struggled and came up, standing in chest high water. His face was clear of the flotsam for now. He spat the water out and breathed hard, trying to forget the aftertaste it left in his mouth. He spat out sand and soil several times, but it clung onto his mouth, the grit rough against his gums and setting his teeth on edge.
The light outside was grey. If it had not been for the sound of the cars splashing above and the drone of the buses, he would have thought that it was still dawn.
– Help!
No reply.
– HELP!
He shivered. How long before the water rose above his head? It was already inching its way up, carrying the crust of rubbish past his chest. He decided to try his luck climbing. He braced his back against the wall and pushed against the opposite side with his feet. They sank in a little, but he found that he could creep one foot or hand at a time if he was careful. He managed to push himself above the water this way. When his trunk rose out of the water, he took a lapful of paper and polystyrene with him. He did not dare let go of his hold to sweep it away so tried to ignore it.
He crept up maybe a metre in this manner. He had another couple of metres before getting to the top.
Then one of his feet sank into the wall deeper than he had expected. In the grey light, he saw water well around the foot. First a trickle, then a small stream. The wall collapsed. He fell down, closely followed by a torrent of water and mud. He had barely enough time to close his mouth, but not enough to take a breath. He managed to turn in his fall so that he was feet down when he plunged back into the water. The fall had been shorter than he had expected. Had the water risen even more or had he not made as much progress as he had convinced himself? He was a fraction of a second ahead of the torrent of water above him. Even as he was wondering if his feet would touch the bottom before he was totally immersed, the wall of water hit him. He was pressed down under the weight of the mini-waterfall. He hit the bottom. His feet sank into the mud for a moment. He was pushed down further until his knees had bent enough to be wedged against the wall. Hoping the mud would not yield, he kicked up. It felt for a moment as if he would be stuck, then he was free. His lungs were burning. He was tempted to breathe in the dark water. He resisted the temptation. He could feel water flowing against his face, but it was not clear whether he was going up or the water coming down. What if the hole had filled up completely with that torrent? Had he broken through into a sewer? The water forcing its way onto his nose certainly smelt that way and, as he was trying to make swimming motions with his hands, he hit solids that fell apart on touch. Would he ever break the surface? It seemed not. He tried to get some purchase on the walls to help him float upwards faster, but the walls were slick. Besides, he managed to dislodge unstable pieces of mud and clay. He stopped lest he cause the whole thing to collapse on top of him. Then his reflexes won; he opened his mouth and breathed in a styrofoam cup and a lungful of wet air smelling of raw sewage. His face was still under the floating plug of light plastic rubbish, but he could at least breathe with some difficulty by moving his head constantly to make a space around his mouth.
As he rose along with the rubbish, the polystyrene shifting around him made a deafening rustling noise that reminded him of that iceberg rubbing against the side of that boat in that film.
He cried for help but he doubted anyone would hear him. His plastic foam prison smothered his voice; the iceberg noise drowned it. He could hardly hear himself.
He treaded water. He felt the walls to gauge how fast he was rising. He was chilled to the bone. He was tired. His legs felt leaden. He didn’t know how long he could keep on kicking.

The children sheltered in their parkas, wondering if it had been such a good idea to skive off on a day like this. They watched the plug of plastic foam rise up the hole, shifting, roiling. It looked interesting. It beat school. Pictures would have been better, but they didn’t have the money for that.
The plug rose all the way to the top of the hole. Then it rose above it. Once the hole had filled with water to the brim (which would soon look like another one of the many shallow puddles on the pavement, inviting children to go splashing through it), the cups, plates and containers floated away like some mythical defeated island-cum-monster of the southern seas, disintegrating in the stream running along the gutter.

When the trailing end of the island had cleared the hole, they saw the face in the water. They ran away screaming, both shaken and delighted by the whole scary madness of it all.

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