Slabs – Oliver Greenall

Candyfloss clouds. Azure sky. A sun straight from the Teletubbies.

Stevie lifted the glass to his sweaty lips, flicking away the slug that was clinging onto the side. The Coke was warm and flat. And diet. It was all the little old dear had in the fridge.

It was the fifth consecutive day of 25-degree sunshine. A once in a lifetime Scottish summer. And Stevie was stuck laying fucking concrete slabs. His uncle had reiterated it was a two-man job and they would split it 70-30. But he had failed to mention his plans to head off to ‘Eye-Beeza to piss sangria’ in the middle of the contract.

The non-existent buzz from the aspartame was only irritating him further, so he poured the remainder of the dark liquid onto a dandelion. The depressingly imposing council house loomed above him, mocking his predicament. The old dear had disappeared for her messages leaving Stevie free rein of the kitchen. But there were only so many custard creams one could take in this heat. What he wanted was a pint, to lick the condensation that puddled at the bottom of the glass, never mind the funny looks he’d get. He was missing Ryan’s barbecue for this shite.

He surveyed his work so far: only two slabs laid in four hours. His uncle was right, it was a two-man job. It was the longest and most laborious process he’d ever experienced. He had to lift the old 3 x 2 grey slabs, walk them a safe distance away, add a fresh coat of ballast and whin dust, before replacing it with a newer, practically identical 3 x 2 grey slab. What he didn’t expect was the sheer weight of the fuckers. He’d scraped his arms and knees raw and embarrassingly had to ask the old dear for a plaster. She’d just smiled as she applied it for him, making him feel like a ten-year-old boy instead of a nineteen-year-old not-as-strapping-as-he-once-thought lad.

There were still thirty-seven slabs to go, and his uncle wasn’t due back until the following week, so Stevie dragged on his gloves, laced up his boots and clomped his way back to pain and suffering and endless fucking drudgery.

Taking up his shovel, he dug underneath a slab, loosening the earth, lifting it slightly before gripping it with both hands. The most inconvenient part was getting enough purchase between the ground and concrete without crushing your fingers, but this time there was plenty of space, so Stevie hauled it up with surprising ease. Instead of being greeted by hundreds of slaters scrambling for a new home, he found himself staring into a large hole. Stevie wasn’t an expert on anything in life, and he was certainly no expert on holes (including those ones as Ryan liked to joke), but he somehow knew this wasn’t a hole created by an animal; it was perfectly round, and as he looked down, the edges seemed to have been crafted, as if the dirt had been sanded away for a smooth finish. As he peered further into the gaping maw, he realised that he couldn’t even see the end point; just more blackness, leading to nothing.

As an Indiana Jones aficionado, Stevie thought he knew exactly what to do when presented with a fathomless depth. He chose what he deemed to be a good-sized rock for the job and watched as it disappeared into the emptiness. He found himself focussing so much on listening out for the noise of the rock striking the bottom that he began to wonder if he’d already missed it. Choosing what he deemed to be only a decent-sized rock this time, he dropped it down. Once again, silence.

Stevie was never one for spontaneity, but something about this hole had him intrigued. Whether it was the heat, his frustration at his uncle, or the fact he was alone, he relished any opportunity to skive off laying slabs. And if finding a mysterious gigantic hole under a 3 x 2 slab in a council house garden in Prestwick wasn’t a good enough opportunity, then fuck knows what was.

Crouching down onto his knees, he leaned his head into the space. It was roomy enough for his scrawny body so he began to lower himself into it. As soon as his last limb passed the threshold, Stevie found himself in a tunnel. It was impossible to tell in what direction it was leading but Stevie began to crawl, hoping it followed some kind of logic, even if climbing into the hole in the first place wasn’t the least bit logical.

Now that he was in the hole, Stevie was surprised that he could actually see. From above, the hole looked inky black; yet inside that darkness, Steve’s vision was clear, as if an underground light had suddenly been switched on. Worms and ants crawled along the perfect edges of the tunnel, but as Stevie took a closer look, he discovered they weren’t crawling but hovering, as if an invisible barrier prevented them from reaching him in his crawlspace. Stevie reached out but his fingers didn’t touch earth; instead, he felt a smooth, soft edge, like silk. The bugs seemed to exist on another plane entirely.

Stevie wasn’t sure if he was expecting to see a light at the end of the tunnel, but it seemed infinite with no end in sight. Perhaps the slab had collapsed onto his head and this was death. An actual, physical tunnel to heaven. Or hell. He was going down after all.

Time ceased to exist as he continued on his subterranean journey. He saw more floating insects on either side, even a few spiders, which he was no fan of at the best of times but here he found them strangely mesmerising, knowing there was a force between him and them. They couldn’t touch him no matter how much they wanted to creep over his skin.

He turned his head to look back at where he’d come from. The hole he entered was no longer visible but still the tunnel remained illuminated. Coming to a standstill, he was surprised to find he could hear a faint noise to his right, behind the sanded dirt edge. Stevie thought it might have been laughter but that would be ridiculous. A limitless tunnel was one thing, but human laughter from within the earth itself? But there it was again, unmistakable this time. And glasses clinking. And music. He couldn’t be completely sure, but it sounded like ‘Mr. Brightside’. Of all the songs in the world, Stevie wasn’t surprised he could hear that one in the tunnel. He knew he could never escape Brandon Flowers singing about jealousy, no matter where, or how deep he was, on this planet.

Feeling more and more uncertain as to what he was supposed to do in this situation, or what the meaningful purpose of his finding the tunnel was, he kept on crawling. He could still hear the music; it remained just as loud as he went further into the unknown. He began to worry about the old dear; if this was real, and if she returned to find this hole, she might decide to climb in and join him. And then she’d get stuck, become dehydrated and die down here. He upped his pace, channelling his inner mole as his nails gripped the ground ahead of him.

After frantically pushing himself forward, like a fat seal on land, he saw a light in the distance. The music seemed to grow fainter as he got closer and closer to what he hoped was an exit to the real world and not his eternal damnation. He powered on, propelled by the urge to discover where he would emerge.

Which made it all the more disappointing when he found himself climbing out of the same hole he’d entered. He was a little bit muddier, a little more confused, but still surrounded by slabs outside the same council house in Prestwick.

‘So there you are.’

Startled, Stevie raised his head to see the old dear standing over him, a tray in her hands. She had that same smile which never seemed to leave her face.

‘Ah found a hole.’

‘And I got you some full fat Coke. With ice.’

Stevie clambered to his feet. Had she heard him properly? He knew she wasn’t deaf, and she definitely wasn’t blind. Did she somehow know about the hole?

‘Thanks,’ he said as he reached out for the perspiring glass. There was a rectangular piece of paper sitting next to it. Stevie assumed it was a coaster before realising it was the wrong way around, and there was writing on the other side.

‘I got you a little something. Just between us. You deserve it, slaving away on a day like today.’

Stevie picked up the paper. It was a cheque, the first he’d received since he was a child. £100.

‘Oh no, ah cannae take that, it’s too much.’

‘Nonsense, it’s the least I could do. Missing all your friends on such a lovely summer’s day. In fact, take the rest of the day off. Enjoy yourself.’

Only now, standing this close, did Stevie look at her face properly for the first time; he was always one for glancing at his feet during conversations. She was the oldest woman he’d ever seen. If she were to lie down during a rain shower, the water would gather and form rivers in the cracks on her face. Yet something about her eyes betrayed the rest of her face. They were youthful. An innocence and naivety still shimmering away inside.

‘Ah really appreciate it…’ he stopped himself, realising he didn’t even know her name to thank her. He glanced down at the cheque in his hand, his eyes immediately darting to the signature. Her handwriting was flowery, old-fashioned, and it took him a couple of times reading it over to fully comprehend what she’d written. He almost dropped his glass.

‘Yer kidding.’

‘Is something wrong?’

He checked the signature once more. His eyes weren’t deceiving him. That was definitely an ‘A’, followed by a very elaborate ‘L’.

‘Yer name’s no Alice, that’s… that’s…’ he had the word on the tip of his tongue, but saying it out loud would be strange, bizarre, odd. It would be…

‘Curious?’ she wondered.

Oliver Greenall is a writer, actor and filmmaker from Scotland. His films have screened at the London and Glasgow Short Film Festivals, amongst others. He has appeared on the West End stage and in various television series. His feature screenplay was shortlisted for the BFI/Sigma Films producer acceleration programme.

Image via Pixabay

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