The Underground Man Extracts

September 30th

I have heard me described as a wiry man, which I interpret as meaning ‘held together with wires’ and seems altogether quite fitting and fair. When I walk or bend or even grimace they can be seen twitching under the skin like tense lengths of twine. Of late, however, I have become uncertain whether all these wires are properly attached. Some appear to have grown quite slack; one or two to have come away from their housing altogether. On a bad day I worry that somewhere inside of me an essential spring might have snapped, to dangle and rattle about in me for the rest of my days.

I have also recently noticed how, in wet weather, I have a tendency to creak – there’s no denying it, it’s plain for all to hear – so on damp days I stay in by the fire and play Patience or Bagatelle. All the same, I think ‘wiry’ still just about does the job – even if the wires are not as taut as they once were.

As a young man I imagined growing old would be something like the feeling one has at the close of a long and satisfying day: a not unpleasant lassitude, always remedied by a good night’s sleep. But I now know it to be the gradual revelation of one’s body as nothing more than a bag of unshakeable aches. Old age is but the reduced capacity of a failing machine. Even my sleep – that beautiful oblivion always relied upon for replenishment – now seems to founder, has somehow lost its step. My fingers and toes are cold the whole year round, as if my fire is slowly going out.

November 22nd

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that perhaps the autumn air is bad for me. So I decided to walk to Creswell, as I had originally planned to yesterday, but to do so underground. I forwent the lime frock coat for a light-coloured paletot and took a fur muff instead of gloves. Otherwise I was dressed much the same as yesterday when, around two o’clock, I set off down the Western tunnel. The coach rode twenty yards behind me, with both Grimshaw and Clement aboard. Clement insisted he come along, bringing with him blankets, sweet biscuits and a pot of cold rice pudding in case I required sustenance on the way.

A grand walk it was, too. I had not examined the tunnels so closely since they were finished and I must say I was very pleased with what I saw. The brickwork is quite magnificent and the Western tunnel in particular runs about as straight as an arrow. One problem which neither Mr Bird nor I had reckoned on was that the tops of some of the skylights have got covered over with fallen leaves. I made a mental note to have some lads sent out and sweep them clean as soon as we returned.

Felt altogether quite bright and cheery as I headed underground towards Creswell village, so I set up a little singing session, starting off with ‘Johnnie Sands’ – an old favourite of mine – then on to a few rounds of ‘I Am Ninety-Nine’. The many echoes at first interfered with my performance and made me lose my place but in time I managed to gauge their duration and incorporate them into the song, so that I was able, after a fashion, to duet with myself. I broke the song up, line by line – one harmony placed carefully upon another – until at last the whole tunnel rang with a chorus of my voices. I sang the lead and I sang the alto, had a stab at treble and a breathy ‘profundo’ bass. Like a military man I marched along and opened my lungs right up, once or twice even managing to knock together some semblance of a descant on the top.

Reached Creswell in next to no time. Mrs Digby was hanging out her washing so I raised my hat to her and asked after her cats. But by the time the carriage had come out of the tunnel and pulled up alongside of me, our chit-chat was drawing to a close and I was having trouble remembering why Creswell had seemed such an attractive prospect. Came up with no good answers so I cancelled the rest of the expedition on the spot. Turned, waved goodbye to Mrs Digby and set up another singing session as I passed through the tunnel gates.

Sang mainly ballads returning home – my father’s bird song and an old sea shanty. Most of the shanty’s verses had slipped my mind, which rather obliged me to fill in with some of my own. Amused myself with the thought of the cows above, lazily munching in an empty field, and the sound of some old fellow coming up from the ground, roaring on about the rolling waves and the hunt for the great white whale.

All in all, a most satisfactory day. I am sure tonight I will sleep like a top. But something has been troubling me. As I looked back just now on the day’s events and saw me striding down the Western tunnel, I saw not a man who strode along on his own. I had the impression that… how can I put it… that I had company with me. Not entirely visible but company just the same.

A very young fellow – that is all I can come up with. A young fellow who generally hangs about.