It’s taken many years for me to feel able to speak of the violent death of Tom, my closest and oldest friend. As children we went everywhere together. Then, as is the way of things, we separated to take different paths. Tom was a botanist who went to Cambridge while my agricultural leanings pointed me to stay on the family farm in North Devon. But it was Tom’s scientific passion which was to lead to his brutal death and caused me years of self-hate as I could have saved him … perhaps.
But I get ahead of myself.
Devon is not well known for its caves but there are many mine shafts and underground passages to be explored by those who know where to look. It was this rarity that brought Tom down one summer weekend as he had become hooked on studying wildlife in the damp darkness of, what is for me, a gloomy evil passage to the underworld. Even to this day I shiver when I think about that subterranean world which so fascinated the scientist in Tom.
So, one morning, much against my will I agreed to go with him down a mineshaft which reputedly led far below the surface. I was soon filled with horror as, bent double, the walls green with slime and water dripping off the roof with fungi and algae producing a wet stickiness which hung onto the rocks and crevices and kept brushing against my face, I began to panic. And the darkness had a menace which retreated when the light from our lamps swung towards it, but then edged closer remorselessly when the light moved on. It was as if there were ghosts and dark-creatures waiting for us. I still believe that spirits from a primeval time live there. But worst of all was the silence, punctuated by the drip, drip, drip.
At last I told Tom I had to go back. But he was in his element and said he would push on. After much argument I turned for home. The last sound I heard was Tom whistling to himself as he plunged deeper.
But then, there was a different sound. It was as if a dam had breached and a wave of water was thundering down the caves; or it might have been a landslide with the earth grinding its way to a lower level. But whatever it was it lasted just a few seconds and then stopped. The silence was deeper than before. Then I heard a most terrible, fear-ridden scream which sounded as if it had come from the very depths of hell itself. I froze … Tom needed me. Turning back I soon came to a tortured blockage of stones, earth with a lake forming as far as I could see in the sombre tunnel. I had no option but to run back to the surface to get help, but I yelled and screamed his name until overcome with hysteria and my batteries starting to dim, to my eternal shame I left him. To get help I still tell myself. But in the back of my mind, amongst the fear and the horror, there is a recurring memory of a momentary glimpse of a large animal, a fish perhaps? in the water which surely could not have survived from pre-history. It seemed to be enormous as its eyes locked with mine as it swept past, but perhaps the water magnified its image. Or was it just the product of a stressed-out mind?
The next few weeks were a nightmare of remorse, anger and a helpless feeling of injustice. They found Tom’s body several hundred yards from where I had left him. It had been savaged and dismembered with a ferocity which even shocked the seasoned professionals who routinely handle murder and A and E road accidents. My agony was compounded by being a suspect for his murder. Eventually, after many months his death was recorded as unexplained. The official reason for the state of his body was that rodents and a variety of wild life had gnawed at his corpse. But I knew better. I cannot put away the memory of that water creature which, having lived in the caves, must have known how to escape because it was never seen again. I was just dismissed as an eccentric still suffering from shock.
But our paths were to cross again. Once more with no witnesses. It happened a few years later on a neighbouring farm which, like ours, had a large reservoir of underground water. In fact there was a well which in olden times could be accessed from the kitchen. Of course these days it had been glassed over and lighted so you could see the dark still water about six feet below the kitchen floor. I always found it a bit scary with visions of the glass shattering and then the plunge with no chance of climbing out. A wet cold death with several minutes of panic in which to contemplate the end. But that evening something was different. The normally still water seemed to pulsate as if there was an underwater paddle gently moving to and fro. And then, as I looked closer it seemed that a pair of eyes was glaring up at me from the depths; a look of such malignant intent that I froze. And, as the water vibrated (maybe the creature’s tail was thrashing?) the pair became many eyes which seemed to move and multiply with the water’s waves. I was rigid with shock as once again our eyes locked in recognition. That look of evil ferocity was almost human in its intensity.
Then I called out to my hosts but when they arrived all was tranquil. They said the water never moved … indeed they had tried to find its path by pouring in coloured dye but the dye did not re-appear in any of the rivers. It was clearly just a stagnant pool which leached slowly over the years they told me quietly.
But I know what I saw.