Beneath our feet

Do you ever get one of those weird compulsions to do something that you would never do? Like wanting to jump in a river fully clothed, or eating an entire raw onion? It’s kinda hard to explain and most of the time I just ignore them but the other day one of them struck me on my walk home from work.

It was a gorgeous day so I left work a little early, thinking to meander my way homeward and enjoy the evening sunshine. Early  spring had delivered the first buds of green and I was quite content, plodding along with no desire to hurry, lost in daydreams and the casual nosiness of the urban wanderer. I took lanes and paths I’d never noticed before, turned into streets that lead me to hidden parks and gardens, and comforted myself that I was  heading in roughly the right direction home, most of the time.

It was near one of these little parks, on an unfamiliar street, that my foot caught on a manhole and I stumbled. It was enough to jolt some adrenalin into my system but not quite enough to send me to the ground, just a few awkard stuttering steps before I  caught myself and got my feet underneath me. I prepared my worst glare and turned round to see what had had the temerity to trip me up and break me from my revelries.

The manhole cover was slightly raised at one edge and clearly hadn’t been properly seated back in place. A long crowbar of dulled iron lay nearby and I looked around, presuming to see a work van or even a worker on tea break somewhere but there wasn’t a soul in sight.

Clearly someone had forgotten to put the manhole cover properly back in place.

I huffed loudly to no-one and was about to turn and walk away, but my conscience got the better of me. I would do a good deed, unseen and unheralded, bonus integrity points for me! I walked over and lifted the crowbar.

It was heavier than it looked, but I raised it up and one end slipped into the required notch in the cover. My brain started searching for whichever Greek polymath introduced the idea of fulcrums, as it would only take a small push with the crowbar to drop the manhole cover back into place.

I paused. My mind shifted from polymath to compulsion.

What is down there under that manhole cover?

No, I mustn’t.

But there’s no-one around, no-one to see, no-one will know.

I looked around again, slowly checking over one shoulder, then the other, then check again to be sure. Not a sound, no dogs barking, no children laughing, no-one in sight. I shifted my grip on the bar and with one smooth motion, eased the manhole cover up and out of the way.

I stood there for a moment, peering down into the darkness beneath my feet. My eyes slowly adjusted until I could make out a tiny spot of light, far far below me. A shimmering sixpence at the bottom of a dark well, an object that had no right in being there, the blackness deeper than I thought possible. Was I just seeing a reflection? The light from above reaching out to touch the edge of nothing? I waved my hand in the air over the opening but the dot of light remained constant. No, not a reflection. How odd.

I looked around, glad that there was no-one else nearby to witness my behaviour. I knelt down beside the opening and, putting a hand on each side, lowered my head and shoulders down until they were inside the entrance and blocking most of the light.

Far below me the dot of light expanded. In it I could see colours and shapes forming and moving, like an out of focus film reel that my brain couldn’t quite make sense of. I leaned in further and the dot grew again, the shapes solidfying, shifting into a semblance of… wait, was that  a dog?

I sat up and sheepishly looked around, the street was deserted still. I glanced back down into the darkness to see that the dot of light had shrunk once more.

Ahhh, it’s an optical illusion! How clever! But how does it work?

Intrigued I leaned in again, moving slowly, watching the circle of light below me grow; the further I leaned, the larger and clearer the image below me became.

I was starting to be able to pick out familiar shapes, there was a bright blue car, and there a pink dog lolloping around a bright orange field. Every now and then a flash of colour and a new shape blossomed into view, colours clashing vividly. Purple bananas hanging from turquoise trees.

I leaned further and further in until I was at my limit, barely clinging on with most of my upper torso disappearing into the ground. It was then I heard a voice above me ask what the hell I thought I was doing?

I pulled myself back out, cracking my head on the wrought iron edge of the manhole on the way. I sat back, rubbing the back of my head, and squinted up at the woman standing over me.

She was older than I and carried the quiet air of school ma’am authority. She was looking at me with a stern  but bemused look, the naughty boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

How could I explain what I’d seen? A strange world at once familiar yet surreal, an reflection wrought in the wrong technicolours?

I clambered to my feet and as dusk fell I told her about tripping on the manhole cover and that I was just checking that nothing or no person had fall in. I lied. It was easier than trying to form the words that held the truth, most because as I was not entirely sure what that trush was, what had I seen?

She listened silently then beckoned me out of her way. I stood and watched in silence as she used the crowbar to slide the cover back over the hole, dropping it in place with a deep heavy thunk.

She turned to face me. With a nod she said that that was done and next time I should cover manholes not peer into them. It was phrased as a statement, a command to be followed. She held my gaze as I murmured and nodded in acquiescence, and after a few seconds she turned on her heel and walked away.

I watched her go, the long iron crowbar swinging lightly in her hand. I looked down at the manhole cover, admiring the intricate patterns and strange words that adorned it. In the distance a dog barked and the birds began their evensong.


Also published on Medium.