Something was mumbled at first, but loud enough for me to hear it – my life sentence. I already know where I’m going, and why I’m going there – but nothing I can say or do can ever change it. Maybe my fate was sealed from the start.
They unhand me.
“So,” a rough voice came from the grate-shaped shadows, somewhere outside of the pool. “What’re ya in for, kid?”
I still didn’t see him when I pulled my face from the grey water, but instead saw the hundreds of others lying face down and motionless, some buried deep amongst the others. A scream rose from within and died pitifully before it could escape. A whimper came instead.
“Relax.” The voice came again, noticing my confusion turning to terror and back again. “What are you in for?” he repeated, slower this time. Smoother, as the shafts of light shifted and glanced off his damp face. Nearly saw it that time.
“M-money.” I said. “Lots of money. The big stuff.”
Then, nothing. He sat there waiting, as if expecting something more from me. Then, realising that we will only wait forever, he growls back at me.
“Aye, common one. You’ll fit right in here, new blood.” And then, with a piercing metallic cry, he called upon the others. Those dreaded others, lost beneath my feet and a little more than rough around the edges. They had looked long dead and rotting when I first laid eyes on them, but they remained in a way that was some mockery of living.
“What’s all this?” a big, stocky one asked. His face was strange and angular; it definitely didn’t match his girth. He looked like he might have been beautiful once upon a time, definitely a man with some sort of worth. Now, all he had to show for it was a face marked with scars and a tinge of sickly green. “New blood then?” he says, and pats me on the pack with such force that I nearly cough up my insides, but the homeliness momentarily allows me to forget the claustrophobic brickwork and the impossible ascent to freedom above. Not for long, mind.
“Had a life before The Pit, new blood?”
Part of me didn’t want to tell them what I’d had before; not just for the sake of avoiding sharing something precious and personal with these rotting lowlives, but also because I didn’t want to remind of what I could have had, and lost. But as I dwell on it, I find the words falling out, as if not on my own accord.
“There was a girl.” I say. “Sweet lass, pretty as anything. We got our own place together – one of those big modern glass things, you know? – but it was too crowded. We were buried at the very bottom and we barely had any room to breathe, or think.” I stop and sigh. No going back now. “It was like the landlord was just trying to fit as many folk into this place as he could, just so he could make some more money.
“Then I just got to the point where I just couldn’t stand it anymore. See, I just couldn’t think straight. Yeah, we argued a lot, till the whole place got shook up and we ended up in other places. Last I saw of her, she was coupled up with some ugly two-pence son-of-a-bitch.” I stop again, nearly gasping from the rueful memory. But they just stare at me with those rusted-over eyes, so I have to continue. “Travelled for a bit after the landlord kicked me out. He didn’t even tell me, he just took me to some sleazy joint that stank of booze and threw me straight into this neon box. And that’s where I was for weeks; absolute blackness, with the sound of constant bleeping and tin music to keep me company. Couldn’t even see the others on ‘count of how dark it was. Long story short, some dumb teen dropped me when we finally saw the light of day. New kid picked me up, wished for cash, now I’m here.”
They just stared again, even though I’d clearly ended my story. They wanted more out of me. The big guy piped up.
“Arcade man, are ya? Spent a good year or so on tour ‘round the neon rooms myself. Know all those machines like the back of my hand now. Don’t even have to see where I’m going, just gotta hear the music and I’ll know. Makes me all nostalgic.”
“So what’re you in for?”
“Me? Some ‘Better World’ kinda crap, you know those young idealistic teenagers. Ended up with him and a bunch of others of my sort after this guy met me in a bar. Lost a good home then, I had a lot of good friends in that place. How long has it been, twenty years now?”
He’s an eighties guy, I can read it all over his face. Poor fella, displaced from a bygone age to rot forever where he couldn’t even get closure on his own decade – not how I want to end up.
“New blood, you say?” a new voice says. “Oh, how charming. How lovely.”
“If it isn’t the golden boy himself.” Big guy says. “What do you want?”
He appeared right out in front of me as if to seek centre stage, and he stood out alright. Right under the spotlight of the grates above, he stood pompous and fat as had sounded – thought he was fairly immaculate, despite a few scuffs and scars here and there. Whatever value he might have had before, it didn’t count for anything down here, and with his short stature, he hardly commanded any respect from me.
“Good man, I’ve simply come to greet our new friend down here. Goodness knows he could do with company, I know I did.” A well-spoken gent, much more noticeable by now. But behind his kind words, there was a layer of falseness that flickered behind his glistering exterior.
“Get outta here, brass head. We know you ain’t worth as much as you make out.”
“Well I never! I’ll have you know I’m worth twice as much as you. You’d better mind yourself, you’re nothing but chump’s change.”
“Give over, your mother was counterfeit.”
“MY MOTHER WAS A SAINT!”
The shrill, metallic voice came from the shadows again and cut them apart before they came to blows. “Both of you!” he cried. “Cut it out!”
As if flicked over by an invisible force, they both fell over and fell flat on their faces, and the fat one came away covered in a layer of grey silt caking his face. All his lustre was gone. Then they both slunk back into the rest of the pile where they came from, falling deeper and deeper until it was nearly impossible to tell which ones they were amongst the countless identical dirty faces. The ground was a skin of rusted metal scales, and each one had a tale of how it got it got its scars. Each one to never continue it. Each one forsaken and forgot.
“Snap out of it.” Came the voice. He’d seen me staring at all the faces. He knew that I knew now. “They haven’t forgotten about us. This place has been here longer than I have, guys like us have walked out before.”
“Yeah, they might’ve in your day, old timer.” I reply, roughly where I think he might be. “But how long have you been here? How long was it when it when they last came?”
He didn’t reply.
“Show your face.”
He didn’t reply for a while, and I glared straight into the shadows, where the forgotten and old folks went further and further into absolute obscurity. But then, the grinding came – slow and shrill – and a new face appeared into the bars of daylight.
He was grotesque and ancient, with a face virtually falling to pieces with the rust of age. What might have been a light brown in his youth had turned to jet black to grey. My crowned face nearly cringed in horror.
“How long… how long have you been here?”
“Must have been over a century now.” He admitted. “In for the long haul, for a father to come home. It was fruitless to begin with, how could I bring her father back from war? Where would I even begin?” he stopped and sighed, like he had only just realised how old and fragile he was himself. “I’d passed from pocket to pocket for years before I got here. I’ve fallen to the lowest gutters and found my way back up to the top eventually. I’ve been in the purses of moguls. I’ve been in the palms of peasants. Boy, I’ve seen the top and the bottom and everything in between. And I wanted to keep going.”
His date had long rusted from his face, leaving only a culture of green mold residing where the words used to be. I’d reckon that most of his brothers would be in museums by now, but here he was – left behind and forgotten. There was no telling how many older than him there were cowering in the damp shadows with their tails behind their heads. In a hundred years, would I be pushed into the shadows of the bygones, when my predecessors have long crumbled into dust? How long does somebody as invaluable as me even last in the water?
“I don’t want to stay here forever,” said the old tuppence. “It could be another hundred years before I go away completely; it’ll be a painful journey to the Celestial Mint in the sky.”
“So what will you do now?”
“I’ll go as deep as I can into the pool with the aim of going quicker, I’ve been here long enough. It’s time I was recalled.”
And, finding an empty, deep pool leading to a possibly infinite descent, he tumbled in and, in seconds, disappeared completely into the cloudier depths.
There was no comfort to be found in the others, except endless hopeless stories of who they once were, and where they had been, before being wished upon and condemned to eternal darkness. Is that what we were just going to be, endlessly parroting meaningless stories, standing on top of all of those who had given up hope ages ago?
I just want to forget.
And go to sleep.
For however long.
“Look at this one!”
The grate had been opened up, and light was flooding into the well. The glare of the future sun hanging above the opening bounced off the shallow waters and back out, making the brickwork on the surface spew out a glow as if the well was a tomb leading to untold magical treasures. It nearly seared the ends straight off the old man’s moustache.
“What’ve you found, dad?” came the voice at the top.
The older man reached into the sludge between his feet, coming away with blackened fingers and the half-gleaming disk he had found. And, holding it up to the intense light above, he traced with his eyes the shape of a crowned face – a monarch long gone.
“A coin, that’s what!”
“Isn’t that what you were looking for in the first place?”
“I wasn’t expecting to find one in as good condition as this one!”
“What sort of coin is it?”
He adjusted his glasses, and wiped away the rust-stained droplets that covered the lenses when the water splashed them.
“Let’s see here,” he began, holding it closer to his withered eyes. “Must be a redundant ten pence piece, from… Two-thousand and… six, it looks like.”
“Nothing worth salvaging, it seems. But I reckon this one’s going in the collection!”
“If you say so, dad.”
The collection – where all the greats spend the rest of their days in reverence, spread over red-felt beds. Where the redundant transcend into relevance and live to tell stories forever. Sweet Valhalla.