Monday, November 20, 2017

Raw Concrete by Brooke Fieldhouse

A student writing a thesis on the World War II Atlantic Wall imagines an old Nazi bunker as a predatory animal and does not relish entering the belly of the beast; by Brooke Fieldhouse.

What a brute! Crouching in front of me like a scabrous creature. Tail and legs submerged, head pointing straight at me, and ready to strike. Its mouth hangs open, its teeth an inverted ziggurat of corroded steel which plummet into its concrete entrails.

Built by Hitler. Not personally of course. Built to defend Europe against Allied liberation, and built to last, which is why it's not going to move, and why I unwisely convinced myself that it could do me no harm.

My first mistake was to walk here. I left Roland's ancient Morris minor standing outside the Youth Hostel. Roland is almost certainly still in bed. I could hear him vomiting during the night - that and the falling rain. We did overdo the wine, but he said he's been feeling odd for a couple of days now.



First stop had been the charcuterie; 'big bloody steaks,' that's what Roland wanted. Then it had to be leeks, celery; endives, chou de Bruxelles, le fenouil - oh and broad beans in their pods. 'Let's take up lots of space!' shouted Roland as he waved his arms about.

You associate youth hostels with culinary frugality, but while the other hostellers crouched over hob tops and gas rings with their tins and brightly-coloured packets, Roland and I behaved like lords. 'More wine, there's going to be a storm!' Roland's fists had come down hard on the scrub-top table, his shock of blazing hair quivering and glistening in the humid air of the kitchen. He'd seen me looking, giving him that look I can give people.

'You should try living, for once in your life.' He said it just like that, and in front of all those Swedes and Aussies in the kitchen. I could have killed him. Lords? Well, that's what it felt like at the time.



My second mistake was not to leave anything outside the bunker; bright red anorak might have done the trick but I'm still wearing my discreet dark green Berghaus. These places are off-limits to the public.

'We forgot to measure that basement storeroom!' Roland had bellowed when we got back to the hostel yesterday. You know, I was absolutely sure that's what he'd been doing down there, while I'd been finishing off in that charnel house of a gun chamber.

'Do we really need it?'

''Course we bloody do! Not much point in doing a survey unless it's accurate. It's going to piss it down tonight, we'll have to go back tomorrow.'

Roland is hardly a picture of health at the best of times. The skin of his face with its broken capillaries is the hue and texture of an over-ripe pomegranate. Today he's feverish; cold hands, cold feet, boiling forehead, and a stiff neck, so he claims.

'Take the car,' he ordered. I did - at least I tried to, but I couldn't get it to start.

'I'll be back in under an hour,' twenty minutes there, ten minutes inside, twenty back. 'You'll have had your beauty sleep by then!'

'All right, fuck off then!'

If you forget its purpose, the bunker is in a beautiful location. It's close to the river, and beyond is an uninterrupted view of the sea. Roland and I are Uni students doing a paper on the Architecture of the Atlantic Wall. It was Roland's idea. I wasn't sure. The trouble with doing a shared paper is that you have to share the kudos. If there is any that is, and how does a thesis attract kudos? Roland said that a dead cert way is if one of its authors is publishing posthumously. We'd laughed a lot about that.

It's an awesome place, I can tell you! And I must emphasize, we're not in a museum here. I had to crawl under barbed wire to get in. To explore, you must make yourself scarce - camouflage, become part of the landscape. Because in effect, you're going to earth, and there's something very romantic about that. You're entering the world of Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male, Robert McFarlane's Lost Landscapes, Merlin, and the reedy dens of Hereward the Wake...

...But the romance bit is only when you're in the open air. Once you're inside, things look decidedly nasty. Out of the sunshine, this place is as hellish as you can visualize. There's only one entrance - the bit at the front with the 'teeth' is where the gun stood, and you have to watch your step.

Imagine! You're here in 1944 - a fly-in-the-air, and the Canadians are storming the place. They've incinerated the gun crew with a 'Wasp thrower' and they're going in to take the remaining personnel alive. The sappers blast the gas-lock door, the infantry pour in... the leading few falling straight into a pit 2.5 metres deep. 3 metres long so you can't bloody jump over it, and the width of the corridor so you can't bloody walk round it; pure medieval! Modern day maintenance man has replaced the galvanized steel drawbridge, so this morning I once again walk over it.



Yesterday we'd been joking.

'The Cask of Amontillado...'

'What?'

'Fortunato, remember? He gets walled up - entombed, immured... Must have happened a lot in these bunkers during combat. They just wouldn't have been able to get them out.'

'Piss off will you.'

'All right, Canterville Ghost then? He was walled up... Remember Injun Joe, trapped in the mine - and what about Aida and Radames?'

Roland's voice had been quiet and trembling with suppressed laughter. Finally, it had seized him, seized us both. But that was the laughter of yesterday - empty-bodied, and no more than an ill-fitting cloak to hide the unearthliness we'd felt about the place.



Through a man-sized opening to my right is the gun chamber. I try to give it no more than a glance. I didn't like the atmosphere in there yesterday when we surveyed it, and I don't like it any better today. Seventy years on and you can almost smell the burning. The walls are pocked with violence.

Every footfall there's the crackle of cement ballast. Nobody's cleared up here since '44 and, why should they? These places are an embarrassment to the French. A reminder that their country was 'occupied'. X million tonnes of concrete - pumped continuously day and night. Steel, or whatever else was prescribed by the Reichsministry in 1942, and which - let's face it - will be still here when the sun turns into a red giant and life as we know it comes to an end. Best forgotten.

I try calling Roland, see how the bastard is, but there's no signal, of course there isn't. Not with walls and roof three metres thick. I'll call him when I'm out in nine minutes. I tiptoe down the flight of steps leading to the lower chambers. There's no handrail - probably never was. The stair would have been for 'vertical transportation,' a sloping tube up and down which square-helmeted Wehrmacht troops would pound, klaxons blaring. My headtorch pricks the dense dark, and picks out a hellish collage of light and shadow, solids and powder... Its constrictions put me in mind of potholing. Steel reinforcing rods poke from the fractured floor above my head like dummy stalactites. I'm almost there, the storeroom which we forgot to measure and - God I'm hurrying now. I just want to get in and get out.

Then comes my biggest mistake... The air down here is dead - to put it mildly. It's probably the very same air which those wretched ex-Hitler Youth recruits were breathing when they met whatever fate befell them. Today it's clammier than ever, and that's because - in spite of gorgeous sun shining outside - it rained all night, and what I fail to notice is that the sand floor is lower than it was yesterday. The river has risen and the ballast shrunk. Fresh in my mind are our research documents; '...DIN 1164 German standard river sands and beach ballasts produced voids within the mass...' I enter the storeroom, take out my laser measure - length 5.54 metres, breadth 4.83 metres, height 2.55 metres - but before I can take the diagonal check-dimension, I hear a metallic click.

When we were here yesterday the heavy steel door was wedged open with forty kilos of light sand. Prop it open? No, we tugged away at it and it was as firm as the foundations themselves. Today the sand is moist and compacted, the base of the door exposed and at liberty to swing in an elegant arc until it leaves me a prisoner. The handle is on the outside. I stride over but I can't even tug at it because there's nothing to tug.

How does my body feel right now? What are my emotions doing? Well, my intellect is busy telling myself the good news - that at least I will be rescued. In fact, in my head I can already hear Roland's voice.

'...Told you to check that sand density, and don't forget to tell your mother I saved you!'

But my viscera have made it clear that I'm in trouble. The interlude between now and my release is going to be a battle - not physical like the one which took place above my head seventy years ago. It will be a struggle between intellect and emotion.

They say that when you've got yourself into the scheisse, never go back over old ground. Accept the situation as it is. Take a metaphorical step back, clear the stage and then decide on appropriate action. Right now, I don't seem capable of that kind of discipline. There's a giant pendulum swinging in my brain. First it trapezes into the technical; how could I possibly forget that Nazi fortifications were bedded - where possible - onto rock? '...but where there was no stone, concrete foundations were used to spread the load...' In a single-storey structure there'd be a floor slab, but not here. There's no concrete between me and the river bed. I'm standing in a box with no bottom, and for the first time it dawns on me that this room most likely never had anything stored in it. It was built to take up excess water when the river was in flood. It's a kind of culvert.

The pendulum crashes back to the scene in Walter Scott's Marmion, when the skeleton of a nun is uncovered in a niche in the abbey of Coldingham... I think of Poppo of Treffen; Maud de Braose and her son; Elizabeth Bathory de Ecsed; Antigone...

I would dearly love some light. My head and hand torch gives out lux, but not light. Light has life and soul, and the only life I can see is monochrome. I would dearly love some air; '...Blockhaus ventilation was strictly controlled for protection against gas. Each section had to have a hermetic seal...' But the damper plates are long since wedged shut under the weight of river sand. Soon the air in here will be gone.

The key to feeling grounded on the earth is meditation, and the key to meditation is breathing. You always come back to your breathing. It's what holds you in the present, what cultivates curiosity, kindness... And my breathing is all I can hear, even if I move. How pure can silence be, Outer Space? Perhaps, but what I'm experiencing must be the purest silence on Earth.

'...Rapid hardening cement was used to counteract the release of heat...' Imagine the hammerings, the vibrations, the continuous pourings of concrete? Although the outer face and thicknesses of the bunker may appear to be dry, the dehydration process takes years, as does the procedure of hardening. So, what I say about these things not moving is not strictly true. The bunker has an insidious internal movement of its own. Its aggregates, particles, Portland, are all are in motion and working at their own rate.

They say Vestal Virgins could be immured if they broke their vows of chastity. The virgin - or ex-virgin - would be stripped of her vittae, scourged, and attired like a corpse, led to a small vault where there would be a couch, a lamp, and a table with a little food. I have two oatcakes and four squares of Cadbury's chocolate. I have a lamp, I have a rucksack to sit on. I have a camera. I have a smartphone, which in spite of its unlimited capacity for social networking is - for the present - useless. I have not broken any vows of chastity, but for the first time since I heard that click I begin to wonder whether my presence here has broken something.



Its three hours since I set out. Surely the Youth Hostel warden will have turfed Roland out of bed, all six-foot four and a quarter of him... Unless something else has happened, unless he really is ill. We could have done this trip above board... Approached the French Defence Ministry, the Local Authority - got permissions, licences... No we couldn't! they'd have said, 'There are plenty of installations which have been turned into museums, are properly run, and are safe. We don't want you running around unscheduled, unsupervised, and uninvited.' So, Roland said everything had to be secret... felt a bit like working for MI6.

As soon as Roland sees the warden he'll tell him that I've gone AWOL and they'll send help. I can't imagine what's going through Roland's head at the moment. If he's so hors de combat then all he has to do is say to the warden, or whoever, 'My friend went alone to the Pointe de Galets north 150mm gun emplacement to take a measurement in one of the basement rooms three hours ago and hasn't come back yet. Could you please arrange help!' What's so difficult about that?



People are always on about buildings having a good or bad vibe, having a soul. My mum says estate agents have cottoned on to the idea. '...This room has a really nice vibe... don't you just think so? Well, all I can say is that this Hitlerian container of aggression has the worst possible of vibes, and not being sure how many more hours I've got to sit here on my rucksack, my imagination has begun to play a game I would very much like not to have to join in. But I have no choice.

It was yesterday, as Roland was on about the Canterville Ghost and as we were boing boinging it over that medieval hell pit, that I felt something. People talk about pure evil, but there was nothing pure about the feeling I was having as I walked across that bridge. It was a mish-mash. A miss-match of thoughts, a non-meshing compound of toxic brooding which was being released into the stale air, and for my attention alone. It's as if something is forcing me to be part of terrible events which took place here.

What if buildings have consciousness - personalities even? Robotics engineers say they know that it's not what a brain is made of that counts, it's what it does. It's synaptic connections and all that... Supposing those microscopic movements of sand, water, Portland, and gypsum can form into a kind of being? Supposing what they say about so-called inanimate objects having a memory is true...?

I once read that immurement was used as a form of human sacrifice. It could help make a building sturdy. In ancient Middle Eastern cultures people were sacrificed during the construction of large building projects. Brides were a favourite, but it was especially thought that a child entombed at the base of a fortification would render it impregnable.

Facts are spreading in my mind like a stain. Evidence is growing, like the lily-shaped fungi on the ceiling of the corridor outside my gaol. There are rational explanations I must cling to; the changing weather, Roland getting drunk - becoming ill. But what about our self-imposed code of secrecy, the car failing to start, not leaving a safety marker outside, and why - did we really - forget to measure this room in the first place? Its five hours since I left the Youth Hostel. Something has gone very wrong with Roland - Christ! Something wrong with him, what about me? Why isn't something happening, and why does that door not open and a human face appear? Why are things so different than they were yesterday?

They - the spirits of this place, have got me in their power. I am their sacrifice, their bride, and their child. It wasn't just our joking that tempted providence, this whole thing was set up for me when I first walked over that damned metal bridge. Whatever happens, whatever has happened to Roland, or whatever he's done, it's beginning to look as if this building, under its own kinetic force, has become my master.

No, I refuse to believe it. Roland is bound to snap out of his Bacchanalian coma soon. He will demand of those around him to know where the hell I've got to. He will drive up here in his clapped-out Morris, park it at the end of the lane, stride over scrub, dodge under wire and - taking care not to be seen, not an easy ask for Roland - enter the bunker. He will boing boing boing across the galvanized bridge. He will glance into the calcined blackness of the gun chamber, and snap crack pop his way down the stair. He will pick his way through the gypsum jetsam. Under the dangle of steel mesh and fungi the shape of white lilies and the texture of cheese fondue. Then his headtorch will show him the steel door, snapped shut. He will shout, but I will not hear him until he turns the handle and pushes...

'What kept you, you bastard?'

But there's something else I didn't like the look of about Roland this morning. Those telangiectasia on his freckly face, they're always there, but what I noticed new was a pin-prick rash with its slight look of purplish bruising. I've seen those posters, pinned up on the walls of the Uni canteen, in the corridors. Why the hell didn't I report it straight away? I just thought, sod you Roland!

Do I want to face facts? Whether I do or not, there's a strong possibility that Roland is ill, very ill; has been taken to hospital, is in a coma, is dead. Unless he's reported me as missing, the Youth Hostel won't care; we've paid them in advance, and they're not interested in what we've been doing. Oh yes, other people at the hostel would remember, we attracted enough attention in the kitchen. But all that will be imprinted on their minds is the image of the guy who stood head and shoulders above everybody. Of the man with fiery hair and the voice like a loud-hailer. They won't remember the smaller guy, the quiet guy.



How long have I got? Yeongjo of Joseon killed his mentally ill son by locking him in a rice chest. That took eight days. How long before questions are asked - Roland's mother, my parents? But we don't talk or text every day, we're big boys and we have woven a web of secrecy around ourselves. We have demonstrated great skill in the art of concealment. We have failed to share.

How? Asphyxiation? Given the volume of this space, dehydration is far more likely. I've no water but if the river keeps rising... or I could just choke on one of my Cadbury's squares. Remember? Etienne Lantier survives the mine collapse and cradles Catherine's malnourished body in Germinal - sont bloques. How many days did that take?

My face is burning, my head splitting, I'm shivering, and there's ice-cold liquid running into my eyes. Have I have got meningitis as well, and will I die of that before I starve to death?

Going to earth? Oh, very romantic! But why did the Nazis make these bunkers look like tombs. Like the barrows and tumuli of prehistoric Earth? Defence stupid! But what about those Nordic legends, The Sleeping Heroes who will lie for centuries and awake in time to save their people? Well, I can tell you, that if there's a hero sleeping in this bunker then he's an evil bastard.

Wait! Footsteps, is that footsteps I can hear...?



'...Sometimes the living were entombed with the deceased - particularly the servants...' It seems that I have become the servant of those who died in this place, and fumblingly I try to recall the words of Keats...

...Save me from curious Conscience that still lords,
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole.
Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed Casket of my soul.'

4 comments:

  1. A well told and frightening story that wears its roots in erudition lightly. Not one to read before bedtime ....
    Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  2. this is truly atmospheric. the narrator´s attempts to remain calm and logical constantly undermined by the almost inevitability of his fate.
    Excellent!
    Mike McC

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  3. So much to like here from the opening image to the Keats ending. The foreshadowing via The Cask of Amontillado and The Canterville Ghost is excellent and the stream-of-conscious panic very effective. Well done !

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  4. Thanks all for your helpful comments!
    B r o o k e

    ReplyDelete