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Hilltop: A Literary Paper. Volume 1 Number 1

In the Tunnel

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In the Tunnel

Have you ever been in the Hataitai tram tunnel? Of course if you live in that part of Wellington you go through it every day to work. It is long and dark, and the trams rush through it as if they are going twice as fast as in the open. I remember how I was struck with this illusion of speed the very first time I entered it, and it has remained with me ever since. It feels as if the tram is always going downhill, no matter which side it passes through from, and I can't get rid of the idea that we are going too fast, and that one day we might leave the rails and crash into the wall.

Every day I notice how the sides of the tunnel reflect the light from the tram windows, so that you can see their brick formation, and even the oval shape of the tunnel itself. Every three hundred yards or so along there is a small recess in the wall for the benefit of workmen, and at the entrance a tangle of pipes that run through on both sides. They are the lines of communication between the city and its suburbs—the water and gas mains, and the telephone and electricity cables. What damage to the city could be done, I think, if an anarchist got loose in there.

At night time my feeling of anxiety in the tunnel always becomes worse. It is a cold and dank place. The wind rushes through at a furious pace, no matter how calm it is outside, and each time I rattle noisily into its depths a kind of claustrophobia seizes me. What would happen, I imagine, if the tram should break down in the middle of the tunnel? We should all be helplessly trapped there.

One night I was returning to the city late after a party. It must have been one o'clock, and I had just managed to catch the last tram. There was a crowd of young people on board, students, or the members of a basketball team, singing and arguing amongst themselves, and they filled the compartment with their vitality and freshness. But when we came to the stop before the tunnel they all piled out into the street with a lot of shouting and pummelling, and disappeared from view. It was an unpleasant surprise to me, for I was left the only person on board. I hadn't yet paid my fare, though I had my ticket ready in my hand, and I hoped the conductor would stop and talk to me while we were going through the tunnel, because the thought of doing so alone began to frighten me even more than usual. But he didn't come, and almost before I realised it the tram had entered the tunnel with a roar, and the wind began to rush in through the windows and under the door.

We were about half-way through when suddenly, with a screech of brakes and a jolt that threw me against the back of the seat in front, the tram stopped. I stood up nervously, wondering whether there was some obstruction on the line that had to be cleared. Then all the lights went out. The pole has come off, I thought. Yet at the same instant I realised that if the pole had come off the lights would have gone out before the tram stopped. Now everything was as silent as a tomb, with no sound except the whistling of the wind and the dying whirr of a dynamo beneath the floor-boards. I heard a thump behind me as if someone was getting on or off the tram. This was followed by a muffled shout, and although I knew that the pole couldn't have come off, the only explanation of these noises that came to my mind was that the conductor had jumped from the tram to put it on again. I waited for the ping of its wheel hitting the wire, for the lights to come on, and for the throbbing of the motors to start again. But nothing happened. Everything was as still as before.

After a few minutes I took out my case and lit a cigarette. In the sudden splash of light from the match I was surprised to see that a man was sitting opposite to me. And then the lights came on again. I stared at the man until the match burned my fingers. He was dressed in a navy blue tramways uniform and wearing the regulation cap, and as I stared at him, noting uneasily the chiselled coldness of his features, I caught sight of the chromium inspector's badge he was wearing. As I gazed at it winking there in the lights from the roof, he spoke. "Can I see your ticket, please?"

I began to fumble in my pockets, but I couldn't, find it. I remembered that it was in my hand just before we entered the tunnel, but now I couldn't recall what I had done with page 4 it, whether I had put it back in my pocket or dropped it on the floor when the train stopped.

"Haven't you got one?" the inspector said, in a slightly different tone. He was still respectful, but a faint note of grimness, as if an expectation had been realised, had crept into his voice.

"Oh yes," I said. "I remember I had it in my hand just before we entered the tunnel."

"Just before you entered the tunnel? What do you mean?"

"Why," I said, "I was waiting for the conductor to clip it."

"Then the conductor hasn't issued you with a ticket?"

"No, I'm using a weekly concession card."

"A weekly card?" His voice became hard. "What's the use of that on a Sunday?"

A Sunday. Of course. I had completely forgotten it. You had to buy separate tickets on Sundays. But at any rate I felt reassured. "Well," I said, "the conductor would have told me when he came through. I was waiting for him to collect my fare."

"Waiting?" the inspector said. "But the conductor has been through. He's at the front of the tram now. He's waiting to continue as soon as you have paid."

"He hasn't been through at all," I said. "I've been sitting here and I haven't seen him. unless he came along when the others were in the tram. Anyway, tell him to come back and I'll pay him now, and then we can get on."

Unexpectedly the inspector took a new line in his questioning. Obviously he wasn't satisfied with my answers. "Why should he come back ?" he said. "You've had your opportunity to pay and you haven't used it. Why should the conductor come back just to please you? Remember, he's been on his feet for hours, and now he's tired, and wants to get home to bed. Why should he be denied his few hours of rest merely because you have refused to fulfil your civic responsibilities by paying him when he first came through?"

"But I tell you I didn't see him."

"That's not a good enough explanation for me," he replied. "First you say you've lost your ticket, then that you didn't see the conductor. If I was an idealist I might believe your tale, but things aren't as simple as that. How do I know this isn't part of some deep-laid plan to get a free ride through the tunnel into town? Supposing you didn't get a ticket for some odd reason and then thought up this story on the spur of the moment after you'd seen me? Can I believe you are so naive as to mention a weekly ticket on a Sunday? People aren't like that. You're trying to double-bluff me, that's all. After all, I've got to be realistic in my point of view."

"But that's absurd," I said. "What I've told you is the truth."

"There are far too many people who try to cheat the Council out of a few pence by pretending not to see the conductor when he comes through,' he said. "Or by deliberately holding back their money so he will think they've already paid. We lose thousands of pounds a year because of unpaid fares. It's scandalous."

"But I tell you I had no intention of cheating the Council," I shouted. "The fact that I'm offering to pay the money now should prove that."

"It proves nothing," the inspector said. "You've been guilty of a petty crime, and nothing you may say can alter the fact. I've got to make an example of you. But to give you a fair trial, I'll call in the motorman." He paused for a moment and looked at me keenly before he continued. "The conductor can't help us because he has already gone home. The delay was becoming intolerable to him."

He called out, and while we were waiting for the motorman to come up I said, "Why did you have to get on in the tunnel, like some creature of the underground?"

"I wanted to surprise you," he said, "and as you can see I succeeded nicely."

Then the motorman appeared from his platform at the front, guiltily stubbing out the cigarette he had been smoking, although the time for the end of his shift must have passed long ago. When he came up the inspector sniffed the air sharply, glanced at him with a frown as if he was going to say something, and then changed his mind. "This gentleman," he began, and he dwelt on the word with drawn-out sarcastic scorn, "has been trying to tell me he's innocent, and I want you to confirm what I've just said before I pass the sentence. It's getting late."

An expression of bewilderment spread over the motorman's face. It was obvious that he knew no more about why the tram had stopped than the conductor, but apparently he was afraid of offending the inspector.

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"Were you aware that this fellow was on the tram ?" the inspector said.

"Why, I—" he began, looking at me with a puzzled stare.

Then he caught the inspector's eye. "No," he said. "I thought the tram was empty."

"And did the conductor think so, too?"

"Yes, we both thought there was no one on the tram. I'm sure I don't remember this man getting on."

"That'll be all, thank you," the inspector said then, but strangely enough the motorman didn't want to go. Perhaps he was a little anxious on my behalf.

"What's going to happen to him?" he said out of the side of his mouth. "Will his punishment be very severe?"

"Let the punishment fit the crime," the inspector said in a terrible voice that was intended to frighten the motorman away.

But he sat down on the other side of the aisle instead. "Not paid your fare, is that it?" he said.

"Yes," I murmured miserably.

"That's a very grave offence, you know," he said, looking furtively at the inspector. "Uncollected fares cost the Council thousands of pounds a year, and then the whole community has to suffer because of the higher prices we charge."

"But I keep saying I had no intention of not paying my fare," I said angrily, "only you won't believe me."

The motorman glanced hesitantly across the aisle again at the inspector, who was smiling to himself with his eyes closed as if he had just thought up a particularly odious punishment. "Perhaps we could all come to some sort of amicable agreement," the motorman said.

The inspector's eyes flashed open. "No!" he cried. "He's guilty! There's not a shadow of doubt!" He glared at the motorman, who shrugged hopelessly and looked down at his feet.

"Of course," the motorman went on, "it happens everywhere. At first we tried putting honesty boxes by the door, but that didn't do any good. The first ones weren't fastened on strongly enough, and some vandals twisted them off. When we put stronger ones on—at great expense, mind you—all we got out of them in the first month was four and eight-pence. It didn't pay for the boxes. So now the council has to try more drastic methods."

All this time the inspector had been listening with his eyes tightly shut, and his face as hard as granite. His features looked as stubborn and relentless as those of an old seventeenth century covenanter, and now as he began to speak he fixed us both with a cold puritanical stare.

"Why should people want to try and cheat us?" he said in a tired voice. "It's something I've never been able to understand. Is there such a thrill in it that for the sake of a few pence they will lie and perjure themselves before God? Have they no consciences? Do they so worship wealth that any petty, pilfering way of making a little extra money justifies the end where worldly wealth is concerned?"

"It isn't just tram fares," he went on, looking past our heads at a gleam of water on the tunnel wall, "it's everything. For the sake of money they will do anything, inside or outside the law, so long as they think they can get away with it. And we are just as bad," he continued, looking straight at the motorman. "Because of the money involved you will kow-tow to me and throw away your self-respect, for you know that if I put in a bad report your promotion might be stormed, that you might even lose your job if I recommended it."

"And I'm the same. I go around catching people out, forcing them into an admission of guilt although I sometimes feel that no offence has been committed, because unless I pin down a certain number of cases of evasion each week the Council will think I'm shirking my job and replace me with someone else."

By now both the motorman and I were gazing in amazement at this astonishing volte-face on the inspector's part. He seemed almost to have forgotten our presence, to be talking to some invisible judge who was trying him for misconduct of his past life.

"It's a vicious circle," he went on. "People never change, that's the tragedy of it all. And if it wasn't money, they would still be whining and sniffling and evading some other law. Deceit seems to be a part of us. It's engendered before we leave our mother's womb, so that we can't escape it. Why, even babies have got it."

Suddenly he looked at me again. "Perhaps you think we can instil some new faith into people and bring about their regeneration? I tell you it's impossible. And that's why I'm page 6 not going to do to you what I first intended." He heaved a terrible sigh. "I've decided not to make an example of you after all." His eyes glowed redly, and he stood up and spoke in a loud, emotional voice: "It is I who deserve to be punished."

He stared angrily at me for a moment longer, and then uttered his last words. "You may go free."

He signalled to the motorman to drive on, and then, as the tram began to move slowly down the grade he quickly stepped off the platform into the darkness of the tunnel.

And as the lights of the moving train faded from his figure I saw him take an object from his pocket. "Stop!" I cried, but the motorman did not hear me as the tram, leaving the tunnel mouth, went rocketing away down the hill to town. I rushed towards the motorman's platform, but I realised that it was already too late to do anything now that would save him. What was happening back there? What was he going to do? Had the calamity that I always feared would take place in the tunnel at last indeed occurred?