Readers of my age may recognise the family in this story from a series of books written in the early 1900s.
The Blackwall Tunnel Trolls
a short story by
‘It’s been in the newspapers.’
‘I don’t know - all of them. I saw it somewhere. Stop that, Billy,’ turning round. ‘Leave your big sister alone.’
‘It wasn’t me, it was her.’
‘I don’t care who it was, you don’t hit your big sister.’
Father was annoyed that his argument with mother had been interrupted. He was clearly nervous, mother could see that. However, she couldn’t leave it there.
‘Well how did they get here?’
‘I believe they stowed away on a ship going from Norway which called in at Glasgow.’
‘But Glasgow’s a long way from London,’ she pointed out.
‘Jack Laver says they cling to Eddie Stobart lorries - camouflage you know - trolls are the same colour.’
‘What? Red and green?’
‘No, just dark green,’ father snapped, irritated by this cross-examination. ‘Trolls are dark green. At least, the ones from Norway are.’ His voice took on a horrified tone. He shuddered, before adding, 'Apparently they look horrible. I'm told some people have died of shock simply at the sight of them.'
‘And now they’re under the tunnel?’
‘Inthe tunnel,’ filled in Bob. ‘If you believe in such rubbish.’
Father glanced in the rear-view mirror at his eldest son occupying one of the three of the back seats.
‘Thank you for that input, Bob. What is relevant is the fact that there have been several deaths. People dragged from their cars and . . . and . . .’ father swallowed.
‘Eaten,’ finished Ethel. ‘Ripped to bits and gobbled up.’ She started singing. ‘I’m a troll, foldee-ol . . .’
‘. . . and I’ll eat you for sup-per!’ finished Billy.
‘That’s enough,’ said mother. ‘You’re annoying your father.’
‘Oh come on, mother.’ Bob laughed. ‘You can’t believe everything you read in the tabloids. They’re often full of rubbish. If I’m learning anything at university, it’s that.’
‘I would have said so too,’ father replied, ‘but there’s been too many reports to dismiss it as fiction. Jack Laver says . . .’
‘Jack Laver’s a boozy twit,’ Bob interrupted. ‘Everyone says so.’
'Well I respect Jack Laver's opinion,' was the only answer father had to this defamatory remark on his golf club companion. 'He said the trolls are invincible and I believe him.'
One would have thought that father was a coward, yet he had fought bravely in a war: indeed he had been awarded a commendation for his courage under fire. However, here he was, terrified out of his brains by a fictitious carnivorous monster simply because he had been told he ought to be. It was his work that did this to him. Sitting behind a desk should have permanently stultified his imagination. Instead all his fantasies were released at weekends in a huge surge, having been pent up for five dull days. Everyone else in the car was were aware that the Blackwall trolls was an April Fool spoof invented by the media.
They sped along the M25 motorway, towards the Dartford. Going there they had to cross the one-way bridge over the river Thames, the other way - coming back - they could have crossed the Thames through the Dartford tunnel but this was closed for repairs. They were on their way to Blue Water, the huge shopping complex which mother loved. It was not a life or death visit. No one would expire if they had postponed or cancelled the trip. Billy hated shopping, father’s shopping-tolerance was about two hours, Bob was fine so long as he was left to roam the sports’ shops at will. Ethel could shop alongside mother until one of them fell from exhaustion. Father was the driver and did what mother wanted, most of the time. It had seemed stupid to cancel the trip before they left the house. Now they were getting closer to the bridge, such action seemed to him to make a little more sense.
‘Do you think we should turn around?’ asked mother, winking at Billy. ‘I mean, if it’s true . . .’
Father nodded at the rear view mirror.
‘I saw that - I’m not stupid.’
‘Of course not dear,’ said mother.
The sky under which the car was travelling had blackened considerably in the last half-hour. Great thunderclouds rolled over themselves above. There had been a few patches of light blue earlier, but these seemed to have disappeared. Certainly the sun had now been smothered, even if no rain fell. With the coming of the dark heavens was a distinctly chill wind which whistled through an invisible gap between the nearside rear window and the car door frame.
‘Ethel, can you close that?’ father requested. ‘The window?’
‘You have to do it from the front,’ Ethel explained. ‘You’ve locked it from us.’
‘Oh, yes.’ Father closed the window tight and turned up the heating a little. ‘I don’t like the look of that sky.’
‘I hope it doesn’t storm,’ said Billy. ‘Jumble hates storms, ‘specially when I’m not there.’
‘The dog is in good hands,’ replied father. ‘Mrs Prendergast said she would take very good care of him.’
‘Least he won’t be et by the trolls,’ said Billy, darkly.
No one commented on this remark, not even father. The family head was quite prepared to ignore the jeers of his wife and children. He was more than a little worried, having seen a Panorama programme in which friends and relatives of alleged victims of the trolls had recounted their experiences. Then there had been that report of an increase in carnivorous fish in the Thames, some said feeding on the waste blood and gore that had reached the river through the drains.
Father had heard too many stories to dismiss the trolls as mythical.
Mother had at first pretended to go along with father, but only for a short way.
Ethel, the most level-headed of the family, was disgusted with father’s gullibility. There were no disquieting feelings in her breast. She only read the broadsheet newspapers and watched documentaries on the television. Not because she was especially bookish, but in order to stun any boring know-it-all boyfriends with her knowledge. She hated it when men told her stuff that was supposed to impress her and show her that she was just a girl and they were superior beings. As well as the Panorama programme, there had been several other documentaries which had treated the subject of the trolls with serious consideration. Ethel however had from the very start remained a fully-fledged member of the camp of disbelievers.
‘Well, there’s the bridge,’ said father, a sinking feeling in his chest. ‘Let’s get it over with.’
The Queen Elizabeth II bridge curved up and over the Thames majestically, its cables taut and singing in the wind, its girders braced and its stanchions sure-footed. Like most modern bridges of any great size, it was beautiful. You had to be a Philistine not appreciate that magnificent sweep of the arch which was painted on the broad sky ahead. Father used to have a special feeling about bridges - before the trolls came, that is - and believed them to be the architectural equivalent of fine art. Now of course they had a dark side to them, or under them, and all that love of arc and arrow-straightness had been soured.
‘Soon be over it,’ father murmured, as they began the drive up the ascent along with a scores of other vehicles in the several lanes. ‘Soon be over and off into Kent.’
Indeed they had left Essex and were in no-man’s-land, or to be more precise in this p.c. age, over no-person’s-water. They were soaring above that ancient river Old Father Thames, a title which might or might not be p.c., he was not sure. Father was not sure about a great deal these days, but he guessed that was a consequence of growing old in a fast-moving technological age. Father had great difficulty in understanding new electronic equipment: programme recorders, music players, mobile phones, and even new car engines. Once upon a time he could strip down the engine of his Morris Minor in a twinkling. It would take light years before he could do the same with his current car and then he would not have a clue how to put all the bits back together again.
Now they were on the down-curve of the bridge, hurtling towards the pay booths. Billy was given a pound coin by his mother and he pressed the switch to make the window go down, forgetting that his father had locked the controls.
‘I’ll manage your window, Billy,’ said father, ‘when the time comes. We don’t want it open wider than necessary or for longer than we have to. I’ve been told the trolls have been migrating to the Dartford tunnel as well. Did you know they can squeeze themselves through a gap no wider than the crack under a door . .?’
‘Oh, father!’ cried Ethel. ‘Please!’
Father ignored this attack on his credulity.
When they reached the booths, he slid the back offside window halfway down and Billy threw the coin towards the bin. Unfortunately it struck the rim of the basket and bounced away, into the next lane. They whole family watched it roll under a silver-grey Mercedes.
‘Missed,’ said Billy, half-opening the car door.
‘Leave it!’ cried father, sharply. ‘I have another.’
Father slid his own window down and tossed a second pound coin. This time it successfully rattled in the wire basket. The barrier bar went up and father surged forwards beneath it, suppressing a gasp of relief.
Mother said, ‘What a waste of money.’
‘Better a waste of money than a waste of life. How much is Billy worth in monetary terms?’
‘Three pee?’ suggested Bob.
Billy punched his older brother on the arm.
Once the capital of shopping malls was reached, without incident, everyone calmed down. They split up, going three different ways. Father and Billy went for burger and then to an electronic’s store. Bob decided he needed a new jacket. The two femailes were of the firm opinion that they needed whole new wardrobes and intended to enjoy themselves thumbing every garment that hung on a rack.
Everyone met up at four o’clock in the car park and father soon had the engine running.
Stomachs started to churn.
‘Homeward bound,’ said father with false cheerfulness. ‘Soon be there, eh?’
No one said a word until they reached the entrance to the Blackwall tunnel, where Billy suddenly announced he wanted the toilet.
‘I’ll burst if I don’t go.’
Indeed he was bright red and squirming.
There was a layby, with toilets, just before the tunnel entrance, though no other cars had parked there.
Father automatically turned into the lay-by before he realised what he was doing. A feeling of horror swept through him. Hastily he crunched into first gear and prepared to pull out again, into the traffic stream. Billy saw what he was doing.
The boy protested loudly. ‘Dad, I’ve to go. I’ll do it in my pants.’
Still, father was desperate to get out into that fast-moving flow of traffic, heading for the safety of the London hinterland.
Mother said, ‘Let Billy use the toilet. You can’t just ignore him like that. Bob, you go with him.’
‘No!’ father said. ‘There - there might be unsavoury characters about . . .’
‘I’ve got my mobile,’ muttered Bob. ‘If there’s any problem I can call the police - look, there’s a police car over there, back there on the A2. Stop panicking. Really father, you have to get a grip on yourself or you’ll end up in the loony bin.’
‘Is my own mobile switched on?’ asked father, realising he was losing ground. ‘Where is it?’
‘Here in my hand,’ replied mother, ‘Ethel switched it on for you before we started the journey, didn’t you, my love?’
‘It’s on - I did it before we left.’
‘I suppose we’re not actually in the tunnel,’ said father, looking round at all the hundreds of cars zooming by in the nearby lanes. ‘As I understand it, the trolls like the damp dark corners where they can’t be seen. This is probably too far away . . .’
Bob and Billy were already out of the vehicle, Bob striding behind the boy who was running ahead for the toilets. They both disappeared around the back of the building where the Gentlemen’s entrance was situated. Father tried to calm down and think of pleasant things: the good old days, when he could sack members of his staff for incompetence without having to defend his actions at later tribunals; a time when he could clip Billy around the ear without fear of criminal prosecution; a period of his life when they went to Southend-on-sea for their holidays and did not have to fly halfway round the globe.
He jerked himself out of his dreamworld.
‘They’re taking a long time,’ he said, peering through the gloom. The storm was coming back again. ‘What’s keeping them?’
‘I need to stretch my legs,’ said Ethel. ‘I’ll go and see where they are.’
Before father could stop her she too was striding across the concrete and had disappeared behind the toilet block.
Mother and father waited - and waited - and waited. Soon it began to rain. Lightning ripped the sky above the bridge behind the car. Thunder smacked the belly out of the air over the Thames.
‘Where the hell are they?’ shouted father, losing control completely. ‘Just tell me that?’
Mother pressed some buttons on the mobile.
‘Let’s find out, shall we dear?’ she said, pleasantly, ignoring his outburst. ‘There. Bob’s phone is ringing. Ask him yourself.’ She handed father the mobile phone. He took it gingerly, not at all familiar with its workings. A voice at the other end said, ‘Hello?’
It was Bob.
Father said, ‘We’re still here, waiting - mother is getting worried.’
‘No I’m not,’ snapped mother. ‘You are.’
‘It’s the bloody boy,’ said Bob. ‘He’s gone and locked himself in the toilet and we can’t get the door open.’
‘Well . . .’ father gestured helplessly at mother, ‘. . . what am I supposed to do about it?’
‘Bring a tool of course,’ Bob came back, coolly. ‘We need to take the door off.’
‘Oh for heaven’s sakes,’ cried father, . He got out of the car, still fearful of trolls but genuinely angry now with Billy. How on earth did that boy always manage to get himself into trouble? If it was not stealing apples from Swain’s orchard, it was crashing his bicycle into a neighbour’s gate. He opened the boot of his car and went into his tool kit, selecting a huge screwdriver. ‘This should do it,’ he muttered, ‘and I expect we’ll get a blasted bill from the Council - haven’t any doubt about it.’
The rain was soaking his hair, running down the back of his neck. The fear he felt was almost paralysing. Somehow he managed to move forwards, towards the toilet block. Halfway there he turned to wave at mother, then continued with shaking legs, sploshing through the puddles, his eyes darting looks right and left. A zig-zag of lightning streaked over the river nearby startling him. The mobile phone crackled and he realised he still had it in his left hand. He put it to his ear.
‘I’m on my way,’ he croaked. ‘Hello? Are you still there, Bob?’
‘Still here,’ came the answer. ‘Get a move on.’
Father reached the corner of the block and turned it, coming face-to-face with the most gruesome creature he had ever seen in his life. It was naked and down on its haunches. Its green skin was smooth and reptilian, and was stretched tight over sharply-jointed bones. The arms were spindly, but strong-looking, and each ended in a clutch of long talons. When the beast opened its mouth to grin, rows of yellow fangs revealed themselves. There were two more of its hideous kind squatting behind it, gnawing on bones. Father could see Bob and Ethel’s clothes scattered on the ground in front of the fiends who had killed them.
The monster in front of father - he could smell its foul breath - was gripping Bob’s mobile in its claws.
‘Hello old man,’ it said in Bob’s voice, ‘I’m glad you’ve brought the tool thing. Now we can get at the boy too. You can go though. You’re too old and your meat’s too tough. Go on, run away.’
The rest of the trolls laughed and sneered at this.
‘Father?’ Billy’s frightened voice came from within the toilets. ‘Is that you?’
It was true father had been utterly terrified of meeting the trolls. His imagination had whirled with horrifying images. But now was face-to-face with one, now he had seen the monster, his fear suddenly took a step back, into the rear of his brain. The unknown was a far greater force than the known. Yes, this creature was fierce, dangerous-looking and incredibly ugly, but it was also real. It was not some invulnerable, unspeakable horror thrown up by father's subconscious, impossible to defeat. Flesh and bone stood before him. Flesh and bone were assailable.
Father's first and second born had been murdered by these disgusting beasts. The life of his one surviving child was being threatened by them. This was not the freeze or run choice given to rabbits: this was where menace forced a man to stand and fight for survival.
Father suddenly lunged forward and drove the screwdriver through the troll’s right eye deep into its brain. The surprised creature screamed, dropping Bob’s mobile phone and began thrashing on the ground, until a moment later it lay still. Its startled two fellow conspirators let fall the human remains they were chewing on. Indignant, they moved forward, hissing, their eyes fiery.
Overhead, thunder crunched within the blackness.
Father withdrew the screwdriver from the dead troll with feelings of triumph and exhilaration. He held it like a dagger in his chubby right hand. Monsters these Blackwall trolls might be, but there is none so terrible as a wronged human with a weapon in his hand. He snarled.
'Which one of you bastards is next?'