* * *
She inhaled the smell of damp soil, mould, decay, sensed the pressure of the stone and clay and earth pressing down on her.
‘Do you think the roof could cave in?’
‘It’s been here for three thousand years, so I don’t see why it should collapse now. Although it must be carrying a lot of weight.’
‘Oh Christ. Get a move on please.’
She pushed him forwards. He stumbled, caught himself with his hand, stood up, and she tumbled out behind into a reservoir of pitch darkness.
‘We’re in the womb,’ he said.
He cast the pin-beam of light around, picking out the architecture of the central chamber: the corbelled layers of rough- hewn damp rocks curving above their heads, the void of the side chambers.
‘God it’s dark,’ Tom said. ‘What did you expect?’
‘It’s a deeper dark than I imagined. Not like a dark night.
It’s more dense, like being in a black hole.’
‘It is a black hole. We are in the house of the dead, the edge of oblivion. It takes twenty minutes for your eyes to fully adjust,’ she said, searching for comfort in science.
‘I’m not sure I’m prepared to wait that long. Do you think this is what it’s like to be buried alive?’
‘No.’ Her voice trembled slightly.
They were silent; listening to the chinks in the emptiness, the amplified rasp of their breath, the regular drip, drip of water coming from, where? Possibly one of the side chambers. She strained her ears, searching for audible signs of the external world. Somewhere in the distance there was a sharp metallic clink. She listened again, tried to pick out the note above the whispers of their breath in the damp air. But now there was nothing except the murmuring of the phantoms.
Tom handed her the torch. She shone it upward from under his chin, illuminating his face: a disembodied, ghostly head suspended in the dark.
‘We are gathered here,’ he intoned, ‘to bury the dead.’
His voice was eaten up, engulfed. And then it bounced back out of nowhere, a delayed echo: ‘Bury the dead. Bury the dead.’