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For me, innocence smells like cigarettes and perfume. When I look back, Helen and I were never so innocent as when we sat smoking on top of the old railway tunnel, thinking we knew it all but in fact knowing nothing. I can see us so clearly, our legs dangling off the edge, swinging back and forth as we casually passed the cigarette between us.
Although it was what happened afterwards that changed everything, when I think back to that day, it is this moment in time that I see; two girls smoking on a railway tunnel.
I remember taking the last drag of the cigarette, breathing the smoke in dramatically to prove that I was doing it properly then flicking the dog end off into the undergrowth below. We felt like we were the only people in the world, sitting on that bridge, deserted since the Beeching axe fell in the 60s. It was overgrown now and the sun strained to shine through on to our arms and legs bearing battle scars from goosegrass and brambles.
We scrambled down the side of the tunnel and stood in its black mouth, breathing in the dank smell of mould and rotting leaves. Although Helen’s parents, who were usually happy to let us run wild, had forbidden us from exploring the tunnel, that yawning entrance had a hold over us like a magnetic force we couldn’t resist. We had heard whispers in town about dark deeds and menacing villains within its hidden belly but, on that sunny day, those stories seemed as distant to us as the North Pole.
Helen grabbed my hand and we started to walk in slowly. The world outside faded until the sounds of birdsong and breeze were replaced by trickling water. The house where Helen’s grandparents lived was accessible from the far end and they always greeted us with sweets or ice cream for the price of contending with their slobbery spaniels.
When we reached the halfway point, it became obvious that we were not alone. On previous trips through the tunnel, we had shared our secret hideaway with mice and once a big, black rat which Helen had trodden on, sending us running, shrieking, hysterical into the light. This sounded different, larger. I had always been scared of dogs so I instinctively grabbed Helen’s arm and, when I opened my mouth to scream, something filthy and stinking was placed over it.
Afterwards, in the sterile safety of the hospital, I told them that I had no idea what had happened. My memory was blank.
The mystery surrounding the two photogenic schoolgirls in the abandoned railway tunnel caused a media furore and our faces appeared on television and in the newspapers for weeks to come. Parents used our tale to keep their kids in line. We turned from being living, breathing, fallible girls into angels, a cautionary tale, a sum that never added up – two girls walk into a tunnel, only one comes out.
Helen’s parents appealed on the news, pale and stunned, then, as time went on and nothing changed, they became thinner and greyer as if their own life forces were being sapped away. Newspapers carried photos of Mrs Jordan with her arms around me, appearing to take comfort in my solid presence in the absence of her blue-eyed, curly-haired daughter.
Away from the cameras it was a different story. Their eyes drove into me like darts poisoned with suspicion and malice, the same look I saw reflected at school, in the shops, on the streets.
My parents defended me in their usual vaguely affectionate and largely uninterested way but they couldn’t protect me from the whispered questions everywhere I went. What happened to her? Did she do it? How can she not know?
And they were right of course, I did know. I knew that Helen had been murdered. I knew that she was dead and she would never be coming back to us. I knew because I had seen it happen and worse, I had let it happen. That day in the tunnel it became obvious that someone was going to die down there among the corpses of mice and be left to rot in a damp, mossy grave. A primeval part of me realised that there was no way I would let it be me. I looked up at our assailant, our eyes met in the half light and I understood the bargain he was offering me. I looked at Helen lying dazed on the floor, caught off guard by a blow to the head, and I ran as he bent back down to her. As I crashed through the darkness his rasping, strangely high-pitched voice floated behind me: “If you tell I will find you.” And I knew with absolute certainty that he meant it.
I stumbled out of the tunnel fractured into a hundred pieces, permanently broken. I was covered in the grime and filth of the tunnel, clothes ripped, but still very much alive.
I knew Helen was dead but I kept my mouth shut, sticking to my part of the deal I’d made with the devil. Eventually my family moved out of the area, away from the stares and the whispers. We swapped our claustrophobic town overlooked by its oppressive moors for fresh sea air and we carried on with our lives. As I grew up, I learned to live a new life where no one knew who I was. Her body was never found and every anniversary of that date, the day when two girls had once sat smoking on an old railway bridge, our faces appeared on the national news, then just the local news, then eventually just the odd local blog. There may have been no body, but in the end, Helen was buried just the same.
I saw her in my dreams. Sometimes she had escaped, grown older and come back for revenge, beautiful and awful. Sometimes she was just a little kid wandering lost in the tunnel calling again and again for her mummy. Most of the time she was a 15 year old schoolgirl who had never been kissed and smelled like perfume and cigarettes and her dirty, tear-stained face just stared at me.
The life I was left with was just a shell, as empty, dark and cold as the tunnel where I had left my best friend to die. I found it easier to be alone, protecting myself and keeping my secret safe in my heart like a maggot in a peachstone.
I went back once. I walked back into the black void to see if I could find her, to give her parents the answers they needed. Back when it happened, the police had gone over every inch under searchlights, finding bits of clothing, hairs and blood but no body. I wanted to find him. I wanted to tell him I had changed my mind, that even though I had run out into the sunlight, my life had ended in that tunnel anyway. I wanted to give myself to him so that he would let Helen go.
It was too late of course. The tunnel was empty. I called for Helen but my cries echoed around in the damp and dark. I slumped down and sat in the grime with my forehead pressed against the cool, mossy wall and sobbed for Helen, for her family and for me and my wasted life. I thought I might never leave. I realised that I never really had. The tunnel watched me in silent judgement. There were no answers there.
And so my life went on, a half life with a gap in it the size of a teenage girl with blue eyes and curly hair. I have a different name and a different face but my black, empty heart is not so easily replaced.
Was it my fault? Could I have changed things? I’ve asked myself these questions so often now that their meaning has faded like an old letter, handled and read too many times over too many years.
All I know is this: once upon a time, many years ago, two girls went into a tunnel and only one came out. I never told anybody what I knew and Helen was never found. As a 15 year old girl I was given an impossible choice and I chose to live but perhaps it is not too late. Now, decades later, I sit alone, smoking, waiting for the pills I have taken to put an end to this empty life of mine. I am going to find my Helen and anything good in me which was stolen away with her that day. I am going to find Helen and bring us both out of the tunnel into the light.
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