Explorations

This is a work of fiction. It takes place in an alternate universe where the air is always clean, even in decaying industrial cities, the hotel bar never runs out of your favorite drink, and all the children are above-average. All the characters were invented by your ever-reliable narrator, and youíre only dreaming her.

But if you like, you can pretend it happened in Leeds, and you can think of Corflu and of the dozens of loosely connected people gathered for our irregularly-scheduled, semi-organized reunion, and some of us having a bit of spare time between the planned activities.

So there I am with several of my oldest and dearest friends, and several of their friends, and their friendsí friends, sitting under a big, gnarled old tree near the university. I donít know all of them--none of us knows everyone there, not even our Fearless Leader, Marta. But weíre all there for the same purpose, part of the same community. Weíve spent the last few hours sharing food and drink and stories, sitting on a hill on a perfect spring day. Eventually, most of us will gather again for supper, except a few who have to go study.

But itís a perfect day, sunny and incredibly blue, the trees the bright green they only get in the springtime, and Larry gets a gleam in his eye, an exploring sort of gleam, the look of a man who prefers to travel by bicycle, not because itís cheaper, not because itís good for the environment, not even for the exercise, but because you see more that way, and sometimes what you see is worth stopping and taking with you.

Thereís a burned-out house a bit further up the hill. It was built as a mansion, then spent a while as a cooking school, and then there was a fire. The cooking school was too marginal to rebuild after the fire, so they just walked away, left the property to the local university, which has money but no particular need for a building at that edge of campus. Itís been there long enough that most people arenít interested in it anymore, and not long enough to be a famous haunted house. Itíll do for a destination, wandering around with old friends.

While the rest of the group wanders back down the hill, to civilization and campus, the train station or maybe the nearest bar, we head the other way. Iím not really thinking about much at that point, just enjoying friends and sunshine. They have an idea, and Iím happy to go along: my train doesnít leave for hours. (Lise claims that Iíll follow her into any stupid activity; thereís a grain of truth to that, because itís usually fun. The trick is to choose your friends: the ones whose idea of adventure isnít likely to leave you in jail or hospital.)

Over the hill, thereís the dilapidated old house. Thereís also a nice, shiny, new chain-link fence, with a nice sturdy padlock. Had I been alone, that would have been the end of that; Iíd have walked around the fence and looked at the house, then shrugged and wandered off to the nearest bookstore. We did the first half of that: ailanthus trees, white-on-dark-blue signs warning that this was private property, a dumpster, some charred walls and broken windows. Once around the old house, incidentally establishing that the fence was all the security the owners thought they needed--whoís going to steal a ruin?--and we were back at the gate.

My friends have done this sort of thing--not here, but closer to home. Larry reaches into his pocket for a pair of pliers, and removes one bolt from the gate. (Weíve all read enough fantasy, or military history, to know that the gate is the weakest point in any wall.) With that gone, it pivots a bit, enough that we can all crouch down and slip between the gate and the rest of the fence, barely.

That was where I had my doubts: weíve just trespassed for no obvious purpose, though it will let us get a closer look at the charred walls. Around again, this time with more care, because there are things we could trip on, and because we donít want to be seen inside the fence. (Outside, we were just idle visitors, and thereís no sign saying "keep out" on the land, only on the house.) The door is padlocked--weíd seen that before we slipped through the fence--and all the ground-floor windows are boarded up. About three-quarters of the way around, Peter slips through the narrow space between a wall of the building and a dumpster. The rest of us talk quietly, a bit nervous about being seen, since weíre not that far from a street, and the police donít usually take weekends off. Then Peter comes back: "Iíve found the entrance."

Thatís better news than any of us had expected, so we follow him through the narrow space. The entrance heís found isnít, of course, a service door. Itís a boarded-up window whose plywood he could pry loose, and the dumpster is enough of a screen that nobody is likely to notice while weíre there. Up he goes again. Up Larry goes, all those years of illicit exploring proving useful. Up Liz goes, long flexible legs and all. Up I go--or try to. I can barely get onto the little bit of ledge that theyíve used as a step, and canít stretch enough to climb from there to the window. Trying only gets me bruised knees, which Iíll be living with for days. This is not good: I feel clumsy, and torn somewhere between "they wonít let me play" and "Iím going to ruin the adventure." I jump back down, since I canít get up all the way, and we decide that theyíll take a quick look inside. Andy offers to keep me company, forgoing his share of the adventure--he has long legs and could get in with no trouble.

Being stuck down here is the sort of thing that might be enough to send me to the gym, if they promised they could make me taller as well as more muscular, or if I thought Iíd be spending a lot of time trying to explore ruined cooking schools. Standing next to a dumpster, wishing either that I was someone else, someone tall and thin, or that Iíd stayed behind and not cheated Andy out of the adventure, is much less fun than sitting under a tree listening to an old familiar story, or a new one told by a new friend, translating from the Russian as he went.

About when Iím starting to think theyíve given up on us, because time is always much longer in the waiting room, Liz reappears with a ladder. Hallelujah! We can have the adventure too. Ruins may not be handicapped accessible, but being short is at most a very minor handicap, and there are ways to work around things. Andy and I climb up the ladder and through the window, carefully avoiding the broken glass, and into a dusty, almost empty room, lit only by a few bits of sunlight that got in from somewhere. If you could just walk in the front door, you probably wouldnít bother: the adventure was in being someplace that most people donít get to, where we didnít quite belong, and perhaps in the sense of danger. In New York, some of the abandoned buildings have a symbol spray-painted on them, an X in a rectangle: thatís Fire Department shorthand for "dangerous building, do not enter unless you know someone is trapped in a fire." Usually itís on buildings that have already had at least one fire, but that are still standing, at least in part. Thereís no such symbol on the house we were in, but it isnít in New York, and maybe Leeds doesnít have enough such buildings to worry about. Or maybe the owners had told the fire department "you know, thatís a ruin, and we might restore it sometime, when we can find the money, but if it does catch fire again, just stop it from spreading." But we were inside, walking slowly and carefully, because who knows how solid the floors are?

The house wasnít quite a shell: the furniture was mostly gone, of course, anything salvageable removed shortly after the fire, but there were bits of wallpaper still on the walls, light switches, molding, that sort of thing. There were also areas fenced off, behind yellow caution tape and wooden barriers, and holes in the floor behind the barriers. That wasnít as worrisome as it might have been: it meant someone had been in here, and the unlabeled floors were probably solid enough to walk on. (Of course, it also meant someone might be coming in, but probably not on Sunday afternoon.) Up on the second floor, there was some construction-style lighting, the wires showing and the bulbs in yellow metal caging, enough that we could turn off our flash- lights. (We all had flashlights, but most of them were the tiniest Maglite on the market, the one you can stick in your pocket and forget about until you need it.)

I wandered into one second-floor room, and found myself looking out a window to the first-floor roof, an area that had probably been a kitchen or storeroom once upon a time. Your basic flat roof, with your basic collection of wildflowers and one ailanthus tree. Whoever was doing the restoration hadnít been around in a while, Iíd guess: ailanthus will grow just about anywhere (E. B. White found one on a seventh- floor ledge, rooted only in a bit of soot), but it still takes time.

In a much dimmer corner of the second floor, we found the remnants of a long-dead electrical system, including an odd old-fashioned light switch. Larry decided he had to have it. Back to the pocket survival tool, the same device whose pliers had gotten us in there in the first place. Patience and a screwdriver will do a lot, and he had both: it took a few minutes, but eventually a small piece of off-white ceramic was in his pocket.

Back in the sun-lit areas, we found something dead. As is usually the case, we smelled it first. A raccoon, I think it was; it looked as though it had been living in the ruins. Raccoons climb better than I do, and nobody had bothered to board up the second-floor windows, even the ones next to the fire escapes. If theyíd thought "we wonít be back here for two years," they might have taken more precautions--or they might have said "the hell with it" and suggested finding a bulldozer. We didnít stay there long: there was a hole in the floor, and besides, what on earth would any of us want with a recently dead raccoon? A dead light switch you can put on a shelf next to the archaic computer and the working model steam engine that has everything except an off switch. (The last time I saw that, Larry was using a fire extinguisher to shut it off when he was done playing with it.)

Our exploration of the ground floor also yielded evidence that someone else had been exploring. On a huge table, there were bits of molding and pottery, with paper labels saying things like "1-4," which might have been room numbers. Some archeology or architecture studentís senior project, abandoned in place when he graduated? Or continuing restoration, squeezed in when the professor had time from all her other work? We looked, and left it all exactly as it was.

In fact, except for the light switch, we left everything as it was, or as close as we could manage. After Iíd climbed back out the window, my friends pulled the ladder back in and left it lying on the floor where theyíd found it. The last one out put the plywood back in place over the window before he jumped down, and I think would have nailed it in place if heíd had a few spare nails. Nobodyís likely to see it in any hurry, since itís behind the dumpster, but if youíre going to do something, do it right. Make it inconspicuous, and amateurs wonít get themselves in trouble, and experienced adventurers wonít have their access cut off because security notices a hole. (I was filed more under neo than amateur, I think; I may not have my friendsí physical flexibility, but I got credit for knowing what I was doing, based on a steam tunnel or two in the past and a guided trip into an abandoned 19th-century subway tunnel under Atlantic Avenue.) Thus, once we had gone back under the fence, Larry reached into his pocket, pulled out the bolt he had removed so we could get in, and restored the hinge to its pristine state. Not quite "take only memories, leave only footprints," but close enough that the nominal custodians of the place, who probably hadnít set foot inside in at least a year, wouldnít know theyíd had visitors.


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This page is copyright 1998 by Vicki Rosenzweig.