Confessions of a London Flusher

December 2020

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You kids like scary stories eh? I’ve read the waffle you lot call stories - made up creatures and boogeymen. Never had anything to be afraid of, that’s your problem.

Why don’t you get comfy and let this old timer tell you a real ghost story.

I was born - and I will die - in the City of London. The British Empire was the heart of the world for a reason, and believe you me - that heart is still ticking over just fine. Even if it does cost a ruddy fortune to live here these days. I’m lucky. Got in early didn’t I? Couldn’t buy a shed in someone’s garden if I had to start over.

Tried a few different jobs when I was a lad - just how it was back then - but the one that stuck was a flusher. Working underneath the hustle and bustle, deep in the belly of London. In the sewers. You know how sometimes you get a clog in your toilet and you have to get a plunger or even a coat hanger to get rid? Imagine that for a whole city. Well, I was London’s coat hanger.

“Sewage technician” they call us now. Daft if you ask me. Nothing technical about it. But I was a flusher (or a “sewage technician” if you want to get all airy fairy) for over thirty years. So I’m sure you can believe me when I say I’ve seen some shit. It’s mad what people flush away, and in the damp darkness, everything looks different. Between me and the lads, we had a lot of stories.

One in particular stays with me though.

I was that ripe old age where you start realising you’re past your best. Before your knees creak and your back gives out, and you start finding out what old really is. I’d been around a while. I’d seen it all. Or at least, I thought I had.

Started out just like any other day. Blockage in the system, City Council couldn’t fix it from up top, so they sent us down. Me and Charlie go out in the van, lift the manhole, slap some traffic cones around it. We have a quick game of rock, paper, scissors, and I lose. That means Charlie’s topman, and I have to strap my gas detector on and head down.

Stepping down the ladder rungs, daylight disappears.

If you’ve never been underground then you’re not missing much. It’s hot, it’s dark, and it bloody stinks. After a while though, you get used to it. Give it long enough, and the stink starts making you hungry.

“I could murder a kebab,” I radioed in to Charlie when my feet touched the bottom of the catch pit. Water was flowing fine through this section. It was a relatively modern part of the network, everything was made of concrete; cheap and quick. I already knew which way to head, the blockage was further upstream. Keeping my headlight trained on my feet, I started making my way towards the blockage.

“Just a sandwich for me today mate,” came Charlie’s voice through my radio. “I’m trying to look after my heart, not stuff it full of donner meat.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, knowing full well how much he’d moan when I had a tray of it stinking up the van later. He’d been sticking to his guns since his New Year’s resolution, and I’d always suspected his wife was behind his sudden obsession with diet. Eating had always been the highlight of our day, before she’d twisted his ear. Still, it wasn’t going to stop me from stuffing my face with a tray of greasy meat, chips and garlic mayo.

Ducking my head to squeeze through a tight culvert, I had to scrape my hi-vis jacket against the pipe wall to avoid stepping in the steady stream of water. Dark shapes bobbed up and down, piercing the surface as they flowed past - unwanted rubbish, dead leaves and rogue turds. I risked a glance ahead, and saw a pair of rats scampering away from my headlamp. Good thing about rats was they didn’t want anything to do with you either. And some of the bastards grew big enough down here to fight alley cats and come out tops.

Eventually I made my way into an old brick chamber, a junction where the pipe split in two. One of the pipes still had that same stream of water flowing through, the other was bone dry. No prizes for guessing where the blockage was. What did puzzle me though was why this chamber wasn’t on our plans. Normally any junction of pipe had an access chamber, but then by the look of the crumbling brick and dusty mortar, this had been here some time. As the trickle of water echoed off the walls, I glanced up, and my light disappeared up the beginning of an access. Squinting, I thought I could see more brickwork at the top. It was hard to tell from this far down, but I guessed it had been blocked up and forgotten some time ago. London is one of those cities that was built on top of itself, over and over. Old chambers like this were nothing I’d not seen before.

The dry pipe was even smaller than the one I’d just come through. Rather than just duck my head, I had to crouch and waddle through with my shoulders sideways. With just the soft beep of my gas detector to keep me company, I found myself hoping the blockage wasn’t building up. Normally there would be at least a dribble coming down the pipe. If something had completely plugged the pipe, the job would become vastly more dangerous. Getting shit on your boots was one thing, drowning in sewage something else entirely.

My fears were put to rest when I heard the faint sounds of trickling water ahead. Turned out there was no blockage at all. A brick weir had collapsed, and took a section of pipe wall with it. Water flowed through the collapsed brickwork into darkness below, now the lowest point in the pipe run. Anything that could flow down the pipe like it was supposed to caught the rubble of the weir, so everything was diverted away.

As I took a closer look, I wondered how long it had been like this. It must have been some void to take the constant flow of water, and not fill up. I clambered over the pile of decaying bricks, thankful that at least it was an easy fix. I’d been expecting a fatberg - an unholy build up of congealed fat, rubbish and human excrement. I’d take bricks and rubble over that abomination any day of the week.

“Looks like there’s been a collapse,” I radioed in to Charlie, taking my gas detector off and placing it near the opening where water was still gushing through like a waterfall. That was the next risk, that wherever the water was going might have unearthed some deadly release of methane or CO2. Even too much oxygen could cause problems. My little gas monitor could pick up any of the big four that could kill me, so I left it to check the air as I waited back in the pipe. I’d seen rats come that way, so knew it was safe enough. Another reason I didn’t mind seeing rats down here. If they were alive, I should be fine too. At least for a while.

“Big job?” asked Charlie’s crackling voice through my radio.

“I can clear it,” I replied. “Just doing a gas check first.”

After ten minutes of idle chit chat over the radio, the gas detector hadn’t picked up anything, so I started clearing some of the debris, tossing bricks up to the walkway with a clatter. Before long, most of the water was heading back down the pipe, and I used the rest of the bricks to form a make-shift dam around the collapsed hole. With the problem fixed, I let curiosity get the better of me and had a peek down the hole. My headlamp revealed more brickwork - a whole separate section of Victorian sewers that looked long abandoned. Back in the day, they didn’t just use these tunnels for waste. Canal boats would pass through, transporting coal, clay, silk and everything else an 18th century Englishman could flog. I have to admit a bit of a personal interest in this sort of thing, and with the hole big enough and easy enough for me to climb down, it was far too tempting not to clamber down for a proper look.

There was a whole world down there, a golden age of forgotten infrastructure. And once we’d phoned in the problem, we’d never get to see this again, it would just be bricked up by a construction team and abandoned once more. Since I knew there were no gases to worry about, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see it for myself. Snatching up my gas monitor, I let Charlie know what I was doing. “Just having a cheeky butchers, Charlie.”

“Be careful mate,” warned Charlie, but I was already halfway down. Shards of bricks clattered and tumbled under my unsteady feet, dust swirling in the air wherever my headlamp pointed. Once it drifted to the edges of my light, it was like it stopped existing.

Down in the canals, the air was dank and stale. But there was a feeling there too, something I could barely sense. Sewers were mundane to me, every day. This was exciting, but more than that was a sensation that I was intruding. Unwelcome. It was enough to make me want to scramble back up to normality. But as I twisted my head left and right, I saw something.

The faint glow of my headlamp glinted off something in the tunnel ahead. Something in the canal itself. Leaning over the edge, I could see that most of the water had drained away, and what would have once held metre deep water now just had a steady trickle of waste water.

No rats down here, just my gas monitor, softly beeping every few seconds to remind me it was working. I stuck to the walkway, and moved towards the shape in the distance, still catching the reflection of my headlamp. As I got closer, I could make out a fairly large and blocky shape. My footsteps echoed, bouncing off the walls and making every sound louder. The gurgling sewage, the faint drips of leaking water, even my own breathing.

Finally, I got close enough to see it. A bathtub, filled to the brim. It must have been tossed in the canal, hundreds of years ago, but it still looked in decent nick. I unclipped my gas detector and gave it a cautious wave inside the canal. Nothing.

I clambered down to get a proper look. “There’s a bathtub down here Charlie,” I said over the radio.

Without missing a beat, Charlie’s voice shot back. “Oh good, you can have a wash for once.”

Clambering down into the canal, I turned my head to shine the headlamp over it. The bath was freestanding, with pristine silver feet. Despite their age, they still shimmered in the dim light. Other than being full with century-old canal water, it looked fashionable enough to make my own tub back home look like a bucket of crap. True to my cockney roots, I let out an impressed whistle as I got close enough to touch.

The water inside - if you could call it water - was jet black. It made the sewage trickling beneath the tub look clean enough to drink, and seemed to devour the light of my headlamp. What puzzled me most was it seemed to be spilling over the edges, dripping down. As if it was being filled from the inside. As I gazed into that pitch, rippling surface, spiderleg shivers ran across my back, and I felt cold even in my jacket.

Splashing footsteps made me flinch, and I twisted just in time to see a small shape running away from me before it disappeared into the darkness. Without realising it, I’d pressed my back into the canal wall, instinctively trying to escape. Yeah, I’ll admit it, I was scared. But even though I’d only caught a glimpse, I knew what I’d seen. A child.

“Hello?” I shouted down the tunnel. My own voice came back at me, over and over, echoing down the tunnel. Staring into the fading light and squinting, I tried to convince myself I’d just imagined it. But I knew I hadn’t. Part of me wanting to leave, part of me wanting to investigate, I found myself frozen, unsure what to do. If it had been a child, some poor sod who had fallen down here and got lost, I couldn’t call myself a man if I left them down here to rot.

I bit my tongue and started down the canal in the direction whoever it was had disappeared.

“Hello?” I called again. Keen to hear anything except running water and my beeping gas monitor, I radioed into Charlie. “I think someone’s down here mate.”

“Don’t play games with me Dan,” he said back.

“I’m serious,” I said, quickening my pace. I could hear splashing up ahead.

At the edge of my light, I saw it again, a small figure, running through the sewage.

“Hello?” I shouted.

The figure stopped running, and turned around. Barely visible, I could just make out the silhouette of a little girl.

“It’s okay,” I said, trying to keep the terror out of my own voice, as I raised my hands and took careful steps towards her. She said something, but she was too far away and it was lost in the tunnels. Charlie’s voice crackled over the radio. “What’s going on?”

I could see her properly now. A girl no older than eight, with long black hair and wearing a dingy, grey dress. She was barefoot. My hands were shaking as I dropped to one knee in front of her, and told her everything was going to be okay.

“Have you seen my mummy?” she asked, no fear or emotion in her little voice. She was dripping wet, her hair and her dress soaked to the skin. She must have been freezing, and I guessed she was in some state of shock. I can’t remember exactly what I mumbled to her, something reassuring hopefully. I remember fighting the urge to ask her what the hell she was doing down here. The only important thing was getting her out.

“There’s a fu- there’s a little girl down here, Charlie,” I stammered into my radio, as I slid off my harness and took off my jacket. I draped it around the little girl, hoping it might give her some comfort and warm her up a bit.

“I can’t find my mummy,” she said, in that same hopelessly tiny voice.

“Let’s find her then, eh?” I said, trying to smile as I held out a hand. No doubt she couldn’t even see my face. The only light in that entire tunnel was coming from the top of my head, probably blinding her. Even if she could make out something beyond a silhouette and a light, she probably could barely see me through that thick black hair, matted and stuck to her face with damp. Still, she took my hand. With fingers cold as ice, and as wet as if she’d just dipped them in a river.

I did my best to lead her and shine my headlamp on the moss covered brick floor ahead of her, and tried to make her feel safe - asked her what her name was, told her things were going to be okay now, but all she said were the same things, over and over. “Have you seen my mummy?” “I can’t find my mummy.”

I put it down to shock, until we came to the bathtub. As soon as my headlamp fell on it she tried to pull out of my grip. Not away from it, but towards it.

“Mummy!” she said happily, and grabbed hold of the rim, cocking one leg up as if she was about to climb inside. I managed to get my other hand around her waist and pull her back.

“Not in there darling,” I said frantically as she squirmed and wriggled in my hands, trying to wrench herself free, “your mummy’s not in there.”

“Mummy!” she insisted, grabbing my forearm with icy hands and trying to pull loose.

Grabbing her with both hands, I lifted her up and walked away from the bathtub. She began to cry and beat her little fists at me, wailing for her mother.

“It’s okay,” I stammered, crying myself as I pulled her away, “it’s going to be okay.”

Once we’d got out of sight, she seemed to calm down. She hugged me and asked if I’d seen her mummy. “I’m taking you to find her, I promise,” I said desperately, placing a hand on the back of her head and pulling her into my shoulder. Her hair was so wet, it felt like the water was coming out of her, dribbling onto me. I ignored it and as we got to the break in the wall where I’d entered, I lifted her up onto the edge. She seemed to have forgotten all about the bathtub now, and calmly watched me as I hoisted myself up onto the walkway.

“I can’t find my mummy,” she said as I got to my feet and took her hand again. Even after walking, even with my jacket around her, her skin was still freezing. I worried that she might be too far gone, and quickened my pace, urging her up the toppled bricks into the sewer above.

“We’re going to find her,” I said through clenched teeth, “we’re going to find her.”

Helping her up the jumbled brickwork, I lead her down the tunnel. “We’re coming up Charlie, we’re coming back up.”

I could tell by Charlie’s voice he knew this wasn’t a game or a joke any more. “Ok mate, I’m ready, I’ve got you.”

Rats scampered away from us as I pushed the little girl ahead. All the while, she said the same things, over and over. “Where’s my mummy?” “I can’t find my mummy.”

I was in tears long before we reached the catchpit with the ladder. True to his word, Charlie was ready. He’d set up the winch on top, and the cord was dangling down waiting for us. My harness was too big for the little girl, and the ladder rungs were too far apart for her to climb. I pulled the rescue cord down, wrapping it around the backs of her legs, trying my best to make a makeshift seat that wouldn’t hurt her as it pulled her up. I’m not sure if it worked, but she didn’t cry. Still, I decided it was best to support her as Charlie pulled her up.

“Jesus Christ,” I heard his voice over the radio, and far above us, I could see his face in the distant manhole, looking down.

“She’s ready,” I said, “bring her up gently.”

“Where’s my mummy?” asked the girl, water still dripping down her face. I didn’t understand how that was possible. I must have been with her for twenty minutes, how was water still trickling down her hair? Dismissing it, I focused on lifting her up, taking the bulk of her weight so the cord didn’t dig in too tightly. As Charlie wound up the winch, I clambered onto the ladder rungs, propping the little girl on my shoulders as I climbed.

“Mummy…” she mumbled, head lolling.

Worrying she didn’t have long left, I pushed her up with all my strength, shouting “faster Charlie, faster!”

I looked up the ladder, to the opening above where daylight was just beginning to reach us.

And the little girl melted.

Turned to water before my eyes. Freezing water showered me, and the little girl was gone. I almost slipped from the ladder as I tried to grab her, but… there was nothing to grab. Even her dress vanished, turning to black slime as it fell down. All that was left was the cord. I stared up at it as it ascended away from me, Charlie still winding it up. My brain couldn’t process what I’d just witnessed, and I glanced down, around the tight walls around me, anywhere, trying to find her, but she was gone.

Charlie appeared in the hole of daylight above me, shouting “Where is she? Where’s she gone?”

I looked down at the concrete catchpit beneath me, trying to make sense of it. Did she fall? There was nothing down there.

“Get out Dan, fuck’s sake, get out!”

I don’t really remember the next part. I must have climbed out, because I remember sitting on the street, Charlie frantically asking me what happened, where the girl had gone. I remember watching him climb down the manhole, and come back up empty handed.

“She just vanished,” I mumbled when we were back in the van. I was still soaking wet, head to toe, drenched in the grimy water that the little girl had turned into. Charlie took me home, walked me indoors. Helped me take my clothes off and didn’t even crack a joke. He made me a cup of tea and we just sat in my kitchen. Charlie would ask questions, but I didn’t really know the answers.

We decided to report the collapse, but not the little girl. That would demand an investigation and we’d both sound mental at best, or child killers at worst. Just seeing things, we agreed. We’d both just been seeing things. Eventually, after insisting I was alright, Charlie left me to get some sleep. But I couldn’t. I just lay there on my bed, in the dark, trying to make sense of it all.

Deprived of my sight, I could almost hear her. That small little voice. The trickling water. The gentle beep of my gas monitor. Those same words, over and over. “I can’t find my mummy.”

“I can’t find my mummy.”

“I can’t find my mummy.”

I sat bolt upright. It wasn’t just in my head. I could hear her. Distant, faint, but it was real. Scrambling out of bed, I switched on my light, trying to find the little girl. I almost tore my room apart looking, until I realised where it was coming from.

The bathroom. From the plug in my sink, from the drain in my bath, bubbling up from the water in the toilet.

“Have you seen my mummy?”

“I can’t find my mummy.”

“Where’s my mummy?”

I tipped up my laundry basket and shoved everything I could find into my sink and bath, shut the toilet lid, did anything I could to smother that little voice. It still came out, a faint muffled voice, calling for her mother. “I’m sorry,” I cried, as I shut the bathroom door, and clamped my pillow over my head. “I’m sorry.”

When I finally did go to sleep, I learnt a new phrase. Night terrors. Vivid dreams that feel real, that come with physical sensations. Apparently some people get them, but I never had. Not until that night. That night I dreamed I was drowning. Face down in a bathtub, a hand on the back of my head, impossibly strong, forcing me beneath the surface. I tried to grab at the sides, but my hands just slipped off. I thrashed as hard as I could, but I couldn’t stop it. Somehow the bathtub was much larger, the hand on my head much bigger. As though I were a child. As though I was the size of an eight year old girl.

I can’t say how long it lasted. It felt like forever. They say drowning is a peaceful way to go, but there was nothing peaceful about that dream. When I finally woke, back in my own bed, I was drenched in grimy, black filth. I wanted to wash, but - and this is hard to admit as a grown man - I was too scared to get into the bath. I wiped myself clean with a towel, using the kitchen sink and plenty of soap to wash the smell out of my hair.

I called in sick the next day. First time I’d done it, and the boss said it wasn’t a problem. Said I could take as much time as I needed. It didn’t help. I tried staying at a friend’s house, but I still heard her little voice, coming out of the plug. When I did manage to get to sleep, I had that same dream. It came on and off for weeks after. It wasn’t any easier, but it never felt as long as the first time, and I was never covered in anything except my own sweat. Eventually, just like the little girl, it vanished as if it had never been there at all. Eventually, I felt brave enough to take my bundle of clothes out of the sink and bath. I even placed my ear to the plug, praying that I wouldn’t hear her little voice calling out to me. I didn’t tell anyone the full details, not even Charlie. I told him I’d dreamed I was drowning, but that was it.

What was really strange was… he said he’d had the same dream. Just once. Just the first night. And when I asked him if he was covered in anything after he didn’t know what I meant.

It took months before I could go back to work, and even then I couldn’t go down. Charlie was good about it. We didn’t flip the coin any more. He went down every time from then on, God rest his soul.

A construction crew patched up the collapsed wall. We tried to seem casual when we asked if they’d seen anything weird, but they said they hadn’t. And for a few years, that was it. It became our ghost story. Something we’d tell the new lads. That if they saw a little girl asking for her mummy they should run for the hills.

I wish I could leave it there. But one day, when Charlie came back up, he was white as a sheet and shaking. I had to pull him out of the hole because he couldn’t climb out by himself.

“I saw her Dan,” he whispered with wide-eyes. “I fucking saw her down there.”

“What did you do?” I asked, my own hands trembling as I unclipped him and took him to the van.

“I ran like fuck.”

We wrapped it up, and I drove him home, trying my best to return the favour, as he’d done for me all those years ago. Took him back to his wife, and wished him well.

That night I barely slept. Perhaps I was terrified I was going to have that dream again. Perhaps some part of me had hoped that after all this time, maybe it was just a story. Maybe we had just been seeing things. Dreamt it up.

Charlie wasn’t at work the next day. That didn’t surprise me. If he’d had the same dream as I had that first night, I knew I wouldn’t see him for a week. But at lunchtime we got called back to the depot for some bad news.

Charlie had died.

Peacefully in his sleep, was what they told us, but it didn’t take long for the rumours to start. Choked to death on his own vomit. Drowned in his own saliva. Murdered, some reckoned.

It was hard listening to people I used to call friends talking about it so openly. So trivially. Charlie was a good bloke. I hit my limit when I caught some of them asking “how can someone drown in their sleep?”, and one of the arseholes had the nerve to laugh about it. Well, I launched myself over two tables to shut him up. Not often you see a man of sixty do something like that, I guess. Not often you see that same man punch out four teeth either. Nobody said anything about it after, not that I heard anyway. I wasn’t around for much longer. “Early retirement,” was what they called it.

At the funeral, Charlie’s body went underground one final time. I gave my condolences to his family, even gave his wife a hug. Apparently there had been a police investigation into his death. When his wife had woken up, Charlie’s body was covered in dirt, and the bed was wet through. Like he’d been killed outside in the rain, rolled around in mud, and brought indoors. But the police couldn’t find any evidence. ‘Inconclusive’, they’d said.

I thought about telling her there and then. Telling her this story. But what good would it have done? It wouldn’t have brought him back. It wouldn’t have given her any comfort. So I kept quiet. Maybe that makes me a coward.

Maybe that’s why I’ve felt like I’ve had to tell you lot. So at least someone knows. Even if none of you believe me.

We used to tell the new lads - if you ever see a little girl down in London sewers, run like fuck.

I’d tell them something different now.

If you ever see a little girl down in London sewers... Let her climb in the bloody bathtub.

***

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