At the Dungeon, a short story by Danielle McLaughlin

12 Stories of Christmas - Day 4: A trip to a London tourist attraction proves disturbing in unexpected ways

Torture room: they came to a room with an inquisition chair, complete with spikes and manacles, and a breaking wheel. She would never understand why people paid money to be frightened. Illustration: Jane Webster

Torture room: they came to a room with an inquisition chair, complete with spikes and manacles, and a breaking wheel. She would never understand why people paid money to be frightened. Illustration: Jane Webster


They’d already got their money’s worth queuing to go in – the darkness, the crush of bodies, the noise. They could turn around now and go back out, Isabel thought, and they’d have no cause for complaint. The queue was long and snaking and narrow, lanes cordoned with rope like at the airport the night before. Here, on the final stretch, where the space allocated was even narrower, the queue was bounded by rope on one side and the dungeon wall on the other. Had somebody sat at a desk in one of those glass-walled offices overlooking the river and calculated the precise dimensions necessary to generate unease? And then there was the smell: a heady mix of body odours, and something else, something acrid and industrial that she couldn’t quite place but that brought to mind chemical laboratories and frothing vats.

“Mummy?” Holly said.

“Yes, sweetheart?”

“I need to do wees.”

“No, Holly, you don’t.”

“I do,” Holly said, jumping up and down, “I really do.”

“You went in McDonald’s, remember?” Isabel said. “You couldn’t need to go again. It’s impossible.” She crouched low to her daughter. “Can you hold it, Holly?” she said. “Please? Because there are no toilets right here, but we’ll find some in a little while, okay?”

Holly sighed. “Okay,” she said.

They were staying the weekend with friends who had a flat in Chelsea. It was Ben, really, who was their friend; they barely knew Penny, but she was nice; there was no disputing that: nice, and beautiful too, in a dark, elfin way. A bit too thin, maybe, and she did talk quite a lot, but this might have been to compensate for Ben, who mostly didn’t say anything. After breakfast they’d all walked together to the Tube station at Sloane Square. The crowd there had been unsettling in a different fashion, moving faster and given to sudden surges, and Holly had complained at how tightly Isabel had gripped her hand, while all around them people moved with the silent knowing of small animals.

Along the dungeon wall a series of brightly coloured illustrations was displayed behind Perspex frames. The queue was progressing in fits and starts, and now they halted beside a sketch of a woman who looked like she’d died peacefully in her sleep. The artist had achieved a luminosity usually only found in advertisements for cosmetics, the skin soft and radiant, unravaged by free radicals, though the woman had died in the 18th century, a time, Isabel supposed, when people hadn’t yet learned to be anxious about such things. She leaned closer to read the accompanying text. Mary Ester Biggs was a seamstress and mother of six who’d lived in a lane that was now part of Canary Wharf. She’d been stretched on a rack for three days.

“Is she dead, Mummy?”

Isabel wrestled briefly with “sleeping” and “having a rest”, and then, because there was likely to be a lot more of this sort of thing, she said: “Yes, Holly, she is.”

“Why, Mummy?”

“Um . . .” Isabel said. Beneath the sketch of the reclining woman – and she did look more reclined than dead, an artist’s nude who’d forgotten to take her clothes off – a smaller drawing depicted something that could’ve been a kitchen implement, a long, silver thing with a sharp piece at the end. It reminded her of an item she’d noticed that morning in Ben and Penny’s kitchen. She could imagine Penny, a smaller-framed Nigella, sweating prettily as she crushed seeds with it or perhaps cored fruit. She scanned the text again, hoping to find that the woman had done something justifiably awful; filicide, say. But oh dear: thievery of a hen. She was saved by the queue, which just then began to move again.

“Come on, Holly,” she said brightly, and they all shuffled forward, proceeding with such bovine obedience that Isobel half-expected one of the staff in Victorian costume to reach out and slap her on the rump.

It was Penny who’d organised the tickets, producing the envelope in the living room of the flat that morning where Isabel, somewhere between sleep and waking, was lying beside Eamon on the camp bed. She’d sat up, rubbing sleep from her eyes, half-blinded by the whiteness of the flat. White walls, white rugs, white chairs and – what on earth had possessed them? – a white fabric sofa. As she fumbled with the envelope, Penny had stood over her, waiting for her reaction, just like Holly did when she stormed their bedroom, predawn, on birthdays or Mother’s Day, with crepe-paper hearts made at playschool. “True Horror!” the flyer proclaimed, “Relinquish all hope as we take you to the Torture Room.”

“Thank you, Penny,” Isabel said. “That’s very nice of you.” Holly, as if sensing, even in sleep, that something was happening without her, had stirred in the too-small travel cot at the foot of the bed. Eamon, awake now also, went to help her climb out.

“It was good of you to get the cot,” he said to Penny, “but you shouldn’t have gone to expense on our account.”

We told them not to, Isabel thought; we told them that Holly would sleep perfectly well in the bed between us. And the cot was too small for a three-year-old, though Holly, once she’d seen it, had insisted on sleeping in it anyway.

Penny was looking down at her hands, fidgeting with a bracelet. “It won’t go to waste,” she said. “We’ll be needing it ourselves soon.” She’d blushed then, grinning as she looked from one to the other.

“Great news!” Eamon said, hugging her, and Holly, not to be left out, flung her arms around Penny’s legs so that she had to reach for the kitchen table to stop herself falling over. Isabel glanced at Penny’s still-flat stomach. “When are you due?”

“Oh, we’re not pregnant yet,” Penny said, “but we’ve started trying.”

“Well,” Eamon said. “Still great news. Congratulations.”

“Lay-shuns,” Holly said. Amazing what some people got congratulated for, Isabel thought, as she rooted through the suitcase for her wash bag and flannel.

In front of them in the queue were a man and woman with two young boys.

“Will there be stocks?” the smaller of the boys asked.

“If there are, you can’t go in them,” the bigger one said. “You’re too little.”

The smaller child burst into tears. Isabel summoned a mental image, an amalgam of childhood comic strips and a Leaving Cert history book: a wooden structure with holes for arms and legs, tomatoes soft and wet, the red plop of them on her face. Stocks wouldn’t be the worst, she thought. At least you’d know what to expect and there must come a certain kind of peace when one was forced to stop striving.

“Mummy?” Holly said, tugging at her hand.


“Can I go to Penny?”

She’d managed to lose the others at a little cafe along the boardwalk. They’d sat at a table outside, even though the afternoon had turned dull, the sky, the water, the bridges a palette of steely greys. Holly, fascinated by the river, kept dragging her mother from the table to look over the pier wall. The rusting carcass of a stroller was lodged in the silt below, its buckled handles pointing skywards. What small drama had brought it to rest there, Isabel wondered. As she looked, something white in the mud alongside had taken on the shape of a tiny foot, and though she knew it was ridiculous, she’d shut her eyes for fear of seeing more.

She’d taken three of the tickets from her bag and placed them on the table. “See you inside,” she’d said. “We’ll go on ahead, Holly’s getting a bit cranky” – though Holly was perfectly fine; it was Isabel who was getting cranky. All morning, Penny had harvested information about motherhood with a tenacity that was unsettling. If Penny wasn’t careful, if Penny asked one question too many, which she was very close to doing, Isabel just might tell her. Isabel didn’t like to be around people who talked babies; she didn’t want another child. “You make it sound like we shouldn’t have had any,” Eamon had said recently, and while she’d denied it, there were days when she thought that if she could put Holly back inside her, she would. Fold her neatly back under her ribs. The dark, the hot gurgle of blood, the mucus: these would all be a small price to pay. Hush, child, she’d say, you’ll get used to it; you’ll get used to it quicker than you’ll get used to the rest.

She turned now and saw the three of them at the back of the queue, Penny waving frantically. Presumably the waves were intended for Holly, because Penny also had a finger in one corner of her mouth and was pulling clown faces. “We have to stay in line,” Isabel said, “or the lady will get cross.” Possibly, this wasn’t even a lie. There was something in the face of the woman in jail-keeper costume that hinted at a latent cruelty beyond the requirements of the role.

Up ahead, where the rope cordon gave way to thick chain, a figure resembling the Rumpelstiltskin of fairytales – stripy tights, gold tunic, velvet cap – was checking tickets. “Is he real, Mummy?”

“No, he’s pretend.”

“But he moved.”

Rumpelstiltskin was fidgeting with an earpiece, tucking a wire down the front of his shirt.

“He’s a real person, but he’s playing dressing up,” Isabel said.

“I want to play dressing up.”

“We don’t get to dress up.”

“But we’ve got tickets.”

“Only the people who work here get to dress up,” Isabel said.

“That’s not fair,” Holly said, and as her mother handed over the tickets, she threw Rumpelstiltskin a murderous look.

They went down a dimly lit corridor, everybody keeping to the same formation as the queue, though the space allotted was wider now. They came to a room where instruments of torture were displayed in glass cases – garotte, Judas cradle, thumbscrews, saw – and after that a room containing an inquisition chair, complete with spikes and manacles, and a breaking wheel. She would never understand why people paid money to be frightened. As if life, somehow, wasn’t providing quite enough fear for their liking. And the irony, the terrible, terrible irony, was that all the things that Penny had paid for them to look at, all these things and worse, were happening right now, in real time, in prisons, in airless basements, in torture camps; in boarded-up sheds in urban wastelands, in the yards of isolated farms; they were happening to people who nobody could be persuaded to look at, not even for free, whose suffering merited, at most, a flickering glance before the world scrolled down or clicked away.

She looked at her daughter. Holly was taking everything in her stride. If anything, Holly appeared bored. When did fear start, exactly? Did it lie in wait, as inevitable as puberty, biding its time? But now she was picturing Holly and puberty, and it was time to stop thinking. She glanced over her shoulder to check if the others had caught up and was both relieved and peeved to discover that they hadn’t.

In the rack room a man dressed as a prison warden stood at the top and explained how it all worked. “Oh my,” a woman next to her said, chuckling, “Imagine that.” Isabel was already imagining it, the version in her head more detailed than the one delivered by the warden, the warden perhaps constrained by his script and the presence of small children. “I went to see the mummies of Guanajuato once,” the woman said, “Frank took me for our 40th wedding anniversary. They’d all died of cholera, the mummies, and they had a kind of, I don’t know, melted look about them.” She spoke in a pleasant, conversational tone; she could have been inquiring where Isabel bought her sweater. She was grandmother-aged in a pale yellow cardigan with a row of pink rosebuds sewn along the neckline. The lights dimmed as the warden prepared a slideshow, but the woman kept talking, her voice dropping to a whisper. “You should have seen the babies,” she said. “Their little faces. All rotten and the rot gone hard, same as, what do you call that thing the kids play with? You know the thing. Oh, why won’t it come to me? Frank would know. Oh, I’ve got it! Papier mache!” She smiled triumphantly, a flash of white dentures in the darkness. “Their little melted faces were like papier mache. It was the scariest thing ever.”

Something about the darkness of the room, the peculiar intimacy of this whispered exchange with a stranger, triggered memories of the confession boxes of Isabel’s youth. Tell me, my child. She felt a sudden need to unburden herself, here, underground, in this anonymous city. “I was never scared,” she said, “never properly scared, until I had my daughter.”

“Oh, tell me about it,” the woman said. “I remember when I had our Marcy. Turned up at the hospital four centimetres dilated and she didn’t make an appearance for another 20 hours. Frank said he thought he’d have to tie a rope to the truck and tow her out.”

“The birth was okay, actually,” Isabel said. “Well, maybe not okay, but at least I was expecting it, you know? What I meant was after. It’s everything that comes after, isn’t it?” The lights went up just then and the woman beside her had the face no longer of a soft-spoken grandmother but of someone harder and disapproving. “Come on Holly,” Isabel said. “Let’s go find Daddy.” But when she turned to take her daughter’s hand, Holly wasn’t there.

Her first thought was that she must find Holly before either of them bumped into Eamon or Penny or Ben, because how was she ever going to explain it? Her second thought: what sort of a mother considers her own humiliation at a time like this? She made her way back through the rooms. Now it was a young woman who was checking tickets. No, she hadn’t seen a three-year-old girl, but she could make an announcement over the tannoy. No, thank you, Isabel said, no tannoy, and she walked back the way she’d come.

If only she knew how, she’d explain to Eamon that her refusal to have more children wasn’t a slight on Holly but an affirmation. Because their daughter was too good for this existence, too precious, and how had she and Eamon – who, goodness knows, had both been long enough in this world to have the measure of it – not seen that until she’d arrived? At which point, of course, it was too late. But it was one thing to deny him another child, another thing entirely to lose the one they already had.

Passing a door marked “Staff Only”, she thought she discerned a fragment of a child’s voice, giggly and high-pitched. She stopped to listen. Yes, there it was again, muffled and faint, but a child definitely. She moved closer to the door. There was another voice now, this one a man’s, louder and deeper, though she couldn’t catch what was being said. It had only been five minutes, she told herself; there wasn’t much, surely, that anyone could do to a child in five minutes. She knocked on the door.

“Holly?” she called. On the other side of the door, the man’s voice fell silent. She knocked again, harder this time, using her fist. “Holly!” she shouted. “Mummy’s here.”

A hand on her shoulder startled her. Eamon. “What are you doing?” he said.

And what was she going to say to him now? She pointed to the door. “Holly,” she said. He frowned. “She ran ahead,” Isabel said, “just a few feet, but the door was open, and by the time I reached it, it had shut.”

“I see,” he said. “Has she been in there long?”

“Only five minutes. Not even five, more like two or three. Four at most.”

“And you’re sure of this? You saw her?”

The door opened and a man came out, followed by a girl of about 17. “Excuse us,” the man said, frowning as he pushed past. Isabel was about to put a hand on his arm, when Eamon took her by the wrist. “Stop this,” he said. “Holly’s with Penny.”

The blessed relief. And then, a millisecond later, the shame. “What?”

“We passed you earlier. You were talking to someone and Holly saw us and came over. She needed to go to the toilet, so Penny took her. That was, I don’t know, 15 minutes ago, Isabel.”

There was no way it was 15 minutes, but it wasn’t as if she was in a position to argue. “Where is she now?”

“In the gift store with Penny and Ben. I came to find you because we’re leaving. Ben has tickets for the London Eye.”

The gift store was a halfway house between the Victorian horror they’d just left and the less stylistically pleasing, but more contemporary, cruelties that waited outside. Isabel watched her daughter take a snow globe from a shelf and shake it until it was a blizzard of bloody drops. Penny laughed and went immediately to pay for it. On the way to the register, Holly picked up a jar of skull-shaped jellies and Penny paid for those too. Eamon had gone outside; Isabel could see him leaning against the storefront. She wanted to stay in the store, to surrender to the sweet anaesthetic of commerce. Because how could anything much be wrong in a world where people queued to buy white chocolate fingernails? And there was refuge to be had in the everyday, microbial kind of worrying. Were there toxins, for instance, in the synthetic fibres of that T-shirt Penny was about to buy Holly? A safe, castrated kind of worry that kept one from the really awful stuff. On the way to the exit, she passed Ben rifling through rails of sleepsuits patterned with baby vampires, as if that was what it was all about. Just you wait, she thought. Just. You. Wait.

The London Eye gazed down on all the chimneys, all the cars, all the streets; all the houses, all the people, all the lives; all the pain, hermetically sealed beneath grey roofs and red roofs and tin, beneath slate and copper. And the wheel turned, and kept turning, hoisting them high, higher, above the city in their glass and steel bubble. Eamon stood apart from her, his gaze focused on the view, Holly by his side. Penny and Ben, wide-eyed as any tourist, were pointing out to one another the districts with better schools. “We’ll have a bigger place next time you visit,” Penny had said that morning, folding away the camp bed, and Isabel had seen Eamon look away, pretend to busy himself with Holly’s shoelace. And still the wheel turned, and as the cityscape widened, so the houses and people shrunk, a little more, a little more, at every stage of the ascent. Soon they were in miniature, like doll’s houses, an infinity of rooftops, a multitude of people. And she had to shut her eyes, knowing that no matter what she did, no matter how she tried, she could never save them all.

Danielle McLaughlin’s short-story collection Dinosaurs on Other Planets is published by Stinging Fly Press and, in the US, Random House. Jane Webster teaches illustration at Kingston University;

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