For our school trip this year we went to the cheese mines on the moon.
I’d never been to the moon before, of course, so that was already very exciting for me, without even going to the mines. In fact I didn’t really want to go to the mine anyway. I don’t like holes in the ground and I don’t like cheese. I said so, too. I told Mrs Mish, the teacher, that I’d be perfectly happy wandering around on the surface while the rest of the class went to the mine. But she said the cheese mines were the basis of our economy, whatever that means, so I’d have to go along and learn all about it whether I wanted to or not.
The only one among all of us in the class who’d ever been to the moon was Bighead, and he went on and on and on about it. Bighead’s not his real name, of course, but that’s what everyone calls him. Even he doesn’t answer to any name but Bighead. I think it started off as a joke because he was so boastful, but now it’s just about the only name he has.
Sometimes I wonder if Bighead’s actually pretending to be conceited just so as to live up to his nickname.
So the day of the trip, we were waiting for the shuttle at the moonport and Bighead was going on boasting about the time he’d been to the moon. To listen to him you’d think it was yesterday and he’d been given a guided tour of all the places on the moon, but when I asked he said it was ten years ago, which means he wouldn’t even have been old enough to walk or talk properly, and I’ll bet you that he didn’t actually remember a thing.
Not that I had any reason to listen to him anyway. The moonport is exciting enough. Have you ever been to it? It’s this big enormous dome with all kinds of spikes and towers and antennae sticking out of it in all directions, so it looks like a sea urchin like the one in the biology lab in school. In the centre there’s this huge round hole in the roof that’s covered by sliding covers that look like flower petals, and the shuttles come down and leave through that. And all around that are rows of shops and restaurants and things, where those waiting for their shuttle can sit and eat and talk. It looked enormous and like the biggest place in the world, but when I said so Mrs Mish laughed and told me it was only a small moonport, that the ones in the big cities were much larger.
When the shuttle came down we all got on and I sat next to Mrs Mish’s daughter, Letuchaya. Though her mum’s the teacher, she’s actually very nice, quite shy, and hardly ever speaks at all. I think she likes me but I’ve never asked. Maybe I should. I like her more than any of the others, and it would be a pity if she became someone like Bighead’s girl instead of mine.
The shuttle isn’t what I was expecting. It’s just like a box, like the bus on which we came to the moonport, really, only without windows and wheels. Instead there were round things like funnels on the roof and when we were inside we had to strap ourselves into the seats. A lady wearing a dark blue uniform came around and made sure we all had the straps fixed. Bighead didn’t, of course, because he had to show off, and the lady had to call Mrs Mish to make him tie it up. Bighead then got sulky because we all laughed at him, and wouldn’t talk for the rest of the trip up to the moon. Good.
After some time the shuttle began shaking slightly, and there was a kind of humming noise, and the lady in blue told us we could take the straps off if we wanted. Letuchaya Mish helped me undo mine. Her hands are soft and warm. I’d have loved to be able to see outside, but there were no windows, of course.
After we’d all got comfortable, Mrs Mish gave us all a lecture on the cheese mines. She said that at one time it was thought that the moon was made of rocks and dust, instead of green cheese. Everyone laughed at that, because of course all you need to know that the moon’s made of green cheese is just to look at it. Those old people must have been very silly. Even Mrs Mish smiled when we laughed and didn’t tell us to quieten down for a bit.
Then the lady in blue, and another couple of ladies also in blue, brought around food in packets for all of us. The packets were kind of hard to open, and this time I helped Letuchaya with hers. The food wasn’t anything special, but then we were all hungry, so it didn’t matter.
Soon after that we were all told to put the straps back since we were coming to land on the moon. There was a bump and the noise and shaking stopped, and the blue lady opened the door so we could go out. Mrs Mish stood beside her and made all of us thank her as we left. Only Bighead didn’t at first, but Mrs Mish glared at him, so he did it, very unhappily though.
The moonport on the moon – or I suppose it’s called the earthport – is much, much bigger than the one in our town, so big that we had to stand on a moving path to take us to the exit. The path passed by huge boxes that reached halfway to the roof. Mrs Mish said they were filled with cheese, waiting to be shipped to earth. Each box had markings on it, which she told us identified the particular mine it came from.
“Some mines have better quality cheese than others, and earn more money,” she said. “There are one or two which produce such good cheese that it’s too costly for almost anyone.” You could hear the regret in her voice. Mrs Mish liked cheese, I could tell. I, myself, don’t have any particular feelings about it.
We came to the exit. Someone was waiting for us there, a short gentleman called Mr Idur, who was from the mine we were going to visit. He had a sharp nose and small glittering eyes, a kind of squeaky voice, and when he looked at us, though he was smiling, I could tell that he didn’t really like us at all, and was only doing this because he had to.
“That man frightens me,” Letuchaya Mish said, and hugged my arm. That felt good, so I was quite glad that Mr Idur was there and not someone else.
We went out of the earthport and down to the railway. Now the moon doesn’t have roads, so everything goes by rail. I hadn’t known that. There was a train from the mine waiting, sent specially for us, Mr Idur said. It was quite small, with tiny white and blue carriages pulled by a funny little black engine. We all got in and sat down. The seats were not like on the shuttle – they were narrow and hard and not really comfortable at all.
Bighead tried to push between Letuchaya and me on the train but she said we were going to sit together. Bighead didn’t like it, glared at us and went off elsewhere. I think he wants to fight with me over Letuchaya, which is very funny, really, because she hasn’t even told me she like me and I’m sure she doesn’t like him at all.
From the moonport the train drove off across the cheese plains. It’s all green cheese, of course, but as Mrs Mish had told us, most of it is hard and of poor quality, and completely useless. It looked like that too, all flaked and crusted and raised in sheets with curly edges. And it smelt pretty bad, even inside the train. I hadn’t known the moon smelt bad. Nobody had told me that, not even Bighead.
“My mother told me that they used to think there was no air on the moon,” Letuchaya said. “That was back when they still thought it was made of rocks and dust, of course.”
“I wish they’d been right,” I replied. “If there wasn’t any air it wouldn’t smell so bad.” I thought for a moment she might get angry, but all she did was laugh. She has a nice laugh.
We only had the glow of the earth and stars to see by, since it was night. But there were clusters of lights off in the distance, and Mrs Mish called down the train to tell us that they were other mines. Mr Idur said nothing, so I suppose they weren’t his mines.
We also passed a huge machine not far from the railway. It was so big that even the tracks on which it sat were bigger than the train, and from my seat I couldn’t see the top, though I leant over Letuchaya and craned my neck upwards. She didn’t seem to mind, though I’ll bet you any other girl would have. The machine was brightly lit with red and white lights, and had a long arm with a huge wheel at one end. The wheel was turning and cutting into the crusted cheese, which was piled up to one side as high as a hill.
“That’s a new open cast mine,” Mr Idur announced. Even over the speakers set in the carriage roof you could tell he wasn’t keen to talk about it, but Mrs Mish must have asked him to. “There’s a vein of good cheese near the surface, and the digger is cutting it out. Then it loads it directly on a train that stops on these tracks.”
“We’re going to one of the old style mines,” Mrs Mish said. “They’re the ones that keep the economy going, isn’t that so, Mr Idur?”
“Yes,” Mr Idur agreed. “The open cast mines are cheaper and newer but the old type mines still do most of the work. And the cheese is much better deep underneath, not in the open cast mines like this.”
“He must be sore because his mine didn’t find it before the other people did,” I whispered to Letuchaya, and she giggled. She really is a very nice girl. If I hadn’t come on this trip I probably wouldn’t have found that out.
The train turned off the main railway on to a smaller line and then came to a stop. We got out on a concrete platform lit by bright white lamps. With all the dark grey-green cheese all around even the air looked greenish. Letuchaya shivered.
“Are you cold?” I asked her.
“No, it just looks a little...creepy.”
I felt like putting my arm around her but I didn’t know what all the others would say, let alone Mrs Mish, so I didn’t. But I did take her hand quietly and give it a squeeze, and she squeezed back. That made me feel quite happy. Wouldn’t it have you, if you’d been in my place?
We passed huge boxes piled on the platform, like the ones we’d seen in the earthport. These were all marked the same, with a green square inside a larger blue one.
“That’s our company’s logo,” Mr Idur told us. There were three letters stencilled in red below the logo, too: CCC.
“That stands for Casein Cheese Company,” Mrs Mish said. “It’s one of the biggest companies on the moon, one of the most important.” I could hear in her voice that she, herself, didn’t really believe what she was saying.
“Yes, we’re the best,” Mr Idur said, and he clearly didn’t believe it either. He led us past a long row of buildings, all of which had brightly lit windows. “Those are the mine offices, where we do all the administrative...the work involved with running the mine.”
“Like the principal’s office back in school,” Mrs Mish said.
“That’s right. We’ll soon be entering the mine. Stay close behind me and do exactly as you’re told. We don’t want you wandering off alone and getting lost, do we?” Mr Idur turned to us. “And another thing, don’t taste any of the cheese in the walls. It’s crude, not cleaned up. There are lots of impurities. We don’t want any upset stomachs, do we?”
“We don’t,” Mrs Mish said, looking at all of us firmly. “Right?”
“Yes, ma’am,” we agreed.
“Here’s something to keep you going until we get back,” Mr Idur said, gesturing, and a lady I hadn’t noticed before came along with a tray hung around her neck, handing out small pieces of cheese to everyone. It was dark grey-green and left a bad taste in my mouth. Everyone else seemed to like it, though.
We came to the mine entrance. It was a kind of square tunnel going down along a slope, and narrow railway tracks were set into the floor. There were all sorts of machinery along the sides of the tunnel and above it, and a couple of very big guards in green uniforms with guns.
“Why do they have to have guards in the mine?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Letuchaya replied. “Maybe people might want to steal the machines, do you think?” But the machines all looked far too heavy to steal, and, besides, wouldn’t anyone who might steal them – the other mines – have their own anyway? I said this to Letuchaya and she shrugged.
“We’ll ask my mum afterwards,” she said.
The inside of the mine was lit by those same white lights, but somehow underground they didn’t seem quite so bright. There were pillars everywhere and they threw shadows which were as black as ink. The tunnel divided several times, and at each division there were small boards set in the wall with figures and names on them. I looked at one as we passed it, but it meant nothing to me.
“Stay close to the side of the wall,” Mr Idur called. “Don’t step on the railway lines. Trains will be coming up.” Sure enough, a tiny engine crawled up the track, drawing a long line of wagons filled with blocks of green cheese. The man driving the engine looked at us and away quickly again.
“Did you see that?” Letuchaya whispered in my ear when the train had passed. “He was tied to the engine with a chain.”
“Maybe that’s so he won’t get hurt if he falls off,” I said. But the train was moving so slowly that I myself didn’t think that was possible. The train rattled around a bend in the tunnel and out of sight.
“Now here we are at what we call the face, where we’re actually cutting out the cheese from a vein of good material,” Mr Idur said after a while. We’d been going a long time and the tunnel air was quite cold. “This is only one of many cheese faces in the mine, of course. Look closely, please.”
The tunnel had become narrow, and the ceiling quite low, so that anyone much taller than Mr Idur would have to stoop. There were men working up ahead, bending over motors that whined and made grinding noises as they cut into the walls. One of them cut out a block of cheese and turned to put it into a wagon behind him, and looked at us for a moment. He had a helmet on his head, goggles over his eyes, and his clothes were bright orange. On his back the number 805 was marked in silver.
Mr Idur was saying something else, but the man who had cut out the cheese was back at it, cutting out another, and I couldn’t hear anything over the whine of the motor. I stepped forward a little to try and get a little closer to Mr Idur, tripped over the railway line, and pitched forward, unable to control myself – right towards the miner’s motor’s revolving blade.
I heard Letuchaya cry out as I fell, but I couldn’t make a sound. The blade was turning so quickly it was a shimmering circle, and I was falling right towards it. I couldn’t even make the slightest move to help myself.
Then the miner threw the motor to one side and slammed an arm into me – hard enough to knock me away so I fell to the tunnel floor away from the motor. I hit my head on something hard enough to see stars for a moment. I always had thought that was just made up, like in the comics when someone gets hurt, they see stars. But, you know something? If you get hurt in the head hard enough, you do see stars.
When I could see properly again, the class was crowded around me. The miner was leaning over me, his goggles around his neck. Above his thick moustache his eyes were wide.
“Are you all right, boy?” he asked. Behind him I could see Mr Idur’s face. He looked furious, and at first I thought he was angry with me for being so clumsy. But that wasn’t it at all.
“Eight hundred and five,” he said, almost squeaking he was so mad. “Eight hundred and five, get away from that boy and step back! Don’t touch him.”
I was going to say that the miner hadn’t hurt me, but he was already backing away, Mr Idur still glaring at him. Mrs Mish and Letuchaya helped me up.
“Are you all right, Chuha?” Mrs Mish asked. “You aren’t hurt?”
“I’m all right, ma’am,” I said, though my head was still ringing. I thought if I said that it was hurting, though, Mr Idur would get even angrier at the miner, eight hundred and five, and I didn’t want that. The poor miner had picked up his motor. Something seemed to have gone wrong when he’d thrown it aside and he was trying to start it again. I tried to thank him with my eyes but he wouldn’t look at me. “I’m sorry I fell. It was my fault.”
“Well, be careful in future,” Mrs Mish said. “You almost had a very nasty accident there.”
“And stay away from the miners,” Mr Idur said. “They’re working hard and don’t want to be disturbed.”
Letuchaya and I exchanged looks. This seemed a bit strange, since he had been shouting at poor eight hundred and five only just now, and that had disturbed everybody. All the miners were throwing us quick glances and hunching their backs as though it was raining or something.
“Come along,” Mr Idur said, looking angrily at eight hundred and five again, who had not yet managed to get his motor started. “We’ll take a look at one of the other cheese faces, one where the cutting is down a vertical shaft. After that we’ll go to the cheese refinery where we get rid of the impurities. And watch where you’re going!”
We went down another set of tunnels. My head was still hurting quite badly, and I couldn’t walk as fast as the others, so I found myself at the back. Bighead, who was slouching along, laughed at me as he went past.
“Not feeling so good, teacher’s pet?” he asked.
“Shut up, Bighead,” Letuchaya said, stepping back to walk at my side. “He’s not a teacher’s pet any more than I am, and you know it quite well.”
This part of the mine went through tunnels which weren’t as well lit and were much narrower and partly filled with what looked to me like junk; old machines and things, and a couple of the wagons the train earlier had been pulling along. Mr Idur was speaking as he led us down, but I couldn’t hear him at all clearly. The tunnel seemed to be soaking up the sound, or maybe the fall had done something to my ears.
“I can’t hear him either,” Letuchaya said. “It doesn’t matter anyway. I don’t like him at all, do you?”
“No,” I agreed. “Not after the way he treated that poor miner, and...”
Letuchaya squeaked suddenly and vanished. One second she was walking beside me, close enough to touch, and then she just wasn’t there. We were walking down a badly lit section of the tunnel, and I was just about to call for help when I felt a tug at my knee.
“I’m down here,” Letuchaya said. “The floor just collapsed under me.”
She was up to her shoulders in a hole. “Help me out,” she said. “Don’t say anything, they’ll just get angry.”
It took some time to get her out. The edges of the hole weren’t that firm, and crumbled a bit, but I managed it at last.
“It’s some kind of bubble in the cheese,” Letuchaya said. “I could feel the bottom with my feet. It must have been there since forever.”
“The top probably got worn down and cut away all these years and just gave way now,” I said. “We’re lucky it wasn’t deeper. You could’ve fallen right down to the centre of the moon or something.”
“You’re funny,” Letuchaya said, and kissed me. Have you ever been kissed by a girl? It feels good. “Now let’s catch up with the others. Remember, don’t say anything about this.”
“It’ll be our secret,” I promised, feeling the wet spot on my cheek where she’d kissed me. My head suddenly felt much better after the kiss, too. “Which way did they go?”
Suddenly, neither of us was sure. The tunnel ahead divided into three branches, and neither of us had seen which way they’d gone. I’d been too busy helping Letuchaya out of the hole and of course she couldn’t see a thing.
“This way?” I asked, pointing to the right hand side one, which was much wider than the others. But Letuchaya shook her head.
“I’m sure before I fell I saw them go into one of the others,” she said. “I saw Bighead, and you can’t mistake him. But I don’t know which one.”
That still left two. “Let’s go down one a bit,” I suggested. “If it’s the right one, we’re sure to hear them talking.”
So we went down the middle one. Now we were both careful about looking where we were going, so as not to fall into another hole. The lights weren’t very good, and though we strained our ears to the utmost there was nothing we could hear.
“Let’s go back,” I said. “We must be in the wrong tunnel.”
So we turned back, and then suddenly we discovered another problem. While we’d been walking down this shaft, we must have passed several other branches without realising it. And now we didn’t know which way to go, even to come to the place where Letuchaya had fallen.
We were lost.
Was I scared? Of course I was. But I couldn’t show that in front of Letuchaya, could I? She wasn’t looking scared at all. “It wouldn’t do any good to shout for help,” she said. “If we can’t hear them, they can’t hear us.”
“We must have come down one of these,” I said. “Does any look familiar to you?”
“I didn’t read the boards,” she said. “I suppose we should have.”
“So we have to go back up one of these and see if it gets us back to where we were,” I said. “And if it doesn’t we’ll come back down and try again.”
As you can imagine, this just made us so lost that within a short time we had not the slightest idea which way was which and in which direction we were going. All the tunnels seemed the same, and I even began to think we were passing the same pieces of machinery over and over again.
“My foot is beginning to hurt,” Letuchaya said. “I must have twisted it when I fell.”
“My head’s still ringing a bit,” I agreed.
“At least we won’t starve,” she said. “If we get really hungry we can just eat the walls.”
“We shouldn’t,” I reminded her. “They’re impure and harmful, remember?”
Finally we were both so tired that we simply sat down on the tunnel floor. Letuchaya took off her shoe and we looked at her foot. The ankle was swollen to what seemed twice its size. When I touched it, the skin felt hot, and she winced.
“I’m sorry, Chuha,” she said. “I shouldn’t have fallen into that hole.”
“They must have missed us by now,” I said. But had they really? I’d no idea how much time had passed. Maybe they were all so busy listening to Mr Idur that they had no time for us.
“Wait,” Letuchaya said suddenly. “Can you hear someone?”
“No...” I began, and then I heard it too. Someone was walking down one of the tunnels not far away. I couldn’t tell if they were coming closer or going away. “Let’s shout for help,” I said.
So we both screamed our loudest. The footsteps stopped, and change direction. A moment later someone stepped out of one of the tunnels and stood looking at us.
It was the miner whom we’d met before, the one with the motor, eight hundred and five. I knew him at once from his moustache and a scar on his cheek, even without the number on his orange suit. He stood staring at us.
“Can you help us, please?” I asked. “My friend fell and hurt her foot, and we’re lost.”
He stared for a moment longer, and then shook himself and blinked. “Yes, of course. I think I know where your group is now. I’ll take you to them. Young lady, can you stand?”
Letuchaya grimaced, but managed to stand. Her foot was so swollen that she didn’t even try to put her shoe on again, and gave it to me to carry. She leaned on the miner, who held her gingerly, as though she might break.
“I’m sorry that I got you in trouble earlier, sir,” I said.
“Don’t call me sir,” he replied. “And don’t worry about getting me in trouble. It was going to happen sooner or later. Everyone’s continuously getting into trouble here.”
“If that’s so,” I asked curiously, “why do you work here? Can’t you get work in one of the other mines?”
The miner looked at me curiously. “Didn’t they tell you? None of us are here by our own choice, are we? Except for the mine management and the guards, of course.”
“Then why are you here?”
He looked away and back again. “We’re all prisoners,” he said. “All of us. The government hires us out to the mines. It’s cheaper for the government, they don’t have to feed and house us, and they even get paid. It’s cheaper for the mines, too, they don’t have to pay wages or take the kind of care they would of free workers. Everyone benefits...except us.”
It was Letuchaya who asked the question. “You were in jail? What for?”
Eight hundred and five didn’t reply for a few minutes. I began to think he’d forgotten. “I made a mistake,” he said at last. “I trusted someone I shouldn’t have trusted. It was only a small thing, not really a crime at all. That’s all you need to know.”
“How long have you been here?” I asked.
“Three years,” he replied. “And five more to go, if they don’t increase the time I have to serve. They probably will, after the motor today. They’ll say I have to pay with my labour to repair the damage.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say.
“It doesn’t matter,” he repeated. “They always find a way. There are people who have been here for twenty years. They’re now working to pay off the cost of the food they eat and the uniforms they give us to wear.”
We came to a bend in the tunnel, and now we could hear voices. I recognised Mr Idur’s squeaky tones.
“There you go,” Eight hundred and five said. “I don’t think they’ve missed you yet.”
“Thanks,” Letuchaya said. “I know it doesn’t sound like much, but thanks.”
“If you came along with us, and I said you’d helped,” I told him, “maybe it could help you.”
“Don’t even think of it.” He looked really alarmed. “You saw what happened earlier.”
“Well, in that case...” I tried to think of something to say. “When they let you go, will you come and see us? I’m Chuha Badur, and this is Letuchaya Mish. You can find us through the school, easily.”
“I will if you want me to,” he agreed. “Now will you do something for me?”
“It’s nothing much,” he said. “It’s just...when you go back to earth...look up at the sun for me. I haven’t seen it for three years, you see.”
And then he waved and walked away down the tunnel, without looking back. I thought he was wiping his eyes as he went, and Letuchaya thought so too. But neither of us was sure about that.
Nothing much happened during the trip. Mrs Mish saw Letuchaya’s bare foot and asked her about it, but she just said she’d twisted it. We’d missed a lot of the things Mr Idur was showing us, but it didn’t really matter to me any longer, and later Letuchaya said it didn’t matter to her, either.
She sat beside me on the way back down to Earth, and put her head on my shoulder, not caring who saw it.
So it turned out all right, at least for the two of us.
I hope Eight hundred and five comes to see us someday.
I would love to walk out with him and look up at the sun. And then I’d ask him a question.
I would ask him his name.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015