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Underground fugue, p.11

Underground Fugue, page 11


Underground Fugue

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  Outside they squint into the stab of daylight. The shuttered colliery grounds are quiet on this side, too. It is still a Sunday morning in 1939.

  What was a border, anyway? The forest here was the same forest as on the other side. The trees the same stark lodge pole pines. The air damp with the same misting summer rain.


  In Lonia’s dream, she’s falling. The pavement cracks and buckles, the cobblestones break and drop into the void beneath the street—a sinkhole, a mineshaft—into which she’s falling, somersaulting, head over heels, weightless, wind whooshing through her skin, released from gravity. Her skirt flips up; her limbs fly out; her fingers scrape the rocky tunnel walls. Far above her, the blue eye of daylight winks shut. She can feel it loose inside her chest, her wild heart.

  She jerks awake, gasping for breath, her nightgown damp with sweat.

  Through the floorboards the Blüthner is still singing.

  O Orpheus sings. O great tree of sound. O fugue-song of escape.



  Mole is down below, Bigsby overhead. Long tiers of cat ladders stretch down the steel-clad access shaft like a spinal column encircled by skeletal steel ribs. The shaft is a derelict cathedral, a missile silo, a space ship. The thrum of traffic overhead has long since faded. Now there’s just the reverberation of exhaust fans and every movement’s metallic ping. The air smells dank and burny. Underground air, trapped.

  They are three boys in black hoodies, trainers, and dirty jeans, climbing down into an uncharted tunnel beneath the Thames. The tunnel stretches from Pimlico to Battersea, if Mole is right. It’s not marked on any map.

  They’ve already traversed a strange, bright, orange-lit tunnel, hot and dry, lined with enormous pipes. Steam pipes for district heating, Mole said. Mole was the tunnel rat, an engineer. This expedition had taken weeks of trolling for information on the Internet and endless nights of recon before they finally settled on a plan. Bigsby had been all for infiltrating the Pimlico Accumulator instead, but Mole wasn’t too keen on climbing a forty-one-meter heating tower in plain view of anyone looking out a window in the Churchill Estates. (It’s a gigantic fucking pressure cooker, Biggs,” he said.) Of course, as it turned out, the tunnel entry wasn’t any less exposed, the manhole right there on the Embankment for anyone driving past to see. They had to wait until nearly 2:00 a.m., crouched behind a low brick wall, until a gap in the traffic opened long enough for them to pop the cover and drop in.

  Their torch beams strafe the chamber’s walls. The shaft is streaked with rust and smears of white—bat guano or lime. Shadows flare. Amir lowers himself another rung, steps onto a rest landing, shrugs off his rucksack, and pulls out his camera. He braces himself against the rail and shoots. There’s not much light.

  A muddy trainer dangles above his head. “Stop faffin’ about down there.”

  “Piss off, Biggs.”

  He fires off a string of shots, shoves the camera into his pack.

  At the bottom of the shaft, two gigantic steam pipes stretch into the tunnel. Two equally enormous pipes hang overhead. The pipes are sticky with black insulating gunk and hot. Straddling the narrow trench of filthy standing water that has collected between the pipes, Mole leads the way. Bigsby follows; Amir takes up the rear. Their trainers squelch. Their torch beams twitch. There’s the pling of water dripping, a scrabbling sound that had better not be rats. They are beneath the river, beneath the Thames, twenty feet of water coursing overhead.

  The first Thames tunnel was dug at Rotherhithe between 1825 and 1843, Mole says. Incredibly enough, trains still run through it, between Dalston Junction and Croydon, on the East London line. Amir has been on that train often enough; he’d never have guessed the tunnel was so old. The tunnel builders had to do the digging by hand with spades back then, inching along the iron framework of Brunel’s famous tunneling shield, fetid river water spraying over them. Their oil lamps exploded if they hit a pocket of methane gas. Workers routinely passed out after a couple of hours underground, and then they hauled them up and sent down a fresh crew. Men died of dysentery or fever or drowned when the river broke through, as it not infrequently did.

  This tunnel was probably dug in the 1920s, Mole says. Amir swings his torch upward, illuminating a spot where a few support beams have been welded to brace a dent in the tunnel wall. If the tunnel ruptured, they’d be swept away in an avalanche of water, their bones pulverized, their lungs crushed. They’d be buried beneath tons of muddy silt and sand. No one would ever find them. No one even knew that they were here.


  He has always been drawn to secret, ruined places: to the filthy coal chute in the cellar, to the attic crawl space, stuffed with yellow insulation, to the graffiti-strafed path beneath the railway bridge with its urine reek. As a child, he used to like to climb inside the armoire or wedge himself beneath the bed. Hidden on the window seat, cloaked in the curtains, he’d read Lewis, Tolkien, Rowling, Anthony, Peake. The books opened onto other universes, parallel realities, cracks and gaps in time. In hidden places, you transformed.

  Now Bigsby says things like, Transgression is an essential precondition of resistance to the carceral system of modern society. When Bigsby talks like an academic in his Yorkshire accent, it cracks Amir up.

  He met Bigsby right off at SOAS, in Welcome Week. He’d done his obligatory tour of the Fresher’s Fair, dodging the gauntlet of arms waving him into the Brazilian jiu-jitsu society, the Spirit newspaper, the Palestinian solidarity society, the Stop the War coalition, the cricket club. He’d ended up hunched over a pint at the student union, alone. Bigsby had sidled up beside him—tall, lantern jawed, thin lipped, his head a nest of curls—and held out his hand.

  “John Biggs.”

  Bigsby came from up north, from West Yorkshire, outside Leeds. He was in his second year, studying anthropology. He was into ethnography, sci-fi, semiotics, UrbEx, climbing, multiplayer video games.

  “Urb-what?” Amir said.

  “Urban exploration. Infiltration. Ghost hunting. Call it what ye like.”

  “And what exactly do you…infiltrate?”

  Bigsby’s lips twisted into a smile. “Abandoned buildings,” he said. “Storm drains, utility tunnels, conduits, tower cranes.”

  He reached into his bag, pulled out a laptop, and clicked on photographs: gaping tunnels, grime-encrusted machinery, vast seas of twinkling lights.

  “Where’s all this, then?”

  “All around, if ye know where to look.”

  “Yeah, right.”

  “I’m not fooling. Behind all those ‘no access’ signs. Raight beneath yer feet.”

  Amir leaned in closer. The pictures showed crumbling brickwork, train tracks stretching into darkness, dust motes floating in beams of torchlight. Sewer pipes a man could walk through without ducking. Smashed windows. Concrete walls. Stairwells cordoned off with caution tape.

  “Is it dangerous?”

  “Only if yer an idiot.”

  “Ever get caught?”

  “Nay. They’ll just rap yer knuckles for trespassing, anyhow, so long as ye don’t have owt that could be taken for a weapon or a tool for vandalism—no knives or lighters or spray paint, none o’ that.”

  “So where are you going next?”

  Bigsby tipped back the last of his pint and grinned. “Guess ye’ll just have to coom along and see.”


  Now, up ahead, Mole is squinting up a narrow brick-clad shaft cut into the top of the tunnel wall. They all come to a stop.

  “Switch off a sec,” Mole says.

  They turn off their torches and everything goes black. They crane their necks, following Mole’s gaze. Far above, Amir can see the faintest will-o’-the-wisp of light.

  “What the fuck is that?” Bigsby says.

  “It’s the moon, you wanker,” says Mole. “We’ve done it. Crossed to the other side.”

  Amir holds his camera up and keeps the shutter open to catch the pallid strea

  From that point on, the tunnel is newer, cleaner, the pipes better insulated, the cylinder clad in dry concrete. It dead-ends at another exit shaft lined with tiers of hooped metal ladders. Again, they climb the cat ladders to the highest landing. Just above them is the manhole cover, which opens, if they have reckoned right, to the streets of Battersea, beneath the Chelsea bridge.

  They sit down on the metal grate of the top landing, dangling their legs over the abyss. Bigsby pulls out a flask. “Here’s to us!” He whoops. “To an epic journey!”

  The whisky burns. They’ve done it. Scored a first in an uncharted tunnel. Walked right beneath the Thames.

  “Is the Battersea power station right above us?” Amir asks.

  “Yep,” Mole says.

  “Did you ever get in there?”

  “Once. Got into the control room and then climbed up onto the roof.”

  “I really want to do that.” Amir leans over the rail, holding the camera at arm’s length, the dark drop doubled on the screen.

  “It was fucking awesome,” says Mole.

  “Aye, it’s a classic,” Bigsby agrees.

  “I heard they’re going to rip the whole thing down soon, though,” Mole says, spitting. “They’re going to make it over into a leisure complex—luxury flats, a sports center, all that shit.”

  Bigsby shakes his head. “That’s fucked up.”

  “That’s what everybody wants, isn’t it?” Mole says. “A fancy flat and a fancy car and big fancy bank account to pay for all of it.”

  “Not me,” Amir says.

  “Yeah, right. Just give it a couple of years,” Mole says, waving the flask. “All this will be nothing but a rosy memory of your misspent youth.”

  “Go on,” Bitsby says.

  “You’ll see. You’ll be sitting at a fucking desk, in a fucking suit and tie, just like the rest of them.”

  “Oh, and ye won’t be?”

  “Piss off, Biggs.”

  They pass the flask. Bigsby stands up, unzips. Piss splatters into the void below like rain.

  Amir pulls out his camera and scrolls through the shots taken earlier that night: the hot orange tunnel, the tiers of metal ladders, the guano-smeared shaft, the gigantic gunky pipes. Mole and Bigsby grin out at him. Their faces are nothing but spots of light, photons in a digital stream. Already none of it seems real.


  He remembers once, when he was little, a game of hide-and-seek. They were down in Richmond, he and his mum, at a party thrown by some of her friends. He remembers lawns like great green football pitches, enormous houses, spreading trees. The grownups were pouring drinks, waving their hands—go on, go outside and play. He followed the group of children around the back.

  He didn’t know the other kids. One of the boys cocked his head at him and said, “Are you a Paki?” And when he didn’t answer, “Are you adopted, then?”

  Ready, steady, go! the seeker shouted and they scattered. He ran around the far side of the house to where the lawn ended and the woods began and scrambled up a low-branched tree. He could hear the seeker counting off, slowly at first, then rushing to the end. Then there was just a tingling silence, broken only by the seeker’s panting breath as he ran by, oblivious, beneath the tree.

  Amir gripped his branch between his legs and waited. His blood beat inside his ears. He was not a Paki. He was not adopted. He hated the lot of them. He wished them dead.

  The sky turned pink, then navy. The light dimmed. All he’d have to do was spread his arms, he thought, and he could fly, broad-winged as a hawk, out above the rooftops and back gardens to the river and onward to the open sea.

  Squirrels scrambled in the upper branches; a dove cooed somewhere in the leaves. He didn’t hear the other children yelling ollie ollie oxen free, or the grownups calling them in for supper, his mum frantically shouting his name. He doesn’t know how long he stayed there in the darkness, doesn’t remember skinning his knees and shins climbing down the tree. He remembers only the anger in his mother’s voice when he finally came straggling in, and her fierce and furious embrace.


  After an expedition, back at university, everything—the Victorian brick buildings, the modern glass and concrete blocks, the library, the lecture halls with their projectors and screens and rows of chairs—seems touched by the proximity of decay. He notices the cracks, the scuffs and nicks, the watermarks left by a leak, the peeling paint. He nods to the cleaner, leaning on his broom; to the workman slipping into a supply closet; to the old Bangladeshi woman dragging a cart behind her, emptying the bins. The other students and faculty members rush obliviously past. The great machine rumbles on, pulling them in its wake.

  Amir crams in with the other first-years around a table in the student bar. They set down pints of beer and plates of greasy chips.

  “Did you lot see this?” Sayyid pulls out a copy of The Guardian, the pages folded back. He reads, “ ‘The union has failed to provide an adequate response to concerns about allegations of anti-Semitic activity on Britain’s campuses, chiefly at the School of Oriental and African Studies.”

  Tawfiq grimaces. “They should be writing about all the anti-Islamic activity on Britain’s campuses instead,” he says.

  Ian grabs a handful of chips. “No joke.”

  “The Jewish students go whining to the authorities and it’s national fucking news,” Sayyid says, shaking his head. “I read Nassim’s article in the Spirit. This is not a matter of anti-Semitism. This is about those colonialist Zionist fucks who continue to occupy our land!”

  Amir looks down at the wet rings left by his glass along the tabletop. They have opinions on everything, the others: the situation at Guantanamo, the Gaza tunnels, the new anti-terror legislation, the proliferation of CCTV cameras, the arguments justifying or condemning suicide attacks. Amir admires their passionate, sure-footed politics. They knew exactly who they were; they were willing to take a stand. He feels as if they have opened a secret door to a new world that until now has been completely hidden from his view. He can’t talk about anything that matters with his parents. His father would just go off on another lecture about the ayatollahs and the dangers of religious fundamentalism, as if it were still 1979 in Iran. And his mum, well. She doesn’t think about anything but herself.

  From across the table, Miranda catches his eye and smiles. She’s always smiling. Her eyes are dark and thick lashed, outlined heavily in black.

  Sayyid’s voice grows louder. “Nassim told me he’s been getting death threats from the American Jews. Death threats for a sodding article! They’re worse than Hitler!”

  Ian nods. “Haven’t they heard about free speech?”

  “People will defend free speech all right when the attacks are directed against us,” Tawfiq says. “But don’t try speaking out against the Israeli terrorists. Oh no.”

  Is-ra-ee-li, Tawfiq says, with the proper accent on the third syllable. He is fluent in Arabic, even though he grew up here. Amir wishes he spoke Arabic. He doesn’t even speak Farsi. It is hard going, starting so late.

  Miranda is still smiling at him. She leans a little closer. “So what do you think?” she says.


  “Yeah, you.”

  “About what?”

  “You ready for that last exam?”

  “I don’t know. I guess.”

  “We’re having one final study session. My place, tomorrow afternoon. Will you come along?”

  He has been to a few of these so-called study sessions at Miranda’s flat up in Finsbury Park. Not much studying has gotten done, so far, at least. Mostly they sit about and laugh and drink.


  “Yes. Just bring along some study aids. Your choice: booze or sweets.”

  Amir runs a finger along the condensation on his glass. “Maybe?”

  “Come on,” she says. She touches his arm. Even her eyes are smiling. “Say yes.”


  It is hot. Not yet the e
nd of May and already it’s a sweltering ninety degrees Fahrenheit in central London, the hottest day in May in more than fifty years. So hot that three trains get stuck in an Underground tunnel south of Baker Street, trapping the passengers for hours. So hot that for ninety minutes even Big Ben, stalwart survivor of the Blitz, refuses to tick.

  “It’s global warming,” Esther says, fanning her mother with a magazine. The bedroom is stifling. The windows are wide open, but no air is moving out or in. The room smells of illness, medicinal and oversweet.

  “Nonsense,” her mother says. She sits propped against the pillows, a damp towel rolled around her neck. A cooking show is on TV. A plump young man with a goatee is talking about pork bellies, gesturing at a pink and white side of flesh laid out on a metal tray. Were pork bellies actually bellies? Esther has never kept kosher, but there was still something disgusting about the thought of eating the stomach of a pig.

  “This is why they invented air conditioning, Mum,” she says. “Don’t you even own a fan?” She hands her mother a glass of water and watches as she drinks. Apparently the elderly lose the ability to sweat. Hydration, Zofia has told her, is the most important thing.

  Her mother gestures vaguely. “There should be one about somewhere. Have a look in the basement. There might be one down there.”

  Dank trapped air breathes out the cellar door. Esther tugs the string for light and makes her way down the narrow wooden stairs. It’s cooler down here, at least. Old suitcases hunch beneath a sheet. She prods a rack of dusty garment bags that reek of naphthalene. A carrier bag crammed with mildewed shoes, another stuffed with handbags. A sewing machine.

  Ancient artifacts. Some are hers, it seems. From a metal crate, she pulls out an algebra textbook, a French grammar, a couple of old paperbacks—The Great Gatsby, Oliver Twist. She riffles through the yellowed pages of the Dickens. Her name, Esther Fagin, is penned in loopy girlish cursive on the inside cover of the book. Of all the things to have saved. She has always hated the way people look at her when they hear her surname. “Fagin?” they said. “Really? Like Fagin the crook in Oliver Twist?” She tosses the book back into the box.

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