The black windowless vans pulled up down the street. I slunk back into the doorway of the cafe, out of the rain and away from the terror. The raid wasn’t here thankfully. The black squads entered an apartment block, storming up the stairs, batons drawn.
A leader in a blue suit is bored and starts strolling up the street towards me, looking around the place, checking. I made myself known, I stepped out and lit a Gitanne and shoved my face high.
-What is this place?
-Just a bar, just a place to drink, chat, read a newspaper, sip a coffee, you know.
He smirked, tutted and looked me down. Grey Baker’s boy, over-sized jacket to my knees, baggy trousers pinched at the white socks, and winkle pickers to kick it all off.
-And what are you supposed to be? What is this?
He gestured to my whole look.
-This style, this weird get up? What the fuck is all this?
-Weird? Na, just the way I dress, the way I am, you know.
Just then a couple pushed past us into the café. He a huge quiff, greased pencil moustache, suit, workers boots. She a huge bouffant, red lips, short light skirt, flowing out.
-What the hell is this place?
As he goes to enter, we hear his men down the street. They have a couple with their arms behind their backs.
-Take your hands of me!
A couple of guys drag.
-Just leave me alone.
One guy takes the butt of his gun and smashes into the bridge of the woman, the man shuts up.
-Get into the back of the fucking van now!
The officer smiles, takes a last drag, looks at me, smiles again, chucks the fag into the gutter, stands back slightly looking at the café, brushes his suit down, nods, smiles again, gets into his little black car and leaves.
I went back inside.
On stage a four-piece were mixing it up. On the bouncy floor the usual mix were jerking and popping each other. Be-boppers, Soulers and Cab Cats. White shirts, braces, trilbies and brogues were twisting pink dresses, glimpses of blue knickers and stocking tops. I walked to the bar and got the Rasta in a dickie-bow to pour a gin thing and roll a little doobie. The place was rolling.
I necked my drink, looked around and slipped behind the bar. The Rasta held up the cellar latch door and looking round again, I jumped down.
I knew I had been watched, so I didn’t bother to knock. Inside the room was red brick and windowless. A bar in the one corner, a whole printing press, computers, stencils, bits and bobs of spares in the other. And everywhere reams and reams of paper. Copies stuck to the walls, piles of old leaflets on the floor.
-He was a bit inquisitive?
-New guy, from out of town obviously, never heard of us.
-He won’t be the first to come sniffing around, and if they do, good, keeps them off track.
-Nice suit by the way.
-Ta, got it down by the docks, but where did you get that shirt?
They were admiring my new, paisley patterned, purple and blue fifties wide collar, baggy cuffs number.
-Tailor round the pipe, tunnel 7. You know him? Eddy. Gave him some old photos from the 30’s and 40’s, and he came up with this.
-He got any more?
-Yeah he knocked up a few like, get down there man, he’ll sort you out.
-Anyway gentlemen of fashion, we have more important things to get all pumped up about.
-We have a shipment of medicine coming in tonight, and we need to move it through the sewers. We’ll get it there by cars and barges in the early hours, but we need some help from the rats to move it through.
-But we have the meeting tonight also, Tunnel 3 anti-evictions.
-I know mate, what do you think these bloody leaflets are for?
I checked the leaflets out. Organise to fight Stop the evictions Save our homes
Usual stuff; advice against arson attacks, how to barricade, how to disable diggers, same old.
So, I was off to see the rats.
The fly over came to a halt, suddenly in the middle of the sky the journey ended.
Other roads criss-crossed, highways on stilts.
Underneath blue and green plastic canopies, covering wood and corrugated dens. Stretched out from the protection of the flyover, buttering up the banks of the trickling river. From the dens, little pipes puffed tufts of smoke. I stood on a bridge road, it looked idyllic, comfortable from afar; some may even say romantic.
Underneath, ants hurried around, busy ants hurrying for life. Squeezed together, huggling together, fighting, no not fighting, utilising space, everyone trying desperately to cooperate with space. All the warrens of the camp lead to the centre trickle, follow the trickle to the huge centre pipe. Big enough to drive a bus down, but there are no buses here, only trickles of a river lost and a people left.
Down the tunnel was the high street, a warren on little stalls, a warren of life. Kids running in between legs, choppers smashing down of flapping chickens, men heckling, haggling. Others whisper.
Everything is there; to buy, to exchange. Smelly Food, bemused puppies and kittens, even little yellow and green birds in badly soldered cages. Cheap rag dolls, expensive fake games. Piles of monitors and radios, shack after shack of phones and disks and cards, and panels and solar and battery banks of every kind. And furniture stacked high and people mending, fixing, welding, sawing,
And wires, mountains of wires and computing boards and men with huge glasses moulding and melting.
I came to the end of a leaking tunnel, wires were sparking, and there were not many people about. There was a huge metal drain cage on the floor, the water running to god knows where, there were a few smaller tunnels going off in the distance, some not lit, some barely, I took the left one, and followed the little graffiti rats marked out half hidden on the skirting of the walls.
I follow the signs and come to a hatch on the floor. I do the secret knock and it opens. I climb down into the cosy den. Kids are on settees, sitting on high cupboards, kids are everywhere in fact… in the far corner upon a high stool upon a high desk littered with tins and boxes and kettles and needles and draws sits king rat. Dalfi as he is known. He is older, but thinner, he sports a grown out blue Mohawk and the rats sit by him and admire. They pass him stuff, stolen stuff, anything really, jewellery and electronic shit mostly. He inspects then measures the amount he deems fit into a needle and a list is made into his ledger; he is a business man. Pervatin mixed with opiates known as a highlow, both addictive both full of shit and made in factories somewhere underground. That’s why the rats all look skeletal; they didn’t eat much or sleep much everything was for the fix. A smother as it’s known. One drug kinda cancels the other out and you get this weird massive high but you’re chilled about the whole thing. Heart attacks are common and withdrawals awful.
But here Dalfi was king, he had wads of cash lying around no one would dream of stealing. He was King Rat.
-Mr Politician man, a rare pleasure, can I interest you?
-He nods to the needles.
-Not right now, and no smother… I’ll take some opiate for later on though.
-Some things are hard to change huh?
I had been a rat.
-What do you need from me? From us?
-What makes you…
-No one comes down here except to smooth or cus they need something.
-But of course.
-I mean on top of the deal to move the stuff tonight.
-I mean a serious favour, we can pay, but maybe not what it’s worth. But we need it for the cause and we know you are into the cause.
-The cause is life my friend, the cause is all our lives; so ask away.
-We need a diversion when the eviction takes place at tunnel 3.
-A diversion from what?
-We will smash the diggers up but we need the police and so on occupied.
-A dangerous situation then?
-The type you like.
-We will think of something.
Two days later I went to see Mama Rita, the leader of tunnel 3. She was not the official leader but she lead. She organized people and fought for water and electric, even organized a private security group to police the tunnels. She had influence and politicians came to pretend to listen and she was interviewed on the TV. Everyone loved her, the kids especially because now they had schools to go to.
I came to the water at the edge of the tunnels, where life was in full swing.
Big bellied men smoked cheroot and counted bills. Women carried baskets of fish and bananas and eggs. Younger girls ate ice cream cornets and giggled at strapping boys smelting iron and hammering hangers.
I push my way through. Along the walls of the tunnels are alleys, to yet more tunnels, and more doors. Some doors are cafes, hairdressers, most are homes.
Down one alley, there is a street scene played out in miniature. The alley 2, maybe 3 meters wide, outside most doors there are people sitting, on stools, chairs, and gossiping with their neighbour, who sits next to them. And the kids scream and chase and people come and go and smoke and fart, and kiss and slap.
I pass and look in and nod and smile. Each little doorway leads to similar places of living. One, maybe two rooms, if not a proper dug tunnel then a place hacked out of the ground, the walls smoothed, the ground hard. There’s little light apart from electric bulbs, run from a battery bank or hooked up to a grid, from the community electrical engineers, who hook it up to the main frame, for a small fee. Inside, there is furniture and monitors and framed pictures and cushions, always cushions for relaxing on and sleeping for some, and always a table and chairs, for the family to sit together to eat, study and work. Space shared and used wisely.
I walk for a long while, maybe a mile or so, stop in a little juke joint for a bica and a cigarillo,
-Ladies, beautiful moves, and the skirts are amazing.
The samba babes grin, we flirt for a while.
More of the same, a city within a city, the slums now almost as big as the city they serve. This Tunnel town was only one of 15 around the city. An independent town, with its own lighting, slightly duller, but more efficient than the bright lit streets, and free. I came to the seedier end of the town. Here were a few remnants of the dregs of the tunnel city, the druggys, the infected, and the abandoned. Here, life wasn’t sweet, but the neighbours had helped them, their crimes were committed up ground, not here, here they were left alone, and helped if they wanted it. The working girls were still here, called Rabbits now; you followed them into a tiny little warren for burrowing. But no pimps down here, the warrens were their own. They even had their own bunny rabbit tee-shirts now, they belonged.
Mama Rita was here doling out needles and condoms to the girls.
-Why my favourite Zazous, how fine you look as always.
-You too my sweet Mama, busy as usual I see.
-There is no rest when you run a world my friend!
She grinned and grabbed me in a huge hug.
-Can we talk?
-Sure, let’s go for a beer at Rocco’s joint, it’s nearby. We said goodbye to the Bunnies who flicked kisses back at us.
Two cold ones were laid down on the Formica table and a plate of small fried fish were also placed with bread.
-On the house Mama.
-My dear Rocco, thank you. So, I suppose you are here about the eviction.
-Yes, just to see if we are on the same page and that we are coordinated and what not.
We have a big demonstration planned through the city in the morning and then we end up at the tunnel entrance. It will be hard for them to break through so many people.
-Well, that’s what I wanted to see you about, we have another idea.
-Am I going to like it?
-I’m not sure yet, I’ll give it my best shot and we’ll see.
She ummed and took a big swig from her bottle.
-The rats will create a diversion.
-The rats are in on this, I am already worried.
-They are with us all the way Moma don’t worry. They will take the Police away from the entrance and then we will come in.
-To do what exactly?
-To disable the bulldozers and trucks and what not.
-I want no violence towards the workers.
-Moma, we will nicely inform them to leave their vehicles.
-No heads busted though.
-We will try not to do that, they are workers after all, some live in the tunnels themselves, if we threaten they will do as we say I’m sure.
-I want the minimum of violence; that can only be used against us by the media.
She smiled and sat back…
-Well well, the Zazous have a plan; my little man is growing up! Rocco two more of your finest please.
We clinked bottles and sat back smiling.
The bulldozers lined the entrance, backed up by trucks surrounded by police in helmets and long sticks.
Nearby were the police trucks and cars. Suddenly one car exploded. And from around the back of shacks little rats ran and threw petrol bombs. The police ran towards their burning vehicles and were met by pelts of stones; rats running everywhere, appearing one minute disappearing into the warrens the next. The bulldozers stood alone, only the drivers and the foremen were left.
We walked up to the foremen and opened every door and asked the men to leave their posts, if they did no one would be hurt. Most left, a few refused and were dragged down from their seats and given a kick on the butt to send them on their way. Then we set to work pouring sugar into every petrol cap. Order was restored more or less; the rats had hit the road. The police came back along with the foremen and some of the drivers.
-Let’s get this thing fucking done; shouted a captain.
-You men, get up into those cabs and let’s flatten this fucking shit hole.
He ordered his own men to drive when he saw that a lot of drivers had ran off.
None of the engines started and the huge ground of marchers and demonstrators cheered, as the TV cameras rolled to film the embarrassment.
After talks with Mama Rosa and other civic leaders the government had to compromise, they came to an agreement. They would spend money on improving the tunnel slums not dismantling them. They had to, they looked bad, and the world had seen the news on the net. The rats went back to robbing and injecting.
We sat in our café and watched the jazz, now and then getting visits from the cops, but they usually left after smashing a few things and roughing up a few punters.
And now and then guys in blue suits sat and smoked and listened to the jazz and sipped aperitifs. Just trying to catch on to the vibes.
Nick Gerrard is originally from Birmingham but now living in Olomouc where he writes, proof-reads and edits, and in between looking after his son Joe, edits and designs Jotters United Lit-zine. Nick has been at one time or another a Chef, activist, union organiser, punk rocker, teacher, traveller and Eco-lodge owner in Malawi and Czech. Short stories, flash and poetry have appeared in various magazines in print and online including Etherbooks, Roadside fiction, The Siren, Minor Literature and Bluehour magazine. Nick has three books published available on Amazon. His latest Punk Novelette is all about a group of friends growing up with punk in 70s in the UK and the effect the movement had on their lives.