Tunnel Rats by Nick Norton

A scruffy valley of fields lay behind me. I had lost my path and stumbled along amongst the cabbages for the better part of the day. Before me I found an impenetrable snarl of shrubbery. Then, surprisingly close, the clang and grind of a heavy metal lid being moved. To my left, a knot of pipe and faucet sticking up from the ground, and on the far side of this a grating. It was pushed open from below. A burly man dressed in overalls emerged, with a curly wedge of dark hair and a square, slightly fleshy face. Around his waist, he wore a thick leather belt stuffed with all manner and size of tool. Seeing me, he pulled up sharp, his belt lightly chinking, as surprised by my presence as I by his. He told me he worked for the railway and asked where I was heading. He smiled and nodded as I told him. It so happened that a lot of people got confused at a junction some miles back, so I was not the first to get lost. I knew nothing about any junction and must have looked rather downcast, for he at once offered to help. His work for the rail company gave him some special privileges and he knew a shortcut. My profuse thanks were accepted with a shrug, and he said he just needed to check something first. He pulled out an enormous spanner and bashed the pipes three or four times. With this simple task complete, I was invited to follow as he descended into the opening. He shouted up for me to pull the lid back in place; this was extremely heavy, and it took a great effort to drag it over me.

My guide was patiently waiting below in the gloom. I could not see him at first but sensed him, a gradually increasing presence. He paused a little longer, so I could take in the surroundings; a round concrete-lined tunnel. A passage with pathways along either side of a channel carrying wastewater and sewage. Electric lamps hung at odd and lurid intervals, with great regions of murk in between. The stench, thankfully, was not too great.

He proceeded ahead at a speed somewhat unexpected for a man of his bulk. Much of the time, I found myself pursuing the sound of his clinking belt rather than any sure visual clue. I also heard a dry intermittent clacking and a rattle like loose teeth, often followed by slow scraping noises. At one point, I caught up with my guide and, panting to gain my breath, asked if there were rats down here.

“It’s a sewer,” he said with a laugh before setting off again, clearly still amused.

There was now little chance of finding my way without him; it was a highly intricate system. The tunnels increasingly turned, forked, curved, and twisted around before once again branching out. The man never hesitated. Occasionally, we would come to a junction with up to eight large openings. Already I sensed my leaching strength, the day’s fatigue sucking sense out of my body, but a steadily rising panic provided adrenalin to fuel my soggy limbs. It was, of course, the end of his shift, I reasoned. Perhaps he had an appointment to keep? He wanted to be home for tea? And I reminded myself that he was doing me a favour. Occasionally, he would wait, standing absolutely still in a nook, invisible until I stumbled by; then in a breath, he would step up beside me, lay a large muscled hand on my shoulder, and gently squeeze. Several times he said it was not much further.

We were not alone, although it took a while for me to realise this. The sounds belonged neither to ghost nor rat. Human figures could be made out, quietly standing in small groups at the junctions, doing little. I dared not stop, though I shouted questions:

“Who are you?”

The echo made these words sound ridiculous. No one answered anyway. It may have been their break time.

The pace became purely automatic. Movement continued despite exhaustion, this long and difficult day turning into a trance. Passageways broadened out. Waters low and smooth with an occasional mound breaking the greasy sheen of its surface. I did not notice the gentleman who lay in my way with his legs outstretched until I went sprawling, emitting a shriek that reverberated around long after I had hit the concrete. My ribs felt bruised, I was winded, and my trousers were torn at the knee. Realising I had tripped over a person, I began to apologise, but the man grunted and stood. He was a giant. With difficulty, I also stood, finding it impossible to make out his face. From where his shoulders started, a thick tangle of beard fell to his belly, but everything above this was hidden in shadow. He turned and strode away without any further exchange. 

“Are you okay? What happened?” The man who was leading me had retraced his steps. I thanked him for his kindness and assured him that all was well. He inspected my torn kneecaps, which were sticky and oozing slightly. He nodded. I had stumbled.

“Almost there,” he pointed to a spot further along.

We now stepped out, side by side, he perhaps concerned that I should take another tumble. We had to weave around a small group of men who were busy playing poker dice. With a start, I understood that this was the sound I had been hearing, this bony clacking. The clatter of dice rebounding up and down the tunnels – this was the sound of my rats.

We stopped beside a shallow side passage. One could just discern a ladder and steel hatchway at the end, a wheel functioning as the handle of the hatch.

“Down there,” he said.

I pumped his hand up and down in gratitude. He smiled and again gave that depreciating shrug. Then a second man in overalls stepped forward, emerging from some pitch-dark cranny as if he had been waiting for us. It was the giant once again, his beard hanging like an apron as he bowed his head beneath a supporting beam. The two gave each other a familiar nod and the huge man produced a lump of concrete from behind his back. He said that this was all he could find. I took a step towards the ladder. My guide took the rough brick and hefted it. He said it would do the trick and then bent over and forcefully bowled the concrete into an uneven void in the wall down to my right, a hole like a queasy ink spot. The missile rattled and bounced and clacked, as if a tumbling die.

The three of us stood contemplating a dull, oppressive silence. I took an extra two steps towards the ladder as a scratching and scuttling began.

“Here he comes.”

I was unable to see which of them spoke; backing off into darkness, they had made themselves all but invisible. Then on the floor, leering up at me, the most enormous rat. Rats are not meant to be this big. A dograt covered in oily fur with a scabby tail dragging off into the dark, swishing and twitching. Around its head, it wore a filthy red bandanna. The eyes bulged and rotated. Glassy black foreclaws stuck out before it, flexing and tap tapping on the stone floor. I took a further half-step retreat, as I could do nothing else. Working my mouth dryly, nothing passed my throat. It leapt high and directly towards me.

“No!” My voice came unbidden, and I managed to bat the monster down with one swift swipe.

I was injured. The gouges its claws left in my wrist immediately made themselves known, but the rush of fear gave little room for pain. The rat was coolly gathering itself for a second offense. I kicked out and somehow missed. It was at my face, with only my left hand interceding between it and my eye. The whiskers trembled, moist silver globules dancing out along their stiff length. I again crashed it to the ground, and this time, I forced a boot down on its skull. I stamped and twisted, then turned and leapt for the ladder. Misjudging this in the dim light, my body slammed into the metal rails while my limbs smacked uselessly into the wall behind. Watching the rat again arc through the air, I swung out and made contact. It fell a third time but took a chunk of my finger also. Howling now, lost to rage, I locked my arms in the ladder and brought both boots sharply together, catching the rat’s ugly head between. It struggled and clawed, but I maintained my grip, squeezing on this animal’s skull; squeezing and squeezing with a wild and acrid force, a furious strength I had never known before.

It slumped, kicked vainly with a loose hind leg, and then stopped. Exhausted, I let the creature drop, only to watch it simply shake itself, straighten its bandanna, turn, and calmly return to its burrow. One got the impression that it swaggered.

Briefly forgetting how the two men had set me up, in my shock, I asked how it could have survived. 

“I crushed its skull.” 

They laughed and said that it was the toughest thing in the tunnels. My shock turned to repulsion, caught me weak and I very nearly vomited. In a dizzy agony, serenaded by the clickety of dropping dice, seeking the day, I hauled myself up the ladder. And on the other side of the grating I found myself at a junction of four roads. The sun was weak, the clouds flat, low, and misty. With this brilliant grey to mark out an incline, the last of the day, I slowly worked my way home, pushing through bushes and stumbling over the fields.

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Nick Norton

Nick Norton’s prose can be found in Punt Volat, Shooter, The Cabinet of Heed, Epoque Press, Bird's Thumb, Fictive Dream, The Fiction Pool, The Happy Hypocrite, and elsewhere. His 2016 novella, AKA: A Genealogy of the Saddle (Book Works), is described by Patrick Keiller as “A joy to read, Nick Norton’s wonderful book brings a headlong, associative sensibility to the literature of landscape. I wish there were more books like it.” You can find Nick on his website www.nicknorton.org.uk and on Twitter @NMNorton2.

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