Excerpt: 'Grey Tropic' by Fernando Sdrigotti and Martin Dean


Two hours or so later we’re opening a trap door in Boulevard de Belleville. I’m opening it, to be more precise. Henry, Ana, and Neva just stand around me, Henry — dressed in my hoodie and sweatpants — holding two umbrellas, one in each hand, doing the best he can to spare me from the rain. We are all peering into the dark and deep void. Apparently we’re heading to some underground party. Not underground in the sense of indie or any of those stupid words that mean nothing at all — underground as in subterranean, as in physically under the ground. And I’m doing the digging, metaphorically, for I’m just pulling from a piece of metal, trying to get a lid out. I don’t necessarily buy any of this but I’m happy to play along, convinced that they’ll tell me it was a lot of bullshit by the time I actually manage to pull the lid off, perhaps even before. But they don’t tell me it was a load of bullshit while I pretend I can’t lift the lid, for several minutes, so I might as well just make the effort and pull it out and throw it to the side.

“Right! Are you happy now?” I say, expecting them to start laughing ha ha and then we can all go back to their flat and figure out where the fuck I’ll sleep until I go back to London, which will probably happen sooner that I was expecting, because leaving the hotel to which I can’t go back because I’ve made up my mind I won’t was clearly a stupid idea and these two — these three, for Henry should be included here too — are a bunch of delusional cunts.

“Yes!” says Neva.“Thanks a lot Capricorn!”

“You should leave the lid closer to the hole,” says Ana and starts going down the ladder, “so that it’s easier to put it back on.” She goes down with her umbrella still open, without a single hint of a doubt, betraying certain familiarity with the task — it’s clear she has been here before, she has gone down this hole before; for whatever reason, she clearly has gone down this hole before. Neva follows after her, also without closing the umbrella.

“Pull the lid back on the way down, Capricorn, we don’t want to give this away,” she says and suddenly I’m watching the Air France logo on her umbrella disappear into the darkness below. I stare at Henry, I guess with horror in my eyes. His face betrays nothing — my guess is that he’s still stoned.

“This shit’s for real?” I ask.

“Seems so,” he says, hands me my umbrella, closes his, and starts going down the hole too — even an idiot like Henry has more agency than me tonight.

He moves carefully down, holding the side rail with his left hand, not so proficient in his de- escalating skills, but still with some assertiveness that strikes me as quite unlike Henry. Now I can’t be sure whether they have been here before, or this is déjà vu, in which they come across as having been here before when the truth is that they have never been here before. I know that all of this is very strange, that it hasn’t stopped raining since I arrived — very unlikely in Paris — but there is a certain David Lynchian edge to the situation we’re in that feels completely outside of space and time, for this is 2018 and not the late 80s. And maybe it isn’t even a Lynchian turn that motivated their — my? — actions but writerly clumsiness or the need for something to happen. Every story can fall victim to the need of that story to be heard, seen, read, and even imagined. And only the stories where something happens, when a series of events leads to a certain interpretation, and that interpretation — more often than not — condenses into a moral, those are the stories that are read, heard, seen, and more importantly: remembered. Henry looks up as his face keeps sinking down.

“Coming?” he asks and shakes me out of my literary ruminations. I guess I have to follow them, these three lunatics, these three idiots. And this is exactly what I do, after throwing my umbrella to the side, a bulky red thing with a wooden handle, sponsored by Evian — Evian: vivons jeune.

I sit on the gash of the hole, my legs hanging down the abyss, on the opposite side to the ladder. My arse gets wet, of course, but not as wet as I had imagined it would. I grab the left side of the side rail, put my feet on the top rung and transfer my body to the ladder. I go down a few rungs. And then going down follows a certain instinct. My body is swallowed whole. While I’m still within reach I pull the lid to the centre of the hole and close it, after struggling to pull it into place for quite a while. The noise of the metal rubbing the cement reminds me of a late night in 1994, when I was completely off my head on acid and decided to write a message to who knows who on a wall, using an iron rod — the sound of the rod on the wall, it reminded me and my stoner friends of the sound of an opening tomb; the night descended into existential angst, just as I descend here. The lid feels heavier handled from underneath, and I wonder whether I’d be able to push it open without falling and breaking my back — what good would I be to a story about depths, crippled, unable to move, floating on a wheelchair down the Seine, like a poor cork abandoned to the water from the Pont des Arts, on a Sunday afternoon, those afternoons where students and tourists get together to eat and drink — careless afternoons of hope, breeders of future disappointments. And soon the lights penetrate the bars in the lid and draw a pattern on my clothes, and I guess on my face too — they draw broken patterns on the walls.

I move slowly down. I can hear the sound of Henry’s shoes banging against the rungs, and Neva and Ana talking further down, the echoes of their voices climbing up, their strange language — an alien glossolalia only they seem to understand, making the moment even more strange.

“Just a bit more,” I hear Henry’s voice saying. I keep going down, reach the final rung, move my feet down and back, and soon I’m standing on a depression in the floor, both my feet in at least two centimetres of water — luckily my shoes are squeaky but still water proof, or are they, no they aren’t, not any more.

I look up: a big stream of water is falling to my right. Water drips on me, on everything — everything is wet. The water doesn’t really rain in as it falls down the hole, splashing in bursts against the rungs, making a terrible noise when it reaches the bottom, like a gigantic and angry stream of piss. It isn’t raining — rain doesn’t penetrate the hole. It’s the overflow water dripping from the sides that pisses in here, that it cascades in here. It must be something to do with the difference of pressure — I’ve seen something like this in the Pantheon in Rome: it was raining torrentially outside and the water didn’t penetrate the hole at the top of that roof. Why all these memories, by the way? And where is all this water going? Where are we going? The second question is of course more urgent than the first one. I never thought I’d find myself disappearing into Paris’ digestive apparatus, analysing the rain falling on me, not falling on me, the water, whatever, having flashbacks about trips to Rome, remembering the acid 90s, fantasising about being wheelchair-bound. I think it would be accurate to say it is at this point that I worry and perhaps even get scared, that all this could end up being more serious than I thought it would be. One is never prepared for anything serious when one gets thrown into someone’s imagination (or lack of it).

When my eyes get used to the dark of these depths I see Neva and Ana standing against a rusty metallic door. There’s a weak lightbulb flashing — of course it’s flashing, it could only be flashing — on top of the door and the light is not even strong enough for a disco-light strobe effect. Henry is looking around — to the sides, upwards, downwards, to his shoes, my tracksuit — he’s wearing a tracksuit and brogues: how’s that for ridiculous? Now he comes across as confused as me. If he had an idea of what was going on just some moments ago that was a mere accident.

“Right. Now be quiet,” says Ana and takes her right index to her lips in the universal sign for ‘be quiet’. She knocks on the door. A metallic echo bounces off the walls on the other side. She knocks again, this time following some pre-arranged rhythmic pattern that sounds a lot like La cucaracha. I can hear the noise of feet dragging across the floor on the other side, the sound of a latch or a key in the door. A small window, not bigger than half an A4 piece of paper starts to open in the door — I hadn’t seen the window before. When it finishes opening, a hand in a glove passes a mobile phone across the gap — the hand doesn’t as much pass the phone as it drops it to our side. Ana gets the mobile phone and keys something in, I guess a number, and then drops the mobile phone back to the other side. I turn around to look at Henry but he’s nodding off, with his head bouncing up and down trying to stay awake, looking like one of those dogs some minicab drivers in some places like to stick in the back of their cars, but also drooling, not a lot, but still drooling like an idiot — this sight makes me very angry and I feel like pushing him into the water but then I remember he’s wearing my clothes so I change my mind.

The little window closes without much noise, without any noise. Some moments elapse, during which Ana turns around and looks at the three of us with a proud smile in her face; Neva looks at me too — her eyes are shining and she has a self-conscious smile on her face too and she looks incredibly pretty. It’s clear they know what they are doing, that they are now in command, that they now own this shit, and that maybe that touches some sexist or chauvinist nerve in me and that I’m not very comfortable, not comfortable at all. Then a loud noise and something that sounds like someone playing with a big chain, and the door opens. From my angle I can’t see who opens the door. But I can see Neva and Ana disappearing through it, out into the night that is on the other side. I bang Henry on his right shoulder with the back of my hand and he wakes up, startled. I move towards the door and cross the threshold. Henry follows behind. And soon we’re standing against a rail, in a little elevated path in a dark tunnel not more than two metres high, with water running down the middle, looking like something out of Ghostbusters II, but without the pink slime. I think that soon my nose will be hit by the foul smell of what is by any standard a sewer but the water running below us, in the gut of the tunnel, seems to be rain water and not shit. There are weak lightbulbs on the walls, spreading all the way into the distance every three or four metres. A missing lightbulb can be spotted every now and then, before the tunnel bends towards the right and the lightbulbs and the water disappear who knows where to.

The person in charge of the door is a short old woman with a bob. “Salut Agnès” said Neva upon crossing the door — I have no reason to suspect she isn’t called Agnès. She can’t be taller than 140cm; she’s wearing an elegant Jackie Onassis sort of dress, but floral, and has a huge smile on her face and my impression is that she’s stoned — she must be in her 90s and stoned. And how did she manage to reach the window? Is there a stool hiding somewhere? Perhaps the mobile phone ruse is a practical one and not a gimmicky stunt; perhaps that’s the only way she has to attend to the door, find out who’s knocking. She waits for Henry to cross and then leans against the big metallic thing, almost twice her size, and pushes it with her back until it locks with a thud. And then she points toward the end of the tunnel, never stopping to smile for a second. Ana and Neva lead the group and the old lady walks at the back. And soon we disappear into the tunnel too.

Excerpted from Grey Tropic by Fernando Sdrigotti and Martin Dean, forthcoming from Dostoyevsky Wannabe.