There was a way in. That much I knew. Whether there was any way out again I wasn’t so sure.
You have to understand that the city then wasn’t the way it is now. There were still large tracts of territory beyond the network of streets which weren’t city – open farmland and trees – mountains even, for all I know. The blanketing effect wasn’t complete yet.
As a result, a lot of what went on underground still had connections with the surface. There were chasms and gaps in the barricades and plenty of ways to interact – if you wanted to – with the tribes that lived down there.
I’d been down before. Who hadn’t? It was a dare at school to go in a few yards. Later on, as teenagers, we would bargain for drugs and hooch at the various parley points. But we never went far, we never went alone, and we always took note of the time when we went in.
You’ll imagine, then, that the prospect of going underground, beneath the radar, to look for one waif-like girl was not exactly something that I relished. But I had no choice. She was on my mind, now, and I knew from bitter experience that once things get on my mind, I have no choice but to pursue them.
I’d haunted that same street corner, the one where we’d met, but she hadn’t been back there - as far as I could tell. I’d given up trying to keep my search for her discreet after the first couple of weeks. Now I’d taken to badgering the various peddlers and small criminals who proliferated in the barrios – the ones who would listen to me, at any rate – or who showed signs of understanding what I was saying. Languages had long since started to proliferate strangely underground, away from the clipped nasal tones of the official databases.
There were other girls. That was what I focussed on. I had to pay them to stop and talk to me – but even with money in hand they were as cagey as wild animals. I had to take them back home in several cases before they would agree to listen.
I suppose, eventually, that word must have got around, because as I was walking disconsolately home one night, after a hard day in the archives, I heard a voice say “Hey! You the one?”
It was a small raggy boy – bug-eyed, dirt-encrusted, crouched almost invisibly at the corner of an alley – one of the darker ones you tended to go around.
“Hey what?” I replied, a little brusquely. I was tired of tbe whole business by now. Tired of being harassed, tired of having something on my mind which didn’t fit the scheme – the scheme of get ahead and I’m all right, Jack.
“Hey you, you looking for a girl, right?”
“Maybe. Not just any girl, though.”
“You the one?”
“The one what?”
“That one what’s been looking?”
I can’t reproduce his accent – so guttural and quick. If I hadn’t been talking so much with them recently, I’d hardly have understood a word he was saying. And yet these were clearly his company manners, the voice he put on to communicate with strangers.
“Maybe I am. Does that mean that you know where she is?’
“Maybe. What’s it worth?”
“Credit – what else? A taste now and the rest when I see her. I don’t have it all on me, either, so if you’re fooling with me you get nothing but the taste.”
“Fair enough. Less go.”
And off he scuttled, like a little four-legged spider, across the rubble scree and down into the darkness.
“Hold on, hold on …”
So our journey began.
As I say, I’d been in a short way before, but I had no idea of the extent of it. I could see, now, why the eyes of these underdwellers grew so large and bright, and why they tended increasingly to come out only at night. The sole illumination for kilometres at a time was small cracks in the paving, radiating down from unimaginable heights above.
Luckily, in the damper regions, luminescent glow-worms tended to gather, and were treated as taboo by the innumerable wandering tribes. Otherwise I’m sure I would have slipped a dozen times as we worked our way round slippery ravines and steaming rockpools of waste.
My guide was surefooted, but not really alert, at first, to the fact that there were places a small boy could squeeze through which might trap a grown man. A few bad experiences in cramped sewer pipes soon taught him to lead me by a more circuitous route, though; somehow he always seemed to find a way around.
We camped for the night in a little back adit to one of the tunnels. Or rather, he flung himself down and said, “We sleeping here,” suiting the action to the word.
I sat there wide-eyed in the dark for what seemed hours, then years, then thousands of years … waiting for the light, I suppose. But no light would ever penetrate down here, not to this lowest level of that cancerous thing we’d created – the world-blanketing city – that Babel Tower we’d built up in our pride.
Next day we reached his tribe.
I think he’d hoped to sneak in and out on the quiet, alerting only the girl to our presence. He knew her by sight, he said, but not to speak to. I couldn’t really work out what kinds of interlocking family and clan-systems there were down here, but I gathered her people were more fringe-dwelling even than his – hence her extreme emaciation when I met her.
His plan, then, was to wait by the path where the women came and went to wash their clothes, and accost her if and when we found her alone.
Of course we were spotted (or rather I was), shrill voices rising in the dark at this lurking male; of course I was sprung on and dragged out in the open with kicks and curses; of course the boy melted away the moment the disturbance started (he never told me his name, and my description of him – small, furtive, bug-eyed - could hardly have been terribly incriminating).
They would have slit me open then and there. The knives were out and burnished. I was babbling like a madman, promising them money, help – increased political representation for all I know – and then I said the name “Celeste.”
At once they fell quiet. There was an older man to one side of the little group. He might have been blind – or at any rate so adapted to the dark that the whites of his eyes were all one could see – they pushed me in his direction with many blows, and bent me down before him.
I said it again: “Celeste.”
Upon which they set on me with sticks and stones, and drove me like a steer far from that place, kicking and shouting and cursing – spurring me on when I didn’t run fast enough. They didn’t seem concerned to kill me, simply to lose me in the maze, I thought – nor did they drive me over the edge of a precipice, which would have been easy enough.
Hours later, when the din had died down, the hunters gone back to their tribe, I collapsed in in a small corner of masonry and started to cry, great choking sobs coming up from the depths of me.
As I lay there in the pitch dark a small slim hand took hold of mine.