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Grey Tropic (excerpt)

By Fernando Sdrigotti and Martin Dean.

We walk in silence, bathed by the weak light of the lamps. The noise in my head doesn’t stop, the seemingly whimsical recollections keep popping up.

On a rainy night of August 2003, a group of anti-terror officers training in the catacombs of Paris bumped into what seemed to them either a practical joke or clear traces of terrorism. Who could imagine an underground secret society — underground in the physical sense — could exist in 21st century Paris? Not them, certainly not them. But the Mexicaine de Perforation, the Mexicaine of Perforation could and did and to this day exists underground, moving from this to that other corner of the vast gut of the Parisian catacombs. Enough. Enough. Enough. Make the intrusive thoughts stop.

The water runs smooth in the canal, almost noiselessly. Every now and then we walk under an area of leakage. Neva and Ana, walking to the front, have their umbrellas open. I turn around and Henry and the bobbed midget have theirs too. I’m the only one without an umbrella and my jacket is completely wet. But I prefer a wet jacket to the stupidity of carrying an open umbrella underground.

We walk and we have been walking for some minutes now, not sure how many. Every now and then we pass a dark and narrow gap in the wall — it’s impossible to tell whether a door or just an indent in the wall or a tunnel leading to other parts of the sewers. When we get to another one of these gaps Ana stops. She moves to the side and Neva does too. The midget walks to the front and stands by the door. She takes a big set of keys from her purse, presses a switch on the wall and a light flashes in the gap, revealing another metallic door, pretty much like the one we crossed to get in. She shoves the key in the lock, opens, and then knocks, once like any mortal would, the second time once again with the beat of La cucaracha, yes, it’s La cucaracha:ta ta ta ta taa ta ta ta ta taa ta ta ta ta ta ta taaaaa. She moves back. The door opens towards us and a big bald old guy with a funny conical head, wearing aviators and an M65 jacket, now stands before us, smiling.

“Allez! Allez!” says Agnès, inviting us to cross to the other side. We do. She crosses last. And then pulls the door shut behind her. As we move away from the door and into a dark room — the size of a tennis court — with a cinema screen in one end and at least a hundred people inside, some talking, most staring at the screen, with their backs to us. I can hear the sound of the keys and a latch closing behind me. The midget and the bald guy stay by the door, talking. Both move their hands a lot and I’m absolutely convinced they are discussing something important. Ana and Neva walk into the crowd and we follow them.

It’s as if we were in a dream. It’s as if I were in a dream. But we aren’t in a dream, this won’t end up being that artifice, it could not possibly be that, I’m pretty sure. We are in a story but we are very awake, and walking in this dark cavernous room, full of people from back to back, watching the black and white images projected against a giant screen, slow, methodically montaged together, a long time ago, every comma a comma further away from the moment in which these images were put together first. We walk through the crowd while on a screen a story is unfolding in French. The images on the screen don’t move — they are photographs, played one after the other, while a man narrates, a raspy voice that betrays too many cigarettes. A man with a mask, something like a mask covering his eyes. Two men stare at him. The man with the mask contorts, suffers. Then a short fade to black. A countryside scene, some horses visible, a couple of trees. A room full of light. A kid. Pigeons. A cat. A cemetery. An outdoor viewing pier in some airport. A boat in a misty day. A woman. Ruins. Another woman. Another woman, this one in the viewing pier, perhaps the same viewing pier, perhaps a different one. Perhaps the same woman. Maybe a different one.

“Hey, come this way,” says Neva and grabs me by the elbow. She starts walking, pulling me towards her. I follow. “What’s that film?” I ask.

“No idea,” she says. “They always screen the same one…” I try to turn around and watch the screen some more but she moves too fast in the opposite direction to the images. I don’t struggle and walk faster. We bump into people without apologising. And we walk for what feels like an eternity but might be only a couple of minutes because the room isn’t as big as to allow an eternity and eternity after all doesn’t exist in fiction. Until there’s fewer of them, fewer people. And until, much to my surprise, we seem to reach the end of the multitude and the end of the room, which doesn’t end in a wall, but that opens to a sort of miniature amphitheatre, packed with an audience watching a man recite what I believe to be a sort of comic monologue — the audience is laughing, laughing at the fat masked man — perhaps not that fat but rather bulky — shouting his lines wearing only a pair of speedos. We stand just before the seats, and his shouts mix with the narration of the film coming from the other end. If I understood French I’d feel dizzy.

“What the fuck is this place?” I ask Neva.

“Cool, isn’t it?”

“I can’t tell… I can’t tell, to be fair… Where’s Henry? Where’s Ana?”

“I don’t know. I lost them!” Neva stops by a large barrel.There are many of these scattered around. “Do you have some money, some small change?”

“Sure,” I say. I give her a handful of coins.“What for?” She doesn’t answer and puts her hand inside the barrel and soon takes it out dripping and holding two bottles of beer from the necks. Then she throws some coins in the barrel placing some others in her right pocket. And then she passes me one of the bottles — her hand is wet and cold.

“Salut!” says Neva unscrewing her beer; I open mine too. And then we toast banging our bottles, staring at each other’s eyes — Neva isn’t wearing her glasses — her eyes are dark and huge and beautiful. “It’s a party, isn’t it? What more do you need to know?” We move closer to the seats, sit on the top steps.

“This is an amazing venue,” I say, looking around.

“Venue… What a horrible word, but yes, it’s a nice venue. It’s a secret one too. So don’t go telling anyone how to get here.”

“Who would I tell this to?”

“I don’t know…Your readers?”

“I’m not the writer of this story!” I say.

“I thought it was a first person narration! Look: it’s a first person narration. You’ve just said ‘I’m not the writer of this story,’ I say,” she says — she’s sharp.

“Yes, true. But it’s not autobiographical. I’m not the writer. Getting that wrong is a basic kind of mistake, Neva…”

“That’s what all writers say,” says Neva.“And—” a roar of laughter drowns the rest of her words. I take offence about this, because she’s absolutely right.

“He seems funny… What’s he’s on about.”

“He’s telling a story about his strange neighbour, an Englishman who masturbates by the window, pulling and tugging his dick instead of doing it like all men do, whatever it is that you do, however you do it, because I haven’t got a clue… Anyway, this same Englishman came to his room, he says, with a pair of shorts and his balls and cock hanging from the side, to argue some completely made up nonsense about a smell coming from his window. This is hilarious! He’s funnier than me telling you. He says it’s a true story.”

“It sounds familiar. Is he a famous comedian?”

“First time I’ve seen him,” she says. More laughter.

“I’m sure I heard this story before,” I say. It rings a bell. I could have seen it in a film, read it in a book, I could have imagined it — it feels like déjà vu and I’m about to crack it, to figure where it is I’ve head when I feel a hand on my shoulder. It’s Henry, drinking from two bottles of beer, both held with his left hand, why I don’t know. Ana is here too and I realise for the first time tonight that she’s not wearing her rollerskates now — maybe she isn’t that crazy after all. Or was she wearing her skates earlier and I didn’t notice? Is it possible to go down a ladder wearing skates?

“Hi guys!” says Ana. “Thought you had left!” Henry nods and drinks from one of his beers. They sit next to us, on Neva’s side, just as the crowd starts clapping and the masked guy in his speedos walks out. The lights on the stage go off. And soon they go on again and a pair of guys walk in to the roar of the public, who are in a complicit mood, who know about this, who probably know these guys’ lines by heart, who will find a lot in common. One them is dressed in an orange suit and has his hands shackled to his feet with a long chain — he has a shaven head and a goatee and reminds me of an actor but I can’t really remember which actor. The other one is all dressed in black, wearing a balaclava, and has a large butcher knife. The one with the orange suit kneels and the one in black takes the knife to the prisoner’s neck. I get ready for a mock execution, a critique of the contemporary need to document death with a camera, something incredibly contrived, boring, morally debatable, smug. Instead, the prisoner starts talking.

“Rien à faire!” he shouts. The public laughs.

“Je commence à le croire! J’ai longtemps résisté à cette, pensée, en me disant, Vladimir, sois raisonnable.Tu n’as pas encore tout essayé. Et je reprenais le combat… Alors, te revoilà, toi…”

“Tu crois?”

“Je suis content de te revoir. Je te croyais parti pour toujours.”

“Moi aussi! Merde!”

And here the mock execution happens at last, when the guy in black starts moving the knife in a violent sawing motion and blood starts squirting from the prisoner’s neck, a fake bright red blood pumping out in a steady stream, all over the stage, and the audience in the first two or three rows of seats, who surge back in horror, not at the idea of being squirted by real blood but at the idea of their clothes getting soaked with that fluorescent, very likely cheap and toxic, liquid. Then the prisoner falls to the ground. And the executioner takes the knife to his own neck and starts cutting himself, in even more violent motions, and the blood starts shooting from his neck too, but this time its blue blood squirting, going two metres up and then falling to the ground after tracing a short parabola. And then he collapses too. The lights go off. Someone starts clapping. But the lights go on again, soon, and the two guys are now standing in the middle of the stage, holding a white flag. Blood keeps squirting from their necks, and it falls on the flag — white, blue, red, I see what they are doing here, how very clever, how challenging and slightly politically incorrect, both executioner and executed painting the French flag with their respective bloods, wow! And just to confirm my criticism, just then they start singing La Marseillaise. The audience starts clapping and cheering, some even stand up to clap and join in the singing. The two men on the stage walk away, their loud voices still heard. The lights go off. The audience goes crazy. And I have no fucking idea of what I have just seen apart from the fact that it can only have been imagined by someone incredibly stupid.

When the lights go on again a black guy wearing a white apron is mopping the floor.

More information about Grey Tropic.

Fernando Sdrigotti was born in Rosario (Argentina) in 1977. He is the author of Dysfunctional Males, Shitstorm and Departure Lounge Music, among other titles. He lives in London. Twitter: @f_sd Martin Dean is a writer who lives in London. Twitter: @Martin_C_Dean

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, February 7th, 2019.