We met on a windswept field of asphalt on the edge of town, Autumn leaves swirling under the sparse street light and concrete tower blocks loitering, menacing at the edge of view. Someone heaved the massive iron weight of a manhole cover out of place, the metallic clanging loud in the night-time silence. Within moments a string of a dozen people descending the narrow well into darkness, my hands were clammy on the rusty ladder. Some twenty metres down we collected in a narrow vestibule full of jumping, torchlight shadows and our party began in earnest.
We walked and walked through a seemingly endless maze of narrow, muddy tunnels. I tried to keep track of the turnings but after just a few branches of the path I gave it up as utterly useless and put all my faith in our gumbooted guides. They spend a lot of time down here in the catacombs but even so they occasionally needed to consult their intricate, hand drawn maps.
The maze of tunnels honeycomb the city, dank and dark, dripping with rusty stalactites and scrawled with creepy, encoded tags. Our column of explorers marched though them, often bent almost double, orange torch glow parting the otherwise impregnable darkness in our path. Our friends sang, melodious French folk songs echoing back and forth, signalling our presence perhaps, keeping our spirits up.
The first room, a rough-hewn antechamber covered in graffitied murals and secret carvings. Someone has built a small table in the middle of the space and we sit for our first few drinks.
The next room, much larger, seemingly much older, niches and sconces in the walls where we plant a waxy forest of candles. More drinks. One of the guides slashes a handful of glow sticks in half and with our eyes tight shut we splash the contents all over the darkness. We open our eyes in the centre of the universe (which might be on a Ghost Train). We can recognise people and objects only by the patterns of tingly green chemicals, there is no other light. Everyone’s having fun and we dance to gypsy music like crazy extras from Tron.
Another room, deeper, carved from the rock itself, heralded by a macabre spray-painted sign of eyes and diamonds (only myself and the other freshman seem to notice this). The community down here leaves a few tea lights and small tables in many of these rooms and we hear stories of friendships and rivalries down here, so fucking far from the sky.
Another room, an absolute enormous curved chamber. Our party crouches at a low metal table which is somehow thickly covered in a white mould. Our candles do little to penetrate the darkness but occasionally one of our torches will flash out across the walls and all their brightly painted murals. At one end is a huge painting of a skull with bright, burning red eyes. Talk about momento mori! We drink rum. One of our guides and (I think) his girlfriend sit at the end of the table, a painting waiting to be painted – he in muddy bright blue overalls, with thick black brows under a shaved scalp, she the very model of French rock chic – red leggings, well-worn leather jacket, dangling gold hoops in her ears. They are illuminated by his (home-made) gas lamp helmet which rests on the floor beside them. The murals at their backs rise up into absolute darkness.
As the watches say that dawn – and metro service – approaches we take our leave of the under Paris, squeezing through a tiny hole in a tunnel wall. One by one we emerge in the over world, blinking in the neon lights of a an underground carpark. Airconditioning buzzes. We trudge up six flights of stairs and onto the street - muddy, tired and happy.
Also, our new neighbourhood is great!