Kenny and me met The Wasp ten years ago.
We’d been hitting the train line near Central. Must have been winter, or at least winter’s edge, cos Kenny kept rubbing his paint-stained hands together, blowing on them and widening his green eyes with that crazy-grin-crazy that said, ‘Where the fuck else would you rather be, cunt?’ A mate’s mate worked for state rail and he’d given us easy access to the train line through a side-gate – no bolt cutters, no fence jump – simple as it gets, or so we thought.
Kenny had a can in each hand, filling out the piece, looking like a samurai wielding two weapons at once. As cold as it was both of us were fully energised, every vein a live wire, and the quarter moon was sitting there with its horns close enough to hang our backpacks on. Kenny’s piece was about as long as a car, a negative scheme in blue and black, English alphabet shaped Japanese somehow with a minotaur character leaning against it. All class, using those nice Beltons the rest of us couldn’t afford, that we’d stretch out over three or four pieces, us stuck with Dulux and Exports. My mum used to rant about graffiti, saying that she only liked the stuff that ended up in galleries, coffee table books and on commissioned walls in trendy restaurants. Not ‘those scrawls and scribbles you see everywhere, those blardy eyesores’. I tried to tell her that all that advanced shit started on the streets with markers on toilet walls and the back of bus chairs, tags in drains and on fences, that one didn’t exist without the other, and how the cops could be chasing killers not aspiring artists but they spent millions of bucks trying to bust us, and for what? Spelling our souls out in paint? But mum didn’t get it and I bet never will.
Back then, Kenny was experimenting with a style influenced by Japanese calligraphy, and I was always amazed by how he could paint intricate pieces in such a short time. Confident, precise movements – almost robotic. Talented bastard from the beginning, truth be told, one of those dudes who could rap, sing, play ball and went through girlfriends at the rate of knots. Kissed on the dick by an angel. He was from a rich family, and his mum was a middle-class hippie who didn’t mind buying him paint; she was the one who’d first put him onto Japanese calligraphy. His background put him off-side with a lot of other writers, who thought he was a pretty boy blow-in at first, but they couldn’t front on his style, and he won begrudging respect because to their surprise, he could fight and didn’t mind staying out all night on the train line. Me? I loved writing, but looking back now, my pieces were pretty toy. I was just there for the ride and cos I wanted to be around Kenny. Self-destructive as all hell and completely charming about it. Something you’d consider to be a crazy proposal from someone else, outright nuts, sounded like a good idea from his mouth.
We were nineteen at the time and life was uncertain, and all the better for it. Kenny had considered going to art school and I was thinking about doing an apprenticeship as a chippy, but, more than anything, it was about bongs, booze and the train line. Women, too, I guess. Kenny was with a girl called Belinda but he was always complaining about her – loud as an angle grinder, he said, and didn’t know when to shut the fuck up. So they’d get in these roaring arguments and I’d just sit outside on the verandah and smoke billies, listening. He’d threaten to break up with her, then she’d do the same, then it’d go quiet and I’d walk in and see them in each other’s arms, sweet, rolling each other ciggies. Then they’d head to the bedroom. This cycle happened every day, and it burned me. I always had a thing for Belinda.
Kenny was standing back, observing his work as I finished my throw-up. He pulled out an old-fashioned lighter to spark up a durry and I wondered where he’d got it. We didn’t notice the security guard until he was right on us.
Kenny reacted first and I followed. Arms and knees pumping, the rocks beneath us crunched as our sneakers flew. We lived for shit like this. Kenny and me were about the same height, the same speed, and that night we were perfectly in synch, apace of each other as the security guard chased and chased. He wasn’t gaining any ground but we weren’t making any either. It was some kind of stalemate and no one was willing to concede, so we all just kept running like nothing else existed, not the city, not the moon.
Suddenly the train tracks split in two – the openly exposed line or a tunnel I didn’t recognise, leading into the darkness to the right. A figure was dancing towards us down the tracks – another security guard, it had to be – so our only option was to veer down the tunnel, into the bowels of the earth beneath the city. We were panting, and losing breath by now but our feet carried us as swiftly as ever and soon we heard the security guards’ feet and voices fade away behind us. We ran on in the dark, unfazed by the possibility of unseen pipes or lumps of concrete ahead ready to trip us or shatter a shin. Nah, the only thing that made sense was to run on into that dank blackness forever and ever.
At a certain point we must have stopped because we were crouched down, catching our breath, and Kenny had turned on the torch on his phone. He was running out of battery, so it wouldn’t last long, but he shone it around and the white beam illuminated a huge tunnel with high walls, curved at the top and made from old brick.
‘Never seen this tunnel in my life,’ I said.
‘Me either. Weird,’ he said, and his voice sounded strange, off-key somehow, so I looked at him but his face was in darkness. Just the square light of his phone floating over the rocky ground. ‘Maybe it’s one of those tunnels from the war, for munitions and shit.’
‘Yer, you could deffo bring a whole army through here,’ I said.
‘Fucken oath,’ he said, switching off his phone. It was pitch black.
‘We should go back,’ I said after a minute.
‘The seccas will be waiting for us,’ he said immediately, as if he’d been anticipating my words.
We sat, breaths finally slowing down, backs against the cool bricks, sweat turning to steam. We could’ve just sat there for hours, talking shit, waiting it out, but instead Kenny said, ‘Let’s keep walking,’ and as usual, I followed him. As we walked it felt as if the tunnel was digesting us, processing us, compelling us onwards. In turn we began to swallow it, we tasted its shadows, they became us. We walked and walked every now and again Kenny swung the light around but there was no change in the texture or style of the wall. It was silent except the dull echo of our feet.
Most graff writers have pretty much lived in drains and train tunnels their whole life. Dudes like us who grew up here have the rail network tatted on the inside of our eyelids, but this tunnel was different. No crew had been here. The walls were untouched by spray-paint, just a never-ending perspective of bricks that water dripped over in places. No train had come through in years, decades. I imagined the tunnel as a massive telescope that watched the train line, seeing the never-ending procession of commuters folding MXs over their knees; maintenance workers, Lads dealing weed out of bumbags, graff writers as paranoid as they have to be.
As we walked Kenny started talking loudly, as if his words could fill up that enormous chasm around us.
‘I heard a monster lives down here beneath the city. No bullshit. Real pale, real fast. Not a hair on its body. Ever seen Lord of the Rings? Yeah, just like that cunt, Gollum. I heard it eats people, keeps the eyeballs as a trophy, keeps them in its pocket and plays with them like marbles. The monster was once a rich man but a woman broke his heart so badly that it drove him underground. Or maybe he broke her heart, I can’t remember. Now it eats anyone who wanders into its hunting ground and the only way to fight against it is with really bright light.’ He swung his weak phone light around and I could see a flash of his teeth. ‘Pity I’m running out of battery, but,’ he laughed.
I didn’t reply, and we kept walking.
After a few minutes, he said, ‘It’s just a story, ya pussy,’ but he was silent after that. The blackness was so complete that soon it felt as if we were treading in space, and there was no such thing as backwards or forwards, no north, south, east or west.
And suddenly, there was light.
The tunnel had opened into an abandoned train platform. We climbed onto it gingerly, blinking. It was perfectly preserved besides the gnarled roots that had penetrated the ceiling and were starting to creep down the walls. The tiles were mostly cream coloured, accented by brown damask. Rusted hand railings and ornate columns, one with a love heart carved into it. The heart had ‘J 4 E’ inside it, and looked like it had to be almost a century old. As we stared at it, I thought how sweet and tragic that love heart was, that the person who had carved it was probably dead, that there was something sacred about this place. But Kenny seemed to think otherwise, cos he was muttering to himself and shaking his head. He turned away and before I could stop him he was holding a tin of paint and had sprayed over the love heart in black paint. I slapped the tin from his hand and it bounced off the platform onto the unused track.
‘What the fuck you do that for?’ I said.
He shrugged. ‘I felt like it.’
‘You’re an idiot,’ I said. I tasted something on my tongue, something metallic, and spat it off. I thought before speaking again then said, ‘Belinda’s too good for you.’
His eyes opened wide, surprised, then narrowed.
‘What the fuck’s that got to do with anything?’
‘Nothin’,’ I muttered and turned away. ‘I’m thirsty.’
I could feel his eyes on me and I waited for a punch to come. It didn’t.
‘I wonder what’s above us,’ said Kenny and I looked up at the roots crawling down the walls.
‘No idea, ay. Maybe if we burrowed upwards, we’d be standing in Chinatown.’
It was true. We didn’t know which way we had gone, or how far.
‘We should go back,’ I said and turned around.
I thought Kenny would disagree but instead he nodded. He looked cocksure and stood with his shoulders squared, like he was just humouring me, but he started to walk back the way we had come.
Soon enough the tunnel became a maze, a labyrinth, and it didn’t seem right or recognisable the way it twisted and turned in every direction. It was becoming narrower, and soon we walked in single file. After ten minutes, Kenny’s phone ran out of battery and the blackness was complete. We kept walking, him ahead, me behind, and I got the sudden urge to grab him, choke him, punch his face again and again for getting us into this shit. But I didn’t. I stayed silent and kept walking, holding back tears, throat getting drier and drier.
We began to feel the air in the tunnel change. There was something ahead of us radiating heat and we were drawn towards it. As dark as it was, the tunnel seemed to brighten with the heat. As the beads of sweat began to stand out on our skin, Kenny spoke again.
‘You know Belinda?’
I nodded, and even though he was in front of me he seemed to acknowledge my affirmation.
He continued, ‘Cool chick. Special, even.’
‘She is,’ I said. I had lost any pretence to dumb thirst and tiredness.
‘She’s so cool in another life I reckon I could marry her, ey.’ He coughed and I could tell by the way he spoke that he was thirsty too. ‘But it’s not another life. It’s this one.’
‘What do you mean?’
It was getting hotter. I was soaked in sweat and I could sense we were getting to the source of the heat. My skin was aflame.
‘What I mean is,’ he said, ‘she knows it. She’s too aware of herself, too strong. There’s something about it I can’t stand. When I meet a chick like that, I like to see how I can break her, how I can bend her so she isn’t so cool anymore. Not by force, not physically, I mean mentally. I want to make her lose all her friends, all her confidence. I want to own her. It’s like a sport, a game I play. And once I’ve got there, I throw them in the trash and get a new one.’
‘You’re a fucken cunt,’ I said.
He didn’t reply but I think he was smiling. I was close to grabbing him, punching him with every last iota of strength, but I didn’t. We were covered in sweat now and could see the outline of a door in the distance. We staggered on, breathing hard. When we got to the door Kenny laid his hand on it, sighed, bowed slightly, and pushed it open.
The door opened into a massive room, as big as a football field with a very low roof. There was a smell, dense and vegetable, something I couldn’t put my finger on as my eyes adjusted to the dull red light. We were surrounded by small white bulbous growths. It was a field of mushrooms, obviously well tended, with a thin aisle that led through them. I reached down and plucked one, turning it in my fingers. Kenny did the same. They didn’t look like magic mushrooms, more the edible, average type you find in the veggie section of a supermarket, but we shook our heads.
‘The humidity down here must be perfect for them,’ I said, and Kenny nodded. There was a door at the end of the field and we began to walk towards it.
As we stumbled through the field I could see there was a slump in Kenny’s shoulders that wasn’t just born of tiredness, and he kept looking back at me as if I was very far away. As you get older, you realise that you walk briskly towards the future, with a friendship trailing behind you, certain and solid. But when you turn around finally to greet it, your arms embrace only the air and you see that it’s a ghost, a simulacrum of something that was once there.
Suddenly Kenny knelt down and I almost cocked my fist back before I saw that he had his hands cupped in front of him and was drinking from a tap next to the door. Soon we both were, taking turns, panting in between grateful draughts of water, laving it over our burning skin.
The door opened into a circular tunnel, like a rainwater drain, but there were no signs of sustained water stains besides a few trickles down the side here and there. We stumbled forward into the darkness, and it was much cooler there. We walked onwards for five minutes and it kept getting colder. I felt something brush me in the dark, and I flinched away from it. I heard Kenny whisper, ‘Stop’, and I did.
We could sense movement around us, something in the darkness; animals or beasts, I wasn’t sure. Suddenly the brightest light flared in a great, stunning whoof and everything unseen became seen. Kenny had used a tin of paint and the old-fashioned lighter to make a flamethrower, a torch that illuminated a tableau of people around us, all with hands outstretched and white eyeballs. They looked homeless, like addicts, and they smelled awful. Then the flame went out and their hands were upon us.
One of them must’ve been holding a light because I could see everything around me now. I became very calm, almost in a dream state, as they carried me forward, their jagged fingernails digging into the soft flesh of my underarm. I tried to look at their faces, but I could just see the black teeth and bubbling lips of meth as we went with them, floating along on a raft of arms as they took us into a wider room that was filled with mattresses, chairs, even electrical appliances, and dim halogen globes swinging from the curved roof. A man was sitting very still at the end of it all and he looked like he was in charge. They called him The Wasp.
We were thrown down in front of him and landed roughly.
‘We’re going to die here,’ Kenny whispered to me, but I didn’t reply.
I knew I was supposed to be afraid, like a slave brought before a king who would judge whether they lived or died. But when I looked at the lanky man in front of me, whose hair was long and matted, almost dreaded, who was wearing holey Adidas trackpants and a Miami Heat singlet covered in stains, I felt nothing but sadness.
‘You’re here. It’s good you’re here,’ said The Wasp. He laughed and spread his arms with a magnanimous gesture. His voice seemed to hum through his nose and came out strange and high as he looked at our paint-stained hands and shirts. ‘See how the other half lives, ey fellas? You young writers can’t keep outta trouble ey? Fark, you’re young, aren’t yas?’
He stood to full height and we saw he was better built than he first appeared. He began to pace, his head cocked to the side a little to avoid hitting the curved ceiling. ‘When I was your age, I’d already killed three men.’ He swivelled on a heel to gauge our reactions. Kenny was cowering but I just stared back. The Wasp continued, moving in a strange, spindly way. ‘I was once hired to kill a copper who was under witness protection. This fella, he’d exposed corruption in the police force. Dumb cunt. Corruption’s been there since the beginning. It’s part of it. Didn’t take me that long to find him, out in some bumfuck town, scrabbling around in an eggplant patch. I put two bullets behind his ear. Didja hear about it?’
I shook my head and Kenny nodded. He was trembling all over.
‘Yeh. And I never did a day of time over it. Not one. Didn’t haveta kill for ages after that. Unlike heapsa other countries, a man’s life in Australia isn’t cheap, at least, not for the payer. Killing is like football, or writing,’ said The Wasp, ‘you get better at it with practice.’
I let The Wasp’s words wash over me and I knew that I should be incredibly afraid, that he wasn’t lying, that our lives were in his hands, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Kenny and what he had said about Belinda, thinking that the momentous, monstrous part of the day was not ahead of me but behind me.
Kenny was now shaking so hard I thought he might dislocate something. No bravado left. The Wasp kept pacing and there was something hypnotic about his spindly movements. He continued, mostly with his back to us, becoming faster and more manic with every word, and I wondered if he was high. His voice hummed and rose.
‘Truth be told, boys, it wasn’t that that drove me down here. It wasn’t guilt. I don’t give two shits about all that. Nah, the reason I moved down here was a personal… exile, I guess. I once loved a woman. And she loved me, accepted me, and didn’t see me as a monster, just a man who’d done monstrous shit. We found out she had cancer on her birthday, and I nursed her until the day she died. I ended up back in Sydney and I heard of people beneath the city, who lived completely off the grid, which I guess I’d done for years anyway. These people, they’re my people.’ He gestured at the forms both standing and sleeping. ‘We are each other’s gods.’
I looked at The Wasp and I felt pity for him, almost affection, things I knew I’d never feel towards Kenny again. I took one step towards The Wasp, carefully, the way you do towards an injured animal on the roadside, and I spoke urgently.
‘I have a girlfriend and I love her more than anything else. Her name is Belinda and I’m going to ask her to marry me.’
I looked back at Kenny once again and he was looking away, as if shy. But he wasn’t – he was terrified, huddled deep in the darkness against the bricks of the wall. I knew that if we ever got out alive that our friendship would be over. At that moment, I wanted it to be so. More than anything. If it wasn’t so tense, I would have burst out laughing, and, actually, I could feel hysterical giggles building up in my body.
The Wasp, however, stood stock still and nodded seriously at my words and we stared at each other. We came to a secret understanding, like a clandestine agreement between two nations who had been warring for years and couldn’t remember the reason why. His eyes were burning as black as black could burn, and I was willing to look into them.
I knew then that Kenny and I were safe. We were blindfolded and led far away and up a ladder and found ourselves in the street, in a suburb we had rarely been far west of the city. The sun was just coming up. We sat there, and I watched Kenny as he flicked his old-fashioned lighter open and shut, open and shut. We never spoke again.
I saw The Wasp years later. Walking through an empty park on my way to my girlfriend’s house I saw his unmistakable rangy gait. But he looked totally different. He was in a suit, for one, and his hair was fashionably styled. He was arm in arm with a glamorous woman. I decided to follow him down the streets and soon I was in a suburb I’d never been, lined with sculpted trees and hedges. They walked to a renovated terrace house and went inside. As I looked through the window I could see them moving, not silhouettes undressing like in the movies, just two shadows moving back and forth, back and forth, obscure and inexplicable, until the lights went out altogether.
Image credit: Jaroslav A Polak