The rumble of the morning’s first underground train through the black-stained brick wall woke Alice from a shallow sleep. She pulled the sleeping bag higher over her head to try and shut out the thick, damp air. From outside the tent came the sounds of others starting their days: the zing of flysheet zips being undone, the hiss of gas flowing through a primus, the clang of small pots. She could almost believe she was back on a childhood camping trip, curled up with her sister while outside their mother fried sausages and heated up some baked beans for breakfast. Then the rattling cough of someone trying to clear their smog-filled lungs and the small scuffling noises which were proof of the presence of rats, quickly reminded her that this was no holiday.
She unzipped the sleeping bag and kicked it off. Turning and kneeling in the two-man tent, she bundled it up and stuffed it at the far end. She delved into a large department store plastic bag and retrieved an old, grey hooded sweater that she’d had since high school and put it on on top of her t-shirt. She also grabbed a faded Buzz Lightyear toilet bag, a worn hand-towel and a small plastic basin. She opened the tent, crawled out onto the ground tarpaulin and stood up, slipping her feet into faded rubber sandals.
The arched ceiling rose four or five metres above her into the darkness, broken occasionally by air vents allowing shafts of early morning light in from the street above, like the windows in a cathedral. A little further down the tunnel, a fire was burning, crackling and casting eerie shadows on the black walls, a few people standing around it, warming themselves after the chill of night. The ground was damp and earthy and some of the sleepers still remained from the old tracks. She stepped carefully over these as she made her way towards the large plastic water collectors. She heard another train clatter past on the other side of the wall. Under the air vents, several big blue barrels had been placed to catch rainwater. These were divided into those for washing and those for cooking and boiling for drinking. She dipped her basin into one of the barrels then placed it on the tall, jiggly plywood table next to it. From the toilet bag she retrieved a toothbrush and a rolled-up tube of toothpaste. She dipped the brush into her basin of water then squeezed what she could from the neck of the tube. Once her teeth were clean and her mouth freshened, she spat the minty water onto the ground. She splashed cold water onto her face and used a cloth from the toilet bag to scrub behind her ears and neck. Then she wet the cloth again and, shivering, reached under her t-shirt to wipe under her arms and down across her breasts, bony ribs and belly. Finally she used the small towel to dry herself off.
Walking back towards her tent she nodded acknowledgment to those she passed, sitting outside other tents and makeshift shelters. About thirty people lived in this section with others being introduced to the group fairly regularly, countered by the occasional disappearance. She had been invited down here more than a year ago by Chip. It was winter then and Alice realised now that if she’d had to sleep on the streets much longer she probably wouldn’t have seen the spring. The tunnels at least gave them protection from the most biting vagaries of the weather. And that wasn’t the only sanctuary they provided. Chip had been here for as long as anyone could remember and was pretty much in charge. There were rumours that he was a war vet, gone from fighting in tunnels to living in them. She’d heard whispers that he could kill a man with his bare hands. He was feared but also respected, and he was a gentleman. The women down here felt safe and could generally live without the dread of unexpected nighttime visits or being dragged off into the darkest corners of the tunnel system. And that very darkness gave them protection too, with most of the street dwellers and gangbangers too scared to come down here and cause trouble. And so their little community survived. People mostly kept to themselves; other than general tales of abused runaways, abandoned mental health sufferers and, more increasingly, victims of house repossessions, Alice didn’t really know many details of what had led most of them down here. They weren’t exactly friends but they had each others’ backs if things got nasty.
She hung her damp towel and the cloth over a rope tied between a tent pole and a rusty pipe running behind her shelter, along the edge of the old platform. Glancing in either direction down the tunnel, she pried a loose brick out of the wall there. From the hole behind it she removed a metal box, only a little smaller than the brick, and then retrieved the small key held by a chain around her neck. Chip had told her on her first day here that any food she had should be treated as a precious treasure because, although the others were generally respectful of possessions, hunger could make even the most considerate people desperate. She unlocked the box, the lid squeaking as she lifted it. Inside, there were half a packet of chocolate chip cookies and two photographs; one, old and faded, of a young smiling couple, her in a baggy batwing sweater, leggings and leg-warmers, him in mottled tight jeans and a t-shirt which told her to RELAX; the other, still holding its bright colours, was of a boy of about two with chocolate ice-cream covering most of his face, his mouth opened wide in laughter. Alice took one of the cookies from the packet, locked the box, returned it to its space in the wall and replaced the brick.
She put on an old baseball cap over her short, oily hair and some dirty grey training shoes with holes in the soles. She could almost pass for one of those city joggers. She walked a little way along the tunnel. In one of the shafts of light there was a mound of earth and a ladder and she scrambled up the knoll and climbed out into the light.