It wasn’t until they set about building the new flats that questions started to be asked.
They were easy ones at first, mundane in nature, technical in approach. ‘Have you checked the subsidence in the north west corner?’ and ‘we’ll have to add another layer of concrete to those foundations there, any idea why it keeps dropping out?’ They were questions that people in bright yellow safety jackets could feel at home with, nodding sagely as they stared at theodolites and arguing over clipboards with suited council officials. The day to day grind of the working world and nothing new to any of them.
Things got more complex though, quickly. Even more expert experts than the ones already on site were called in, machines with ticking gauges and thermal imaging were deployed with smug pride from those who knew what they did when others didn’t. Bore holes were made, samples taken, studies carried out and, eventually, locked away in secret filing cabinets as strange figures in hazmat suits started to appear in the night, upsetting the part time security guard and casting conspiracies in the minds of the neighbours. Nuclear waste? Ancient alien ruins? Chemical weapons? Everyone at the bus stop had an opinion, to start with at least, until it became a bit too obvious that, one by one, the usual commuters and school kids were disappearing after speculating a little bit too wildly and that the grey man in the grey suit with the grey phone was taking a few too many notes on what was said.
The council, affronted at being left out of the loop, blamed the gas company, who blamed the water company, who blamed the phone company who blamed the gas company again because they were part of a large corporation which wanted the works contract for the area to themselves and it seemed like a good opportunity. The strange figures in hazmat suits didn’t blame anybody, although they did tell the police to sod off when they turned up, insult the fire brigade for showing an interest and question a passing doctor from the hospital who came asking about potential risks. People did try asking them questions but before long the army showed up and, with a few rubber bullets and some tear gas, curiosity seemed to fade a bit.
After that the questions more or less dried up in Camberwell. If anybody knew anything then they didn’t want it known and those who didn’t know anything still knew enough to know that they didn’t want to know any more. Even when the attack helicopters started hovering and the tanks skimmed their way down the Walworth Road the nervous silence was kept and none bar the odd, ignorant child even raised an eyebrow when the dull thud of explosions began to rattle under their feet, dribbles of smoke working their way out of drain covers as distant screams and cries faded from the ground up.
And then one day it was over. The army packed up it’s toys, strangers in hazmat white jumped on the bus out of Camberwell and all was quiet in the ancient South East London idyll again. Except for the kids screaming at bus stops, traffic jams, occasional junkie and night bus revellers lingering outside of McDonalds, of course.
It was easy to forget from there. The construction barriers which had shielded the development came down and all was as it had been. Camberwell Green was green again, forgotten was all talk of executive flats, gentrification, regeneration and ‘Camberwell Village’. A good thing too, spat the street drinkers who’d been shunted along by private security and the kids who’d had to hop the fence for a dare before the army arrived to take pot shots at them.
It was only a select few who ever heard the truth, and of them even fewer who believed it and of them even fewer who’d ever be believed in turn.
It was in a pub, the pub, the name of which goes unspoken because those who know it know and those who don’t, don’t. It was after work on a Friday, when thirsty throats staggered in for a quick pint, or a long one, or seven, a necessity after life’s trials and tribulations had taken their toll. Most present were local to one degree or another, in type if not geographically. The type of locals who, within an hour, would either be plying you with drink and sharing tales of wonder and woe, or giving a blunt lesson in why, of all the places a person could be, the same one as them was the worst available option for you. There was, however, one exception.
He was short, he was surly and he drank Guiness with a Bailey’s on the side without throwing up, at least not so’s you’d notice but with a beard thick enough to crush a pigeon there was always room for doubt on that part. He was no local but then, by the judgement of those present, he was no outsider either, no art school student, aspiring office worker or home counties dandy down to live the life for a laugh. Plus he bought his round and was happy to share his crisps, so why would anyone look too closely? Granted the iron shod boots, small hatchet in the waistband and only being 3ft tall while still being 2ft wide was a bit of a novelty, but it’s rude to stare so people didn’t. Not while he was looking at least.
He didn’t say much, although he was there until last orders, the lock in and the ‘get the fuck out, you’re drunk’ stage of the evening. What little he did say though was, by all intoxicated accounts, a convincing and certain truth.
There’d been a war, he said, rubbing at a red and raw scar above his eye. A terrible clash of arms, a conflagration for the ages, a calamity in Camberwell, a lash up in London – all under his fellow drinkers very feet. He spoke of old ways and old folk, the Little People of myth and legend, Dwarves, to their few friends. Their city lay under ours, a sprawling complex of mines, caves, caverns and cul-de-sacs weaving their way around the sewers, tube lines and dank basements of the surface dwellers. A mystery to most, but a truth known to a select few. Agreements were held, age old treaties which set out the rights of the subterranean underclass in relation to their surface level opposites. Governments, and most of London, had been built on such things, with weighty oaths sworn and blood pacts decided upon. Once upon a time anyway, although apparently that had all gone a bit tits up some time in the ’80s when Thatcher, ever eager for a useful war, had considered invading the city under the city and scoring a quick win against her pocket sized adversaries. It had never come to pass but relations had soured from there, said the bearded drinker. Secret passageways between the civilizations were walled up and friendships forgotten, barring the occasional abduction and probing of the odd Tory MP for shits and giggles. And while none welcomed the stony silence most came to accept it. Until the Camberwell Catastrophe of course.
New builds were spreading like a plague, ignoring old orders and rights, foundations smashing down into lands best left untouched. Much was tolerated, to the point of self-destruction almost but the block of flats in Camberwell had been the last straw as underground parking smashed into underground dwellings, pubs, schools and temples. ‘Fuck this’ was the consensus of the day and so it came to violence. Regrettable violence, of course, but such is life in this hard world, said the stranger with the smirk of one who can be philosophical in victory.
The big men had gone down with guns and rockets and flamethrowers and, mostly, come back up without them, happy to be back in the fresh air and away from the psychotic hordes of the underworld. Even a tank, he said, was no match for a determined (under)Londoner with an axe and half a brick to hand and all the Queen’s horses and all the Queen’s men, not to mention her assault rifles, grenades, depleted uranium rounds and napalm, couldn’t put that subterranean task force back together again. The little man, or big Dwarf, went on in that vein until he’d drunk his fill and staggered off to leave, having told tales to make Vietnam sound like a walk in a not-at-all deadly jungle. And only in his final words did he reveal his reason for venturing to the surface amidst such unwary company.
“Be careful what you do up here, how you treat this city of yours, because all that’s above rests on all that’s below and there’s an awful lot of us fuckers down there. So no more flats on Camberwell Green, or I’ll bite your face off. G’night all, think I’ll get a kebab on the way home…”