‘I was dreaming about the fatberg,’ she said in the morning when their alarm went off.
She was working early shifts, so for once their schedules aligned. The bedside lamp glowed softly. They sat up and rubbed their eyes and shivered a little when they pushed back the covers.
‘I think I’ve dreamed about it every night for the past week,’ he said, padding into the bathroom. ‘What happened in your dream?’
She replied, but he couldn’t hear her over the splashing in the toilet bowl. He flushed, washed his hands, and went back into the bedroom. She was already dressed.
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘What was that?’
She rolled her eyes, but affectionately. ‘I said it was expanding sideways. It was breaking out of the sewer. It ended up oozing down the streets. There were rats everywhere. It was really vivid, actually. Ugh.’
‘Well, luckily that’s physically impossible,’ he said, kissing her. The fatberg didn’t ooze. It was a solid, unmoving mass. Every day they broke away chunks like breezeblocks. There weren’t many rats, either. Some, but nowhere near as many as people liked to imagine.
When she went into the bathroom she shut the door. This was a new habit. She’d read somewhere that there are moments you should ringfence, designate private, if you want to keep sexual desire alive. He disagreed. He liked the intimacy of leaving the door open. He liked that they knew each other in all their undignified humanness. It set a healthy precedent for a relationship, he thought, when there were no secrets, when nothing was too shameful to be shared.
He went into the kitchen and put the kettle on for coffee. He scooped oats into a saucepan, twice as many as usual, and added milk and honey. He lay out two bowls and two mugs and poured the hot water into the coffee pot. When she came in he said: breakfast is served, and she said: wow, what a treat.
‘The night before last I dreamed it disappeared,’ he said, as they ate.
‘Yeah. We went down as usual, and it was gone. Just gone. Like it was the dream.’
‘Bet you were crushed when you woke up.’
‘A little bit. God, Thursday though,’ he said, but she was getting up from the table, saying sorry, the coffee’s working on me already. She went back into the bathroom. He heard the door lock.
On Thursday he’d woken up troubled and anxious. In that dream they’d missed a fatberg, a major one, bigger than any of the others. No one had known it was there until raw sewage started backing up through people’s plugholes. Three entire postcodes had been evacuated. A baby had died.
He drained his coffee and went back into the bedroom to get dressed. The bathroom door was still closed.
‘Are you nearly done?’ he called, and she replied yes. She sounded irritated, but he’d have bet any money that she’d been reading the internet on her phone.
It was still dark outside when they left, although the sky was lightening gradually. There was a cold, penetrating drizzle. They walked to the station and took the train together. When they reached the city centre they went their separate ways, her to find a bus east towards the hospital, him down into the underground. The trains at this time were half empty and you could always get a seat. It was the hour of the cleaners and the builders and the shift workers of all stripes. That morning there were four people dozing in his carriage, their heads against the windows. There were three men in fluorescent jackets, clutching hard hats on their laps. Through the window was blackness; occasionally he saw pipes running along the tunnel walls, but mostly he saw the carriage reflected back at him, slightly distorted.
When he got to the depot he found they were a man down. Bobby the new kid had a tummy bug again, but that was to be expected, it took a while for the immune system to adjust. The rest of them got in the van and drove to the neighbourhood in the south of the city beneath which the fatberg lurked. It was their second week on the job, the second of who knew how many. This one was a monster, the biggest yet. It was almost the weight of a blue whale and extended three hundred metres under the street.
He and Andy went down first. Tom, Arjun and Rich stayed up top, monitoring the weather and the gas levels. Andy lifted the manhole and they started climbing, down and down until they reached the bottom. The water came up to their knees. It was thick with fat: small lumps of it bobbed on the surface, larger pieces bumping against their legs as they waded. The smell was overwhelming, a heady cocktail of shit and rot. Ahead of them was the fatberg itself, vast and white in the gloom. They moved slowly towards it, carrying spades and hammers and an electric saw, just in case.
The first time he saw a fatberg he’d retched, clutching the metal rungs he’d just climbed down to stop himself keeling over. They’d given him routine maintenance work up to that point, easing him in gently, sending him to the earthy-smelling tunnels where the water flowed freely. But you couldn’t avoid the fatbergs in that line of work. There were more and more of them, gargantuan thickenings of solidified cooking oil, stitched together with wet wipes and seasoned with tampons, condoms and used needles. They festered in the bowels of the earth, alive with diseases. His stomach had grown stronger, but he still preferred to breathe only when absolutely necessary.
He and Andy worked methodically, using spades to break chunks away from the surface of the fatberg, and hammers to split them into smaller pieces that the sewer would eventually carry away. Their gas monitors beeped reassuringly. One beep on its own meant everything was fine; two together meant gas. If there was gas you had to get out, fast, but in such a way that you didn’t splash the foetid water in your face.
That day he told Andy about her. They’d been working together three months by then and had never spoken about anything so personal. They fell into it easily. He told Andy how they’d met, how long they’d been together. He talked about their new flat. Then he said: I think I’m going to ask her to marry me. It was the first time he’d said it out loud.
Andy said: all right, congrats, man! and clapped him on the back, leaving a brown handprint on his plastic overalls.
When they got back up top Andy told everyone else, and they all cheered. Arjun said it called for a drink, so when their shift was over they went to the Dog and Hare. Everyone wanted to know how he was going to do it. Rich said if he ever proposed to anyone he wanted it to go viral. He told them a few of his second-tier ideas, like attaching the ring to a drone or some kind of dance routine involving one of those moving walkways at the airport.
‘These are all up for grabs, by the way,’ he said. ‘Feel free to use any of them. Think of it as an engagement present.’ He wouldn’t tell them any of his top-tier ideas; those were confidential.
That evening when he got home she was lying on the sofa, reading. She smiled at him sleepily and sat up. He put his arms around her and buried his face in her hair.
‘Did you have a nice time?’ she said.
‘Not bad,’ he replied. He almost said: they took me out because I said I was going to ask you to marry me. It was on the tip of his tongue. It could have been the proposal. She would have liked it; she might have cried. But he didn’t even have a ring yet. He wanted to do it properly.
Anyway, she was holding him tightly, the way she sometimes did when she was sad.
‘Are you all right?’ he said.
‘Do you want to talk about it?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I just want to snuggle.’
He had no idea how she did what she did every day. If he’d done it even once he’d have been traumatised. She found it hilarious, his horror of warts and wounds and bedpans. Bedpans especially. You literally work in a sewer, she said once. That’s different, he insisted. I only deal with anonymous shit. Disembodied. You get it straight from the source.
He held her tighter against him. They pushed into each other as if the boundaries between them could be dissolved. They had this desire sometimes: to melt together, blur into one another until it was no longer possible to tell where he ended and she began.
The next day at work the atmosphere was subdued. Bobby the new kid had been taken to hospital. No one was sure what was wrong with him, exactly. It wasn’t looking good.
‘Keep him in your thoughts, lads,’ said Arjun. ‘Prayers, if that’s your thing. His family too. He’s got a little girl.’
No one mentioned the proposal. Down in the sewer, he and Rich sliced away at the fatberg in silence. It didn’t seem right to talk about happy things.
Midway through the afternoon Arjun radioed them to come back up again. When they emerged his face was grave. He said: I’m afraid it’s bad news.
They got the rest of the day off work. At home he had a large glass of whiskey and watched numbing cartoons on Netflix. It was three hours before she got back, and when she did she looked pale. Her eyes were bloodshot. She took off her coat and put down her bag. Then she started crying.
For a split second he thought she was crying for him, for Bobby. But there was no way she could know about that yet. He stood up and went over to where she was standing, holding the door frame for support. He took her in his arms and she leaned against him.
‘What is it? What is it?’ he said. He said it several more times, but she was crying too hard to answer.
Eventually her sobs slowed. ‘Come and sit down,’ he said, leading her over to the sofa. She leaned back against the cushions and closed her eyes.
‘We had a death today,’ she said, without opening them. ‘Just a young guy. He had some sort of virus. This horrible vomiting sickness. We tried him on all sorts of antibiotics, but nothing worked.’
The room felt strange.
‘We don’t know what it was,’ she continued. Her mouth trembled at the edges. ‘It’s really scary.’
‘Was his name Bobby?’ he said.
She opened her eyes and looked at him. ‘Why do you ask?’
‘I couldn’t tell you even if it was. But it wasn’t. Why?’
He wondered if he could just not say it. Perhaps things were less true for being unsaid.
‘What is it?’ she said, with growing impatience. ‘Tell me.’
He took a deep breath. ‘We had a death today too. A young guy, Bobby. He had some sort of tummy bug. He was off sick, and then he was in hospital, and then he was just dead.’ He felt his own lips trembling. He swallowed deeply – not for her, not to save face, but because to cry would be to admit that something was wrong, something bigger than Bobby.
She was staring into the middle distance, her mouth slightly open.
‘Fuck,’ she said.
There were two more the next day. He found out because the newspapers got wind of it. There were headlines about a ‘mystery virus’ and an ‘antibiotic-resistant superbug’. Hospitals on high alert. Four people dead in two days. By mid-afternoon all the news websites were running pictures of Bobby’s face and calling him ‘the first victim’. Tom showed it to Arjun and Arjun said ‘right’. He radioed down to Rich and Andy and told them to come up. When they emerged he said: ‘we’re not doing any more, boys. Not until head office get us some full on safety equipment. We need proper facemasks, breathing equipment, the lot.’
‘Why?’ said Andy, and Arjun said: have you seen the news? Andy looked at his phone and swore.
‘You think Bobby got it from the sewer, then?’ said Tom.
‘From the fat, specifically,’ said Arjun. ‘Yes, I do.’
They were sent home early for the second day in a row. Back at the flat he drank some more whiskey and watched some more cartoons. He avoided the news. At some point he fell asleep, and when he woke up it was dark. His mouth was dry from the whiskey. The flat was empty except for him. He checked his phone and found he had two missed calls and a text saying she was working late, didn’t know when she’d be back.
He turned on the television, his hands trembling slightly. The unnamed virus was all anyone was talking about. It turned out that everyone who’d died so far had been a friend of Bobby’s. They’d all gone out three nights ago to celebrate one of their birthdays. Five more people had been hospitalised. It was unclear if Bobby had known them too. Three of them had been taken to the hospital where she worked.
He stood up suddenly. He snatched up his phone and rang her – twice, three times.
‘Please come home,’ he said into the voicemail. After he’d hung up he poured himself another glass of whiskey, and when he’d finished it he texted her: COME HOME
A few minutes later he texted her again: PLEASE GET OUT OF THERE
And then: I LOVE YOU
It got late. He dozed without really sleeping. His head throbbed. He hadn’t eaten, but he didn’t feel like it. Close to midnight she texted: Wasted much?! Coming home now. Don’t fret, they gave us hazmat suits xxx
He still thinks of that message every day. He’s got a hazmat suit of his own now – a proper one, with a mask and breathing equipment. He wonders if he needs it. He suspects he might be immune, a carrier. He believes he may have carried it home, although it is impossible to know for sure.
They’re almost finished with the fatberg now. It’s slow going because they’re four men down, but they’re getting there. There are only a few more metres to go. They aren’t expecting any new fatbergs to have formed in the interim, not since the restaurants closed, and anyway there is legislation. A number of objects and substances can no longer lawfully go down the drain. Every fucking cloud, Arjun likes to say.
He’s hoping he can go back to regular maintenance work soon. He might die first, of course. He might not be immune, and he doesn’t get to wear his hazmat suit on the street, or on the train. He doesn’t really care either way. But if he does live, he’s hoping for maintenance. The sewers are relatively pleasant places when not clogged with fat. Beautiful, even. There are arches and buttresses and big echoing chambers. Then there’s the sound of running water, which is always pleasant even when the water has shit in it.
The sewers make him think of her. Everything does, but the sewers especially, because she loved old architecture. She visited stately homes on her days off. He would have liked to have brought her down here. She would have found it fascinating. She was never squeamish like some people.
He should have told her, that evening on the sofa. He should have said: I let on to the lads I was going to ask you to marry me, that’s why they took me out for a drink. They had loads of ideas for how I should do it.
She would have been surprised, but she’d have played along. She’d have said: and how are you going to do it?
Maybe a ring in a champagne glass. Maybe by the river, down on one knee. Maybe over the radio. Maybe on Youtube.
Don’t you dare, she’d have said, grinning.
I’m definitely going to do it properly, he could have said. I’m definitely going to have the ring ready. I’m definitely not going to do it some random night on the sofa.
She’d have laughed. Will you marry me? he would have said, and she would have said: yes. It wouldn’t have made any difference, of course. But he ought to have done it anyway.
Katherine Brook lives in London and works in publishing. Her non-fiction writing has been published in The Real Story and she holds a PhD in French literature from King’s College London. She is working on a novel.