Deep in the Heart of the Alley
by Richter Rozich
One of the benefits of being a field reporter for a sports magazine is that you get to travel the world on assignment. It's an opportunity to get out of your comfort zone and learn more about the planet we share with one another. It's not always a pleasant education; for every sunny beach or upscale hotel resort there's a scorched warzone or famine-stricken desert. The rosters of our professional sports leagues are full of all types, having come from every background imaginable, and it's an honor to be able to meet them all. Usually, anyway.
When I stepped into my editor's office and he slid me a folder with my assignment, he had one thing to say: "Be careful with this one."
Flipping the folder open, I read the name. Alphonse Norwich IV, a brown rat currently residing in Liverpool, England. If ever a name conjured up an image, this one did. I immediately pictured an upper-crust purebred, drinking tea made from leaves that cost more than my paycheck, snorting down his big nose at anyone who didn't go to a private school. The file itself was rather... threadbare. Aside from a brief family history, his businessowner father and stay at home mother and his dozen siblings, there wasn't much on the guy. Some high school basketball statistics, which were admittedly very impressive, a couple minor brush-ups with the law, but nothing serious. The picture on file was clearly from high school, despite his listed age at 23, leaving a five year gap.
"I don't get it," I said back. "What's so special about him?"
My editor chuckled dryly. "He was dynamite on his high school team while he lasted there, scouts were after him like crazy, then he kinda dropped off the map. Then all of a sudden his draft submission pops up like the ghost of Christmas past. So the FBA wanted to know what's going on and suggested you to go on a little fact-finding mission. Go find him, tell me what you come up with."
"They suggested me?" I asked, the notion that I was their first choice boosting my ego considerably.
His response brought me right back down to Earth, and only confirmed my earlier prediction of a pretentious blueblood. "You're a mouse. That might make it easier for you to get your foot in the door with him."
So, I packed up some nice clothing and took my flight. I've been to England before, both on business and for pleasure, and figured I knew what to expect. After landing at Liverpool International, I took a shuttle to my hotel by the airport, put on my most flattering suit (dark blue, my wife tells me that one goes with my bright white fur and hides how my midsection has softened ofter the years), and called a cab to take me out into the city.
"Where ya headin', guv?" the driver asked me. He was a squat little badger with an accent that reminded me of the old stereotypical chimney sweep, unrefined but incredibly cheery and polite.
"Uh, Toxteth," I responded, reading off of a slip of paper I'd scribbled on.
He whistled. "Rough spot, that. Right, off we go."
As I said, I've been to several areas of England, but this was my first foray into Liverpool. The name brings to mind The Beatles and the British Invasion of decades gone by, but the reality is far grimmer. A recent study of the poorest and most deprived communities in England discovered five of the "top" ten were in Liverpool, plagued by inter-species tension and high crime rates. As we started driving into the heart of the city, I began to question my earlier assumptions. Passing up bulldozed buildings and boarded up remnants of corner shops, streets unpaved and areas wholly uninhabited, my editor's warning began to feel more apt than I'd initially thought.
I was snapped out of my reverie by the driver. "So, whereabouts exactly you heading, guv?" For a moment it felt like he was playing up the accent and lingo for my benefit, but it was charming nonetheless. I gave him the address we had on file and he turned his head, one gray eyebrow lifted.
"That's headin' into the Alley. What ya doin' out that way?"
I told him, briefly, and we got to talking sports, life, and other small talk subjects while we wound our way through Liverpool. I rather liked the old badger. He seemed eager to chat and at least pretended to care about whatever I was telling him. The "Alley" he referred to was Rat Alley, a small strip of real estate in the heart of Toxteth with an especially high rat population, nearly the sole species now. He told me rats had always been the dominant species, but over the years they had systematically driven out any others who attempted to move in, led by a group known as the Biter Boys. More a loose collaboration of street punks than a true gang, the Biters had turned the Alley into a fortress of sorts, a rats-only neighborhood surrounded on all sides by more diverse populations.
When we eventually stopped, I looked out the cab window and noticed we weren't at a house or apartment building, but near a park. He assured me this was the proper address, which left me worried that I'd written it down incorrectly, and told me to hurry up and get out. He said he didn't want to hang around too long.
After I paid my fare, leaving a moderately generous tip, the old badger gave me one last piece of advice. "You're in Biter country, mate. If I's you, I'd tuck me wallet in me pants. Just to be safe," and off he went.
The park looked like it had been set up with some care a long time ago, but had been left to its own devices since then. A large central area with concrete paths for walkers and joggers, overgrown grass in between, with benches around the perimeter and a basketball court in the middle. Across the streets on all sides were what looked like public housing with the occasional small shop or pub breaking up the monotony. I stood there, feeling massively overdressed in my business suit and freshly-shined loafers, wondering what to do now. Eventually I sat on a bench, watching the late-evening park crowd milling about, and called up my editor to tell him that the "address" I'd been given was either wrong or useless. He repeated what he had on file, which matched what I'd told the cab driver, and suggested I start asking around.
A few moments passed, and I noticed a game in progress on the court across from me. The players, six rats with a stereo on the ground blaring punk rock. I watched them for some time, figuring they had to be the "Biter Boys" the cabbie had told me about, with their lace-up combat boots, torn pants and tattoos. Judging from the way they played, I could hardly tell if they were friends or enemies. Plays were constantly interrupted by shouting and shoving matches, with the occasional punch thrown that took the fight to the ground. It hardly felt wise to interrupt their game, but I was looking for a rat for a basketball league and that seemed my best place to start.
As I approached, I took a closer look at the rats on their dirty court. One in particular stood out; a muscular rat, taller than the rest, with a bright blue mohawk and camouflage shorts. Although unrefined, his game was leaps and bounds above the rest. Accurate from a distance and able to dunk effortlessly, it was like watching a grown man play with children. I stopped in my tracks, not wanting to cause a halt in the game. His form needed work, to be sure, but it was incredible watching him weave around his teammates and opponents before driving in for another bucket or block a shot directly back into the muzzle of the shooter. They all seemed to know it as well, laughing and jostling one another as their large friend sank another one. I had a feeling I'd found my rat.
Just then, he pulled an opponent (or possibly teammate) into the air and slung him over his broad shoulders, laughing uproariously. When another nearby shouted "aw c'mon, put 'im down, Alfie!" my mouth went a bit dry. I'd found my subject. The biggest, meanest rat on the court, and he was exactly who I was looking for. More than that, my subject had spotted me. Dropping the other rat like a backpack after a long day at school, he waved for the others to stop, and began to walk toward me, picking the ball up from off the ground.
"Oi, looks like we got us a squeaka, eh lads?" he called toward the rest, his voice husky, strange accent nearly impenetrable. Rats in the Alley have an accent all their own, lending to the isolated nature of the community. Not quite Cockney, not quite Liverpool, it's just Alley Rat. "Whatchoo think you're doin' here, eh? Get lost comin' up the grooma?" the rat taunted, a few behind him snickering derisively. I suddenly felt incredibly self-conscious about my appearance, my fresh-pressed suit and treated fur making me stick out like a sore thumb.
I coughed. "Um, no. My name is Richter Rozich, and I w-"
He let out a burly laugh. "Oh bollocks, mates, he ain't just a squeaka, he's a yankee!" The gap between us was quickly closing, which did nothing to calm my nerves. The sun was starting to set and I was alone with a half dozen punker rats bearing down on me. "Thought it was bad enough ya's a wannabe rat, but yer a traita to th' crown too?" He snorted. "That's two strikes against ya, mate. One more and yer out on yer arse. State ya biz and make it quick, eh?"
Swallowing hard, I continued. "Alphonse Norwich IV, am I right?"
He shrugged once, absent-mindedly clapping the ball from hand to hand. "That all depends, Minnie. Who's lookin' for 'im?"
"Well, as I said, my name's Richter Rozich. I'm a writer f-"
I was interrupted immediately. "Stop ya right there, mate. We ain't talkin' wif the print," he said so flatly I'm sure it wasn't his first time. "I don't know what you've 'eard or what you think you've 'eard, but there's nuffin' for you 'ere. I don't know no Alphonse, and neither do my boys. Now you go'n toddle back to wherever it is you came from."
"I was just ho-"
He pointed, eyes flashing. "I said FUCK OFF, squeaka!" his sudden bellow made my ears fold down. "Go home, while ya still got the legs to carry ya! Ya either ghost or yer grave, eh?" It was a rare instance where the threat didn't seem idle.
The whole group turned away from me, heading back to the court. Perhaps it was the slurs, or my own exhausted desperation, but I found the courage to take one last stab at him.
"I wanted to talk about the FBA!!" I yelled, more of a squeak than anything, and braced for his reaction.
The whole group went silent. Slowly, the mohawked rat turned toward me, eyes narrowed. "Come again, mate?"
I took a breath. "The FBA. I'm here to talk to you about your draft submission."
Moments passed. My heart beat so rapidly it was making my tie jump. Finally, Alphonse's expression softened, and he let out a quick bark of a laugh. "Izzat right? Well fuck me sideways, why didn't ya say so? All right, Minnie, ya wanted t' pinch my ear, now y' got it. C'mon then." He turned his head to the other five. "Sorry lads, jump's done for the night. I think me'n me new li'l friend," he came over and clapped me on the shoulder far more roughly than felt comfortable, "is gonna 'ave us a nice li'l jaw."
The group scattered, with my host leading me down one of the side streets to a ramshackle home in a long line of them. Away from the park there was a bit more activity, although not much. Just like the cabbie said, the local population insofar as I saw it was solely rat. It wasn't the first time I was in the vast minority, but it was definitely the first time I was the only creature who wasn't one of a single local species. As we walked along the cracked and uneven pavement, I found myself the recipient of a lot of staring.
When we reached our destination, Alphonse pounded on the front door and called in, "S'me, open up ya bastards!" The door swung open and my eyes were greeted with the sight of at least a dozen and a half rats milling about. From the outside, the house seemed fairly small, the kind to be home to maybe a husband and wife with one child. This seemed to be an entire family, scurrying over and around each other like water. It was as if the house itself were breathing. There were two legless couches in the "living room", along with a few beat up chairs scattered about. The youngest were huddled around a small television with foil-covered rabbit ears on top of it. As we swam through the crowd, Alphonse repeatedly told his housemates that I was okay and not to worry about me. I felt less than reassured, though, with all those beady eyes locked on me as I passed.
"Nice place you have, Alphonse," I said over the noise. "Very, uh, cozy."
He snorted, opening up his refrigerator. "Get ya tongue outta me arse, mate. It ain't fancy livin', but I got family, a place t' sleep, roof over me 'ead and a full belly, what else do I need, eh? 'Ere, fancy a pint?"
I had a bottle in my paws before I had a chance to answer, and felt it in my best interests not to turn it down. Besides, my nerves needed some settling. I tried to twist the top off, only to discover it wasn't the kind that twisted. Noticing my struggle, Alphonse snickered and gestured for me to hand him the bottle. With the ease of experience, he popped the cap with his front teeth and handed it back to me. I winced at the thought of it, running my tongue over my own buck teeth consciously.
Alphonse led me upstairs, and dropped heavily on a mattress with no box spring or frame that served as his bed, gesturing for me to take a seat on a folding chair beside a small table. I did so and took a drink from my bottle. The taste of the beer temporarily made me forget about my surroundings. Having been in similar situations (though not quite so dire) back on the other side of the Atlantic, I often forget that the average beer in England is significantly better than what fills the kegs in most American dives. My host laughed, noticing my changed expression.
"Ain't exactly yankee piss is it, mate? Now then. Ya got my lugs, speak."
So began my real introduction to Alphonse Norwich IV. He told me that the house we currently sat in was just the most recent the Norwich clan set their nest in. Gesturing out the window, he explained that the majority of the Alley is public housing, a fair amount of it abandoned, and that the local government doesn't bother with any kind of maintenance. The community, he said, does as much of the repairs as they can themselves, but when a house completely breaks down (such as pipes bursting or heaters giving out), families just relocate. I asked him how long they've been doing that.
"Last ten years or so, I'd say," the big rat answered, digging under his claws with his teeth. That's when I noticed the tattoos on his knuckles, the digits 1-3-4-8. I inquired as to their meaning, and Alphonse got a broad grin on his face.
"June of 1348, lad. That's when the rats brought the plague t' England. Took less'n a year an' half the pop was dirt." He spoke as though it were a point of personal pride, like he'd done it himself. "Only took two years before fifty five percent of Europe was gone, and a hundred 'n' fifty to build it back up. Name another species eva take down half a whole fucking continent! Ya can't, can ye, eh? Course ya fuckin' can't!" he laughed.
He continued talking about the spread of the plague on the backs of rats. For as unintelligent as he seemed upon my arrival, his knowledge of this particular subject ran impressively, perhaps disturbingly, deep. I had to interrupt. "Now hold on, Alphonse. You say that like it was a good thing."
"It WAS a good thing! A GREAT fucking thing!" he spat back, standing up and throwing his empty bottle out the window. "Look out there. Take a good cunting look. We live like second, third class citizens. Wasn't five hundred years ago we rats were respected. Feared! Then the whole world up an' blank eyed us. Oh but they won't, neh. Not for long."
It was then that I really took survey of the other marks on his body. A rat tail fashioned into a noose tattooed into the side of his neck, the fur kept short to show it. Two capital R's branded into his calves with the left one reversed (the symbol for the Rat Resistance, the name for the larger rat supremacist movement). The biohazard symbol on his lower stomach. He had several piercings, including a horseshoe barbell in his nose and his right nipple. The left must have been pierced at one point, but judging by the scar left behind it had been torn out long ago. In between was a patchwork of scars and burns. Even his ears were notched and haggard.
He proceeded to tell me about his family, particularly his father. He told me about their corner shop just on the other side of the park, one that had run back generations in his family, a stalwart of the neighborhood. As he said it, Alphonse III was well liked and a good, hard worker, just like the Alphonses before. He worked every day in his shop, and everyone in Toxteth knew his name. He told stories of helping out on the weekends, sweeping the floors and going on delivery runs for the older rats in the neighborhood who'd grown too feeble to make the walk on their own. It certainly sounded idyllic. The family wasn't rich by any stretch, but he insisted that they were respected.
Alphonse's expression darkened. "An' then those FUCKING BEAKER CUNTS moved in!!"
When Alphonse was twelve, a family of pigeons moved into the small neighborhood. That by itself was unusual, but not unheard of. At the time, he said, rats were about three-fourths of the population, but the others "knew their place". They didn't cause any trouble and his father was even friends with several of the varied species who patronized his store. The pigeons, however, moved in and opened up their own shop barely a block away. Suddenly, Alphonse III had competition, and IV didn't mince words concerning his opinion of them.
"They lived IN the fucking store! Their li'l squabs didn't go t' school, the whole fucking family worked there! Those li'l TITS cut every corner, how was my dad supposed to compete with that??"
He got more and more riled as he told the story. Within a year, the pigeons' store had taken nearly all of his father's business. He had tried offering deals to frequent customers, and even expanded his delivery service with Alphonse IV biking halfway across town if need be, but nothing mattered. Eighteen months after the pigeons moved in, the Norwich Corner Store had to close its doors for good. The large rat before me was nearly quaking with anger, and for a moment I thought his eyes might start tearing up.
"A whole fucking city for those beakers, and they moved in HERE. You know WHY? Y' know WHY they moved so close to my family's shop?"
I shook my head lamely, knowing I would be told the answer.
"RESPECT. Those pigeons had NO fucking respect for us rats. They CHALLENGED us. They came in, an' they took the money out of OUR pockets, the bread out of OUR mouths. Because no one has any fucking respect for rats. D'you understand? Our name 'd been up on that sign longer'n half the streets in this city!"
I asked what happened to his father. He paused, and then put two fingers to his temple, thumb extended, then jerked his hand.
"Coward's escape, mate. Didn't have th' stones to fight back, so he tucked tail and run. One night he didn't come home, so I went to check on 'im, figurin' he'd be cryin' his eyes out in the store. Found 'im in the back room givin' the walls a grey coat." It was unnerving listening to him describe the suicide of his father so flatly.
The pieces were starting to fit together, but Alphonse IV wasn't finished. After the funeral, he sat at the same park I'd met him that day, talking with his brothers about the pigeons and what they'd done to their father. A group of rats had overheard them, and approached, agreeing that the birds had been nothing but trouble since they'd shown up. Generations of simple life, so they said, thrown in upheaval because of outsiders creeping in on their turf. They asked Alphonse if he wanted to take the fight to them before the pigeons did any more damage to their once-proud community.
The "fight", as it turned out, involved baseball bats, ski masks, and a couple of molotov cocktails. By the time the melee was over, everything that could be broken was broken and the store was in flames. The family managed to escape, although the owner's wife got herself a broken beak in the process. Alphonse refused to directly say that he was actually a part of it, but did tell me that the police brought them all in for questioning. Ultimately they were all let go because the family refused to press charges. He said the pigeons were packed up and gone within three days.
"Just like that," he said, the grin returning to his face, head turned toward me, "Everyone looked at the Alley rats a little different." He tapped his temple, eyes flashing wide. "They started to remember."
Alphonse the Biter Boy was born.
The Biter Boys, I later learned, were formed at some point in the late 1970's as a kind of reactionary force to increased poverty in what would later be coined Rat Alley. Initially little more than a loose group of local punks who went to rock shows and got into drunken fights, they slowly developed into a hate group as the situation in Toxteth worsened and the government's aid trickled to nothing. They began to wrap themselves up in the imagery of the black death, attempting to "reclaim" the epithet of disease that was so often slung at them. Alphonse's father was simply the catalyst that turned them from ignorant hooligans to a more dangerous entity. I have since seen file reports of victims, the pictures of shattered teeth, torched scales and plucked feathers. I can't say with certainty what involvement, if any, Alphonse had with the more heinous acts, but it's a safe assumption that he at least knew what his fellow Biters were up to.
He shook his head slowly, sneering out the window. "All those mudsuckers, flapcocks, and sandies thought they could come in and take what's ours. They was wrong, mate. Dead fucking wrong."
That was nine years ago. Since then, the relatively small group turned into a number anywhere between 50 and 150 rats (there's no "official roster" and police have been unable to get an accurate head count) sprawled throughout the Alley's tightly packed homes. Businesses run by non-rats found themselves the victims of crimes ranging from simple theft to arson. As Alphonse put it, they got three chances, each more severe than the last. Then, if they refused to leave, it was their own fault what happened. Although there have been several deaths linked to the group (including one police officer), no members have ever been formally charged with murder. Multiple arrests were made in the early years, but few charges stuck and the group's lack of central leadership meant breaking them up would be impossible. Over time, the police decided it best to keep the area isolated rather than putting themselves in danger to cut off the heads of the hydra, and thus became Rat Alley, a nearly independent city. Any non-rat families who attempted to move in were given the same treatment, although mice such myself were given a bit of leeway, so long as we kept our heads down. Eventually the Alley became wholly rat, and Alphonse told me I was the first non-rat allowed in his house in more than a decade. According to him, a few of his younger siblings have never seen a "nonnie" (as they put it) in the fur. I wasn't sure if I should feel honored or appalled.
I mentioned, off-handedly, about his skills on the playground court, and Alphonse laughed. "I always had a flair for the game, mate. I could get my paws on the rim back when my dad still had grey in his skullbox," he joked, which made me shudder.
Basketball, it turned out, was one of the ways for Alphonse to assert dominance over others in the public sphere. His build and natural talent for the game had his junior high practically begging him to join the team, and he agreed, eager to prove what rats were capable of. The large murine was a star on the court as a power forward, and by the time he was in high school there were college scouts eyeballing him for scholarships. It was about this time that the FBA took notice as well, keeping tabs on the disheveled British rat with the imposing presence and the prison-style game. As quickly as he appeared on the radar, though, he was gone.
Since then, he's continued to play locally, and I learned of the significance of the park. Situated the shortest distance from the western border of the Alley, the park has become somewhat of a battleground over the years, holding a tournament every Saturday wherein the winner gets to use the park for the remainder of the week. Although technically located within the Alley, the Biter Boys have had a longstanding agreement with the surrounding communities that, as it's the only park in the area, it's a fair way of deciding who gets to use it. I noted that it's a good thing I happened to come by on a week they had it, otherwise I might have stumbled upon a very different group. Alphonse grinned broadly at me.
"Wasn't no worries about that, squeaka. We 'ad it the last three and a half years nearly unbroken, eh?"
There's an old hypothetical in sports. If you have two runners with the same time in a 100 yard dash, one with terrible form and one with perfect form, who do you recruit? The one with terrible form, of course, because he can learn good form and be that much faster for it. Alphonse's game was a shining example of this same phenomenon. In the middle of all the thrown elbows and flagrant fouls was a player with the kind of instincts and reflexes that no amount of coaching can teach. Given a little time and discipline, Alphonse could have had his choice at any college in the country.
I asked what happened. He shrugged. "I had other things to worry about, mate. Family, the Alley."
"But you sent in a submission this year."
He pointed at me. "Yeh fucking right I did. D'you know how many rats are in the FBA right now?"
I paused. "Well, there's Ray Rodin," I said, scratching the back of my head, "And..."
"And nothin'!" Alphonse practically exploded, causing me to jump in my seat. "Ex-fucking-zactly! One pissass rat in the whole cocking league! ONE! Ain't RIGHT, mate. Ain't right! Should be whole TEAMS o' rats, but they ain't gonna let that happen, y'know why?"
I didn't even bother trying to answer. He continued, waving gestures with his arms. "They're SCARED, mate. They got all their Buck Hoppers and Rodger Umaechis and they know, they fucking well know, that if they let rats in 'at their precious so-called superstars are gonna get folded up and forgot. They don't wanna put rats on cereal boxes or TV adverts. Well. I'm gonna make sure they can't ignore us any fucking longer." He nodded firmly. "One season and they'll see. That's all I need. I'll put rats back on peak of the fucking chain, where we shoulda been all along. Then this. Then ALL this," he waved his big hand at the open window, "Is gonna be top ritz."
At Alphonse's insistence, I accompanied him to a rock show down the street, where his younger brother's band was playing. Before we went, however, he gave me a more appropriate outfit of a sleeveless black shirt, denim shorts and boots, to help me blend in. Despite not being a rat myself, several of those in attendance felt I was close enough, and before I knew it I was embraced by the whole crowd, who cheered for me to get their brother into the league. At the very start of the show, the singer of the appropriately-named Fucking Rat Bastards told the crowd that I was there to recruit Alphonse, and not entirely jokingly informed me that if he didn't get in I'd be strung up on the non-functioning street lights over the park.
It was hard to understand the lyrics from any of the bands, but from their names and the writing on their shirts I knew what they were shouting about. The struggle of rats being held down, calls for violence against other species, political revolution. The crowd moved in circles and in waves, at one point the singer from The Buckies told the crowd to spread in half and charge at each other full speed at his command, which they did. The rats on the floor clubbed and beat each other, howling and hollering like they were speaking in tongues. It was a religious event, one that few outsiders had ever gotten the chance to witness. By the time we left, Alphonse's face and chest were smeared with blood ("Some of it's mine, yeh," he told me with a laugh) while I was bruised and sore despite my best efforts to avoid the maelstrom, unable to believe that this was what passed for recreation. The rats who had been just moments ago throwing fists and feet at one another were hugging and laughing, eagerly discussing their next encounter. The Biter Boys were far more friendly and generous than I would have expected, and fiercely loyal to their own. It was, of course, a given that their kindness to me was thanks to my species. I had to make a conscious effort to remind myself what their core beliefs were.
When I attempted to call a cab to pick me up, I was told that no drivers were willing to go into the Alley at night. To my surprise, one of Alphonse's brothers agreed to drive me back to my hotel in a car that looked like it would be lucky to make it to the end of the block. As we drove, his brother Philip let me in on a family secret. They know that Alphonse is in with a bad crowd, but he assured me that their brother isn't so bad. He just needs to get his head on straight. For all the bad things he's done, he said, Alphonse has also brought a sense of community and togetherness to a poor neighborhood that desperately needs something to hold onto.
As Philip professed his brother's kind heart, all I could picture was that pigeon with the broken beak, the bobcat who lost his teeth on a curb, or any of the hard working store owners whose sin was nothing more than opening up shop in the wrong neighborhood. There's no question that Alphonse Norwich IV has the talent to succeed in the FBA. The better question is if he's worth the risk.
29 January 2014 at 11:49:40 MST
So here we go. Starting up From the Alley to the Big City here on Weasyl. Over the next few weeks we'll be putting up the chapters so they're nice and collected here.
pac and I embarked upon this little journey about nine months ago, as a part of the Furry Basketball Association, and oh lord how things have blown up since then. If you're new, I hope you'll check these out as they come. If you're an old fan, feel free to reminisce with us as we go back to those old stories.
So here it is. Chapter 1 of part 1 of From the Alley to the Big City!