In the morning, such as it is, we are awoken by the screech of brakes and a powerful engine. Shamim and I are still holding each other and take a while to disentangle ourselves.
Nearby a very tall black man in military garb and sunglasses stands next to what appears to be a huge, bulky, brushed steel 4x4 with tinted windows.
‘This is Charles’ says Jeb. ‘He’ll be your guide for the next part of the journey.’ Charles whips his glasses off and smiles broadly at us as he comes and shakes all our hands vigorously. We notice he has a nasty black machine gun under his left arm. We’re all very apprehensive but he seems to be enjoying himself.
‘Ok’ he says rather loudly. ‘Perhaps you’d like to collect your belongings from the cart and stow them in the rear of the vehicle and then I’ll show you what’s what.’ He claps us all on the back as we go past with our bags, nodding cheerfully, still holding the gun.
‘Will we be needing the other equipment Jeb?’ asks Mike.
‘Why don’t you go ask Charles there?’ says Jeb.
Mike turns to him but before he can ask Charles tells him he has everything they’ll need in the back.
Once that’s done we look around at Jeb and say our thank-yous and goodbyes, and give him a hug and the women have a little cry and then we find our places in the low interior of the vehicle. There are three rows of three seats, like huge fleshy sofas. Nicky takes the seat beside Charles up front, Shamim and I curl up on the one behind them (to keep an eye on her, we joke), Shamim’s parents behind us (to keep an eye on us) and the threesome cram in at the back with Mike in the middle (keeping them apart). Everything smells of chemicals. Everything is grey metal except the thickly upholstered black leather seats and the grey carpet.
‘Ok, see you later Jeb’ we hear Charles call from outside and then he sticks his head in and points out the drinks, the music, the TV, the food, and, last but not least, the weapons. Then he looks around at us and laughs at the looks on our faces.
‘Seriously though, the rule is you do not leave the vehicle for any reason unless I say so. As your guide you will know by now that I can protect you all the while I am with you, but if you go off on your own I take no responsibility for what happens and I won’t, repeat, won’t be coming back to find you. Is that clear?’ We all nod. Then he looks at Nicky in particular.
‘What?’ she says.
‘I’ve heard all about you’ he says, then breaks out the smile again and ruffles her hair. She acts all offended but is really lapping it up.
He gets in, fiddles about with the dashboard. ‘Oh, and don’t forget to buckle up’ he says over his shoulder but he needn’t have worried. It was the first thing we did when we got in. I watch him take extra care to arrange the belt across Nicky’s bosom and I see her giggle. There’s the tiniest pang of jealousy but nothing much. Shamim has her head on my shoulder and her hands in mine and I’m more than happy.
At first we don’t notice the engine has started. There’s this low growl from underneath and I realise we must be well sound-proofed when I remember how loud it was when it arrived. We start to move off, ever so gently, like a plane taxiing to the runway. We turn down a track between high banks of refuse and pick up speed. By the time we’re out on the road we must be doing ninety, and we join a lot of other cars hurtling along a very wide motorway. By this time we’re all sitting up in our seats trying to see where we’re going. Everybody is driving like maniacs, weaving about, overtaking on the inside, cutting each other up. On the way we see two horrible wrecks being bulldozed off the carriageway. I thought I saw some bodies still struggling amongst the wreckage as it was scraped out of the way but at the time it seemed unlikely. One guy up front appears to be playing dodgems. We hang back. Then, as the road sweeps round, the city swings into view - a wild composition of silver and black shards, blocks and domes, strung with billboards, cables and scaffolding. We peel off along an over-pass and plunge into the city, through a tunnel and onto a broad highway fenced in with advertising billboards so that all but the tops of the tallest buildings are obscured. On the way we’re involved in several ‘minor’ collisions but do not stop to see if anyone needs help. Almost all the vehicles in any case seem to sport some sort of armouring. Some, like ours, apparently come with dozer blades and bull-bars fitted as standard but others appear to have had rails, spikes and steel panels welded onto the bodywork. Slices of sheet metal stick out at all angles, and some appear to have gun turrets and rocket launchers. Everything is dented and scorched.
Charles explains to us over his shoulder (taking his eyes off the road for far too long for comfort) that there are no traffic lights or roundabouts here – no real regulations at all.
‘They’re considered contrary to the spirit of free enterprise’ he shouts cheerfully. ‘It’s survival of the hippest, the fattest, the fastest and the slickest here my friends. No one else need apply.’
‘How do you get about if you can’t afford an armoured car?’ says Shamim.
‘With extreme caution’ he says, grinning.
At last we slow down and go from mayhem to gridlock.
Peering out, the street is packed with everything from rickshaws and mule carts to armoured SUVs and juggernauts. Pedestrians take their chances and some knock on the glass and hold things up – presumably hoping to sell us something. Charles tells us it’s best not to open the windows.
Eventually we turn into a side street and then into what looks like a garage. Charles turns the engine off and looks around, smiling, if anything, even more broadly. ‘Still with us?’ he says. We all nod but can’t say anything coherent.
‘Ok, now I’m going to take you up to the safe house. And you must stay absolutely as close to me as you can at all times. Got that?’ We all nod again. ‘Excellent, follow me’ he says and throws the doors open. The full cacophony of the city assaults us as we sit there, making it hard to concentrate. All the sirens and engines and yelling we heard from afar are right there, just outside the armoured door we just came in through, as are all the smells of sewage and solvents. And it’s hot too, like a sauna. We follow him as closely as possible to a door in the corner that leads to a lift. He squeezes us all in and we rise to the ninth floor where the doors open and he springs out with his gun at the ready. Nothing happens and he beckons us out and we move as quickly as we can to a door at the end of the corridor that is held open for us. A small, rounded, white woman greets us and shows us into a dimly lit room with dull brown and orange seventies furniture. We’re all too wired to sit down. We have nothing to say.
‘Hey, this is Georgia’ says Charles. ‘She’ll be looking after you for the duration. Do as she says, and er...’ he looks at her quizzically ‘I’ll see you all later.’
‘Ok’ she says.
‘Ok’ he replies and waves at us as he departs. We all look at her hopefully.
‘Well, make yourselves at home – kitchen through there, bedrooms through there, bathroom there, help yourselves to food and drink. Anything else you need let me know. Ok.’ And with that she leaves too.
We all look at each other. It’s still early. We don’t know what’s going on. Some of us go tentatively up to the windows to see what’s happening outside but what with the grime on the glass and the smog it’s hard to tell. Mostly it looks like something out of Blade Runner but without the old-world charm. As the day progresses we see people driving wildly, people running about yelling and others firing guns, just in the street below, a service road of old, grimy, brick built warehouses, all with steel doors and boarded-up windows. Police cars cruise through sometimes but are not reassuring. We decide it might be best to stay away from the windows. We check out the fridge and find a lot of processed meat products and sweet carbonated drinks. The cupboards contain nothing much but sweets and biscuits. The shower works but we don’t trust the water. Mike turns the TV on and we’re astonished to see something that looks uncannily like British daytime TV, but isn’t. Then there’s a shopping channel but the reception isn’t good, then a channel showing nothing but Eastenders. ‘Now I know I’m in hell’ says Mr Sadeghi.
I slump down in one of the sofas and look about me. Shamim is with her mother, discussing something. She looks over at me and smiles as reassuringly as she can. Looking at her there, her slender body under that light cotton dress I’m not sure how long we can remain chaste. In any case it’s the only thing I can imagine doing here that’s not toxic or violent or depressing. I pick up an old magazine and find it’s a used copy of Take a Break. I put it down again. I’d rather be bored.
Nothing further happens until late that night. There’d been a lot of screaming outside earlier on that evening – a woman desperately shouting no no no, more and more frantically until she went quiet and we all looked around at each other sitting there in the gloom, all in various states of unsettledness, the women weeping, the men just sitting there, stunned. I guess we were all thinking we should go and try to help but we were all too terrified for our own safety. The worst part was later on when there was something going on in the hall outside and someone kicking and hammering on the door. We couldn’t make out what they were saying. Then there was some shooting out the front and a squad car turned up and took someone away. We just all sat there. There was nothing else for it. I don’t think any of us slept at all that night.
Early the next morning a key turned in the lock and we thought it would be Charles or Georgia but instead two men in police uniforms came in and told us to get our things together. They took us down in the lift in two lots, and then out into the street to an armoured van. It was the first time we’d been outside and the heat and the fumes and the noise were just unbearable. Mr Sadeghi kept asking what was going on and where was our guide and where were they taking us but they ignored him, locked us in and drove off.