It is a great relief to see the rest of the gang again, and looking so well. Shamim and her parents are reunited and the rest of us hug and smile and generally behave as if we’re the oldest friends and not seen each other for years. Once that’s been done we look around at the other guests (dressed as we are, in classic evening wear), at the magnificent buffet with waiters and chefs in attendance, and the plush antique furnishings. The room is a ridiculous confection of what appears to be gold and marble, old masters and enormous mirrors but the ceiling seems too low. Everything seems to be on slightly the wrong scale. A string quartet plays in the corner and there appears to be no end to the champagne cocktails on offer. I go over and stand beside Shamim once they have finished hugging and crying, and make polite conversation with her parents. I feel guilty about Shamim and me sharing a room even though I have no real reason to be. Nicky of course spots it immediately and nudges me unsubtly and gives me a dirty grin. She does a twirl for me – clearly very excited about the golden silk ball gown she’s been given. ‘They spent three hours on my hair too’ she says. I'm surprised how happy I am to see her. Agnes greets us formally but Mike and Muriel seem very pleased to see everyone.
‘Fantastic duds don’t you think?’ he says, looking down at his tux and I have to agree – we do look very 007.
We stand about and chat for a little while, speculating as to what became of Charles and Georgia. (Were we betrayed? Were they captured and tortured to reveal our whereabouts? We daren’t think.) For a short time we allow ourselves to ignore our predicament and we sample the canapés, drink some wine and size up the other guests, who seem civil but rather reserved. Nicky comes back a little confused when her charms produce no reaction. Enayat agrees with me that we should not get drunk, but stay alert. ‘Not that we would’ he adds, for his daughter’s benefit I think.
We stand around and wait to see what happens. We’d like to talk but it’s too tense, too weird.
I notice with some bemusement that all the plates and bowls on the table appear to be slowly revolving. At first I thought my eyes were doing something odd but a man in a sharp suit who has been rather too obviously lingering nearby says ‘Isn’t it fun? I thought of it. Look...’ He holds up a little silver canister that, at the touch of a button, whirs and deposits some ground black pepper on the tablecloth. ‘No more of that tedious back-and-forth we used to have to do.’ He mimes the pepper grinding action as if it’s the equivalent of having to haul a grand piano through an upstairs window. ‘It is our mission’ he says with some pride ‘to incorporate an electronic device into every single household object. Cut out the labour. Sell more energy.’ I look down at his, even by the standards of this place, very paunchy body. Evidently he’s not made the rather obvious connection between labour saving devices and flab. I'm wondering if it's possible to lose or gain weight in the afterlife. He thinks I’m eyeing him up and gives me a look that suggests I might be in with a chance later. I move away from him.
Eventually we become aware that something is happening at the far end of the room and soon we see the arrival of a very impressively dressed individual followed by several ladies – also strikingly dressed, and then a few other men in formal wear. I assume this is our host. He has that way of speaking to everyone he passes without paying attention to anyone in particular. We look about and see that, whereas everyone else is milling about animatedly, chatting and laughing in a way they weren’t before, that without meaning to, our group have gathered with our backs to the door we came in through. All of us that is except Nicky that is who is still trying to chat up a group of men near the bar. They look on impassively, not even eyeing her bosom, which is, as usual, very much in evidence. That’s when I know something is wrong.
Eventually she gives up, looks about, wondering what is happening and then sees us and rushes over as quickly as her shoes will allow. ‘What’s happening?’ she says, but before anyone can reply, we realise the impressively dressed individual is approaching.
It’s strange how predictable our reactions can be. We all feel we are in the presence of royalty, and Agnes even does a little curtsey. Even my more anarchist sentiments are compromised and I wait politely to be spoken to.
It wasn’t really until later it sank in, at least to some of us how kitsch the whole thing was – like he thought he was in a Bond movie. He began with ‘Rit Large, at your service.’ and went on to tell the ‘ladies’ they looked ‘charming’ and that he was ‘honoured’ to meet us.
‘Who does he think he is?’ whispered Mrs Sadeghi over my shoulder.
I was worried to note that Agnes and Mike were totally charmed and took the opportunity to be introduced to the other guests with pathetic eagerness – as if they hadn’t been snubbed for the whole of the first part of the evening. Nicky also made the most of being the new-found centre of attention (Large certainly did look at her bosom, at length and with some wonderment, and after that, everyone did. Some of the ladies with him did not seem so impressed however.)
Wandering about, attempting to be sociable we discover that the other guests will communicate with us only in the smallest talk possible (a language in which Agnes, Nicky and Mike seem entirely comfortable) and some of them will not talk at all but watch us extremely closely (‘Security’ says Enayat). After a while Muriel comes over and says ‘I don’t like it here’, and takes refuge between us and the table. A little later Nicky comes over, and after giving a detailed and breathless account of what she said and what they said (we weren’t really listening I confess), finishes with ‘It’s weird here. I don’t like it’ to which we all nod our agreement. The chamber music seems to have come to an end and a small jazz combo has taken their place. Other guests are dancing and Agnes and Mike are jiving and gesture to us cheerfully to join them. Only Nicky gives in to the groove.
So the rest of us just sit down and chat among ourselves, comparing notes, talking about our accommodation, skirting tactfully around the sleeping arrangements in our room. That’s when Enayat mentions the fabulous view of the ocean just below his window, and how strange it is, since we assumed we were so many floors up. I look at him quizzically. Shamim tells him it is a forest from our window.
‘But our rooms are next door to each other, surely’ says her father.
‘There is a dial, just under the sill – did no one tell you?’ says an affable voice from behind us. It’s Large.
‘You can make a choice, at the turn of a switch. Look, I will show you.’ and he goes over to the far wall which is curtained from end to end. We sit there like lemons and he has to beckon us over.
He flicks a switch and the curtains open revealing a view of tree-tops exactly like the one from our window, but in darkness of course since it’s night time. Large moves his hand to another control and the tree-tops fade into a bay with sailing boats and palm trees. He does it again and suddenly we’re on a coral reef, under the water, then once again and we’re in a deserted market place somewhere in Latin America perhaps. ‘It’s not so interesting at night of course, but you can...’ and the view skips, getting lighter and lighter ‘Three hours ago, five hours ago, eight hours ago, you see?’
‘Where are these places?’ asks Shamim.
‘Oh I don’t know exactly. We have researchers find the locations for the cameras. There are hundreds to choose from, thousands perhaps, but these are our best sellers.’
Mrs Sadeghi asks ‘So what is the real view like?’
‘You really want to see?’ he says with an evil grin. She doesn’t look so sure now. He flicks another switch and we’re treated to a view over the city from far above. Around us the darkened masses of tall buildings loom, liberally splattered with neon advertising, and beyond, the suburbs, industrial districts and slums stretch far into the night. The red tail lights of helicopters can be seen buzzing around, doing their hornets-from-hell routine, and in the deep ravines below us, glowing with sodium, are the red and white lights of vehicles, all either going way too fast or snarled up in traffic jams.
‘Hey Erwin’ calls our host to one of the other men who came in with him and who is also surveying the scene now. The man looks over impassively (or possibly contemptuously). ‘Looks like the west side’s alight tonight. Is that yours?’
‘Could well be’ says Erwin.
We all look where Large points and sure enough, a whole block seems to be in flames.
‘Fire department’ he says.
‘Is that normal?’ asks Nicky.
Large shrugs ‘There’s always something. I try not to get involved. Hey, anyone for ice-cream?’ And the desserts are brought in. We stand and look at the chaos below. Nicky is finally tempted away by the promise of profiteroles but the rest of us – Shamim and her parents, Muriel and I, stand and survey the mayhem.
‘I’m glad it’s dark’ says Shamim, clutching my arm.
As soon as Shamim and I get back to our room I go over to the window and flick the switch to extinguish our forest and try to keep it real as they say, but the view from our room is far worse than that in the penthouse. I stand and look at it for quite some time, taking it in. Shamim comes through from the bathroom and stands there beside me. We’re both speechless for there is no view at all – just a concrete wall behind the glass.
I feel something break inside me at that point and I go and sit on the bed with my head in my hands. Shamim stands and looks at it for a moment longer, then turns the dial back to the forest. It scares me how comforting it feels to have it back, even though I know it’s a lie now. Then she comes over and sits with me, holding my hands. I have nothing to say. We are so very lost.
‘We’ve got a busy day tomorrow’ she says, softly, to my neck. ‘We should sleep.’
I look at her and she kisses me and I go and get into my pyjamas.