‘It’s not alive’ says Shamim sadly the next day on the golf course. In her hand she holds what looks like some grass she’s torn from one of the palms along the drive way. It’s unpleasantly oily to the touch, and a lurid shade of green. ‘None of it is. Look...’ and she crouches down and pulls a handful of ‘leaves’ out of the turf. ‘It’s all artificial, or preserved or something.’
I look at the rolling landscape around us, at the trees and other vegetation along the fairways. From a distance it’s pretty convincing, although the colour’s not quite right (but if you’ve not seen the outside for a while, maybe you don’t notice). Large and the others have gone on a little way in their buggy. They’ve issued us with some fairly laughable outfits that I for one refused to wear. Everything has the ‘Large Solutions inc.’ logo on it in bright orange. Shamim and I stroll along after them, letting the cart get ahead a bit.
Up here in the hills overlooking the city, and above the smog line, in a place they’ve called Heaven, you could almost believe you could stay here. The classier accommodation is all up here with high walls and razor wire and they employ security firms to keep out the losers (as the people in the shanty and other low grade accommodation are known). We passed a lot of these places, villas and mansions with their huge trees and wide lawns, some with a hardwood swing on the veranda and an SUV in the carport. I still can’t be sure if I’ve actually seen a real bird, tree or even a pet up here but it looks quite convincing to the untrained eye. Later we come across a team of grounds-men – so called (they look more like a team of convicts, all in orange) on their hands and knees, pulling up weeds. Apparently, in the absence of real vegetation, weeds are a major problem. I’m told they’re trying to invent some artificial dirt that nothing at all will grow in to combat this problem.
At the third tee we catch up and watch Mike take his swing. He’s actually quite good.
The rest of the week is divided between trips in some very posh cars to luxury housing, bespoke retail, exclusive clubs and prestigious offices on the one hand, and on the other, tours of the rougher areas in armoured cars.
On these latter tours we witness fury and dejection, conflagration and degradation on a scale I didn’t think possible. In some areas almost everybody on the street seems to be waiting for someone to come along and do something sexual to them in return for a few coins. Elsewhere we see cars and buildings burn with no sign of any emergency services on the way. At the back of what seems to be an abandoned, weed-infested industrial-estate-come-lorry-park there are several bodies in the road. The driver doesn’t try hard enough to avoid them. And everywhere there are dogs scrounging around, some in packs, others alone. How can a person still be said not to be dead when they are broken up into so many pieces? The question makes my entire body hurt.
And then quite suddenly there’s a rowdy little street market or a cluster of small shops sheltering among the ruins and things look a little more hopeful for a moment but then we see what they have to offer and it’s just some cheap plaster ornaments, plastic toys or sugary sweets, or worse, what appears to be the entire contents someone’s home.
‘There’s a recession on at the moment’ explains our driver casually as if he’s talking about some sort of travelling circus that’s come to town.
‘That must be hard for everyone’ says Amireh.
‘Not for us’ he replies, grinning. ‘It suits us at Large. Cuts down on some of that well-meaning namby-pamby humanitarian clap-trap you come across in more affluent times. Recycling, public health care, public libraries...’ He looks around contemplatively at the chaos. ‘Nope’ he says, ‘a good financial crisis goes a long way to refocus people’s priorities if you know what I mean. They’ll do anything, and I do mean anything, for a little extra credit.’
‘You make it sound as though all this… this misery is deliberately engineered’ says Enayat.
‘Absolutely’ he says the driver. ‘Can’t leave it to chance can we? We at Large reckon every ten years is about right. Kills off a lot of the smaller operations. Thins the competition... Damn charities and pressure groups! Downright anti-competitive if y’ask me.’
‘But I always believed…’
‘That the free market promotes choice and diversity. Yada-yada-yada. We get that a lot from the newbies.’ He turns and looks up at the gutted offices all around, for inspiration it seems. He gives us his smile. ‘We do allow a fraction of the economy to be run by entrepreneurs and craftsmen it’s true. They’re kinda decorative I always think – a café here, a flower seller there. They lend a little texture to a place; make it look like something interesting is going on. And sometimes of course they do come up with a product we can use. If that happens we can buy them out or bring out our own knock-off version. But no, otherwise… Whatever you may have been told back home, the market does not lead to diversity. It leads inexorably to domination by a few large players – chain stores, restaurants, financial institutions. You surely must have noticed. Maybe not yet where you came from – Iran, am I right? But Mr Fortune knows what I’m talking about. In the end, small businesses survive in spite of the free market, not because of it. Anyway, moving along…’
There doesn’t seem to be much point in arguing, or in saying anything at all. We try not to look too closely at anything as we move off.
Later he tells us it’s safe enough to leave the car and we find ourselves at the site of a mass mutilation – the ‘competition’, so our driver tells us. The bodies – still not dead of course, have been hauled off to ‘hospital’ but there are still body parts around, and a thick coating of drying blood on every surface. Dogs and flies and rats have come to try their luck. ‘This is the sort of thing they do to each other’ says the officer on duty, shaking his head, but more in contempt than concern. Next we get to look at a place where an industrial complex has exploded. It may have been sabotage, or it may not’ says the escort, shrugging. We get out and look around. What’s left of the steel roof lurches and bangs in the wind, and unrecognisable machine parts stand scorched on the factory floor. ‘Come and look at this’ says the driver, leading us over to a ditch rank with singed weeds and discoloured with chemical run-off from the gutted complex. He pokes a stick in the ditch and gives us a sniff of the toxic waste. ‘Job for the environmental remediation boys’ he says ‘or girls. I understand you were trained in environmental science Miss er…Sadeghi?’
She nods but doesn’t look enthusiastic.
‘Thing you have to remember here – whatever the disaster, whatever goes wrong, whether it be personal injury, destruction of property, whatever – someone’s got to pay. And that’s where we come in. This may look like a disaster on any number of levels, but for us? Well…it’s what we’re here for.’ and he takes us back to the car and on to a very exclusive restaurant for lunch. It’s a while before any of us have got our appetites back though. We take a while to sit at the bar and think. Even Enayat has a drink.
Later I ask the driver why we’re being shown all this and he tells us it’s essential we get the full picture, so we know what to avoid. I didn’t understand at the time. I had the strong sense we were being fattened up for something but I couldn’t imagine what. At various times Large or one of his people finds time to have a ‘little chat’ with each of us, sounding us out, finding out what we want out of our ‘continued existence’. They caught me off-guard I must admit. The whole thing seemed so depressing and hopeless I suppose I just responded to the woman from ‘the media’ being nice to me. She didn’t seem as taken in by the corportion as the others and said she could respect my independence of spirit. She wore nice feminine tie-dyes and lots of Mexican jewellery and part of me wanted to believe she really wanted me to be happy. She had an idea of me working in design; perhaps working with the very video windows we’d seen in our room. There was a lot of potential, she said, in not simply sending out what the camera happened to pick up, but in manipulating the view digitally to create fantasy effects – mythical beasts wandering into the view, heroic figures battling or sexual fantasies for example. She said they could use ‘creatives’ like me.
It was Amireh raised the question of the ‘losers’. Large was elsewhere that day and sent a very well turned out young man called Frank along to answer any questions we might have. We were touring an enormous supermarket at the time, surrounded by heavily stacked shelves of gaudily packaged products. Everything was orange and yellow.
‘Everybody is here of his or her own free will’ he began. ‘I will be brutally honest with you people. Those of you who make a life here, do so in the full understanding that there must be winners and losers. Those who are drawn to the lifestyle that this city of ours offers are a special kind of people. They are people who believe they can win, and they are very keen to give it a shot. So the question you have to ask yourselves is “Am I a winner?”‘
Enayat looks to his wife for a response but she is looking at a plastic carton of ready peeled and sliced apples. She looks along the aisle at the myriad similar cartons. ‘Is this all your fresh fruit?’ she says, looking around.
‘The best of all things at the best of all possible prices’ he quotes, smiling smugly. It’s the supermarket’s slogan. We’ve seen it written up everywhere, on the billboards, on the carrier bags, up in lights – orange on a yellow background. ‘No need to go anywhere else’ he adds. ‘No need to have to choose. It’s all done for you, here under one roof. Cheap, quick, convenient’
‘But no actual apples,’ she says, clearly quite upset.
‘No demand’ he says simply, and we move on. I see Amireh open the little box and try some. She doesn’t look impressed. She offers some to her husband but he is not tempted.
‘I suppose nobody really needs to eat here’ she says, but we all know it’s not the point.
Back at the hotel, we reconvene in the Sadeghi’s room (Security don’t stop us moving between rooms now). Agnes and Mike are nowhere to be seen but the rest of us sit around and drink coffee as the tropical fish swim past outside. It’s deliberately surreal so we won’t forget, but not as disturbing as the concrete, which none of us could stand for very long. We all sit about, shocked and disorientated.
Nicky is the first to speak ‘I can’t spend eternity as a teenager, and especially not here’ she says. ‘You couldn’t imagine some of the so called “opportunities in the hospitality industry” they had in mind for me.’
We all look surreptitiously at each other. We can imagine quite well I think.
‘I asked about journalism’ says Shamim, ‘not that I’d want to stay anyway.’
‘What did they say?’
She shrugs ‘As you’d expect really. The money’s good but there’s no real investigative reporting. It’s all just regurgitating PR for the people that run this place. Nobody wants to read about what’s actually going on, apparently...’
‘And the police are essentially their private security firm’ adds Amireh.
Her husband says ‘They were asking me about legal matters. They use a lot of lawyers here.’
‘I never asked you what you did in life Enayat’ I ask.
‘I was a lawyer’ he says. ‘We both were. They spoke to you too didn’t they dear?’ She nods and lays her head on his shoulder. She looks exhausted. He takes her hand.
‘It’s all insurance and compensation law. Not really our field, is it my love?’ She shakes her head and closes her eyes.
‘What about you Muriel?’ says Nicky. Muriel also looks like she’s had enough and Nicky goes and cuddles down beside her. It’s a very touching scene, because although Muriel doesn’t look more than ten years older than Nicky (and she’s about half the size), there’s a real mother and daughter relationship developing. Muriel looks blankly at the ceiling. ‘They haven’t said anything’ she says. ‘I don’t think they have anything for me.’ Nicky snuggles in closer.
Later on, when most of us have managed to doze off Amireh takes me aside and asks me what my intentions are toward her daughter, or words to that effect.
‘Do you love her?’ she says, with more worry in her voice than challenge.
‘I think so, yes’ I say.
She sits and thinks. ‘I don’t know what to do’ she says. ‘Everything is confused here, and we have allowed things to happen...’
‘We haven’t...’ I begin but she holds her hand up to stop me.
‘So she says.’ She gets up again and walks around. ‘You must try to understand, we could not very much influence her life in London, although I trusted her to be sensible, and she has never let us down. Now she has met you, and we are here with you, watching it happen, and we do not feel in a position to make demands, but you must understand it is not easy for us.’
I want to say it’s not easy for any of us but I keep quiet.
‘Under any normal circumstances I would hope you would want to make an honest woman of her.’ I go to interrupt but she holds her hand up. ‘Let me finish, please. In life that would mean certain obligations, religious obligations, worked out, somehow, between you two. My daughter is not especially devout, but one day... and there might have been children...I would like to have been a grandmother...’
We take a few minutes to regret what she missed.
Then she looks up and directly into my face. ‘I know none of this is clear now, here. I don’t know what to believe. We want to trust... And of course we have no idea what will happen next. What I am trying to say is that nevertheless I need something from you, some commitment to Shamim, to us. And I think she needs it too.
‘A wedding you mean? Can I discuss it with her?’ I say.
‘Or at least an engagement’ she says. ‘And Gabriel, please tell me you are not considering settling in this place.’
‘Fine. Well, now I must try to sleep more, if you’ll excuse me...’
‘Er, Mrs Sadeghi? Er, what about the sleeping arrangements? Shall I...?
‘I think it’s a little late to worry about that now, don’t you?’
I smile apologetically and wake Shamim to see if she wants to go back to our room. She nods blearily and we stumble through.