In the morning, that last morning in that room, I tell Shamim what her mother said.
‘Your mother said she thinks we should get married, or at least engaged.’
‘She said what? You have got to be joking’ she shouts, leaping out of bed and stands there in her night dress, looking at me, gesticulating ‘I can’t believe it. That’s ridiculous...’
‘Well, I understand she’s concerned...’ I say, trying to act like a nice understanding son-in-law
‘But she shouldn’t expect... In this place? It’s crazy.’
‘But maybe when we get out of here.’
‘Oh, she’s got to be joking. She’s insane.’
‘Ok’ I say, and look at the fish going past. A large blue fish the size of a small motorbike has come to look at the camera. I feel Shamim looking at me.
‘You quite like the idea, don’t you’ she says. I try to shrug non-commitally. Actually I didn’t especially like it, but I didn’t appreciate her outrage at the idea.
‘I’m sorry’ she says, coming over and taking my hand. ‘You do know it’s crazy though don’t you?’
I nod. ‘Of course’ I say. ‘Ridiculous.’ Evidently lying isn’t totally impossible here – probably because I do know it’s ridiculous, but still...
‘Let’s get breakfast’ I say cheerfully.
We have the rest of the day to get through. I want to enjoy it with Shamim as much as I can.
We gather for dinner that evening in the function room. The window shows an English cottage garden complete with gardener in smock and breeches. I wonder where they dug him up. On the table there’s places set for all of us but we’re not really hungry. In the corner the pianist is playing some old show tunes quite badly. The piano seems to be in desperate need of tuning.
Agnes bustles up in a formal frock and tells us about the beautiful house she’s seen, and the fitted kitchen and sunken bath. Apparently she’ll be running a hospital ward. ‘Well, not so much a hospital as just somewhere those poor beggars can lie quietly and heal. Need to keep the workforce on target don’t we’ she says brightly. Mike is also excited about his new job in engineering. Apparently he’ll be in charge of a small team. ‘Bit of a step up from what I used to be huh?’ he says gleefully.
After the meal there’s a brief speech from one of Large’s minions and then we are urged to share our feelings about how we see our futures here, since some of us apparently have not come to a decision yet.
‘Suppose we don’t want to stay?’ asks Shamim.
‘I think that would be a grave mistake’ says Large, trying to sound concerned but actually sounding threatening. ‘The opportunity of a life time, so to speak’ he says affably. ‘Surely there must be something we can tempt you with?’
‘Mutilation?’ she says. ‘Degradation, sickness, poisons...?’
‘But you’d be fully insured my dear’ he says. ‘Most of our valued workforce, people like yourselves, lead long and uneventful existences here.’
She stares at him. There is a face-off for a moment between them.
‘I am truly disappointed’ he says eventually, ‘about you in particular Ms Sadeghi. You could have done great things with the environmental regeneration team I’m sure.’
‘The environment wouldn’t need regeneration if it wasn’t for you messing it up. It’s all to make more money. You destroy the environment making money and then you make money fixing it up again.’
‘Of course. I have nothing to hide Ms Sadeghi. It is all part of the game.’
‘And the losers? Are they part of the game?’
‘It’s a free market Ms Sadeghi. We are all here of our own free will. You know this. They came because they saw rich rewards, and no doubt they were all once upon a time talented, hard-working, ambitious people. But for every winner there must be a hundred losers. You know your economics Ms Sadeghi. And in the long run, well, we are here for all eternity.’ He leaves his seat and walks pensively along behind us, speaking all the while in that lofty tone he has. ‘Who knows what will happen? Who know who might take my place? Any one of those wretches in the shanty could be here one day. Our competitors may find a way to move in on our market and it will be we who are quite literally up Shit Creek. Make no mistake Ms Sadeghi, there is no inequity here – no racism, no sexism, no ageism. If you can do the job you can have it and reap the rewards. It is not in any of our interests to discriminate arbitrarily.’
Finally he resumes his place at the front. ‘But of course you are all free to leave whenever you like. No one is stopping you’.
We look at each other. It’s got to be a trick.
Enayat stands and says he can’t imagine finding any place for himself here and that he wishes to leave. His wife stands beside him. I follow suit.
‘Well. Is that all?’ says Large, failing to act convincingly surprised.
‘Well, I’m disappointed I have to say. You are all talented people. I had high hopes.’ He walks around pensively a bit more. It’s really starting to get on my nerves. ‘Still... fifty percent...not a bad yield’
Nicky stands up. ‘I can’t live here’ she says.
‘Oh but now I am disappointed. I had imagined such an exciting position for you.’
‘I can’t do that’ she says, controlling her tears. ‘Not any more...’
He smiles smugly. ‘But what makes you think you are good for anything else my dear?’
She glares at him as he passes. He ignores her. ‘Anybody else wish to join them?’
We all look at Muriel. Muriel looks back at us with wide eyes and tight zipped lips.
‘What did you have in mind for Muriel?’ I say. He shrugs and spreads his arms.
‘That is none of your business Mr Fortune, surely. We can talk later’ he reassures her, touching her shoulder. The touch makes her wither. I mouth ‘come with us’ at her. She looks at her plate.
‘Is that all?’ No one moves. ‘In that case I shall ask one of the officers to escort you from the premises. I’m afraid I can’t allow you to take anything with you other than that with which you came. I’m sure you understand’ and he clicks his fingers and an armed cop follows us down to our rooms. On the way we hear a small commotion in the dining room and Muriel runs after us and joins us at the lift. She stands, small and resolute among us, eyeing our guard suspiciously.
In our room we pack in silence. We each had only a small pack and the clothes we came in are still filthy from the journey. Then we assemble in the hall by the lift and see Large in the doorway giving us a little wave. Agnes and Mike are there with him holding champagne glasses. To be fair Mike doesn’t look at all comfortable.
The armed cop gets into the lift with us, the doors close and we feel ourselves drop. At the bottom we find ourselves back in the underground car park. The cop takes us out through a side door and waits as we stand there in a huddle, wondering what to do. It’s worryingly quiet.
‘Oh’ he says, beckoning us over. ‘A word of advice’ and I see him lift his gun.
People describe being shot as like being punched very hard. The pain doesn’t come until later. There was just a sound like air escaping, over and over, and then some swearing and a gargling noise. I remember the ground coming up and hitting me in the head and wondering how that had happened, and then the warm liquid feeling in my trousers like I’d pissed myself. Someone’s leg was under my nose.
It took a while to come to my senses. Someone was slapping my face and telling me to get up. I remember thinking ‘How dare she?’ and trying to strike out, and then the terrible pain in my arm. I looked up and it was Nicky, dragging at my shirt, trying to get me to move. Behind her I could see Enayat hunched and covered in blood but smiling at her. Amireh and Shamim were on the ground behind me, and Muriel was sitting stunned beyond them.
‘Come on’ said Nicky insistently and I got up as best I could, with a terrible tearing pain in my leg and began to move where she pointed. Amireh seemed to have been hit in the chest and Shamim in the belly.