An extract from The Facility
Henry Graves watches through the doorway as the man from the Home Office surveys the room. There is little to see – two bunks, two piles of bedding, a toilet, a sink, a narrow window with wire-mesh glass – yet Jenkins inspects what there is as though considering whether to make an offer. He taps a wall and seems satisfied, then taps again and gives a frown when his knuckle yields a thud. He peers in the toilet and behind it. He fiddles with a tap and turns it on and the ferocity of the water takes him by surprise. He arches his groin to avoid being sprayed and turns the tap off again. He moves to a bunk and presses a palm to the mattress. He sits.
‘I’m no prude, Graves,’ he says, after a moment. His attention is on the bunk opposite. ‘But two bunks. In each cell.’ He turns to face the corridor. ‘Do you think that’s wise?’
He is not the first to make the point. Graves’s assistant, John Burrows, asked too, though in less delicate terms. ‘The inmates will eat together, minister, and they will exercise together but they will only be required to share a room with a member of their own sex.’
‘Quite,’ says Jenkins. ‘That’s precisely my point. I’m not concerned so much about the women but the men… I mean, aren’t most of them… That is, aren’t they all…’
‘They are not all homosexual, minister. And besides,’ Graves adds, ‘I do not see the harm. The harm, I would say, has already been done.’
Jenkins’s lips give a twitch: not quite a smile but not far off it. He casts around once more. He stands. ‘Good. More than adequate. So: is that everything?’
‘Except for the grounds.’
Jenkins checks his watch. He squints behind him at the cell window. ‘Is it still raining?’
Graves looks where the minister is looking. Through the wire and the dappled glass, he can make out only a pervading greyness. ‘There is cover. We shan’t get wet.’
Jenkins checks his watch again. ‘Just quickly then. I’ve another appointment and then a long journey back.’ He steps from the room and turns in the wrong direction. ‘This way?’
‘This way, minister,’ says Graves. He gestures with an open palm towards the opposite end of the corridor, then follows at his guest’s shoulder.
‘You shan’t be staying for lunch?’ Graves says. ‘We were told you would require lunch.’
‘Perhaps next time.’ Jenkins is scanning the walls around him as he walks. ‘Could do with a lick of paint down here, Graves.’ He pauses for a moment and points. ‘Is that damp? You should get that seen to. The longer you leave it, the worse it’ll get.’
Graves peers. ‘Indeed. It does look like damp. I will ensure it is seen to, just as soon as the budget allows.’
‘Do it sooner rather than later,’ says Jenkins, walking on. ‘You have a budget, naturally, but it’s a question of priorities. It’s all very well having a forty-inch plasma screen in the recreational area but if that damp spreads any further, you won’t have any power to run it.’
‘Power, Graves. I’ve seen it happen. The damp gets to the cabling and the whole damn fuse board ends up fried, especially in an old building like this. Where will your budget be then?’ Jenkins turns his raised eyebrows towards his host but Graves has stopped three steps behind. He stands at the door to the stairwell.
‘This way, minister,’ Graves says. Jenkins retraces his steps and rumbles his thanks as he passes through.
‘You are sure about lunch?’ says Graves, returning to Jenkins’s side in the corridor below. ‘It would not be any trouble. In fact, I believe it has already been prepared.’
‘Hm? What’s that?’
‘Lunch, minister. It’s all prepared.’
Jenkins shakes his head. His jowls wobble. ‘Thank you, no. I’m due to meet my sister. She lives in a village not far from here, as it happens. Although it’s all relative, I suppose, in country like this. I say not far but it’s forty miles at least.’
‘Very sensible, minister. Combining business with a little pleasure.’
Jenkins glances at Graves as though to gauge his tone. Graves keeps his face expressionless and the minister gives a grunt. ‘There’ll not be much pleasure, Graves, I assure you. Aside from the company, I don’t suppose the cuisine at the local brasserie is up to much. Given the choice, I would rather suffer the delights of your canteen.’
Graves inclines his head. ‘I shall pass on the message,’ he says. ‘Our chef, I am sure, will appreciate the compliment.’ He has gone too far this time but he pretends not to notice the minister’s scowl. ‘The door is just ahead. Please, allow me.’
The rain has indeed stopped. The clouds seem to have followed its descent, however, turning the courtyard into a basin of mist. Even from the edge of the covered walkway, they can barely see across to the arches opposite. Above them, the ragged line of the second-floor windows is visible but the pitched roof and corner turrets are nothing more than shadows.
Jenkins jabs his chin towards the centrepiece of the quad: a fountain, depicting Neptune in a chariot behind three horses. ‘A touch extravagant, would you not say?’
‘It is hideous, I know. The whole building, really, is an architectural chimera. His Majesty, for one, would not approve. There’s Gothic here, Romanesque there, Palladian and Tudor in the outbuildings. None of it original, of course. Except for the staff quarters, which were built in the fifties.’
‘You got it working, though. You left the damp but fixed the fountain.’
‘It was no great expense, minister. We felt it would be beneficial. The sound of running water, a place for the men and women to gather. You understand, I am sure.’
‘They are prisoners, Graves.’
‘They will be imprisoned, minister. It is perhaps not quite the same thing.’
‘Guff,’ says Jenkins. ‘Of course it’s the same thing.’
Graves gestures to an opening in the grey-stone wall. ‘We can pass around and through the gateway if you would like to see the rest. There is no shelter past the main building but from the passageway you will be able to see the lay-out of the grounds beyond.’
‘No need.’ Jenkins wipes a thumb across the face of his watch. ‘I am sure it is satisfactory. Everything seems more than satisfactory. Except for that damp,’ he adds, raising a finger. ‘Be sure to see about that damp.’
‘Indeed, minister. I will ensure it is attended to. And lunch. You are adamant I cannot persuade you?’
‘Just my things, if you please. My overcoat is in your office. This way, is it?’ Jenkins points the way he is facing.
‘If you’ll follow me,’ says Graves and he leads off in the opposite direction.
Burrows is behind him, his pimpled nose pressed to the glass. He snorts periodically, a prompt for Graves to solicit his opinion. Graves is careful not to. He keeps his attention on the papers spread across his desk.
‘Thirty minutes, would you say? Thirty-five?’
‘He was here a good hour,’ says Graves. He stacks a folder in the pile to his right, picks another from the pile to his left and opens it in the space between.
‘Not including the time he spent on the phone, I mean. Thirty-five minutes, by my reckoning, at the very most. And we’ve been preparing, what? Six weeks if you count the renovations.’
‘It’s his prerogative.’ Graves uncaps his pen, makes a note of a name in his pad. He closes the folder he has in front of him and sets it on the right-hand pile.
‘We bought steak. Howard did. It’s not as though they’ve given us money to waste.’
‘It will not go to waste, I am sure.’
‘You asked him, though? You told him Howard had prepared lunch?’
‘Twice,’ says Graves. ‘Three times, in fact. It was beginning to sound suspicious.’
Burrows turns back to the window, though Jenkins’s car is long gone. Graves glances at his assistant. There is a haze of condensation on the pane in front of him, thickening with each outward breath, ebbing as he inhales.
‘Satisfactory,’ says Burrows, still staring at the gravel drive. ‘That’s the word he used?’
‘He said more than satisfactory, John. More than.’
‘Did he mention anything else?’
Graves sighs. He shuts the folder in front of him and sets it on the pile to his right. He puts down his pen. ‘Like what?’
‘I don’t know. Anything. There must have been something that made an impression.’
‘The water pressure. In the accommodation wing.’
‘What about it?’
‘It made an impression.’
‘What about the fountain? Did you show him the fountain?’
‘And? What did he say?’
‘He wondered whether it might be a touch extravagant.’
‘Extravagant?’ Burrows spins from the window. ‘What’s that supposed to mean? It’s running water! Did you say to him it was running water?’
‘And he understood the connotations? He understood the subtlety?’
‘It’s a fountain, John. It’s a naked god, ten feet high. It’s not subtle.’
‘I meant the calming effect!’
‘I know what you meant,’ Graves says. ‘And you are right to be proud of the idea. Let’s leave it at that, shall we?’
Burrows frowns, turns away. He mutters something Graves does not catch. Graves can feel himself becoming infected with his assistant’s irritation, though it is Burrows’s petulance that grates the most.
‘Really, John,’ he says, knowing he should resist. ‘What did you expect? A ribbon and some oversized scissors?’
‘No,’ says Burrows. ‘Of course not.’
‘Some recognition. That’s all. We’ve done what they asked us to do and we’ve done it on time, in budget and without a single leak.’
‘Which means we’ve done what we’re getting paid to do. Nothing more. You knew the terms when you accepted this post. You knew and you accepted it anyway.’
‘They barely gave me a choice.’
‘One always has a choice, John.’
Burrows makes to answer back but Graves cuts him off. ‘Enough,’ he says. ‘You’ve made your point. We have work to do.’
Burrows moves away from the window. He slumps into his boss’s reading chair and tucks his outsized hands between his knees. His feet turn inwards and meet toe to toe. ‘Everything’s ready. What more is there to do?’
There are two more folders for Graves to check. He opens them in turn, content to let Burrows wait while he works. He adds one of the names to the list in his notebook, then straightens the pile of folders by his right hand and taps it with the pen in his left. ‘These names,’ he says. ‘They will all be in the first batch?’
Burrows shrugs. ‘I think so.’
Graves snaps before he can stop himself. ‘Sit up straight, man. Answer properly. Talk to me properly.’
Burrows slides upright in the leather chair.
‘These names,’ Graves repeats. ‘Will they all be in the first batch?’
Burrows nods once, rather precisely. ‘Yes, sir. That’s what they told me.’
‘How many exactly?’
‘Fifty-seven. Mostly men, a handful of women.’
‘And how many to follow after that?’
‘Twenty-nine, they said. But that may change.’
There are twelve names on Graves’s list: ten men and two women. He tears the page from his notebook and slides it across the desk. ‘Bunk these people separately. Just for the time being.’
‘Separate from each other or separate from the rest of the prisoners?’
‘Give them their own rooms. Keep them in the main wing but I don’t want them sharing.’
‘All right,’ says Burrows. He stands and takes the list and checks the names but does not ask his boss’s reasoning. Possibly he does not need to; more likely he is wallowing still in his sulk.
‘Also,’ Graves says, ‘have someone take a look at the plastering outside room twelve. Probably there’s a drain overflowing somewhere. Fix it, paint it. Check the rest of the corridor too.’
‘Yes, sir. Is that everything, sir?’
There is a note to his assistant’s tone that Graves does not appreciate. ‘No, John, it is not. This project, this facility: it is not a game.’
Burrows draws back his shoulders. ‘I realise that.’
‘Well, then,’ says Graves. ‘I hope you realise too that when these people arrive here, they will be angry. We cannot afford to let their anger get out of hand – ’
‘The staff are well equipped. They are well trained.’
‘We cannot afford to let their anger get out of hand but we must respond with equanimity too.’
Burrows narrows his eyes. ‘I’m not sure I follow.’
‘Talk to the staff, John. Remind them that the men and women in our charge are human beings. They are not criminals. I would like everyone to remember that.’
‘Yes, sir. I am sure it will not be a problem.’ Burrows folds the list and sharpens the crease. He makes to leave.
‘One more thing,’ Graves says. ‘They are dying, John. The people who will arrive here: they are dying. They might not know it yet but that’s the truth of it.’ He takes the lid off his pen and turns to a fresh sheet in his notebook. ‘Please,’ he says. ‘Remember that too.’
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