Louisa Guy rolled her shoulder, swung from the hip, and punched Roddy Ho in the
That felt good.
Let’s do it again.
Louisa Guy rolled her shoulder, swung from the hip, and punched Roddy Ho in the face.
This time, Ho’s head went flying backwards into the gloom, landing on the grass with
a damp thud, before rolling twice then coming to a stop, eyes down.
Which was satisfying, but also annoying. Once you’d knocked a head clean off, you
could never get it to stay on again.
Louisa looked up at the early morning sky, its long clouds seemingly motionless overhead. She was on the back lawn of her apartment block, where one or two lights were coming on, her fellow-dwellers showering, breakfasting, getting ready for the off. Some would save the shower for the gym, get their workouts over before dressing for the day, but Louisa didn’t belong to a gym. Gyms were expensive. Louisa ran instead, though this morning had opted to take Roddy Ho—or his stand-in; a department store dummy she’d boosted from a skip the previous weekend—and give him an education. It was only the second time she’d indulged herself this way, and it was disappointing to think it might be the last, but fair’s fair, there was an argument that Roddy’s stunt double was taking the method approach. She was pretty sure if she punched the actual Roddy Ho repeatedly, his head would go flying from his shoulders before long.
And when you thought about it, it was really Lech Wicinski who ought to be pounding Roddy to dirt this week. Then again, Lech was still too sore to be handing out punishment beatings.
She collected the broken parts and took them upstairs; showered, dressed, etc; and was soon behind the wheel, a piece of toast clamped between her teeth, heading for work. She’d used a gym regularly back in the by; the Service gym not far from Regent’s Park. It occupied hidden levels below a local authority swimming baths, and on its mats, free of charge, agents in good standing could have the shit beaten out of them by experts. This wasn’t as much fun as it sounded, but did have an upside: after you’d spent an hour being thrown around like a bag of wrenches, the expert explained what moves you might make to improve your situation. Louisa had generally come away feeling more capable than when she’d gone in.
But the key phrase in all of that was “in good standing,” and slow horses were so far from standing well they had trouble lying down. Following her transfer to Slough House, the first time Louisa had tried to access the facility her card tripped the scanner, causing visible tension to the guard on duty, tension that relaxed to amusement once he’d clocked her ID. “Seriously?” he’d said. “You’d have more chance with a Starbucks card.” Nobody had been around to explain what move she might make to improve her situation, though shooting him in the head suggested itself. Unfortunately the nearest guns were on the level she’d just been refused entry to, so she’d had to walk away unconsoled.
What made this bad story worse was, it had happened what felt like a lifetime ago, and things hadn’t changed much since. And things kept on not changing, with unvarying regularity. Even when events occurred that shook the windows—like the Russian hoodlums’ toxic rampage six months back, or the Wimbledon outing, just three days ago—they folded up so small, they might as well not have happened. When you asked What next?, the answer was always: The same. So you woke up next morning and were back in the office; there were extra stains on the carpet, occasionally a missing colleague, but you got used to that. Slough House absorbed differences, leeched them of flavour, and spat them out again; sometimes you were driving to work, sometimes you were driving home, but the space between was so dispiriting, you hardly cared which. On your way there, on your way back, you were still denied entrance to the gym.
Some had this lesson waiting—Slough House had a new recruit. One who fell into that rapidly increasing demographic, the too-bloody-young. A shley Khan might have been in primary school when Louisa joined the Service, and acted like she still was. No one likes being here, Louisa felt like saying. It’s not necessary to remind us you’re unhappy. But Khan sulked as if there were prizes involved, and what had never been the most clement working environment had a new storm cloud in its skies. True, none of them were exactly rays of sunshine—Jackson Lamb was extreme weather on his best day—but having a new colleague was a challenge, a reminder of how bad things had felt at the start, and how bad they still were. Nothing you could do changed this. Because that was the deal with Slough House: you had all the self-determination of a clockwork fundamentalist.
Her own view, Louisa thought A shley Khan would quit. Soon. She’d invested too little of her life in the Service to throw good time away after it; there was a whole world of stuff waiting once she’d got over her rage. Though her rage, it was true, did seem to have put its foot down. Not without cause, either: on Khan’s introduction to Jackson Lamb, he’d broken her arm. This was the sort of first impression that made second impressions superfluous, and even for a millennial, raised by the internet, didn’t fall within the range of expected behaviours. No, A shley Khan’s anger was going to have to find an outlet soon, or the woman would explode.
Now there was a thought.
Maybe she’d just short-circuit the whole process and bring a bomb into work.
And as the morning traffic thickened and her day began to crawl, Louisa wondered if that wouldn’t be the most efficient way to deal with A shley’s anger and all the other issues bottled up in Slough House; simply to detonate them all together, in one final crowd-pleasing moment.
It had arrived through the post, like a bomb in the olden days, and she’d been tempted to hold it to her ear and listen for its tick. But it was important to maintain the cover of innocence, even with no one watching, so A shley had simply collected the package from the doormat and carried it into her room, which was on the ground floor. One small window with a smudged view of nothing much, and a single bed that occupied most of the floorspace. There she’d sat and dismantled the parcel, revealing, in reverse order, a stapled cellophane bag inside a small cardboard box inside a jiffy bag. Her name misspelt on the label: Kane instead of Khan.
She’d torn this off for shredding. Put the box in the bin. Studied the cellophane bag and its ripe red content, which might almost have been a souvenir from an anatomy class: the muscle of some unlucky subject, a rabbit or a fox . . . In keeping with such imagined butchery, there were rumours it could stop your heart. Not that its intended recipient had one.
Not much later than that, she was heading for work: a dreary destination at the far end of a dull commute. In an odd, be-careful-what-you-wish-for, or at least, be-careful-what-lie-you-tell kind of way, A shley Khan’s real job was now as miserable as the one she’d invented for her parents. This company you work for, it has little online presence, her father informed her. Very little. He was a man who cast a shadow himself. You did not, as his regular broadcasts throughout her teenage years underlined, you did not become senior partner in a leading dental practice without exhibiting drive. Without displaying gumption. And what is it they do again, is it burglar alarms? A shley had thought she was being clever when she’d told her parents she’d found a job with a security firm. But all this conjured up for them was decoy boxes screwed onto walls, and signs reading GUARD DOGS ON PREMISES. BEWARE. A high second from St. Andrews had promised a glittering future, so how come she was stuck in an office job, the lowest rung on a shaky ladder? The ladder wasn’t the only thing shaking. Her parents’ heads had swivelled in unison: Ode to Disappointment. The household anthem.
On the other hand, had she told them she’d been recruited by the intelligence service, this information would have been dispensed to her father’s patients one after the other, as they sat before him in open-mouthed astonishment. A shley, the eldest, she’s working for MI5 now. Very important, very top secret. And rinse. Worse still, any catch-up she offered would have had to include the bitter information that, far from flying high in her chosen career, she’d been derailed almost before it had begun.
You see, I was on a covert surveillance exercise, tracing this guy across London, only I
was spotted by his boss . . .
We all make mistakes.
Who broke my arm.
A s it was, she’d had to invent a workout accident.
“A collision, was it? On one of those stationary bicycles?” Her father’s amusement
alternated with a litigious glint. “Your uncle Sanjeev, did you forget he is a solicitor? This accident, there should be compensation.”
Compensation, no, thought A shley.
Payback, though. That was something else.
And if a certain type of onlooker could have seen A shley Khan’s smile through her face-mask, they’d have made sure to socially distance themselves the length of a carriage or two, and possibly adopted the brace position while doing so.
An incoming text roused Lech and he surfaced abruptly, every inch of him feeling like he’d Sumo-wrestled a walrus. This wasn’t quite normal service. The post-Sumo effect was recent—a souvenir from Wimbledon—and sleeping through the night was rare too. Insomnia was one of the few traits he still had in common with the Lech Wicinski of old, who had been on an upward trajectory: a good job—analyst at Regent’s Park—a nice flat he shared with his fiancée; walks by the river on Sunday; meals out with friends once a week. Insomnia, yes, but he’d learned to accept it, treating it as extra space, a quiet time when he had nothing but his own thoughts to attend to. Often he walked it off, striding through the city after dark, paying attention to details that were invisible by day, as if haunting a cinema after the audience had gone: here were the empty seats, the abandoned popcorn containers and takeaway cups; all the signs indicating that life went on here, just not at the moment.
And while this still happened—one night out of three he’d be roaming the streets; blowing this way and that, like litter—the rest was change. He no longer had a job at the Park, or a nice flat, and Sara had emailed yesterday to let him know—she wouldn’t want him to find out any other way—that she was seeing someone else. So was Lech, but only in the mirror. The scarred face there was a whole new chapter in a different story; most of the damage self-inflicted, to conceal the original message carved by a bad actor. PAEDO. A lie, but what difference did that make? Had it been true, he’d have obliterated it just the same.
The scars he’d made to hide that lie had hardened to a mask. Something he could hide behind, and others shy away from.
And his days were no longer spent at Regent’s Park but at Slough House, where the Park’s cast-offs laboured. Their tasks were of the boulder-rolling kind: they never came to an end, they just felt like they might, right up to the moment when they began all over again. To be assigned to Slough House meant you’d committed some egregious error; had endangered lives, or caused embarrassment, or invited the wrong sort of attention, all of which were among the seven deadlies on Spook Street. Lech’s own mistake had been to do someone a favour, and the only consolation he’d devised for himself since had been the promise that he’d never do that again; that from here on in, he was his only trusted friend. Being at Slough House actually helped in that regard. It was a place that encouraged you to remain behind your mask, and focus on rolling that boulder. Either you’d get it to the top of the hill despite yourself, or you’d come to your senses and give up.
But the resumption of normal service wasn’t something you could guarantee against, and nor did a mask protect you from yourself. Or perhaps all this meant was, you couldn’t hide from history; it would always roll round again and perform its favourite damage. He should know that by now. His Polish blood should have sung him the song. But that same blood had the tendency to remind him that he was involved in humanity, like it or not, which in turn meant he’d repeated the same stupid error and done somebody a favour. The same somebody, in fact, that he’d done a favour for first time round. Which was why, lying in bed, he had the not-unfamiliar sense of having kick-started something he’d regret.
To cheer himself up, he read the text that had woken him. It was from his landlord: the rent hadn’t been paid. Which meant his bank had screwed up again—the second direct debit to have gone awry this week.
His alarm clock chirruped. Limbs and body bruised and stiff, Lech showered and dressed, drank a cup of black tea, and set off for work.
Normal service, being resumed.
Talk about not learning from your mistakes.
Spend enough time shadow-boxing and your shadow starts to hit back. Shirley should offer that at the morning session as a “learning.” They were big on learnings, here in the San, especially when they came wrapped in metaphor. So, yeah: shadow-boxing. But when you’re off the ground, she could add, your shadow can’t lay a finger on you. Very good reason for getting high.
This was easy. Second day in, and Shirley Dander was on top of their shit already.
But going along with it would mean pretending she was okay with being here, and that might be a stretch for them to accept, given the forthright assessment she’d made of the place, its facilities and its staff within an hour of her arrival, and then again sometime during the second hour, and maybe a couple more times after that, before everyone agreed it might be best to call it a night. They’d think, in fact, that she was faking it to speed up the whole process of recovery and release. So no, best plan would be to stick with the dignified silence she’d mostly maintained since the previous morning. Dignity was definitely looking like being one of her better things, which, come to think of it, probably counted as a learning too. But there was nothing to say she couldn’t leave here wiser than she’d arrived. It didn’t mean she’d be removing this place from her shit-list any time soon.
Of course, putting its name on any kind of list would be easier if it had a fucking name in the first place. Instead, it was just known as the San, an abbreviation redolent of the Chalet School books her mother had forced on her when she was ten; books she had refused to read as a matter of principle, and then had refused to admit to reading as a matter of survival, because to back down from a principle was just baring your throat for the bite. There was no battle as fiercely fought as a girl’s with her mother. Mind you, the battles fought by a grown woman with her mother could get pretty heated too, which was a good reason for making sure her mother never got to find out about Shirley’s current whereabouts. She’d almost certainly blame it on Shirley’s recreational drug use, and Shirley was sick of being hit with that particular stick. If it’s doing me harm, how come I’m fine? A clincher, but it went sailing over her mother’s head like, Shirley didn’t know, an albatross.
Which was exactly the sort of crap they’d want to hear about: battles with her mother. Yawn.
They also wanted to hear about all the dead people, but they could go fuck themselves.
Light was sneaking through the blind, which meant they’d be knocking on the door soon; a soft, polite knock, as if they didn’t want to disturb her. And then there’d be hours of hanging around waiting for something to happen, which, when it did, would consist of Shirley sitting first in a big circle with a bunch of time-ruined losers, and then in a private pair with one of the happy-clappy therapists, in either instance refusing to join in because of the whole maintaining-a-dignified-silence thing. In between these sessions there’d be time to wander round the grounds, or do a jigsaw, or run amok with an axe there was a workshop near the stables; there might be an axe going begging. She made a mental note to check. Then there’d be lunch, and then another group session . . . Christ. She’d never thought she’d miss Slough House.
Of which there were ghostly reminders here. Catherine Standish, for instance, haunted its corridors, having been one of the San’s success stories. Because as all the slow horses knew—Jackson Lamb made sure they did—Catherine was a drunk; her history a sordid, vomit-flecked montage of emptied bottles and broken glass, which made it almost comic to see her now, like she’d had a broom handle surgically inserted. Ms. Uptight, in her Victorian spinster costume. Like butter wouldn’t melt, when time was she’d melted more butter than Shirley had had hot toast. So yeah, she was currently top of Shirley’s shit-list, above Louisa Guy and Lech Wicinski, who’d lured Shirl to Wimbledon in the first place; above Roderick Ho, because the whole bus thing was his fault; above
A shley Khan, who would turn out as annoying as everyone else; and even above Jackson Lamb, without whose say-so nothing happened round Slough House—ahead of them all was Catherine, because Catherine had made out that this was for Shirley’s own good, as if Shirley should thank her for the opportunity.
People keep getting hurt, she’d said. People keep dying. We have to look out for one another.
Yeah, right. Shirley would be looking out for Catherine, that was for sure.
Meanwhile, it was about keeping her head down and waiting for everyone to realise that all she needed was for people to stop getting on her case. A few days, tops. And she could manage that, but she’d be happier if she’d had time to pack properly—all the sermonising about self-control and clean living would be easier to take with a bump of coke to help it down, not to mention it would increase their chances of getting her to open up. She’d be first to admit she was more voluble after a line or two. This whole place, now she thought about it, would benefit from a more lax attitude, and a bar wouldn’t hurt either. She wondered if there was a suggestion box, and whether it would infringe her code of dignified silence to make a contribution.
Somewhere in the corridor she could hear footsteps, and a soft knocking on a door as some poor bastard was roused to face the day. Her turn next. Delaying the moment, she rolled and buried her face in the pillow. When you’re up in the air your shadow can’t lay a finger on you, but no one stays high forever. And once you hit the ground, your shadow’s waiting. I haven’t hit the ground yet, she said out loud, but her voice was unconvincing in the bare little room, and then her door was softly knocked, and the day was starting too early.