The Long Room: An Excerpt

Francesca Kay


Stephen slots the unlabeled cassette into the machine. He doesn’t have great expectations of this tape. Helen is rarely at home during the day in term time and, in the evenings, the calls that she receives or makes are too often of the practical, brief sort: Can she fit in an extra lesson tomorrow? Cover for Mr. Burbage? Collect her watch, now ready, from the menders? Meet outside the theater for a play that starts at half past seven?

It is only when the arrangements and the diary engagements involve the subject that Stephen must record them. And he does. He writes them down in meticulous detail on each day’s report sheet, cross-referencing where necessary, adding information if it might be useful, making carbon copies as required.


8 December 1981:

Subject of interest and wife expected at Greenwich Theatre on Tuesday 14 December, 9:30. (To see production of Another Country—cf. tape dated 6 December, which details provisional plan made by subject’s wife and her friend Laura [Cummins, q.v.].) Tickets now booked. Probability of restaurant dinner later, location not yet known. John Cummins also attending theater. No one else expected to be present.


When he writes these things, he pictures Helen looking forward to her evening, getting ready, getting dressed, and later coming home, in a taxi, half-asleep. He prefers to see her living her life alone.

He knows that Helen is busy. She teaches music to young children at a school in Knightsbridge; she is sociable and often invited out. But even so, she is a kindly friend and a loving daughter. She makes time to telephone, she remembers birthdays, she asks after health and happiness, and she regularly telephones her mother.

Her mother lives in a village by the Suffolk coast, called Orford. When he first heard Helen name the village, Stephen looked it up in the atlas kept in the Institute’s library; it is not far from Aldeburgh. She has a gentle voice, just like her daughter, but with the faintest trace of Irish in it, and she evidently lives alone. That’s another bond that he and Helen share: elderly mothers on their own.

He presses the play button and the tape begins its smooth transit from one spool to the other. Recording is activated by incoming and outgoing calls. In a Bravo-level investigation such as this one, where the product is delivered daily, the tapes are often short.

As this one is. One incoming call, at 17:54, unanswered. An outgoing call at 20:17: subject to his father.

“Dad? Hello, it’s me. How are you? Just to say we’ll definitely arrive in time for supper. That is unless there’s a massive holdup on the motorway; you know how bloody it can be getting out of London on a Friday evening. But I can push off a little bit early, and Helen has a half day, so with luck we’ll beat the lemming rush.”

His father is pleased. He informs the subject that his guns are cleaned and ready in the gun room. Harry’s Saudi millionaire, it now appears, won’t be down till Sunday, which comes as a relief. He and the subject’s mother are looking forward to seeing their sons. The forecast’s good. Should be ideal conditions.

The subject and his father had talked about these plans before. Rollo Buckingham already knows that he will be at his family home in Oxfordshire and that the party will be joined by an Arab businessman (who had been easy to identify, from information already given on the telephone to the subject by the subject’s brother Harry). Rollo had not thought there was anything unusual about a weekend’s shooting or that extra surveillance measures should be taken. The subject’s father was formerly Her Majesty’s Ambassador in Buenos Aires, Dublin, and Vienna, has a knighthood, and now sits on the boards of several leading companies, including the brewery that Stephen knows to be the source of Rollo’s fortune. He is also a personal friend of the Director. There is no way the Director would consent to a covert surveillance operation at that house, even if there had been any point.

The subject was saying good-bye and was about to hang up when his father asked:

“Could you possibly talk Helen into giving it a go? Quite honestly, I sometimes think she sounds like that advertisement: I haven’t tried it because I don’t like it . . . And it’s an awful shame to miss out on such good fun.”

“Really, Pa, I think she made her mind up long ago. But I will try to talk to her again tomorrow, when we’re driving down.”

“Ah well, I suppose it could be worse. I mean at least she’s not a vegan. Your mother and I were only saying that the other day apropos of Christmas. Mamma’s bought her a really rather super leather purse.”

Stephen ejects the cassette and flings it across the room. It strikes one of the metal cabinets that are lined up against the wall opposite the windows, and falls to the floor with an audible crack. He retrieves it and sees that half the outer plastic casing of the cassette has sheared off. In a moment of confusion, as there is no option on the pro forma envelopes for deliberate damage, he slips the tape into his trouser pocket.

Now for the second tape. The orange label is there to show that no one has tampered with it between collection and delivery to the designated listener. Stephen unpicks an edge and peels the label slowly off.

Orange-label tapes are a uniform length engineered to run continuously for twelve hours. Much research has gone into these tapes and their recording of the sounds relayed to them, usually from a distance and often under circumstances that are technically far from ideal, but this research is none of Stephen’s business. He has no idea how the recordings are obtained; he does not need to know. For him the salient fact is that each recording runs from roughly midday to midnight, and from midnight to midday, and that every tape is dated. Someone—and he will never know who that is—removed this particular tape at around 11:59 last night, from a machine that must be located somewhere in the vicinity of the target premises, inserted a fresh one, scrawled 12/9—12:00–24:00 on the label of the old one and then, at 11:59 the following morning, repeated the whole process. And that same process happened in dozens of other places from one end of the country to the other. Dozens of anonymous people unobtrusively entering empty flats or lofts or disused offices or hotel rooms or warehouses or vehicles, picking up the plastic spools, dating them, taking them to a central point—and again it is no concern of Stephen’s where that is or who controls it—from which they will be delivered to the Institute. He envisages these shadowy people flitting through the midnight streets, their heads down and their collars up, slaves to their machines.

It can happen that an investigation is too urgent to brook even that twelve-hour delay. In these rare cases, specifically instructed listeners are driven by taciturn escorts to addresses that they must not divulge, where they huddle in their headphones over the machines and monitor their targets in real time. Stephen would love to be assigned one of those Alpha-level cases; to be granted that unparalleled intimacy, to hear his target breathe at the same moment that he breathes himself. The possibility that this particular investigation could one day be upgraded from Bravo to Alpha is so deeply thrilling that he hardly dares to give it thought.

In the silence, the sound of the tape docking into place is loud. Stephen presses play and the tape begins its slow passage from full to empty reel, emitting as it slides a sibilant hiss. He replaces the headphones he had for the time being removed, and plugs the jack into its socket.

Yesterday, Thursday, early in the evening. Oh, thou art fairer than the evening air, my Helen. The sound of a key turning in a lock, a door being opened and then closed again and something dropped—a heavy bag perhaps—water running from a tap, a kettle coming to the boil, a teaspoon clinking in a cup. Light footsteps. The swish of curtains being drawn. A few words spoken, only just above a whisper; Helen, talking to herself. She does this often, murmuring some words, far too low to be overheard, with a slight inquiring uplift in her voice. Although he strains to make out her meaning it is only her tone he catches: a woman asking herself questions, who does not stay for answers. Stephen relaxes like a peaceful cat in Helen’s presence.

The 5:40 news on television drowns out all other sounds. Stephen and Helen listen to the news together: Andrei Sakharov and his wife, Yelena, have ended their hunger strike; Michael Foot has won his call for an investigation into Militant Tendency. Stephen has already heard that news—and watched it too—on his own television at nine o’clock last night but he listens to it again with Helen now. When the news is over, she turns the television off. Stephen commends her discrimination as a viewer.

More water sounds. Helen washing up her cup. Then soft rustling sounds that he has heard before: she is leafing through sheet music or the pages of a book. Now it will depend on her frame of mind. Some evenings, when Helen is at home, she practices piano; on others she will sing. Stephen loves her playing—he loves it when he hears the soft knock of wood against the lid prop, her indrawn breath, and then her first experimental scales and the way she takes one phrase and plays it over and over again—bold chords or silvery sad notes—but he is ravished when she sings. He does not know much about music and can seldom put a name to piano piece or song but he is learning; he has bought a turntable and some records. One day he will talk to her about them. In the meantime he shuts his eyes and listens to her songs of love in languages he does not always understand but that speak directly to him. It is by magic, Stephen thinks, that this woman’s voice comes straight to him from a room that he has never seen, and catches at his throat, that it stirs in him a yearning that is new, unnamable: a hunger of the heart. It makes her feel so intimately close. It tells him everything about her. And yet, although each time she tells him something new, Stephen knows that he has always known her. From the dawn of time their souls have been entwined and waiting: now hers is calling him. Helen sings for him alone; on occasion she may play the piano for her husband but when he is there she never sings.

This evening she has chosen the piano and she stops as soon as she hears her husband at the door. Greenwood is late. It is 19:33, a time that Stephen writes on the report sheet. Greenwood drops his crackling outdoor clothes beside the door. He has had to finish off a piece of work that couldn’t wait, there were problems with his wretched bike chain, he has oil all over his hands, he’d like to have a shower before he rings his father. Will he have time for that or is he spoiling supper? Supper is the word that Jamie Greenwood uses.

The noise of a cork being pulled from a bottle is curiously disgusting. Cooking sounds: a knife hitting a hard surface, and a match struck, the hiss of a gas jet, hot fat splutter, china against china, metal against glass.

Greenwood makes the telephone call that Stephen has already noted, although on this orange-label tape only his end of the conversation can be heard. Stephen closes his eyes as he listens once again to the confident male voice, the sound of shared assumptions. Let that Saudi millionaire be a hopeless shot, he thinks. Let him swing his gun round wildly and hit Jamie Greenwood, let Greenwood fall to the hard ground dying, bleeding from the mouth. Does blood spurt out in a scarlet halo, in a shower of red raindrops, when a bird is shot?

“Smells good,” Greenwood says.

Name it, Stephen urges. He wants to know what Helen will be eating. The scent of onions softening in butter, of herbs and garlic, reaches him through the thin gray ribbon and reminds him he is very hungry. What is the wine they are drinking? He thinks Valpolicella, for the beauty of the word.

When Helen and Jamie have finished their supper it is nine o’clock and they, like Charlotte, like Louise, like Stephen unconfessed, turn on the television for Brideshead Revisited. If they speak to each other at all during the hour of the program, their words are lost in swooning music and the actors’ voices. Charles and Julia are falling deeply and adulterously in love on board a ship in mid-Atlantic. Stephen leaves them to it and winds the tape forward to the point where Helen and Jamie make preparations for the night and shut their bedroom door.

For a while longer Stephen shares the noises of the night. Sirens and traffic, voices in the street, a dog barking in the upstairs flat, a sudden swirl of wind in the branches of a tree. He thinks of Helen listening to them with him, as she lies sleepless by the snoring body of her husband. And then he checks his watch and sees with a shock that it is well past nine o’clock. He has kept Helen company for three hours and more; he will have to sign the late list; there is not enough time to finish writing a report.

Every piece of equipment, any scraps of paper that bear even a single word, anything that could identify a member of the Institute, must be locked away at night. Stephen removes the orange-labeled tape and puts it into his in-tray. He carries the tray and his tape player to his allocated cabinet, stows them, clicks shut the sturdy combination lock, and checks it, twice.

His coat is hanging on a rack next to the door. He puts it on and walks slowly back to the end of the long room, lightly touching each of the eight deserted desks as he goes past. All the surfaces are bare except for lamps, and on Charlotte’s desk a weeping fig, on Louise’s a small grove of African violets. Green leaves and pale pink flowers, incongruous in this place of battleship-gray metal: metal desks and metal safes on a sea of carpet tiles that are also gray and dirty. The angled desk lamps hunch above the empty planes like herons staring into stagnant pools.

Friday night. After the darkness of the long room, the neon glare in the corridor outside stabs Stephen’s eyes. He blinks behind his glasses. There is no one in the corridor; the whole building seems unmanned although Stephen knows that there are many other corridors and many other rooms in which feverish activity will continue through the night. And, beyond the reinforced walls of the Institute, other young men will be gazing into the eyes of girls, across restaurant tables, dance floors, rumpled beds. Girls are slipping out of dresses into silky nightgowns; they are standing under showers with water flowing down their breasts. Out there, in the cold December night, new lovers are kissing for the first time and the dying are taking their last breaths. Stephen is aware that these are banal thoughts.

He takes the stairs rather than summoning a lift. He hopes his descending footsteps sound assertive on the bare concrete. At the bottom of the staircase a security guard is waiting.

“Working late,” he says. It’s a statement not a question.

“Been a busy week,” Stephen tells him, looking heroically exhausted.

“Even so, you didn’t ought to spend your nights in here, son. All work and no play . . .”

“I know, I know,” Stephen interrupts him, “but it’s okay. My girlfriend’s waiting for me; she knew that I’d be late.”

“That’s more like it,” says the guard, with a leering wink. “Reg’s got the late list.”

Reg is on duty in the guard post, by the main entrance of the Institute, sheltered by bulletproof glass. Behind him, flickering screens show what is happening in the corridors and stairwells of the building, and in the street outside. To speak to Stephen, Reg slides open a hatch.

“Working late,” Reg says. “Put your moniker on this.”

Stephen does as he is told, adding his department and initials to the list. L/III/SSD. Reg presses a button and the main door opens to release Stephen into White Horse Street and the night.



Francesca Kay’s first novel, An Equal Stillness, won the Orange Award for New Writers and was nominated for the Authors’ Club First Novel Award and for the Best First Book in the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Her second novel, The Translation of the Bones, was longlisted for the Orange Prize. She lives in Oxford.