by Cormac Millar
READ THE OPENING PAGES....
Waking was a kind of fall. Finding himself once again in her empty bed, seeing the long white nightdress folded on her pillow. Pale scrubbed wood, clean painted walls, threadbare curtains fired by sunlight. The cold air. Her feet in the kitchen. The fridge door closing. Things shifting into place.
There was the food. Morning fare was thin slices of cheese, black rye and pumpernickel bread, syrupy coffee with sticky grit at the bottom of the cup, Apollinaris water. She drank no poisons from the tap, ate no meat. Stacked fruit in wooden bowls, thrown in the compost when it started to spot. The forest all around them.
There was the outdoor life. She believed in walking, not just on gentle slopes. Clad in khaki shorts and brown ankle-boots, she marched him up mountains, along woodland paths, provisions stashed in her knapsack. She swam in coldwater lakes. (This in February.) He watched from the shore, allowed himself to be tempted, tried one foot in the icy water. In that element, she was perfect.
There was the sex. She trapped him in the dark, ambushed him in the morning, invaded his bath, dragged him from his paper-strewn desk to the creaking bed, the wooden floor, the sofa, the starved patch of sunlit grass (snow still on the ground), straining into new shapes, reaching for happiness. He began to sympathize with the sculptures of Henry Moore.
There was the language. He was writing a memoir of past trauma, losing the battle with words. Orphaned of secretaries, he faced the screen alone, tapped, deleted, stared at the blank window. His English was drying up. Absurdly, he found himself thinking in gapped German. No longer a genuine foreigner, he was a stumbling man recovering from brain injury. Words and meanings resisted fusion. Hence his incapacity to say what was on his mind.
There were the doubts, hedging him in. His former wife had proved to be compulsively promiscuous, yet their sex life, before it had faded, had been at best a sporadic, safe routine. What was the meaning of Heidi's feral energy? He was too reticent to ask. Heidi did not invite questions. He sometimes confessed selected aspects of his past life. She did not reciprocate. Once, when he woke up, she was in tears. Thinking of home, she said, but would not elaborate.
There were no mirrors in the woodland cottage where they spent those first weeks. When they moved back to her apartment close to the Permanent Liaison Committee headquarters, he found himself rougher, leaner, with a weathered face that reminded him of his brother Daniel, not seen in seven years. Home from work, Heidi took him shopping, kitted him out in Harris tweeds and denim trousers, Indian cotton shirts, waxed jackets, Birkenstocks. Too much, really, but she liked the effect. She made him grow his hair longer, bought him razor blades to shave his face clean. He put the clothes on his credit card, but Heidi was paying for everything else. His lump sum had not come through, his pension had yet to be approved. She put away his smooth Italian suit. Now he looked more Irish, less neutral than when he had worked in Dublin.
To his surprise, there was hate mail. Letters from Ireland, typed and handwritten, signed and unsigned, forwarded by the Department of Justice. He was accused of being a criminal, a drug baron, a communist, a secret supporter of the opposition. The trick he had played to bring down his Minister was construed as part of some deep Masonic plot. In the same batch of forwarded post came handwritten letters of praise, even a declaration of love.
Weeks later came a single brown envelope, posted in London, containing copies of press cuttings about Richard Frye, his disgraced Minister. Frye claimed to have been singled out for special treatment, complained that dark forces had worked against him, to undermine Ireland's drug-free policies and sabotage the anti-drugs policy that Frye had planned to lead in Europe. The brown envelope also contained the photocopy of an unsigned letter, received in the Department of Justice, protesting that Séamus Joyce, a known associate of international drug rings, was about to receive a State pension. The Criminal Assets Bureau should look into his property portfolio, the letter-writer argued, before any money was paid over. The typing was impeccable, the writing coherent: not the work of a crank.
He thought of demanding an explanation, insisting that the Department cough up his overdue payments. He did nothing. He could not ask Heidi's advice.
As in his former life, once again he was being moulded by his surroundings. Floating in limbo, he was losing his knowledge. It was a good life. Why did she love him? What had he done to deserve that? He loved her, in so far as he could love anything in the world. So why the resentment, why the unease, why the despair he had felt in the forest?
Of course there was the music. Having left his jazz collection in Ireland, he searched for sounds to fill the silence. On the radio were jazz stations, others specializing in bland classics and monotonous oom-pah-pah, but Heidi's apartment had shelves full of old twelve-inch discs: symphonies, concertos, chamber music, choral works. She owned no CD player. She had once enjoyed the gritty sound of vinyl, she said, but nowadays opted mostly for silence. He started to explore her collection. During his solitary hours of reading, cooking, writing, her apartment resounded to the dazzling gloom of Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, Kabalevsky, Vainberg. Enough to make you want to cut your throat.
He was too much alone. She went to the office during the day, doing unspecified administrative work for the German secretariat of the Permanent Liaison Committee. She had a special badge to get her into the Policy Division. Séamus had never been inside that particular bunker. She sometimes came home late, after her exercise nights. Heidi was sharp and fit, despite weighing so very little. In the city, she wore black, melting into the drabness of the streets. Covering her hair with a black corduroy cap, she looked like a Victorian child setting out to sweep chimneys.
There were overnight absences. Servicing a PLC delegation, she explained, but didn't say who was in the delegation, nor even where she had been. What services had she provided? Word-processing, interpreting, that sort of thing. She made it sound tedious, but her eyes lit up.
Once, having gone into town in search of shaving foam, he saw her walking with a thin bald man, moving faster than she ever did with Séamus. They walked close together, in perfect synchronicity of stride, her slight limp barely discernible. Séamus turned away. At home that night, nothing was said.
Out for an afternoon stroll, he recognized a senior Irish policeman alighting from the bus near the PLC headquarters. He greeted the man by name, was rebuffed with a blank stare. ‘I don't think our paths have crossed.' But they had, many years before, on a working party examining the protection of the rights of suspects. Obviously, Séamus was a man whom it was no longer politic to remember.
He mentioned the Irishman's name to Heidi. Was he visiting the PLC on behalf of the Irish government? There was no official Irish representative at the moment. Perhaps they were thinking of sending a policeman rather than a civil servant? Heidi made enquiries, drew a blank.
He joined an evening class on Central European history, held in an upstairs classroom at a local high school. His pedestrian German failed to track the lecturer's loftier flights, but he managed to get the gist; and mugged up the material with the help of English textbooks ordered from Amazon. With the aid of two dictionaries he drafted an essay in simple German. The lecturer asked him to do a longer version in English, and declared herself pleased with the result. He read what he had written. It was dead on the page. She set him another essay. He ground to a halt.
Too many years had gone by since he had last been a student. Going back to education should have been a release. It was a normal thing to do in middle age. In a sense, it was easy. He brought the skills of a working lifetime to the task. The assemblage of data was easy enough, but he no longer felt able to risk the sort of grand intuition that had sustained him in his first year at university. Then, he had sometimes felt he could almost reach out and grasp the truth. His teachers were not so sure. Now, it was not the truth, just the facts.
He returned to his own memoir, spent days polishing phrases, revising paragraphs, striking out whole sections. Everything he wrote was true, but the composite result was false. Besides, it took far too much time. It ought to be easy to write about oneself. It is not.
He felt like the burned-out shell of a country house.
He bought a biography of Stan Getz, the gentle jazzman whose nervous melodic lines had nursed him through the worst days of his life. Getz, it transpired, was prone to outbreaks of rage and domestic violence. He stopped reading the biography, switched to books about recent history and contemporary politics: a mixture of sense and delusion. Man cannot live without faith in impossible things.
People still knew him at the PLC. The place was quieter than it had been, as other agencies with better connections were taking up questions of European security, and the Americans had withdrawn their observers from Aachen, leaving the Washington line to be pushed by wannabees. Ritual debates rumbled on, as former democracies and former autocracies competed in adapting their public images to the crudely drawn comic-strip world that followed upon the still unbelievable destruction of the Twin Towers.
Séamus received invitations to PLC events, which Heidi persuaded him to accept. People seemed pleased to see him. Visiting securocrats, politicians and academics liked to have a well-informed audience to debate their views, and Séamus had a store of thoughtful questions.
There was a brief blush of fame when an American news magazine surveyed the state of narcotics distribution in the world, and cornered Séamus to comment on his Dublin experience. He appeared in a lime-green panel of his own, incongruously headed ‘Fighting Irish'. His role in the drugs wars was dramatized, and he was made to seem wise and farsighted. Captioning him as ‘Modest Hero Who Made a Difference', the article rewrote in positive mode his disastrous stewardship of the Irish Drugs Enforcement Agency. When he read of his manifold triumph, he had the odd sensation of turning into a fictional character. Some of his acquaintances in Aachen, who should have known better, seemed to take this stuff seriously. He was invited to dinners with important people. Heidi enjoyed those occasions, producing a wardrobe of strappy gowns and flimsy shoes. He loved her flickering smile in the candlelight.
He was growing poor, though comfortably so. Still no money came from Dublin. Theresa, his ex-wife, had had tenants in the Donnybrook house that she had assigned to him as part of their separation settlement. The tenants had moved out, retaining the last two months' rent to offset the deposit Theresa had collected from them three years previously. Séamus would not write to Theresa to reclaim the money. He knew what she would say: it was up to him to collect his rent, and besides, the deposit had been spent on maintenance and improvements. The people in the property management agency were unwilling to find another tenant before the house had been refurbished. They said its décor was out of date. Unbelievable, he knew: the frantic Dublin rental market meant that any property, no matter how derelict, could easily be rented out. The letting agents could not take the responsibility of engaging decorators; they demanded detailed instructions.
They could, if he wished, find him a buyer; investors were always happy to snap up houses, however small and dowdy, in good Dublin locations.
Séamus found his key to the house, clipped it on his key ring, booked a cheap flight to Dublin through Stansted. Then he got a nagging head cold and postponed the trip. He dropped out of his evening class, took to spending too much time on the Internet.
In the mirror, he had begun to shrink. Not wasting away: just becoming less portly. Either Heidi's healthy food was curing his middle-aged spread, or else Theresa must be burning a wax effigy over a slow flame.
Retirement did not suit him. And he had to admit that he was becoming retired, not just momentarily unemployed. In his own eyes, and in those around him, he was a man with time on his hands. He went into a coffee-house one Monday afternoon, carrying an English Sunday paper, which he leafed through at leisure, in all its various sections. The colour supplement had an article on immigration in East Germany that he thought might interest Heidi. He ordered a second coffee, read the book reviews, paid his money and left, then remembered that he had forgotten to take away the colour supplement. When he went back for it, the woman at the cash desk handed it over with a sympathetic air, and engaged him in aimless dialogue for a minute, membershipping him as a sufferer from the incurable disease of loneliness. Séamus had not, so far as he could honestly say, left the colour supplement behind on purpose, as the pretext for additional social intercourse, but in the cashier's eyes he could see that men like him were prone to do that.
Still Heidi loved him. He caught her looking at him, with shining eyes, as though he were a treasure dearly bought.
He could not sleep.
She brought him to one of her relaxation classes, and left him alone with the counsellor, a scrawny woman with an earnest frown who informed him that he was perhaps mildly depressed and questioned him sotto voce in hypercorrect English as to his anxieties. She assured him he could speak with utter confidence; she was bound not only by the ethics of her profession but also by the security requirements of the Permanent Liaison Committee Staff Welfare Scheme. Séamus did not find this double assurance doubly reassuring. Since Heidi had brought him here, he made a decent effort to recreate some snippets from his dead marriage and loveless childhood. The counsellor fixed her sympathetic gaze on the bridge of his nose, her ditchwater eyes glowing as each cliché slotted into her checkerboard brain. She urged that he should try to be more of a protagonist, not allow himself be overshadowed by minor characters in the story of his life. He wondered, silently, how she reconciled this heroic doctrine with her own carriage-wheel role as a pedlar of patent beliefs. She crossed her painfully thin miniskirted legs, flicked thin fingers through her dyed brown hair, pulled back her shoulders, fingered the top button of her dusty pink cardigan, and suggested that he was perhaps a little repressed in his reactions to people. He was attempting to be always urbane and sophisticated. It might be perhaps a little better to be basic, no? She advised him that he must struggle to find his own unique identity. Séamus smiled at the memory of a Sempé cartoon in which hundreds of identical people standing at identical windows of identical apartments in identical apartment blocks all exclaim simultaneously how dreadful it would be to live in a world where everyone was exactly the same. He was going to tell this to the earnest counsellor, who was tilting her skull to one side while wetting her glossed lips with the tip of her tongue, but he reflected that to do so might sound cruel.
She instructed him to jot down his dreams, using a small notebook and a ballpoint pen. The important thing was to do this first thing each morning, before any distractions presented themselves. He could be frank: there was no obligation to report his dreams and fantasies to her, or to anyone else.
‘Find opportunities to be proactive, occasions of self-assertion,' she instructed him. ‘You will feel all the better for it. A man has got to do what a man has got to do. If you will give yourself permission to relax, your life will be more fun and you yourself, as a personality, will become more interesting.'
Séamus had spent a lifetime trying, with some success, to be dull. He made an excuse and left, but found he had agreed to another appointment.
Afterwards, he had to admit that the session had done him some good. We must always be ready to learn from fools. And under the barrage of banalities he had in fact come up with one useful reflection of his own. Over the past few months he had switched from an ageing wife to a younger woman. Tabby cat to alleycat. Could that be what was making him feel so damnably old?
But why had he been trapped by Theresa in the first place? What had gone wrong with his youth?
Why was he hurt by Heidi's spontaneity, her speed? Theresa had anaesthetized him. He was waking up to pain.
His head-cold was persisting into the spring.
There was a doctor, a gangling fellow from Bavaria. His office was festooned with diplomas. His name was August Wallenstein-Heinemann. A master of elocution, he spoke American English, Germanic French, Spanish and Italian. These accomplishments were regularly displayed as the great man emerged into his waiting-room to summon each new patient with a personalized phrase of greeting. It was not an unpleasant wait. There were glossy magazines and exotic fish. After an hour, Séamus was summoned into the inner sanctum and subjected to various indignities, accompanied by a steady stream of interrogation. Some centilitres of his blood were siphoned into a plastic vial, to be analysed at cut-price rates by the clinic accredited to the Permanent Liaison Committee. The visit concluded with the doctor's preliminary diagnosis that Séamus was carrying far too much weight for his frame, and would shortly pay for this failing in cardiovascular and other disorders. For a start, he should eliminate all alcohol from his diet.
Séamus was discouraged. He had shed so many pounds in the past few months that he could almost discern the shape of his ribcage in the bathroom mirror. He was never going to rival the doctor's plucked-vulture profile, but for the first time in years he had been starting to feel more compact, no longer swimming in a circle of useless fat. The skin-and-bone doctor, judging by the dates on his degree certificates, was much the same age as himself, but looked ten years older and closer to the grave.
More than discouraged, he felt insulted. Almost decided not to go back for his next appointment. Ten days later, he was vindicated. The same doctor, test results in hand, reluctantly read him the All Clear on a host of diseases and addictions. Cholesterol levels were within tolerable limits. The doctor was clearly crestfallen. Although he ended the consultation with renewed advice on exercise and weight loss, his tone betrayed a certain lack of purchase.
Walking home through afternoon suburbia, Séamus was light on his feet. He felt like ordering cream cake with Schnapps to celebrate his good health, but instead kept walking, and enumerating corpulent men in public life who had lived to ripe seniority. Chancellor Helmut Kohl, for one, was built on an epic scale, and it was quite a few years since his retirement. Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Foreign Minister at the time of German reunification, was no sylph. In an earlier age, Chancellor Ludwig Erhard had been substantial from every angle. Who knows how long the Bunteresque Hermann Goering might not have survived, had the second war worked out the other way? Ranging further afield, Charles Pasqua, Romano Prodi, Kenneth Clarke were living proof that the fuller figure can cut a dash on the European stage. Heavy drinking Boris Yeltsin and well-rounded Mikhail Gorbachev had survived pretty well. In Chile, ex-President Augusto Pinochet was an ambulant advertisement for the good life: the declining path towards his eternal reward was proving slow and stately. His old associate Henry Kissinger, still surviving, might have some difficulty in passing through the eye of a needle. Generalissimo Francisco Paulino Hermenegildo Teódulo Franco y Bahamonde Salgado Pardo de Andrade (whose full name had been taught to Séamus during his sojourn in secondary school) had hardly been taller than circumferential. The expansive waistline of Ariel Sharon, freely chosen leader of the Israeli people, had clearly been nourished on more than lettuce all these years.
In short, why worry?
Late one afternoon in darkest April, as he was being tormented by a global bore at a reception following a Turkish lecture on the joy of human rights, someone tapped Séamus on the shoulder. It was Guido Schneider, flanked by Heidi and by dark-eyed Lieselotte from the Firearms Secretariat . Guido and Séamus had not met since Guido's visit to Dublin, shortly before Séamus had self-destructed. Guido was still vaguely attached to the German delegation at the PLC, although he was never there.
Lieselotte told Séamus how terrific he looked, hoped he was getting plenty of rest. She launched into a flirtatious greeting of the bore, while Guido took Séamus by the arm and massaged him into a far corner of the room. Séamus had forgotten how tactile Guido was.
‘You are enjoying your retirement, Séamus?'
‘My new life.' He tried to smile.
Guido narrowed his eyes. ‘How do you employ your time?'
‘I'm a houseboy.'
‘Among other things,' Heidi said. She had followed them.
‘It has been four, five months?' Guido asked.
‘A little more,' Heidi interjected.
‘The world is deprived of your talents, Séamus.'
‘Talents like mine the world can stagger on without.'
‘You are a good man,' Guido persisted. ‘You have experience. You know when to speak, when to keep silent. Which is no longer so common in the world we inhabit. Some people, some groups could benefit from these unusual gifts. I want to ask you about an occasion to deploy your talents.'
‘I haven't quite finished with him,' Heidi said.
‘A short assignment,' Guido sweetly continued. ‘Do not overreact, Frau Novacek.'
‘I am not overreacting.' A little too clipped.
‘Not yet, Frau Novacek. But we know your dangerous temper. I promise that you have no cause for jealousy here. We are speaking of a temporary loan for an exhibition.'
‘He is not a museum piece.'
‘That is what he may become, unless you let him work,' Guido smiled. ‘Man needs employment. Even the finest brains are subject to stagnation. I have a mission that will suit you, Séamus. My clients would be interested to see you in action. If you do not enjoy it, you need not come again. You can slip back into the twilight world of being Frau Novacek's houseboy.'
‘Which is not such a bad deal,' Séamus said.
‘Where do you wish to take him?' Heidi asked. They were talking across Séamus, speaking in English for his benefit, but quietly, like a couple in bed. He had the sense of some long-standing intimate quarrel.
‘Just across the Atlantic,' Guido said. ‘We have an urgent need in the coming days. This will be a private hearing at an institution. Somebody dropped out because of illness. Men of sound judgment are required. It will be brief.'
‘I have heard that before.' Heidi scowled like a small child.
‘His advice would be valuable.'
‘On what exactly?' Heidi insisted.
‘Ethical problems, so to say, confronting an international body. Our clients require an external view. Séamus will be part of a high-level delegation from Consultancy International. He will have not too much to do. It does not even require a working visa. The groundwork has been laid. The facts are available. We merely need to reach a judgment. Just a few days, Frau Novacek, and we shall give him back to you, in perfect condition.'
‘But where will he have been, Herr Schneider?'
‘New York,' Guido said. ‘Indeed, dear Frau Novacek, why don't you come too. As our guest?'
After a sleepless night, he was walking alone in Central Park. Dawn light shone on mountainous buildings. He had left his hotel suite in search of his woman, now presumably lost among the joggers circling the reservoir. How could he feel alone amidst these crowds? How on earth did they manage to be up and about so early? She had escaped while he dozed. The doorman had seen her go, in a pink one-piece.
His head was filled with images from his broken sleep. That blasted psychologist had opened a floodgate. He had stuck with her advice for a week, before ceasing to record his dreams, but he had somehow learned the trick of recalling them, and could not unlearn it. This particular dream went back to his schooldays, and involved the one book you must read to understand everything. He finally found it in a corner of the school library. It was a heavy hardback bound in green buckram. The pages were yellowed, their edges singed almost black. The print was so faded that he could barely make it out. The text was in Latin. Conticuere omnes , it began, but when he held it to the lamp the faded letters sank into the paper like minnows diving to the bottom of a stream.
Wide awake, he climbed a grassy bank into the sunlight, and was confronted by an indeterminate number of large dogs dragging a tall dark woman on many leads. They surged at Séamus: a husky, a Dalmatian, a lean jackal who snapped and chewed the air, smaller curs twisting and growling in the background. He kept walking quickly across the grass. The jackal broke free from the pack and ran in front of him. The dog-walker, following with the rest of her canine crew, barked her apologies. The jackal circled at a diminishing distance, showing its fangs. He wished he had brought an old-fashioned umbrella to ram down the animal's throat. And he recalled a great black hound who had knocked him down into a ditch, when he was only three, and his father looming down to pick him up, and his father's smiling friend Joseph, kicking the dog, which yelped and ran and grew suddenly small. Probably just a friendly Labrador. Not like this slavering beast, snarling and trying to drive him back down the slope into the shadow.
Heidi appeared, catching the dog by the collar. It cowered by her side. She hauled it back to the embarrassed dog-walker, reattached it to its lead. ‘I am so sorry,' the dog-walker said. ‘My first time out with these guys.' She was wearing a brown uniform. Probably a concierge from one of the mansions on Fifth Avenue.
‘No harm done,' said Séamus, and set off across the sward, arm in arm with Heidi. Her snow-white Velcro-fastened plimsolls were lightly stained with grass.
The panelled boardroom of the Trade Bank was dark and airy. Séamus sat farthest from the windows, shuffling his papers and forgetting the names of the people to whom he had just been introduced. His nagging head-cold had never quite been shaken off, and he had developed the additional hint of a sore throat on the transatlantic flight. Now he felt distinctly fluey, as well as being jetlagged and out of sorts. The sequence of the past eight hours was fragmented in his head. He had spent part of the night sitting up in the hotel suite, trying to assimilate the thick dossier he had been given, while Heidi slept like a baby in the enormous bed; then he had dozed in his armchair, awakening to find her gone. Later, returning from Central Park, he had gone down to the hotel's Business Center and used a computer to assemble, from notes, a timeline of key events in the case to be decided. Lastly, he had used the Internet to check a three-month sequence of stock prices.
The limo had called at seven fifteen and driven them down towards the seaport in the morning rush. At least he looked the part. Heidi had conceded that he should get a respectable haircut, which had been quickly executed in Frankfurt. The New York office of Consultancy International had sent a loose-fitting blue blazer and a pair of charcoal grey trousers, together with a supply of white Oxford shirts and sober silk ties, which Guido had delivered to his bedroom at six-thirty. A navy-blue squall jacket, trimmed in red, managed to convey the impression that Séamus spent his weekends in yacht clubs. He felt a childish sense of new identity, as when he had put on his first boarding-school uniform long ago. ‘Working gear,' Guido said. ‘Tax deductible. You can dispose of them in the East River if we fail to meet your expectations.'
It was cold in the boardroom. American air-conditioning, or just the lingering cold of early morning? He was going to be glad of the wool blazer. Everyone fell silent. Ceiling lights were turned up to a sullen glare. Jay Lee, the Chinese banker from London, began in her careful British accent:
‘Acting on the request of Senator Hinckley, Chairman of the Supervisory Board, we have carried out a preliminary investigation of the complaint made by Mr Hart Stephen. Given the restricted timescale, and because our brief is just to see whether or not Mr Green has a case to answer, limited weight should be attached to our findings.'
Hinckley, Stephen and Green. All three somewhere in the room. The presider, the accuser, the accused. Séamus had not fully assimilated the introductions, which in any case had been incomplete. These people knew each other. There was the Trade Bank's Head of Treasury, whose name he had not quite heard. Then there was the Life President, and the Vice-President for European Loans. His own team was easier: Guido Schneider, Jay Lee, sombre mustachioed Mr Escobar, and Séamus himself. At the far end of the long table sat other senior functionaries of the Bank. Séamus gave generic names to the men opposite him: Mr Scrawny, Mr Saintly, Mr Bilious, Mr Bullfrog. The latter two considerably heavier than heavier than Séamus. Hence, in the view of Dr Wallenstein-Heinemann, in imminent danger of spontaneous combustion. Hart Stephen was the one he had dubbed Mr Saintly.
Hinckley cleared his throat. ‘Committee knows the parameters, Ms Lee.' He was a heavy man, with silver hair worn a little too long for his conventional dark suit. A former Senator, Guido had said, retaining the title. One could picture him in a toga. ‘The facts, Ms Lee, as you found them. Ready, Mr Green? No record will be taken of these proceedings today. You have the floor, Ms Lee.'
Hinckley spoke with somnolent authority. When he said a thing, that's how it was. His courtly tone implied no favour.
Jay Lee gave a respectful nod, and proceeded to trace the history of a seventeen-million-dollar loan advanced by the Trade Bank to WATA , the West African Trade Agency, a body largely funded by governments, having its head office in London. The loan, arranged by Mr Green, was to help a number of WATA's client companies to market a new brand of cocoa within the European Union. Instead of passing the money to the client companies in France and West Africa, WATA's chief executive had diverted it to a shelf company of his own, which had then purchased, on the New York Stock Exchange, seventeen million dollars worth of shares in an oil prospecting corporation with offshore drilling platforms in the Caspian Sea. Six days later, following the announcement of disappointing results from their latest explorations, those oil shares had collapsed to a value of less than one-half of what had been paid for them. WATA's client companies were calling for their money. Without it, their marketing campaign was doomed to failure. Even if WATA mounted a successful lawsuit and seized the oil shares, their collapsed value would leave the client companies nine million dollars short. The WATA chief executive was currently unavailable. The Trade Bank would ultimately have to carry the loss.
Furthermore, the Caspian oil shares had been purchased through a brokerage firm in New York headed by the wife of Mr Green, the Trade Bank executive who had arranged the original loan to WATA . There was thus, it had been suggested, the appearance of a possible conflict between Mr Green's official and private interests. His wife's brokerage firm had earned fees of five hundred and ten thousand dollars from the sale of the oil shares.
Insomniac Séamus had managed to sketch the broad sequence of these events and numbers while sitting in an overstuffed armchair at three o'clock in the morning.
Jay Lee fell silent, looked expectant, turning her narrow head like a sea-bird waiting on a rock. Mr Hinckley trained his slow gaze on Mr Green. Lewis Green was a small, baby-faced man, and sat hunched in his seat as if he had been waiting for years, or decades, for this moment to arrive. The ceiling lights glared on his shining head and shaking hands. ‘I knew nothing—nothing—of that shyster's intentions,' he protested. ‘The paperwork was perfect. WATA have been planning that marketing campaign for more than a year. The CEO was new, a whiz kid with an mba . They hired him three months back. He thought he could play the market, used our money to do it. African farmers are going to suffer. WATA is financially damaged. When this gets into the public domain its reputation will be shot to pieces. The thing is unforgiveable. '
‘What exactly led this whiz kid to consider the merits of oil exploration?' Guido Schneider asked politely. As the leader of the visiting team, he was entitled to cast the first stone.
Mr Green blinked. ‘How would I know? Ask him, sir—if you can find him.'
‘Was it coincidence that he should choose to deal in overvalued shares which were being handled by your wife's firm?'
‘Ask him! Ask him!' Mr Green was leaning towards hysteria. ‘It's a free country. I didn't recommend the shares, if that's what you're implying. I never touch a thing my wife handles. We operate a Chinese wall. That schmuck wanted to sink his money in the Caspian, that's his affair.'
Beside Guido, Escobar coughed: ‘Mr Green, you say you operate a Chinese wall. How do you ensure that there is no overlap of your professional interests with those of your wife?'
Green looked at him with amazed contempt. ‘Sir, that's the point with a Chinese wall. You don't know what's on the other side. Could be Mongolians. Or Colombians.'
‘I am Chileno.' Escobar was glacial. ‘Now, Mr Green, there are established mechanisms for handling Chinese walls. You can have a neutral party checking that there are no conflicts.'
‘Just two of us in this marriage, sir. No kids, no cats, no consultants.'
‘But would it not have been wiser,' Escobar pressed on, ‘to have submitted a list of your activities to an outside party who could cross-check them with—?'
‘No! And I'll tell you why.' Green jabbed a forefinger in the air. ‘First, the Trade Bank doesn't have any policy requiring such a step. Second'—another finger—‘the person who stole the money did so without my knowledge or involvement, so how was I to know what he was planning?'
‘Your second point is not an adequate answer to my question,' Escobar said. ‘‘On your first point, we may consider to recommend that the Trade Bank should introduce a policy of monitoring the interests of the associates of its executives. This would, however, be difficult to police.'
Mr Green stared at him with mute disdain. Escobar stared back. Guido nodded at Séamus. It was his turn to speak.
Séamus shuffled his papers, found the page.
‘Mr Green. Your wife's company sold those shares at three forty-nine. I have checked the price on the day they were sold. The shares were trading at three fifty-three. Can you comment on the difference in price?'
‘Sir, I can!' Green's face lit up. ‘My wife's client was losing money by selling to that man. My wife was losing commission. He had an option to buy at the lower price. He'd held the option for two weeks. That's why he needed to steal the cash from the loan. Shares were rising. He thought he had a sure thing. If the Trade Bank hadn't given him the loan for the Agency, two other banks were prepared to do so. I can get their sworn testimony. I told Ms Lee. The schmuck bargained with us, forced the rate down one-quarter of one percent. Everyone thought he was legit. Including our lawyers. Ask them, why don't you.'
Séamus spoke to the ceiling, addressing nobody in particular: ‘So what is the problem, exactly? Mr Green is accused of having favoured his wife by lending money to a man to buy shares from Mrs Green—shares that Mrs Green's client could have sold at a higher price if the man hadn't exercised his option. Is that really the charge we're considering?'
He wondered if he was incubating a fever. Jay Lee was whispering to Guido. Silhouetted against the wide window, Senator Hinckley seemed to have fallen asleep, his eyes hooded under puffy lids, the corners of his mouth downturned in a moue of disdain.
‘I'm afraid we're drifting a little from the point here.' A regretful murmur came from the distinguished man of ascetic bearing who was seated directly opposite Séamus. His tone was kind, understated but relentless in its patient pursuit of truth. An Americanized Britisher, or the other way around? This was Hart Stephen, honorary Life President of the Bank, who sounded as though he had spent a lifetime in virtuous conversation, with little need to raise his voice. Mr Saintly, indeed.
Green was clenched in his chair. Still one of the set, but marked to walk the plank.
Outside, taller buildings formed a frail stalagmite formation above the huddle of Manhattan, standing against the blue of the morning, probing a peaceful sky.
‘The difficulty is that this man,' Hart Stephen continued, ‘this trusted colleague, my good friend Lewis Green, after decades of faithful and selfless service, in what was perhaps a unique lapse of judgment, deliberately advanced an unsustainable loan which was then used for the unfortunate speculation. It's a little too close for comfort.' Hart Stephen peered gently at his target. ‘We are not vindictive, Lew. We are offering you generous severance terms today. Everyone acknowledges that the ethical position is not black and white. We have the greatest respect for you personally.'
‘Coincidence,' Lewis Green pleaded. ‘Can't you see, Hart?'
‘An unfortunate coincidence,' Hart Stephen said. ‘But I am afraid it makes your position, how shall I say, awkward.'
Green was silent.
‘You accuse him, Mr Stephen,' Séamus cut in, ‘of dishonesty, although he neither misused the money nor profited from its misuse. I'd like to ask you a question.'
‘Yes?' Hart Stephen turned his gracious smile on Séamus.
‘Do you trust Mr Green?' Séamus was conscious that his voice was hoarse. His question sounded more aggressive than he had intended.
Hart Stephen took no offence. ‘Personally, of course, yes, I do trust Lew Green. I feel no compunction about having nurtured his career thus far. Lew is a good person.' He stared sadly into Séamus's eyes. ‘In banking, however, especially in development banking, we are subject to a sort of Caesar's wife syndrome. In the sense that excessive purity is a constant requirement.'
‘You suggested'—Séamus kept his voice low—‘that Mr Green might have acted dishonestly. Why?'
‘I merely flagged the need for an investigation. With the deepest regret.'
‘And your fears have proved groundless.'
‘Nobody will be more pleased than me if that proves to be true. We would then all of us be out of the woods.'
‘Not all of us, Mr Stephen. It would leave serious questions in my mind.'
Hart Stephen looked quizzical. Séamus felt himself falter, but persevered: ‘No action is without a cause.'
‘Agreed.' Hart Stephen gave him a warm smile of encouragement, like a teacher drawing out the dimmest student in the class.
‘Over the years'—Séamus steadied himself—‘I have noticed that groundless accusations sometimes occur when people accuse others of doing what they themselves have done. This being so, and given that your accusation of Mr Green seems to lack credible grounds or other plausible psychological motivation, it strikes me that your own conduct might be investigated with equal rigour.'
Hart Stephen merely raised an eyebrow, like a civilized man at a cocktail party, buttonholed by a drunken cockroach whom he is too well-bred to squash.
‘On the basis of your unjustified allegation,' Séamus heard himself saying, ‘I wonder whether you should consider resigning from the Bank.'
‘Resigning?' This was a new word.
‘Let me explain,' Séamus said. ‘Trust is the basis of your working life with Mr Green. You have withdrawn that trust, without apparent justification. To make matters worse, you called in an outside agency before first taking any responsibility for investigating your own suspicions. In my book, that's malpractice. At the very least, an abdication of management responsibility. Being at the top of the pyramid, as I understand it, you have no possibility of sideways movement in the Trade Bank. The only way for you to move is out.'
That was it. He had spoken. He looked around the room. Nobody caught his eye.
Hart Stephen was turning red. He inhaled. Séamus braced himself for an onslaught. Senator Hinckley coughed into life. ‘Inadmissible. Hold it right there.' He spoke loudly, as if lecturing a losing sports team. ‘That's a whole 'nother subject. We're not assembled at this time to question Mr Stephen. Mr Green is the one and only person whose position is under scrutiny today. Mr Joyce's comments exceed the scope of our brief. If we were keeping a record, which we are not, I'd order those comments struck from it.'
Guido looked pained. Jay Lee and Mr Escobar glanced away.
Séamus rearranged his papers in a neat pile. ‘Senator, I have spoken my mind, and I now propose to keep quiet.'
He slipped the papers back into his folder. There was a moment's silence in the room. Guido sighed. Séamus could feel his new persona beginning to evaporate. Clothes do not make the consultant.
The Senator, in courtly tones, called a brief recess, thanked everyone for their participation, announced that the visiting group of consultants would take coffee with him at his club, and promised to contact the management of the Trade Bank with further questions or possibly even some preliminary findings before noon.
They rode down in a fast elevator, piled into a limousine, and travelled less than a hundred yards to an imposing neo-classical entrance. Over coffee, Senator Hinckley introduced them to a pair of ancient men with whom he swapped brief political pleasantries. After coffee, he led the way into a private room, pausing to pick up a sheet of headed paper on which he scribbled fluently for a minute. ‘I think we could sign this today,' he said, sliding the paper across the table. Séamus read over Guido's shoulder: The investigative committee finds no evidence that Mr Green has acted improperly, and questions the judgment of Mr Stephen in raising groundless allegations against a trustworthy colleague, given that a cursory investigation of the facts would have exonerated Mr Green. The fitness of Mr Stephen to continue his leadership of the organization must therefore be called into question.
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