On the Floor

A Novel

Aifric Campbell

Picador

1
TIME DECAY
 
 
MONDAY 14 JANUARY 1991
05:17
LONDON
AND FOR A LONG, LONG TIME after the Big Fucking Ticket, things had all the appearance of being on an upward trend. I met Stephen and fell in love, the ’87 Crash came and went, stock markets kept roaring ahead and I was coining it at Steiner’s. So who could have guessed just how much trouble lay down the road? Who could have known that Stephen would dump me in Venice four years later, Felix Mann would be forcing my relocation to Hong Kong and I’d be lying here on the floor at 5:17 a.m. with an empty bottle of Absolut, watching a million troops line up in a desert theatre of war?
For a while I chose to believe that things just snuck up when I wasn’t paying attention, but I’ve since figured out that this downward trend started exactly 737 days ago. It was 1988 and all through that summer I’d been dreaming about Kit Kats. The whole country was in meltdown about the nation’s favourite chocolate bar being gobbled up by the Swiss and Stephen was working flat-out on the takeover bid, so I barely saw him.
‘You know it’s the ultimate compromise,’ I told him one December morning in Kensington Gardens. ‘The Kit Kat is the bar you buy when you can’t decide what you really want.’ Rex ducked his head encouragingly, a twist of red tinsel around his collar and a slimy tennis ball in his mouth. I slipped my arm through Stephen’s. He was wearing that navy pea coat and the mohair was tipped with frost.
‘STAY,’ he raised a hand but Rex lolloped off towards the Round Pond. ‘I don’t know why you even have a dog when you can’t be bothered to train him,’ he muttered and crunched away across the frozen grass. And I was struck by how easily my arm had given up its position, like a leaf falling on seasonal cue, as if this surrender was preordained and nature was ushering in the future of singledom that has since come to pass.
That moment was an early warning signal, like a bell tinkling faintly in thick fog to warn of rocks ahead. So the end, when it finally came 181 days ago, was surprising not for the event, but for what Zanna still calls my disproportionate reaction. I did not struggle or cry out. I let Stephen sneak off at dawn without a word, for how can you cling on to what isn’t there? I packed my bag and flew back home to crouch cross-legged and hyperventilating in my sleepless bed as if each lung was a dying animal panting in my hands.
Zanna diagnosed a ‘viral grief’, which she had seen before, since Manhattan is years ahead of London in matters of the heart. So she marched me over to Finsbury Circus and into the consulting rooms of her private doctor who cradled her hand in both of his as if he might kiss it. ‘Geri needs to sleep and she needs to chill,’ Zanna announced, while I sat mute in a creaking Chesterfield. The doctor nodded gravely behind his outsize desk and took my blood pressure and I left with scrips for Valium and Mogadon. ‘Look around you,’ said Zanna as we stood on the steps outside. City workers streamed past on the pavement below us, shouldering their jackets in the August heat. ‘And remember who you are,’ she turned to face me. ‘You are Geri Molloy, the biggest producer on the trading floor. You are the girl who bagged the elephant and this is nothing more than a temporary setback.’
Zanna’s prognosis was largely correct, although I seem to have discovered some kind of biochemical resistance to sleeping pills which means I still average only 3.4 hours a night. But I am holding my own in some quantifiable ways. I am still doing 25 million dollars of business a month with Felix. I am still the number one call to Steiner’s biggest client. I have partially recovered my sense of humour. And my emotional lapses are mostly private although Zanna told me last night at Zafferano’s that they are leaking into the public domain.
‘You look—’ she scanned me up and down, considering a range of possibilities, ‘dismantled.’
‘I only just got back from Hong Kong yesterday.’
‘You don’t look good at all.’
‘I think I just need to eat,’ I tugged at my sagging waistband.
‘What you need is to cut down on this,’ she tapped a scarlet nail on the side of my empty glass. ‘A good night’s sleep would help,’ I rattled the ice cubes. But Zanna refuses to indulge my chronic insomnia, as if starving it of oxygen might make it cease to exist. I suspect she thinks I am either some sort of pharmaceutical mutant or guilty of gross exaggeration, so I have driven my debilitating frailty underground since I can’t anyway account for my nocturnal horrors or the suspicion that some small rodent is scurrying round inside my chest, its sharp claws palpitating the raw muscle of my heart.
‘You absolutely have to take that job in Hong Kong,’ said Zanna, batting the waitress away before I had a chance to order another drink. ‘Felix Mann is your meal ticket and it would be career suicide to turn it down, Geri.’
‘But I don’t want to go.’
‘You’ve got the biggest hedge fund in Asia eating out of your hand and he wants you out there where he is. In Hong Kong. Every other sales person on the Street would be chewing their arm off for this opportunity.’
‘I can do the job just as well from London.’
‘Well, your number one client doesn’t think so. And Felix calls the shots. You told me yourself that your competition is shipping out to Hong Kong – Merrill’s, Morgan Stanley, Goldman’s – they’re all putting salespeople out there just to cover him.’
Zanna tucked a shiny blonde strand behind her ear and leant forward, elbows planted wide on the tabletop, staring straight at me across knitted fingers. I stopped prodding the polenta and lowered my fork.
‘I know why you don’t want to go,’ she said and I recognised her look as the precursor to uncomfortable revelations about the state of a balance sheet or, in this case, the state of my heart. I have seen her assume this position in a boardroom, telling Steiner’s clients that their multi-million dollar investment is a dog and they should ditch the stock fast before it blows up in their face. Unlike many other analysts, Zanna is happy to nail her true colours to the mast when necessary and she never shies away from delivering the tough sound bite that will send you reeling.
‘You don’t want to move to Hong Kong because of Stephen.’
‘Not true,’ I croaked but I couldn’t offer any evidence to support this plaintive denial or any convincing reason for resisting what is clearly the logical career move.
‘Oh, Geri,’ she shook her head sadly, ‘if you lose Felix Mann’s business you’re history.’ And Zanna slid her hands wide on the tabletop like she was clearing space – for what? For the wreckage I am becoming?
‘You don’t know how weird he is.’
‘What do you care how weird your client is if you’re getting all his business? For Christ’s sake, Geri, he’s not asking you to marry him. He doesn’t even expect you to sleep with him. Apparently.’
At a table across the way a woman idly skimmed her fingertip around the edge of a wine glass while the man opposite her gesticulated in full and earnest flow. Zanna sighed, loud enough to be heard above the swishing of waitresses and plate clearance and the sudden clanking in my head like an empty tin can being kicked around the walls of my skull.
‘Anyway, you won’t have a choice because the Grope will make you go. Do you really think your boss is going to let you put all that order flow at risk?’
‘Felix did say he might call him.’
Zanna checked her watch and signalled for the bill. Her Sunday night rule is bed by ten except in exceptional circumstances, which this was clearly not.
‘Now, Geri,’ she leaned back in the chair, ‘repeat after me.’ And I had to return her smile because this is Zanna’s old trick and I’m always happy to play along since I’ve discovered it is curiously therapeutic to be led by the nose.
‘Repeat after me: I will move on.’
‘I will move on.’
‘I will give up on history.’
‘I will give up on history.’
‘I will go to Hong Kong.’
‘Why does everybody think I should go?’
‘Because everyone wants the best for you,’ she shrugged. ‘And you are letting things slip. Look, I’m just saying the hard stuff, the things that other people won’t say. One day you will thank me for all my good advice.’ She laid a cool hand on mine, gave it a little squeeze. ‘I am your most effective friend.’
*   *   *
Zanna may well be right about the slippage since it’s never great to wake up at 5:17 a.m. and find your torso on the floor, your legs up on the couch and the dog staring down at you with that look of creased sadness that is always so unbearable, even though I know it’s not sadness at all, just a jowly looseness around his golden snout. ‘Good boy.’ I ruffle Rex’s neck fur and he pricks up his ears as if he hears someone coming. I still catch him watching the door at night, the times that Stephen used to come by after a late meeting. Sometime Rex whimpers in his sleep, a weighted comfort on my legs. Perhaps he is in a dream remembering how Stephen used to throw the tennis ball for him with the straight-armed bowl of a cricketer and he’d scrabble on take-off like a cartoon dog, barrelling down the grassy slope, leaping awkwardly in the air on the bounce, tongue lolling, a little foam around his jaw. For it was Stephen who first introduced Rex to the art of retrieval – a skill that should have been instinctive for his breed – though he preferred to fetch within a tantalizing five-foot radius and dance over the ball, a habit that Stephen, who is intimate with the attributes of good gun-dogs, always took to be an indicator of shoddy genetics. Lately I notice Rex has begun to drop the ball directly by my feet as if he has suddenly decided to demonstrate his compliance, in case it was his stubbornness that drove Stephen away, like the difficult child who suspects he may be the cause of parental separation. Or maybe he is urging me to tell Stephen, as if this transformation in Rex’s skill might bring him back again and give us all another chance. He’s even taken to keeping the ball in his bed at night, as if to be sure he is fully prepared for the return that Stephen is never going to make.
*   *   *
The alarm bleeps in the bedroom and Rex nudges my chin with his nose. I turn my head sideways and this sudden movement unleashes a shooting pain in my right temple which I recognise as the cumulative effects of dehydration, jet lag, insomnia, malnutrition and the contents of the empty bottle on the floor beside me. The clock on the stereo says 05:22 and I feel I could lie here forever, like a car stuck in the ditch, wheels spinning with no rescue in sight. And I think: maybe this is burnout, maybe my life story as investment banker is morphing into a shabby decline and fall, a blazing star in the moments before it crashes to earth. So I lie here for a while scratching Rex’s head but in the end it’s his persistent whining that makes me get up and take him around Pembroke Square even though his walker will be here in a couple of hours. I step out the front door and into a head spin, just make it across the street in time to throw up in the icy gutter. After that I feel well enough to stand shivering on the edge of the pavement under the yellow glow of the lamppost, watching a light snow dust the railings of the garden square, and it seems for a moment like I’ve stepped out of the wardrobe and into Narnia. I’m half-expecting Rex to turn into a faun as he trots down the hushed street when I think, you know Geri, it’s time to pull yourself together, get a grip and some perspective, because it only takes one thread to start unravelling in your life and the next thing you know the whole jumper is gone. So I go back inside and take some Nurofen, some happy pills and a shower. Then I square up to the mirror, tell my pale reflection that I am in fact going to work, that I might as well just chin butt the day, get it over with and take what’s coming. ‘Because you are Geri Molloy and you have the City at your feet. It’s time to take the wheel and put your foot back on the gas.’
06:21
AND I AM MAKING PROGRESS NOW, moving forwards, doing 70 along a dark and deserted Embankment with the window open to a sobering sleet spatter and the radio spilling its urgent war cry out across the black river. A defeated French voice breathes softly into the broadcast: The time to act has come after we did everything we could to avoid it. No sign, I tell you none, has come from Iraq. And that was the French Prime Minister describing the failure of France’s last minute attempt to negotiate a peaceful solution to the crisis in the Gulf.
The lights on the corner of Queen Street are stuck on red and I inch a little over the white line. There is only one car diagonally opposite, coming north from Southwark Bridge and I want to screech madly forwards, but it would be insanity to draw attention to myself in this early morning desertion with a bucketful of vodka still pooled in my veins. Rain washes the empty streets and the radio keeps up its low volume war chatter. Answer me this? Would you pull out of your own house? Would you pull out of California? Kuwait is our territory and our province.
We are speeding toward the UN deadline expiry in three days’ time and it is just possible that the diversion of war in the Gulf might buy me enough time for this whole relocation idea to blow over. Maybe all hell will break loose next week with airports shut down, oil prices going through the roof and Felix will be so busy making money out of misery that he forgets the whole thing. By the time it’s over everyone could be dead, although Felix does seem unkillable, a post-apocalyptic spectre that will stalk the financial wastelands for all eternity.
Of course this entire mess is of my own making, since I am the luckiest girl in the City with the client that everyone else wants: the reclusive and unpredictable Felix Mann, the smartest guy on the planet. Poised on the peak of Hong Kong with his two billion stockpile of funds, Felix surveys the landscape of opportunity that crowds his global horizon. The rumoured rustle of his presence in the market can kick-start a lame stock and send it soaring to new heights, the whispered mention of his name can pierce the bubble of some chart topper, unleash a herd of ambulance chasers and a bloody plummet into oblivion. Felix is ready to pounce on anything that moves. His expert claws rip the meat from a whole range of financial instruments with an extraordinary ability to extract value from chaos. He stalks the battlefield carnage, picking at the bruised flesh of failed mergers and acquisitions, resuscitating dying deals. Wealth creation and wealth destruction, Geraldine. The most primitive of pleasures. Felix moves markets like Jesus walks on water.
‘So what the hell is it with this guy?’ snarled the Grope four years ago when he flew back from Hong Kong after Felix suddenly cancelled what was supposed to be their very first meeting: no reason, no excuse and no rescheduling. ‘Tell me what you know.’
‘Not much,’ I admitted, because the truth is that even after five years of coverage I have only an outline sketch of Felix’s identity: a non-specific Home Counties accent, a wardrobe that reflects an impeccably British neutrality, no affectations or preferences, no family photos, no Ferraris airlifted in to burn off steam after a long day in the office, no appetite for showcase restaurants or vintage champagne, none of the usual trappings and accessories of Eighties’ Man. A telescope in his Peak-top apartment. A collection of old weapons and war photos in his office, otherwise a cold trail of personal clues.
‘I’m guessing Felix is thirty-something. Jacked in a Cambridge PhD and shipped out to Hong Kong years ago. No wife, no kids. Speaks Cantonese like a native. No one knows where the money comes from but the talk is it could be the Chinese government.’
‘And you’re the only one who can get past the gatekeeper. So what’s your secret, Geri?’
‘Kant.’
The Grope’s mouth flopped open.
‘No, Kant! As in Emmanuel. Felix has a thing for philosophy.’
‘Philosophy, huh?’ the Grope narrows his eyes. ‘What else?’
‘He likes to watch me eat weird Chinese food. Lizard skin, rabbit tendons, that sort of thing.’
Naturally the Grope suspects I am fucking Felix, or at the very least providing some sort of sordid sexual service and therefore putting Steiner’s order flow in jeopardy since I could be cast aside at any moment in favour of some sexual athlete. So every once in a while he hauls me off the trading floor and into his glass office to shoot the breeze, but I know he is really covertly checking me over for signs of wear and tear. Only last Wednesday he nabbed me just as I was leaving for Heathrow to bag Felix’s order for the China Fire block and he tried to act all casual by taking out his golf club. ‘You never played?’ he asked, positioning his Eezee Putt against the glass wall. ‘I used to spend all summer down the country club when I was a kid.’ But I told him that golf wasn’t such a big thing for convent schoolgirls in Dublin. The Grope took his time lining up, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, wiggling his hips. When he flunked the first shot, he held the club aloft to squint down the shaft as if his error might reveal a problem in the alignment. ‘PING,’ he said admiringly, ‘you know the story, Geri?’ and I didn’t bother saying I’d heard it many times before. ‘Karsten Salheim,’ he continued, ‘a lowly mechanical engineer at General Motors designed and made the world’s best putter at his home in Riverroad, California. Just like Microsoft, it all started in a garage.’ He leaned dreamily on the club and stared at his glass cabinet where a Stars ’n’ Stripes stands guard over the trophies and deal tombstones, lending the display a faintly funereal air and I imagined the Grope’s embalmed body laid out among his spoils like a relic of the American Dream, preserved in this airless shrine to watch over the trading floor forever.
‘Never too late to start,’ he offered me the Ping with an encouraging grin. ‘And it sure is a helluva day out with clients.’
I shook my head. ‘Felix hates sport. He thinks it’s the pursuit of primitives,’ and this remark had the desired effect because the Grope kicked the Eezee Putt to one side, tucked the little furry glove over his club and stashed it back by the coat stand.
‘I don’t know what you’re doing with Felix Mann, Geri,’ he said, ‘and I don’t want to know. Just keep it up and don’t fuck it up.’
*   *   *
It is six years and a lifetime ago since I first heard Felix Mann’s name and that was the same day the Grope threatened to rip out his fucking asshole. I’d been at Steiner’s for a few months and was with my old boss, Ed Karetsky, who liked to end an evening’s tequila slamming by climbing up on a bar stool to deliver Ivan Boesky’s famous speech to the Berkeley class of ’83: Greed is all right, by the way. I want you to know that I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself. Ed had let me tag along to his meeting in the observer role of deaf and dumb graduate trainee, not realizing that by the end of that year he’d be breeding pugs in Illinois and – in an entirely unrelated but coincidental event – Boesky and the other 1980s corporate raiders would be behind bars.
As soon as we walked into the Grope’s office, Ed clicked his fingers to indicate the wall space where I could disappear. He slung his leg across a corner of the conference table, oblivious to the stink of trouble in the air, the white lips of the two hotshots from Capital Markets at the table, the back of the Grope’s head framed in the window like a warning sign. Ed stretched the elastic of his business school smile and just kept on swimming out to sea. Hey, guys, howya doing? Like they really had nothing better to do in the middle of a 200 million dollar stock placing for Cargo International than sit there and shoot the breeze, when upstairs Steiner’s client – the Cargo CEO – had popped in for an update on the deal only to find himself sitting in front of the screen watching his stock spiral down 15%.
All because Felix Mann had decided to sell the shit out of Cargo.
The Grope punctured the airspace in front of Ed with a sharp and steady finger. Karetksy. What The Fuck Is Going ON? Ed froze, forgot to paddle and his mouth filled with water, an Adam’s apple swallow jerked his tie knot upwards and he said, Word on the street says Felix is taking a run at Cargo. That he’s short selling the stock all the way down. Though we can’t be sure it’s him. The Grope thumped his fist into the back of the chair. It’s got Felix Mann’s butt-fucking footprint all over it. So YOU need to talk to him. Ed chewed his cheek and muttered Thing is he…uh … still won’t take our call. He looked down at the familiar landscape of his shoes and the Grope stared at his bowed head as if from a great height, although it was really only a couple of inches. This Cargo deal is sinking like a stone so I don’t give a shit what you do, Karetsky, you STOP this guy. I timed Ed’s silence. After seven long seconds he nodded and mumbled Yes, which was all you really can say in a room where the knives are out. But the truth was Felix could sell Cargo’s stock right down to zero if he wanted and there was absolutely nothing Ed could do to stop him. In fact, there was nothing anyone could do to stop Felix doing anything because no one at Steiner’s had a relationship with him back then. And although this was ultimately the Grope’s failure since he was Head of Trading and Sales, he needed to pass that efficiently down the food chain.
A sudden sunburst blazed through the window and the Grope flexed his shoulders, his white shirt flared yellow, like the rippling hide of a slow-motion lion tearing into a felled antelope. The two guys from Capital Markets tensed like a pair of craning coyotes and the Grope said the thing about Felix’s asshole and I thought: well that’s fine, but how can you rip out someone’s asshole if you can’t even get them to return your calls?
I half-ran along the corridor to keep up with Ed, scrambling for some upbeat remarks, trying to make him forget I’d witnessed his public humiliation, but it was too late, I had lost his good will. He stopped dead in the centre of the corridor, leaned in so close I could smell his mouthwashed breath. Go play with the traffic, Geri, he snarled, I’ve got some real work to do and he slammed through the double doors, leaving me to reflect on an important lesson that I was lucky to learn so early on: shit travels downhill, don’t you ever forget it.
Cargo’s stock fell 21% that day and the company was forced to call off the deal. Two months later, irregularities were discovered in their financial accounts, the CEO resigned on the back of the announcement and the whole embarrassing mess snowballed into a very public media witch-hunt, with Steiner’s name written all over it. Felix had made an estimated eight million bucks buying back his stock and emerged from the rubble making a lot of smart guys look very stupid indeed. In the dash for cover and the ensuing whitewash, there was a rash of internal changes in the chain of command at Steiner’s. A handful of analysts and bankers were quietly scalped for falling asleep at the wheel. Ed was sacked for running a sales force that had failed to develop a relationship with one of the most important clients outside of the US. When they came for him he said I guess I should take my jacket, huh, in a final attempt at gallows humour. Watch your back, kiddo he said to me but I just nodded. The rest of the desk buried their heads in the phones, shrinking from the noxious odour of failure as if it might be contagious. The security guard stood waiting by the exit like the Grim Reaper and Ed slapped him on the shoulder and turned to face down the trading floor. I love you all, you fuckers he bellowed but no one said a word and Ed walked out the double doors and was swallowed by the great sea, as if he had never been.
There but for the grace of God, etcetera, said Al. God’s got nothing to do with it, Rob muttered. Karetsky was always a tosser.
The general consensus at Steiner’s is that the Cargo fall-out cost the Grope about two career years. It was his second stumble on the power trip, the first was when his classmate James ‘Moose’ Hanson Jr made it onto the Operating Committee in ’83 and the Grope didn’t. So it’s no surprise that the Cargo experience has left him with an allergic reaction to Felix Mann, like he doesn’t feel safe in the jungle knowing that Felix could be out there sunning himself on a rock, waiting for the Grope to come ambling across his path with a nice big juicy deal between his teeth. But I actually think that what really bugs the Grope more than anything, maybe even more than losing out to the Moose, is the fact that that the biggest swinging dick in the investor community just ignores him, just refuses to take his calls. Even though he knows that Felix does this to everyone, the Grope can’t bear the snub. Because he can’t be entirely sure that it’s not personal, that Felix isn’t still smirking up his sleeve.
Years later, when I felt we’d covered enough ground, I asked Felix how he’d known about Cargo’s slimy dealings. I was sitting opposite him on a rickety chair in some hole-in-the-wall Kowloon restaurant, battling with the beginnings of a predictable nausea. Felix leaned over the mound of tepid food that crowded the table between us and said: The purpose of being a selective listener is to hear more clearly. To listen to the right signal, to eliminate the background noise.
*   *   *
The streetlights cut out and flicker as I accelerate into the dark sweep of Lower Thames Street. Past the blackened stone of St Magnus the Martyr marooned in a cluster of office blocks, Christmas lights still bobbing gently on the leafless branches of the churchyard tree and I wonder what gruesome death Magnus suffered. If it was worse than Peter’s upside-down crucifixion, Catherine’s wheel or Sebastian slowly bleeding to death gazing wistfully up at the heavens, the angels’ chorus bellowing in his ears as he reached that zone where pain is nullified by sheer conviction, transfixed by a dazzling vision of God’s open arms and the promise of luxuriant expiry in His holy embrace.
I round Tower Hill and head up Minories. Pass a lone cab and a passenger head bent over an open FT, weakly illuminated by the backseat bulb. It is 06:31, not yet the half-light and I am doing record time, may even be first in, apart of course from Rob, who cannot be beaten. I crawl past his 911 at the front of the underground Porsche pack, then hang a sudden wrench on the wheel just to hear the tyres squeal. Twenty-two minutes exactly to the lift, which notches down my five-week running average to 24.2. I press 15 and the talking doll voice cuts through the silence. Of course it’s entirely possible that Felix has already put his demand to the Grope. Perhaps the small matter of my consent to relocation has been overruled and I’ll be met by a one-way ticket to Hong Kong as soon as I hit my desk. Or maybe the Grope has been suddenly recalled to New York for an urgent strategy session on how to get Steiner’s through a war and still make a profit. Maybe all those marathons have finally caught up with him and he has keeled over with a massive coronary, is at this very moment being rushed to the Chelsea and Westminster, his wife sobbing into a monogrammed handkerchief, I told him he should take it easy but he’s always been a very stubborn man. His left hand scrabbles weakly at his face and the paramedic lifts the fogged-up oxygen mask from his mouth. His wife leans closer, straining to catch the last words of a dying man barely audible above the siren and the engine roar and the Grope jerks his head a full inch off the trolley, expiring with a blue-lipped rasp: Send the bitch to Hong Kong!


 
Copyright © 2012 by Aifric Campbell