But do I, really, envy him? At night he must rush home to change into black-tie for the evening’s reception. Work has been busy, but he barely has time to kiss his wife on the cheek. Television is the baleful light that illuminates his children’s faces. Later, there is the meeting of the governing body. The Chancellor is on the line. ‘Good evening, Ambassador. Something to drink?’
A tall man, pale and professorial, but not without the stature for authority. We have never been introduced, but I see him often, on the grounds of the company, walking by the new sunken lawn, or on level five, with its meeting rooms designed by the award winning architect. People always surround him. ‘Well, yes, Geoff, but we will always have to consider China… I want two, no three people put upon this.’
At his last speech to the company, he repeats a joke from his Christmas address from two years before. Rather than feeling offended as some colleagues do, this makes me regard him even higher. He had remembered what made us laugh the first time. It showed tenderness, benevolence. Later, he commissions a large work of art in the company plaza, a bronze sphere with a spike protruding from the top, like an emblem of the will to power. He has faith in our abilities.
On the journey to work, I read a quote for him in a national newspaper. ‘Of course, we want the merger to succeed. But it’s important X realise where their real interests lie.’ Last summer, he agreed to a radio interview, a relaxed, magazine type of an affair, profiling the man behind the job. His favourite song? Norwegian Wood. His favourite book? The Conquest of New Spain. Favourite moment from a film? Who has time for films? All right, if pushed, a video of his son, playing in a yellow plastic inflatable swimming pool. His voice possessed an authoritative mellifluence. It calmed me as I lay in bed.
His personal assistant is a raw, buxom woman, with a caustic tongue. It is common knowledge that she has his ear. All that want an audience must go through her. Her power is pervasive, haughty, threatening, erotic. Sometimes, I imagine her, supplicated at the feet of the boss, yearning and beaten, a sacrifice to authority. Sometimes, I imagine myself as the boss. Other times, I am the personal assistant.
But then she dies, after an intense illness. At her funeral, the boss says a few words. ‘No one will forget the efficiency with which Margot worked. Her energy, her cheerfulness will surely be missed. I would like to relate a personal anecdote. It was winter. I had worked late. It was that night, that dreadful night when trains could not leave the city. I needed to stay in the office. I set up a bed near the desk. Suddenly, there was Margot. She too had been working late. She too was stranded. Her sister ran a hotel in the city. She had kept aside a double room. Did I need a place to stay? We walked through the streets, packed hard with white snow. Cars slid by on the impacted ice, silent, uncontrollable. Margot talked about her husband, who is with us now, and her two beautiful children, who sit with him. I was struck by her trust, her devotion. We reached the hotel and signed ourselves in. Margot referred to us as Mr and Mrs Jones. Everyone laughed. We were chilled to the bone. Margot’s sister supplied us with hot chocolate. And Margot, Margot doused it with rum. We sat up till late, talking about Grenoble, where I believe she wanted to retire, and Charlton Athletic, a football team I believe she…’
A little later, he and I share a lift, moving down to the atrium from the tenth floor. We stand side by side, the hidden anxious machinery echoing above us, the glass sides displaying the manifold working of the company’s heart. These are lunatic days. The company fairs badly. People scatter, looking for leadership. They come to him, pleading for direction. Like the universe, there must be an organising principle. He provides it. He comforts. He speaks of gilded futures, security and the bottom line. Everyone is amazed by his strength. But during these lift journeys, in between adopting the mask, he allows himself a moment of fear. When I steal a glance at him, he is staring down as the marble floor approaches. His blue eyes are piercing and glazed, manic with concentration. The Icarus leap of the stock market failure… I realise that he is speeding up our descent, projecting himself into failure and despair, imagining suicide in a lift with glass sides. The self-doubt will no doubt inspire him, a blink in front of the abyss. And I… I intrude upon it. When the door opens, I step out. I do not look back.
Not long after, he comes to me in a dream. We meet on a desolate beach, white sand and black kelp illuminated by the low light of the moon. A dead dog lies in his arms, a small dog, a terrier, not much older than a puppy. There is a pathetic streak of blood on the white fur of its jaw. The boss tells me how the dog ran away from him, only to be hit by a car. His bright blue eyes are almost crazy with sadness. He pretends, of course he pretends, that it is his son’s dog, and that this is the reason he is so affected. He tells me: to explain the death of a dog to a child is to explain the mortality of the child, and truly, this is the abyss. But I can see that the dog belongs to him, that all this ordinary grief is a mystery to him, because it is so ordinary. He has achieved great things, his acts have kept him always on the wings of history. Yet he could not stop the death of a dog.
A chill wind blows across the beach. Mercury bubbles in a small well. ‘They are farming bullets,’ the boss explains, and lowers the dog to the sand. It runs away from us, nipping at the thin white tongues, the spray arcing from those hard green waves.
© Daniel Bennett