It's a jungle out there
Toby sat in the shade of a towering acacia looking over an expanse of lush closely-cropped kikuyu savannah. His parents’ lawn at home was kikuyu grass. His father was very proud of it, standing in his pyjamas on a summer morning, admiring his piece of turf. Toby had never put two and two together. He had learnt about the Mau-Mau rebellion in school history lessons, about the Kikuyu tribe, but he had never connected his father’s modest closely mown Surrey garden with this infinite expanse of verdant Africa. If ten men went to mow, went to mow a meadow around here, he thought, those ten men would never be heard from again.
“I’m just nipping out to mow the lawn, darling. I might be some time.”
Toby and his travelling companions had camped in a grove of trees with a rocky outcrop behind them, slightly elevated above the plain with a gentle slope down towards the thin silver ribbon of the Mara River in the very far distance. Wildebeest and zebra grazed in their untold numbers across the expanse of the plain until the green lawn met the shimmering sky. The steady grunts of the herds became a drone and wavy black-and-white patterns shifting across the distant green interwove to create a matrix of meat on the hoof.
The distant bellows of the wildebeest were all but drowned out by the cicadas in the copse of thorn trees behind them, screeching their protest at the heat. Guinea fowl and francolin pecked around the truck’s wheels where the cook had dropped crumbs while preparing the brunch.
The rest of the group had sprawled themselves around the campsite in the deepest shade they could find and were waiting out the midday quiet, weakly waving away flies, chatting and dozing.
Toby had positioned his camp chair with a view of the plain and had settled to read his book, but James and Kirsty frolicking at the edge of the grove of trees made it hard for him to concentrate. It was torture to watch James getting closer to Kirsty, being able to touch her and make her laugh.
Toby had studiously avoided competing with James for girls back in London because James was like a dog with two dicks. Chasing girls was his primary focus in life. Although James was sports mad and a fitness fanatic, or so it seemed to a man of Toby’s more sedentary habits, he didn’t just concentrate on getting fit for purpose. He spent a lot of time working on the parts of his body that he could put to use in a nightclub as well. His biceps were sculpted, his chest perfectly shaped and his T-shirts chosen to demonstrate this. Even for this trip, James had chosen to forego comfortable safari-type bush-shirts for some London-style posing gear that showed off his build. He had gone for the camo look, rather than his usual tight white style, but there was still no muscle left unflexed in those T-shirts.
He was average height as well, so he didn’t look like a little muscled pocket dynamo with short man syndrome. And he wasn’t overly bulky. If there was one thing he would probably have changed about himself, it would have been his red hair and freckles. Although he had chiselled features and startling blue eyes, he was fair skinned and his hair was strawberry blond with a hint of curl. Had his face been framed by dark straight hair and his skin been of a olive Mediterranean complexion, he could have modelled trendy boxer shorts on giant billboards, but even being a bit of a ginger didn’t stop him from also being a swordsman of some repute.
As Toby grumpily watched James and Kirsty cavorting near the edge of the camp, he saw Kirsty looking closely at James’s hands and knew they were onto one of James’s favourite topics. James was intensely focussed on his hands. Probably someone had once told him they were the window to the soul. He kept his nails religiously trimmed and had pots of hand cream taken from every hotel he had stayed in on his business trips stashed in various places. Toby watched Kirsty take James’s hand in hers and knew where the conversation was going because he had heard it a million times himself. How James’s skin already looked aged due to sun damage from the endless athletics events and cricket matches he had taken part in as a schoolboy in the punishing South African sun. Kirsty was smiling and nodding. Now probably talking about her girlhood in Australia. Toby would love to have had an opportunity to know more about her, so watching James getting deep and meaningful and boasting about his sporting prowess at the same time was too much.
He turned and watched a small troop of monkeys instead. They were small grey monkeys with cute black faces, playing around in the trees. The adults were watching the camp with beady eyes to see if any food was left unattended, but the younger ones cavorted and hung from the most spindly branches they could find, steadily falling down the tree until they could only hang from each other’s tails and all fall to the ground. They squealed at each other, scampered back up the trees again and began wrestling their way down again.
This was much more fun to watch than James and Kirsty. At least the monkeys made him laugh, instead of causing him to feel jealous and unsettled. He managed an ironic chuckle though. The last time he had spoken about monkeys it wasn’t so funny.
“If you give a monkey a gun, and the monkey shoots someone, don’t blame the monkey,” he had said to his boss, George Selborne. Just after Selborne had fired him. “I was just doing what you told me to do, what you incentivised me to do.”
“You’re not a monkey, Toby.”
“At the time I did it, you were overjoyed. I was clapped in as a hero. ‘Look at the awesome deal Toby’s just closed. Good old Toby!’ Remember all that?”
“Maybe you should have done more due diligence. This wasn’t entirely unforeseeable.”
“A global meltdown was foreseeable? Are you joking? I due diligenced it to death. This deal is not the only one that got caught with its pants down. It’s just that I’m the only monkey still around to deal with the backlash. All the other dodgy transactors have taken their monkey money and run a long time ago. IBG-YBG – I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone, remember?”
“That’s not an excuse, or a reasonable philosophy.”
“I agree with you. I’m merely pointing out that most transactors who did deals that are now failing are long gone. I’m the only one who has shown any loyalty over the years. And I did a lot of hard work to make this transaction sound.”
“Our clients are saying that we didn’t act ‘reasonably’, like it says in our legal agreements.”
“I tried to take those phrases out of the legal agreements. I was forced to keep them in, because everyone, and also you, George, wanted to close the deal and get the money. And now I’m the one without a chair when the music stops.”
Toby thought about the time of closing the deal, and the hoo-hah and backslapping that had surrounded it, and a wash of anger at Selborne came over him so heavily that his eyes nearly prickled with tears. He thought he might have some kind of legal recourse against the bank, but decided in an instant to drop it. He just wanted to get out of there.
He went back to his desk just to gather his thoughts and his possessions.
He sat in his office with his head back against his chair and his eyes closed. What was it that made bastards like Selborne survive in this environment, while people with integrity were the first to get their arses kicked when the soft brown stuff hit the whirling blades?
Toby was good at his job. Had been exceptionally so. He’d been coasting a bit of late, that much was true, but still making good money. Which wasn’t hard when you’d risen to the position of senior dealmaker. You could cherry-pick all the best clients and bully the juniors off deals or reduce their share of the profits, citing your ‘expertise’ as the reason the deal was successful. You also had first sight of all the client business due to your relationships, so juniors couldn’t get a sniff of new business without your say-so.
He used to hate that when he was a junior dealmaker. The senior guys were all sitting there watching the key clients, like crocodiles in the Mara River, waiting for the wildebeest to cross. If the clients weren’t going to do any new deals, they would suggest some. What about a listing, what about a delisting, what about an acquisition, what about an unbundling or a sale?
Toby refused to suggest financial activity that he didn’t believe to be in the clients’ best interests, but he wasn’t in the majority on that one. But he’d been around for some good years and, with his sharp brain and good commercial sense, had done some major deals for the bank. Then came a bit of a comfort zone. He didn’t need to be a major rainmaker to cement his place in the sun any more. He could also sit and wait like a crocodile. So now they saw fit to fire him. Probably because he wasn’t being innovative any more and had just become bigger than the game.
It was ironic that the deal they were firing him for was one of the most complex and inventive deals he had ever done, which had made a shitload of money at the time. Selborne, hugely greedy Selborne, had been bouncing around for joy when the deal closed, his soft cheeks jiggling as he laughed at the returns, because his division had looked so profitable. He had helped Toby paper over some of the legal cracks, urged him to take on more risk to get higher profits. The fucking hypocrite. He had a short memory. Just because Toby was now being more honest and acting in the clients’ best interests, Selborne saw fit to fire him for the very deal that made his name.
But Toby did have to admit that his heart wasn’t in it any more, and they just needed an excuse to get rid of him. He tried to give himself motivational speeches from time to time, and set personal goals for improvement, but couldn’t rally his energies for long. For that, he needed to believe in what he was doing. His mindset had gone from “this is high flying, hard hitting, earth shattering stuff” when he first joined the bank, to “Who am I helping? What am I producing? What am I adding?” after five years of it. Sometimes he thought he helped clients. After all, they kept coming back to ask him questions about how to expand their operations or realise value or any other such earth-shattering ideas. But he still didn’t make anything. Working with a gold mining company he had helped restructure didn’t mean he produced gold. Just money.
He had heard endless arguments from bankers trying to justify their rapacious ways by declaring how much the taxes on profits helped the community and how financing was essential for the growth of the economy and the improvement in quality of life for all. But Toby wasn’t buying it anymore. He didn’t believe it most of the time, and he didn’t enjoy it. And he was sure that those who said that they did were deluding themselves more than anyone else. He used to be like greedy Selborne, trying to get away with as much as possible until the client told them to bugger off or threatened to get another bank to do it. But he didn’t find that game such fun any more.
Mind you, he didn’t expect it to be fun. If work was fun, they wouldn’t pay you to do it. But he expected to get a certain sense of satisfaction out of what he was doing. He was nowhere close to that any more. What’s more, he almost felt embarrassed at how self-important he had once thought he was to be a banker. He cringed now when he heard university graduates naively saying that they wanted to be traders or investment bankers. Get a real job, he wanted to say. Embark on a career. Start a business. Build something, make something, employ people.
Toby hadn’t come out top of his university maths class by spread betting on cricket matches, reading The Simpsons transcripts on the Internet in deep appreciation of Homer’s oddity or forwarding funny emails to his friends. But it was increasingly difficult to motivate himself to do anything else of late.
He liked the cash. He loved the cash. But he hadn’t really managed to spend any of it because he was working all the time. Most of his friends were like that too. They were not all bankers, but they were all affluent and all worked like the devil, because that was what you did. It had become a badge of honour to go in to work on weekends and leave the office at ten at night, travelling in the next day in a courtesy black cab so that you could get busy with a conference call while commuting.
Seeking some time to think, two of Toby’s friends had opted for the big break. Not a stress or crisis leave of absence, they had said, but a mini belated gap-year break that you take when you have been working like a dog since you left university and now have a lot of money and want to see a few things, drink a few things, fondle a few things and have some time off to “find yourself” before real life proper sets in and you begin to breed a few things. They were going on an overland trip through Africa. Eight weeks. Nothing could have been further from Toby’s mind when they mentioned it.
At the time, he would sooner have sat through an economics presentation on a Friday night than don a backpack and acquaint himself with a sleeping bag. Toby shuddered as he thought of economics presentations and conferences, and shuddered again as he thought of an overland truck filled with penny-pinching backpackers comparing subcutaneous blow fly larvae.
That had now changed a bit after this morning’s little shock. He replayed the events once more in his mind.
Selborne calling him in: “Toby, a word if you have a minute.” Followed by the news, the shouting and then all the placations that came with it.
“Maybe it’s for the best, maybe you need a break. You’ve got enough cash. Take some time out and think what it is that’s gone out of it for you. Get your edge back. If you want to.”
“How much notice must I serve?” he had asked.
“You can go now if you want. You have about a million years’ leave accruing to you. Maybe that’s the problem – you really do need a break and be able to come back fresh.”
“Maybe,” he said and walked to his office.
Now, having been over it enough times to make him angry, sad, hurt, vengeful and resigned, he stood up, collected his phone and a few other personal items and asked his secretary to pack all his belongings into boxes.
Having said goodbye to the one or two people he didn’t just pretend to like and promising to keep in touch, Toby walked out of the building for the last time. He didn’t want to make a scene about it, and he wanted to appear nonchalant. He strolled to the door and it took a while to drape a scarf around his neck against a surprisingly chilly August wind because his hands would not stop shaking.
Completely against his wishes, a sudden vertiginous panic hit him and he thought he might clutch the door and kick and scream but a deep breath reasserted his balance and he wandered out onto Cannon Street. He could just as well be nipping out for a meeting or a late breakfast, the only minor difference being that he could never go back.
Toby Bertram – MPhil (Cantab); thirty-one; unemployed – checked the time and saw that it was still too early for the pub. He had a couple of hours to kill, but wanted to make sure that he didn’t bump into any colleagues or city folk he knew, so he had to get out of the financial district. He headed for the West End on foot. It seemed strange to have to kick around town on a weekday. A bit too much empty time for his customary day.
He walked along the Embankment lost in thought. Toby’s plodding, purposeful step with his thick legs and barrel-like feet did sometimes look ungainly, but it was good for thinking. Replaying the events over and over in his mind. So many what ifs. What if he had kept up the hunger, or even pretended to? Would this one deal going wrong still have been enough justification to fire him? He had certainly acted in the best interests of the bank at the time. What were his options? Should he call the client and tell them how they got screwed? Should he screw the bank in the press? God knows, banks were being so badly hammered after the GFC, no one would even notice.
GFC. He laughed out loud. At least he’d never have to use stupid acronyms again if he didn’t feel like it. Forget about the Global Financial one, he had a Giant Fucking Crisis of his own right now.
He got as far as Embankment tube station, and headed up towards the heart of the West End. He was very surprised to see the number of people out and about, not seeming to be doing anything constructive. Window shopping and the like.
I know why I’m kicking my heels, he thought. What the hell are you all doing? Why don’t you do some work?
A bit of browsing in a bookstore was all he could think of to occupy the time and he wandered up Charing Cross Road, nosing around the bookstores, until eventually he chose himself a book. Now what? He’d go and have a coffee. This was a coffee age. It wasn’t something he had ever done, being more of a tea man, but now was the time to try it out. His book choice, piqued by the topicality of the area among his “find myself” friends, was Out of Africa by Karen Blixen, and as he settled into a comfortable chair with a large foaming vanilla-scented beverage picked at random from a coffee menu, he began to read, “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”
Struggling a bit to concentrate due to the knot in his stomach and the shock sweats that flashed over him, Toby forced himself to take in what he was reading and, after a few pages, he became engrossed, grateful for the escape. He didn’t want to have to think further than one minute ahead at this stage. By the time he had finished the chapter on the Ngong farm, an hour and a half had passed, and he looked up from his long-empty coffee cup with surprise. Well, well. He had had his caffeine for the day. Next drink would need something of a slightly more medicinal nature.
He eased himself out of the coffee shop and into Soho, looking for a likely pub or wine bar where he might find a comfortable spot to sit and continue with his first non-business or financial self-help book in years. That was a comforting thought, and God knows he needed a few. He didn’t have to stick to The Economist and Financial Times any longer. He could read what he liked.
At that time in the morning he pretty much had the run of every place he poked his spinning head into. Indeed, most staff looked at him with some surprise. A young man in a chalk-striped suit looking for an opening-time tipple? But Soho has seen it all, and eventually Toby found a place with an armchair in a corner and a pleasing barmaid. Lukewarm sunshine seeped in and organised the airborne dust into rays of swirling gold as he settled himself over a large whisky and continued with his new hobby. Anything to avoid rehashing the morning’s events any more than he had done. He couldn’t bear the waves of nausea that accompanied thinking about his dismissal.
He read avidly, as one does over a relaxing few drinks, as though the circumstances were nothing more unusual than a lonely bachelor passing the time on a Saturday afternoon. Eventually his piano-wire nerves eased slightly with the Scotches. As the hours passed, he had several, with a few pints thrown in to steady the pace, but he began to find that he couldn’t concentrate on his reading as lucidly as before. He would find himself staring at the print, dreaming of far-off places. He’d reach the end of the page and have no clue what it had contained.
Eventually he put down the book, too drunk to carry on reading. He looked around him, and the moment of reflection caught him unawares. He had an attack of reality. What in God’s name was he doing, sitting here on a weekday in Soho, getting drunk on whisky? How had this all happened so quickly? He didn’t have a job. Jesus. He was out of work. What was he going to do? Carry on boozing for a foreseeable few hours, that was a given. But after that? He could go on the dole if he wanted, that would be funny. Surely not working in a bank again. Being asked to take big risks, to have balls of steel and a restricted personal life. To be cutthroat, ruthless, inhumane. He wasn’t sure he could continue doing that. Certainly his appetite for it had gone, wildly exciting though it may have been at times. He needed some time to think. And time was a commodity of which he now had ample.
He took another large swig of Scotch and suddenly he was decidedly happy. Fuck it. The job was terrible, his health was terrible, the stress was terrible, he was fat and fate had intervened to save him from all this. He used to be good looking, with his twinkling brown eyes and laughing mouth, but his corporate jowls made his face too round, and his straight brown hair hung lifelessly down the sides to make him look worse. What’s more, it was starting to get some grey in it. Well, it was time to change all that and turn back the clock. He was happy. What a treat to be able to get drunk at noon during the week. He signalled Suzie, his new best friend the barmaid, to bring him one last Islay malt, the oldest they had, to celebrate this great revelation and to drink to his road to Damascus. And he settled back down to his book, not really taking in much, but thinking that maybe he should go get a farm in Africa. No idea where exactly, but probably somewhere near the Ngong Hills, wherever they may be. Not all the way up in the hills, of course, more down near the bottom, at the foot of the hills. He grinned benignly and carried on lolling his head over the pages.
Then Toby’s head jerked up. What a fool he’d been. Why hadn’t he thought of this five hours ago? Did he have to get drunk to process any kind of analytical thought at all? He would go to Africa with his friends. Of course he would.
“I bloody will, you know,” he said out loud.
He only had a couple of weeks to prepare but it wasn’t like he had many arrangements to make. A few visas and some sun cream and he would be able to head for the hills, Ngong and the rest. He had some packing and some shopping to do. Now rushing, he weaved up to Suzie and with the overstated politeness of one who knows he has had too much to drink and is being watched carefully for amusement, he mumbled his thank-yous, gave her a whacking tip, nearly propositioned her for a date, but instead paced out with exaggerated care.
From there he stormed down to Lillywhites, where he got lost in the many floors of tempting equipment and went as far as buying himself an enormous pith helmet before the Scotch and enthusiasm started to wear off. He didn’t for the life of him know what he needed. Remembering vaguely that Fred (a sensible organised type) had said something about a sleeping bag, he bought one, donned his topi and burst out the shop. Time to have a nap and start planning this properly, he thought. As he wandered past hordes of curious tourists and passersby, some of whom snapped photos of him as the archetypal eccentric Englishman, he began to sing. Closing his eyes to hit the high notes, he warbled down Whitehall. He sang a favourite of his by Toto, “I bless the rains down in Africaaaah!”