Winner of the York Writers short story competition 2016
Behind tall palm trees and luscious banana plants, my destination’s dull, metallic grey facade is slowly revealed. In keeping with the journey, I sense it was meant to be difficult to find.
The taxi pulling away feels like a betrayal, or at least abandonment to whatever awaits me. Should I call the driver to take me back to the airport? Chance of a lifetime, I was told, yet it feels as if I’ve been conned into a timeshare on a Siberian beach.
I’m not used to this humidity. I wore a jacket to look smart and now feel like I’m wearing a winter coat to a sauna party. The heat is oppressive and I still haven’t managed to the shake the stiffness from the flight. I sold this to my friends as a sprinkle of glamour, but couldn’t feel less glamorous if I was working on the till at the supermarket.
I decide to be brave and venture forward to the glass entrance. There is no obvious reception or call button, but the door opens in front of me, inviting me in. The grey décor doesn’t change as it opens out to a large atrium. The building circles round, a shape that can’t be discerned from the outside. Looking up, I can see up many floors to a glass roof. There are no people, signs or sounds. I stare at the grey walls for a clue. Even if I could ask, I am not sure what to ask for.
Work for a unique multinational business, seeking a top class communicator to translate complex business operations into simple messages, the advert said. But here? There isn’t even a label or a brand. It’s more like a communist party headquarters where the definition of homogenous design is formed. Nothing stands out, colour and joy is banned. Only function is left.
The agent wouldn’t explain the role, part of the instructions given. The sign-on bonus was the sweetener. He told me that I get twenty thousand pounds to get on a plane to Malaysia for the biggest opportunity of my career. Whilst questions arose, the really important one was, where do I sign?
Apparently discretion is vital to this business and I have the opportunity to change my mind. It’s clear from the questions asked in the interview, they want someone with eyes open to the world. They showed me photos of droughts, war deaths, refugees, floods, poachers repeatedly drilling into my views on them. Who was to blame, what would I do about it? It seemed quite a macho approach, maybe because I am a woman they could intimidate me. I have three older brothers so this crap washes over me.
They pushed for what I would change and my attitude. Again the questions were odd for a business interview but I answered, best I could. I said you can change everything, but still people will die. I had a close cousin die young of cancer and I remember the weeks of awful treatments she underwent. It made me philosophical about death and fate. Cheating death tomorrow because of change made today doesn’t mean we live the next day; death will call when it’s ready. I’ve always believed nature provides its own answer to life expectancy no matter how many drugs we invent.
Still no one comes. My instinct says turn right. It got me this far, so why not let instinct plot the route. I walk slowly, following the line of the circular hall, my eyes roaming like a radar, seeking detail and recognition. Still nothing stands out. I look behind to check in case I missed something, but really it seems deliberate. Is this the ultimate in corporate secrecy? What company hides itself so well even its employees don’t know who they work for?
The hall continues. I feel dizzy from looking up. I must have walked a hundred metres. Looking back, I can’t see where I started, but also I can’t see the end. It’s a freaky building.
The heat from outside seems to magnify and I wipe my brow. Perspiration under my blouse adds to the growing discomfort that whatever I thought this was, it isn’t. I think about the country outside, full of beautiful vibrant greens, local people dressed in bright colours. In here, it’s dark, oppressive and confusing.
I keep walking because I’m not sure what the alternative is. Going back seems an admission I was wrong to come and that isn’t what I need to feel. After the next few steps I hear a buzzer and a door opens to the right. I wasn’t even aware it was there. Assuming I’m expected to enter, I continue on through the doorway, which shuts firmly behind me. Another corridor is ahead only this time it feels that the choice of returning has been removed.
The grey disappears round the next corner as an opaque glass doorway lies ahead. Again the door opens and finally a person appears to greet me on the other side.
She’s smart in a dark suit only bearable down here as the air con is in full flow. I feel a slight chill on my back.
‘Jess Ryan,’ the receptionist replies. ‘Welcome.’
‘You know who I am?’
‘Yes, of course, we keep a good track of our visitors from the moment they arrive.’
I smile, wondering at which point of my arrival they knew it was me. I sense it might have been before I took my seat on the flight.
She points me to a seat and pours me a glass of water. I try to relax as much as I can before I learn my destiny. The office glitters despite the lack of outside light. Brightness seems to recycle with a clever use of mirrors, more like a disco than an office.
A tall man arrives, wearing a white linen jacket. He’s not a local but that doesn’t surprise me.
‘Ah Jess,’ he says, reaching out his hand, ‘Henry Kingswood, good to meet you finally. Welcome to NE Bank.’
I smile. absorbing the information as much as his greeting. A bank. This is no bank I ever experienced. He shows me into a cavernous office space. Hundreds of people are working at banks of desks. I’ve lost all sense of the outside coming in. Oddly it reminds me of the call centre in Reading where I did my internship. The office is as dull and anaemic as any I have ever seen.
I wonder what a bank is doing operating out of a bunker like this. Why not a tall tower in the city centre?
Henry points me to an empty office.
‘Apologies for the cloak and dagger. Terribly important for us to keep our distance from the visible world.’
I nod, in agreement, not sure what I’m agreeing to. He pours me another cup of water which gives me a moment to relax. His voice is very public school England. Not sure why it reassures me. Perhaps it brings a sense of legitimacy.
‘I’m sure you have many questions, but shall I start by explaining a few things.’
I nod, desperate to find what I am here for.
‘NE Bank,’ he says, ‘doesn’t stand for much accept our owner’s initials, but we like to call it the Bank of Necessary Evils.’
I swallow at the term evil and sit up a little straighter.
‘Bit of a pun really, not funny given most of what our business covers. You remember from your first interview that we tested your reaction to a number of unpleasant business operations. Our job, very simply, is to manage the finances of these… I struggle to call them people, but their businesses need financial assistance.’
My heart quickens. I’ve made a mistake and know it now. The twenty thousand was blood money. I haven’t quite done a deal with the devil, but I have with his banker.
‘I see your reaction, and please don’t think you’re special, we all react the same way. There is an explanation. Firstly, our owners have, let’s say, vested interests. They have experience of this world. They know regardless of whether this bank exists or not, criminals would carry on doing what they do. What one seeks is control. The bank works in a number of ways. Firstly, taking their money, clean or otherwise and banking it. Remarkably, it cuts down on the amount of free cash flowing through some very despicable sorts and reduces associated cash crimes like robbery and bribery. Second, banking comes with discipline and regulation and in order to keep track of transactions, one can control the activities of certain individuals. Where we believe it merits action, sometimes that information can end up with law agencies etc. It’s a murky business, and not really my area but there is an element of policing activity. Again I ask not for your judgement, but for you to listen and accept reality. The next purpose is profit. The owners take a decent cut for the risks taken and that money is heavily invested in much finer causes. Charities, schools, education, environmental projects. The owners have no need of the millions themselves, nor do they seek the attention of big city addresses. It’s a way of giving back, one could say. Taking the good from the bad. Before you ask about the legalities, please know this is a legitimate bank. Arguments about the morals of certain of our clients is for the law agencies to decide and for us to defend as necessary.’
I take in the information slowly and can see the twisted Robin Hood argument, but I’m still lost as to where this ends. Can I turn the same blind eye that Henry seems happy to?
‘So where do you fit in? A bright woman from the UK, falling out of university with a set of morals straight from the pages of the Guardian, or maybe the Daily Mail if we are prepared to stretch the slight right wing leanings, we picked up in the interview. Our business attracts, as you might expect, a little negative attention. Lawyers don’t add much value in this space. We can deploy a legal army to slow things down but it doesn’t keep us away from negative press. What we need is a translator. Someone who can turn the good into bad, make dirty water clean again. Governments, enquiries, media, I want you to front it out. For which, as you have seen, you will be rewarded handsomely. Thoughts?’
I’m not sure what to say.
‘And if I don’t think I can do it?’ I ask ‘the offer said I could go back with no consequences.’
‘Indeed, there is a degree of paperwork which would ensure you don’t speak about this, but to be frank, we didn’t invite you out here expecting you to say no. You were very carefully selected. It may take a few days Jess, but you and I both know you will say yes, because, in the end you know you can go home and pretend the world is as perfect as it is round, but you will always know it’s not. Pop the news on back at the hotel tonight and think what you can do to influence the darker world you see on all those documentaries.’
I feel numb, unable to respond.
‘I’ll arrange for a taxi take you back to the hotel, you can start work tomorrow.’
I say nothing as he directs me out of the door. I feel a slight relief to be leaving but know my conscience will not switch off. My thoughts are racing with horror and guilt for what I am being invited into. Still I know, just as Henry said, Yes is the only word on my lips.