Monday, 15 November 2010, 6.45 a.m.
Bridget stared at the drones scurrying around ten storeys below her. A river of black umbrellas flowing towards the City. Less than a week ago she’d been one of them. But those days were over, for ever. She lifted her weary head and tried to focus on the office block opposite but her eyelids grew heavier with each passing moment. She closed her eyes and felt the driving rain pound the top of her head and pour down her naked body. She didn’t feel the biting cold. Instead, she basked in the warm afterglow from the recent hit on her crack pipe.
Suddenly, a blinding flash of lightning shocked her out of her stupor. For a moment she saw her ghostly reflection lit up in the glass-fronted building across the road – a deathly white apparition, legs together, outstretched arms holding on to the frame of the window. Mary Magdalene on a crucifix. The image imprinted itself on her retina and she saw it again when she blinked. A deafening crack of thunder quickly followed.
The storm was so close.
It felt like the end of the world.
Bridget let her eyelids droop again and began swaying gently from side to side. She’d always loved the feeling of rain dripping down her face and on this dark November morning it felt better than ever. Her lips curled into a slight smile and she began to sway faster and faster, in time to the pounding techno that came from within her flat. As her head moved ever more energetically from side to side, one thought kept repeating itself into the addled nothingness: All I ever wanted was to be a good person . . . all I ever wanted was to be a good person . . .
It took less than three seconds for her body to hit the ground. The thud was followed by a sharp crack as her head smashed into the tarmac. Everyone on the street froze. Then there were screams. The woman’s thin, pale body lay unnaturally, the chest glued to the road, the broken face pointing towards the sky. It lay there motionless. A stream of blood flowed from under her head, mixing with the rainwater and slipping into the nearby drain. Instinctively, people looked up at the high-rise above the body. Light streamed out of the only wide open window in the building. The cream curtains within billowed in the wind.
Two suited men from opposite sides of the street dropped their umbrellas and ran to the body. They were unsure about what they should do and aware that everyone was looking at them. Eventually, one man tentatively placed a trembling forefinger on Bridget’s neck. He knew there wouldn’t be a pulse even before he’d felt the lifeless artery. He closed his eyes and shook his head. The other man had already called the emergency services on his mobile phone.
The person in the room ten floors up crept away from the window, paused, then walked to the chair and picked up the coat, hat and scarf that lay upon it. The scarf was used to wipe clean one of the champagne flutes as well as the glass table, which was still smeared with lines of cocaine. The figure eased into the coat, pulled on the woolly hat and bunched up the cashmere scarf so that only a pair of bloodshot eyes was visible.
The door closed silently and the figure walked towards the lift.
‘Our national debt is rising rapidly, not least as the consequence of support to the banking system. We shall all be paying for the impact of this crisis on the public finances for a generation . . . to paraphrase a great wartime leader, never in the field of financial endeavour has so much money been owed by so few to so many’ – Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, 19 October 2009.
The Queen’s Legs pub, Bishopsgate Friday, 12 November, 1.45 p.m. ( 3 days earlier)
‘One for the road, Bridge?’ I asked, knowing full well what the time-tested response would be. ‘And one for the ones we never rode!’ she said, drunkenly raising a finger in the air.
Bridget and I had first heard those immortal words come out of the toothless mouth of a sozzled Irishman in a spit and sawdust bar in Dublin over fifteen years before. We were halfway through a rain-sodden pub crawl during what was supposed to be a ‘romantic weekend’. Unfortunately, our mutual propensity to get out of it had ensured that it had quickly degenerated into a liver-destroying 48-hour Guinness-quaffing bonanza. Little did that dribbling, bleary- eyed mumbler know that his doubtless oft-repeated gag had become a set response within a small circle of Cambridge pals. Towards the end of every serious drinking session at least one of us would invariably shout it, usually employing an appalling Irish accent, whilst raising a single, triumphant digit in the air. Nowadays, we all still uttered it occasionally though it merely felt like a desperate attempt to reassert our shared history . . . a faltering reminder of how close we had all once been.
But that wasn’t true with Bridget. Of all our Cambridge set, she was my favourite. She always had been. Our relation- ship during our second year at college had been a torrid, drug-fuelled affair. Outdoor sex in Grantchester Meadows, breaking into King’s College Chapel for illicit naked encounters and terrifying come-down arguments that woke up the whole house. There is no doubt she was my first true love, though I know I wasn’t hers. Eventually my immaturity had revealed itself and a pointless drunken shag with some dozy fresher had resulted in the relationship’s premature end. It had taken me many years to get over Bridget . . . and apart from a three-year relationship with a wonderful girl called Gemma that I also managed to screw up, I had not found anyone like her in the two decades – almost – that had passed since we’d first met. Still, we had managed to remain great friends and even better drinking partners.
She’d hardly aged since those days and the combination of thick auburn hair, pale freckly skin, feline green eyes and her slender, naturally athletic body turned heads wherever she went – both those of lustful men and the even more obsessive ones of jealous women. But it wasn’t only her looks that made her so easy to fall in love with; underneath her carefully constructed air of self-assurance lay a shy, insecure girl who made you want to look after her. Within her lay a deep well of melancholy that I, and many others, hoped to rid her of. Her parents’ messy divorce during her early teens had chipped away at her confidence, but only those lucky enough to get close to her ever saw the under- lying vulnerability that she hid so well. That desperate neediness was surely why she’d ended up with Fergus. If ever a girl needed the strong silent type it was most definitely Bridget. He provided her with the ballast her chaotic life required and she knew he would never leave her or be unfaithful. He was her rock – something I could never be . . . never hope to be. They had got together a year before and although it had taken about six months for me to get used to the idea of Bridge hooking up with my best friend everything was just about OK now. There was no doubt they complemented each other perfectly and had forged a great relationship that looked destined to go all the way. I was happy for them both . . . or at least I kept telling myself that I was.
I returned to our dingy table in a dark, cosy alcove at the back of the pub, shakily trying to balance two pints of Stella without spilling a drop. This had always been our favourite spot – hidden from the prying eyes and gossipy ears that populate the Square Mile. Here we wouldn’t be disturbed by some officious little tosser from our bank or a tedious client whose rancid arse we’d be obliged to wrap our lips around. We could have our traditional Friday lunchtime session in this cubbyhole safe in the knowledge that when we stumbled back to the office half-cut there was little chance that some bonus-hungry snitch on the trading floor would be able to contradict our story that we’d been out separately entertaining different clients.
By the time I’d settled myself in my seat Bridget had downed almost a third of her pint. She slammed it on the table and wiped the froth from her mouth with her forearm.
‘Erm, reassuringly fucking expensive!’ she laughed, mimicking the ubiquitous Stella adverts from a decade before.
Bridget somehow managed to combine being an Olympian deity with behaviour more befitting an East End docker. I’d lost count of the number of times I’d seen a look of bewilderment cross the face of some chinless stockbroker who, on trying to woo her at some awful City bar, had encountered language the bog cleaners at a greyhound track would find filthy. In a client situation she could turn on the charm with the best of them, but when she was relaxed her natural, punchy self emerged like a champion boxer who’d shuffled off his silk gown. Like me, she was a general salesman at Geldlust Bank. I had started there first and, when I heard that we were looking for new brokers, had persuaded the head of sales to interview her. She’d been working for several years at some two-bit French outfit and I knew she would get the job as soon as she sashayed through our door. Once the traders had found out that her surname was Von Blixen – harking back to the distant Dutch heritage that accounted for her height and angular looks – she had immediately become known as the Blonde Vixen – a moniker that amused her despite its blatant inaccuracy. She and I spent our days calling fund managers at large institutions pretending we knew which shares would go up and which would go down. Both of us were highly competent boozers and we’d sometimes take out shared clients together on debilitating ‘champers and sniff’ sessions that would invariably help bring business to our esteemed bank. Those wide-eyed Thursday nights careering around the West End were my favourite part of a job I’d long since grown to despise but Bridget still seemed to love.
She and I were a good team . . . we’d always been a good team.
This was our fourth pint and I was beginning to feel a little wobbly. Bridget had been matching me drink for drink and had told me several times that I needed to ‘strap a fucking pair on’. Each time she said something like that, a few fellow lunchtime drinkers would look round and stare in disbelief at the delicate beauty who had once again spoken so crudely. But Bridget hardly seemed to notice the quizzical glances that were thrown her way. She was on fire that afternoon and nothing was going to come between her and grinning incoherence. When I had earlier suggested a mid- session glass of water to help keep us hydrated she had looked at me with total disdain and exclaimed: ‘For God’s sake, Steve, you know I never mix my drinks!’ I’d heard that line a few hundred times before too. At about two o’clock Bridget shouted to the bemused barman that he should ‘keep ’em coming till I say stop!’ and I resigned myself to a serious Friday lunchtime booze-up.
But this was no bad thing because Bridget had been off form for several weeks. She hadn’t been drinking and, much to Fergus’s delight, hadn’t been hoovering up the nozbert as was her wont. She also hadn’t been her usual chatty self with me and had even taken off the early part of the week claiming to be ‘coming down with something’. I hadn’t bought that horseshit for a New York second because she had the constitution of a prize bull and, apart from appearing edgier than normal over the previous few days, had shown no indications of illness. Still, it was great to see her out and about . . . though there was clearly something on her mind. I had sensed throughout the session that she’d wanted to tell me something, but she had so far declined to do so. There had been an underlying nervousness about everything she did. After taking another hefty gulp from my pint I decided to lighten the mood.
‘So, how’s John?’ I asked. ‘Still living in that hovel with only tear-stained wank tissues for company?’ John Roberts had been a kind of mascot for us at Cambridge – someone we were all very protective of. He’d waltzed in aged sixteen as one of those planet-brained child prodigy freaks that Oxbridge tends to attract. We had taken him under our wing and enjoyed his often unintentionally amusing asides. His social skills were on a par with Rain Man’s and to say he wasn’t a hit with the ladies would be like saying Harold Shipman could improve his care for the elderly. He had been viciously bullied at Eton by a bunch of lumbering toffs and was painfully shy. He was a genius but his gift had come at a high price – living in a strange world that no one else seemed to inhabit. He was probably autistic, or at the very least Asperger’s, which made him an ideal fund manager, though it had certainly impeded his ascent up the City hierarchy. Hence, he toiled away at a sleepy mutual waiting for a career break that never came. He lived on his own in a poky little flat in Camden where he spent his time obsessively writing lists, nervously pulling out the few remaining hairs on his skinny cranium or glued to youjizz.com . . . literally, by all accounts.
Bridget smirked a little but didn’t roll her head back and laugh in the unselfconscious way that had helped make me fall in love with her so many years before. Her polite, half- hearted giggle ended prematurely and her expression suddenly turned serious.
‘Well . . . actually he’s been acting a bit weird recently. He . . .’ She paused for a second and lowered her head. ‘He’s been kind of . . . stalking me a bit.’ Bridget rarely hesitated when she spoke. This had obviously freaked her out.
‘What the fuck? I always thought he was gay or asexual or something.’
‘Well . . . I’ve been feeling recently that someone’s been following me. I initially dismissed it as coke paranoia but I kept on catching sight of this figure behind me . . . but he was usually a long way away and his face was always hidden by a hat or a scarf. Anyway, a few days ago I thought I saw the same fucker behind me again and this time I waited round a corner and confronted him. I couldn’t fucking believe it! It was John! Well, he claimed that it hadn’t been him following me around but it had to be, right?’ Bridget took a deep breath. ‘So, we went to a bar and had a bit of a heart to heart and . . . out of the blue he suddenly tells me that he’s in love with me and always has been! Unbelievable, I know! It was kind of sweet but it was also kind of creepy. He seemed resentful of Fergus and I sensed this real anger in him...but it’s all so bloody repressed. That’s what Eton does to you, I suppose. He kept clenching his fists in that way he does, and when I mentioned Colum he looked furious. You gotta tell that arsehole to cut him a bit of slack, OK?’
I wearily nodded my agreement. Colum, our brash, cruel Cambridge mate who had become a star hedge fund manager, loved nothing more than ripping it out of us all, but it was always poor John who received the lion’s share of his relentless mockery.
After a long sigh Bridget continued: ‘Anyway, I told him I loved him as a friend but that I was in a relationship with Fergus. I think it’s all fine now . . . and I just hope he’s gone back to doing his karate and bashing his bishop!’ She gave a nervous smirk. She was no drama queen and the encounter had clearly rattled her. Her façade of indestructibility had momentarily disappeared.
‘Would you fucking credit it? I need to take that young man out on the razzle ASAP . . . he’s obviously spending way too much time on his own. He is full of surprises.’ My drunkenness was adding to my astonishment. I simply couldn’t believe that little old John had had the balls to tell Bridget what he felt . . . something I could never dream of doing. Frankly I could hardly believe that he was even capable of such feelings; it was like hearing that R2-D2 was a serial philanderer.
‘That’s not the only thing . . . he’s taken up dealing again. Nozz-up, beans – the full Monty this time. Only for friends and family, but still, it seems a bit risky at thirty-five. Isn’t he too old for that shit? Needs to do something to supple- ment that meagre fund manager salary, I reckon!’ said Bridget, her mood noticeably lightening.
‘Christ, I hate to think what a lad with his taste for pharmaceuticals is going to do constantly surrounded by Class A’s. His flat’s gonna be a twenty-four-hour narc-fest. Shit, next time I’m in church I’ll light a candle for his poor septum!’ I said, barely concealing my amusement. John had dealt a bit of puff off and on since university, but now he was punting the hard stuff. Compared to the rest of us City highflyers he earned a pittance – that’s to say probably only three or four times what a nurse or teacher made for slogging their guts out – so he’d clearly decided to make some money on the side. John had always resented our vast bonuses but had lacked the capacity for the endless schmoozing and non-stop brown-nosing necessary to make it as a stockbroker.
‘Anyway,’ Bridget said with a conspiratorial smile, her hand furtively placing something on my knee, ‘I’m pleased to say this woeful tale has a happy ending . . . here’s a wrap of Peru’s finest dancing dust. Why don’t you hit the gents? Your nose looks like it needs powdering!’
I didn’t need another invitation. Five pints of wifebeater always makes this kind of decision-making incredibly easy – like offering a steaming Lancashire hotpot to a starving northerner. I had a few minor qualms about being naughty on a school day but a quick mental check that I had, as usual, left Friday afternoon free of meetings meant that I was quick-marching towards the bogs almost before Bridget had finished speaking. As I bent down in the cubicle and felt the surprisingly decent kuffer slam into my parched sinuses I reminded myself to contact John ASAP – to chat about some important issues, maybe help get him out and about . . . and that kind of thing.
After Bridget’s return from her own nasal examination the now highly animated conversation veered, as usual, to the other members of our Cambridge gang, who had been brought together during the first term by a shared love of partying and a disdain for hard work. We constantly hung out with each other to the exclusion of nearly all the other acquaintances we’d made, and the group was cemented after I had got together with Bridget and Rachel had been wooed by Colum. The gang consisted of six characters, most of whom now found themselves working in the Square Mile, which was the destination of choice for Oxbridge leavers in the mid-90s. Anyone who had two brain cells to rub together had been fully aware that the gravy train was starting up and no one had wanted to be left behind on the station watching their peers chug off to the land of milk and honey.
Of the six of our once inseparable group there was only one who was not working in the City: Bridget’s boyfriend Fergus Callahan, who had been my best mate both at school and at university. After a brief stint in the army he now toiled away as a financial journalist on the Guardian where he had gained a reputation as a righteous, left-wing investi- gator with a lifelong mission to expose City malpractice and corruption. Fergus and I had been great pals at school and our friendship had grown stronger over the years. He was inscrutable, serious and didn’t do small talk, but once you had become his friend you felt in a privileged position. We had seen each other through many scrapes and he had always been there for me during tough times. Whilst he was not one to show his emotions openly he clearly loved Bridget with an enviable passion.
The remaining members of our City cabal were Rachel, Colum and me. Rachel Maguire was the only married one amongst us and had even had the temerity to produce two children. At Cambridge she had loved to remind us that she was an impoverished commoner from up north although she came, in fact, from Altrincham which was, I later found out, a posh suburb of Manchester full of doctors and lawyers. She was much prettier than she believed and although she had become more reserved over the years and less likely to feature on our raucous nights out she could still tell a great yarn after a few drinks. She had a real warmth to her and also a wild side that nowadays revealed itself much less frequently than it used to. Rachel had worked as an equity analyst at Geldlust for several years before being fired two years ago and now earned a relative pittance working at the City regulator, the Financial Services Authority – a poacher turned gamekeeper in the truest sense. She had had a good portion of her fragile confidence knocked out of her by a troupe of bitchy Sloanes at the posh boarding school her parents had banished her to, and a completely dysfunctional relationship with some pencil-necked prick at Cambridge had further damaged her self-esteem. After splitting up with that particular arsehole she seemed to have entered some unspoken competition to go out with as many wankers as possible. Every time she introduced some new beau to our group eyebrows would be raised and bets taken as to how long this particular misfit would last. I didn’t get on with the debilitatingly dull man who eventually became her husband and nor, I suspected, did she. She could still be fun but ten years of marriage to a grey accountant and a life revolving around Wimbledon Village had, understandably, taken its toll on her joie de vivre.
Colum ‘every hole’s a goal’ Boyd aka Gollum aka ‘the unacceptable face of capitalism’ was the real star of the show – a chubby, whore-mongering disease-riddled degenerate whose lack of morals was rivalled only by his dearth of scruples. He suffered from an acute case of coke-bloat and his Pillsbury Doughboy complexion and permanently raw nostrils revealed to anyone within a twenty-foot radius his long-standing relationship with the white lady. He smoked almost continuously and boozed seemingly with- out cessation. He sought out excess in everything – especially in the fields of drugs, money and sex, which he referred to as the Holy Trinity. He had been nicknamed Gollum early on in his life by a perceptive Lord of the Rings fan and had grown to cherish the moniker. On seeing a wrap of coke he’d rub his hands and hiss, ‘My precious . . . my precious, we wants it, we needs it,’ and after a few drinks he also loved to shout ‘The ring is king, long live the ring’, which was not actually a reference to some magical artefact but rather his oft-publicly declared enjoyment of anal sex. He was also the very proud owner of an impressive Johnson which he would invariably take out during social gatherings, most notably during Rachel’s wedding. He would plop his ‘weapon of mass seduction’, as he called it, on the head of some seated lady and howl with laughter when she reached up to find out what was weighing down her cranium. He loved chatting about his ‘schlong’ and would invariably mock those around him for merely having a ‘schlort’ – especially poor John. He called his chopper Brutus and claimed that its elephantine girth was legendary across four continents. I have no reason to believe he was lying.
If there was anyone in the group whose friendship had long since passed its sell-by date then it was Colum. He may have been sharp, amusing and ‘fun’ but few more crude, egotistical sociopaths have ever walked on God’s sweet earth. Of course, fifteen years as a highly successful hedge fund manager had simply taken all his offensive character traits and multiplied them exponentially, and he now exhibited less charm than a shit-stained bog brush in a Mexican latrine. It was our shared history, pure and simple, that explained his continued role in our lives.
That only left me – Steve Jones, a general salesman at Geldlust, a mid-tier German bank, fourteen years into a debilitating career I’d promised myself would only last five. A gap-year hippy who’d somehow lost his way and ended up ‘working for the man’. An old-school graver who vainly hoped that his charm concealed his addictions . . . a pyrrhic victory of style over substance abuse.
My banking career to date had been eminently predict- able for a Cambridge graduate keen to make a fast buck. I’d had a bit of trouble a few years back and had had to leave the City for a while, but now I was back milking the system for all it was worth by doing a job that had long ceased to interest me. Prior to my unplanned trip abroad I’d been an equity analyst, but soon after my return I’d become a general salesman – a role that numerous clients had told me I was far better suited to thanks to my prodigious drinking abilities. Bullshitting fund managers over a lobster thermidor or whilst ogling some young Estonian chick’s camel toes proved to be eminently preferable to sitting around on my hairy arse calculating the cash flow generated by some dull company’s probably unethical Middle Eastern operations.
When not talking codshit to FMs I partied hard and trawled the bars and clubs of London’s East End trying and failing to find someone like Bridget. We Cambridge pals met up fairly regularly on a one-to-one basis but the times when the whole gang partied together were becoming few and far between. Rachel’s family commitments, John’s antipathy towards Colum and Fergus’s increasingly sensible behaviour made sure of that. If truth be told, I was alone and unhappy.
Bridget and I stayed for two more hastily consumed pints with the only other noteworthy bit of gossip being the news that Rachel and her John Major-like husband were having a real rocky patch and participating in ‘couples therapy’. Bridget described their marriage as characterised by ‘mutual suspicion, seething resentment and barely concealed contempt’ – words that could have accurately described most of my relationships over the previous decade. I was a little surprised, but not wholly shocked, by this revelation.
We staggered back to the office at around 3.45 p.m. being sure to leave a gap of five minutes between Bridget’s return and my own. Both of us had chewed four Trebor Extra Strong mints, essential post-prandial breath concealment kit for any aspiring broker, as my first City guru had explained, on the walk home. By the time we reached Geldlust’s impressive atrium any passing colleague would have thought we’d been bathing in mouthwash for hours, such was our pungent aroma. If our bloodshot eyes and unsteady footing hadn’t made them suspect we’d spent the afternoon boozing like Scousers on a day trip to Blackpool then the overpowering smell of mint would surely have convinced them.
I took the lift to the eighth floor and, after an immensely satisfying slash, walked through the glass doors and into the cavernous trading floor. I immediately felt my coked-up heart notch up a gear. I was entering the arena ill-prepared. Before me lay an open-plan office the size of a football pitch buzzing with loud conversations and the sound of money being made. Diligent buffoons gazed at myriad computer screens whilst others typed frantically or shouted into telephones. Numerous rows of desks lay between me and my chair and I prayed I’d manage to make my way there without some snide comment from one of the numerous barrow-boy traders who lay between me and my goal. Unfortunately, walking in a straight line was proving troublesome. I locked in on my desk and focused on putting one foot in front of the other, looking directly ahead to avoid any chance of catching my colleagues’ prying eyes. Hundreds of salespeople and traders sat around chatting up their clients. Some leant back in their chairs with their feet on the desk in front of them. Occasionally a trader would shout out some obscure nonsense that only the other traders understood. The TV sets suspended from the ceiling playing CNBC and Bloomberg Television on low volume let out a constant stream of barely audible financial gibberish. The odd paper ball flew by and some small groups of people sat around chatting, probably discussing their expectations for the upcoming bonus round. Somehow, after a degree of focus that impressed even me, I made it to my chair without interruption. I wiped the beads of toxic sweat from my forehead, closed my eyes and praised the Lord that I had managed to run the gauntlet successfully.
As I settled down into my chair I looked around to Bridget’s desk.
She wasn’t there.