Like it says, extracts from works in progress.
AISLEEN AND THE PRINCE
Once upon a time there was a very well to do banker who had been so clever, and his business so profitable, that they had made him a knight. This hadn’t proved to be quite as much fun as he had thought it might be. When they had first asked him if he would like to be one he had half formed images of shiny armour and chargers, and then plumed hats and balls with fair ladies peeking over fluttering fans as he walked by. Knights don’t actually do a lot these days though. They don’t generally ride white chargers or slay dragons or save damsels. Are there still damsels? And do they ever get distressed? But it did mean a lot of people were a little bit more in awe of him than they had been before and some foreigners still didn’t know what a knight was and treated him very circumspectly just in case he was a lot more powerful than he appeared, so that was good.
Sir William was sitting in his office high up in the tower his bank called home one afternoon when the telephone on his desk rang. It took him a minute to realise what it was because it so seldom rang. He normally emailed people or spent a lot of time telling people he couldn’t hear them on his mobile because the signal was breaking up. How entertaining he thought as he picked the handset up, it’s got a wire.
‘Sir William Indigent speaking.’
‘Daddy. Why aren’t you answering your mobile?’ Came his daughter’s petulant tones.
‘Aisleen! Darling how lovely to hear from you.’ he said.
‘Daddy, this is a crisis.’
‘What’s the matter my angel?’ Sir William asked, all attentive now at the thought of his daughter’s peril.
‘Someone’s saying nasty things about you on the television. Some of the other girls are laughing.’
Sir William was a bit miffed if he were honest. Nobody had a bad word to say about him. What was going on?
‘Now my love don’t let silly little things annoy you. Come over here and we’ll have dinner and maybe take in a show later. All right?’ he asked.
‘Okay. But Daddy you really should hear what they are saying.’ and with that the phone went dead.
Sir William returned the handset to its cradle. The novelty had worn off and it looked rather forlorn in the corner behind the computer screen. Television he thought. There was a television on the wall. Actually the wall was a television, but Sir William was more concerned about how to turn it on rather than define its status in relation to the wall. Celia would know. He pressed the button on his desk.
Normally when he pressed the button Celia would appear within seconds, a smile on her face and answers to questions he hadn’t even formulated yet. But not this time. He pressed the button again and waited. He looked around, caught between the idea of working out how to turn the television on himself and the need to know why Celia had not appeared at his summons. His eye rested on a small control panel and he pressed the red button on it. The wall opposite flickered into life. There were people walking up and down a street being interviewed apparently at random by a man with a microphone. There was something familiar about it all. The pictures were silent and Sir William reached out for the control panel again. Having changed channel a few times he returned to the pictures of the interviews and the sound came on.
‘…spells the end of the good times for the economy, Globobank and Sir William. This is Robert Lancaster returning you to the studio,’
That sounded a little unsettling thought Sir William. In fact, very unsettling now he thought about it a little more. It seemed in all likelihood that the Sir William they were talking about might be him.
He marched across the expanse of carpet to the door he had expected Celia to enter though and flung it open. The office was empty. Not just of people but of furniture too. He walked across the room to the next door and flung it open. A long way away, at the end of the corridor some men in overalls were wheeling a desk into a lift.
‘Hi! You! What the…’ Sir William didn’t finish the sentence. There was no point. The lift doors had closed and the corridor, indeed the whole floor, appeared deserted. Sir William walked down the corridor throwing open doors as he went. Meeting rooms, senior management offices, conference facilities were all empty. Back in his office he could hear the faint ringing of his phone.
He ran back down the corridor.
‘Indigent’ he gasped into the mouthpiece.
‘Ah Bill. Glad I caught you. What’s that noise?’
The television still rumbled in the background, now showing a cat waterskiing for some reason beyond Sir William’s comprehension. He hit the mute button on the console.
‘Raymond, is that you?’ he gasped again.
‘Yes. Been doing calisthenics old chap? You sound a bit out of breath.’
‘I was in futures when I heard the phone. My mobile doesn’t seem to be working.’
‘Ah yes. That will be partly what I am calling about.’ Raymond said.
‘Well the lack of. And everything else actually. You may notice a few changes in the next day or so.’
‘I’ve noticed a few now. Where is everyone? Where’s the furniture? Where’s Celia?’ Sir William shouted, beginning to lose what little self control he had.
‘Now, now. Don’t get aerated old chap. It’s all gone is it? Well trust them to jump the gun. Look. You had better pop over here and I’ll fill you in. Don’t worry, its just a little readjustment. I’ll explain it all.’ And with that the phone went dead.
Aisleen Indigent was peeved about her friends being mean. Daddy wasn’t very bright but he bought her lots of things and was always good for lunch, dinner or a shopping trip if she rang up and was bored. They had no right to be horrid about him like that.
She extended a languid hand and a taxi cut across three lanes of traffic to reach her before it could descend again.
‘Where to miss?’ the cabby asked trying not to drool as he looked in the mirror.
Aisleen gave the address.
‘What you want to go there for then? The fun’s all over now innit?’ the cabby asked cutting up a couple of cyclists and an ambulance.
Aisleen looked blankly at him. Ordinary people were very hard to understand sometimes.
‘What fun?’ she asked.
‘You mean you ain’t heard?’
‘Heard what.’ Aisleen asked a little more sharply now.
‘About Globobank and all that. It’s the end, mark my words. We’re all in it now and no mistake.’
Aisleen wanted to ask more but she wasn’t sure she would either get an answer she understood or one she wanted to understand in the back of a cab. She kept her own counsel until they arrived outside the towering structure where her father worked.
‘Ere we are then.’ the cabby said.
‘Thanks.’ Aisleen said, and handed him some money.
The cabby looked at it and made a pretence of looking for change.
‘Keep it.’ she said.
‘Very kind miss.’ the cabby looked at the building and then at the girl.
‘Shall I wait?’ he asked.
‘No thanks. I’m meeting my father.’
‘Good luck.’ the cabby said and pulled out across the traffic in a flurry of horns and swearing.
Aisleen ran up the steps at the front of the building and pushed open the doors. That was odd in itself. Normally they swished open in a most satisfying manner without her having to do a thing. She took a step inside. There was only emergency lighting on and a security guard at the bank of lifts was the only person present. He didn’t say anything to Aisleen which again was very odd. The commissionaires and porters and doormen Aisleen normally encountered were very attentive and polite. This guard just stared and chewed gum.
‘Excuse me, I’ve come to meet my father. On the thirtieth floor? He runs the bank.’ she said
He stopped chewing for a second and looked at her.
‘You’re not allowed in here. It’s closed.’ He said and resumed mastication.
‘I’m Aisleen Indigent and my daddy will have something to say about this.’ she said and marched across the foyer to the unoccupied reception desk. The man just watched her.
She looked over the front of the desk. There was nothing on it apart from an intercom. The laptop that had sat on the desk and on which the receptionists had tapped and swept and checked had gone. There was a small cable dangling free that burrowed into the desk. Aisleen walked around the desk. The man watched. There was nothing else to see apart from a telephone tucked onto a shelf below the desk top. Aisleen picked it up. It made no noise.
She threw the handset down and pressed the intercom button. The lights remained off and there was no clicking or crackling or anything she had hoped might happen. She glared at it and then back at the guard.
‘I want to go up and see Daddy. This is silly.’ she said.
The guard looked at her unblinking.
‘They’ve all gone. It’s empty. They’re selling it.’ he muttered.
‘What!?’ shrieked Aisleen. ‘They can’t. Daddy would have said. He told me to meet him here an hour ago.’
The guard looked around and particularly at the cctv cameras. He didn’t know whether they were off or not. Aisleen burst into tears and that seemed to make up his mind. He left the rows of buttons by the lifts and walked over to her.
‘Don’t cry miss’. He said. ‘I’m sorry. I think your Dad was the last one to go. They sent a car for him. They went about half an hour ago.’
Aisleen leaned against the man’s massive chest and grabbed his lapels.
‘He was taking me to lunch. They were saying horrible things about him and he said he’d make it all better.’ she sobbed and began dripping tears and make up all over the security guard’s chest.
The poor man was out of his depth. He didn’t have multi-millionaire’s daughters crying all over him every day. The last time a woman had cried on him was when he was doing the doors at the Chick Pick Club in Walthamstow and she’s tried to glass him ten minutes later when she realised he wasn’t going to let her in and her boyfriend had seen what she was doing. He didn’t think this one was going to do anything like that but he wasn’t sure of much when it came to women.
He patted her shoulder and made soothing noises and she blinked up at him and smiled.
‘Sorry.’ she sniffed. ‘Not your fault. I just don’t know what’s going on. Could you tell me?’ and she smiled such a smile that he forgot he was supposed to wait until the van came round to secure the place.
‘Okay. Do you want a drink? You’ll probably need it.’ he added wondering if she knew anything about the financial crash currently focused on her father and the bank.
And so ten minutes later Adam Bouton, art school graduate, failing artist and by the look of things he decided, short term security guard, brought over some confection of fruit and alcohol for his charge, and half a pint of lager for himself, to the table where Miss Indigent was ensconced. The pub was attempting to be a gastro pub and was certainly near enough to the city to have got the clientele, but it had just missed and was still attracting the wrong sort of person. Which was how he managed to afford the drinks he thought.
‘Thanks. Quaint place. How did you find it?’ she asked him.
He sat down and smiled, putting his hat down on the table.
‘The boss interviewed me in here for the job.’
‘Odd place for an interview.’ she said.
He couldn’t have agreed more. It was a very odd business. But there you are. Life was odd Adam had decided. Get someone to saw a cow in half for you, stick it in formaldehyde and you were a genius. Paint a recognisable likeness and you were a derivative, passé hack. Working as a security guard. He nodded.
‘So you were going to tell me about my Dad?’ she said.
He heaved a sigh. This was where his fantasy beginning turned sour. This was where the messenger got shot.
‘Have you heard about sub prime mortgages?’ he began.
She looked at him blankly.
‘Okay. They are mortgages, mostly in the US where people with no hope of repaying loans to buy houses get loans to buy houses. That debt becomes an asset. And if you bundle enough of them up with some other stuff for wrappers it looks like a great investment to be sold on to someone. You pay a billion dollars for a bundle which on paper is worth 20 billion. So you buy it and sell it on for two billion to somebody, or lots of somebodies pay a bit of the two billion each, and everyone looks as if they’ll make a fortune some day.’ he took a drink ‘With me so far?’
‘Sort of but what has this got to do with Daddy?’
‘Well this goes on until the first bit I mentioned, kicks in. The people who can’t repay bit? Well when enough of them miss a payment or three somebody notices that a debt is only an asset if it’s going to be paid. And these aren’t. So the confidence in the bundle goes and whoever is left holding it at the moment everybody notices the coach has turned back into a pumpkin, loses everything.’ he paused.
‘And that’s Daddy?’ she asked, her mouth remaining open in shock.
‘Problem is, it’s such a big loss of confidence that not only has your Dad’s bank suddenly gone bust but half the western banking system has noticed it’s got the same problem.’
‘Oh my word!’ she gasped. ‘Poor Daddy. Are they blaming him for the whole thing?’
Not just yet, but they will Adam thought. If there’s a weakling down they’ll choose him as the sacrificial lamb.
‘It’s not his fault.’ Adam replied, hoping Aisleen wouldn’t notice that wasn’t answering the question.
‘No, but people aren’t always fair are they?’ Aisleen observed. Poor Daddy. Oh! I must let him know where I am.’
She extracted her mobile from her bag and tried ringing him.
‘It says this number is not in service.’ she said.
‘Company contract.’ Adam guessed. ‘Probably cut the minute they shut up shop.’ he offered in explanation.
‘Bother!’ said Aisleen who took a sip of her drink.
Things became more bothersome when she, very generously Adam thought, tried to pay for the lunch they ate while discussing what Aisleen planned on doing with her life.
‘Design’ was her answer, which on deeper inspection seemed to mean acquiring as large a collection of clothes shoes and bags as she could. This plan took something of a pause if not an actual crash when her credit card was declined at the till.
With a fixed grin Adam forked out most of his remaining money to cover the bill. For a thin stick of a thing she could certainly eat he thought as he pocketed the small change.
‘Well, I’d better be getting back to the building.’ he said. ‘What are you going to do?’
‘I can’t go shopping, and I’m not sure I’ve got enough for a taxi, and I don’t know where Daddy is.’ her voice began to tremble as she suddenly realised she didn’t know what she was going to do. ‘I don’t know how to get home!’
‘Is there anyone you can call? Your mother maybe?’
‘Mummy’s abroad somewhere. She and Daddy don’t live together any more. Actually I think the only reason they are still married is some sort of tax loophole.’
‘Anyone else? Only I’m sorry but I’ve got to get back.’ Adam said, wishing he didn’t have to.
‘You go. I’ll be okay.’
Adam looked at her. Poor little rich girl perhaps, although he wasn’t sure that she was as rich as she had been twelve hours earlier, but she was still upset and alone. He knew that feeling.
‘Look come back to the tower and we’ll see what we can think of. If the worst comes to the worst we’ll work out a tube or bus route for you.’
She looked at him with a mixture of gratitude and horror.
‘A bus!’ she gasped. ‘I mean thanks. That would be lovely.’
And the pair of them began to walk back to her father’s former bank.