Erastus Balloo beat the traffic to be on the campus and in his office before eight o’clock. He opened the shiny curtains and scrutinised the bare plastic beaker of a room. Traces of yesterday’s dandruff lay on his desk, in front of his keyboard, but the wastepaper basket had been emptied. Mr Balloo concluded hopefully from this that the cleaners had been in, and that he could relax and get to work without worrying about having to make conversation with them. Whenever the cleaners were in, Mr Balloo would stand up from his desk and linger as though he was hosting a dinner party and constantly ready to pour wine.
Wendy, his department’s systems manager, intercepted him before he had reached his computer.
“Oh Mr Balloo, is this chair really suitable for you?”
Mr Balloo regarded Wendy coldly and with asperity. “I should think so Miss Brooks.”
She seemed to be making numerous tiny calculations in her head until she finally hazarded another attempt. “It is only that with your condition…”
What in heaven was she talking about this time? “Miss Brooks, I have come in early to deal with our customers, not my chair. Now I must get to work at once.”
She still vacillated. “When I had my little Chardonnay, I had a footstool put in my office. Human resources might still have the same one, you know…”
Before Mr Balloo could further vent his impatience she had pranced resolutely out of the office, her knees knocking comedically on her way to retrieve the footstool.
Should he follow her? No, Mr Balloo decided firmly, he had come in early to do his work. There would be no more delays just because some people were being silly.
Let us watch Mr Balloo at work. His body is rounded and compact, with the pleasing pertness of an unpunctured haggis. None of his co-workers have ever seen how alien his eyes look when they are naked and flushed out from behind their thick spectacles. He is mostly bald, with the pretty ruins of hair around the base of his pate. At first he makes little deliberative taps at his keyboard but once his excitement has been captured he begins to splash about in it. A rapid and unbroken squelching then issues from his office.
The door burst open. Mr Balloo sat up scandalised as Miss Brooks bounded in again, carrying a footstool high above her in the air like a huge crown. Shelley Purdue, the head of human resources, was hot on her heels with a yoga mat. Both of their knees were knocking in unison.
Miss Brooks beamed triumphantly. “Here! Put your feet up Mr Balloo!” Mr Balloo found that he was being wheeled out from under his desk and lifted in the air by his smart shoes. She had actually put her hands on his smart shoes! After he had been rearranged, the two ladies stood back to admire their handiwork.
“Isn’t that much better, Mr Balloo?”
Trudy, Mr Balloo’s secretary, came in on the pretext of putting a document on his desk. She had been about to email it but she had hastily pressed print instead. She did not say anything but her eyes were very watchful.
“You are all being silly again!” Mr Balloo spluttered. “Very silly. I have a lot of work to do and I am trying to do my work!”
As usual, they ignored him. “This mat is just the thing,” Shelley told Mr Balloo. It was claret red and when rolled across the cream carpet it looked like a flesh wound. “Before I had Angelica I used to suffer from terrible gas, but they say now that yoga helps to reduce the build up. You need to stop work every ten minutes and do the exercises.”
“Maybe you should do some now, Mr Balloo? Shelley can show you what to do if you like…”
Shelley had already organised herself into the most extraordinary triangle on the floor, with her forehead resting on the mat and her bottom pointed wildly in the air. It was all very bothersome, Mr Balloo fumed, frantically readjusting his tie as he always did when he was rattled. What could it conceivably mean this time?
“Mr Balloo, Gavin Bamcroft is waiting for you down in reception,” Trudy said quietly.
“Good. Thank you Miss Lokshin.” Mr Balloo stood up, staring about in angry fright. “Give me my hat and umbrella!” He took his umbrella but marched out without the hat. “And get rid of that stool,” he added behind him, but so quietly that he hoped they would only half hear.
As he scampered down the stairs, he was stopped with a flick of the eyes by Bill Abigail, the head of the department. Mr Abigail looked him smartly up and down with concern. “We have to take it easy now, Mr Balloo. I won’t hear of you running about on needless errands. There are plenty of other people available to do these things.”
“Yes, Mr Abigail,” Mr Balloo replied. Mr Abigail spun back drily and continued up the stairs, with his umbrella under his arm and his back as straight at that of a ceremonial guard.
Gavin Bamcroft was a real estate manager down at Leith Docks. He had assembled a complex system of mortgages and loans that, rather like a quaking house that a small child will idly construct out of plastic model animals, was always threatening to wobble over and disintegrate. He had been a customer of RBS for many years and Mr Balloo had been assigned to his case for the last five. Mr Balloo took a keen interest in his progress.
Mr Bamcroft always dressed in his fishing jacket whenever he visited RBS. One of the pockets was still full of curling and uncurling mealworms. He reckoned that this jacket made him look poor and deserving of charity, but also dependable and workmanlike. He greeted Mr Balloo with a chuckle and that flash of his flinty eyes that was unchanged from all the way back when he was seventeen-year-old hoodlum with a razor blade on the Barrowlands dancefloor. “Good morning Erastus. I thought I might be too early, but you’re up with the sparrows I see!”
“Here at RBS we always go out of our way and go that extra mile for our customers,” Mr Balloo harrumphed. “Shall we sit in the tearoom?”
There was a square mile of the RBS campus outside Edinburgh, though half of it was a car park. Putting aside the nasty steel office building, the rest was the kernel of a small village that RBS had purchased whole and transformed into staff facilities. Although ostensibly a genuine grandmother’s cottage, with low ceilings and dated floral wallpaper, the tearoom was in reality now a Starbucks. The miners’ tavern was a disguised wine bar. The village post office was a Tesco. The green and the wishing well had not been altered, though the church was today a gym and crèche.
“Hello Mr Balloo!” the genial old postman called as he passed on his bicycle. He was an actor, though you could talk with him for hours about village life and he would not dry up. Many of the banking staff enjoyed unwinding with him and the rest of the characters, in the allotment relaxation zone.
It was the rush hour for lattes in the tearoom. “Would you like a crumpet, doll?” Mrs Rae panted as she swung the teapot over their heads. A sign above the crockery on the sideboard read, “There is no Wi-Fi! Talk to each other!” This was an authentic detail but of course there was Wi-Fi. There would be Wi-Fi at the bottom of the wishing well.
Mr Bamcroft leaned forward, his hand unconsciously gripping his jam knife, as he explained why he was morally entitled to another mortgage. Mr Balloo made sure to put in a good question about the company’s cash flow so that it looked like he was paying attention. He wrote down numerous figures so that he could write them up later in his file. In truth, Mr Balloo was pleasantly surprised that Mr Bamcroft was still solvent and he had already determined before the meeting that another mortgage would make the mess that the property manager was in even more interesting to untangle. Mr Balloo liked playing with problems in his mind.
When Mr Bamcroft’s pitch was over, and Mr Balloo had indicated his happy assent, the property manager’s face softened. His eyes twinkled. “By the by, Sarah and I would like to congratulate you on your good news.”
“My good news?”
“Oh yes, we are very pleased for you.”
“I say!” Mr Balloo recoiled as though from a striking cobra. Were they all being silly again?
“You know, Sarah and I still have some things from when the boys were bairns…” Mr Bamcroft was fumbling apologetically and then Mr Balloo was astonished to see him reach for a black bin liner that had been resting all the time on the chair behind him. “Just a few wee things that never went to the charity shop.”
He plumped the bin liner on the table in front of Mr Balloo and Mr Balloo involuntarily took its bulk in his hands. Mr Bamcroft stood up. “Well, I’ll bid you a good morning Erastus. Always a pleasure, never a chore.”
“I have to go back to my office,” Mr Balloo stammered. “I have to do my work.”
He had by this time spied that the bin liner was full of teddy bears. On the village green, he stopped and studied them aghast. There were big ones, withered ones, blue ones, pink ones, dusty and blackened ones, and ones that were so used that they were bald from the neck up. Mr Balloo was hit with an instinct to stuff them all furtively into a dustbin, but somebody always saw every time that he tried to do something secret. The bears would be brought to his office and a reason asked for. The ladies would gloat over this extra humiliation.
When Mr Balloo was back in his office, he was tremendously relieved to see that the footstool and the yoga mat were gone. But his heart sank again as soon as he had registered the greeting card that was displayed conspicuously on his desk. It had been apparently signed by the entire department and then, pouring over the names, he recognised those of many of his oldest customers.
He turned to the cover. “You’re Going To Have A New Baby!”
What did it mean? Had everybody made a mistake? Mr Balloo slapped his bald head and threw his umbrella on the floor and stamped on it. Was everybody being silly again? “I’m not going to have a baby!” Mr Balloo squealed. He shouted louder so that they could all hear him. “I’m not going to have a baby! You’re all being silly! I’m a man – I can’t EVEN HAVE a baby!”
Were they listening? Mr Balloo found that his eyes were suddenly slippery at the corners and he wiped at them in agitation. Tears dropped thickly from his fingers into the carpet. “I’M NOT GOING TO HAVE A BABY!” he screeched, hurling his voice out of the windows and over all of the trumpery village.
At the end of the corridor, almost noiselessly, there were hyena cackles.
Trudy did not like taking her lunch with the other staff and Mr Balloo did not like it much either, so they normally sat together in the canteen. Trudy preferred Mr Balloo because he was the only one who did not make critical comments about her diet or, even worse, glad and encouraging ones. Mr Balloo never said anything about Trudy’s diet but he worried about it incessantly. He was frightened that she was going to die.
Mr Balloo’s secretary ate nothing but raw food and vegan produce. On the first day that Trudy had worked for him, they had had a conversation about her diet. He had never been brave enough to bring the matter up again. He nonetheless mentally revisited her words every time that they sat together, over their food, and he chanted them behind his brows as though they were a secret, despairing grace.
“So you don’t drink milk?” he had gasped.
She had blinked with that unconcern that was like a lizard’s stillness. “I don’t eat eggs either.”
Mr Balloo had rummaged amongst his mind desperately. So what exactly did this diet leave on the menu?
“Oh I eat fruit, nuts, salad items. There is actually a lot in this canteen for me to eat. When I first came here, I thought that I would need to bring a lunchbox.”
Trudy was never enthusiastic about her diet. Indeed, she spoke about it resignedly, as if it was a medical regime that she was obliged to follow. It was unthinkable that she might turn to him and cheerfully recommend it. And over the ten months that Mr Balloo had employed Trudy, he had watched her growing ever more amazingly punier. She had been frail and girlish when she started. She currently had the physique of a twelve-year-old boy. Her clothes spilled out baggily around her and from beneath their constant weight she looked wizened and unkempt. Mr Balloo was sometimes curious to reach out and see whether he could place a finger and thumb around one of the useless stalks that she now had for arms.
Her body screamed for food. She fed it cucumber and tomato from the canteen’s salad counter in increasingly enormous quantities. Some days she would empty the entire punch bowl of cucumber slices – a bowl meant for the bank’s three thousand plus employees – on to her plate. There were two plates, one piled mountainously with cucumber slices and the other with tomato. She would have twice as much food before her as any other diner in the canteen, but it was just water. Her body wanted carbohydrate and protein and sustenance. What it received instead was nutritionally worthless.
Her body screamed with hunger and she gave every appearance of being deaf to its cries. She would sit calmly in front of Mr Balloo, digging dutifully into her mountain of cucumber and not giving a stray glance at his own steak pie or cheeseburger.
Trudy was not the best secretary who Mr Balloo had ever employed, but she was competent under the circumstances. She was the only member of the department who had not signed his card. If she died, he would be left wholly alone at the bank, without a friend or ally. He would probably have to leave too.
Mr Balloo had told his priest about Trudy. The Father had sounded rather too amused in Mr Balloo’s opinion, but he had been kindly as well and he had offered some vaguely consoling advice. “I dare say that this is an eating disorder that your secretary is trying to hide. There’s the same need to control everything. You should be there for her, naturally. You should stay on her side. She is being foolish rather than wicked, on the whole. Sometimes there will be a fluctuation in a person’s brain juices, as they age, and their compulsions will simply fade away.”
The priest listened to everything that Mr Balloo told him. He often felt as though his own brain was a landfill site that Mr Balloo was slowly filling up with personal detritus. But he couldn’t tell Mr Balloo that Trudy would be okay in the end or that she wouldn’t die.
Today, after his fury at the insulting greeting card, Mr Balloo had stormed into the canteen with hot tears still trickling over the sleeves of his suit. He saw that Trudy was in the line ahead of him and he paused, suddenly struck dumb, as she hesitated in front of one of the counters. He saw that her eyes were wide and bright and fixed glistening with an almost hysterical hunger on a food item in the salad section.
It was a cocktail stick upon which two cubes of pineapple were impaled, with a tiny cube of cheddar cheese in the middle.
Mr Balloo reappraised this cube of cheese through Trudy’s own eyes and it looked unbearably tempting. He felt his body melting into it.
Trudy did not know that Mr Balloo was watching her. She looked around innocently at the people standing next to her, who were all busy loading their own trays. Next she had bundled the cocktail stick into a nest of lettuce on her plate and quickly concealed it.
She bit her lip, her shoulders sagged in defeat, and she moved on towards the till with her head hanging abysmally.
Without knowing why, Mr Balloo felt bitterly disappointed in her.