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The big black man stood in the entrance to the bank’s cafeteria. He was emblazoned on a tall, free-standing plastic sleeve that was shaped vaguely like a medieval war banner. The height of the banner meant that the man within was somewhat larger than life-size. The big black man was shown as a farmer at work though, strangely, he was wearing a perfectly clean white shirt. The shirt was crumpled and it made him resemble a schoolboy who had got dressed in a panic.

The big black man was hunched over, busy at his work in a rice paddy, but looking up appealingly at the camera and at all of the people who would daily enter the cafeteria.

The caption above him read: “If I get a fair price for my rice, my children can go to high school.”

My agency was sending me to this bank every day during the summer. I and my most intimate co-worker Trudy chose to eat in the canteen, rather than patronise the other options across the bank’s campus, because it was cheap and a comfortable stroll down from our office. The only disadvantage was the big black man. He would infuriate Trudy.

“That is not an image of Black Power,” she would rage, usually daily.

“But don’t you get a lift from it?” I would inquire genially. “By eating his Fairtrade rice, we are helping his children to go to high school.” It had once occurred to me to wonder why they didn’t show the children all studying in the school – this would make us surely feel even more virtuous. I suspected that there weren’t really any children. If there were, then why didn’t they show them?

Trudy didn’t number amongst the West’s eaters of rice. She ate an on-off raw food diet that made her look simultaneously boyish and haggard. She dipped into lentils on off days. She had such staunch opinions about Africa because she had spent a gap year volunteering in Rwanda after the genocide. She was confident that everybody had been on drugs during the massacres and that these drugs would be eventually traced back to the CIA. The genocide was apparently a pharmaceutical phenomenon.

She always knew that I was joking about the “lift” but it still seemed to validate her anger. “If he wants a fair price for his rice, he should join a trade union and fight for it. He’s probably joined one and they’ve probably shut it down. Look at this photo! It’s like an illustration from Uncle Tom’s Cabin! They’ve photographed him begging us – the white consumers – for charity! This is what racism is these days.”

“You don’t want his poor urchins to go to school?”

“I do and I don’t. He’s so helpless that he’s currently the head of a delegation of children, rather than their parent, and we are meant to stand in loco parentis to them all. Can you imagine a white farmer ever being photographed in such a humiliating posture? Imagine if this was our marketing model. Imagine if you went into a high-street bank and there was a photo of you begging on a banner, with your head lowered, your eyes fluttering appealingly. ‘If you buy one of our mortgages then I will get enough money for… for what? For more beer?’”

During this finale, her eyes would flash tauntingly and I would smile with enjoyment. This is why I always selected Trudy for a lunch-mate.

So many agency staff had been sent to the bank this summer because it had embarked upon a huge redundancy programme. This had naturally generated unprecedented volumes of paperwork. Erastus Balloo – Trudy and I’s immediate boss – had been told that he had to lose thirty from his team. He had to thus interview all of his team anew and evaluate their performances. Trudy and I were converting his dense wads of interview notes into slim reports that could be effortlessly flicked through and waved around.

I liked Mr Balloo. Beneath his constant fusspottery, he was as soft and fluffy as a teddy bear. If he looked unhappy at having to chart a course of redundancies, well he would have looked unhappy taking on any role in a modern organisation in the twenty-first century. He was unhappy that he was not the manager and lone employee of a grand, Victorian, market-town bank. He was unhappy without a top hat. He was unhappy every time that he found a smartphone in his little paw instead of a pocket watch fob.

I have this very vivid memory of him – a life portrait in miniature. It was mid-afternoon and we were all coming back from lunch. Mr Balloo was stomping up the staircase that led from the foyer to his offices. This staircase was a vast chilly structure that managed, perhaps as some dim architectural caprice, to evoke the lonely walkways of a Gothic spaceport. Trudy and I were several levels above Mr Balloo and, on hearing his ascent, I ducked down, rolled up the copy of the Metro that was in my hand, put it to my lips, and pointed the other end over the parapet.

“Mr Balloo! Mr Balloo!” My voice was now disembodied and it floated weirdly amongst the stair levels, like the shadow of one of those small clouds that sometimes races over the glass ceiling.

Mr Balloo was aghast. “Who is it?”

“It is I, your brain. I have travelled for many centuries and across many galaxies to be here again. At last, we meet!”

I realised that Trudy was completely soundless beside me and I looked quickly at her. To my relief, her whole body was juddering with mirth.

“Somebody is being very silly!” Mr Balloo spluttered. “I know it! Somebody is being silly again!” Disconcerted that he had stopped in the middle of the stairs, he briskly resumed his progress. He had flushed crimson, however, and it looked like he was concentrating on not falling over.

“Mr Balloo, let us work together! We can achieve so much together, with my intelligence and your position at the bank. Do not reject the overtures of your poor brain…”

“I already HAVE a brain!” Mr Balloo squeaked with outrage. “Somebody is being very silly!”

With another turn of the staircase, he would have seen us and so we had to make a run for it.

One morning Mr Balloo briefed Trudy and I on the pending arrival of the bank’s Regional Chief Executive. This hotshot, Seth Panke, wanted the redundancy programme to go three times as fast. At first, we were to prepare an interim report that would be placed in front of Mr Panke for his inspection during a general meeting. Soon, and rather as I had anticipated, there were wild reports that Mr Panke was already roaming the building and that the meeting would be impromptu and dramatic.

Mr Panke came down on us like a heel through the ceiling of an ant nest. When he appeared on the office floor, we all swarmed around him in disarray. It soon became clear what sort of manager he was. He was of that type that makes extraordinary, impossible demands of his workers and who is then, when there is the inevitable flicker of resistance, reduced to a roaring speechlessness.

He screamed abuse at our blank faces. In his anger he flung himself around and twisted in his own flesh and became physically imbecilic. A smaller man would have looked comical and brought to mind a wailing, kicking toddler. Mr Panke, though, was possessed of an incredible gangliness. He was near to seven foot.

“Balloo. I ordered you to cut thirty – how many have you cut?”

Mr Balloo smiled bleakly as hundreds of eyes turned on him. “Considerably fewer, I’m afrai…”

“You’re afraid? You’re afraid is simply not what I expect! I say thirty, you give me thirty!”

“Yes, Mr Pan…”

“You and none of your team will leave this building until thirty people are redundant and all of the paperwork is done. You will work through the night. I never sleep – I have had no sleep for four days.” We believed him, but he hadn’t paused for emphasis, even for a millisecond. “I can still do my job. Melissa, how many did I order to be cut from your department?”

She shivered with surprise as the hundreds of eyes now turned on her. “I think…”

“You think? You don’t know? I’m not paying you not to know. I’m paying you to do your job.”

“Yes, Mr Pan…”

“I’m going to have all of the computers expelled from your offices. If you cannot do your job with them, then why am I paying for the electricity?” There was a short pause as Mr Panke disappeared aloft, with his gangly legs scrabbling madly up a corkscrew staircase. Next, a desktop computer was hurled down on to the floor of the office. We made a bigger clearing and watched a second bounce heavily after it.

As a workforce, we grew detached during this meeting. We toyed with this manager’s personality as though with a tricky philosophical knot. It was apparent that he abused everyone indiscriminately and so we took it no more personally than we would the yapping of a puny dog. Was he remotely dangerous, or was this motivational act all smoothly calculated and perfectly safe? How could we begin to go about engaging with it? And then – it was just after Mr Panke had thrown his jacket over the balcony – a sudden alertness swam across the workforce, like a mass spasm. We gazed at this jerking, incandescent figure with a thickening comprehension.

He was spinning in a kind of death dance with a photocopier, shaking it manically and pounding it on the floor. This was followed by a battery of blows upon the screens of flinching desktops. Trudy tugged at my elbow sleeve and whispered what was currently being quietly communicated, in an airless hum, from all around us.

“They say that if you’re a racist, they look all the same to you,” Shelley, the head of human resources for Mr Balloo’s team, cried out slightly too audibly. She sounded distressed, as though she had just located a tumour in her hitherto inoffensive psyche.

“No, he’s definitely the same man,” Wendy, our systems manager, whispered ardently. “Believe me, my niece has twins and I can tell them apart just like that.”

“I’m going to remove it from the cafeteria,” I decided. “I’ll do it now. I can roll it up and it will fit under my desk.”

I slipped out of the meeting and clattered down the stairs.

Power had very subtly changed hands in our organisation. Mr Panke could rage and roar – he could smash our office equipment – he could single us out in meetings before the hundreds of turning eyes – but we all knew that we could nullify him with a few select words. It was as if there was a primed drone lingering above him at all times and we each had a red button on our person that could activate the vaporiser.

The nature of the potential humiliation is initially hard to fathom. It was not that Mr Panke had been once a subsistence farmer – all of us would have done undignified jobs when we were students or after graduating. It was rather that we knew about an undignified job that Mr Panke had once done and that he did not know that we knew. There was an unbearable loss of control involved somewhere – an unravelling that could be never tidied up again.

Managers such as Mr Panke often volunteered to be humiliated in front of their workforces – to be buffeted with wet sponges “for charity,” or to sink their limbs into bathtubs full of baked beans “for charity.” Everybody understood that these were displays of power; that the manager was gloating at us through these temporary, cat-and-mouse feignings of defencelessness. With the rice and the schoolchildren it was different. Significantly, nobody was made redundant during the weeks after Mr Panke had assumed personal command of the redundancy programme.

One morning Mr Panke blustered into the zone where I was working and came straight up to within my immediate proximity. The organisation’s fleet of computers had been thinned by now, with half of the workforce trying to discreetly type up reports in corners on their phones. I was determined that I was going to cling on to my desktop whatever happened. Other people might nod along dutifully to Mr Panke’s screeching tantrums, but I am a Polish man and we do not button the lip.

He saw me and stopped. “Mr Tycienski, how many redundancy reports have you completed this morning?”

“Fifty-seven, sir.” None of us had completed this many in the last month, but my assurance seemed to mildly amaze Mr Panke. He scowled.

“If that is true…” he paused darkly, “I expect your department to commence sending out invitations for the preliminary redundancy briefings…”

“Imminently, sir. Yes of course.” I wondered whether I was going too far by mimicking his own sentence-finishing. I reflected rapidly. “Still, we will first need to draw up a contract for the therapists – and put it out to competitive tender.”

“Therapists?”

“Yes, sir. Each redundancy is contractually entitled to receive therapeutic services and, to conform to the bank’s legal procedures, the contract has to be put out to competitive tender.”

Mr Panke was evidently furious at this. Nonetheless, he always used the bureaucracy to obstruct and belittle us, and he could never put such a trusty weapon beyond his reach. With a firm “see that it is done,” he turned on his heel and…

Well unfortunately, Mr Panke must have had a patch of something sticky stuck to the heel of his shoe. For as he marched away, the plastic sleeve that had been rolled up beneath my desk unfurled and slithered after him with a sharp cackle. The big black man was now attached to Mr Panke’s heel just like a human shadow. Mr Panke span around, kicked away at the big black man, and looked down at him in astonishment. He now resembled Narcissus gazing into the forest pool.

There were a couple of dents in the sleeve but the big black man was otherwise the spitting image of Mr Panke. He even looked the same age as Mr Panke. They could have been wearing the same white shirt.

Mr Panke trembled and froze. He seemed to find that he was standing slightly outside of his habitual character, as if he had mistakenly stepped out from under a protective roof. His eyes were piercing and they looked oddly naked.

“It was in the cafeteria,” I told him quickly. “It’s meant as an advert for Fairtrade rice. We removed it because we thought that it might embarrass you.”

“Embarrass me?”

“And distract from your flagship redundancy programme.”

The man did not know what to do. He snorted and wheeled around, on the brink of an explosion but not knowing what infinitesimal target his overflowing fury was required to safely hit. Next, in a botched yank at some mental lever, his fury had all swept away like an avalanche into a ravine. He smiled foolishly and his naked eyes were left staring wretchedly. “That was a long time ago,” he mumbled within himself, trying to look at me and instead talking into his collar.

But was he really going to explain? For a moment, liberated remembrances must have flown wildly around his mind, like bats in a belfry hit by lightning. Were they on the tip of his tongue, those left-behind schoolchildren, his stealthy journey across the African continent, his riding the nightmare of the Mediterranean, the camps built out of shipping containers? No, he had fastened his mouth tightly shut. He cleared his head in an immense breeze. All that then remained was a rueful voice that said, almost fondly, that, “It’s litter. Put it in the shredder.”

The next morning, I got a phone call from the agency, just as I was out the door for work. The bank had requested that I be reallocated to another unit. There was no disciplinary aspect to this. Indeed, I had been pledged a compensatory bonus that was usually available only to the bank’s permanent staff.

Trudy told me an anecdote about Mr Panke when I met her one night on George Street. After talking for several minutes we went to sit down in a nearby wine bar. Trudy recounted how she had been driving to work early in the morning, from her home on the far shore of the Firth. As you drive into the city, there is a notice beside the road, a little after the “Welcome to Edinburgh” sign, which reads: “We Are a Fairtrade City.” Trudy saw that somebody had driven headlong into this announcement and knocked it over.

Later, in the bank’s car park, Trudy went to look at Mr Panke’s tropical-frog-green Lamborghini. Its front was a porridge of crumpled metal.

I can picture the scene. Mr Panke hurtling along in his sports car, in that hour after dawn when all of the world’s colours look newly washed and faintly damp. The streetlamps would have suddenly switched off in one go, as though on an agreed signal they were handing the light back over to the day. The awesome realisation would have swooped down on Mr Panke that he was alone on the highway with the Fairtrade sign.

I can picture it. The orgasmic ecstasy with which he would have accelerated into that sign and everything it represents – the vast infrastructure of pity, the church groups and cake-bakers, and their supreme complacency that a world of such evil can be tamed and trivialised by eating the correct brand of rice. These people who strive mightily like magnificent moral insects not to be implicated in the evil of the world.

SMASH!

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