Limits

‘It was ridiculous, totally ridiculous’ Ozymandias thought.

He liked the absence of Maria, the nice cleaning lady. From Belarus, he presumed. She was hired by him personally, without alerting the human resources department to this informal arrangement. A nice little perk, courtesy of his contract with the bank. She did not provide any references, nor did he need to commit his signature to paper. An honest working agreement. Ozymandias met her only once, when she was being interviewed and briefed on her tasks by his personal assistant. The main point was that Maria was expected to take good care of the office when he vacated it, regardless of his highly irregular hours. She observed this point religiously, always alerted by the security system which bleeped her on her mobile whenever he left for the night. Maria then had the space of an hour or so to vacuum, dust, spruce things up and to do whatever necessary, as instructed.

Maria’s absence meant she had already left the office pleasantly fragrant and fresh, as if her youthful and eager femininity had rubbed off onto the walls and furniture. A sort of radiance pervaded the air. At best, Ozymandias liked walking into his office at nine am, sharp. Evening cocktail parties, which it was his duty to attend, rarely permitted him this luxury. But when he was in luck, he relaxed in his versatile recliner that appeared to those not in the know to be an old-fashioned money-lender’s chair, made of hardwood and adequately austere, a polite adjective for uncomfortable. ‘Where would we be without protestant ethics’ mused Ozymandias, recollecting his MBA days when he was assigned to read something by the French economist Maxime Wehber. A brainy fellow, though apparently a catholic himself. ‘Perhaps, his father-in-law introduced him to the true ways of down-to-earth capitalism?’

He put his palms down on the smooth surface of the elegant teak desk, warm to the touch. Ignoramuses praised Ozymandias on his environment-friendly choice of easily renewable and economic pine. Fools. No profit of serious proportions can be generated on the cheap. It is essential that the mind of a financial wizard is freed from everyday concerns and irritations like ugly, aged, or simply worn out pieces of furniture. To think of the abstruse and complicated structures of global finance, one needs a crystalline clarity of thought. Everything must be subjected to evoking this unique state of mind, so strenuously difficult to achieve, so easy to miss. Artists cursing the fickle muse do not know what they are talking about. Their arty muse is like a loose woman, not always available, but often enough. They pretend. No real need for arts councils. They should try corralling the goddess of high finance, or is it a he?

The top of the desk was polished and empty of the clutter that is so typical of lesser minds. In the middle sat a large computer screen, placing Ozymandias at the center of the bank’s nervous system. He saw himself as the head crowning the spinal cord of the institution. Following the post-crisis near-nationalization of the bank, it zombie-walked, because for months on end it remained headless, like Belgium without a government. ‘Then I arrived’ Ozymandias smiled to himself. It was the best thing that could have happened to the bank. He made good on the taxpayers’ investment. During his almost two years in office the bank already operated once in the black for two consecutive quarters. Who would not like to have such a splendid return on their investment in these difficult times, eh?

The more irritating it was then to receive unsolicited email messages. What were the guys in the security unit doing? More layoffs and restructuring were necessary. Ozymandias began to jot down an appropriate memo to this end. By the week’s end the matter would have been resolved. Then a well-earned weekend at a golf course near Varna.  They assured him that it was the poshest sporting destination at present. Membership cost him a lot, but the place was apparently organized to the most exacting standards. No wonder as it was privately run by a mooltee-grupa, a euphemism, he was informed, for a joint venture between civil servants and postcommunist mobsters. Brussels made good on the developmental promise of integration, pumping billions into similar schemes that attract high-flying jetsetters from all over the globe to Eunion’s poorest member. ‘We save the state’s economy and the citizens’ bacon,’ Ozymandias thought, ‘we are the real Europeans, come what may.’ In return for their world-saving efforts, while concentrating on the tee, they could enjoy the splendid nature reserve, the last unspoiled stretch of land, from which non-card-carrying natives were barred by the electrified security fence, posted with guards brandishing automatic firearms. Menacing, but only appropriate.

The place did not make for a nice photo opportunity. Journalists had to be discouraged from attending. But this issue did not need to worry him unduly today, on Tuesday. Later in the week the personal assistant would take care of confusing newspapers that might want to track him down. So back to the matter at hand. Ozymandias glanced again, fleetingly, at the screen. The opened but so far unread message stared back at him. It proclaimed in its topic line ‘To Bank’s CEO / Warning.’ What an inarticulate formulation! Did the sender at least complete secondary school? They are not free any longer, but Eunion scholastic grants-in-aid cover at least a third of the tuition. What bastard of a parent would not take the advantage of this unique opportunity?

The message read ‘Your per annum salary of five and a half million pounds, topped with this year’s two million bonus translates into fifty annual salaries of the Prime Minister in this country. Hence, your pay corresponds to three hundred and seventy five years of the worker’s average yearly wages of twenty thousand pounds sterling. Assuming that an employee is professionally active for forty years of his or her life, the sum equates to over nine working lifetimes. During the two years of your service at the bank, you have been rewarded with what nineteen workers can hope to receive during their entire lifetimes. You have lived nineteen lives in the span of two single years already. Isn’t it more than enough, especially that your lives have been financed by the taxpayer’s penny? It is better than selling your soul to the devil. Lucifer would not be able to offer you more than a single life, the skyman would not allow that. Thus, we implore you that you resign from your bonus and donate at least half of your income from the last two years to a charitable organization of your choosing. Please, reply to us on your decision at your earliest possible convenience, but not later than in a week’s time. We believe it unethical for a person to live more than one life, while unemployed cannot begin to live their lives at all, stripped from any job opportunities by the unaffordable cost of education and the thirty-per cent joblessness rate.

‘Infuriating, utterly infuriating’ Ozymandias unconsciously whispered to himself. Who signed this? Obviously enough some ‘Representatives of People’s Power.’ Did communism teach them nothing? There is no alternative to capitalism. Fukoyama spelled the message out in his seminal The Beginning of History. What else do they need as proof? Was it not the workers who brought down communism in Poland, setting in motion the domino effect across the Soviet bloc. It collapsed like a house of cards, leaving in its trail one disaster after another. And who was there to pick up the pieces and put them back into a coherent whole? ‘C-A-P-I-T-A-L-I-S-T-S.’ Ozymandias found pleasure in jotting down the word in huge capitals on a clean sheet of creamy, hand-made paper. It was they, again, who pumped capital into the collapsed veins of the postcommunist countries, transforming them into emerging markets. Without the new lands opened up to the world’s globalized economy there would have not been these two heady decades of unprecedented prosperity in Britain. Lenin yelled at rallies ‘Workers of the world unite against the bourgeois!’ Wrong. Workers are the salt of capitalism, without realizing it. And communism, communism was a long and completely useless slog from capitalism to capitalism.

A picture of his father came into Ozymandias’s mind. He was a hard-working, conscientious miner, until he was laid off. No complaining for him. He refused the dole, and paid his bills by collecting scrap metal. Little as it was, his father managed to put aside a lump sum for Ozymandias’s public school. Ozymandias helped him as much as he could, doing all kinds of odd jobs in the godforsaken nineteen-seventies. The future held the promise of a better life for all of them. Unfortunately, his father died early of black lung, and his mother followed him soon after. His brother could not stand the stress, and descended into the netherworld of drug addiction, from where he joined his parents, when barely twenty-two. Ozymandias persevered and succeeded. Nothing comes cheap in this world. He had had his share of hardships, and now ‘No one, no one,’ Ozymandias repeated, ‘has the right to deprive him of his hard-won rewards.’

‘Bullshit’ he muttered under his breath, and deleted the offending message. It made no sense to report this incident to the security unit. Ours is a free country, freedom of speech is for everybody, unlike employment for which one needs to compete. The screen turned an elegant navy blue from which the angelic face of his personal assistant emerged. In a few succinct utterances she reminded Ozymandias about the imminent meeting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on another round of recapitalization, which the bank required. The post-crisis architecture of bad debts and strained liquidity needed careful tending. The government realized this necessity, though the electorate might grumble. Ozymandias’s favourite solution was more CCTV to discourage antisocial behaviour. He donated lavishly to such schemes in each community where the bank had branches.

‘Please, humor the Chancellor for a while,’ Ozymandias said to the personal assistant, ‘I’ll be with him in a couple of minutes.’ He thought the Chancellor might well accept his offer to join him for a golfing weekend in Bulgaria.

 

*      *      *

It was Tuesday, again. Ozymandias stretched out in the recliner to the refreshing recollection of the warm breeze blowing gently into his face from the Black Sea coastline. He glanced out of the window. It was drizzling again. Ghastly weather, but decidedly good for work. Its dullness turns one’s mind directly to tasks at hand, and dispels wasteful day-dreaming. The day’s pile of documents had just been signed by Ozymandias; the drudgery was over. In the wake of a sumptuous party on Saturday night, the Chancellor had no choice but to agree to the iron logic of the recapitalization package for the bank. Ozymandias advised him to cut costs. A leaner budget was good for the country. A five per cent hike in VAT would be a good idea, if the monies could be prevented from flowing into Eunion’s coffers. Bulgaria had been developed enough. They did not need any more golf courses. The day-to-day pen-pushing in the local councils should be outsourced to India and China. Thank God that the health service had been privatized the previous year. The new system was excellent at turning away typical wastrels – old people and those who suffered from incurable and terminal conditions. The secondary education sector, commercialized two years earlier, had blazed the trail. Only the brightest with the highest IQ scores were allowed a partial waver of tuition fees. Others had to pay up for the privilege of formal schooling. Why indulge them, when it was obvious that they were incapable of mastering secondary education? Even if they squeezed through, the economy had no need for average school leavers; it had to get the best, the crème de la crème.

On the golf course, Ozymandias broached with the Chancellor the subject of scrapping free elementary education. Most kids processed by the still state-owned schools remained illiterate and innumerate anyway. Why bother? This sector, like secondary schools and universities should generate profit, instead of squandering the taxpayer’s money. The talking internet dispensed with the necessity to read, write and count. Wasn’t it more natural? Humans have always spoken since their emergence as a species a hundred thousand years ago in Africa. Writing is a recent technology, no older than five millennia. Writing was drudgery, it was an acquisition nobody troubled themselves with until recently, apart from slave scribes. The talking internet could provide as many automatic scribes as necessary for the economy. Should there arise a need for a human agency, China produces literates more efficiently and cheaply, and state-of-the-art statistical translation software can swiftly transfer texts from language to language.

‘My dear sir,’ Ozymandias addressed the Chancellor reverently, ‘wouldn’t it be a good idea to scale down the time of elementary education to two or three years, and privatize the schools?’ The Chancellor nodded noncommittally, while aiming at the golf ball. Behind the fence of the golf course, not yet overgrown with the freshly planted ivy and vines, wizened scavengers rummaged around the landfill. Ozymandias followed the Chancellor’s gaze, and took a mental note to report this deficiency to the management. ‘It should be easy enough to screen off the offending view with a tasteful billboard or something’ he thought. The Chancellor had asked for advice, and Ozymandias was happy to agree to draft a memorandum on the rationalization of elementary education.

Ozymandias now began to write ‘Popular compulsory elementary education belongs to the long-past industrial age. In those brutish times, prior to the eight-hour work day, children at the tender age of five were brutally separated from their parents to attend state-run schools. Parents, unnaturally deprived of the economic advantage of their children’s hands, had to work for sixteen and more hours per day (no Sundays or holidays for them, let alone annual leaves) to feed their families. It amounted to an indirect, but huge, investment into the then unfolding branches of the early modern economy. It was the captains of industry who unfairly profited from this investment. They needed uniform workforce with the generic skills of the three R’s (Reading, wRiting and aRithmetics) to run the devilish mills of their factories and mines. The working man was fleeced twice, the second time of his taxes from which the state founded the school system. The wrongs of old must be put right at last, when technological progress lets us return citizens to the natural state of their being.

He stopped writing. Ozymandias thought it a bit hard-going, with too much history and economy in it. He needed to enliven the memorandum, to introduce a potential sound-bite, a reference to living in the present, and enjoying themselves. Otherwise a parliamentary committee might have problems talking about the matter to journalists. ‘Well, the personal assistant will do it just fine,’ he brightened, ‘it isn’t for nothing that she attended the best university in Beijing.’

Ozymandias saved the file and forwarded it to the personal assistant. The computer screen began to fade into its default navy blue, but suddenly sprang back to life with a new message. ‘Dear CEO, on the behest of the Representatives of People’s Power, we are sad to inform you that you did not reply to our last week’s message or reacted appropriately on its basis. We cannot allow that you live through the lives of almost five workers during your third year in the bank, especially so that it would be at the expense of the taxpayer’s monies. We hope that you agree that this is immoral, and incongruent with any monotheistic values. In disregarding our plea, you have forfeited our offer of life to you, the termination of which is declared imminent and with no right to appeal.

‘What a crazy heap of bullshit!’ Ozymandias angrily deleted the message. Absentmindedly, with his right palm open flat he was pounding the top of the desk. He stopped, annoyed by the dull sound, and after a moment he drew away his palm from the teak surface. It left a sweaty reproduction of itself on the desk that slowly disappeared, evaporating into the office’s controlled air, filtered of bacteria and viruses. ‘If only the system could sift away people’s bad thoughts from my vicinity’ Ozymandias thought helplessly. He sighed ‘Banks serve people, and people being people, they are given to wrongheaded ideas.’ He must be patient and understanding.

Vashe velichestvo…

Ozymandias was startled out of his reverie. ‘Who’s that?’ he asked in a raised voice.

Eto ia’ replied the shadowy female figure standing in the office’s dark corner.

Only then Ozymandias realized the person had spoken to him in Russian. He wondered how come she knew he took a course in the language to take the full opportunity of post-Soviet markets that opened to world business after 1991, and spoke sharply, ‘Kakie ia, speak English.’

‘OK.’ Maria said.

It was her, but he has not left yet. ‘What are you doing here? You’re too early. It constitutes a breach of your work agreement.’

‘I apologize.’

‘It is not good enough. Report to the personal assistant tomorrow. Now, get out.

‘I can’t.’

‘I am sorry?’ Ozymandias said, not understanding.

‘I have been sent by the Representatives of People’s Power.’ Maria, in the inconspicuous uniform of a cleaning lady, drew a small gun on him, aimed, and pulled the trigger. The silencer muffled the quick succession of shots. One in the heart, another in the head. Ozymandias noiselessly collapsed onto the floor in a single, fluid fall. ‘He looked like one of the long-horn cattle, skilfully slaughtered with three machete cuts at a Lagos butchers’ market’ Maria remembered a documentary on Nigeria she had watched the previous night

At two in the morning the office tower was silent. She looked at the mess, and thought ‘I have already cleaned it up.’

Brighton Marina Village

December 2010 – January 2011

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