[Issue 8 / February 2014]
Regent Street is the street Jaiye loves the most in this city. Its long esplanade of stores whispering their well-burnished promises to those with money, and covering in anonymity anyone who has the decency to dress and act the part
in the cast of characters the system ordains them to be. As for Jaiye, he enjoys crossing the street, like a boat carried on the strong current of the crowd, everything here seems to move effortlessly, like a river, and he—not that he would ever compare himself to a fish, but there was a certain slippery elegance to him—moved within it, swaying a little before he crossed the street, letting the full length of his earphones show, their whiteness proclaiming his savvy just as much as his muted goldKos watch, and the crisp white shirt he wore underneath a dark blue mackintosh; the one he got from Hackett the first month he got paid, and the tan-brown brogues from Loake.
At this place, he enjoyed the noise of the city—imagined its people looking at him—for as he crossed the road, and stroked his head as if pushing back an imaginary lick of hair he was every inch the star in his own movie. The people meeting him were at the Curzon; they’d be hating him now as he was late, but he didn’t care—he enjoys the breeze after a busy, hot day in the office where they were kept warm as loaves; you’d never know it was winter, if not for the huddling masses, one could sometimes see flitting on the streets outside.
Sometimes he held his breath in the office for fear he didn’t belong, for fear that someone would discover him, but no one ever did. He understood his work, and gave a lot of himself to it. He wasn’t yet a star, but he was certainly burnishing a reputation for effectiveness. His proximity to so much wealth when his own security rested on such shaky foundations was interesting to him, made him restless. He was smart enough to steal, but clever enough to see the risk in it. Still, he was making them firmer, his foundations —he felt; after every purchase, from gilded places like this street, and with his home—that he was making it. He was putting behind him all those years of working nights, and having to buy his electricity and heating by meter.
The Curzon wasn’t too far from where he rented nowadays, a one-bedroom flat in Baker Street that was spacious and deliciously private. When he brought girls home they were comfortable, and freer with him, especially the Nigerian ones, than when he had shared a place—and this made the place worth the amount of his salary he paid for it. ‘Buy a place,’ his mother had said, but he didn’t want to be tied down yet, and that’s what a loan for bricks and mortar would do: intensify the inevitable questions about getting married. To his parents, his life was but a factory conveyor belt—one piece for each stage of life, till you have the perfect human being: dead.
That was not for him, not Jaiye. He told his parents they had lived their lives, made and lost their money, and now he was supporting them—they couldn’t expect much more.
Coming to the roundabout that crowned Oxford Circus, he joined the throngs of people jaywalking; when the traffic got this high around the circus it felt perilous to cross, yet everyone did it, rushed against some imaginary clock, Somewhat like some of the deals they were undertaking in the office which he’d been hesitant about at first, but now, he jumped right in, taking risks with the best of them. He strolled down Regent Street, making his way to Piccadilly; he felt justified in taking the job with the firm, even though his parents told him there were bigger and better jobs to be had in Lagos nowadays.
He got to the Curzon—the small intimate bar space before they went into the cinema was a place and a ritual he and his friends had come to enjoy gathering.
The bar assistant looked at him pleasantly; a frisson of joy always passed through him when he was served, especially by pretty white girls.
‘What can I get you?’ she beamed, her blonde locks caught by the bar’s lights, made her blue eyes brighter. He was tempted to joke that he’d take her number, but it was too early for that kind of thing and, besides, he didn’t feel sufficiently lubricated to gamble without fear of rejection.
‘Give me a beer, and can you make me a coffee? How much is that?’
She told him, and he patted his coat, looking for coins or change, which he hardly carried nowadays.
‘Can I put that on a card?’
‘Mhmm,’ she nodded, and took the silver slip of plastic. He signed the slip of paper she put in front of him like an afterthought. He smiled, took his card, and went to join his friends.
They looked restive and suitably bohemian for this haunt of cineastes. They had been at university together studying political science and fired up with revolutionary vigor to transform things; then, he went to a presentation about investment banking, heard about the salaries, and thought better of revolutionary things. His friends were still artists, and he pitied them.
Patrick was a painter, who had the potential and the contacts to be a brilliant journalist, but he didn’t want to use his gifts that way; instead, he made paintings that Jaiye didn’t care for, and wouldn’t purchase, even if he were paid to do so. Still, Patrick liked to drink and pull girls, a thing for which his situation as a poor, starving artist proved useful, especially within the circles in which he moved.
Jaiye looked upto see Yomi, his childhood friend, dependable, a bit boring and chubby, but they’d known each other since their parents had both served in NYSC and ended up working for the same company in Germany. Yomi was now a teacher who wrote poetry on the side, which he performed to wide acclaim.
Jaiye agreed with Yomi that he could make money out of his gift; there were plenty of people getting paid to write copy for advertising. Yomi liked to talk about it, and complain that he would make more money writing copy than teaching, but he never did anything about it. He felt fulfilled, he said, in shaping young minds, no matter how ungrateful they might be. Yet he took particular pleasure in complaining about his finances to Jaiye. Between Yomi and Patrick, Jaiye glimpsed a world of people who earned less in a year than he was starting to make in a month. Their values perplexed him, but he still enjoyed their company, though what they could do together was becoming smaller and smaller, and in the last few months their social outings had petered into cheap drinks in central London.
‘So how long have you two been waiting for me?’Jaiye said.
Yomi looked up at the fine figure of his best friend and said, ‘Oga, just because you dey make money doesn’t mean we must wait for you like slaves.’
‘No vex, No vex.’Jaiye sank into one of the cavernous leather sofas, switched off his music, and rolled the earphone cables around his phone.
‘You bought an iPhone?’
‘Yeah, my other one was knackered.’
‘What have you done with it?’
Jaiye shrugged. ‘It’s at home, somewhere.’
‘Give it to me.’
‘You want to buy it?’
‘Aha—sell it, Jaiye? Come on, you’re fucking rolling in it these days. You don’t need my money.’
‘Business is not about need. That’s what you artists don’t understand—profit. I sell. You buy. The value is the empty space in between.’
Yomi jumped in, ‘Very philosophical, but what are we doing this evening?’
‘Mate, there’s a fantastic party going on in Wood Green, free before 12, so if we’re gonna go, we’d better get moving.’
‘Wood Green? Can’t we stay central?’
‘Trust me, it’ll be a good party.’
‘Will there be girls?’
‘Yeah, of course, there’ll be girls.’
‘Real ones—not your feminist vegetarians.’ At this, Jaiye leans forward, spreads out his arms like a preacher delivering a sermon of great import. ‘I mean girls with fucking high heels and good make-up, girls, man.’
They all laughed – the others a little less whole-heartedly than Jaiye did at his own joke.
‘Let’s go, we’ll take a taxi. Don’t worry, I’ve got it.’
‘Fuck off, Mate—I can stretch to a fucking taxi.’
Yomi let out a resigned sigh, downed his beer, and followed the pair out into the shining night of Piccadilly.
In his office the next day, leaning back in his chair and pressing the toe of his brogues into the lush, cream carpet, he savoured the night before. He’d ended up in a hotel room with Patrick and two girls from Malaysia—one, a hijabi, who was happy to do everything except sleep with him. He should have cut his losses, but she was the prettier of the two and, besides, they were up till morning doing things that surprised and thrilled him in equal measure. If he was a little worse for wear, it didn’t show at the crack-of-dawn meeting he’d had. Nevermind, it was Sunday—sacrifices had to be made, and God wouldn’t hold it against him if he got rich in the process.
The office was unusually busy; both the CEO and CFO flitted past him after the meeting, flashing stiff grins. He made a mental note: don’t be too smiley at the next meeting, too much geniality during deal-making doesn’t reflect well on me.
The company was brokering a complex deal; in the past few months, they’d grown from 650 people to 1,000 buzzing around the office. The new CEO was a great man, American, a risk taker; like Jaiye he had no time for wallflowers, and he was aggressively growing the company. Booz and Allenworth had existed for 70 years but had little to show for it except a wall of paintings of venerable white men, and a fairly healthy but boring reputation for probity along with a listing on the stock market, but now they were doing more interesting things.
Jaiye sighed at the intellectual play that made it possible for them to take junk and, like magic, melt that junk into products people bought. Solid gold. He was going to be on that team; this was the fourth meeting the CEO brought him into. Obviously they prized his intelligence. It helped that it was an African deal—a black face was reassuring to economic nationalists. Although in his actual work he was below targets for this month, he was a permanent employee now, his bonus healthy and the company was growing. So the email at the top of his inbox stunned him. There weren’t more than four, five lines, at most. He didn’t read till the end. How could they fucking send him this email on the weekend?
Booz & Allenworth is a venerable company with a long history of financial efficiency; however, due to an unfavourable financial climate and increasing volatility in our trading environment, our ability to continue is at risk. We need to take decisive action to be more efficient and effective considering these circumstances. This involves a necessary reduction in our current workforce.
Following a rigorous assessment of all divisions, your team has been scheduled for reduction, and your role is consequently redundant. You will be compensated with full benefits and entitlements as long as due observation of your contract is followed.
Thank you for your admirable and effective contribution to Booz & Allenworth.
And that was it. Signed by the CEO—the bastard who had just smiled at him. It had to be a joke. He got up from his chair, pacing about the office; everything seemed unreal, the glass walls looked translucent, like bubbles he could slip his hand through. He walked to the window, looking down at the city cascading below; everything was moving. He held on to a table to steady himself as the sun burst from the clouds; a thought occurred to him. He smiled widely, smugly, exhilarated and pumped the air. Yes, this was it. He was made redundant, but it was because they would move him to one of the new teams. After all, why would he be called into a weekend meeting if they were going to get rid of him? He was part of the zeitgeist, a young thing, a buck.
Steadily reassured of his security, Jaiye put on his coat, leaving his suit jacket on his chair. He would pick it up in the morning, enjoy the rest of the day, perhaps have coffee at Carluccio’s or check out his favourite café on Wardour Street. Tomorrow he’d be back with a game plan, a map for where in the company he thought he should be; he’d been scheming and working for this moment, and now this sudden boon. Yes, surely, as his mom would say, the Lord works in mysterious ways.
The offices of Allenworth and Booz are behind a beautiful neo-classical structure, a beacon of wealth with gleaming white columns, with its (always fresh) street numbers printed in black. On his first day there, Jaiye had crossed the street to marvel at its external beauty, which was matched only by the old world elegance of its interiors—a glittering chandelier bathed the great hall in warm light. Apart from the chandelier, the building was bare bones, a modern cathedral of efficiency. The gates of its heaven, manned, not by angels, but heavy security men who, most days, Jaiye gave only the faintest of glances and head nods. Some of them were from Nigeria, like him, but he didn’t want to encourage too much familiarity.
Today, pumped up as he was in readiness for his chat with HR, he wasn’t in the mood for even the smallest hint of pleasantries. He marched past the security man with his access pass primed and ready, and was startled when he bounced back, hard and undignified, to the floor as the machine beeped red.
‘For fucks sake,’ he muttered, ‘not today, of all days.’
He made no connection between his redundancy and the present situation in which he found himself. He got up and pressed his hands down his coat. As if comforting himself by the luxury of it, he ran four fingers along the deep velvet that edged the neck. One of the security guards walked towards him, an Englishman with creamy skin and thick blonde hair, the muscles of his neck had long disappeared in a feat of brutal human engineering. His voice, Jaiye thought, was attendantly stupid as the way he jerked his shoulders with his hands over his crotch.
‘What seems to be the problem here, sir?’
Jaiye smiled tightly. ‘My pass is not working.’
‘Alright.’ He jerked his shoulders one more time, as if to suggest he had more power over what he was going to do next than the sun had to shine. ‘You’ll have to go to reception, and they’ll look into it for ya.’ He gestured towards the reception desk—a place Jaiye usually went only when he needed to fix some idiocy or other regarding a visitor.
Today, it seemed, he was the visitor. All the receptionists were pretty blondes at Allenworth & Booz, all maintained the same glacial friendliness; but over the months he’d warmed them up; he was sure he’d established a level of friendliness beyond that which others received, mostly because they called him by first name and were attentive to his guests. The one at the desk today was one of his favourites, a pretty girl, slightly plump but friendly, in the way only chubby girls could be.
‘There seems to be a problem with my pass, Lucy.’
‘Let me just check on that for you, Sir. Who’d you come to see?’
‘No, no, I work here, you know me, Lucy.’
‘Oh, sorry, it’s so busy, I’m rushed off my feet and out of mind.’ She smiled, and took his pass. ‘Still have to check though.’ She typed his name into her screen, flicking her hair twice, and looking back at the card, and then at him. ‘It’s expired. Says here, card’s expired; employee terminated.’
‘What? There must be a mistake—I only…can you check again—maybe it’s a problem with your screen?’
‘It’s okay, not to worry—you can still sign in as a visitor.’
He felt like smacking her. He was not a visitor—that was the whole point; but he wanted the whole humiliating ordeal over with, and already there were colleagues gliding past him with pitying looks.
He reached for his card, but the receptionist slapped her hands on it. ‘Sorry, I have to keep this. If you go over to James there, he’ll sign you in.’
And that was it, with one sentence, this girl, receptionist, had reduced him to a stranger, all on the word of one sentence from a machine. He went back to the gate, and the heffa lump pulled a card from the cord at his waist, and the barriers slid open. Jaiye walked through, carried up the escalator on a wave of indignation and sudden humility.
The HR room was bright, friendly. It had none of the coolness of the offices upstairs where they looked down on the city. No, this room oozed earthiness, sensitivity, calmness, a business-like friendliness that assured him all would be well. The walls were wood-panel, padded with sound absorbent material, adding to the warmth of the room, though it was of course designed to absorb the screams and protests over bonuses, promotions and fiddly tax filings.
Poona, the HR executive who faced him, was famously cool. Initially when he met her, he assumed because she was Asian, brown-skinned like him, they would have an affinity. She soon disabused him of the idea.
She shook his hand, smoothed the seat of her skirt as she gestured for him to sit. He sat down, crossed his legs, and smiled. Despite Poona’s coldness, they’d once had a dalliance that began after one of the company’s corporate parties and ended the same way. He tried to flash her a sideways smile, eager to take her into his confidence, before he set out his stall. She didn’t smile back; instead, she lifted a long finger to push her hair back. He noticed the flash of an engagement ring, smiled at her, and she smiled back.
‘Who’s the lucky guy?’
‘Oh, that, you wouldn’t know him; he’s a businessman—runs his own…laundry service.’
‘Yes. He is. Look, we’d better get on.’
‘Yeah, but this is a formality right? I mean, Poona, you know what I bring to this company.’
‘It’s not really up to me—you’re getting full pay. Everything…plus this.’
She pushed an envelope towards him. He opened it, placed it back down; the money was enough to pay his rent for months, at least at Baker Street, but peanuts compared to what he would earn being on the team.
‘I’m flattered, but I want a role on Gene’s team; I’ve been working on it—so go back and have that conversation.’
Her face hardened.
‘Look, Jay. It’s not happening. We wanted to keep you. We like you—we really do; but you won’t survive on his team. You’re weak,’ She paused, smiled, then added, ‘for Gene’s team. He doesn’t want you on his team.’
Jaiye made an odd noise, somewhere between a choke and a cry. Poona reached out to touch his hand. He flinched.
‘When did he say this?’
‘For fuck’s sake, Poona…’
‘Last month, the redundancies were decided last month.’
‘All those weekends scheduling deals and you were already getting rid of me?’
‘I didn’t plan this.’
‘You could have warned me…we…’
‘What?’She lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘Just because we had a shag, Jay, that’s not a relationship. You know how it is. You’re bright, you’ll get another job, no stress.’
‘Yeah, I know…but…I really wanted this…’
‘Tough shit. Take the money, go travelling; come back and start job hunting.’
He got up to leave. Poona picked up his coat, helped him slip it on; with her black heels, spindly as a spider’s legs digging into the cream carpet, she seemed much taller. She patted his back when he got the coat on. He turned around to around – to frown, but her face was a mask as she stood by the door, arms folded. This was payback, he guessed, for not even getting up to see her out of his flat the days they’d fucked.
He was already close to the lifts when she called out to him.
‘Hey, Jay, I almost forgot—here’s the number for an outplacement company, when you start hunting again.
Not even a hug.
She turned and marched, her heels declaring how powerful she was returning to her desk, while he, he, pressed down on the elevator key.
Dele Meiji is a writer based in London. He holds a BA in African Studies and Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, and an MA in Sociology from City University, London. He tweets @delemeiji www.delemeiji.tumblr.com