The alarm rang at ten to six.
‘Shit!’ Helen reached out a naked arm, banged about on her night table until she located and silenced the clock. She considered hurling it through the open window, out into the street. Would it give a last, pathetic ring as it smashed against the pavement? She indulged her fantasy for a moment before putting the clock back in its place. She pushed herself out of bed and wandered over to the open window. The breeze chilled her naked skin but she stood there for a while, breathing deeply. She had a thing about oxygen, had to have the windows wide open, even in winter.
She headed for the bathroom, carefully avoiding the mirror. If she was looking half as rough as she felt, it was a sight best skipped. She took a quick, hot shower, followed by a blast of cold. She stood under it long enough for the shock to ease and the sensation to become pleasurable before jumping out and dressing in what was almost her uniform of beige — today a sharply cut wool suit with a long zip-up jacket. She pondered the rows of scent bottles in the bathroom, before choosing Fracas. She sprayed her throat and wrists, her skin tingling as the alcohol evaporated. The smell of tuberose and gardenia seeped up through the steam left from the shower.
On her way out, she couldn’t resist a quick peek in the mirror, observing with amusement the elegant, beige camouflage, the career woman in charge of her destiny. The well-cut clothes could not mask the weight she had put on over the past year. She was still fit, but not as lean as she would have liked. She drank more vodka than she used to. Her eyes were slightly bloodshot, as they were so often now, and wrinkles were sprouting around her eyes. Late nights, alcohol, early mornings and sharp trading did not mix. Her job and her life did not match any more.
She’d forgotten to mend the puncture in her tyre, so it was the tube again. It took almost an hour to get to work, after a half-hour delay at Notting Hill Gate. A passenger on the line she heard. Normally they stuck to the Northern line, as if living in the reaches of Hampstead and beyond were particularly intolerable. A suicide at six thirty in the morning? Why get up and dress up to die? Why not just slink off in sleep with dumbing, numbing tablets in the night, which was always the worst time anyway? She laughed at the morbidity of her thoughts, quickly shook out the Financial Times, lost herself in the comforting columns of figures.
She left the tube at Liverpool Street and headed for Birley’s. Even at ten past seven, a long queue of hungry traders stood, bleary-eyed, waiting to buy their infusions of caffeine. The smell of bacon sandwiches filled the air. On a good day Helen loved this, but on hungover mornings it was all she could do to wait for her coffee without turning and fleeing for fresh air. She tried to block the smell from her mind, pretending she was on the deck of a boat at sea. She bought a double espresso and two rounds of honeyed toast for herself, a large cappuccino and another double portion of toast for Hugh Wallace, her ever-hungry boss.
Her little paper carrier bags swinging at her hip, she walked out into the chill, wind-blown streets of the City. She cut round into Broadgate Circle, a huge development built in the eighties, where Goldsteins, her employer of the last four years, had their offices. Some of the top merchant banks in the world had their offices here including Grindlays, where Reece Douglas worked. She thought of him with a smile.
The Circle was already busy, peopled by salesmen and traders scurrying from the cold, their faces purposeful and grim.
Thrill and dread, every morning. Part of her would always feel trapped here amid the skyscrapers and ruthlessness, the relentless ritual of work, broken only by the odd exhausting holiday, disruptively liberating, and by the infrequent welcome illnesses that allowed for one extra day, wallowing in bed with a hot toddy and a sailing thriller by Bernard Cornwell. But she loved the adrenaline that came with speculating. She loved to scan a cold eye over information, to weigh and distil, then abandon herself to intuition, a glorious letting go of logic, like being seduced by a stranger. Then the wait. Followed by profit or loss, victory or defeat. That thrill kept her here, even though its power was waning, and the claustrophobia growing.
She was preparing for the day when she would simply walk out, never to return. She knew the City was only ever displacement activity at best. During her eight years at sea, she had searched sporadically for her father. At the end of that time, she couldn’t face going on with her search, couldn’t face the endless disappointment, and, as more of her life was lived in thrall to an absent ghost, part of her feared finding him. What if he wasn’t what she thought? What if he were guilty of fraud? What if he never wanted to see her? So, aged twenty-six, she had given up her search. Now, four years later, the old yearning was still as strong as ever. The City had done nothing to ground her, to answer all the old questions. Now that she had tried the rooted life and it had failed her, she was left more restless than ever.
She walked past one of the many sculptures that decorated the Circle. It was a large horse, possibly winged, with bulging, terrified eyes, that looked as if it was being strangled by a serpent.
She couldn’t go into Goldsteins yet. She needed just five more minutes of air, of quiet. She walked slowly around the Circle, gazing up at the rose-tinted towers that surrounded her. Granite, metal and glass, pane upon pane rising up to form giant atria suffused with grey City light. Part of the huge expanse of windows was protected by an external lattice that looked like a giant Venetian blind. Several buildings had narrow balconies from which tumbled a mass of ivy. The plants were no doubt intended to soften the harsh outlines, but they seemed to Helen to lend an air of wildness to the place. They looked like a jungle in waiting, a real, external jungle that could smother the financial one within if left unchallenged. Their roots would crack the concrete, wind in, strangle the computer cables. Perhaps in centuries to come, the ivy-clad mounds would be unearthed by archaeologists from another planet who would hail the discovery of these temples of Mammon. So much power was concentrated here. So much of the global money supply was controlled, invested and manipulated from within these rose-coloured towers. It was as much of an empire as any, and as vulnerable.
Reluctantly, Helen headed into the Goldsteins foyer at twenty past seven. She was hit by a rush of warm, synthetic-tasting air. She said a hungover ‘good morning’ to the security guards, who greeted her enthusiastically and smiled, sympathising with her bloodshot eyes. She hurried towards the closing doors of one of a bank of lifts.
Skulking in the corner, one hand in his pocket, the other holding onto breakfast in a bag, was Hugh Wallace. With surprising agility, he leapt forward and pushed the button to open the doors.
‘Thanks,’ said Helen, easing in.
Wallace looked as bad as Helen felt. His suit appeared to have been slept in, his eyes were bloodshot, squinting out at her from under his baseball hat. Coils of hair snaked out from the hat and lay greasily on his shirt collar. His jacket was open to reveal a paunch, surprisingly small considering his diet of take-out food. On his feet, he wore black and white Reeboks. He was breathing heavily. Helen knew he suffered from claustrophobia, was terrified of lifts, but he was asthmatic and chronically unfit, and climbing the seven flights of stairs to the trading floor was not an option. Every day, he submitted to the torture of the lift. Only when it disgorged him and Helen onto the seventh-floor foyer did he look up from the ground. He gave Helen a sideways glance from his apparently gentle brown eyes, and smiled the sweetest smile. His lips were full and delicately red against the pallor of his skin. He looked like a cross between little boy lost and a degenerate Cupid. This time round, his karma seemed to be making money. He was Goldsteins’ head derivatives structurer, a job he described to laymen as a bit like that of a bookie once removed. He took bets on people taking bets. He was a mathematical genius, fortified by a PhD in chaos theory from Oxford and an obsessive interest in derivatives.
He and Helen stood still while he brought his breathing back under control.
‘Heavy night?’ asked Helen. Wallace had recently taken to playing blackjack in the casinos. Borderline addicted, he spent many nights doing what he did all day, but in more glamorous surroundings. The week before he’d taken Helen and Roddy to Les Ambassadeurs in Mayfair. Helen and he had won, while Roddy watched disapprovingly, struck silent by the unfairness of those who simply didn’t need it making money as if by accident.
‘I was up till three, surfing,’ said Wallace, opening the lid on his styrofoam coffee cup, taking a sip, scalding his delicate lips.
‘Shit.’ He wiped his mouth on his sleeve. ‘I was hooked up to these two lesbians, wanted a threesome. I spent hours trying to convince them that I was a gorgeous, five-foot-ten blonde called Trish.’
Helen nearly choked with laughter as she tried to morph Wallace’s five-foot-five, eleven-stone flour dough body into a sleekly muscled goddess. ‘And?’
‘I was doing really well until they asked me what I did.’
‘Oh God, what d’you tell them?’
Helen crumpled up with laughter. Most people found it hard to believe Wallace’s academic credentials. They often failed to see the humour in his deadpan self-effacement, which they saw as blundering.
‘How about you?’ asked Wallace. ‘Out on the town with Roderick?’
‘Dinner with his friends.’
‘Not yours, eh?’
‘I wouldn’t cross the street for them.’
‘Mild really. Here, have some cappuccino and toast.’
‘I remembered my own.’
‘Have it anyway. Reinforcements.’
‘You spoil me, Hel.’ He took it, his eyes moved from hers. He seemed sad. Something strange had come over him in the last few months. He had started to behave almost like an adulterous lover, with his occasionally absent eyes.
They flashed their electronic cards, the security doors clicked open, and they walked through onto the trading floor: twenty thousand square feet of white-hot technology and four hundred prima donnas, ninety-five per cent of whom were male — one of the most profitable trading floors in the City of London. Last year’s net profits were two hundred and fifty million pounds. It was warming up; Helen could almost hear the clamour that would start soon, almost feel the angry yearning for money, the ambition, cruelty and competition where it was never a fair fight in the open, but always in a plastic conference room, or in the acrid calm of the urinal. She loved it, as if it were the brothel owner who had taken her in off the streets.
They picked their way through the lattice work of desks, heading for the derivatives desk, otherwise known as the rocket scientists’ launch pad, or more colloquially, ‘if it moves, price it’.
Derivatives were financial contracts just like bonds or shares, but were a stage more complex. They had no intrinsic value, but derived it from something else. That could be anything from soy beans to a share index like the FT100. The most straightforward derivatives contracts were futures. Originally, these were developed to protect farmers against fluctuations in the value of their crops. A farmer could protect himself by agreeing, say in December, the price at which he would sell his harvest the following October. If people asked Helen what she did, this is what she generally told them. Wallace on the other hand, impassioned by his market, could give a historical treatise. He seemed to read almost everything that was printed on derivatives. In his spare time, he was writing a book on the development of the market. The day before he had announced to Helen and Paul Keith, who’d just started on the desk, that there had been a futures market in rice, in Dojima, near Osaka, in the late seventeenth century.
Modern futures markets developed in the 1850s with the opening of the Chicago Board of Trade, but it was only in the mid-1980s that financial futures markets dealing with shares and bonds really took off. Wallace had been there as it happened. He’d grown up with a market that had exploded and now, counting just those products traded on organised exchanges, was worth over six hundred and fifty trillion dollars a year. Wallace loved to quote the example of seventeenth-century derivatives as if age seemed to make the market more familiar, friendlier. To Helen, there was nothing familiar or friendly about the derivatives market. It could rip your guts out overnight, as it had done to Barings, when a lone trader built up a derivatives loss of seven hundred and forty million pounds, breaking the bank. Derivatives were the biggest, most potentially lucrative and destructive market in the world. Wallace was in love with the market. Helen kept it at a distance, respected it as a fearsome adversary.
One hundred people worked on the derivatives desk, with fifty support staff. There were one hundred and forty men, and ten women. All but four of the women were in a support capacity, working in the back office, or as secretaries. Ages ranged from eighteen to thirty-seven, salaries and packages from twenty-two thousand pounds a year to one million four hundred thousand. Qualifications spanned zero to maths PhDs. The group traded interest rate-, currency-, equity- and commodity-based derivatives. They sat, about two feet apart, at narrow rows of desks, each row hacking onto another row like a reverse image, cramped traders, desks stacked high with computer screens, panels of direct telephone lines, the smell of sweat and tension, a sea of noise.
Helen sat at a small T-shaped configuration at the end of a long trading desk holding about twenty traders each side. On her left sat Andy Rankin, a specialist in the far-eastern equity markets, and on her right a new console had been added to house a trainee who had just joined the team, Paul Keith. Behind was Wallace’s office. Inadvertently, four years ago when Helen joined the trading floor, she’d been placed as near to her boss as it was possible to get. At first she had detested the arrangement, feeling under observation. If she came in late, left early, or skulked around on a bad day, Wallace would see. As time passed, she realised Wallace saw very little, recorded even less, so obsessed was he with dreaming up new and better derivatives. He could happily spend twelve hours locked in his office, blinds drawn, playing with his intricate and alarmingly complex computer models. When he did emerge, he homed in on Helen and Rankin, paying little attention to the rest of the huge derivatives operation. The three of them had become an almost self-contained unit, set apart from the rest of the traders. Wallace paused now outside his office and turned to Helen with a crinkle-eyed smile. ‘It is tonight, isn’t it? Dinner at your place?’
‘Absolutely. Still on?’
‘You joking? I suppose Roddy’ll be there too?’
‘Better had be, don’t you think?’
Every week Roddy and Wallace came round for dinner. It was a routine, broken only by holidays and Roddy’s two-month hermitage after Helen ceased to be his lover.
‘Would Roddy be jealous if we had dinner alone?’
‘Is that a proposition?’
Wallace laughed awkwardly. He wouldn’t have known where to begin with Helen Jencks.
Paul Keith looked up nervously at Helen and Wallace. He’d only joined the desk a week ago. Twenty-two, a maths graduate from Edinburgh University, he was spending two months on each of six main areas of the trading floor — a new initiative ordered by Zaha Zamaroh, queen of the floor. ‘Cross-fertilisation,’ she called it. Keith did not look happy. His arrival had upset the threesome. Helen had welcomed him, Rankin tolerated him, while Wallace had resisted his presence furiously, called him one of Zamaroh’s spies, and was uncharacteristically poisonous to him. When Helen chided him, he looked shifty, but persisted in his persecution of the new boy. The bullied bullying. Wallace would have been an obvious target at school. Thirty years on, he was getting his revenge.
‘Morning, Paul,’ said Helen with a broad smile. ‘How are you?’
Miserable, said his eyes. ‘Morning, Hel.’
‘Hel now, is it?’ asked Wallace. ‘Only her friends call her Hel, didn’t you know?’
‘Ignore him,’ said Helen. ‘He’s pining for a couple of electronic dykes.’ She gave him a look of reproach. He grinned and shuffled off into his office.
There was a thud in the neighbouring chair. Helen turned to see Andy Rankin trying to shrink down and look inconspicuous.
‘Andy, what have you done to your hair?’
Andy Rankin’s previously thick brown collar-length hair had been attacked by one of the most vicious haircuts Helen had ever seen.
She stretched out her hand towards his head. ‘Here. Let me feel it.’ The bristles must have been about half an inch long, surprisingly soft. Rankin started blushing furiously.
‘Ooh, it’s nice and soft. Looks like a nail brush.’
‘Thanks a bunch.’
‘C’mon, Andy. You didn’t do it for beauty. Must have lost a bet.’
He gave a faint, disgusted nod. Helen could imagine the scene all too easily. Andy Rankin let loose for one blissful night to go drinking with his old pals from Epping Forest, left behind when he married a convent-school girl, who styled herself Knightsbridge and whose aspirations did not run to a skinhead for a husband.
‘What does Karen say?’
He gave her a hunted look. Rankin, five foot eight and thirteen stone, with bulbous nose and heavy bones, would have looked thuggish enough at the best of times. His redemption was a pair of doe-like brown eyes, warm, kind, easily wounded. Like now.
‘Damn it,’ said Helen. ‘Forgot my cigs.’ She gave him a disarming smile. ‘Got a spare?’
Rankin smiled back, clearly relieved to be off a subject that would dog him for days on the trading floor.
Don’t be self-conscious about it, Helen wanted to say. Don’t give the buggers an inch, but any advice would have made explicit his need and awkwardness. He tossed her a packet of unfiltered Camels.
‘That should kill off all sugar and spice.’
‘I don’t have any. I’m not nice, Andy. You should know that by now.’
‘Keep saying that often enough and someone’ll start believing it.'
She was nice, whatever she said. Beyond those sardonic eyes that seemed to see, smile at and understand human frailty so well, there was extravagant generosity and kindness. To anyone other than her friends, it was well hidden. The focus on the trading floor was money, not soul.