Unbuilding the walls

I’m talking to my dry stone waller. We have one this week. Our wall is going higher, to protect us from the autumn and winter winds. When we first arrived, we put in willow withy fencing, which, within five years, blew down. It leaves us very naked – sitting in the garden in the summer without fencing means every passerby sees us and hears our often expletive-laden conversations.

Martin, the dry stone waller, is a craftsman who was apprenticed for seven years, he says. He’s from a large Irish family and can tell some stories: occasionally, I think there may be an element of truth to them. We’re talking about bankers. He bloody hates bankers, he says. They cause wars. They cause everything that’s bad about the world. Bankers are the worst of us, Rosa, he says. He calls me Rosa because that’s what he calls me. I say – I used to work for the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development a long time ago. I thought it would be different: I thought they would somehow prioritise things differently. But they didn’t. I’m not surprised, he says. I’m not surprised. He stares off into the middle distance.  His phone rings. Some neighbours drive up, so I have to get the dogs inside the gate. I’m in my dressing gown still and a runner runs past and gives me a grin. I watch his finely turned calves take the hill. His pink Tshirt is contour-shaded with sweat. I’m not sure, but I think he may have winked at me. The lies we tell ourselves.

Martin, when I go back to finish our conversation, shows me the case to his new iphone. It’s as big and clunky as my own. He says that he’s terrible with phones: last phone, last job, he heard the phone ringing and couldn’t find it, then realised he’d built it into the wall. He’d had to unpack the wall to find it. I am only half listening. I am feeling guilty. I am feeling the stories we tell each other – deeper these days. Each time I say one of those facts like ‘I used to work for the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development’, I think of the actualité of the verité.

I was working in the city, mainly for legal firms, during the nineties. It was a febrile time, full of money and it seemed, sex, alcohol, boastfulness, women with bright lipstick on their mouths permanently, men in shirts that looked like they were made of table linen and silk ties that were plump like buttonhole roses, often pink or yellow or sky blue. People were unreasonable in their demands. The work was hard – paralegal work mainly involved complex deal documents on mergers and acquisitions, currency swaps involving amounts of money a normal person couldn’t fathom, and therefore, the language and ideas around the deals became unfathomable too. That word ‘fathom’ is so accurate, because money like that becomes like oceans, lapping at a rickety wooden ship, and each plump tied lawyer a bosun on the ship assuring the captain that what they are doing is manageable and easy, when they are floating above water that has no fathomable depth.

I had two little children. I worked nights in order to bring them up during the day – my husband was still training, so I earned more and did more at home too, as is the way of things. I was becoming burned out toward the end of the second year, when living on coffee and sugar became an untenable situation. The younger child became school age, and so I was able to take a day job, and juggle after school clubs and childminders who picked up from school. I worked as a paralegal for a while, then got on with sending my CV out to every agency who would have me. I was offered many jobs, some paying brilliantly. I went to many interviews. The job I took was as the PA to the head of something on the trading floor.   I remember his name was Marcus and he had Germanic chiselled cheekbones and navy blue eyes. He was a man who you imagined captained well, who seemed to look out to the horizon a lot. My first day, he introduced me around the trading floor – a large, expensive, open plan office with banks of computers next to each other and men and women staring hard at screens while talking into curly tailed phones. It didn’t look as feverish as some banks I had worked at – in my summers at university, I had worked on the trading floors of Shearson Lehman, and boy, were those high octane days. This place was calm and dare I say it? Dignified.

One man, who I swear was Steven Berkoff working undercover to learn a part, was hostile. He was German. He didn’t like me, straight off. He asked me for something the first day – again, no idea what, just information. It was a really long time ago. But I wasn’t able to furnish him with the answer. I was still fiddling about with pencil holders and sign ins on the computer and having a back and forth with human resources about whether my pay could be paid in pounds not Euros, please. The Steven Berkoff sent Marcus the boss an email, copied to the trading floor team, about my incompetence. It was my second day there. One of the kids was ill. I walked off the job. I called the agency and told them to get me out of there. I never went back.

Marcus called over and over again. The messages on the answerphone at first started off arrogant and angry. How dare I walk off? Did I know how unprofessional this was? Then, they became plaintive – could I not just call once, in order to talk it through? He could iron out any difficulties… The last message simply said – he’d heard about the email. He wanted to apologise. Please pick up the phone, I need to tell you how sorry I am. I couldn’t. It wasn’t anything he needed to apologise for. I was incompetent. I accepted that, and I left.

I feel the guilt of saying I worked there now. It’s a nice thing to say. But it’s like I heard a phone ringing in a wall I built, this morning, when I said it. I needed to take the wall down, find the phone, answer it. I wished at the time, that I had taken the phone call and let Marcus apologise. But I’m glad I didn’t now. It’s not important, what I felt. What’s important I suppose is, if I claim that I worked there, I should also addenda the claim with a note that says ‘for two days’. But for those two days, it was rather beautiful to sail along on that ocean, walking quietly through the beauty of the building and sitting in the glass walled office looking out to the horizon, knowing somehow I belonged to the money and the business of money.  But Martin is right.  Bankers are terrible people.  But aren’t we all?  Aren’t we all.

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