Photograph by Reelika Ramot
'It has been very painful and particularly distressing for our shareholders.' Wallace turned the radio off and prepared to weather the drizzle on his way to his very first day of work. He'd left university with a 2.1 in Politics and Economics, a fistful of accolades and a £30,000 millstone around his neck. After thirty-seven rejections he finally landed an entry-level position with Akel Dam Associates, a global consultancy firm, as a Business Consultant Trainee. The starting salary of £21,000 per year would net him £1,440 per month. £650 went towards rent and utility bills. £135 went on bank charges and interest in service of his unauthorised overdraft.
That left him £655 or just under £22 a day to pare down his overdraft and live in London. At least he didn't have to start paying back his student loan yet. The salary was bang on the income threshold for student loan repayments, but it would kick in with his first pay rise. "I feel your pain" he said to the shareholders as he picked up his keys.
It would take an hour to walk but that was better than wasting money on the tube; even if it was raining. Wallace stood at the main entrance to his apartment building and checked the change in his pocket. He was 30 pence short of a croissant so he headed off without a pick-me-up. Straight out of Canary Wharf, right along Narrow Street, straight onto The Highway, turn left at The Tower, across the river on Tower Bridge and finally left into a side street off Potters' Field, where Akel Dam Associates had their global headquarters; then it was up three flights of stairs, straight down the corridor, third door on the left - temporary accommodation until the new headquarters where refurbished.
There was a slight wind coming off the river so he crossed over to the far side of Narrow Street in search of any shelter offered by the buildings and awnings. His mood descended step by step as he encountered others, lucky enough to have an umbrella, who exercised the
same sheltering strategy. Each time an umbrella approached it dipped just enough to cover his assailant and offer Wallace the choice of a spike in the eye or a detour into the mist and splash from the trucks thundering into the city. He tried a couple of withering glares but was universally ignored and soon gave up. Shrugging his shoulders, he jammed his hands into his pockets and let his mind drift back to graduation day. It was sunny then and his family had come up to celebrate. Afterwards his father and Uncle Percy took him to the pub where the two of them waxed lyrical over their working careers and how different and difficult it was now.
Years ago, Uncle Percy studied German and History at university, exited after an undistinguished academic performance and spent the next three years travelling around Europe picking grapes, working in bars, busking and begging. He'd discovered nudity in Munich and gushed how it encapsulated freedom. Upon returning home he picked up a job as
a customer service clerk in a bank. From there he'd landed a position in the IT department on the strength of an aptitude test score and wound up being a computer programmer. A couple of years after that he set up as an independent, worked diligently, saved his money and retired at 55 to study guitar, poetry and explore the countryside on his bicycle. "Yep" he said "Back then you could take your time to find yourself; start work when you were ready and there was still a chance of finding something you could enjoy even if you got it wrong the first couple of times. Nowadays it seems you've got to start planning for a career when you're 14 or 15, and if you screw up once you're done for."
That was the world Wallace understood. From the day he entered school he was pushed, tested, tested again and then re-tested as every school ruthlessly analysed their students to ensure only those most likely to sit exams successfully were retained. The flotsam and jetsam were cast aside into special schools or remedial groups so as not to drag the school's key performance indicators down and, possibly, jeopardise enrolment and funding. From the age of five he was propelled by teachers, pressured by heads, and forced to perform in order to avoid being squeezed into the margins and an empty existence. That was the future those, tasked with his development, painted for him every day. Every day fear of failure stalked him through his myriad of GCSE’s. Every day he shuddered through his A levels with the pressure increasing as exam day approached. Predicted results imposed by university admission placed a seemingly unscalable obstacle before him. Three quarters of his classmates failed to leap that hurdle the first time compounding their sense of failure and lowering their self esteem. Wallace scraped his knee on that hurdle but gotten over. He'd met the dictates of society, so far, but the cost had been heavy. His faith in himself and his ability was fragile. His sense of worth nanoscopic.
As Wallace turned onto The Highway, the drizzle morphed into a deceptively penetrating light shower. His shoes began to squelch. A look up at the sky confirmed that there was to be no break in either the leaden canopy or his leaden future. What was it Professor Murkier used to say? Something about the relationship between society and the individual or was it the relationship between the individual and society? Either way he used to drag all these philosophers out of the past, expound their theories and initiate a debate, but these debates were, as far as Wallace was concerned, outdated and irrelevant. Four years at university had convinced him that the individual, supposedly the basic element and corner stone of society, had been usurped. In society, as in nature, elements had drawn together to form compounds, these compounds had coalesced into complex compounds and some of these complex compounds had risen to top.
The interests of these complex compounds then cascaded down and washed away the interests of the weaker through sheer force of weight. In the very old days the complex compounds manifested themselves as religion and royalty; now they were commerce, free trade, globalisation, big business, and government - in the pocket of big business. Wallace turned left onto Tower Bridge. His trousers started clinging to his legs, rivulets trickled down his back and a constant drip formed on the end of his nose. The effect of these high ideals espoused by high rising complex compounds preyed. There they sat, secure in their internal networks of mutual benefit, guaranteeing endless reciprocal bounty, secure from want, secure from terror - walls closed around Wallace - yes, there's another thing. After every attack fearless leaders stood behind bullet proof barriers to declare 'We shall not be afraid', of course they won't be afraid - they're the best protected people on the planet. The dark grey ceiling descended, ‘not enough money to share’, that's the mantra of austerity. But who's austerity? Certainly not those profiting from globalisation and the polarisation of wealth, and what happens when they screw up? What happens when the floor of their financial house disintegrates? What happens when their consuming greed for profit threatens the very foundation of their civilisation? What do they do? They jam their hands into Billy Nobody's pocket to pay for it. They hold centrally-heated committee meetings in tailored suits spouting sound bites, and at the end all Billy gets is an insipid apology. Does an apology pay the rent? Does an apology buy food? All of this cringing vacuous apologising, what does it get? It gets the miscreants back on their path towards a free, guaranteed, fat, index-linked pension and a book deal.
Wallace knew he was trapped.
Trapped by low self-esteem and insecurity instilled by endless testing and pressure to perform from the age of five. Trapped in a rigidly bureaucratic box-ticking system where he had to decide his future before he had any idea what a future was. Trapped in long term financial slavery having to spend the vigour of his youth digging himself out of debt afraid to voice his opinion in case he loses his job and the monetary spigot gets turned off. Trapped into tugging his forelock to every idiot in a better position. And for what? For the chance to gaze at the first rung of the housing market hideously out of reach. For the chance to renounce every individual interest he ever had as he treaded the floodwaters released by the elite politico-business society, barely able to keep afloat. Uncle Percy flashed through his mind. The freedom of Munich flashed through his mind. He had to be free. He had to unshackle his chains. He had to feel the natural warmth of the sun, of friendship, of singing... of happiness. His shirt had become a strait jacket. He tore it off and threw it in the Thames. He slipped the fetters of his sloshing shoes leaving them pointing in opposite directions on the pavement. He snapped free of his belt, dropped it and walked out of his trousers. As he turned left into the side street he peeled off his briefs and his socks and balled them together and tossed them over his left shoulder for luck. He turned right into the building. He climbed three flights of stairs. He walked straight down the corridor. He pushed open the third door on the left. He stood glowering in the door way, staring, daring, breathing heavily as a puddle collected at his feet and a wisp of steam rose from his shoulders. A middle-aged lady dressed in a polyester business suit, crowned with a strawberry meringue of hair and carrying a clipboard approached him. "Ah, you must be Wallace. I'm Deidre Prescott from HR. We've been expecting you." She handed him a name badge to pin to his lapel turned and said "This way please."