First published in Southerly 76.1: Words and Music
The air in the office smells of sealed windows, hubris, one of those revolting plug-in air perfume things, and an invisible tinge of sociopathy. There are four of us financial planners in this office. The one directly to the left of me is Steve. I have never once seen a smile reach Steves eyes. Steve is probably clinically depressed. Steve hates his job. So do I. The difference between me and Steve is that I know I do and I know why.
When the whole idea of the cloud first became a thing, Steve talked about it as if it had some amazing ethereal meaning, rather than it being just a bunch of servers sitting somewhere in India with all of our shit on them. I did appreciate this faint touch of poetica from Steve. It was the first inkling I had that maybe he appreciates more than I think.
You think too much, he says one day in the tearoom, shoving a biscuit in his mouth, after I’ve just finished complaining about some hedge fund horror, some payday loan larceny. Just do it, get on with it, go home. You cant change the world, Laura.
The next day I somehow end up telling Steve that I practise meditation.
Why? Whats the point? he asks.
It gives me space. Makes me think I can touch God. I grin, and he harrumphs. I say the word God on purpose because I know Steve will hate it, it being of the dark kingdom of deep forests, the unknown, the unmeasurable. I say God because Steve is uncomfortable talking about things which have no column on the spreadsheet, and because I know he grew up in a strict Catholic household and I guess I want to traumatise him a bit, if Im going to be really honest.
God. Dont believe in a white man in the clouds, he says.
Neither do I, I say. I mean, geez, who really believes in that sort of a God? The only people who think that other people conceive of such a stupid unsophisticated version are people who dont believe in anything themselves.
What do you believe in, then?
That, I say, rinsing out my plate under the tap and loading it in the dishwasher. I believe in That.
That doesnt make any sense.
Steve harrumphs again, as I suspected he would. That is probably getting closer to my conception of something that might feasibly be considered God, something in and on and through which we walk around on and in and through all day. Something that is obviously not interventionist, unfortunately, but That is not so huffy That s/he wont deign to reign within our poo and even those horrible bug things that eat out peoples eyes, as well as all the nice stuff which everyone would be uproarious to be associated with, like clouds and babies and black truffles.
These sorts of conversations have not earned my trust with Steve, who requires things to be very much on the surface at all times, except when he is side-deluded by the beauty of the cloud. Fucking with Steves head has become my principal means of entertainment here. Im not proud of that, but its exceedingly hard to work here. It is chopping off all the very best and creative bits of my soul, the bits that write poetry and prose and fling my eyes into the sky, so that instead I go home and write the poetic equivalents of farts and then give up and watch three episodes back to back of Six Feet Under, even though Ive already seen the whole thing three times.
Some days I knock on the door of Steves office, lean in and say stuff like, The hard and stiff will be broken, the soft and supple will prevail, and then close the door again.
Steve kind of adores me, I think, despite himself. I can see it, hidden away under his love and adoration of the status quo. Of all the people whose reaction Im curious about most if the poo hits the fan, its Steve.
I have this ongoing constant desire for something better than this. Its an embarrassment, in this age of cynicism, that I wish I could squander and despoil. I dont talk about it with people because Im scared theyll think I am childish, wishing for the stars that look pretty but are ultimately only so much gas. Im really not sure why more people dont believe we can change the crude pathway we must all currently walk our lives on. When did our perception of human dignity get so clouded, even taking holocausts into account? How have we so easily fallen into the unlikely story of humans as consumers, so that all else appears fluff and excesses? I look out the window of my office at the one tree in my purview amongst the concrete. It is one of the trees in Melbourne that has its own email address. The addresses were set up originally so people could report any problems that the trees were having. Now people send love letters to the trees, thanking them for their gift of treeishness. Oh, how I wish it would rain.
I have new clients this afternoon. Isra and Alexander Marks come into my office with Isra bobbing her head like a nervous bird. I make Alexander a coffee from the machine on the sideboard, Isra a Melbourne Breakfast tea, taking care to ask how strong they like it, how sweet, how milky. Theres nothing worse than receiving a cup of tea from someone who obviously does not drink the stuff and has never considered its composition, so that you get a stale motel bag dunked once into not-boiled water with a cups worth of milk slammed on top when you like your tea heavy and strong. I like to make quality beverages for my clients to make up for the fact that I must ask them the stupid questions that ensue from their being in the office of a financial planner.
They settle in a little. The questions youve already answered me by email have given me a bit of an idea of you of where youre coming from and what your ideas are about money. You both place ethical investing very high up on the list.
Their heads both nod vigorously, do Isra and Alexander Marks.
And what would you say youre most hoping to get out of our meeting today?
Alexander spreads his hands. We want to make sure we have enough to see ourselves well, out, so to speak. He grimaces apologetically for the crude mention of their future demise so close to the beginning of our acquaintance.
Its funny how squirmy we are about death. I guess it is not so odd a thing in our current capitalistic model, which flat out refuses to allow anything but constant upward growth. No wonder were all into zombie movies. As a financial planner, Ive given the machinations of the exchange and growth of money quite a bit of thought from my assumptions I would say Ive thought far more about it than any of the other financial planners in this office, who also resemble zombies to different degrees, especially Steve of course.
Some days I swear its like a different dimension in here. Theres a refusal, a flat-out denial, to discuss the shoddy framework of the doings of cash. Pointing it out is like talking about death, or coming in on a Monday and talking about the fucking awesome root you had last night. But the truth is that our financial system at its heart is insane, and the refusal of anyone in my office to concede such a thing, in the six years I have been working here, not once, not fucking once, is really quite enough in itself to send me over the edge even if I didnt have such a bad bout of thrush. Instead I go home and read Chris Hedges and George Monbiot, and remind myself that Im not fucking mad even though I guess Im probably a little fucking mad anyway, but in a different way.
The system on whose fringes I so desultorily work is like a bipolar person in an encrusted mania cycle, staying awake for days, its eyes pressed directly on the fluorescent lighting for kicks. The continually expanding and monetising of everything. I see the day we all condede monetising our bodies for profit is a good thing, after we’ve all sold one kidney. My first night with a new hot bloke after we’ve got close enough to kiss, close enough so that we’re back at my place and I can see which choice of Eyedvertise™ lines his bottom eyelid. Amazing how intricate the technique is to position a “CitiBank” or “Hewlett Packard” tattoo in -76 point type on your bottom eyelid. And while it’s true that there have been a few cases of accidental permanent marking of an errant “e” onto people’s eyeballs, it’s worth the 40 grand in the end, and maybe even the $1 million payout.
When we undress each other, he runs his tongue approvingly around my Glaxo Aereolads™. He gets hard, and his cock unfurls into a lovely choice, the tasteful red simplicity of the Colgate Cockstrip™, while I’m all tidied up for the occasion, my best undies and my fresh Brazillian showing off to advantage my super dooper Cornetto Labi-ad™, the one that has the cute, cheeky little underflourish that winds its way invitingly down around your inside thigh.
I shake myself internally.
“Ethical investment is as important to us as having a good nest egg.” Isra leans forward, her hands clasped around her mug. “No Lockheed Martin for us, please. She giggles nervously.
But of course, we want to, you know, have a good nest egg as well, Alexander says quickly.
I think of Redmond Shield, the man who came here rich and who gets richer every month by investing in whatevers going shares in whatever or whoever ruins the earth most, in schemes that bet on the food aid of starving people. On what the fuck ever.
I have lost the comforting illusion that people who wish to ensure their future financial security can do so by investing in things that are beautiful. Its not impossible; its just not fast. The figures do not add up as well, not after the GFC. And yet, for reasons Im sure Steve has never questioned, bad, horrible, destructive shit pays really, really well.
Which one of you is the most in control of the purse strings, would you say? I smile, hoping its bright rather than brittle. Isra and Alexander look at each other and laugh, as every couple does when I ask that question. Isra points to Alexander. Alexander points at himself and we all laugh. Hahahaha!
In that case, Isra, well start with you. Boom tish, and we all laugh again. A part of me yearns to be home writing, or at least having a conversation with this rather nice couple about, oh, I dunno, quantum physics, or whether theyve read any good books lately. Unfortunately, this is as deep as it gets.
What would you love to do when you retire? I ask.
Isra looks over at Alexander and they laugh again. Its a laugh a minute at the financial planners.
We were asked these questions the last financial planner we saw, Alexander says.
Ah, it was a laugh with undertones. A these financial planners are all dickheads kind of laugh. I see.
Yes, theyre standard questions we ask in the industry to help determine what people want, to get a snapshot of who you are, so that we can design your investments in a way that is most reflective of you.
Well, they asked the same questions last time and yet we still lost a lot of our money taking their advice. Isras hands flutter nervously around her mug but there is a defiance in her eyes. They said olive grove plantations were the way to go. How lovely a thing to invest in trees! But he put too many of our eggs in that one basket, and along with a few other bad decisions kaput. Isra makes a surprising farting noise with her mouth, signalling the dwindling of their hard-earned by a down-jerked thumb.
I ask Isra and Alexander Marks more of the questions that are dressed up to give them the feeling that theyre in control of their financial future, even though the market is based somewhat on gossamer and even though theyre already in their early 50s and time is shortening. Isra wants to help their twin children, born later and wonderfully in the Markses marriage, to buy their first houses. She also wants to travel. Alexander wants to pay off the last of the mortgage and ensure there is enough for their retirement in such an expensive world with a decomposing social safety net. What if we both live to 90, he asks, the lines on his forehead wrinkling deeper.
It is funny when you consider all that we have to pay for just to exist. We have to pay to live on the earth, and then we have to pay when we leave it. Its a greater indignity that the portion we must pay for here in Melbourne is so incredibly expensive, considering that 200 years ago no one at all paid to live on it at all. Casts quite an aspersion on Her Majestys pleasure. A gold-throned family of thieves preaching austerity to the masses.
We work out a plan. I fear that because the Markses lost way more than they could afford with the previous planners decisions that they may not be travelling further than Thailand, and that they may well be scrabbling on the barrels bottom should they both be here when theyre 90. I tell them this as softly and gently as I can so that faces dont fall too much, and then quickly tell them that still, there are plenty of good ethical investing opportunities around, and if we do this strategically with a dash of luck then they might well be surprised in the future how much they can accrue if they work till theyre 80. I leave that last bit out.
I have some tricks up my sleeve that I will look deeper into, because you guys deserve it after the olive grove thing, I say as we get up and I see them out into the reception area. Out through the front door, the sun is bathing the concrete outside.
Thank you so much, Isra says to me as they leave. She looks in my eyes. She means it. Isra sees me, the actual me. She knows I care about her. She can feel it. I reckon Isra knows I write shitty poetry and still likes me anyway. Isra and Alexander leave, the door pffffing behind them as it seals me away from the goodness of the sun, from the fluffiness of the clouds that are stealing over from the west. I feel like my mum and dad have left me at the bad mans house. I go back into my office before I let my face crumple into more biscuits than I intended on eating.
Creativity carries so many possibilities for renewal, and this truth encompasses the realm of accounting. It really is much easier than I thought in the end to gently but continuously siphon some of Redmond Shields extreme excess into assisting the Markses to have a reward for their solar/electric car investments, their disavowal of arms. They deserve to be recompensed for giving a shit about the future. Redmonds people do not notice, not after one year and not after three. Not his tax accountants, his lawyers, not Redmond himself. It is Steve who finally twigs. Not our accountants but fucking Steve, going beyond his financial planner call and combing through the books for fun. His eyes are wide as I am escorted out of the building, like those anime cats, shiny and reflective. The last time I see Steve is the first time I see emotion in his eyes.
Fewer of the women than I would have thought are the hardcore stereotypical roughnut here, bailing you up in dark corners and messing with you for their own pleasure. Its more banal than that. Most are the petty drug variety. One of the hardcore ones is here now though, in front of me in my poetry class, surprising both of us, I think, with her presence. Shes taken to calling me Piper. Hahahaha!
The bank pays Redmond Shield back his losses, the same bank he has shares in. They do look after their own. As do I.
I dont want money for things so much. I want money for time. I want so much money, all the moneys, and with it I will buy back all the time. Then it will just be time, and it wont be able to be wasted or saved anymore. I will peg money to the blue sky and to the clouds, I will peg time to the earth, and we will all sleep in the space in the middle. And then, if some guy in Ceduna wants to carve a piece of wood for eight hours straight on a Thursday in September, that will be a perfectly acceptable practice.
When the money has been pegged to the blue sky and the clouds and time to the earth, I will then take all of the grey cubicle dividers from the worlds financial planning offices and the money-moving offices of every middleman and middlewoman, and I will carve them into geometric shapes and make a labyrinth in the red sand of the outback. The labyrinth wont be the kind that gets you lost with a Minotaur in it somewhere because fuck that. This labyrinth will be of the meditative unicursive type, a one-way meandering street that winds back in on itself gently in rhythmic circular waves, to a centre where a single, perfectly formed black stone sits. Oh, everybody will say, because they will be inside a beautiful paradigm that once did not have a door by which they could enter. This paradigm will be the paradigmatic equivalent of one of those folded-up dimensions physicists talk about, and it will spring open into our view next Thursday at 7pm. Afterward, everyone will say that we could smell its approach, that we knew we were made for better than that, that we could sense it but not see and roll around in it at that particular juncture of the proceedings.
Oh, yes, the labyrinth walkers will say after walking thoughtfully and meditatively to the cubicle labyrinths centre, awed by the meaningfulness of the beautiful pebbles negative space, in a land where money is pegged to the blue sky and the clouds and time to the earth. And then they will turn and walk the hours journey back through the slightly winding curves of the labyrinths walls, as gentle as the curvature of earth seen from space. They will trail their hands along the changing cubicle colours taken from the offices of the worlds hedge fund managers grey, green, burgundy, blue. Along the bottom of the walls will be mosaics made from day planner squares that were once marked off into 10 minute increments. We will walk on the red earth in bare feet. It will have been a good day. We will not be ashamed. We will have started again.