The phone rang seven minutes after Joyce and her troupe had left for Glion-sur-Montreux. Maria, the housekeeper, picked it up. It was Erik.
“Hello, Maria. How’re things there this morning?” He had the image of Maria in her mind, brittle as a stick made of steel, skin like parchment, sharp as a whip, centuries old but sure to live another one and half. Would have made Abraham the best Sarah, or the Habsburgs a queen to reckon with, so discreet and diplomatic and resolute. He’d hired her since the mid-sixties and she still looked the same, only more competent and full of her brittle Tyrolese energy.
“We’re all simply fine, son. You just missed them. The lady Joyce, your lady Mama, Patricia and the bambini. They’re off to visit your lady wife. But we’re all as fine as can be expected.”
Excellent. He didn’t even need to remind anybody that Lo should see Danielle. He’d been right. They’re all better off without him making an arse of himself and adding to their burdens. “Glad to hear that, Maria. Do you know when they’ll be back?” His hands were clammy, his forehead damp. He had to find a chair and sit. Another ten minutes left of the break for midmorning coffee, then he’d resume his conference with the Board of Directors. Where he belongs.
“You ask questions, my son. Don’t you know the procedure from experience?”
Right. Making an arse of himself as usual even when Montreux was almost four thousand miles away from him. Imagination alone, and he was unable to think straight, take things in his stride, employ foresight, be in control of his own bloody faculties.
“The ladies and children had a fabulous lunch yesterday, my son. Fabulous!”
He could see Maria closing her eyes and slapping her breast gently at the word fabulous. It would have been, after all, her choreographed lunch with cook Roberto, her grandson. The two would outdo anybody doing a banquet at Buckingham Palace.
“Oh, yes, my son. The lady Joyce invited the lady Dr Hoffman. A wonderful person. But you know that already. I only know it since yesterday. Such a wonderful lady.”
Why hadn’t he ever thought of that? Inviting Danielle home to gauge the children in their own environment instead of the Clinique at Glion-sur-Montreux? “Indeed I do know that, Maria. Thanks to you and Roberto. Bet my last shirt you were the star of the day.”
Maria the diplomat continued, thinking that he had no last shirt to bet unless the bet lasted a few millennia with a ban on new acquisitions, “Then they had a nice togetherness in the park with the children and Juba and all. It was such a day to weep about. Sunny. The blooms, my son. Spectacular.”
“I can imagine. Very thoughtful of the ladies. Thank you, Maria. I’ll call back later. My regards to the personnel out there.”
He replaced the receiver quickly. As if it was glowing coals.
And shot off to his cloakroom to wash his face and hands.
Two minutes ahead of the break he was back in the Boardroom. Sitting in his chair. Composed. In control. The directors piled in, stopping their conversation as soon as they noticed that the Viking, the Boss, the Group Chairman, was already seated.
“All right, ladies and gentlemen,” said he, “welcome back. Turn on the works.”
First the projector with his hand-written notes from the flight to Nairobi from Mombasa now typed on transparency film, then the telephones around the world, were back on, with all the other executives around the globe from Canada to Australia, Britain to Japan, Germany to Hong Kong, listening in on the conference. He was back in control. Even ahead of his stride.
He had no idea that at that very moment, Joyce was herding in his children to see what he had done with their mother. Or rather, he forbade himself thinking in that direction. Not now. Not here. He had invested a million dollars, right? And small children were not allowed visiting a parent in a psychiatric suite.
“The world economy has now experienced two excessive years of deceleration,” he continued from exactly where he’d left before the break, “in the rate of growth of output, and the possibility is that this pattern will be repeated in 1979.” Possibility meant that – from whatever sources – he himself already knew. His board understood the shorthand.
He let that sink in, allowed for notes to be written down around the globe.
“Among developing countries, a salient feature of 1978 is the striking deceleration in the growth of total output of the oil-producing countries, reflected in the declines in petroleum, only partially offset by advances in other components of economic activity. But some developing countries were able to – modestly, I must say – benefit from vigorous advances in domestic demand, especially the oil-exporting developing countries. Here is where we’re going to aggressively generate business for Shipping & Forwarding, Bill.”
The recently knighted Sir William Armstrong was the Group’s Managing Director. Had been for almost twenty years, and Erik couldn’t have a better MD. Bill was in many ways his opposite. The gentleman with great bedside – and probably also bedding – manners, heart in the right place just as his business acumen was too, the two parts of him as good in team spirit as Bill was with all the subordinates in the empire he’d been ruling worldwide for close to two decades. There were dozens of other MDs but he was the only Group MD. The Group Chairman, Erik, was the brains, the drive, leader of the pack, who did what had to be done to keep the shop healthy and wealthy – Machiavellianism included.
Nods, pens scratching on paper, several Right from the phone intercom.
“Another good news for us, this time for Transexperts, is that export earnings continue to be adversely affected by protectionist measures in the developed countries. But these same countries want their goods out to the developing world. All we need is to knock on the door with offers of transportation to the tiniest corner of the developing nations.”
He allowed another pause while shuffling through his notes.
“There’s bad news for Motors and Office Machinery & Equipment.” Erik had the Franchise in almost the entire African continent for Japanese vehicles, office machinery and equipment and some also came from the Republic of Korea. “Korea, according to the IMF staff, had an annual loss of export earnings as high as $1 billion during 1977. The famous protectionism, ladies and gentlemen. So what we do is muscle in for Korea. Etiquettes and all that, so get to it and do me a business plan.”
He continued on and on, ticking each company and saying what’s to be done. Such as because the operation of international commodity markets and tropical beverages had disparate effects on export earnings of developing countries, their excellencies will still want their Savile Row suits, French champagne and Beluga caviar, and pay tenfold to have these brought to them behind the backs of the IMF. On the other hand exporters of ores and metal had firmed prices and the projected copper prices for 1979 will increase sharply. So hoard. Mining Enterprises can afford to acquire more copper mines down south with Smith and associates and enough safe warehouses to store it in.
“Then Mining Enterprises will pull it out when the prices rocket. Another hoarding niche are certain commodities such as coffee and tea whose rate dropped from 25% in the years 1971-1977 to the current mere 2.6%. Also have a look at the World Food Council report. The emergency food reserve in cereals for 1978/1979 is approximately 9.5 million tons but the targeted level is 10 million. Sort that out in our favour. At the moment, export prices of food, agricultural raw materials and metals have hiked up above the 1977 levels.”
Erik stopped to sip water from a glass while his captains scribbled away. Question time would come after he was done with his briefing. He put the glass back on the table.
“By the way, the aggregate current account balance of developed market economies hitched up sharply into surplus this year. Iran is having trouble with his oil export because the West has brought out the thumbscrew on it. Shipping & Forwarding teaming up with Stead-Lindqvist Oil can assist Iran. I’ll get to their ambassador and trade attaché first thing tomorrow, work ways to get Iranian oil on the market. You get my drift. The developed economies, despite political showbiz, need their oil badly. And they have the biscuits. The USA’s current balance has changed very minimally, while the surpluses of the Federal German Republic and Japan increased substantially, although this weakens the dollar for a while this year. But you can be sure that by November the US will introduce some policy measures because the imbalances between the US and the FGR and Japan will lead to decisions to slow the rate of aggregate demand in the US while stimulating demands in Germany and Japan.
“And while we’re on oil, the oil-exporters like Nigeria, Indonesia, Venezuela, Algeria have reduced the level of international reserves and allowed for a substantial widening of their current accounts deficits to maintain the pace in imports – by borrowing heavily in international financial markets. Chunks in their for Investments Bank. Grab them. Almost $300 million in foreign bonds were issued in 1976 by developing countries in national markets of developed countries, with maturities of 15-20 years, while none has been issued since then. In 2nd quarter of 1977 a small volume of $2 million carried a maturity over 25 years. Again, none has been issued since. Think differently, laterally so to speak…”
He went on and on.
Finally questions were asked from around the planet and answered. There was an hour’s lunch break, then matters continued even for those who’d been woken up in the middle of the night in their time zones.
By eight in the evening, Kenyan time, Erik went up to the penthouse above the Lindqvist Building to at last call his children and then the Clinique to ask about his Gudinna. Kenya was about two hours ahead of Switzerland so the children must already be home preparing for supper.
And he was relaxed. In his waters. Done a decent day’s competent work. Unleashed his paid-for pack of brains around the globe on the rest of the world like a good search-and-find dog trainer. No Fabian fucking Ziegler to baffle him with medical jargon, setting him more traps than a seasoned Zulu hunter, no Phillip bloody Dumas playing the understanding Ethics Commissioner on him, no Martine rubbing his nose in his boundless guilt, no Danielle prying into his private bloody life.
Where only Gudinna and his children had exclusive residency.
He looked forward, after talking with the children, to having dinner with his best friends, Nick and Diana MacDougall. To them, he’ll have to tell the truth, not give the vague “Oh, thanks for asking. The doctors say she’ll be all right soon. Unfortunate slip, but my Gudinna is pretty robust despite being such a delicate thing ” which he’d been doling out all day.
But Nick and Diana will understand him. Understand the blackout.
Understand how his guilt, while watching all the pain and misery his wife and children had to endure because of him, threatened to drive him stark staring bonkers. He needed breathing space. Needed a place where he knew the lay of the land because if you don’t know where you’re going you’ll get nowhere. Needed to feel useful, competent, in control, for heaven’s sake.