One woman’s toxic workplace hell.
Nyla Nox stumbles into a world of corporate bullying and shame at the world’s most successful institution. You won’t believe what goes on there…
The graphics center of the Most Successful Bank in the Universe (a real bank, but not its real name!), where Nyla ends up, is a graveyard of broken dreams where artists, psychologists, historians, philosophers and even teachers end up ‘doing it for the money’ while the bankers, who treat them like scum, are being brutally groomed to become the leaders of tomorrow.
What do you really know about life inside the Big Banks?
Did you know that, right now as you read this, a hidden tribe of jobless humanities graduates is working deep inside those secret and powerful institutions? Do you have any idea how toxic these workplaces are? And how badly most of the workers in the banks (who are not bankers themselves) are treated? Do you know why they are treated like this?
‘Graveyards of the Banks’ tells the truth about life in the Banks, about life as a single woman in London, about saying farewell to broken dreams and surviving (just!) a hair raising sequence of corporate attacks on your dignity, your self-esteem and even on your physical health, night after night, just to make rent.
Life is never dull at the Most Successful Bank in the Universe. The night shift is a battle field of bullies and bitches, emotions go wild at 4AM, and Nyla has to fight for survival every single minute.
Do you realize that the corporate bullying and shaming is not an accident? Nyla stumbles into that world, the Bank’s playground and training ground for Survival of the Fittest. The top bankers talk about it as their ‘killing ground’.
Nyla Nox was interviewed about her life in the Banks by the London Guardian and has written about her book and her experience in many well known international magazines. Her story seems to be an inconvenient truth, too extreme to believe. But her truth has been confirmed, again and again, by the Big Banks themselves, through their own announcements.
Read for yourself how the toxic banking system rots our hearts and minds, and our society. And as Nyla’s story shows, you don’t need to be a banker to be directly affected.
Whoever you are, the Banks are deciding your life for you.
“..Quite a few interviewees have described investment banks as abusive environments. But they seem to consider this an outcome, not an act of design. Nyla Nox thinks it’s deliberate. [Her story] struck me as perhaps extreme, but reading her experiences perhaps she did see the beast in the eye.”
Joris Luyendijk, The Guardian.
“ Wow. This was an amazing, moving book. … You know how a show like The Office perfectly captured everyone you work with in an office setting? This book does that with the financial world, while at the same time making you feel like you’re walking through this financial hell with Dante.”
Aaron Hoos, Financial Fiction Reviews
“… Graveyards of the Banks is somewhat reminiscent of Kafka’s ‘The Castle’ The Castle, in its descriptions of labyrinthine hierarchy and bureaucracy. … reminiscent in some ways of fascism, a brand of fascism without swastikas and SS uniforms. Nyla Nox also compares bank work conditions to Mordor, the land of evil in Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’.”
‘Dear Kitty’ social justice blog.
Targeted Age Group:: Adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
My own experience working at the Most Successful Bank in the Universe and the fact that almost nobody knows anything about what goes really on inside there.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I invent them, but I am sure many of their characteristics come from people I knew at some point.
Season One: I did it for the Money
I DID IT FOR THE MONEY
When I walked into the agency, I had three pounds left. I held them tight inside my pocket, two hooked between my fingers, the third pressed into the flesh of my hand.
I had at home two Swiss roll cakes, one already bitten into, the other still untouched. I had prowled the shop for a long time, studying packages. People looked at me knowingly. They probably thought I was on a strict diet, but I was looking for the highest calorie count per penny.
‘Finally’, said the agent, pulling me through the door of the Georgian mansion behind the Bank of England. She was already in her coat.
Further down the gloomy corridor I saw a few huddled figures.
The agent nodded.
‘You’re going with them.’
It was almost 7PM. What about business hours?
The agent laughed, but quickly and briefly. We didn’t really have time for it.
‘Now listen’, she said, and reeled off a whole list of arcane instructions. ‘For the Test. Keep to what I told you’, she said. ‘Exactly what I told you! Whatever happens.’
The three pounds in my pocket agreed with her absolutely.
The agent waved to a pale young man in the group.
‘Address’, she said.
‘Peter’, said the guy and smiled. ‘I’ll take care of it.’
The agent looked at us one last time, nodded briefly and left.
There were ten of us. I counted.
While I was calculating the price of the tube ride in my head (I would have taken the bus or even walked but I was going to have to keep up with the group), a woman with asymmetric red hair suggested taking a taxi.
‘Oh, yes, it’s close. It’ll be so much less hassle.’ They all agreed.
Maybe it had been rash, buying those Swiss rolls. How would I get home when my three pounds were spent?
A taxi came. People hailed it expertly. They were used to taking taxis. The driver protested but Peter squeezed me into the first one and pulled the door shut. ‘The others can follow’, he said and smiled again. We raced through the London evening. I was thrown against Peter and the red haired woman who said she was an artist. Maybe she was poor, too?
The taxi knew where the company was, Peter knew where the company was, everybody knew where the company was. I smiled like crazy and tried to remember all the advice that the agent had given me in her coat.
When we arrived, people reached into their pockets and bags. I did too but when I brought out my precious coins, Peter took only one.
‘Is that fair’, I asked the young black guy who looked as if he was still a student.
‘You’ll pay it back next week’, said Peter.
Next week? That would mean we would all get through, I thought.
Peter nodded. He was so confident.
When I climbed out, we were standing in front of a graveyard. Tombstones and memorial tablets dating back to the time of the Great Plague huddled together in the city shadows. This was where we were going?
Peter expertly led the way through the gravestones to a building rising recklessly above the centuries of dead. There was no name, no logo on the wall, no indication that anything was here except darkness.
As we got closer, I could see a small nondescript door.
The red haired woman hit a discreetly placed button. We waited and a buzz came back. The small nondescript door gave to Peter’s touch and we went in. It closed behind us without a sound. Before us stretched a long bleak corridor. There was only one direction to go, so we followed it. We were inside.
As my eyes got used to the darkness, I could see a brighter gloom ahead. We turned the corner into a much wider entrance, surrounded by guards and drivers in uniform. The people in my new peer group didn’t know as much as they thought about this place. They were outsiders, just like me, and so, like me, they had to walk through the dark corridor.
As we joined the main hall, the ceiling soared to a head spinning height. The floor now sparkled in marble. The walls were clad in metal.
All these shiny reflections made me feel a little dizzy. Maybe I should have taken one of the Swiss Rolls with me, scrunched up inside my pocket. But then what would I eat when I got home?
Maybe they would offer us coffee. Then I could put in lots of sugar. And full fat milk, if they had it. Although it would mean alienating the women in the group.
The hall was completely empty, emphasising the stark design. This was a place of no nonsense. We walked between the metal walls, covering the considerable distance to the front desk. My reflection flickered in the marble. Breathing became a challenge.
The desk was huge, all metal. The guards behind it exuded suspicion. Peter took charge. He had a name from the agent that would let us in. The guards doubted it. Delays and misdirections. I tried to breathe right but I started to get dizzy again. There was nowhere to sit down. As we waited, the guys joked. The artist tried to steer the conversation towards her paintings. I held onto the desk, hiding my shaking hands. I noticed there were no windows.
Reluctantly, and in exchange for our IDs, the guards gave us large white tags that said ‘GUEST’. I clipped mine to my coat. Everyone could see I was not an enemy. Other people just slipped them into their pockets.
Some more waiting, some more jokes, some more deep breaths, and then our guide appeared.
She was very well dressed and made up in pastel colours, ‘groomed’ all over. Probably not much older than me but altogether from a different plane of existence. No one could ever imagine her just with three pounds in her pocket. Well, two now, actually.
She spoke very quietly, so that we had to crowd around her, and even then she didn’t say much. Just to follow her. I may have missed the hello.
Behind the desk, the steel walls rose to enclose a ledge that looked a bit like a launching pad for small spaceships. Up to that ledge led a pair of escalators. Stairs were not enough for this company.
I was glad about the escalators. I could rest my shaking knees.
Up on the metal ledge, we waited for the lifts. Our guide pressed all the buttons and was muttering about the slowness of the service. She really worked here. That was clear. She had enough seniority to complain about the lifts.
We entered the small metal cabin. I expected to go up, but we went down. And down again.
‘Yes’, said the guide. ‘We are going to the Third Basement.’
What is going on here?
The organisation I was about to join was of course supremely legal. I knew that. If it broke any laws it has never been prosecuted, let alone convicted. The agent had hinted that it was the most powerful organisation in the world.
My first impressions of the organisation reflected its self-image: dominant, intimidating, and shrouded in mystery. A place so secret that it didn’t even have its name on the door… I had never heard of such a place. But if all went well, I was destined to become one of the very few not only to see its hidden walls but actually live inside them. I, of all people, would see what this organisation was truly like. I felt dizzy again.
Right then I was on my way down to its very bowels, the Third Basement far below the shiny marble halls. This is where a crucial procedure would be initiated: the selection of the fittest. And in this organisation, only the fittest survived. I knew that, too.
Selection of the Fittest in the Third Basement
The lift announced it: Third Basement. This was where our future would be decided.
I nearly collapsed with the thought of all the massive concrete above. But then I thought, no, no, it was safe. Surely, this company was always safe, even deep down in the earth. The doors opened on a dim, humid passage way. The walls were raw and unpainted. The floor had some kind of carpet strip along the middle that tripped the red-haired artist up immediately. Untidy heaps of storage boxes and cables snaking in from points unknown threatened to block our passage.
I knew I would never find my way out of here on my own.
At some point, the corridor opened out onto a small corner with nowhere to go.
‘That’s the kitchen’, said our guide. ‘You better get what you need now, it’s a long way to the Testing Room.’
The artist was straight in and the young guy not far behind. Peter joked and allowed the rest of us to go first. He wasn’t too worried about losing a bit of time. Everyone had tea but I needed coffee. I failed to find it and had to ask for help. The artist lost her patience. Was I already a drain on the team? I tried not to spill the hot water and offered sugar packs around.
Then took a sip while we were walking, spilling a little on the way. Peter and the other guys carried two cups each. Why hadn’t I thought of that?
I hurried to catch up with the group, the artist’s voice a homing signal through the convoluted concrete corridors. At some point, a door was half open, showing a loading bay. Did the armoured trucks come down this far? Was there a private connection with the underground system? Anything seemed possible.
Three workmen passed in silence.
The final corridor, abruptly leading to nothing, had three doors set in the wall. Our guide disappeared into the middle one. It was thick and heavy, so that we had to put our shoulders to it. The walls were a metre thick. If the world was blown up in a nuclear disaster during the selection procedure, we would be alive to re-populate it.
I told myself to focus.
Inside the door cold light shone on thinly painted walls, and on rows of metal desks with computer terminals, a teacher’s platform and a whiteboard at the front.
We were asked to spread out, one to a row, spaced apart so we couldn’t see each other’s monitors. We did as told. I put my coffee on the desk, drank deeply, and felt the hot sugar rush through my system. Our guide introduced herself. I didn’t catch exactly what she was, the Head of something. I hoped she got enough vitamin D down here.
Then it was time for the Test.
There are many ways to arrange selection of the fittest, and this was the one for us.
This test was what the agent in her coat had tried to prepare us for. It was rumoured to be the toughest test in town (of its kind) and designed to fail as many people as possible. The selection was ‘rigorous’. Now I know what they mean whenever that word crops up.
For me, the Test (it loomed so large it was burning a T shape into my mind) felt like my last chance. I didn’t know how the other nine felt. How many would get through? I was terrified.
The Test lasted two hours, or maybe three or four, by the reckoning of my internal clock.
I took one look at the screen, and went into freefall. Desperately, I tried to remember the agent’s instructions.
There were problems here I hadn’t even known existed, and I had no hope of finding out what they were, let alone solve them. Peter felt free to ask a few questions and to my extreme surprise he was answered. I just followed my instincts, since there was nothing else.
The Head sat down at the back of the room ‘where I can see you’.
I immersed myself more deeply in the Test. The chart was very, very difficult, much more difficult than even the agent had foretold. Was that a trap?
I solved it. I doubted myself. I made mistakes. I corrected them and made new ones.
And was that drawing really as easy as it looked? Peter didn’t ask any more questions so I assumed he knew. Or had I missed something here? I remembered when I failed a translation test in school at the age of ten because I had overlooked one whole sentence. How my mother had screamed. How I had crawled away, ready to die of shame.
My coffee ran low. There was no sugar and there was no hope.
I tried to proof everything many times, as the Head kept telling us. Both she and the agent were very strict on that. In fact, if I got the proofreading wrong I would be failed.
Unfortunately, I had never proofread anything before. I tried very hard to focus.
Time was still left. I doubted again. I went back to my chart and gave it all sorts of extras, all the things that I had ever learned. What people call ‘Bells and Whistles’ but that expression seemed frivolous here.
Surreptitiously I checked on my two pounds. I still had them. Both.
People left. Peter left, joking with the Head. The artist left. Everybody left. I decided to stay as long as possible.
Only me and the Head now. I checked my work one last time and then returned the Test one minute before official closing.
The Head didn’t say a thing, just nodded. I took my empty coffee cup and my coat, and pushed through the heavy door. My bones could not stay. My legs started walking. I had no idea where I was. The workmen had disappeared, but the scattered debris was still there. I think I passed the door to the landing bay but it was closed.
I kept walking. And then I ran across the young guy, also wandering around although he had finished much earlier. Together we managed to locate the lift.
That was lucky but it was also unlucky because I had hoped to take another sugary coffee from the kitchen. And a fistful of sachets. Now I couldn’t.
We came out on the launch pad for space ships. It glittered like a thousand diamonds after our time down in the Third Basement.
‘I’m scared’, said the young guy. ‘I’ve been out of work for so long…’
Maybe I could have taken the coffee after all.
The guards had to run after us for our GUEST tags. What if we had carried them out into the street? Well, we are all but guests upon this earth, I thought. That was another effect of this place – it really put you in touch with your mortality.
I didn’t know the buses around here. And buses don’t like the city of London when it is late. They run very fast, down the emptying roads. It took me some time until I was bold enough to stop one of them.
The last leg of the journey home, walking to my flat, was hard. My legs didn’t want to push into the pavement. But the thought of my Swiss rolls sustained me.
Outside my building my next door neighbour was fumbling drunkenly with his car keys. We nodded at each other and I escaped into my bedsit ahead of his heavy steps. A few minutes later I inhaled the fumes from his warmed up dinner wafting through the kitchen partition. I hoped the twice burnt fish gave him comfort. I had no idea how he spent his days.
We would hear soon, the agent had said. Not from the company, of course, who could and would not converse with us directly on such matters, but from her.
I checked that my voicemail worked. I checked my email. I checked everything twice. And then once again.
Then I unwrapped my half bitten Swiss roll. I sank my teeth into the sweet, deep, rich dark tissue, and closed my mouth around the swirls of sticky filling. I fell asleep fully dressed, clutching the cake in my fingers.
My landlady didn’t know I was out of work.
I dreamed of beautiful landscapes and swimming in an endless sea, warm and happy, and free to move in all the blue directions.
SUBJECT AND OBJECT
When I woke, my eyes went, as always, to my book shelves. Askew and slowly sliding into the wide empty gaps were my old project files. My books had been sold long ago, but the files were worth nothing. They were only the essence of my life, and my passion.
Of course, I had brought this on entirely myself. I had insisted on studying the humanities, and practised my choice, anthropology, as much as I could afford to. I had been warned that it was a field that tolerated only the very rich and the very lucky. I had seen the statistics. But had I listened? No, I had only listened to my own heart.
It had been my dream, or I thought my vocation in life, to observe and analyse people and cultures. For many years, I searched for patterns and tried to find the big overview.
Except that I couldn’t afford it. Not after I stopped being a student. Not after the end of my first professional project which was inadequately paid, or the end of the penultimate one which I paid for myself. And definitely not after the end of the very last project of all which took whatever I could borrow, and couldn’t pay back, in spite of doing as much as possible myself, including the layout and graphics, a steep and frustrating learning curve. Not after those many months without work, and the Era of the Swiss Roll.
All I could afford now was to be the object of anthropology.
The call came on my second day of waiting, early in the afternoon. I had heard my neighbours walk down the stairs from their bedsits in the morning, and then, more slowly, back up again at night. Then the TVs through the walls. Then the faint sounds of mammals in bed. For two days I watched the sun shift shadows through the window, trying to re-read a favourite science fiction novel from the almost empty shelf behind me. At times like these, I like to be far from earth.
The agent introduced herself by first name only which confused me a little. She was not a friend. But, she explained, she had to do this in case I was working elsewhere and needed to be headhunted.
Head hunted! Visions of beautifully suited executives danced across my mind.
I waited for her verdict.
‘Well you’ve passed the Test’, she said, irritated. ’Three weeks in the Third Basement, 4PM to midnight, starting today.’
The Most Successful Bank in the Universe
The company I had just managed to find employment (or more accurately an entry slot for further selection towards that employment) with was, of course, the Most Successful Bank in the Universe.
This Bank was famous and powerful long before I ever heard of it, and many people wished nothing more than to work in this Bank.
I didn’t know that. I didn’t even know much about the Bank itself, not even what kind of banking it did, why it didn’t have any branches you could open an account in, and what it was that made it so famous and desirable above all other Banks.
The only person I had consulted, briefly, was the father of an old school friend who worked at another, lesser bank in the city. His face lit up first with admiration, then envy, then admiration again. ‘Of course’, he said, ‘it’s the gold standard. If you can get in there, in any capacity…’ He looked out the window as if to contemplate the vast opportunities offered at the Most Successful Bank in the Universe which he, of course, had never had a chance to explore himself. My school friend gave me a sharp glance. I had made her father very uncomfortable. That was bad news for the family…
But it made little difference in my decision to accept the job. Like many students of the humanities, I had almost prided myself on my ignorance of matters of commerce. I certainly wasn’t going to be impressed by a bank. Even if it was a Bank.
I only looked at the hourly rates the agency promised, particularly on the night shift. I had never earned so much money before. Granted, the skills they were asking for had nothing to do with my education and previous work experience, but I had acquired most of them the hard way, doing every supporting task I could do myself in the course of my now defunct projects so that I didn’t have to pay someone else with money I didn’t have. I had never really valued those lesser skills, but now they were the ones that kept me alive while my higher skills had managed to accumulate nothing for me but debt.
Listening to some of my friends talking disdainfully about the banking industry I kept quiet. Was this job a betrayal? And if so, of what?
One look at my bank account (with the kind of bank that did have local branches!) convinced me that I had to at least try. And anyway, my friends were not bankers, nor did they know any, apart from that one Dad. When I tried to read up on it, I didn’t find a lot of concrete information about what it was actually like to work inside the Building Without a Name. I couldn’t even google any pictures of the working floors. It seemed that the very chairs and desks were confidential. And indeed, I did find out later that the taking of photographs was strictly forbidden. A rule that was relentlessly enforced, like all the minor rules in the Bank. Every aspect of life in the Most Successful Bank in the Universe was shrouded in mystery and hidden behind generic superlatives. I suppose I could have wondered why…
Well, I told myself, this was an opportunity to find out for myself. I would know something that none of my friends would know. They were all working in academics, education, the arts, or even the public sector, said to be unproductive and doomed to fail. From the perspective of the Bank, they were far removed from where the sausage was made. Or, in this case, the money.
Maybe I, too, would learn how to be efficient and successful, like the Bank.
But the fact remains that, unlike the bankers who prepared, competed and aspired all their lives to join it, I stumbled right into the heart of the Most Successful Bank in the Universe inadvertently and almost by accident.
BASIC TRAINING: MY CORE GROUP
In the military, people hark back forever to their original training group. Sometimes it fuses into a power cell propelling stellar careers. Sometimes brothers in arms marry into each other’s families. Sometimes, decades later, the trainees become generals and stage a coup, making each other wealthy dictators.
The seven people who assembled in the Third Basement the next day did nothing to inspire such lifelong fealty.
I recognised the red haired artist (Rita) and the young guy (Julian, we were now telling each other names) from my Test, and, of course, as he had so confidently predicted, Peter. There were three others, survivors of a selection group of twelve, several weeks ago. Again, I was lucky.
As it turned out, very lucky indeed. I had been told, by the Head herself, on the phone, that my Test contained several proofing mistakes. ‘Usually, when people make a proofing mistake, I fail them’, she said, with the cold assurance of someone who is paid to fail people on a daily basis.
I tried not to breathe heavily into my phone. Had the agent made a mistake? Had I hoped just to be disappointed?
‘But’, said the Head, ‘yours is the best technical Test I’ve ever seen.’
Of course I didn’t know how long ‘ever’ was but the Head had looked to me like someone who had held a long tenure. (At the time I was blissfully unaware of the average length of tenure at that company…) I should have felt proud of myself, or at least happy, but I was too shocked from my near-miss.
‘So you passed’, she said. I wish I had had such luck in anthropology.
‘Sorry’, I said, and, ‘thank you.’
‘I’ve told the Trainer you need to be watched’, said the Head and hung up.
And, the training was paid. The agent told me. Not very well, but paid. Whereas in my previous field….
Money! At the end of the week. At the end of THIS week!
It had been such a long time since my last pay check, I wasn’t sure I remembered the procedure. But I hoped it would cover my rent, and the buses, and the makings of sandwiches at home.
If I survived the training, I would earn a good hourly wage. And even more if I got onto the night shift, my goal right from the start. The agent had told me I would. But who knew?
It was a long way in the future, anyway.
At the moment, we were stuck in the tea corner of the Third Basement. Damp, dark and surrounded by metre thick concrete on five sides (it was tucked between various competing dead ends), this was not a place where you would want to linger, except of course if the only alternative was the Training Room. Besides, coffee, sugar and real milk from a fridge were Bank benefits that we were already entitled to enjoy. Tax free.
I didn’t know if the others were all as desperate as I was. But I was absolutely determined to succeed. I would work on my weaknesses and develop my strengths. From now on I would double and triple check my copying and proof reading. From now on I would make sure I wouldn’t be caught out again and almost not get the job. From now on I would be sensible and abandon my dreams.
We stocked up. Everyone was carrying two drinks now and I was already used to the splash burns on my hands. I decided to look at it as a way of warming up for a freezing shift inside the bunker walls.
Rita, the artist, was well ahead of me. As on the day of the Test, she wore a long men’s shirt over leggings, very different from the usual banking attire, even down here in ‘smart casual’ land. I felt frumpy next to her. And I never managed to catch up, somehow. I had hoped we could maybe become friends, or buddies at least, but she hardly even looked at me except on the occasions when she corrected some of my opinions on art history.
‘Just wait’, said the Trainer, a man who always wore a suit although it was not mandatory down here, ‘it’s even colder on the Seventh Floor.’
The Seventh Floor. That was the place to be. If we made it there….
Access to the Seventh Floor was through continuous assessment, by him, and selection would be ‘rigorous’. I looked around, and so did Peter. Less than 30 percent had made it here from each test group. It crossed my mind that there might be a fail quota.
The Trainer announced a ten minute break. We took it, grumbling to each other that it wasn’t really long enough since the walk to the tea corner took up a considerable slice of that time. We really had no idea…
The Center of Global Excellence
So what was it that fulfilled such a vital function at the Bank that we were being recruited, selected, tested, trained and tested again (rigorously, of course!) until only the fittest remained, and then trained again for weeks at the expense of the company (however close to the minimum wage)?
‘Well’, said the Trainer, sitting behind his desk on the raised platform, ‘the first thing you have to remember is that we are a Center of Global Excellence.’
And then, when we showed no reaction, ‘that means, we are the best of our kind.’
The Trainer allowed himself a thin smile.
‘No. In the world.’
We managed a few little ohs and ahs. I had no idea what any of this meant.
‘And the bankers need us, 24/7, 365 days a year. For the Books. We are essential to the Bank.’
That was good to hear, I thought.
We were all here because we were hoping to join the Bank’s ‘Graphics Center’, a 24/7 operation that produced Books for pitches, deals, mergers and acquisitions, and various advisory functions, used mainly, but not exclusively, by the Bank’s Investment Banking division. This was not a decorative extra. The Books were the only tangible object that the Bank’s clients ever held in their hands, in return for the astronomic fees they paid. Of course they expected Global Excellence, and we were here to provide it.
Every day, highly sensitive information from everywhere in the Bank passed through the Center. It was right at the heart of it all. If selected, we, a random group of people who had never aspired to joining it, would become the ultimate carriers of the Bank’s secrets.
When I looked around I realised that, just like me, most people were not graphics professionals but came from a diversity of backgrounds where we had acquired the necessary skills. And we did have those skills in abundance, I could see that when I sneaked a look at my neighbours’ screens. The ‘highly competitive test’ that had been administered to us, right here, down in the Third Basement, by the Head of Training, had indeed selected a skilled workforce, and maybe the seven of us were indeed the Best and Fittest in our field.. So what did we need to learn? According to the Trainer in a Suit, the purpose of Basic Training in the Third Basement was to teach us the ‘best practices’ developed by the Bank’s Graphics Department, and its complex house style.
But nothing was ever quite what it seemed at the Most Successful Bank in the Universe…
‘Well, back to work’, said the Trainer.
We bent our heads and obeyed.
Nothing further was ever explained to us. Not the context of the Graphics Center within the company and certainly not the structure, mission or purpose of the Most Successful Bank in the Universe itself. Like our ice cold Trainer, the Bank parted with information very reluctantly, as if it they were giving away an advantage. We were reduced to making our own observations and extrapolated from whatever we could.
So far, what I knew was this: we were learning to produce something that was called ‘The Page’.
The Page was laid out according to various intricate rules. It contained text and illustrations, including many kinds of charts, diagrams, pictures and maps. While the bankers provided the content, it was our job to create the visuals. All the documents that left the Bank to meet the universe outside were formatted to a brand specific design, including company colours, fonts, layout and other graphics elements.
These so-called ‘house styles’ were written down in a bible not unlike the sacred book of a salvation religion. They proclaimed the rules on everything from paragraph spacings to chart colour sequences, line thickness and complex layout proportions. Nothing could go out that broke these rules.
It was like learning a whole new and very difficult language, like a combination of fifth century Mandarin and nineteenth century German.
I understood the need for consistency and an overall company look. I tried to absorb the design philosophy. I extended my mind in previously unexplored directions. I diligently practiced the extremely fine motor skills needed to control my mouse in complex illustrations.
‘Not everyone will make it through Basic Training’, said Peter to his desk mate Ilya from the other test group, who nodded wisely. Ilya was already well tuned into rumour…
Week Two in the Third Basement and one of us had already been eliminated. We could all see that the workspace next to Julian was empty, but it was never mentioned.
I settled down to my learning task of the evening. One quarter of the Page I was trying to create was a so-called ‘combination chart’. These charts were a lot like unruly animals, always trying to run away in a different directions. The bankers, said the Trainer, really liked combination charts but… He hinted at dark practices aimed at circumventing the company guidelines. Then he permitted himself a little smile.
I looked at my chart. It was quite successful I felt. Maybe I did have a talent for this. As for gathering information on the Bank, one thing I had already noticed. The curves always went upwards.
Another quarter of the Page layout had to be filled with an enormous amount of text. How could I do that and still fulfil all the regulations? There were very specific rules about the relationship between font size and paragraph spacing that must not be broken. I tried to follow them all and ended up with a horrible cluster of tiny lines and a lot of white space. The Trainer’s eyes rested on me while I got more and more anxious. Yes, it was only a page. But it was a Page that might well decide my fate…
The Trainer walked through the rows, people looking up to him.
He gave out judgment.
When he got to Julian who was sitting right behind me, he turned his monitor around so that we could all see. I was appalled to realise I was staring into a rough copy of my own beautiful chart.
‘What is this’, said the Trainer to the class.
‘A combination chart’, I heard myself say.
The Trainer looked at me with suspicion.
‘There’s something missing’, he said.
Our class looked around all over the chart, now enlarged to fill the entire screen. Julian looked too, craning his neck.
‘I don’t know’, he said, defeated.
A giggle flashed from the front row where Rita sat. She already had a friend, not me but a well dressed woman from the other group who seemed to excel at pleasing our Trainer.
The Trainer pointed to the value axis of the chart. It went from 0 to 500, and I thought it was beautifully proportioned, just like mine.
‘What?’ said the Trainer, ‘What?’ striking the monitor with his pen.
The giggles flared up again. I had no idea what he was asking for. Julian looked around helplessly.
‘0 to 500’, he read out, as quietly as he could.
‘What?’ repeated the Trainer, much louder now, ‘500 what????’
Julian didn’t know.
‘Exactly’, said the Trainer. ‘500 dollars?’
Even I knew that couldn’t be right. 500 dollars wasn’t worth setting up a chart for.
The Trainer struck the monitor again. It gave a hard, menacing sound.
‘500 BILLION dollars’, he said. ‘Put it in!’
Trembling, Julian reached for his mouse and made space for the value axis title.
‘$ bn’ it said now. I quietly made the same adjustment.
Finally, the Trainer lost his patience. He reached for Julian’s mouse and grabbed it, hard. Julian gave a little sound like a very surprised rabbit which elicited a huge volley of giggles from the front row.
The Trainer gave Julian an angry look and, in one fell, highly skilled swoop, took out the space between $ and bn.
‘Never, never a space in between’, he shouted. ‘Never, never a space in between. Between the dollar and the billion.’
And there never was.
I admit I was shocked. I hadn’t heard anyone talk like this since I left school. Even then, no one had ever spoken to an adult like this. People had been unpleasant, snarky, nasty, yes. But not this brutal show of power, this coerced submission.
But the Trainer was not finished. Oh no.
He moved over to me. But instead of my now perfect chart, he focused on the miserable looking text.
‘I tried to follow all the rules’, I said. My voice sounded suspiciously like another rabbit. What hunts rabbits? Maybe a feral dog? Maybe a falcon from Hyde Park? Maybe a weasel?
The Trainer looked at me.
‘You’, he said, ‘are not a very visual person. No potential for creativity at all. I’ve noticed that before. Break.’
Satisfied, the Trainer went back to his elevated platform and unwrapped his sandwich. It was from a gourmet shop.
I sat there for a few moments, losing valuable tea brewing time, while everyone else stampeded through the concrete warrens.
A memory flashed into my mind. Myself, at age 12 or so, in a large schoolroom, watching in petrified horror as my maths teacher lifted the back flap of my exercise book, high up in the air, revealing that it was not a proper exercise book at all but a bundle of pages saved over from other exercise books and taped together at the back, the result of what I had thought of as an ingenious way to prolong its life and avoid the dreaded task of asking my mother to buy a me new one. I knew very well that there was never a good moment in the household finances for such a purchase. My maths teacher, I hope to God, was ignorant of this fact. The class joined him in uproarious laughter. The taped pages hung down from his upstretched hand like a dismembered accordion.
My face burned hot with shame. I didn’t want that memory but it had found a hook. Again, what hunts rabbits?
I managed to get up and rush towards the Basement kitchen, desperately swallowing back the tears.
‘The Trainer is S&I’, said Peter. He and Ilya were leaning against the cupboards in the kitchen corner, pushing the drawers in and out. They seemed remarkably relaxed and I had noticed that they always had their work finished ahead of everyone else. Peter was clearly very good at making useful alliances. His new friend used to be a lawyer back in Russia before he settled in London.
‘S&I’, I asked. I didn’t mind taking the bait. I was going to do whatever it took to avoid making more mistakes.
Peter and Ilya exchanged a conspiratory glance.
‘Upstairs’, Peter said.
‘On every floor’, added Ilya.
‘They know everything. And they constantly look over your shoulder. They only report to each other. And New York. Never cross them.’
If they hoped I would be properly impressed they were right. I nodded and had to switch the kettle back on again since I had missed the boiling. For a moment I wondered what pipes the water had run through before it reached the Third Basement and how often this particular water had boiled already. Then I dunked my tea bag.
‘What’s S&I stand for?’ I said.
‘Oh, I don’t know’, said Ilya, flexing his right hand. ‘There’s some kind of strange feeling in my fingers…’
‘Mine too’, I said. ‘I burned them.’
‘Serve and Inform’, said Peter proudly, ‘Serve and Inform.’
Rita breezed down the corridor back to the Training Room with her new best friend, kicking cartons and raising echoes of the infantry. The friend, ex tele-marketing, already knew the right people upstairs, or so she said, and was going to make a career out of this. Hanging back, I was overtaken by Julian.
‘Hi’, I said, uncertainly.
‘Oh hi’, he said. ‘Did you get a call from the agent today?’
Another call from the agent? What else had I missed?
‘Yeah’, said Julian. ‘Got a call from the agency just now saying that I wasn’t up to shape. They’re on my case. I have to be faster.’
He shook his head.
I shook my head too but didn’t know what to say.
When we got to the room and passed through the metre thick walls, the class had started. Rita and her friend sat in the first row and were listening diligently to the Trainer’s directions.
WHY DIDN’T YOU LEAVE
At this early stage, maybe I could have.
So why did I persevere with something so stressful and degrading, why did I not walk out proudly into the sunlight (or, in this case, the polluted evening drizzle over the City of London)?
Well, I had already done that. For most of my life I had proudly done what I felt called to do. Now, I was paying the price. The painful treatment in the Third Basement only re-enforced my even more painful awareness of the desperate financial situation I was in, atonement for all my years of trying to create a life in the humanities.
And, even this early on, eight hours per evening of that kind of Training had started to infiltrate my mind. I had already begun to accept it as the inevitable, the place I went to every night, the place I would go to for the foreseeable future. My place in life.
Of course, I never would have said that, or allowed it as a fully conscious thought. I expended considerable energy trying not to become too aware of what was happening inside myself.
But, when Peter said, during Week Three in the five sided tea corner of the Third Basement, ‘We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t want to be here’, I felt he was stating a painful truth. If I had left, dozens would have jumped at the chance to replace me.
And, if I survived to ascend to the Seventh Floor, I would make more money that I ever had before. Not as much as a banker, but more than the head teacher of a primary school. More than my whole team of anthropologists clumped together.
Life is pain. Might as well get paid for it…
PETER AND THE TOMBSTONE
Once again I had miscalculated the time it took the three buses to get to the Bank. Today I was far too early.
Two doors down from the bus stop was a trendy coffee shop. Through the window I could see a red sofa under a golden picture frame. It was empty and I wanted to go and sit there.
One look at the prices displayed behind the coffee counter made it clear to me that this was still way out of my range.
Luckily, the graveyard was even closer.
I walked through the low gate and was surrounded by tombs and sunken stones. If there had ever been a church it was now long gone, abandoning the graves on the time line to eternity. Maybe it was the centuries of acid rain or maybe it was a parish requirement, but the slabs all had a washed out ivory tint, not unlike the colour of old bones, long after the flesh has fallen away.
I found a tomb in the shape of a marble box, engraved all round and on the top with the details of the departed. I sat down on it and took out my book. I was still on far future science fiction.
The afternoon was fading, and the shadow of the Bank fell over me and my marble resting place.
I knew I had my home made sandwich with me, and after a short but futile struggle I wrestled it out of my bag to eat it all at once. A fine drizzle settled in and coated the pages of my book.
I had just managed to transport myself out to a fantastical alien planet when I heard a voice saying my name.
Although there was a path somewhere down the graveyard, the tombstones were set among the fertile grass that swallowed all footsteps. The voice was very close.
The alien planet shattered in my imagination. I looked up.
And into Peter’s smile.
‘Your favourite gravestone?’ he said.
I looked over at the anonymous entrance.
‘Yes’, I said. ‘It’s fairly comfortable, as gravestones go.’
Peter broke out into a boyish grin.
‘I like to sit on them too’, he said. ‘Maybe not polite, considering what’s underneath, but I’m sure they don’t mind. Can I join you?’
I moved over on the tombstone. My thighs met the fresh cold of marble that has not been sat on for a long time.
Peter perched at the edge, supporting himself by stretching out his long legs into the grass. I could see the outline of some nice, firm muscle under his dark pants.
‘What are you having?’ he said companionably.
I had forgotten the half eaten sandwich in my hand. Now I wished I had dropped it behind the grave. It was just a pitiful thing, margarine and scrapes of old cheese.
Luckily, Peter didn’t really want to know.
He held up his long red paper cup and smiled some more.
‘I really love this stuff’, he said. I noticed it bore the logo from the trendy coffee shop.
I knew what Peter earned. The same as me. I wondered how he could afford this. Of course it was the last thing I could ask.
We sat and chatted for a while. I wasn’t sure how I rated my chances of passing the Training. As always, Peter was confident.
‘They’ve invested in us’, he said. ‘And anyway, you’re good at this.’
I hoped he was right.
Then the drizzle turned into heavy rain and drove us in.
My book was soaked at the edges, but I managed to slip it into my bag together with the margarine sandwich while Peter was focusing on the last sips of his gourmet coffee.
For a moment I thought he was going to toss the cup over the tomb, deeper into the graveyard towards the looming evening. I must have looked a little shocked, because he grinned again and tamely carried it in.
‘Oh’, he said, walking down the dark corridor with me, ‘I almost forgot: philosophy.’
‘Anthropology’, I said. He nodded.
Philosophy! He must have known he where he would end up, sooner or later.
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