issue 259 - September 1994
Illustration by WENDY HOILE
The final deal
He did not care to recall what he’d done or who he’d done it to,
but fly-and-grab corporate ram-raider Frank Parker’s past was about to catch up with him.
George Fisher was in Sydney, Australia, to witness it.
Frank Parker’s wrist bore a Tag Heuer sportswatch – chunky, muscular but elegant in a neo-colonial fashion. It reminded him of his more athletic past. It reminded him of the women who had unclasped it for him when he needed less restraint. It never reminded him of the time. There was a team of executive secretaries to do that.
The only sound in the boardroom was the soothing breath of the air-conditioning. Outside it was hot, the late-summer sun glistening on Opera House, sails, harbour. Briefly he thought of Chardonnay and his shaded pool.
One-by-one the room filled, crisp power-dressed executives settled into their seats like scum around a bathtub. Within an hour they would leave, two-by-two, their collars soaked in sweat, their shirt-backs seeping blood from knife wounds.
Parker’s own shirts rarely oozed blood. His evolutionary motto was: ‘The Survival of the Fastest’. He had developed this approach over the course of a decade of corporate take-overs around the world. He had also developed the habit of keeping his own freshly-laundered suits hanging in permanently-booked hotel rooms in the major financial cities, ready to step into on his fly-and-grab raids.
Parker paced the briefing room next door. ‘What’s the game on this one?’
‘They’re scared of a big sell-off,’ said Drystone. ‘Offer them safety after two years but a rough ride in-between. Suggest a big rise for the directors after six months.’
Parker kept staring straight ahead. ‘The downside?’
‘Possibly a $20-million loss after year one. For us, a bit of exposure. But we can offload on the Arabs if things get jerky.’
‘I should talk rough not smooth.’
‘Right. Coat off as soon as you sit down. And roll up your sleeves after 10 minutes,’ said Drystone.
‘So. The local producers will have to lift their game and drop their costs. No worries.’ Parker wiped his hands over his tanned but slightly flushed face. ‘I’ll have them on toast.’
Drystone, he could trust Drystone. He was one of the mates. ‘Mates’ for Parker meant ‘useful’. Those who were not useful didn’t rate a nod. But Drystone was useful. He was a financial whiz, a blender and juicer. He played the foreign-exchange and futures markets like waterpolo. In recent years he had become one of the most successful traders in foreign debt. With his rancid smile he could make seven figures almost twice-weekly for the corporation, buying and selling the hopes and losses of struggling nations like pawned watches. Each keystroke on his computer could cost a poor nation an extra two or three years’ interest payment. Drystone was useful.
Parker walked into the boardroom and stood before the sacrificial altar. On the wall opposite was an oil painting of a pristine coastal stream, long since decimated by open-caste mining – a detail that never worried him. He glanced at the painting, thought of tax deductions, shelf companies, offshore investment. Yes, the coast.
Parker’s concern for the life of the planet had so far been restricted to bulls and bears in their stockmarket manifestations. Bears he had never seen, but felt a deep animosity to them for their links to the old Soviet empire, all the blasphemies that the word entailed. Bulls gave him rounder pleasure. They reminded him of his physique and pastoral pleasures.
More tangibly, one of the largest tracts of grazing land in the world was owned by his consortium. Before it was cleared the land had been ‘waste forest, full of monkeys and squawking birds’, according to his man on the scene. The new beef ranch in Argentina was a financial windfall, even pulling in some government aid for its troubles.
‘Men,’ said Parker – women made it to his boardroom only as honorary men –‘let’s stop being polite. You’re wankers if you think you can do better. This is my final offer.’
And then he froze.
A huge, invisible hand squeezed his chest, crushed him without effort. He sank back into his chair. He wheezed. Voices faded around him. Someone made a clumsy attempt at resuscitation.
In a strange passage of time, possibly five minutes, possibly two hours, Parker became aware of the jolts of the ambulance, the professional grimaces of the paramedics. He could afford the best medical treatment in the world. He need not worry.
Then, once more, came the crushing grip on his chest. Amid the tubes and masks spread a crystal light, weightless and without shadows. He was floating.
He thought he saw himself lying on a white bed. He was looking into a grooming mirror held by a young Malaysian girl.
‘You do not look well, Mr Parker. And you do not remember me. I never met you face-to-face. My family farmed a small hillside for many years until you ordered the trees to be felled for woodchip,’ she said without emotion.
‘You were all given compensation. Some of you did very well,’ said Parker, bemused by the apparition.
‘In our one small village, Mr Parker, in the first year seven people died from illness and lack of food. Your company gave us a pittance. Our livelihood was taken from us, and so too our dignity. The only men to have gained – your agents – now live like kings far away from the clearings...’
Her voice trailed off and Parker began to breathe, although he could not recall having stopped. The sunshine was dulled by the ambulance windows, a sweet smell of jasmine drowned by disinfectants. His parent company had made a clear $12 million on that deal, with a minimum of fuss. He’d pocketed almost $2 million himself, plus a few bonuses...
His image again. His pallor in stark relief. The frame of the mirrors swaying.
An old man, maybe Filipino. ‘Mr Parker? Mr Parker?’
‘Mr Parker, you do not look well. But I must tell you. My wife and two children are now dead. My daughter is still with me, but she will not live long,’ said the man.
‘Yeah, and it’s all my fault. Now get out!’
‘I will leave soon enough... Do you remember my face? I was the ‘resettled native’ in your glossy annual report. But you never asked me. You never gave any of us a choice when you decided the dam would be built for hydro-power. The slums we were forced into were weeping sores on the city. Our blood was the rain that had to fall so that your profits could rise...’
His voice, too, faded into the sound of the ambulance pumping through city traffic. Parker felt angry, but also stronger. He snapped back into sharper consciousness and swore at what might have been a pang of guilt. Before the paramedics could restrain him he jerked bolt upright on the stretcher and shouted something unintelligible at what he took for a Reuters’ screen of foreign-currency values. The paramedics lowered him firmly, tightened a restraining strap.
Though the journey barely lasted 10 minutes Parker was visited by a long line of mirror-bearers. Each one struggled to be seen behind the reflection of Parker’s own pallid face, which grimaced more intensely each time. Process workers in Central America and Taiwan; labourers in southern India; Kooris from tribal lands in the Australian outback. Parker used every fibre of his remaining strength to keep them roped off from his mind.
He felt stronger, he rallied, he made a unilateral declaration of innocence. He stood before a towering waterfall which thundered into a jagged canyon. One-by-one he threw the mirrors over, each with an etched portrait of himself in the glass. He felt robust, powerful. He would not compromise.
The ambulance entered the hospital gates and pulled up at the casualty dock. Its rear doors were unlatched and the daylight poured in with the sound of a distant car alarm, a conversation held low out of respect for lives torn open.
Parker discarded the last of the gilt-edged mirrors. He would take a fortnight off work. He might take a couple of days’ rest and then resume his power-walking fitness regime. He would eat fewer prawns, drink less wine, maybe stop seeing Lisa and Karen, buy his wife more jewellery. He would be fine.
For the first time that afternoon he truly relaxed – and the fist returned. It seemed to push through his chest as if splitting the earth. The pain was immense and he fell. He staggered to his feet at the base of the waterfall. His ears filled with sounds of life support, the technology of denial. Medical staff shouted. Scraping, scraping inside his mind.
The clanging, metallic sounds faded into the squawking of a small bird, shrill in apparent agony. The sunlight was cold grey but its rays stung like wasps. The mirrors were all intact. The memories too. But the reflections, ghost-like, became statues of himself, caricatures of his worst moments, his cost to others. Each statue in turn beckoned with outstretched arm then withered as he approached.
He was sobbing now, inconsolable as a child. The statues motioned then turned in formation, each setting its eyes on him without warmth or life, each at arm’s length, marbled reminders of bitterness and gall. And in the utter loneliness of that moment Parker felt the warmth drain from his own flesh, a rapid acceleration of paleness.
The world floated. The wrenching pain in his chest didn’t ease. Piercing truth opened before him not the future but his past. One-by-one the memories he had cherished cracked and faded like a bleached billboard. One-by-one his joys were putrefied by selfishness and greed, regressing until all his years were disfigured.
Parker’s widow inherited the corporation. She died penniless.
George Fisher is a writer who works with the NI in Australia.