How The Other Half Lives by James LovegroveIt was another merely magnificent Monday in the life of William Ian North.

The chauffeur picked him up from the mansion punctually at seven fifteen a.m. and ferried him into the heart of London within a purring Daimler cocoon. In the back-seat, North scanned the FT and checked the Nikkei Dow closing figures on the in-car terminal. The stereo played Wagner – operatic Sturm und Drang to get the heart pumping, the blood racing.

Arriving at the NorthStar International Building at eight thirty, North crossed the marble atrium and acknowledged the salutes of the uniformed guards at the security desk with a brisk nod. A private lift whisked him up twenty floors to an office the size of a ballroom, where a glass wall gave him a panoramic view of the City, its domes and dominions, edifices and empires all agleam in the new day’s sun.

At his desk, whose calfskin-topped surface could have easily accommodated a kingsize mattress, North officiated all morning. He contacted various associates around the world via audiovisual telelink. For some of the people he was talking to, it was early evening; for others, the wee small hours of the morning. The time difference bothered neither him nor them. When William Ian North called you, it was at his convenience, not yours.

He brokered deals. He bought. He sold. He transferred from liquid to certificate and vice versa. He shifted between currencies. He invested. He disposed of. He topsliced and undercut. He creamed off and shored up. Across the planet, companies, industries, nations prospered or declined according to his dispensation. On a widescreen TV near his desk, tracker software registered the progress of the London market, describing the earth tremors of loss and gain as a wavering red line on a graph. The line seemed to respond to every one of North’s decisions, every flex or contraction of his fiscal muscles.

He took lunch in the boardroom with a dozen of his immediate underlings. Business was not discussed, but every word North said, every nuance of every sentence he uttered, was listened to with the utmost attentiveness and later dissected and analysed, divined for hidden significance. As soon as the five-course meal concluded, one of the underlings was summoned to North’s office and sacked for failing to meet her quotas. In truth, the woman had missed her mark by only the narrowest margin, but the occasional summary dismissal of an upper-echelon employee did wonders for the productivity of the rest of the workforce. “It is thought well to kill an admiral from time to time,” as Voltaire said, “to encourage the others.”

For half an hour North then rested, reclining supine on a velvet-upholstered chaise longue in a side-chamber of his office. Eyes closed, he sensed the thrum of activity emanating up from the building below. Beneath his back were a thousand people, each of them electronically connected to a thousand more, and all of them dedicated to a single task: that of augmenting the worldly wealth of William Ian North, inflating his already obscene capital value to yet greater heights of obscenity. He could feel them through layer upon layer of concrete and steel girder as they telephoned, tapped keyboards, made choices and calculations. For the most part he did not know their names; had no idea what they looked like. They were termites in a termitary, toiling frantically and anonymously on his behalf.

At three p.m. precisely, a staggeringly beautiful woman dressed in a crisp, short-skirted business suit was brought up to North’s office by the chauffeur. This event occurred at the same hour every weekday. The woman was not always the same woman each time, but she was always unspeakably, apocalyptically gorgeous – in her field, the very best that money could afford. After the chauffeur made a discreet exit, the woman stripped bare and pleasured North on his desk. Then she dressed and departed, and North showered in his private bathroom, put on his suit again along with a fresh shirt straight from the tailor’s box, and resumed work.

By five, with the London market closed, North was ready to go home. Electronic memos had been squirted off to various foreign subsidiaries, giving advice on which holdings to keep an eye on, which to get rid of if they fell below a certain threshold, which to acquire if they rose above. There had been a small blip with a Latin American asset, nothing major, a depreciation of a few million, a drop in the ocean. Nevertheless, North demanded that an investigation be made into the loss and the person responsible disciplined. Apart from this, he left his office content that everything was running smoothly with NorthStar International and would continue to run smoothly overnight until he returned the following morning to pick up the reins once more.

The chauffeur drove him out of the darkening city, through the streams of red taillights, westwards into the sunset and the dusk-cloaked countryside. North thumbed through the Evening Standard and listened to Elgar. The music stirred nothing in him more than a vague sense of yearning, a knee-jerk nostalgia for a pastoral, idyllic England that never was. The newspaper was gossipy, simply-written, undemanding.

By six thirty he was back at the mansion again. The chauffeur bade him goodnight and steered the Daimler back down the driveway to the lodge, where he would wash, wax and vacuum the car in readiness for tomorrow, then have supper with his wife and go out to the pub.

The domestic staff were long gone. A gourmet supper awaited North in the kitchen refrigerator, needing only to be heated up in the oven. North stood in his mansion, alone.

No, not quite alone.

In his study, he took a key from a hook attached to the mantelshelf above the fireplace. The key was long, black, iron, old-fashioned, solid. Clenched in North’s fist, its teeth poked out one side of his fingers, its oval turnplate the other.

With the key, North went over to one of the bookcases that lined the study walls and tweaked a leather-bound volume of Dumas. The bookcase swung inwards to reveal a short, dusty passageway. North entered.

The bookcase automatically eased itself shut behind him as he strode the length of the passageway. He could reopen it by pressing a lever mounted on the wall beside its hinge mechanism. Arriving at a heavy wooden door at the far end of the passageway, he flicked a light switch. No light came on in the passageway, but from the other side of the door there was a muffled cry. Inserting the key into the lock, North turned it. A tumbler clunked chunkily. North grasped the door handle and rotated it. The door opened.

A vile stench gushed out through the doorway to greet him – an almost-visible miasma of awful odours. Faeces. Urine. Unwashed body. Stale, overbreathed air. Damp. Mildew. Blood. Despair. North recoiled involuntarily. Though he encountered the smell every day, he had never grown accustomed to it. He probably never would.

Breathing through his mouth, he passed through the door, closed and locked it behind him, then ventured down a flight of stone steps.

The room was fifteen feet by fifteen feet by fifteen feet, a windowless subterranean cube. The walls were whitewashed brick, the floor just plain brick. Illumination came from a single unshaded lightbulb wreathed in cobwebs and controlled solely by the switch outside.

Once upon a time this cellar had been used for cold storage. Now, in one corner there was a thin mattress, little more than a pallet really, its ticking patterned with countless stains, stains overlaying stains like jumbled continents on a map of a destroyed world. Beside the mattress there was a chamberpot draped with a square of teacloth. Next to that there was a half-used candle in a saucer, a water canteen, and an empty enamelware dish.

In the opposite corner someone crouched.

He was still just recognisably a human being. Tattered clothing hung on him like castoffs on a scarecrow. Bare, blackened feet protruded from the cuffs of what had once been a pair of designer jeans; a filthy Armani shirt clad a torso as bony as a dishrack. He was covering his eyes and snivelling. His fingernails, like those of his toes, were long, splintered and brown. The dark, straggly, matted hair on his head meshed with his dark, straggly, matted beard in such a way that it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began. Rocking to and fro, the man huddled in the corner, trying to make himself as small as possible.

“Well, good evening again,” said North.

The man moaned and pressed his hands more tightly over his eyes.

“Look at me.”

Slowly, with reluctant obedience, the man parted his fingers slightly to form a lattice, through which he squinted up at North.

“Please,” he croaked.

“‘Please’?” said North, tapping the door key up and down in his palm like a Victorian teacher with a ruler, sizing up a wayward pupil.

“Please don’t,” said the man.

“Would that I had a choice,” said North, and, pocketing the key, stepped forwards.

The beating lasted five minutes.

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• Filed under Extracts • 08/01/1999 •