Doing Good Business
Julie and I roll our eyes at each other, quickly so Colin doesn’t notice. There’s a long pause pregnant with Colin’s expectation that one of us will return his conversational serve. I sigh. ‘So?’ I’m not going to waste more than one of my finite supply of words encouraging Colin.
‘So, in the eyes of the law, a company is regarded as a fictional person and that status gives it limited liability and unlimited longevity.’
‘Super.’ Julie’s tone undermines the word’s usual meaning. I suspect she has no idea what Colin just said.
‘I thought,’ Colin pins first Julie then me with one of his sharper looks, ‘it would be interesting to think of Freeman Limited as a person made up of elements of the three of us.’
I suppress the image of a new-born hybrid, it’s too horrible to entertain. Instead I don the defence of supreme stupidity because it usually works a treat. ‘You what?’
‘If Freeman Limited were a single person how environmentally conscious would you say that person was?’
I think of the enormous plastic drums round the back of the yard emblazoned by skulls and crossbones. Yet we leave them open to fill with rainwater. Every few weeks the warehouse manager pushes them over so their contents wash straight over the concrete yard to the banks of the nearby river. The council sold the land on the other bank and now it’s an enormous housing development, all US East Coast weather-boarded despite being in an industrial part of Kent. If I go out at lunchtime I can hear children playing there.
Julie is clearly thinking, her eyebrows are all knotted. She told me yesterday that she was about to ask for a raise so I wasn’t to muddy the waters by asking for one too. It was her idea, she said, perhaps I could ask next year. I suspect Julie would only join a union if she was the only member. Whatever she’s about to say will be meant to impress Colin so I try not to listen as it will only make me loathe her more. It’s already got to the point where I have to disinfect the toilet seat if I think she’s been in there. I bring cover spray in from home.
‘We, I mean Freemans, make products with lovely scents. Doesn’t that mean we improve people’s lives?’
It’s too late to cover my ears, I heard her. I widen my eyes at her before I remember it will make no difference, she doesn’t care for my opinions. I’m a Vegan and she reads the Daily Mail. We are never going to be bosom buddies. The only thing that unites us is our hatred of Colin and working at Freemans.
Colin nods at her, a smile trying but failing to take over his prissy mouth. ‘Yes our products make people’s homes smell better so that’s a bit of a giveback.’
The only thing we’re giving them is a cancer risk. We sprinkle a bit of lavender in the mix so we can print ‘made with natural ingredients’ on the label but the rest of the materials, the ‘fragance’ are sweated into existence in laboratories in countries that aren’t big on testing their effects. Take diethyl phthalate – we put it in everything but there are hardly any research studies into its impact on people. I’m trying to put that right by running one myself.
You didn’t really think I worked at Freemans for the pitiful salary or the job satisfaction, did you? I have a first-class chemical engineering degree and a conscience. I grew up in this town and I’ve always known the delightful smells of freshly washed cotton, vanilla pods and crushed strawberries that billow out of this factory day and night were made from poisons. I learnt it from all those nights listening to my parents cough and from the red blistering of my little brother’s skin.
‘So,’ Colin had worked himself into a frenzy and I hadn’t heard a word, ‘the long and the short of it is appearing to have a social conscience is good for business and I think Freeman Limited do need to embody that in one person, in the member of the management team that best expresses it. Congratulations, Polly, I’m promoting you to Corporate Social Responsibility Manager.’
My mouth is wide open. Julie gives me a slow hand-clap while she is clearly chewing a lemon. ‘Thanks Colin. Is there a job description? I mean, are you certain I’m the right person for the job?’
He laughs and the gleam of intelligence in his eyes makes me shiver. ‘Oh, Polly, I’m certain you are. I’m sorry we can’t give you a payrise but all you’ve really got to do is keep the press sweet, let them think we care about the community. Oh and keep those coyotes off our backs about the emissions. You know some of those guys, don’t you? I’m sure it won’t take too much of your time because you mustn’t neglect your old job.’
‘Shall we have a coffee?’ I get up from my desk and collect their mugs. I take them through to the kitchenette trying to work out what I should do. Colin has basically increased my workload and make me the interface with my environmental group. He must suspect I’m not what I seem. I boil the kettle and take the various syrups I’ve got Julie and Colin addicted to out of the cupboard.
I think of Colin’s plump children, his permanently breathless frightened wife. I’m sorry for them but they have to be seen as collateral damage in a more important war. This factory must be closed down. Even if it means Julie's Geoff, confined to the house with his asthma, will be more trapped still. I must do what’s right for the planet and this neighbourhood, I can’t let little moral issues stand in my way. I grab the vial of diethyl phthalate, measure it carefully and mix it into the vanilla syrup. Today is as good a day as any to establish the lethal dose.
“Mind the door,” said the shopkeeper as Jimmy pushed his way into the shop.The bag of clinking bottles banged against the counter.
“How many this time, you monkey?”
“Only a dozen, Mister Wright,” Jimmy smiled as he acknowledged the cheerful nickname.
“Now tell me how much you want.”
“That’s twelve at tuppence returns, so that’s two shillin’.”
Every few days the same exchange occurred. Jimmy collected the empty Corona lemonade bottles and claimed the “Return” from the shop.
Everyone in Barnsley knew Jimmy. When the war finished, the local authority had a problem finding a place for him. An orphan from the bombing, nine years old and small for his age, he was passed round the town several times. It was not deliberate cruelty, but the lack of resources; rationing and austerity made people turn away. He ended up in the children’s home, but they couldn’t keep track of his whereabouts and soon didn’t try. He became his own man and liked it that way.
He fingered the two silver coins lying heavily in his trouser pocket. It felt good. He went, into the fish bar and waited in line for his order of “penny crispings.” The warmth of the frying and the smell of fried fish gave a comfortable feel to the shop. He scooped the hot bits from the paper cone hungrily, as he sat on the kerb outside. He could hear the voices of people in the queue as they waited their turn.
“She’s a miserly old witch,” said one man, “I only asked her if she wanted her winders cleanin’ and she got huffy wi’me, the old hag!”
Jimmy guessed they were talking about the old lady at Number 24 – the house with the dirty windows and overgrown front garden.
Next day, he peered at number 24 as he went passed. It seemed as dark and blind as a mole. Ragged net curtains hung awry at the windows. He took a quick look down the side of the house to see if any bottles were there. It was dirty and smelled of cats.
“Get out of my garden!”
A shrill voice caught him by surprise and he ran back to the front of the house, tripping over himself as he reached the corner. On the step stood an old woman. She had a broom in her hand and held it like a weapon – two hands gripping the handle like a sword. She was thin and grey, dressed in a pinafore of the same colour. Her eyes were red-rimmed as if she cried a lot, but she gazed at him fiercely.
“I just wanted your empty bottles,” he realised this would not do. “I give ‘em to the shop regular.”
He could think of nothing better at short notice.
“What’s your name, boy?” she advanced towards him and he stepped back but she blocked his way to the street.
“Jimmy, Jimmy Fraser.”
“Where d’you live then?”
Jimmy guessed she wanted to report him or tell his parents and he quickly gained confidence since he knew nobody cared a jot about him.
“I live in the Home down Surrey Street.”
She stopped and put the broom down. He tried a grin to see if that would work but her expression hardly changed. Then she turned and climbed the front step. When she got to the top, she looked at him and said,
“Well? You better come in and look for yourself”
Jimmy looked past her through the open door. The hall was a dark cavern leading to a flight of stairs. There was a stale odour of old food and dust coming from the hallway.
“I’ll be going,” he said and began to make his way towards the street, not running but moving as quickly as he could. She called him back.
“Look! I got you some bottles anyway.” She held up three bottles of different sizes. He could see only one tupenny Corona bottle. He stepped up to her and took all three quickly as if she might snatch him with her withered hands like a witch in a storybook. She went back inside. As she closed the door she called out, “There’ll be more next week.”
He ran down Surrey Street towards the High Street and dumped two of the bottles in a bomb site. The Corona bottle he stashed in his secret hiding place where he collected his stock. He kept away from number 24 while doing his rounds for days, but something brought him back to the house the following week. Was it the mystery of the old house? Was it a dare he made with himself? Or something to do with the isolation which he shared with the old woman? He persuaded himself he might get more bottles to swap and pushed the question aside.
This time, he rang the bell. There was no answer. He rang again and heard the sound of shuffling feet approaching the door.
“Go away!” her voice was shrill but weak.
“I come for the bottles,” he said, “you told me to come back.”
The door opened and he could see the outline of her frail body against the gloom of the interior.
“Yes,” she said, “I’ve got a few here and you can have them.”
She turned and he hesitated, then followed her inside. He did his best to ignore the stale smells. She went into the front room and sat down in a worn old chair and picked up a bag from beside the chair.
“Here you are,” and handed him the bag with four bottles in it.
“Them’s not all Corona,” he said, “I can’t swap ‘em if they’re not Corona.”
She smiled for the first time and nodded
“Well, that’s your job isn’t it? You’ve got to sort them yourself.” He agreed and then in a moment of silence, he looked round the room.
On a table beside the chair were two photos of a young man in Air Force uniform.
“Is that your family?” he said, filling the awkward silence.
“He was called Jimmy, like you, but he didn’t collect bottles!”
He picked up the bag and thanked her. She remained in the chair, as if the effort of getting up was too much, and he went out of the house and shut the door.
By the time Friday came round, the Warden discovered he’d only been to school that week on just two days.
“This has got to stop!”
The man bent down and stared at Jimmy but the boy looked away as if ignoring him.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you, boy. You’ll stay in for the whole of the weekend – d’you hear? Now get out!”
Jimmy nodded and left the room.
Saturday came, the Warden went home and the staff slacked off. No one took the trouble to check on Jimmy, so by Sunday afternoon, he slipped out and took his collection to the shop.
“Well,” said Mister Wright, “you’re late this week. Has the town run dry?”
Jimmy smiled his best cheeky grin, and said, “I was a bit busy this week.” He counted the cash for the bottles and bought himself some biscuits from the Broken Biscuits Tin which were not on ration.
The next week was Wakes week and the town went mad. Parades and Union Rallies happened every day. Jimmy collected all sorts of bottles – beer bottles – cider bottles and, of course, plenty of Corona bottles. He collected his cash and forgot about number 24. It had been ten days since he last went there.
He ran up the steps and rang the bell. He rang again and heard the familiar slow steps approach the door. He called out: “It’s OK Missus, it’s Jimmy!”
She opened the door wide and he saw she had tears in her eyes.
“I thought you’d forgot me,” she said, “and I kept your bottles.”
She smiled and he realised he had never seen her smile before.
“Well it’s been Wakes week an’ I’ve been collecting all over,” he said.
“Tell me how many you got,” she said.
A strange feeling of pity for her came over him, as if he was her nurse or friend. He had never felt this before. He had found someone who needed him.
“Shall I come in then?” he asked, and she led the way into the back parlour where he had been before.
She sat in her old chair and he told her about the fair and the rallies that he’d seen that week. She gazed at him with close attention, her sad eyes wide with interest. When he finished, she pointed to the bag by her chair.
“I expect you don’t need these then,” she held out the bag to show three Corona bottles inside.
Jimmy grinned and said, “They’ll do! I can put them in the shop next week but not today, ‘cos he’s paid me already.”
She made a croaking sound and he realised she was laughing, it must have been something she’d not done for a long time.
“Well, will you be back next week?”
“Of course, this is my regular round now isn’t it?”
Again, he saw the glint of tear in her eye and he turned away embarrassed.
“Well, I’ll be off. See you next week.”
He skipped out of the room and down the steps.
The following week was wet and cold, a spiteful wind blew away the bunting and the flags left over from the carnival. People kept indoors and the town seemed to close down like a grey prison. Jimmy had money in his pocket and left his collecting alone for a while. He began again when the weather cleared and one of his first calls was at number 24. He rang the bell but there was no answer. He rang again and hammered on the door in case she was asleep, although it was late morning. Still no answer, so he went round the back, but the grimy windows and net curtains gave nothing away.
As he returned to the front, a postman was banging on the door.
“Do you know the woman?” he asked. “I’ve got a registered letter from the council. Has she gone away?”
Jimmy blurted out: “She never goes away – she never goes out.”
The man looked at him and muttered something Jimmy didn’t catch. Then he walked swiftly away.
“You stay here lad, we’ll be back in a minute.”
He reappeared with two other men, one a policeman. They peered through the letterbox and shouted, but there was just silence.
“Stand back, son,” said the policeman, and he ran at the door and gave a mighty kick. A panel of the door gave way with a splintering crack. He put his hand inside and released the lock. The hall floor was littered with circulars and a few papers but the house was silent. The door to the parlour was open and the three men stepped into the room. Jimmy followed knowing that something must be amiss.
“You stay outside,” said the postman, but Jimmy could see into the room and the figure of the woman lying on the floor. She was curled up as if asleep but he knew she was dead. Her face seemed younger than he recalled, as if she was at peace at last.
In her hand was a crumpled note.
“What’s all this?” said the policeman, and he pointed to the floor.
Twenty empty Corona bottled stood in a row around the old chair. In the neck of each bottle was a pound note neatly rolled.
He took the paper from her stiff fingers and read aloud, “For Jimmy.”
He turned to the others. “Who’s Jimmy?”
For the first time, Jimmy felt a strange, painful pricking in his eyes. He realised he was crying.
When I wrote this, you weren’t even old enough to read, let alone understand. But now, hopefully, you are. If this gets to you, I hope you can forgive me once I’ve explained. I did everything in the hopes of building a better life for you and your mother. I’m guessing that’s not much consolation on its own, but there it is. Probably won’t matter much to you at this point, it just sounds like the most pathetic excuse ever. You’ve probably seen my face held up and demonised across the world. Just please, read on.
Before all this happened, I was a man working a normal retail job. Start at nine, wait for five thirty to tick past, and pray the customers had been shepherded out by that point. It should have been a simple role. But people happened. Every day, I was surrounded by cynicism. I don’t know if that word’s been outlawed by now, so sorry if you’re not allowed to even read it anymore. But anyway. People would come in every day, and scream at me for the smallest thing. ‘My toy broke when I trod on it,’ or ‘this takes five batteries and I only wanted a remote controlled car that takes four.’ They knew they were being unreasonable, but they didn’t really care. I thought cynicism would ruin me.
Turns out I right, but in a much worse way than I expected.
That’s how things started. I’d got home one evening a complete wreck. I was earning minimum wage, you were already on the way, and I didn’t think I could take much more. A full time job couldn’t provide properly for you, so I had to do something. My solution was meant to be a joke. I suppose in a way it was. Just the worst type, and I was the butt of it, eventually.
I remember sitting there, in front of my computer, gripping a can of beer. Yeah, I was drinking on a Tuesday evening, add that to my list of faults. I knew I had to earn more, somehow. I opened my search engine and typed out ‘how to start a business.’ Up popped a few results, and one caught my eye. Successex, Some American entrepreneur startup site, offering UK clients a package for one hundred pounds. Domain name, advertising, business development. Even product development, albeit for an additional fee.
Before I’d thought about it properly, I’d signed up. I figured it was one of those things where you made a profile to feel good about yourself, and then forgot about it. However, a chat window popped up, and there was a real guy typing on the other end. He thanked me for getting on board, and asked how I’d like to pay. I thought about just slamming the power off, but my Britishness stopped me. I was hooked now. I gave him my credit card details, knowing your Mum would be justified in introducing me to a meat cleaver when she found out.
Once that was done, the guy introduced himself as Jerry, and asked what I wanted to sell. My fingers hovered above the keyboard, while my mind froze. What the hell could I produce? I still don’t know what made me type it. Probably I just panicked. Maybe I thought he’d go away if he believed I was messing around. I typed one word.
I waited, while some dots appeared in the chat message as Jerry typed. He was going to berate me for wasting his time, and inform me my hundred quid was non refundable. But no. Instead, he asked for more details. Well, I was in by that point. So I just started making stuff up as I went. I pointed out there was plenty of cynicism out there, and no one was profiting from it. Not directly, anyway. What if we patented it as a measurable commodity? I joked that we could charge prices through the roof. That way, no one could afford to be cynical anymore, and they’d have to start being genuine. I made the situation as ridiculous as I could, and waited for Jerry to get bored, or for his supervisor to tell him to move onto a worthwhile customer.
But no. Of course not.
Jerry said he needed some time to research patents, and look into potential product development. He gave me his personal number and signed off. I reckoned it was a hoax, and I’d passed my card details to some overseas fraudster. I decided I’d phone the bank the next day, and have my card cancelled.
Instead, I woke up the following morning, and did nothing. Again, I’m British. I didn’t want to cause a fuss. If money disappeared, then I’d do something. And nothing did, except the fee I'd agreed to pay. I went back to work for a couple of days, and everything was a normal sort of horrific. Until Jerry got back in touch, desperate for my phone number. I’d hardly passed it across when he rang me, and I’ve not heard someone more excited.
Successex could patent cynicism.
I thought he was joking until he told me to check my bank account. Twenty thousand pounds had appeared. Well, that minus a fiver when you deduct the replacement cost of the mug I dropped, after seeing twenty thousand pounds appear in my account. Jerry said they ran a prize each year for the best startup idea. They’d given it straight to me this time, because there was no way anyone would get something better.
We were going to stop people being cynical. It was perfect, because it would be profitable, and good business practice. We’d make a killing, while improving peoples’ lives. Tolerance would have to go up, and maybe we could even incentivise honesty somehow, a bit further down the line.
Three weeks later, Successes had set up everything for me. I had an office in London, a team of assistants, and no idea what the hell I was doing. Journalists lined up to interview me, all of the financial magazines plastered my face on their front pages. Apparently, the US government had hurried in a tax on cynicism. And as part of that, a percentage of the tax revenue would be paid to me to administer the system. The UK got on board too, and Europe, Australia, I don’t know where else. Of course, the mechanics only got shared with me later, otherwise my fall would have come way earlier.
To this day, I don’t know how they measured how much cynicism everyone had. Body language, speech patterns maybe. What I do know is that it had all the longevity and sense of a playground toy craze. Money started flowing to me. After a month, I couldn’t tell the number of figures in my bank balance just by looking. Part of me pointed out that I was getting obscene amounts for doing absolutely nothing, but I ignored it. I was a figurehead for something I didn’t understand. That was what most people dreamed of.
But figureheads, as you can well guess, also make great scapegoats.
People didn’t stop being cynical. They just got more angry. Well, except the big companies. They didn’t get more angry. They got even more cynical. Luckily for them, they could afford to. They bought shares in my business, which someone at Successex had named ‘Uncynico.’ The common people saw this happening, and, yep, they got more cynical. Lawsuits started coming against our shareholders, who simply hired the best lawyers. To give you an idea how much money these companies had, the lawyers were paying over ten million pounds a month in cynicism tax, and they still made a healthy profit from winning cases.
So some smarter people stopped going after the shareholders. They went for me instead. It was about the same time as I started seeing what was happening for myself. My stomach churned, from the top of my five hundred and something floor office. I couldn’t believe how quickly my idea was being abused. And I was at the head of the ones reaping the rewards at the expense of the many.
I actually said out loud, ‘Well isn’t that typical? Of course people would take something good and turn it into something awful.’
Two hours later, I was all over the news, but for different reasons. ‘Head of Uncynico is the most cynical of all, and dodges his own taxes,’ the news bulletins blared. Someone discovered a loop hole in the law, somehow making me exempt. No matter that I had no idea about any of it. My disgusting amounts of wealth were broadcast, and someone found a clip of me arguing with an old neighbour who’d left their bins out for the seagulls way before refuse collection day. I’ve got no idea who filmed me, I wasn’t even famous then. ‘Uncynico boss hates the elderly.’
Jerry was very helpful about everything. When Successex declared my business in violation of their terms and seized all my assets in compensation, his e-mail of regret really seemed genuine. Although it quite was hard to tell, as I only skim read it. I was too busy planning how to avoid the hate mob who had turned up to watch me evicted from my office.
Three months after all this started, the cynicism tax was declared illegal, or unconstitutional or something. Successex and my company’s shareholders decided to hold onto their profits. But they agreed it would be doing good business to donate an entire fifth of my former personal wealth to help those affected by my heinous actions.
Sarah, we’ll probably never meet each other. I caught the most severe case of scapegoat syndrome. I was arrested and tried for all sorts of financial crimes. The stories of people who died in riots during the tax months were all blamed on me. I lost count of everything I was charged with. I think there was even a war crime in there somewhere.
I pleaded guilty on the advice of my lawyer, who assured me the judge wanted to be lenient. In a sense, I suppose she was. When I was sentenced to seven consecutive life sentences, she was kind enough to change my identity, and send me to serve my time in a secret location. You and your Mum also got new identities, as it was nowhere near safe for you to be related to me.
If I’m lucky, the prison guards won’t just bin this, and your Mum will actually receive it, along with the letter I’ve written her. If Mum does give it to you, I want you to know that I’m immensely proud of you. I only held you once, right after you were born. That was the day before my fall from grace happened. I saw a goodness in you, a sincerity unmarred by my own situation.
So in summary, your father is not the evil, greedy man portrayed on TV. I got in too deep to back out, and I did the best I could. I was simply trying to do good business. Hopefully you can understand that, and you’ll be part of the generation that changes the way we all interact. Be careful and kind, and try not to take shortcuts, especially late at night after a few beers. I love you, and maybe one day, we’ll be permitted to see each other. I reached for the wonders of corporations. I should have realised that you and your mother were what was important. Family is the best business to do.
With so much love and the very best wishes,