Accounts Rendered – a short story
It’s too easy to interfere then walk away
It stood out. It stood out and drew attention to itself, not because it dominated the crowd that moved along the platform, not because of any aberration in its movement, but because of the way it flowed along with the other passengers.
It was not unlike the black hats worn by the Orthodox who walk alongside parts of the North Circular on Saturdays, but it was not supported by anything else. It did not sway along, tipping backwards and forwards above a flapping, black overcoat. It was not attached to a prayer shawl and you would never see it in front of a wall, nodding back and forth as if insisting that some party, perhaps some one on the end of a phone call, or perhaps God, that he or she had not got the gist of something. It rode evenly, steadily, on a small round head that was jammed up inside it. The head kept very still underneath the hat and looked straight ahead, not as if it were seeking a way – it already knew where it was going – but as if it sought something beyond its destination. It was a head that did not need to make gestures.
So, the dark blue fedora moved itself along, steadily and evenly, keeping pace with the brighter colours around it. Beneath it, like the trails of a Portuguese man-o-war, there followed the round face, the round eyes and the round, wire-framed spectacles. Only the mouth was straight, a thin slash drawn across the face, fixed like the mouth of a Halloween lantern. It was a mouth from which explanations and assurances would issue.
The crowd flowed onto the escalator. The fedora flowed with it, then moved to the right and waited to one side, drawing with it the head and the body, the short legs tucked up into the tightly buttoned overcoat and the black shoes. At the top, a hand appeared from under the hat and inserted a ticket into the automatic barrier. The hand waited; as soon as the ticket reappeared it was snatched back. The hat floated above the force of the crowd and soon found itself thrown out into the daylight.
At the top of the steps the feet moved across a small side-road which they followed before turning into the rear entrance of an office block. A lift ascended to the top of the building where the hat swung past a receptionist to a plain door. Henry Wallace struck the door twice, sharply, and made his way in, uninvited. Inside, in a large and well-furnished room, Charles Slade sat at a wide desk. His visitor raised an open hand to the crown of the fedora, gripped it delicately, lifted it with a theatrical gesture and placed it on the desk in front of him. The briefcase swung up onto the desk to join it. The visitor’s overcoat slipped from his back and fell onto a chair. Henry Wallace, the visitor, extended his hand.
“Good morning Charles.” He paused. “I’m back again.”
It was only a fortnight since their first meeting. Slade was not expecting him although a week before they had agreed to meet. He had heard nothing more from Wallace and the man’s P.A. had not been able to help; Wallace had been called away. Wallace watched as Slade got up and came all the way round to the front of the desk.
“Good morning Henry.”
A month previously, Charles Slade and his chairman had met a senior director of the company that employed Henry Wallace, a firm of accountants that was known in most major cities of the world. Slade’s chairman, William Jones, had called them in to help sharpen business plans. Slade was Amalgamated’s managing director and the chairman had encouraged him to trust this man, to work closely with the man in the fedora hat, this man Wallace.
“He’s a good man, Wallace. I’m told that he’s sorted out quite a few companies.” Jones had paused for a moment and examined the ends of his fingers. “Yes, Henry Wallace – unusual character, but quite exceptional. Just the man to have on board.” Their visitor, Wallace’s boss, nodded slowly. The chairman paused again. “Yes, take him into your confidence, listen to what he has to say and see what follows. Keep me posted.” The chairman smiled and drained his glass. It had all seemed very relaxed.
The company was not in any kind of trouble, it was just, as the chairman put it, just that they should continue to avoid trouble and look again, with the help of an outsider’s view, at possibilities. Slade was still relatively new to the job, willing to listen. He had joined from a similar company and the chairman had embraced the prospect of emulating this distant rival. He had also been keen to appoint from outside; there was an insider he particularly wanted kept in his place.
It was Wallace who had suggested that they should meet first away from the office. He stood and greeted Slade in the lounge of his club, just below Piccadilly. He smiled his straight smile at the taller, slim man who stood in front of him.
“I’m glad you could make it.”
They sat down and Wallace ordered drinks.
“How are you finding work back in London?”
“Early days really. The people seem fine. It’ll be easier once I’ve got the family settled. I spend a lot of time commuting at the moment.”
“Well, if there’s anything I can do in that respect, you’ve only to let me know, though I would hope the company had matters in hand. Has your wife had a chance to look around down here?”
The conversation remained light. Soon they moved to their table.
Charles sat back and waited for Wallace to speak.
“First of all, you’re probably wondering why I simply didn’t come to visit you in your office.” Slade nodded slightly. “It’s quite simple. Much of my work is now as a company doctor. If I’m seen going into a company’s front door, people assume that things are going wrong and, suddenly, share prices nose-dive.” Wallace watched Slade as he spoke. “Obviously, that’s not my purpose at Amalgamated.”
“So, how do you propose to help us?” asked Slade.
“You’re probably wondering what your chairman’s up to.” Wallace watched for a second. “I know that you’ve not been with the company for five minutes yet, but he’s right – you’ve got to get things moving.”
Slade looked up into the round face and the round eyes but said nothing.
“There’s a lot could be done, if you get on with things straight away.” Wallace noticed that Slade’s face was a little tired. “That’s why Jones made it clear to me just how lucky he thought he was to get you.” He noticed Slade brighten almost imperceptibly at this. “He’s right, of course – I told him so. ‘For goodness sake,’ I said, ‘take good care of him.’ I’ve seen your record.” Wallace smiled his smile and then frowned, as if pulling himself back to the matter in hand. “You see, it’s Wilkins.”
Slade looked up sharply and, again, he found Wallace looking directly at him, as if he were waiting to confirm something. It was a little unnerving.
“You know that Wilkins was in the running for your job.” Slade had heard a little of this. He set his head at a slight angle and nodded gently. Wallace continued.
“You owe Jones a lot in all this. I know that he insisted on you despite the faction on the board that backed Wilkins. He’s very pleased that he got you, but he also knows that the others are watching – he’s dependent on you now.”
“So, he invites you in to make sure that I succeed, so that he’s vindicated.”
“Something like that.”
The waiter reappeared. Wallace waited until he had gone.
“You see, you’ve inherited a management structure that gives too much power to your assistants and prevents you getting the company moving in the way you and Jones need.” He looked up. “I know that you’ve discussed this. Jones and I have discussed a number of alternatives and I’m going to leave you with some ideas to think about before we meet again.”
“I would want to consider the details very carefully first – maybe make soundings of my own.”
“Really? This matter is very confidential.”
“Clearly, but I’d be a fool not to consider all the options.”
“Just be careful.” The round eyes looked very steadily at Slade who did not notice them this time; a passer-by, a young woman walking in the spring sun, had caught his eye for a second.
Later, they paused at the cloakroom and Wallace retrieved his briefcase. From it he produced a folder.
“Some ideas. In confidence.” His eyes sought out Slade’s and tried for a moment to hold them.
“Thanks, and thanks for the lunch. I’ll be in touch.” Slade turned to go. Wallace called to him.
“Don’t keep me waiting too long – I have tight schedules to meet.”
Slade said nothing – he too was busy and he was not going to be rushed with matters as important as these. He nodded and left.
Their second meeting took place a week later in Slade’s office. His P.A. brought Wallace through from the reception area. He walked directly up to the desk and held out a hand.
“Good morning Charles. How are we today?”
“Fine.” Slade continued to insert some papers into a file. “Take these out and see they are sent straight away would you Clare.” Slade turned towards his visitor.
Then Wallace had unbuttoned his coat and draped it over one of the easy chairs at the other side of the office. To one side he placed his hat, the blue fedora. Slade watched him.
“Good morning Henry. How are you?”
“Well I think.” Charles Slade was looking, not at Henry Wallace, but at the remaining papers on the desk. “I think we had better get started – I’ve a full diary for this morning.”
Slade brought an upright chair across to his desk and motioned Wallace towards it.
“Do sit down.”
“I think we’ll be more comfortable over here.” Wallace stood by one of the easy chairs. He had already placed his briefcase on the table and now leant over it to retrieve some papers.
“I’ll just bring some one or two items over then.” Slade turned back to his desk, picked up some papers and joined Wallace across the room.
“This is how I would see things.” Wallace had hardly waited for Slade to make himself comfortable. “We must bring those two together and keep those two apart. That’s for starters.” He swung his finger round so that it appeared to act quite independently of the hand to which it was attached, like a cursor that dashes around a computer screen, independent, apparently, of the mouse. Slade pushed another sheet across the table.
“There is another view, one that would command support.” From the corner of his eye, he watched Wallace glimpse at the paper. “Look, it’s all here. All the difficulties you raised have been addressed.”
“They have not!”
“I beg your pardon.”
“You have not covered the human resources division, for a start.”
“The relevant sections are covered in staff development, two pages on, look over…”
Wallace tapped his own papers with an index finger.
“Not in my book.” He stood up. “Is the rest of this along these lines?”
“But of course.”
“What I’d suggest then, is that we both give the matter some more thought.”
“Is that really necessary? We haven’t much time and I am convinced that we can’t just shove these two sets of ideas together.” Slade looked up towards the window and the tops of the neighbouring buildings. “We may have got this out in the open but we can’t just leave things as they are.”
Wallace glowered but contained himself. He occupied himself with his diary.
“Can we meet next week?”
“Yes. No problem.”
“I’ll give you a bell in a day or two.” Wallace had already returned his papers to his briefcase. From the door he turned.
“I’ll be in touch.”
A week had passed. Wallace had walked into Charles Slade’s office unannounced.
“You’re out. The other directors will vote you out of a job tomorrow if they have to.” Slade looked across his desk at him in total disbelief. He tried to digest what was being said to him. Slowly, almost out loud, he reminded himself of acquaintances who had been down this road. But why him? What was his chairman thinking about?
“Why don’t you ring Jones?” The round eyes had fixed themselves on him.
“I’d prefer to think this over before I do anything.”
“I’ve arranged for him to be available to speak to you. You’ll find him at home. Why not give him a call?”
Slade sat quietly for a moment.
“Just what is your game? What are you trying to achieve?”
“A better deal for you and for the company. You’re not going to win with four directors and the vice-chairman against you. They believe that the alternative structure, the one I suggested, is the best one on offer and that leaves no room for you.” The round eyes were making their point. “Look, you’re a good man, but you’re not going to win, so why not get out the easy way and say that things are not working out as you expected. You’ll soon pick up something else.”
“How can you be so sure of this? How do you know what they are going to do?”
“I’ve spoken to them.”
“Is that what you’ve been up to this week?” Slade recollected for a moment. “I‘ve tried several times to get hold of you.” He looked up at Wallace and saw a hint of a smile. Wallace was savouring this turning of the tables – how he enjoyed this dawning outrage.
“You mean you’ve discussed this with the vice-chairman.”
“Exactly. What else would you expect me to do?”
“You were engaged by Jones to help us, not to go behind our backs to the other directors. You can’t exp…”
“I’m not involved. It’s up to the directors to do what they think best. I’m just sorry that neither you or Jones were prepared to take my advice.” The line of Wallace’s mouth tightened again as he smiled his apologetic smile.
Slade remained at his desk; if he got up and paced about his office, his usual way with thorny problems, he feared what he would do. He looked up briefly at the other man, comfortable at a plain table set against the wall at the far side of the office from the window. The lights in the office had not been turned on and such light as reached Wallace reflected palely from the round forehead. Below, the eyes were invisible behind the bright, round lenses of the glasses and the tight, thin lips simply formed part of the white flesh of the face.
“Go on, ring your chairman. See if I’m not right. He’ll tell you the same.”
Jones answered the phone.
“Good evening sir. I…” He listened for a moment. “I see…you think so.” He shifted the phone to his other hand, picked up a pen and reached out for a sheet of paper.
“That’s it is it then?” There was a lengthy pause. “And you’re resigning too. I see…Well; I’ll contact you again when I’ve taken legal advice. Good night.”
While he was speaking to his chairman he had looked at Wallace from time to time. The suspicion of a smirk had grown to a distorted smile, almost a grin. Words followed.
“I told you so. I told you it’s for the best, for you and for the company.” Wallace’s elbows were firmly anchored on the wide desk in front of him. He brought his hands together and laced the fingers, turned them downwards and propped his chin on them.
He watched as Slade unlocked a drawer in his desk and reached down for some documents. Slade thought for a moment then sat himself down in front of the computer. The web pages he sought soon appeared. He took one look at the shares listing. Wallace heard him gasp but did not move. Slade noticed a twitch of Wallace’s mouth then tried to ignore the other presence in what had been his office. For a moment he gave his attention again to his computer; he shut down various files and deleted others. From the side of the machine he removed a disk. He stood up and turned away from the window and the light and peered into the dark, towards Wallace. The round lens of the glasses gave no clues. There was only the round, white skull, propped on the clasped hands.
“I hope they make you a director. Then you’ll have to help clear up the mess you’ve just made.” Slade took up his briefcase, checked that it was properly shut and left the room.”
It was dark when Wallace made his way back to the underground. He was able to cross directly the narrow side streets that the rush-hour crowds had long deserted. He had paused outside the rear entrance of the office block; it was the quickest route, past the unused doorway where the office smokers puffed during the day, past the waste bins and the grubby white vans that were parked there. He was pleased with himself; he hesitated as he remembered the startled look on Charles Slade’s face. Fifty yards away the empty streets beckoned and he set off again. Two minutes later he stepped down into the empty underground station and stood alone on the escalator that conveyed him down into the ground, down to the platform. From somewhere came the distant rumble of a train. He could not tell whether it was approaching or moving away.
Denied an immediate purpose, he walked more slowly, as if considering a new piece of business. A sudden gust of wind came up behind him carrying with it a flurry of dust and waste paper. The gust died away as quickly as it had risen and its load deposited itself to one side of the blue fedora and the tight, dark coat. The rumbling increased in volume and the two white lights made their approach.