I AM on one corner of the road, he’s across the way.
Each of us looking at our reflections in office windows as we finish phone calls. Then we’re stranded in the cold, waiting for lifts.
We do the “such is life” shrug at each other and, to my surprise, it jump-starts him into walking across to me.
“You won’t remember me,” he says.
It has to be like facing over the edge of the Grand Canyon, that one. You can say of course you remember him and then prove yourself a liar, or you can say sorry you don’t remember him and insult him straight up. I went for the straight-up insult. He promptly came through with the killer response.
“Well, I sure as hell remember YOU,” he said, shaking his head.
If I’d been more rackety in my youth, this would have scared me. I have friends whose past exploits don’t bear discussion. In some cases, they took the form of cart-wheeling down the main street of their town as dawn broke after a long night.
In others, they ingested mixed substances calculated to mood-elevate them straight to the top floor and leave them locked there like James Reilly in a lift.
Sadly, I have no exciting past, no shocking secrets from a misspent youth. Which was why I couldn’t figure why this man would remember me with such fervour.
“You gave me great advice,” he said. “You told me to engage my brain before I engaged my mouth. Best thing that ever happened to me.”
Now, you have to be wary when a man says that. You’ll find guys who maintain to their dying day that getting flogged by a Christian Brother, beaten up by their older brother or chewed out of it by their first boss are the best things that ever happened to them.
You can’t say “you’re a blighted sorry masochist” to someone for whom such events are the highlight of their lives. Up against that kind of experience, me telling a man to shut up until his brain had clicked in didn’t seem too bad.
He had obeyed the instruction, he told me, and it had got him a reputation as being thoughtful, which in the legal firm where he worked was an advantage. Up to the point, five years ago, when the firm had collapsed in the face of the recession.
He had another job, he reassured me, albeit at half what he’d been earning back then. Was there any chance he and his wife could see me at my office? We set a time, my taxi arrived, and we parted.
His wife turned out to be a glamorous mother of two. That sounds as if she was a criminal.
Headlines always say “Father of five killed gang member” or “Mother of three admits larceny.” What their parenthood has to do with their crime beats me. Notwithstanding which, this woman was a mother of two. Also an accountant with a doctorate in something. Because, God love her, she works for IBRC. Not, she told me, that she ever tells anybody the truth about where she works. Not since the two of them, at his sister’s wedding, ended up leaving early because guests turned on her when it emerged she was a long-term Anglo employee.
She hadn’t tried to get out of IBRC earlier because, back in the day when the two of them were earning hand over fist, they had been sensible. They’d bought a new house — not a pillared mansion, but expensive, anyway, and held on, for investment purposes, to their old house.
They’d put money in bank shares and because they were clever and provident, had spread them over a number of banks. Then he’d lost his job and been unemployed for a year and once the state took over Anglo, they believed she was essentially a civil servant and couldn’t be fired. Wrong, wrong, wrong. They’re now in debt for more than a million, their house is worth half its purchase price and the other house is not much better.
He’s currently earning a third of what she’s earning. Come the summer, she’ll be on the dole, receiving a quarter of what he’s now on. They feel like the dogs in the experiment to test resilience, where the animals were thrown in a pool and every time they came up for air, shoved under again.
Every time this couple think they’ve hit rock bottom, some other charge — like the household charge — comes along and pushes them under water.
“I want to find and belt whoever dreamed up that ad with the gobshite going around his house sticking up environmentally-friendly light bulbs to save money,” the husband said bitterly.
“It’s like it’s jeering us — other people can manage in these times by switching light bulbs. Really?”
They have come to dread the unexpected. Even the ostensibly happy unexpected, like the birthday of a friend of their twins.
“Try explaining to two five-year-olds that they can’t go to a birthday party because we can’t afford a present.”
They have pared back their living expenses so that the only “treat” they can recall was going to a film six years ago. Their parents are apologetic about not being able to help them, because all their savings were in bank shares too, so they’re under pressure as well. Because she’s a financial advisor, she came up with a detailed plan to present to the bank to try to get on top of their debt. It was met by silence for six weeks, after which the bank responded with a one sentence refusal.
SOME IBRC friends, they told me, plan to lobby politicians to make them see that IBRC/Anglo staff are being treated unfairly. What they wanted to know from me was this: Would the lobbying work? I couldn’t come up with a better answer than silence. It wouldn’t, would it, they asked. Even opposition politicians wouldn’t fight for them, would they? “We’re just not acceptable victims,” the glam mother of two said, beginning to cry.
She’d never done anything improper or unethical. Never given anything but the best advice.
But she had summed it all up. The Anglo people are not acceptable victims. Post-meltdown Ireland rations its sympathies and feeds most of its fuel into the retributive machine, which grinds exceeding small. Having once been riding high, earning big is enough to prove them deserving of righteous contempt. That profane old philosophical T-shirt statement, “Shit happens,” no longer works: Someone’s to blame for everything, and front and centre are the Anglo guys, personified by this couple. Although he never worked for Anglo, his job disappeared as a result of what Anglo and other banks did.
They’re young, educated, hardworking. With the world at their feet. In bits.
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