Donald Paterson was not having a good day. Monday’s were sometimes like that. He had fled the house under something of a cloud. The simmering tension from the previous evening had persisted longer than he had hoped. His intended fun, but lewd and it has to be acknowledged out of character suggestion to his wife the night before had bombed. Her reaction had been immediate, scornful and icy. Not good. Jane was a good-humoured soul but one who was settling snugly into her middle-aged self and saw no need or want to revisit her adventurous and playful younger days. She was resolutely in control. Of the house, the family, of Donald but mostly, of herself.
Donald grappled with middle age. He sometimes felt middle-age was winning. His life was one of managing mini crisis and upsets, both domestic and professional. There was never enough time in life for Donald. That would change. Life would be all about Donald but in ways he could never have imagined. Or wished for.
The sunshine on his face as he strode across the Millennium Bridge from Waterloo to his office near St Paul’s lightened his mood somewhat. After, the ticket and cash machine fiasco at Waterloo it needed a lift. First his South Western Trains season ticket wouldn’t let him through the barrier, then the ATM on the concourse refused to cooperate and to his frazzled frustration had the temerity to swallow his card. Bloody machines.
Donald’s patience was further tested when his security pass didn’t work at the office. He and barriers were not getting along today. His resentment rose when Bob the security guard, who he greeted every morning, insisted on someone from HR coming to vouch for him in person. Stella click-clacked along the marble floor from the lift in her usual attention seeking way. A disgruntled and embarrassed Donald took the lift to his cubicle office on the 12th floor in the Compliance Department where a another bombshell was waiting.
Sam was a twenty-six-year-old junior Compliance Officer. That meant she had finished the bank’s graduate training course and had been palmed off to Compliance because whilst being easy on the eye, was not of the standard required to work in a trading floor department. Perhaps they thought her fetching blond hair, old fashioned hourglass figure and only a nodding acquaintance with HR’s ‘dress rules for female staff,’ might have been too much of a distraction for the traders. They were for Donald who found it difficult to keep his composure when she drifted in and out of his small cubicle leaving a long lingering smell of her Bond Street scent. He did in fact think her a menace and disruptive to the whole department. He saw no ill intent in her work or behaviour, rather it was her mere presence that seemed to create either tension or levity around the floor. Compliance after all was above reproach in everything it did. Donald saw the department as the torch bearer for diligent work and ethical standards for the whole bank and it didn’t need any slippage in that aspiration caused by a twenty-six-year-old in heels.
Sam lurched toward him from his cubicle as soon as she saw him turn the corner.
“Bugger," he thought, “Not this early, please.”
“Morning Donald!” she said with her happy smiley face. Sam smiled a lot. She grasped every opportunity to display her Manhattan white teeth gained it was rumoured, at great cost by her indulgent father or was it an indulgent Premiership footballer? Donald wasn’t sure. He was never one for departmental gossip and at ten to eight in the morning he didn’t much care.
“Yes, good morning Samantha. What is it? Your flat is burning down and you need to take the day off work?” he enquired.
“Don’t be silly Donald. Mr Grenzewald called. He needs to speak to you.” She added quietly, “On the ninth floor.”
Donald turned into his cubicle and saw the ‘recorded messages,’ light flashing on his phone with seven missed calls. That would be Grenzewald he thought. Odd he thought that no one had tried him on the mobile. They usually did. The problem with working for a German boss in a German bank was that everything was urgent, and it was urgent all the time. Donald liked to think it had less to do with efficiency and more to do with feeding the suffocating self-importance of people who were important only in their own eyes. Until bonus time.
Donald picked up his yellow legal pad and strode back to the lift to head up to the ninth floor. He felt eyes following him as he left the compliance department.
The ninth floor receptionist glanced up and said ‘Conference Room B Donald.’
“Thank you Mary and Good Morning,” he said without stopping.
Donald walked into the glass walled conference room expecting an as yet unknown compliance related agenda although it would have to be serious to demand Mr Grenzewald’s presence this early in the day. Perhaps a corporate action planned by one of the bank’s clients, perhaps an enquiry from the Regulator. He hoped it wasn’t anything related to trading activities. They were the worst, hours and hours of listening to telephone tapes and reading thousands of email transcripts. He didn’t need that on a Monday morning.
Grenzewald wasn’t there. Instead Bill Flatman, the Deputy Head, was standing at the head of the table with the Head of HR, Michelle Tyning and her assistant Stella. Donald had been around banks long enough to know this set-up did not look or feel healthy in a career orientated kind of way. In fact, he felt nauseous as all the possible scenarios raced through his mind.
“Bill……?” he asked.
“Sit down old man. We need to go through a few things. Won’t take long and we’ll have this sorted out in double quick time. Nothing to worry about.”
Donald knew as soon as anyone in a bank said “Nothing to worry about,” then you had a truckload to worry about. But what?
“Right Donald,” Bill began, effecting as chummy a persona as he could manage which made Donald feel more uneasy. Friendly camaraderie was neither a requirement nor an aspiration in the Compliance Department and it did not suit Bill. To his annoyance, his bloody knee vibrated up and down. “Let’s press on. I’ll let Michelle take it from here.”
“Thanks Bill. Donald, we have some unusual issues that have cropped up and to be honest….. well, we have never had something like this before so we will take it step by step. It shouldn’t take long and we’ll do all we can to support you and manage the problem.”
This sounded more ominous with each word. Decoded she had said in her Chelsea-by-way-of-Benfleet accent, “You’re in the shit Donald but even we aren’t sure what you’ve done. You’re on your own until we confirm the bank is protected.” He knew what was coming next. He had been in Bill’s chair many times in the past.
“What Michelle, is the precise nature of the alleged issue?” Donald started. He knew composure was everything at this point. He also knew the meeting was being recorded, (they all were), and after he left the building, because that was where this was heading, they would discuss his reactions.
“Okay Donald, I’m just going to tell you.”
"Brave of you Michelle," he thought, but he’d been at this game too long to let his inner sarcasm let rip in the open.
“An anomaly was identified in payroll reconciliation. The reconciliation happens before bank instructions are allowed but a red flag was thrown up by your name. Or rather it’s absence.”
“Go on,” said Donald.
“It appears from our current records you are not, not have you ever been, an employee of this bank. You have no HR file, no departmental file, no email address. In fact, we cannot find a digital trace of you anywhere.”
Donald’s first reaction was relief. A bloody computer mistake. That would be easily corrected by the Head of IT. “Well, if that’s all it is let’s fix it and get on. We all have a busy week ahead,” said Donald.
“It’s not that simple Donald. As I say, we have no trace of you. Your employment history and registration with the Regulator has also been lost. They can’t find you and we can’t have you working if you are unregistered with the FCA.”
“But that’s absurd. Call Morris at the FCA and talk to him. He’ll sort it out their end.”
Michelle put on her grave “your cat has died," face and said, “It was Morris who said we have no option but to release you go until everything is corrected. It will only be temporary Donald but I’m afraid we have to send you home for the time being. As you know we have a process and paperwork which we would follow but as you are not at this moment, an employee our lawyers have advised that to issue paperwork relating to a suspension might, in a future potential case, be prejudicial to the bank.”
Donald ignored Michelle and looked straight to Bill, “Are you hearing this Bill? Am I the only one who can hear the Nonsense Alarm going off? I’ve been at this bank longer than all three of you and you’re trying to tell me I’ve never worked here? It’s beyond satire it’s so bloody ridiculous.”
“Now Donald, calm down.” Bill interrupted. “I know it’s all rather odd and we will find out what has happened. We will get things shipshape again. But you’ve been in this chair Donald. You know what it's like. My hands are tied. Sorry old man. Just put your feet up in the garden and relax. We’ll call you by Friday with an update.”
“But this is madness. Utter, utter madness. How can you be so gullible? You’ve been hacked…..” Bill broke him off,
“Now, that’s enough talk Donald. You know what happens with rumours,” No, Donald didn’t know what happens with rumours, “Don’t mention this to anyone Donald. Keep it under your hat and it will make it easier to leave and easier to come back. We’ll tell the staff you’ve had a family emergency, and that’s all anyone needs to know.”
“Bill, you’ve lost the plot. This is an egregious abuse of my service and loyalty to this bank. It is an outrageous way to treat anyone let alone me…..” He immediately realised he was falling into the trap visited by so many former employees in his position. The outcome was obvious. There was no going back. He would be on the pavement in a matter of minutes. Anything he said from here on in would be counterproductive and would elicit contempt rather than sympathy. He took notes on the meeting and waited to learn how they planned the sometimes tricky, ‘leave the building,’ sketch.
Cometh the hour cometh the Head of HR. Michelle took over. She told Donald that to minimise disruption he would not be going back to the Compliance Department. She said his junior would bring up his briefcase and see him out through the basement garage entrance at the back of the building. The meeting was over.
On cue he saw Little Miss Happy bobbing back and fore on the other side of the glass. He stood, turned and left the meeting without saying goodbye. Sam trotted beside him toward the service lift to the basement.
When the doors shut she asked Donald, "Is it bad?"
"It's not good Sam. I have to take leave of absence for a while."
"Can I help with anything?"
"Thank you Sam but I am not sure you can. I think I'm on my own on this one."
Fifteen minutes after arriving at the office through the front entrance he stood at the back. "Odd," he thought to himself, "Fifteen years and I've never been down here." Sam broke the moment,
"Donald, are you sure I can't do anything? You seem. Well, you seem faraway"
It occured to Donald that his young assistant was more in control of events than was he.
"The thing is Sam, I appear to have been digitally erased. Rubbed out. Every piece of my life which has an electronic thread appears to have been cancelled and that is just about everything in my life. My phone, my bank account, my travel card, my job. Puff..... all gone."
"Oh, that's a pain," Sam remarked with unintended understatement. "Still," she went on, "We could fix some of those things. Who would do that anyway?"
"I have no idea Sam. Disgruntled ex employee perhaps. A teenager with acne in a basement in Estonia. Who knows? I'll go and report it to the police but I'm not optimistic. Difficult to know where to start with anything when your bloody phone doesn't work."
"Why don't we meet later for coffee. I'll get you a burner and you can pay me back later."
"Thank you Sam. A compliance officer with a burner phone; that's a first. You don't have to do this you know. It is kind of you."
Sam shrugged, told him she would meet him at midday in Paternoster Square beside St Pauls, smiled and headed back to the lift. It occurred to Donald that it had been quite a while since he was last on the receiving end of an unconditional act of kindness.
They met at midday and sat with coffee on a bench. The City of London Police desk sergeant had been polite but unable to help beyond platitudes of "contact your bank sir and your mobile telephone operator." The police cyber crime unit was understaffed. Their resources were aimed squarely at corporate fraud and not the odd individual who wandered in off the street. The sergeant agreed though that having his entire electronic footprint cancelled was, "a bit rum," and "highly unusual." Donald's caustic remarks did not help his cause but the sergeant reluctantly acquiesced and promised someone would contact him at home.
"Here's the burner and I got £50 in cash. It's not much but it's a start." Sam's irrepressible smile was infectious.
"Thank you Sam." He smiled back but it didn't quite work. Sam wasn't used to a smiling Donald and Donald wasn't used to smiling. Donald's smile was better suited to a thirsty vampire about to lunge at his victim. Sam leaned back slightly but kept her poise.
"What next Donald? What will you do?"
Donald let the smile go. "Sam. I have choices. I can run around chasing my own tail trying to put all this right. Or I can sit back and relax and wait for other people to chase me trying to put it right. Or I can just say "bollocks to the lot of them," and go off the grid for a while and have some peace and quiet for the first time since I remember. I choose off the grid."
Sam gave him a 2,000 lumen smile, "You are mad Donald Paterson. It's good to have a plan though and if your plan is no plan then it's a good starting plan."
Before Sam confused the issue any further Donald stood and extended his hand. "Thank you young Sam. I shall meet you here in one weeks time when I shall reimburse you. You have helped make all this wretchedness bearable. Thank you for being helpful and resourceful." Sam beamed.
With that, Donald turned and strode off. He walked off in the general direction of "off the grid," with all the purpose of a man who the rest of the world no longer knew or for that matter cared about. It felt he decided, warmly liberating.