21st Century Icarus

Note: This was originally written for a 1st Year module at University. I think the prompt was to re-write a myth or fable. It’s also longer than the usual Friday Flash… it’s a short story, I guess. 

21st Century Icarus

Mark Johnston tucked his Blackberry into his jacket pocket, stubbed out his cigarette, flicked it onto the floor and opened the glass door to the office block. The receptionist glanced at him and mumbled something about an umbrella. He ignored her and took the lift to his office on the seventeenth floor, using the brief ride to run his hands through his thinning hair to shake out some of the water. He grunted, as the lift stopped and the doors slid open. It had been the first cigarette break he’d managed that day, and it was just his luck that it had begun to rain. Bob Hotchkins nodded at him as he walked past the photocopier, which was churning out copies of some unheard of company’s most recent financial report.

Johnston’s office was at the far end of the office, where a large glass panel enabled him to keep an eye on all those working on the top floor. Not that he did that very often; watching the people down below outside was a far more interesting hobby. He sat down at his desk, and looked at his twin monitors. One showed a mountainous landscape of share prices, which rose and fell. But mostly fell. Another had a plea for investment from an eager graduate, who was sure that his venture was the next big thing. A television was suspended above the desk, showing a BBC News live feed, and behind that a modern steel LED light fitting adorned the ceiling. Once more Johnston ran his fingers through his hair, before beginning to read the proposal. He didn’t get very far before his desk phone bleeped into life.

“It’s your wi-”

“Tell her I’m busy”

“Again?”

“Still.” He placed the phone back on the cradle, reached inside his jacket, pulled out his Blackberry and turned it off. His assistant didn’t even wait for a response after knocking before he burst in. Johnston just put up his hand and motioned for the intruder to leave. Instead the assistant placed a paper file on the desk and retreated to a corner of the room. Johnston frowned, deeply creasing his forehead. He poked the document and glanced up at the television, where the Chancellor of the Exchequer was rambling on about the state of the European economy. His assistant, Michael Eden, coughed. Johnston opened the file, even though he suspected that he already knew what it contained. There was a single sheet of paper, with a single graph on it, which showed a single black line. He picked up the paper, and stared at the line, and then through the glass at his employees, and then back at the line.

“Bugger.”

“I’m sure that we can sort this out” Michael Eden said, moving out of the corner. Johnston stood up and pulled the blind across the glass panel, blocking out his employees.

“Sort this out?” He said.

“It’s –”

“Only a massive screw up on my part”

“Look”

Johnston turned and glared at his subordinate. “No you look.” He pointed out across the City.

“It’s taken my whole bloody life to get here, here above the rest of them.”

“Mark listen. Please.” Johnston pointed at an estate on the horizon.

“From there to here. Fuckin’ rags to riches.” He held up the sheet of paper. “One bloody decision”

“Mark, we need to consider the implications of this.”

“The implications?” Johnston thrust the paper at Eden. “I’m ruined. Your ruined.” He motioned in the vague direction of his employees. “I’ve screwed them”

“We can negotiate a bail out, the Chancellor’ll help.”

“A bail out’s not good enough. The shareholders will oh shit you didn’t tell them yet did you?”

Michael shook his head.

“Good.” Johnston sighed, and undid his tie.  He gestured at the estate again. “So much for exceeding expectations. I guess the working class really aren’t suited to the corporate world.”

“It’s not cause of that”

“Don’t give me the bullshit about how we’re all equal. You don’t see Oxbridge grad’s in this position do you?” He turned away. “Even if they were, Papa would fix it” Johnston muttered.

“It’s not the end, plenty of companies have recovered from similar positions.”

Johnston laughed a little, and began to walk around the room. The Chancellor was still being interviewed, and was still talking about the fragile state of the economy. Johnston turned the television off.

“Even if we were able to recover, the company wouldn’t be the same. There’s no way that the shareholders would let me stay. Christ, I’d be back on the exchange floor, you must realise that at least.”

Mark nodded.

“You managed it once. You can do it again.”

“Who’s gonna support me this time round? No-one’s gonna invest in someone with no qualifications and an apparently bad past.”

His assistant walked to the door.

“Look, think things over, and I’ll come back in an hour or so.”

Johnston nodded. “Just kept it under wraps for now.”

The door shut and the room was quite once more. Johnston gazed out of the window, looking out over the city. The rain had stopped, and the sun had returned, the two combining to form a glossy veil over the buildings. Down below people scurried past, oblivious to what would affect their lives. It must be nice, Johnston thought, nice to be innocent. He pulled himself away from the view and left his office.

He conversed with the rest of the top floor as normal as he made his way to the lift, pausing briefly to speak to Hotchkins who had finished copying the reports and was sitting attacking one with a highlighter.

The empty lift was a moment of solitude as he rode it down to the first floor, where young graduates bustled backwards and forwards, calling to each other over the cubicle walls. He stopped one that was walking past, her arms full of reports.

“What’s your name”

“Amy”

“Cambridge or Oxford?”

“Um Durham?” Johnston grunted.

“Do you even know who I am?” She shook her head.

“Mark Johnston, the guy who built this place.”

“As in the guy from the top floor.”

He smiled. “The very same.” She shifted the papers in her arms, and put out her hand, which Johnston shook.

“Is there anything I can do?”

“Take me to your cubicle, and we’ll continue talking there.”

They weaved their way through the partitions until they reached her desk, which Johnston promptly lent against.

“Guess which University I went to.”

“Oxbridge?”

“Wrong. I didn’t go.”  She looked at him.

“Yes, I didn’t go to University, yet recruitment won’t employ anyone with less than a two one.” He laughed.

“Then how?”

“Then how did I get to control one of the most powerful investment businesses on the planet?”

“Yeah.”

“Hard bloody work.” Johnston paused. “And I had someone who told me that I could.”

“Eh?”

“My Dad.”

“Oh.”

“He said that I could. He said that I didn’t have to go work in the factory if I didn’t want to. What do your parents do?”

“Dad’s a neuroscientist and Mum’s a teacher.”

“I guess you were expected to work at a place like this then?”

“It was either investment banking or maths research. And the pay’s bigger here.” She looked around, at the people who had a phoned glued to one ear, with the other dedicated to listening to the rest of the office.

“I guess that’s why most of us are here.”

“Not me.” She glanced at his suit.

“Yes the suit cost a lot, yes my car is expensive, and yes my salary is huge.”

“Then why?”

“For my Dad. Ambition.” He gestured at the papers that she had been carrying.

“Potential investments?”

“The renewable energy industry, should bring a good return.”

Johnston looked at her and made a quick mental comparison to himself in his early twenties before continuing.

“Want to know how to get a bigger return?”

“Who doesn’t”

“Start searching for a job.”

She sniggered. “Are you firing me?”

“This place is the Titanic, and you are being given something the passengers didn’t get. A warning.” Johnston pointed at the reports and continued. “Go for short term profits now. Get in and get out.”

Amy looked at him and then at the reports.

“But they promise a high return.” Johnston grabbed one of the reports and dropped it in the bin.

“Listen to me carefully. There’s an iceberg ahead, and it’s getting closer.”

“Are we”, Amy lowered her voice “going into administration, Mr Johnston?” He nodded, his shoulders falling.

“It’s not your fault” He waved an arm across the cubicle, motioning towards the rest of the office. “It’s not theirs either.” He prodded himself.

“I’m the one who ballsed up. I put money in a venture that even a schoolboy would’ve seen was gonna fail. When they asked for more, I delivered.”

“Why?”

Johnston pointed at the report in the bin. “Long term potential, I guess.” He shook his head.

“Who’m I kidding. It was stupidity, personal greed.”

“So we’re going to sink.”

“Don’t tell anyone else, otherwise it’ll get to the media.” He shivered.

“In the meantime, you’d better start searching for a job.”

Johnston pulled himself off the desk and wandered back through the sea of cubicles to the lift.

The top floor was tranquil in comparison; a bunch of middle aged men and women in drab grey suits churning through statistical data. Johnston nodded at Hotchkins who was still sitting with his highlighter, as he walked past them to his assistant’s office. Michael put the phone down when he walked in.

“Well.”

“Schedule a press conference for tomorrow afternoon. And set up a conference call with the shareholders asap.”

Michael tapped on his keyboard, already beginning the tasks.

“What about the rest of the employees?”

“Tell them all to come in slightly earlier tomorrow. I’ll talk to them then.”

Johnston walked to the door, turned and said:

“And call my wife, tell her I’m free.”

He walked through to his office, locked the door and sat down. The desk phone bleeped.

“Thirty messages I’ve sent you. Ten missed calls. That’s one long me-”

“Are the kids with you?”

“It’s half four, of course they are. I’ve told you before, school finishes at three.”

“At home?”

“Look, are you going to tell me why you’ve been ignoring me.”

“Are you at home?”

“Yes I’m at home, now why have you been ignoring me?”

Johnston span his chair round to look out over the city.

“You know why I chose investment banking don’t you?”

“What’s this got to do with anything?”

“Dad said to follow your ambition.” Johnston coughed. “I’ve followed mine too far, Marie.”

“What are you on about, are you drunk jeez it’s only half four Mark.”

“I’ve climbed too high. What goes up must come down.”

“Talk properly for God’s sakes. Is something wrong?”

“I’ve fucked up Marie. I’ve fucked up good and proper.”

“What.”

“I put money in the wrong place. I – I – I”

“Breath Mark.”

A message popped up on Johnston’s monitor. It was his assistant informing him that the conference call would be ready in half an hour.

“The company’s gonna fall.”

“Look, I’m going to come to th-”

“No. Stay at home. The Board is phoning in a minute, anyway the kids”

“At least get a lift or taxi back when you’re finished. You’re not driving like this.”

“I’ll be late back, say goodnight to the kids for me.”

“Ok. Just don’t get upset with the Board, they’ll try and fix it.”

“It’s beyond them.”

“What would your Dad say?”

Johnston sniffed. “When the shit hits the fan, cover your head and you’ll be fine.”

“Exactly. The shit’s hit the fan and the Board will cover you.”

Another message popped up on the screen. A reminder that the call was approaching.

“I’ll see you later” His wife said.

“I said I’ll be late, don’t wait up.”

“Love you.”

“Love you.”

Johnston placed the phone back on its cradle and stood up. He walked out of his office and through the top floor, to the water cooler. He collected a glass of water and returned to his office. He locked the door again and walked over to the window.

The sky had grown cloudy, and the only area that seemed to be in the sun was a small estate on the horizon. Even though it would be a few hours before the sun would set, much of the City was covered in a dark blanket. Johnston looked out over the City, staring at the estate. He squinted, and could just about make out the puffs of smoke from the top of the factory where his Dad had worked, the smoke that was one of the causes of his Dad’s cancer. As he stared, he redid his tie and straightened his jacket.  Johnston could hear his Dad’s voice in his head as he tore himself from the window and began to pace around the room. The pride that his Dad had shown when his son had got a job not in the factory, the pride that he had shown when he had bought his first suit, the pride he had shown when his son had taken his parents to dinner, the pride his Dad had shown when the company was created.

Johnston stopped in front of the window and looked out once more. Behind him, the computer beeped. It was another message reminding him that the call would begin in ten minutes.

Johnston stood still and watched the clouds go by, stood listening to the people on the top floor working hard, and to the dull roar of the traffic down below.

In ten minutes he would destroy everything that he had ever created. He would get rid of everything he had strived for. He would ruin his Dad’s memory by failing, by failing to continue his ambition, failing to succeed.

Johnston finished the rest of the water in the glass, and put it on his desk. He pulled out a packet of cigarettes from his jacket. That was perhaps the one thing that his Dad hadn’t liked, especially when he developed lung cancer. Johnston opened the packet and took one out. He lit the cigarette and took a long drag, feeling the chemicals inside move around his body. As he smoked he checked his suit, brushed a bit of dust off and cleared his desk. He then stood up and walked to the door and reassured himself that it was locked. Michael might know that he was in a call, but he didn’t want the rest of the top floor barging in and asking for some irrelevant data. The blinds were shut, that was good; although the top floor may hear raised voices, at least they wouldn’t see him get upset.

Once more he returned to the window, leaning against it with one arm, his watch bared. He listened to the second hand tick, as the tiny complicated mechanism inside slowly moved the minute hand. The watch had been the last gift from his Dad, given only a matter of months before he had passed away. It was a simple watch, with a plain face and basic brown leather strap. A reminder that he could have been happy with a simple life, a reminder that he could have been happy without getting tangled in the corporate web. Most of all, a reminder of his father and the society that he had grown up in.

It was only a matter of minutes before the phone call when Mark Johnston decided that he couldn’t see his company fall. That he couldn’t destroy everything that his Dad had been proud of. It was his ambition, his dream, and his company. There was no way that he would let someone else run what his father had been so proud of.

Johnston finished the cigarette, and dropped it in the glass from the water-cooler. He moved his desk chair to the centre of the room, underneath the metal spotlight that was bolted to the ceiling. He undid his belt and removed it from his trousers, feeling the leather’s strength. He climbed onto the chair and wrapped the belt around the light fitting, and then round his own neck. He tied a knot and then stood on the chair.

The monitors on Mark Johnston’s desk switched to the conference call just as he said:

“Sorry Dad” and kicked the chair from beneath his feet.

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