An excerpt from

Midland

James Flint

Alex Wold found out about Tony Nolan’s death at the end of an already tumultuous week. First had come the confirmation of his wife Mia’s second pregnancy. Great news, wonderful news, another person in the world, another child. Mia seemed happy, he was happy. The usual hurdles had yet to be overcome, of course. But Mia was healthy, sensible and strong, and Alex didn’t doubt that Rufus would soon have a baby brother or sister to keep him company, and that he himself would be heading up a family unit that was solid and foursquare.

A couple of days after the test had shown up positive, he’d been travelling back along Embankment in a taxi when something strange occurred. The traffic had come to a complete standstill. This would not have been at all unusual if it were not for the fact that alongside the hold-up the entire pavement was jammed with people all of whom, for no reason that Alex could readily perceive, were looking out towards the river.

Incapable of sitting by while something interesting was happening, Alex abandoned the cab and insinuated his way into the crowd until he reached the concrete parapet that ran along the water’s edge. The tide was out and people were also gathered on the slick mud banks that had emerged; one man, dressed in a dark blue fleece, was even standing up to his waist in the water itself.

All eyes were on three small boats that bobbed in an awkward configuration a few dozen yards from the shore. Why, Alex didn’t know.

He bent his head to the schoolboy standing next to him.

“What’s going on?”

“There’s a whale.”

“What?”

“In the river. There’s a whale. It’s come in from the sea.”

Another boy, dressed like his companion in creased black trousers, battered black trainers, and a sky-blue hoodie with his school’s logo on the back, was eager to prove he knew all about it too.

“’S got lost. It must’ve swum in from the ocean by mistake. They’re trying to get it back before it swims onto the mud and gets stuck. It was up by the Houses of Parliament before, so it’s going back I think.”

Alex glanced from water to boy and back again. As his gaze travelled to the river for the second time a javelin of water squirted into the air about fifty metres from where he stood. At its base he could just make out a blowhole, set in its square of rubber sheen, opening and closing vulvically. Once, twice, three times it gasped, and on the third respiration a rhombus of flesh, dark as the mudflats, broke the surface a car’s length away. There it was. The whale.

For possibly the first time since he’d joined Sovereign Brothers eight years before, Alex’s mind stopped chewing on the matter of his next trade. Pushing back through the bodies he worked his way around to a stone staircase that led down onto the beach. He had a fight to descend – the steps were crammed – but with a combination of elbows and excuse-mes and a little aid from gravity, the slime left by the retreating waters was soon sucking at his hand-stitched leather loafers and oozing its way through the turn-ups of his bespoke wool flannel suit.

It was a perfect January day. The spokes of the Millennium wheel shone with the glycerine light of the low winter sun. Big Ben stood cold and proud above the traffic, rendered timeless by the refrigerated air. News helicopters hovered at the old clock’s shoulders like winged familiars, their spinning rotors patiently processing the steaming sky, almost but not quite achieving thought. And the river shone beneath the Victorian arches of the bridges, and grinned and gurgled at their slowly slackening grip upon the world.

In the midst of all this beauty the whale seemed like hope, like a conciliatory messenger sent upstream by the senate of the seas. Here they were, the people of England, Alex among them, gathering to greet it, to embrace it, to send it back to from whence it came with tidings of peace and love. Festival was in the air. People were happy and amazed. People were good, the universe was good. Today had become one of those rare days on which the laws of combat were suspended and, for a brief period, death was not the truth of things.

Alex was swept up by it all in a manner he hadn’t experienced for years. Perhaps it was the news of his second child finally sinking in, perhaps it was just the energy of the moment, but standing here on the chilly silver mudflats he felt alive with enthusiasm, abuzz in root and branch. He felt – wow – he felt young. Not that he’d noticed feeling old, particularly, but until this moment he hadn’t realised quite how tuneless his existence had become. The brushed steel lifts and glass-sided corridors of the investment bank’s offices in Aldgate, the enervating, dehydrating hours he spent in business class, the long list now of deals and trades that had seemed so exciting at the start but now felt automatic, with even the double-plays and kick-backs hardwired into their routines… he was tiring of it, and had been working so hard that he hadn’t noticed the tiredness creeping in.

It was a pitfall of finance. You spent so much time living in the future, so much time planning for the day when you cashed in your chips and walked away to pursue a more pleasurable lifestyle that you forgot to enjoy the money you were so assiduously making. And then by the time you did walk away the stress and the fifteen hour days had destroyed your health so much that you were already half dead. This was how you became a grey man, Alex reflected, on and on, round and round until your life was summed up by a spreadsheet... and you were felled by cancer or a coronary aged fifty-five. That was Alex Wold, class of ’91, a good guy and NPV(A) = (1-(1+r)-n)P/r. That was how you lost your soul.

He should have noticed when sex with Mia, the beautiful Mia, had started to become perfunctory, when his libido had begun to leaf back through a few pages from the secret diaries of the bad old days. The black Filofax, as his main man Freddie Winston, currently making serious money over at HSBC, liked to refer to it. Only idle, that leafing, only a perusal, but it was a warning sign, a vulnerability indicator, and he’d have done well to pay it more attention that he did.

So he emailed Patricia from his Blackberry, instructed her to reschedule his meetings for that afternoon, and turned his attention to the four tonnes of eternity now thrashing and bobbing in a panicked spiral thirty metres from the water’s edge.

The whale didn’t disappoint. Alex had never been this close to one before. He’d waited in the restaurant on the quay that one time in Montauk when he’d had the opportunity. He’d wanted to go on the boat trip, but he knew from bitter experience he had no sea legs and so stayed and ordered beer and chowder while Mary and Doug from Sovereign’s New York office made the trip without him. Both of them gone now, in the Twin Towers, while he’d been cavorting with Mia on a beach in Brazil. Christ. What a waste. The memory of the two of them, of that weekend in Long Island, was suddenly physical, a ferrous taste around the tongue, a real lump in the throat.

Then the bottlenose broke the water and triggered Samuel Barber’s Agnes Dei, one of the pieces Alex favoured when he needed to float his mind free of the hopeless matrix of sclerotic rush-hour roads, to start playing unbidden in his head as clearly as if he was listening to it while sitting in his Porsche.

His reverie continued while the whale breathed and disappeared. When it surfaced a second time, perhaps half as distant as before, the people on the parapet started shouting: “Go back! Go back!” and the man waist-deep in the water began to splash and wave his arms. Before he knew what he was doing, Alex was plunging forward into the river himself. Cheers went up behind him as, one shoe already sucked from his foot, he pushed into the oily swirl, lungs constricting as the ancient river licked hungrily at his legs. Gasping, he made fists of his hands, set his jaw and strode on, seven strides, eight, until he drew level with the other man.

“Come to help?” the stranger said cheerily, as if they were standing in the park, trying to launch a kite.

“Yes, I suppose so,” answered Alex, his voice weaker than usual in the face of the Thames. “What’s the plan?”

“Trying to keep the fella from beaching himself on the mud. This here’s the edge of the bank. After that it drops off pretty fast.” He grinned. “I don’t recommend you go any further out, in other words. I did, and it nearly did for me.” He pointed to a high water mark that ran across his fleece at the level of his armpits. “There’s quite an undertow.”

Alex could feel it even now, tugging at his feet. The famously fatal current, responsible for dragging so many thousands to their deaths: swimmers, suicides, drunken boatmen, unwary children, foolish dogs and luckless rats and scaredy cats… and maybe even the odd whale.

This one though, this one they were going to save. He could feel it. He’d saved many things in his career. Once he’d saved an entire pension fund through a spectacularly audacious piece of hedging, securing his first six-figure bonus in the process – nice work if you can get it. He’d lost things too, of course, though he’d learned to brush these to one side. There had been some moral compunction in the beginning – the first time he’d asset-stripped a business, a family-owned re-tooling operation, he still remembered that one, the awful calls and letters from the eldest son. Or the time he’d suppressed a damning health and safety report on a chemical plant outside of Merthyr Tydfil in order to maintain the share price. But the culture at Sovereign Brothers was focussed on the bigger picture. They knew, and soon he knew too, that the world was at war. The fleets and armies were companies and banks and brands and corporations, and Britain’s survival as a nation depended on her ability to keep marshalling her forces as effectively as her numerous competitors marshalled theirs. There was no time for sentiment. No quarter could be given.

This thought reminded Alex of a conversation with his first boss at the investment bank, a veteran fund manager called Peter Bedway who had built his reputation (and considerable fortune) on the basis of his successful reading of the post Big Bang boom. Alex had been working under his supervision for about a year when the press began to fluster about a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan. This was significant, because the fund that Alex was helping to co-ordinate was, at that time, very exposed to Taiwanese steel.

“Why aren’t we getting out?” he had finally demanded of his superior, as the sabre rattling had been ratcheted up to what was in his eyes an unbearable level of intensity.

“There won’t be a war,” Bedway had replied.

“How can you be so sure? There are troop movements on the mainland, the Americans have evidence of missiles being retargeted…”

“There won’t be a war.”

“I don’t see how you can claim to know that.”

Bedway turned from his screen and stared at Alex with his disarmingly languid, almost bovine gaze. “Tell me something,” he said. “What’s the price of rice been doing the last twelve months?”

Alex hesitated, then bashed a few words into his keyboard and hit return. A matrix of figures flashed up. He ran his eye down the relevant column.

“Nothing much.”

“Exactly. So no war.”

Alex looked blank.

“Look. China, despite being the world’s largest rice producer, has so many mouths to feed that it’s a net importer of rice. If it were to invade Taiwan there’d been an international outcry and in all likelihood the UN would impose sanctions, making it very hard for China to buy rice. Even if they didn’t, sellers would start charging a premium, knowing that the Chinese would have no choice but to pay. The Chinese government understands this, and would therefore be buying extra rice to stockpile against that eventuality. That would be pushing up the global price – not a lot, maybe, if they were doing it carefully, but a bit. But the price has been relatively stable. So the Chinese are not buying rice, even surreptitiously. Ergo: no war.”

There was something priestly about Bedway. He was quite a short man, with a delicate frame and a large head, what was left of his hair cropped so short as to make him effectively bald. He wore expensive suits but because of his size they seemed not to quite fit him, which lent him a monkish air and contributed to his slightly pious aura. He lived and breathed Sovereign Brothers and was often in the office till two or three in the morning then back in at seven, and as he actively enjoyed the denial of self this entailed it was an example he assumed, as a general rule mistakenly, that others were happy to follow.

Alex had been impressed by him and scared by him in turns. Bedway apparently derived all his personal satisfaction from his job. He was a vegetarian and even at big social events had never been known to drink more than a single glass of wine of an evening. And then, boom, one day he had died from a massive stroke aged – guess what? Fifty-five. To cap it off, it had happened in the office. The cleaners had found him late one night, slumped back in his Aero chair, his expressionless face illuminated by the prices from the Nikkei still ticking across his Bloomberg screen. All that calm... in the end it turned out to be little more than bottled stress. It was a cautionary tale.

There was a roar and the water burst apart and the whale surfaced a mere three metres in front of Alex like a U-Boat from one of the many war films he’d watched as child. The animal’s hide was so taut, so perfect and plastic, that it didn’t seem possible that it belonged to anything alive.

“Go on,” said the fleece man in a sensible voice, loud but calm and firm. “Back you go.” At the same time he rattled the water with his palms, an action which Alex, coming forward now, began to imitate. It felt ludicrous, standing there flapping at this miraculous beast as if it were a farmyard cow, but it was having an effect and instead of coming further towards the bank the whale slowed, raised its beak at the two men, and cawed almost like a bird. Alex had only ever heard one thing like it before in his life: the first sound that Rufus had made when he was born. Suddenly this creature from nightmares, from other dimensions and dark, undiscovered lagoons, was something that he understood. Tears stung his eyes.

“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s alright.”

But the whale didn’t think so. It cried again and raised its tail and with slap that would have felled a bigger man than Alex it cuffed the water and propelled itself away in a violent curve. And so back it went towards the centre of the river.

As the molten body passed Alex reached out his hand and touched the creature’s flank. Just a second’s contact, but it was enough. The eely body felt elemental, felt like fire, and it heated him enough to stay standing sentry in the water for another hour. By the time he got home late that afternoon, however, he was shivering. His Blackberry had been rendered useless by the water so he hadn’t called ahead, and Mia couldn’t believe it when he slopped into the hallway, carrying his ruined loafers in his hand.

He spent the next hour regaling a slightly bewildered Rufus with the tale of his adventure and following the whale’s progress on Sky News. Mia was hardly less bewildered than the three-year old. She thought it greatly out of character, this sudden sentimental concern her husband was displaying for the welfare of an animal. And now here he was, absconding from work and risking drowning and exposure to goodness knew what admixture of water-borne diseases. It was out of the ordinary, to say the least.