He blinks twice. In an instant the momentary lapse of his surrounds leaves a vacuum of awareness. He asks himself, ‘where am I?’ Where is he indeed?
The low winter sun shines through the emptiness of the leafless tree shedding light and a little warmth on the side of his face. His layers of clothes shield the coldness of the morning as he clasps the steaming café latte.
Let the story of Ro Chai uncover a mystery of intrigue in his otherwise unobtrusive life in finance and try to discover the world city as it unfolds in this tale of romance, murder and conceit. Where is Ro Chai?
Buongiorno! How are you? A sombre face but pleasant morning voice greets early morning visitors. The Roman barista’s length of eye contact varies by each customer. It’s the early morning coffee call and Michelangelo’s has just opened for business. The sandstone tiles announce all visitors, its hard stone exterior identifies the softest of sole wearers. He looks around at the simple but appropriately fitted room and identifies the morning papers already laying available for reading on top of the wine barrel. The tables are small, brown and square with four chairs although they are only suited to two people hence the popularity of the tables against the wall. Bottles of Italian wine line the walls and are separated by photos of the pantheon, the foro italico, the colloseo and the trevi fountain, all at night. They are a time passed. No doubt they are valuable memories to Giovanni, the store owner, from his days gone by in Italy. Another wall dawns drawings of Leonardo da Vinci completing the identity of the cosy café. He meanders to the counter, not enveloped by anything particular, there is no waft of cooked food in the air, it is too early. The smooth aroma of roasted beans massaged through the grinder poses a familiar and refreshing enough scent to draw the mind away to greener pastures. Marcelo is playing with the stereo, their latest addition to the ambience at Michelangelo’s albeit only for the early morning venturer. The tone shifts from Italian music for an audience of five to a humming thrawl of keen coffee drinkers and their mid-morning work discussions. Foreign music sometimes feels more exotic and uplifting and provides a loud but tolerable background to a coffee and paper. ‘Have you seen the score?’ asks Marcelo in his roman accented English. Marcelo enjoys his futbol. Roma used to be a great team and in his mind still is. He misses his youth days singing in the stalls of the stadio olympico with one hundred of his closest friends of which he knew all their names. He is a tall figure, imposing with his bald head, sharp brown eyes and blonde beard. He leans often and his stance though casual probably reflects the long hours standing at the coffee machine. His t-shirt frequently a striped colour print and rarely with brands, words or symbols emblazoned upon it. His once dark blue jeans washed and worn for years, or for look, are clean. The empty cabinet beckons the plethora of pastries to be crafted by Giovanni shortly. The donuts, like arancini balls rather than rings of dough are called bombolini although yesterday Marcelo advised Ro its pronounced bombolino not bombolini – only because Ro buys one and not many. These have become a regular indulgence as part of the morning coffee. He knows he shouldn’t be eating them but they are irresistible and he feels a sense of obligation sitting in the café so long and just buying a coffee. Soon the coffee bean aroma will be complimented by the decadent smell of baking pastry.
He hasn’t seen the score, but Arsenal very rarely beats Barca, even at the Emirates stadium. No doubt the return leg at the Camp Nou will be an even more difficult affair to swallow. Marcelo is critical of Roma not making the Champions League. He feels the new manager is warranted in trying new younger blood, but the results have not been forthcoming and clearly Roma supporters have high expectations. The funds are handed across and he takes his usual seat on the other side of the counter, in front of the coffee machine, virtually in the corner; it’s a great view of the café, observing the visitors and listening to the conversations on the four person tables. ‘Flat white and one bombolino, bello.’ Marcelo whispers, his eyes drawn by the ringing bell announcing a young female entrant to the café. She arrives at this time every day. One would know she is a regular by the quality of her Italian. It has improved immensely, thanks to Marcelo, and so has her attention to her dress sense. Make-up, heels, more formal attire; a promotion perhaps, surely not the presence of Marcelo is the reason for the change. Daniela orders her skinny soy cap and proceeds to the outside table for a quick hit of nicotine.
He reaches for his pen, the instrument that may change his destiny forever, or so it feels. Normally he scans through the financial newspaper looking for interesting stories to read on the markets. These days everything one needs to know flicks across the screens appended to an electronic ticker tape so the paper is read more for its in depth news and reports on the goings on in the world of finance. Today he has a meeting with the General Manager of strategy to discuss major changes in the business he runs and which the GM will soon take control. Ro runs a small stockbroking business at a major high street bank called Mason Thompson. He has the benefit of being responsible for a very small business with the luxury and support of a major high street bank behind him. He has spent the last 3 months responding to his vendor being taken over by a competitor high street bank and dealing with the conflicts associated with this circumstance. Notwithstanding, the strategy guys, led by the gun GM recruited from New York by the bank’s CEO, are keen to change the stockbroking business substantially. Ro needs to provide some insight into the stockbroking industry, the major changes occurring and the opportunities for his business in light of the group’s change in strategic direction or risk losing his job. No mean feat. Time to make some notes.
Ro makes the long walk from one side of the building to the office of the CEO at the other end. This is generally where the GM sits when he is in town. Its an interesting building in a new part of town. Over the years the appeal of the waterfront nested aside the CBD is too great. The docks are too valuable to remain in demise to a time of old cargo ships, decaying goods sheds, heavy handed wharf unions and cranes deteriorating and rusted from the wear and tear of larger and larger cargo containers. A new area further up the river toward the expanse of the bay has become the new destination of modernised equipment dedicated to mimicking the efficiency of places like Singapore. The cranes are much larger, most of them are driven by remote control, are more mobile but able to handle bigger, heavier containers. A dedicated train line and new trucking facility have been built to accommodate significantly increased throughput from the super-container ships. The old area was razed to make way for new commercial, retail and residential development. It is an exciting concept for the city’s residents and opportunities aplenty. Mason Thompson was one of the anchor tenants in the area. They built an exciting new building with only 8 floors as opposed to the traditional skyscraper and a much more open plan working space inside. The building is multi-coloured and square, rapidly acquiring a nickname of the Rubik’s cube. The open space with large atrium in the middle creates an openness designed to encourage imaginative and creative thinking. Ro arrives at reception and is greeted by a warm smile from Ros, the personal executive assistant to the CEO, Franc. She is past her prime but still visually attractive, sleek and slender and whilst the cream she uses daily has slowed the aging process her face still reflects the toll two divorces have taken on her life. ‘You must be Ro’, she commences. ‘Welcome. You are first to the meeting. If you head down the corridor to the second room on the right I can fix you something to drink. Would you like a coffee or a pot of tea?’, she continues. ‘Coffee would be wonderful, thanks Ros’ Ro responds excitedly. Not even a minute goes by when the view over the harbour is disrupted by a three-way conversation entering the room. It’s the deposit product team. They are heavily ensconced in discussion on changes to product design occurring in the industry. The focus is on dedicated high interest savings accounts without any transactional banking trimmings. Its a marvellous way to attract deposit assets into the bank and reduce reliance on foreign borrowings at a higher cost due to the widening in rates in the credit squeeze of the global financial crises. Ros punches through the doorway, silver tray in hand carrying pots of tea and coffee along with some croissants and muffins. She is suddenly popular. Sam enters the room in his usual confident manner with his classroom style text book in hand ready to make notes. It’s the opportunity and discovery phase of the project. Sam wants to explore the industry, its history, understand potential client demand and recognise Mason’s strengths in relation to the broking industry. Through all of this background research Sam wants to frame the opportunity around a niche utilising the strengths and competitive advantages open to the business he plans to establish. Today’s meeting with the deposit product team is to understand their rationale for deposit product design and the customer value proposition for the current products being taken to market.
There are a number of small conversing groups gathered around the board room table, next to the window with views across the glistening harbour or by the water dispenser. Discussions vary from speculation about the goals of the impending meeting, the overall strategy to discussions about family, the beautiful location of the head office to views about the latest change in the country’s leader; the rug being pulled from the elected leader’s feet due to a dive in public opinion polls. Coffee in pristine china porcelain cups and plates of muffins and croissants make way for tall glasses of fresh water and A4 size notepads ready for copious notes to be taken.
Sam starts explaining the current status of his undertaking. He’s meticulously gathering data and opinion from key stakeholders to provide a pool of information from which he can develop his strategy. The deposit team talk through the benefits of using high interest rates to attract investors. However, high interest deposits are not immediately profitable. The key win for the day is the light bulb moment where Sam envisages a very low interest transactional account , read high profit for the bank; through which broking clients can settle their trades. Attached to this is the high interest account to attract initial clients and deposit funds. It’s near the end of the half day forum and Sam shuts his notebook excitedly; he feels the sense of achievement in identifying the first major component of his plan.
All the attendees exit the room in the comfort they have been a valuable source of product knowledge, eager to ensure they’re invited to participate in the project. Sam leans back in the ergonomic chair, just enough to arch his back. He crosses one leg over the other and puts his hands behind his head. A cheeky, 8 year old boy smile, as if he’s just got away with something deviash is un-masked. This will prove to be a constant sign throughout the project of whether Sam has succeeded in obtaining what he wanted out of the meeting. In this case, absolutely. ‘Well’, he begins, ‘what did you think?’ Ro waits a moment giving Clint the first right of reply. ‘Interesting’, Clint commences. ‘I knew our high interest accounts were attracting the lions share of funds’, he removes his glasses and wipes his eyes, ‘but I wasn’t aware of the arrangement between treasury and the product team.’
The tune is familiar and the words are the same, Happy Birthday to You. He remembers his grandparents, both of them on his mum’s side telling him, ‘its not nice being old.’ Their mind was as sharp as a thirty year old, the body far from able. Seeing the candles displaying seventy-six is daunting, he doesn’t feel it at all. A half-hearted thrust of air emits from his lungs through his mouth and extinguishes the soft candlelight leaving an eerie darkness though only momentarily. The bright room lights are flicked on and a number of separate discussions start-up continuing from where they left off prior to the singing interlude. He is the only one with nobody to talk to. Its moments like these he feels the loneliness. He loves his independence, he enjoys being on his own to do what he wants, when he wants and how he wants. Its been a trait he has struggled with all his life. He misses his wife, his best friend but many years gone, she finding new love and a new life. He misses his mum and dad or more the memories of his early days with them. The relationship when he left home faded gradually. Strangely, it is his grandparents he misses most. Oldest memories are often the rosiest and he’s conscious of this distortion. The relationship he shared with them was a mutual love at its simplest, a mutual admiration and pure enjoyment of each others’ company. He is a simple person in that he is easily contented and appreciative of simple things like the dawn of a day expectant of the bluest sky, the most golden of sun and the stillest air. ‘Did you want some more cake, Dad’ asks the hand that waves past his eyes. ‘You’ve been reminiscing again’ his daughter quaffs. His children are good to him but their focus is on their own lives, their own busy families and for the three of them its clear that time with Dad is a chore. They drop-in because they have to, his birthdays are attended by less grandchildren every year. He never expected to reach this age in all honesty and now he wonders if he really wanted to. He always felt the complexity of life, the need to be busy, the perception that the happiest people are those that are telling you how busy they are, very confronting. His want of a simple life interceded by the pressure to be busy doing meant he did not enjoy life much. He is not a material person, he did not judge himself by how he looked, what he had on his back, where he lived, the sort of house he lived in or the type of car he drove. No, all he wanted was a quiet place away from the ramparts of who one is. A smile crosses his face as he remembers a quote from Margaret Thatcher that stayed with him all his years, ‘People are too busy trying to be somebody, rather than doing something worthwhile’, he related to it instantly when he first heard it. Now though, its just some sort of rationale to a life lost to regret and missed opportunities. ‘Where is that coffee I asked for?’ Ro blurts out, instantly silencing the room and drawing everyone’s attention. He clearly spoke with more pitch and disdain than he expected. No doubt the birthday gathering will close abruptly leaving him to his carers and more uninteresting TV in a bed already reserved for the next poor soul shuffled off from their place of comfort, solace and familiarity to the cold, white, characterless shed that is the local nursing home; the only place he has been called Mr Chai.