A Brazilian Sugar Mill by Dominic Carew

I sit at my desk at the investment bank on the seventeenth floor, which may as well be the moon for all the contact we have with the real world here, while below, on the street, a din surges.

“Cookies? Does anyone want cookies? We’re going to buy cookies.”

I order two white chocolate and macadamia cookies. One for now, one for tonight after dinner.

The din, I realise, is the sound of a protest march making its way through the city. They sent an e-mail about it earlier. Not a warning, nothing like that, just a heads-up. A planned protest this afternoon from 2 is expected to cause delays. If you need to leave the CBD, be sure to use the tunnel.

I’ve been working here for five years and that means I’ve acquired a certain amount of clout. When the juniors saunter in, my job’s to make them feel a little stupid. It’s not written anywhere and nobody talks about it, but it’s one of those things that has to be done. Most of them need it - some more than others. Felix is a good example. He’d been to a fine university and apparently graduated with honours. Probably slept with his lecturer – man or woman - I don’t think he’d care which. He had that eagerness, zeal is maybe the word, you’d see in the front row kids at high school. They were never popular and rarely did well in the sporting arena, mainly because they weren’t team players. Kids like that go on to become socially awkward, padding about the world with hunched shoulders and a twitch, always worried someone’s going to shove them in the back. It’s a shame they end up that way, but they often have only themselves to blame. Anyway, I didn’t go to school with Felix but I’m fairly sure he was a front row kid and needed a bit of tweaking to become aligned with banking practice.

He’d bounce along to my desk, stand up against me, almost on my feet, and whine: “James, do you need anything done? I have capacity to assist. Photocopies, scans, coffees?” and so on, until he was out of breath.

Most of the time I’d be too busy, would send him away with a flick of my hand, but one afternoon when I was bored…

“Oh Felix!”

He stiffened to attention, scurried my way like a dog called to feed. Yes, like a dog.

“You called for me James?”

“I did. Felix there’s something we need to talk about and I don’t want to involve anyone else because... well because, frankly, it’s not going to look good for you. You see this real income model for the Shenzen shoe-lace manufacturing plant? There’s eighteen hundred tabs per spread-sheet, seventy-five spread-sheets per customer?”

“Yes. I ran the gross earnings figures last week. It took three days.”

“That’s the problem. We need the numbers netted off.”

“Terribly sorry, James, didn’t realise, I thought they were supposed to be gross.”

“Don’t be silly. Just make sure you fix it.”

“Right away, James.”

“Before you go home tonight.”

He did well, I have to give him that. Oh, I saw the pain in his eyes the instant it registered, like a criminal receiving a sentence, but he didn’t flinch and he didn’t waver.

Two days later, he went home to sleep. I gave him a day, I have a heart you see, then I instructed him to do it over. And over, please, you’ll have to do it over. It went on like that for a while. He took it on the chin. Then, one day, he left and we never heard from him again. If only he’d stayed on for a few more years, forced himself through the mesh, he might have made a decent banker. That’s what you get from front row kids: they end up flaking out on you.

“The cookies are here everyone. The cookies.”

My secretary, Scarlet, has returned with the loot.

“Who ordered the white choc, maca-fabulous?”

“They’re mine.”

“What do you say, James?”

“They’re mine, Scarlet.”

The cookie’s no good – too crunchy. I dawdle to the window where everyone’s gathered ‘round, looking down on the protest between slurps of coffee.

“What’s it about?” someone asks.

“Let them march,” someone says.

“What’s it about though?”

There’s something strange about the sounds of chants shivering through glass. They swell and recede like piddling waves that flop against the shores of a continent. When I strain my ears I’m sure I can hear Felix down there, his nasal front row whines.

Back at my desk, my precious spread-sheets – a manganese mine in Kazakhstan, a special purpose vehicle that leases jumbo jets, a Brazilian sugar mill – I eye the second cookie. Two chunks of white chocolate poke out from the surface and eye me back. I set down my mug. Everyone’s still by the windows. I make sure they can’t see me, take the cookie from its bag and, hunched into the effort, crush it to dust in my hands.

Dominic Carew is a lawyer and writer from Sydney.