—A tired camel
This extract from Jonas Lüscher’s Barbarian Spring, a dark satire of City excess set in the Tunisian desert, tells the start of the end.
While Preising was sleeping, Britannia sank. In fact, the first signs of trouble were evident the evening before, but overnight things took another turn for the worse. The London interbank market had already ground to a standstill. While the capital was still shrouded in darkness, countries whose markets were trading desperately ditched their sterling reserves at a huge loss. A cabinet meeting called by the prime minister sat up all night in Downing Street until daybreak, watching as the pound sank to an all-time low, a fall in value that suddenly became a nosedive when, at 9 a.m. local time, the London Stock Exchange opened for business. Trading really ought to have been suspended that day, but as yet no consensus had emerged on who was to blame for this appalling mess, and until things became clearer the main priority was not to spook Britain’s European and Transatlantic friends. This delay had disastrous consequences, though, as the computer programmes responsible – or rather not responsible – for most of the transactions proved ill-equipped to deal with a scenario that no-one up till now had even thought possible and so the system’s feedback loops went haywire and within minutes had wiped billions off the value of shares before anyone could intervene. At 9.05 a.m. GMT, trading was finally suspended. At the same time, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was the first to go on record with what was already blindingly obvious, announcing that under these circumstances the country would no longer be able to service its horrendous sovereign debt. As he spoke, Marc and Kelly, for whom it was already five past ten, were fast asleep in their Bedouin tent. At precisely that moment, the bill for the wedding, which they were due to pay in Tunisian dinars, outstripped the value of their London terraced house in pounds sterling, with eighty percent of the house still owned by their bank – a bank whose lawyers were already declaring insolvency and drafting an e-mail to the employees advising them to bring a cardboard box into work that day.
By the time the prime minister met the press to announce that Britain had gone bankrupt, Saida had already been up and about for hours, getting the resort shipshape again with her team of bleary-eyed staff. They picked bottles and broken glasses out of the flower beds and shovelled vomit into a wheelbarrow, and Saida made Rachid go into the pool to fish out a recliner that had been thrown in and wake Kelly’s brother, who was still bobbing about in his yellow rubber ring, with his head lolling back towards the water.
At the same time as European finance ministers were holding a somewhat panicky and chaotic teleconference, Saida finally found time to go and supervise preparations for the breakfast buffet, before withdrawing to her office with a cup of coffee and, as was her habit, catching up with the latest world news on the Tribune de Genève website. She always found herself hoping there’d be a mention in the section on local politics of the communist city councillor she’d met during her time at hospitality management school, and who she still carried a torch for, though her infatuation was totally one-sided and unrequited.
On this particular day, though, she never got that far. After a brief moment of shock and a swift fact-check on the BBC and CNN websites, she picked up a pocket calculator, totted up the wedding costs, including bed and board for 72 guests, and arrived at a rough figure of six hundred thousand dinars, which amounted, at least a few hours ago, to about a quarter of a million pounds. She got on the phone and instructed the accountant in her father’s office in Tunis to debit the newlyweds’ credit cards to the absurd tune of one million, two hundred and fifty thousand pounds apiece. Of course, she knew full well that even the happy couple’s shiny black credit cards wouldn’t cover that amount, but she was hoping the issuer would at least let them max out. She then dashed to the kitchen to tell the chefs and waiters to cancel the breakfast buffet and clear everything they’d laid out except for a basket of flatbreads and a dish of hummus.
She wasn’t at all surprised when the news came back from Tunis that both credit cards had already been blocked, nor did she have any joy when she tried the credit cards of other guests, who’d bought rounds of drinks on tabs at the bar and given their card numbers. As things now stood, it seemed all credit cards issued by British banks had been cancelled; indeed, as far as she knew the whole system of international payment transactions was on the verge of collapse.
Slim Malouch’s secretary told Saida her father couldn’t come to the phone, not even to speak to his daughter. Saida hung up, cursing that apartment in a middle-class, new-build development on the outskirts of Tunis, which she wasn’t supposed to know about but where she suspected her father was right now. So that was that, then. For the next few hours, she’d be on her own. It was time to act.