Repaid in Full
A Short Story - Speculative Fiction
Speculative fiction. Would be interested to know what you make of it.
The Loansman had summoned us to his office. It was not an invitation that could be refused. We had heard tales of that office all our lives; of the highly polished, fragrant wood panelling that lined the walls, of the huge desk inlaid with dark leather in a shade of venous-blood red. We had heard of the ornate fireplace, engraved all about with the various symbols for currency from across The Investment. The ceiling was the stuff of legend, however. It was said that every inch of it was delicately and minutely sculpted into images of the human form; hundreds of naked, cherub-like bodies populating it, each one bearing a death mask in alabaster, finely wrought and morbidly fascinating. The faces still shone when the light reached them, the way human skin shines in the glare of the sun. So it was said. It was also said that no one invited into that office ever seemed to re-emerge, so how these tales had been passed on, I never understood.
I did not raise the question with Thomas and William now. We waited in silence in the somewhat disappointingly grubby passageway like shabby statues lining a corridor. I could feel the tension emanating from them, knowing that I was probably as much the source of it as was our impending appointment with The Loansman. I had something of a reputation for recklessness, but even I was not foolish enough to try anything clever here. I thought about reassuring them of that, then thought better of it. I have never been one to make promises I can’t keep.
A small, bent-backed man in a smart grey suit hurried past us, covered in an air of cowering subservience. He paid us no mind at all, stopping at the office door to knock upon it gently, “Your next appointment is here, sir,” he announced through the panelling. He did not wait for a reply, but turned on his heel and scurried away down the corridor and into the vague darkness at the end of it as if he could not get away quick enough.
We watched him go in mild surprise and it struck me as a strange occupation, if all the small man’s job entailed was to knock at the office door and let the occupant know that people awaited his pleasure.
At last the polished brass door handle was turned. Even the click it made sounded expensive to me. The dark and glossy door consented to open, swinging effortlessly wide to reveal a beautiful antique wooden floor. The Loansman appeared in the doorway like an apparition and despite all the advice and in the face of all protocol, I could not help but look directly at him.
At first sight he was impressive, to say the least. His attire was sombre, effortlessly formal and at the same time somehow stylish. It spoke of quality, impeccability and distinction. His hair was a perfect black, combed neatly, the lustrous strands matching the immaculate sideburns that graced his masculine jaw. He wore a cravat in a shade of emerald green. On another man, it might have been ostentatious; on the Loansman it was powerfully effective, complementing the deep jewel-jade of his eyes. Eyes that at that moment were fixed upon me with quiet disdain.
I lowered my gaze quickly, kicking myself for such a bad start. It was known to even the poorest debtor that you do not look upon the Loansman until he bids you to do so; not at a first meeting. Not many people met him more than once.
I cringed, waiting for his anger. It did not come. Instead, he glided wordlessly into the corridor, his contempt for us oozing from him like the heavy scent of his cologne.
He walked along us like a general inspecting his ranks and finding them wanting. His arrogance went ahead of him, casting a forward shadow. He stopped in front of Thomas.
“You owe me only a very little, but it shall be repaid,”
He moved back along the line, pausing at William, “Your debt is somewhat greater, though be assured, you too shall repay it in full,”
The Loansman did not linger there but came to me next, “And you,” he said, looking down upon me patronisingly, “Do you know why are you here, girl?”
“You summoned me sir,” I said with a dry mouth, deliberately fixing my gaze upon the gold buttons of his jacket in a bid to stop them straying to his face.
He did not respond, but stood in front of me for an eternity. Scared to open my mouth for fear of putting my foot in it, I paid inordinate attention to those buttons. Even as I did, they changed; the sheen of gold more like gilt, now that I looked closely. I found my eyes travelling the width of his broad chest, the silk waistcoat now taking on the appearance of brushed cotton. Surprised, I bit my tongue and dared to let my eyes roam further.
The suit he wore like the night was not so pristine now I looked closer. Here and there it was patched and sewn. It was carefully done, the needlework fine and neat. Nonetheless there were a few stray ends of cotton betraying the mending work where it had not been cut close enough to the cloth. They stood proud of the fabric like stray hairs; small, but impossible to ignore once you had seen them. Distracted, my examination travelled further, across his wide shoulders. All at once it seemed to me that there was very little beneath the jacket; little that was really the man, at any rate. I pondered; perhaps he wore shoulder pads, large ones at that. I sucked in a breath, unable to suppress the small “oh” that escaped my lips.
I felt his body stiffen in front of me, sure I was to be reprimanded. He must have felt my eyes upon him, sensed my shocked surprise at what had been revealed to me. I held my breath, once more awaiting his displeasure. I dared not look at William or Thomas, though I saw William’s fist clench tight out of the corner of my eye. Trust me to go and do it again.
The Loansman did nothing more than spin elegantly on his heel. Once again, he stood in the open doorway to his office, extending a graceful arm, “You may look upon me. After you,”
I looked up in surprise. So did the boys, for the first time daring to appraise The Loansman for themselves. I watched their awe and admiration as they first looked him over, doubtless as I had done. Then I watched them more closely, for signs that they had seen the small imperfections too. Their expressions told me they had not; they remained impressed.
“If you please,” The Loansman spoke gruffly, “time is money,”
Realising the boys were still spellbound, I was the first to move, nudging Thomas into action and beckoning William to follow behind. They moved like sleepwalkers, stepping tentatively into the office as if afraid the floor might suddenly disappear and cast them down into the very bowels of hell. We arranged ourselves in an obedient row in front of the desk like naughty school children before a Headmaster.
The Loansman took his time getting to his seat, a huge leather and wood monstrosity that hunkered behind the desk like some furtive beast. As he made his way around to it, I couldn’t help but notice that his desk, like his suit, also looked patched and repaired in places. At first glance a masterful creation of carpentry and art combined, the woodgrain here and there appeared to be going the wrong way, as if someone had inserted odd pieces to fill in holes. The blood-red leather inlay atop it looked whole enough. It made my eyes swim, looking at it too closely. It appeared to shimmer and ripple, as if it were made of some viscous liquid. Eager to dispel the effect, which began to make me feel nauseous, I took a swift look around the room while The Loansman’s back was turned.
The floor length drapes hanging at the imposing French Windows were at first glance a luxurious navy velvet, but I saw that they were moth-eaten and ragged around the hems. One of the crystal- clear panes bore a slight crack in a corner, where a spider web traced a finely delicate pattern as if to help hold it together. I was about to risk a glance at the infamous ceiling when The Loansman settled himself into the chair, a sound like a sigh of welcome escaping the padded seat. I turned my attention back to him, hoping he hadn’t noticed my wandering eye a second time. Something in his expression told me he had.
He leaned forward, elbows resting upon the desk, hands steepled before him, looking down at the desktop contemplatively. The top of his head showed strands of steely grey at the roots of his hair, the scalp tinged below with a purple-black stain. He dyed his hair. Startled, I did my best to keep my expression bland when he next looked upon us, unwilling to sour his disposition towards me still further.
“You,” he said, pointing both index fingers at Thomas, his hand still locked together as they were, “and you,” he pointed to William, “have both been called to me in to discuss outstanding payments. But of course, you must know this,”
Thomas and William attempted some reply, but The Loansman cut them off, “It is written into the very law of the land. No one, no matter what their status, is permitted to default in the repayment of their debt. Throughout The Investment, from the highest, grandest mountains to the lowest, meanest plains, every man, woman and child plays their part. Again, this is something that you must already know,”
Thomas shifted uncomfortably beside me as The Loansman fixed his gaze upon him alone, “So I would ask how it is that you have not made good on your debt these last three months?”
“It is not for want of trying,” Thomas stuttered, “I am paid less at my work, the wages dropped so low…”
“Then you take on a second mode of employment,”
“A second job? Sir, there is little enough time to do the one I already have,”
“Nonsense. You end your working day mid-evening. You could work until late evening, could you not? You currently have one day a week when you do nothing, nothing, other than rest at home. That is another day upon which you could be working in order to earn,” It was a statement, not a question, and not one The Loansman expected an answer to. He turned to William, “I could say much the same for you. You have defaulted upon two months payment, for much the same reasons. Laziness,”
“With respect sir, I am not lazy,” William interjected.
“Nor am I,” Thomas added.
The Loansman waved a hand dismissively, “Laziness, inefficiency and a failure to take seriously enough the impact of non-payment of monies due,”
He stood abruptly and glided across to the French Windows, affecting to look out of them It seemed to me more like he was looking into them, as if they were mirrors rather than windows. He clasped his hands behind his back, his brow furrowed like a man deep in thought.
“I see it repeatedly, you know,” he said, his voice loaded with patient weariness, “time and again I am caused to remind people such as yourselves of the very point of your existence. How can you possibly forget it? And yet you do, all the time it seems,”
He deigned to turn and face us, his expression stern, “So I will spell it out here for you, in the hope that you will not become so lax again. If we are to continue to live in the manner to which we are accustomed, we must pay. It is a simple and honest a truth as that. Look about you! Look at the room in which you stand! Look at the way I am dressed, the shoes on my feet, the ring on my hand!”
Only now did I notice the signet ring, a large, gaudy, square-headed thing that sat awkwardly on his middle finger. It looked as if it had once belonged to a different man. It struck me that he had not been wearing it earlier; that he had by some sleight of hand slipped it onto his finger only now, for maximum effect. I looked at the boys for some confirmation of my suspicions. Dismayed, I saw that they were once again rapt, utterly taken in by the man and his appearance.
“If we are to keep up this lifestyle, this image, this representation that is so very important across the globe in such uncertain, jealous times, then each man, woman and child must do his or her part. You must pay your way! You owe a great debt to your government, the most generous and giving of benefactors, and that debt must be paid! Non-payments cannot be allowed, no matter who the defaulter might be!”
For the first time, he showed some signs of animation, his face flushed red with anger, spittle forming at the corner of his mouth. I thought he might reach for the neatly folded handkerchief in his jacket, then understood that it was another falsehood; merely a white triangle of cotton sewn into a fake pocket.
“So, we must find a way to make reparations. You must find a way. The debt is yours, not mine. I am the one aggrieved here, I am the one wronged. You must learn not to live beyond your means!”
Thomas and William actually bowed their heads at that, as if they felt the burden of shame. It was about all I could take, and I would have confronted The Loansman then and there, had I not been saved from my folly by an urgent rap at the door.
The Loansman inclined his head in irritation at the interruption. “Come,” he ordered sharply.
I felt the door swing open behind me and we all turned, expecting the little grey man to come in, or to call out a message. There was no one there, the door seeming to have opened to a palpable silence and empty space beyond. Yet the Loansman made an exasperated face as receiving an unwanted calling.
“Oh, all right, if I must,” he spoke to thin air, “You will excuse me.” The latter to the three of us, as if we had any choice in the matter.
He left us with a measured, steady pace, his former composure returned, all trace of the passion and ire gone. The door clicked shut behind him.
I released a breath, hearing the boys do the same. We turned to one another as we always did whenever things got tricky.
“Well that was weird,” I said, meaning the conversation we had just witnessed.
“Can you believe this place?” Thomas whispered in a rush, ignoring me.
“It’s amazing!” William enthused, “Who would ever have believed it?”
“Wow!” Thomas murmured. He was looking around him, wide-eyed, “Just wow!”
A knot began to form in the pit of my stomach. The way the boys were reacting told me they did not see things as I did.
“You do see it, right? The room?” I asked them both.
“Of course we see it!” Thomas laughed, “How could we not?”
“Oh, I see it all right,” William agreed, “I see the gold framed portraits, the plush leather seating, the priceless desk,”
“The priceless desk?”
“And then there’s The Loansman himself,” Thomas took up, “The solid gold buttons, the suit that would cost us a year’s pay or more. Oh, we see it, sure enough!”
They looked thrilled and enthralled, as impressed and delighted as children at a circus. They were beaming stupidly, looking about them with undisguised awe.
“You have got to be kidding me, right?” They looked at me, their rapturous expressions at once clouded by confusion.
“Kidding you how?” Thomas asked.
“This! All this!” I hissed, fighting to keep from shouting, “It’s all a lie! None of it is as it seems!”
William looked troubled at the suggestion. They looked at one another, then back at me, their faces blank, and I saw that their ignorance was genuine; they were not kidding me at all.
“For pity’s sake! Those gold buttons are nothing more than gilt! Look at the threadbare curtains! The mismatched grain in the desk! Nothing about this place or The Loansman is as precious or as valuable as he would have us believe! It is all false, a lie! An intricate, elaborate lie I grant you, but a lie nonetheless!”
William shook his head, his denial plain, “But why? Why would he do that?”
“I don’t know,” I shrugged, “Maybe because if the people of The Investment knew the truth, they would stop giving him their money,”
They fell silent, considering. William cast an anxious look at Thomas, who shook his head disapprovingly.
“Be careful,” he cautioned me, “what you are saying is very close to heresy,”
“Heresy? Are you serious? Can you honestly not see what is right in front of you? What are we all slaving to pay for, month in, month out?”
“This!” William snapped, sounding chillingly like The Loansman only minutes before, “This office and the man who graces it. The man who takes care of The Investment on a daily basis. The man I am ashamed to say I am in arrears to,”
“The man who would have you working all hours of every day and night so he can take the money you earn out of your pockets and the food out of your mouth!”
“It is a small price to pay for the welfare of The Investment,”
“What investment? What is invested in here other than the whims of one man; a fake man at that? He is nothing more than a shabby replica of the statues built in every park and square, of every portrait hung in every school, office, library and railway station across The Investment. You can’t really mean to tell me you are taken in by this? What about us for once? What do we get in return for working ourselves to the bone? Where is the investment in us? Where is our return?”
William gasped; a sharp, indrawn breath of horror at my words.
“You don’t mean what you say!” he said.
“Oh, but I do! Open your eyes,” I urged them, “Open your eyes and see the truth for yourself. It is right in front of you! To think that all this time I have been taken in by this. That I believed I had to pay my way for the good of The Investment. There is only one who gains in all of this, that is clear to me now. It is not even a grand empire he sits in, but a shabby one! It seems to me that The Loansman lives a life he can ill afford, even though we are the ones paying for it! That the motto of The Investment is ‘Earn as You Live, Live as You Earn’ is an insult added to a mockery. What would the people say, if they could see how their hard-won coin is wasted, on nothing?”
“You dare to rewrite the motto of The Investment? That revered statement, uttered like a prayer amongst the grateful masses?”
I had not heard The Loansman re-enter the room; had not felt the shifting air as the door opened to re-admit him. The thought that he had been there throughout, that he had heard it all and never really left the room, crossed my mind. I turned to face him and for the first time since we met, I felt a shiver of real fear.
The dye with which he undoubtedly coloured his hair had leaked down his face, leaving deep purple streaks like veins down his forehead and cheeks. It was no longer neatly combed but pushed back in an untidy mess, as if a hand had been drawn hastily through it in a moment of stress. The ring, loose before, was now absurdly so. It fell in slow loops about his finger each time he moved his hand. The false handkerchief was a dirty grey, something sticky and dark in its centre beginning to spread outwards. The waistcoat was stretched tight across his belly, leaving gaping spaces between the cheap buttons. Even as I looked on, one of them snapped free of its stitching and flew across the space between us to land spinning at my feet.
I looked down at it, wondering if he had meant to aim it at me. When I looked up again he was closer, though I swear he had not moved a step. Now I could see how long and ragged his dirty nails were, how his supposedly pristine shirt was a sickly, yellowing off-white. He opened his mouth in a snarl, revealing blackened and rotting teeth and I took an involuntary step backwards, away from him. I stumbled, reaching out to the desk to steady myself. Its surface was worn and greasy, my hand slipping across the wood and onto the blood-red leather.
It was warm and tacky to the touch. I retracted my hand instinctively, knowing the feel of it was wrong. I was horrified to find my palm and fingertips were blood stained, one finger crowned by a deep red clot which I shook off in disgust. The red leather was swirling and pooling, here and there escaping its confines and leaking out onto the wood itself.
I looked to William and Thomas for support. They looked back at me, William with a patronising air, Thomas with mild amusement.
“What the hell?” I began.
“Didn’t you wonder why you were summoned?” Thomas asked.
I shook my head, confused by his question, “I came along with you. I always come with you; you’re like brothers to me. Where you go, I go. It’s always been that way,” Could they really not see what I could see?
“Yes, you did and how many times did your smart mouth, your penchant for upsetting people, cause us nothing but trouble? How many times did we have to haul you out of some situation or another, because of your own foolishness?”
“What?” I couldn’t seem to raise my voice above a whisper, so shocked was I by their response. It was true, I knew it. Even now, I expected them to come to my aid, to help me as they had always done.
“I don’t understand. I was summoned,” I glanced at The Loansman, who folded his arms across his chest and stared hard at me, “You summoned me,” I finished lamely.
“I did not,” The Loansman said. He licked his dry lips with a tongue that seemed suddenly too fat for his mouth, a sickeningly sensual gesture that made my stomach turn.
“Then why am I here?”
“Ask your friends,” he said, spittle dribbling down his chin to land thickly upon the filthy cravat, its’ gorgeous emerald shades now dull and lifeless.
I turned to the boys; my lifelong friends, my almost brothers, the question stuck in my throat for fear of the answer.
William looked hard at me, his eyes searching mine as if he expected me to know why. In truth I think I did, but I did not want to acknowledge it. I turned to Thomas, my eyes pleading.
“You are the settlement of our debt,” he said simply, “You are our repayment,”
“What?” I said again, the word empty on the air.
“You were not summoned. You were not even invited to come along. You assumed you were to accompany us as you always do. As we knew you would. Why would you have been called here? You pay your dues every month, without fail. You have your own dwelling, your own cow for milk, hens for eggs. You have a garden for your vegetables and an oven to bake your bread. Why would The Loansman have cause to call for you?”
“I don’t understand,”
“Oh, come now, yes you do. I have already explained, it is simple enough. You are the settlement of our balance. Your dwelling, your cow, your hens, your garden and your oven can all be sold. They not only cover our debt but pay a month or two in advance,”
“How can you do this? How can you just rob me of all my belongings? I am not yours to give or to sell!”
“You are the property of The Investment,” The Loansman spoke thickly. I ignored him, desperate to make Thomas and William see the error of their ways.
“What am I to do then? Where am I to go?” William turned away from me, Thomas merely shrugged.
Something stirred above me, some movement overhead catching my eye. I looked before I remembered what was said to be up there, and heard The Loansman give a soft snicker of laughter.
The rumours were all true. The ceiling was crawling with limbs, alive with small faces, if not in alabaster then in a tarnished, ancient plaster. They were tiny, like the shrunken heads in the stories of old; as if someone had made them smaller to fit them all in the space overhead. The eyes were all stretched wide in various depictions of terror, the mouths all working madly in voiceless despair. Not a single arm broke free of the ceiling, though I felt sure if they could they would reach out for help. There were so many of them up there, writhing and squirming, never able to escape their confines. I knew without asking that they were not the result of some gifted, hellish sculptor’s art but real, living people, though the form of their existence was utterly repugnant to me. How was such a thing possible?
“What you are looking at,” The Loansman drooled, “is a settlement of accounts. Each face you see looking back at you is a loan repaid in full,”
I stared at him, unable to find words to speak, unsure that I could say them anyway. I felt a dry heat all over, like I was coming down with a sudden and unstoppable sickness. I suppose in a manner of speaking, I was.
“You will be one of them soon,” he added, raising a hand and dragging the soiled sleeve of his jacket across his lusty mouth. He did not take his eyes off me, regarding me as if I was a tempting main course on an especially mouth-watering menu.
I thought to plead with Thomas and William. I thought that even now, when I knew in my heart it was already too late, they might step in and rescue me, like they always did. They were standing side by side, shoulder to shoulder, visibly united in their cause, though I was gratified at last to see a trace of doubt and horror flicker across their faces.
The Loansman, that filthy, ragged beggar in disguise, came towards me. I could not prevent the cry from escaping my lips, dreading the thought of the clammy flesh of his hand upon me. He passed me by as if I was of no further interest to him, approaching Thomas and William instead.
His back to me now, his jacket clinging to him in patches of sweat, giving him a mottled appearance from this angle, I heard him say in a formal, business-like tone, “Gentlemen, are we agreed? This is to be your full and final payment of arrears, by means of which you settle your outstanding debt to The Investment as represented by myself, The Loansman, otherwise known as Revenue Agent Supreme?”
“It is,” they replied in unison, with all the solemnity and authenticity of a couple reciting marriage vows to a vicar.
“And do you give this payment freely and of your own volition?”
I stiffened, keen to know how they would answer that question, eager to learn if they had been forced into this, or if they were offering me up as a ready sacrifice to pay for their own greed.
“We do,” they intoned again. That was the moment I knew I was truly lost. That was the point at which I began to feel a strange unsteadiness on my feet, a light-headedness as the room began to slowly yet inexorably spin in an off-balance, counter-clockwise motion.
“Then I am pleased to inform you that The Investment, The Loansman and the Revenue Agent Supreme accepts your payment gratefully. Please be seated gentlemen, whilst I deal with the formalities and ensure the payment has gone through successfully,”
I watched helplessly as Thomas and William sank down into large, embracing wing-back chairs in Oxblood leather which I swear had not been in the room before. The Loansman once more circled his desk, once more lowered himself into the waiting seat that seemed to fold itself about him. He reached under his desk and slid open a drawer, from which he took a sheet of paper that he set before him. He slid the drawer smoothly shut, then reached to his left for the pen that lay cradled in a bronze rest like a treasured item. He clicked it noisily, the nib revealing itself, poised over the paper.
He looked at me, or what was left of me. I felt I was slowly melting out of existence. I was whole still, yet somehow not whole. As if I had ceased to exist as a solid being and was instead becoming some form of gas, eddying and billowing in a skin-tone cloud; spiralling, gyrating, my nebulous feet leaving the floor, my voice lost, becoming weak as a distant breeze. Even if I could speak they would not hear me now. What use anyway? They would not care.
I waited for my thoughts to leave me, wishing they would. For although my body was becoming nothing, my mind was as clear as ever, allowing me shock and panic as fully as if I were still whole. Leading me to believe that my wispy heart was pounding, that my airy blood was racing. That my eyes were full of tears and my chest about to burst with grief and terror.
I watched as The Loansman scratched the pen drily across the paper, realising with a jolt that I was looking down upon the scene from some height.
The Loansman was frowning at the dryness of the pen, dipping it into the red leather desk covering. It came away full, dripping with scarlet ink. I watched as fat, ruby droplets splashed into the leather, creating small, circular ripples that radiated outward like raindrops into a pond. My blood, I knew. My blood; spilling and falling onto that sinister covering that I suspected was not a covering at all, but an endlessly deep pool that went far below the confines of the desk and the floor below.
“Ah! That is what they mean when they say you are in the red!” Thomas quipped. The joke at my expense hit me like a physical blow, despite my reduced state. William laughed aloud, even The Loansman allowed a grin to cross his sordid features, though his rolling eyes told me it was not the first time he had heard the pun.
There was a sudden cold hardness at my back, the cloud-like feeling leaving me abruptly. I was once again solid, though not as I had previously been. I felt a strange paralysis, in which I could feel every inch of my body and knew it to be whole, yet I could not pull it free from whatever forced anchored me to the ceiling.
“She cannot fall from there? Be released from her bond?” I heard William enquire.
“She cannot,” The Loansman confirmed.
“And our arrangement is secure? We are no longer indebted to you?”
The Loansman set down his pen carefully, as if it had a sharp edge that might cut him, “Gentlemen, you will be forever indebted to me, have no doubt,”
“Of course, of course,” Thomas babbled, eager to rephrase his question, “We are eternally indebted to The Investment and to your good self,” he qualified, “I simply meant to say that we are back in the black, so to speak? We must only continue to make our monthly repayments?”
“And to ensure that you never again fall behind; yes, indeed you must,” The Loansman clarified, “I trust that I need not explain to you the consequences of any further missed payments?” He gestured up towards me, William and Thomas both craning their necks to follow his pointing finger.
It took a while for them to locate me, I think, in amongst the swirling mass of arms and legs, the array of shrunken heads. I was screaming at them to help me, raging at them for what they had condemned me to, yet not a sound escaped me. I felt others close to me, straining against their invisible bonds, fighting and struggling to be heard, to be free. I could feel the workings of their silent mouths, sense the despairing rage behind their efforts to break loose.
“You will take word of what you have witnessed here today back into The Investment when you leave,” The Loansman instructed them as they stared up at me, “You will speak of the opulence of my offices, the grandeur of my state, the magnificence of my person. You will remind the people of how very fortunate they are to have such a representative on the face of the globe. More than anything, you will remind them of the importance of paying their dues. You will forget to mention how my ceiling is made. You will remember only that it is a marvel of creation, and you will spread word of it with respectful awe,”
Thomas and William nodded like obedient dogs, gazing up at me as if I was some incredibly hypnotic force. “Make no mistake gentlemen, if I ever have cause to summon you to my office again, I will expect the full balance of your entire debt to be paid to me without delay. Do I make myself clear?”
They tore their eyes away from me at last. Finally, I heard a note of dread in Thomas’s voice, “We understand,” he rasped, nudging William into responding.
“Yes. Yes of course, we understand,” the word ended in a sob.
‘Damn you both to hell,’ I thought, wishing I could scream the words at them and be truly heard, ‘Damn you both and damn you Loansman, for your obscene lust for money! Money above all else, damn you!’
It was useless. Even I could not hear my own voice except for in my head.
“Then we are finished here,” The Loansman said, rising from his chair and approaching the door, which swung noiselessly open at his approach, “I bid you good day,”
Thomas and William stood, visibly shaken. They slunk from the room like scolded children, William casting a last glance up at me as he went. He looked sorrowful, like he might regret what he had done. The thought enraged me. Guilt, sorrow, shame; none of these things were enough. None of them would ever restore me to the world or to my life again. I cursed him as he went, hurling at him every foul, coarse, vulgar word I had ever heard in my impotence: nothing I might say would ever be heard again.
The door shut with a subdued clunk. The Loansman smoothed down his jacket, slicked back his hair, returned to his chair with an air of practised ease. He paid me not a moment’s more attention. I had become an irrelevance to him, now that the debt was paid.
Finally exhausted, I gave up trying to make myself heard and fell silent, taking in the room below me. All trace of the shoddiness I alone had spied had disappeared. The room and the man were once again a splendid sight, the Loansman tastefully opulent in both his bearing and dress, the room sumptuous with fine fabrics and costly materials.
One of the many emblems of money carved into the ornate fireplace suddenly bulged fatly, as if it was taking a breath. It was the symbol for money from my home on The Investment. I had made my final contribution, it seemed.
The silence stretched out. The Loansman sat stiff-backed and completely still at his desk. At length, there came a respectful knock at the door, followed by a timid voice delivering the message, “Your next appointment is here, sir,”
In my mind’s eye. I could see the small, grey-suited man scurrying away down the corridor into the safety of the all-encompassing darkness at its furthest reaches. In his chair below me, The Loansman suddenly came to life. He sat up, at once alert, straightening the beautiful emerald cravat at his neck, patting the spotless white handkerchief in his top pocket. He stood, every inch a man of respectability and assurance, and approached the door. It swung silently open at his approach, allowing The Loansman to step out into the corridor beyond.
S P Oldham