The phone’s alarm jolted Mark Bellamy from sleep. The urban investment banker was used to late nights and early mornings so 5AM alarms were a familiar event to his tired body. Reaching out across the nightstand to shut the phone off, seven new notifications caught his eye.
The first was an email from the bank reminding him about the missed mortgage payment. The next was an email from his daughter’s school about her unpaid school fees. A missed call from the billings department of the hospital where his father had been admitted for pancreatic cancer stared back at him accusingly. At 57, widowed and retired, the elder Bellamy had run through his health insurance benefits and was staring down the barrel of an unforgiving diagnosis.
“Daddy!”, called out his daughter from the hallway. “Today’s audition day!”
Anya, his six-year-old daughter, was already up and ready to head to school. She would be joining a gaggle of other kids in rehearsals for the Annual Talent Show. He looked forward to witnessing his little girl’s first foray onto the stage. Recently separated from his wife, Laura, their custody arrangement saw Anya staying with him one week out of every month. After rapidly running through their morning routine—dental care, showers and a quick shave for him—they headed out to the garage. As had been happening more and more lately, the memory of his last fight with Laura floated into his thoughts. He shook his head to clear his mind as he strapped Anya into her seat.
“Ready?” he asked her.
“Yeah. Do you think kangaroos get mad, Daddy?”
He chuckled at the randomness of childhood. At the school’s entrance, her teacher, Mrs. Brennan, was chatting to the principal in seemingly serious tones. They both walked over to his car as Anya’s face broke into a smile. “Hi Ms. Brennan!”, she called out, opening the car door.
“Hallo Anya! Ready to learn your lines today?” Beatrice Brennan beamed, smiling first in her direction, and then at his. “Hey Mr. Bellamy, you good?”
“Morning, Ms. Brennan, yeah. She’s really looking forward to this talent show.” He greeted the principal who asked him if he had some time to spare. “Sure”, he said. Ms. Brennan walked Anya to her classroom. “What seems to be the matter?”
“It’s about Anya’s fees. I know we spoke about this last month and extended your grace period, but it’s been 3 months and our auditors don’t like—”
“I know,” he sighed. “I’m waiting for some money to come in and I’ve been fighting to keep the bank off my back—”
“I get that, Mr. Bellamy, but my hands are tied. If you don’t make the full payment by month-end, we’ll have to pull Anya out of the school. She won’t get to participate in the talent show.”
He pictured the confused disappointment on his daughter’s face. His phone rang. “Can I take this?” he asked. “It’s important.”
“Sure. But please make a plan. And soon.” She walked back to her office as he put the phone to his ear. “Gerry?”
“Mark!” His boss. “Get to the office, now. We have a problem.”
“What’s going on?”
“Just get over here.” He hung up.
Mark sped to his workplace mired in uncertainty. Approaching the office building, he parked his car and headed up the elevator to the top floor where the boutique investment firm he worked at, Tequen & Ghonn, housed him and twenty other finance professionals. He greeted his coworkers with casual nods as he passed by and headed for his boss’s office. Gerry, a thick-set man with broad shoulders and a weather-beaten face, stood by the window. One hand cradled a cellphone while the other held an open letter. He had a perturbed look on his face.
“Morning Gerry,” offered Mark in nervous greeting. “You wanted to talk?”
“Close the door and have a seat, Mark”, replied Gerry in a deep voice as he motioned towards the desk. Mark hesitatingly settled onto the chair opposite Gerry.
“What’s the matter?” Mark asked, mentally running through the long list of possible deadlines he might have missed.
Gerry stared at the letter in his hand. Silence engulfed the room before he looked up. “This came in today from the Securities Commission,” he began, handing the paper across the table to Mark. “Something you wanna tell me, Mark?”
Mark slowly reached for the letter and scanned the words within, as understanding slowly dawned on him. There it is, he thought, grimly. They’ve spotted it.
It all started with a gym session three months prior. His occasional gym buddy, Vusi, headed the sales division of an engineering firm in Tequen’s portfolio called Leiden, located north of the city. In between gruelling routines Vusi had mentioned that his company was launching a new product that would revolutionise the industry.
“It’s gonna be a hit”, he whispered. “There’s nothing like it on the market yet. Our finance guys are predicting a double-digit growth in our share price upon launch. Once it’s released, I’m gonna cash out my stock options and finally quit my job. Can you believe it?”
Mark congratulated Vusi earnestly, but his mind had immediately gone to work. This could be what he had been hoping for. With the bank badgering him about missed mortgage payments and his dad deteriorating in hospital, he desperately needed a windfall to blow away his problems. Year-end bonus season was approaching, but the cash would not cover his debts and expenses completely. He would find himself back in a cycle of debt within two months.
The first son of two high school teachers, Mark Bellamy had been raised his whole life on achievement and a pressure to succeed. From aced spelling bees to making the dean’s list in college, failure had largely been foreign to him. At this point in his life, however, the looming spectre of penury was far too close for comfort. His father’s soaring medical bills, which had already maxed out the elder Bellamy’s insurance benefits and pension payout, had wiped out his own savings in short order. His decision to take on extensive loans to cover both the medical and their household expenses had driven a wedge between him and Laura, who had to watch her carefully built home life slowly come apart due to financial stress she had no control over. The fighting came to a head during a heated argument over a particularly large bill from the hospital, with him exasperatingly asking her, “What the hell do you want me to do, Laura? He’s my father! I can’t just let him die while we can still help!”
“We are about to lose our home, Mark!” she spat back, her eyes blazing with the fire of long-repressed anger. “We are struggling to afford basic necessities. We still need to think of our future and our daughter. We have already spent a fortune on his medical care. When does it end?!”
He did not have an answer to that. The numerous arrivals of debt collectors at their family home had not helped, either. One morning, while driving to work, he had been distracted by thoughts of his financial situation when he ran a red light and hit a cab which, luckily, had no passengers. When the owner of the cab arrived at his home the following week, flanked by three of his associates and with an invoice from the auto mechanic, Mark had pleaded for mercy, explaining that he had no money to pay for the damages. His wife and daughter stood on the stoep, worried. The cab owner flew into a rage. “My man, now how do you expect me to make money?” he asked angrily. “You fucked up my cab!”
Fists were drawn. Blows were landed. Kicks to the face connected. All in full view of his horrified wife and child. By the time the police arrived, he was bleeding profusely and swelling in all the wrong places.
Then, later, he had come home to a letter on the dresser in Laura’s handwriting. She would be moving back to her mother’s house for a while, it read, and she was taking Anya along to shield her from any future altercations. It was the start of an official separation that would drag on for months. After several curt calls and drawn-out text messages, they had come to an agreement regarding visitation rights, with him having Anya one week out of every month. He missed his daughter terribly when she was not around, but this was the best arrangement for her under the circumstances.
With Vusi’s revelation, however, he felt he had found the perfect solution to his woes.
After gym that night Mark had gone back to the office. He executed several trades, with his firm buying up a large number of shares in Vusi’s company. Since the trades were part of his allocated portfolio at Tequen, the subsequent returns would reflect under his name—he would be awarded a massive bonus for a clever bit of business. The perfect plan, Mark thought.
When the product launched, the whole office had erupted in cheers as they watched the firm’s index fund experience double-digit growth overnight. His back was clapped, champagne bottles were popped, and Gerry had been especially effusive in his praise.
The ominous letter in his hands contained pernicious phrases like “irregular conduct”, “audit trigger” and “subpoena.” He could feel Gerry’s gaze as he read on.
“I’m sorry, Gerry,” he sputtered, “I just needed the cash and I—”
Gerry cut him off with a raised hand as he closed his eyes. “You’re a father, Mark. Do you know how long they’re going to put you away for this?”
Mark knew. Insider trading carried a heavy sentence. And, if convicted, Vusi would also find himself in court and not on the road to early retirement.
“I’ve spoken to Legal and HR already,” Gerry continued. “Under advisement from them, you’re hereby suspended from this firm while your conduct undergoes investigation for any potential wrongdoing. A copy of your suspension letter will be emailed to you shortly. I’ll notify the rest of the team tomorrow morning.”
He had no counter. “I’m sorry, Gerry,” he said, looking up at his boss’ disappointed face. “I really am.”
“Me too,” Gerry replied.
He drove to school to pick up his daughter. Thorny thoughts pierced his peace as he watched her sing along to songs she had been learning all day as they drove home. Driving towards the town’s outskirts, he pulled into the driveway of his mother-in-law’s house, planted a kiss on Anya’s head and handed her to Laura who was waiting outside. She nodded curtly at him and walked their daughter inside. He then drove to a nearby café and sat quietly in the car.
He wondered whether Anya would forgive him when she grew older, if she would understand why he did what he did.
He wondered if he would be able to redeem himself in his daughter’s, his ex-wife’s, his father’s, and his colleagues’ eyes. He was about to be branded a failed father, husband, son, and employee.
And then, with an odd calmness, the heavy thought that followed quietly made itself at home in his head. With the sun setting in the distance, he sent a few quick texts, turned off his phone and drove back towards his office.
He might have been suspended, but he still had his copy of the office keys. He nodded to the guard on duty in the lobby and took the elevator to the top floor, carefully eyeing the cameras in the hall. Working late was a common feature at the firm so he would not look out of place being on the premises. He headed to his workstation, punched in his password and opened up his emails. As he clacked away at the keyboard, he continuously glanced outside the window at the city hospital in the distance where his father lay, body battling to heal after rounds of chemotherapy. As Mark sent emails to Laura, Gerry, and his father, he took a look around the office at his colleagues’ empty desks. He hoped they would forgive him in the morning.
The heat in the office stifled him. Loosening his tie a bit, he headed over to one of the large windows overlooking the city and threw it open. The cool breeze washed over his face, bringing him the kind of relief he had not enjoyed in the past months. The nighttime sounds of the city surrounded him, and for a few seconds he watched the cars slowly crawl like ants through the evening rush-hour traffic.
What a sight. Here I am at the top of the world, yet at the lowest point in my life.
The irony brought a wry smile to his face, but quickly gave way to a flash of anger, then deep despair, then silent resignation.
He climbed onto the ledge, leaned forward and fell, as a woman screamed.
Mohammed Shehu is a Nigerian writer and brand director who completed his PhD in Informatics in Namibia. He is currently based in South Africa.