The Pained Trader’s disclaimer: All characters and incidents portrayed hereafter are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places or buildings is intended or implied. One animal might have been harmed in the writing of this column.
It is late in the low-lit lobby bar of a four-star hotel in a foreign city. Its only occupants are the lounge lizard playing the piano, a bored barman, a business nerd clacking away at the keys of his laptop even at this hour, a woman who, owing to a surfeit of warpaint and her solitude, was most probably bereft of moral probity and an emerging markets stockbroker.
I realise now, as I list the dramatis personae, that I made an unfortunate juxtaposition there.
The stockbroker had been out for one of those rather functional business dinners from which no business results and which ends early because the client was an earnest, continental type.
This left the adult male, oscillating gently between hot blooded and hypersexual, winding his way back through the alien streets facing the dilemma that has caused him so many problems down the years: time on his hands, no inclination to call it an evening but no Virgil to guide him through the underworld. An unfamiliar city confers anonymity on the wayward broker but fledgling vulnerability, too. The night was still young, even if he wasn’t.
He passed no Establishments Characterised By Moral Laxity en route back to the hotel, nor did any window reveal exotic dancing within and so his wavering footsteps led him reluctantly bedward.
And this is where we join him, sipping single malt at the bar, pretending to enjoy it and feeling intensely the loneliness of the long distance broker while the pianist (I said the pianist) tinkled easy listening on the ivories, the geek tapped at a spreadsheet, the barman scrolled his phone absent-mindedly. And the painted lady?
Well, she was either giving the malted broker a smouldering, come hither look and rearranging her elegant curvature all the better to catch his eye, or she had a terrible squint and trapped wind.
It resembled a Hopper interior with individuals sharing the same space but each one isolated, trapped in their pool of low-voltage, non-directional lighting, staring expressionlessly in different directions, the tension apparent in their interstices.
The broker did not like whisky but he drank it in hotel bars to seem sophisticated and because it made him want to go to the toilet less often. He ordered another and shifted slightly on his barstool the better to see the reflection of the painted lady in the mirror behind the bar. She was definitely smiling now (or she had just broken wind) and there was a nod of recognition. He simpered in return and for the umpteenth time that evening lamented the striking resemblance his careworn features bore to a depressed Sid James.
Maybe she likes Carry On films, though because there she is, unmistakeably approaching the bar. Her options were limited to me and the bespectacled boffin who was now engrossed in some kind of conference call from the sounds of it.
The broker offered to pay for her non-alcoholic cocktail, which seemed to be very expensive, but he could speak to the barman about that tomorrow.
Now, during my extensive so-called career of covering emerging markets and truffling for value in their unswept corners, I have always found it beneficial to gain some idea of purchasing power parity on the wilder shores by comparing immediately recognisable and readily comparable commodities: a cab-ride, a brasserie lunch, a lap dance, a speeding ticket and, of course, for research purchases only, the borrowing of a little friction from a stranger. It’s my own Big Mac Index.
He considered how he might not be interested in the carnal knowledge industry but it might be interested in him. Their conversation was wide-ranging.
She made no secret of her vocation, which gave him the confidence to tell her he was a stockbroker. She did not seem to hold it against him.
“A post-modern stockbroker, though,” he whispered.
“That’s all right,” she replied. “I do extras too.”
So they both made a living from selling their integrity but the £250 she quoted him for a simulacrum of the act of love on Egyptian cotton sheets, 10 floors above, when he was totting up the constituents of his inflation basket, demonstrated that there was some margin still in her game. She wasn’t counting out her days in basis points.
She hadn’t heard of MiFID but he patiently explained that it wasn’t an extra and it was only a matter of time before EU regulators and the compliance industry began saddling professionals in the carnal knowledge industry with overhead and red tape and crippling their business.
She could not grasp the mechanics of investment banking. Think of it like this, he said: “A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer his own solitude with sweet sounds. A sales-trader is not much different.”
They looked at the pianist (I said pianist) who, with an audience of three, was now banging out what sounded like a funeral march and agreed he was also singing rather desperately for his supper and liable to go hungry as a consequence. He had three customers, though. Potentially, she had two, joked the broker, although there wasn’t much interest from the bloke with the laptop.
“So,” she sighed with the impatience of a person for whom time is literally money (as opposed to him for whom it is an ancient ruin around which his mind wanders), “what is on your agenda this evening?”
He didn’t really have one.
“I have two things on my mind”, she said. “Sex and money.”
He supposed at least half of that statement was applicable to him. He told her he would think about it on his way to the men’s room and decide upon his return.
“The early bird gets the worm,” she warned.
Everyone is always impressed with the bird’s initiative but does anyone ever stop to think about the gormless worm?
He freshened up in the bathroom, took a splash of whatever love potion the attendant was offering, checked he was long enough local currency to fund the transaction and stepped out doing the hot-shoe shuffle of a user who’s just scored from his dealer.
She was standing beside the elevator next to the geek who had finally put his laptop away and bore a look of hateful complacency. The doors opened. They entered. She gave the broker a sheepish grin. The geek pressed a button. The doors closed. The lift went up. The broker's spirits sank.
He returned to the bar with the angler’s immeasurable sense of loss at the fish that slipped from his grasp, the sales-trader’s agony of the block that was crossed away.
“Another whisky?” offered the barman.
The broker consulted his watch. Not yet midnight. “Make this one a double,” he replied.
Note to editor: please ensure all pronouns are in the third person singular and most definitely not the first.