After a dozen different versions of an email to my line manager on Monday morning, explaining why I would not be coming to work, I settled on the laconic:
“I have Ebola.”
This had the dual benefit of feeling true and closing down any suggestion that I might be swinging the lead. Despite my life-threatening condition his response was matter-of-fact: “No problem.” Well, it depends from whose perspective you’re looking at it, I thought — but didn’t write in reply.
After this week, though, I will have to seriously reconsider the truthfulness of my adage that ‘a bad day out of the office is better than a good day in’ because I’m now in a position to compare them properly and the jury is out. For years, I had prided myself on never taking time off sick, working on the principle that no illness is worse than a hangover of monumental dimensions. Also, because of my propensity for carousing and coming in of a morning, redolent of the odours of the tavern, I knew any resort to lame excuses would be treated with suspicion and if you are the limping impala on the trading floor (see TPT passim) you don’t want to be seen as a malingerer, rendering yourself even more vulnerable to the Spanish Archer than you already are.
For years, though, I have harboured elaborate fantasies about contracting some lovely, little illness or having a minor accident, serious enough to justify a few days at home, reading on the chaise longue with the feet up. The ailment could not be permanent, nor involve any humiliating condition of the private parts, nor inhibit the consumption of decent wine but otherwise I was prepared to suffer a modicum of discomfort just to alleviate the pressure of generating revenue and the tyranny of the alarm clock. To be knocked off one’s bike in Trafalgar Square and rendered unconscious for a week before a fortnight’s convalescence in a bay-windowed, private hospital room? Tick. Malfunctioning erogenous zones? Cross. To suffer debilitating back pain that could only be treated by adopting a horizontal position? Tick. Ebola? Cross.
The sick note must be struck just right, though, however you present it, whether that’s by email or phone. My dilemma Sunday night was that everyone knew I’d had a big skiing weekend on the hit ’n' miss so scepticism would be high. Jovial enquiries about the Irish flu can undermine the skiver’s best-laid plans. Too hammy and they’ll think you are definitely pulling a fast one but too nonchalant and they’ll wonder why you don’t just come in anyway. Close to the point of death but perhaps able to make it in tomorrow with a bit of luck — that’s the tone to aim at.
Hence, I thought “I have Ebola” was pitched perfectly. Laying the groundwork before a day off can be helpful, although the option wasn’t available to me in this instance. A few conspicuous coughs, asking out loud “Is it just me or is it incredibly hot?” or calling your mother and audibly broadcasting a list of symptoms are all clever tactics to prepare the team for your imminent absence.
It’s a funny business this machismo, particular to the City, about showing up on time, irrespective of the circumstances. Suffering from the dreaded lurgy? Get your arse in here. It doesn’t matter if you can’t perform. While drunk I cannot drive (passengers of mine would argue when sober too), I cannot operate heavy machinery (not that I know how; I don’t know how to start my lawnmower) and nor can I operate on a patient were one stupid enough to lie on an operating table before me, but I could trade millions of dollars in financial markets without anyone saying much. And I have. In fact, in my halcyon prop trading days all post-meridian punting was conducted while under the judgment-enhancing, truth-enabling influence of alcohol. Investment banking is a show which must go on. Drunk. Sick. Hungover. Just make sure you’re in on the dot. None of my employers has questioned the presence on the desk of someone who is clearly drunk, sick, hungover, suicidal or even homicidal.
I needn’t have worried about the legitimacy of my excuse. What started on Sunday as a vague sense of misgiving after a mountaintop lunch was brought into a full-on, medical emergency after I allowed myself to be transported back to London by the low-cost airline which knows how to ruin a Sunday (and a Monday) and which can transform the minor irritations of the airport experience into something displaying all the characteristics of a third-world refugee crisis. Propped up in the queue by friends, I was nine parts dead at the point of boarding but the one part remaining wanted to know why it was the plane departure was late? It was late arriving, of course. Why was it late arriving? That flight in turn had been delayed and so on and on it went, back in time to the dawn of civilisation when someone in a horrible orange uniform called in with a sickie and held up the plane.
Come Monday lunchtime, the Ebola I thought I might be hyperbolising had been self-diagnosed and upgraded to deadly flesh-eating Zambezi swamp rabies and I was longing for the anodyne tedium, the sheer uneventfulness of the trading floor — as I experience it anyway. I couldn’t do much except roll around, groaning like a Romantic poet suffering from the agues of composition and the pangs of despised love, which come to think of is my default position. I couldn’t read. I was fed up with Schubert. I turned on the telly. Wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling Brexit. I tried to log on to Bloomberg and see if I could elicit some sympathy orders at the very least but t’internet was down and one thing I knew for sure, I lacked the physical resolve necessary to get that up and running and a brief attempt to call my broadband provider and remember my password confirmed that.
Day two and my enforced lay-up was not like they said in would be in the brochure. The House The Locals Know As The Pained Trader’s Folly seems to act as an entrepot for several logistics companies and by 9am I had already crawled down the stairs three times to accept the delivery of packages — for the dog, whom I mistakenly assumed to be the only person in our house without access to my Amazon prime account. The gardener arrived for the first time in months and wanted to mow the lawn but that he patently could not do because while I’d been away for the weekend no one had collected the dog merdes and they had to be collected first otherwise there would be a grande spectacle de merde. Perhaps the worst aspect of this killer parasite attacking my central nervous system and causing multiple organ failure, though, was that at no point did it serve to distract me from ever-present emotional anguish which might otherwise have made it worthwhile.
At some point, while on all fours, filling poo bags, chanting "all unearned suffering is redemptive" over and over, my body racked with what I now realised was a chronic case of Nile Delta haemorrhagic dengue fever, I resolved that I would be in work tomorrow, no matter what and I would never again complain about polishing turds at Salvation Bank.
I’ll keep you posted as to how that goes but you know already. "The wolf was sick, a monk he vowed to be. But when he got well, a wolf again was he."