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Pray that the rich ignore you. Their love or hate crushes all in the end.
Who is John Gaunt?
A simple question, but one that I can scarcely answer. Gaunt, after all, is a man with no name. A man who adopts or discards a thousand identities and can shuffle through his passports like a pack of cards. Imagine a man of incalcuable wealth and unimaginable power. And, as you imagine such an individual, forget everything you have heard or assumed about the lords of this earth.
Last week, I arrived at Bangkok airport. I was to change planes before flying on to Sydney. With three hours to while away before my connecting flight, I bought a U.S. business magazine. This featured a list of the richest men in the world. I idly put a tick beside the name of each individual who I had seen in John Gaunt's. Only 12 hours before, I had dined with 20 of these extraordinary individuals at Gaunt's home on the Croatian island he often used as his base.
They were an instantly recognisable group. I saw the faces of billionairre investors, property barons, electronic entrepeneurs and newspaper tycoons. All ate with Gaunt and what a dreadful meal it was! Greasy soup, undercooked meat, a thin and sour wine. Yet none of these men, accustomed to the best of evereything, complained. Some, I was astonished to observe, even praised the wretched fare. Yet I knew that the same French cook who each guest must have soundly cursed that night as they reached for the antacid powder could, when required, produce meals of a stunning variety and taste. It simply amused Gaunt that night to treat his guests shabbily. Each man, Gaunt later told me was an employee: a straw figure who gave the world a convincing imitation of ability and enterprise while he actually worked for Gaunt.
Yet, a man's a man for all of that, as my Irish mother would say. John Gaunt (he drew his adopted name from medieval chivalry) is, after all, not a god, but simply a creature of flesh, blood and bone. He breathes the same air as the poor, must perform the same bodily functions, can only sleep in one bed at a time, drives or is driven in only one car at a time. He laughs, cries, is frustrated or angry and occassionally curses cruel fate, like every man or woman on this planet.
And who am I that I was on such friendly terms with this extraordinary master of men? An individual before whom political and religious leaders showed deference and sometimes fear?
Well, oddly enough, I am, by the world's standards, a complete nobody.
My life to date is swiftly told. At 34, I was a rising star. Partner in a young, bold firm of architects. Winner of the Premier's Award for Excellence, as well as numerous other prestigious trophies. Married, a millionaire, home on the North Shore with a boat moored to a private jetty at the bottom of the garden. I lived like a king in one of the most beautiful and open cities in the world.
Five years later, I was sleeping rough - my clothes reeking of dirt, vomit and urine. Another hopeless drunk. Yet Ted Noffs of the Wayside Chapel in the Cross never gave upon me. Fast forward another five years and there I was shortly before I met John Gaunt, driving a cab on the graveyard shift, in a relationship with a patient and loving partner, renting a small flat in Cremorne. I had kicked the booze and had even returned to a gym where I was losing weight and building back some muscle. I was respectable, but restless.
Many drivers hate the graveyard shift. They complain the pay is lousy unless you own the cab, they never get enough sleep, the streets are dangerous, clients are sometimes drunk and too often abusive. The worst customers I find are businessmen who are aloof or aggressive. I sometimes wonder how I came across when I was also on top of the heap.Then, of course, there are the society women who find they haven't any money in their purse and offer themselves instead. People often run to a depressing predictability. And many of the whinges I hear from other cabbies have a basis in truth. To clear up a cab after someone's been sick or used it as a toilet leaves one with a jaundiced view of mankind.
Sydney is a tough city. It's no worse and probably a lot better than many other great cities, but it's also a place where you should guard your back at night.
Which is why I tucked a baseball bat under my front seat. At least then you have a choice. Sometimes, you resist. Other times, you surrender. I didn't argue, for instance, with the young thug who pressed a filthy syringe inder my cheek and told me that he suffered from AIDS and the stick contained his blood. He took the night takings, as did a young girl with sunken eys who held a revolver on me with shaking hands. Both these junkies are probably dead now or, if not, will be soon. And that's not to even mention the characters you sum up hailing you from the pavement. The types you drive past without stopping.
One night, I drove a client from Double Bay to his company's apartment in the city. He was a insurance company CEO, hired from the States after a worldwide talent search. He had left his wife in Chicago to finalise the sale of their home, after which she would join him in Sydney. He confessed he was lonely. His staff treated him with deference and fear. Many sensed that the wide-ranging review he had launched would cause major job losses. A number believed if they were retrenched, they would never work again. I admired the photos of the man's family and made the appropriate sympathetic comments. I quietly sighed with relief when I dropped him off at 'The Hyatt' on Circular Quay.
I then drove slowly through the city and out into the darkened suburban streets, waiting for my next call. It was 3a.m.. Already I could sense a hot summer's day lay ahead. The car's airconditioning was on the blink again. Not that the warmly turgid breeze it managed when working was ever much use. I rolled down the car windows to blow away the cloying, expensive after-shave of my last ride. A jazz programme was softly playing on my radio. Pieces from some long ago performance at Newport. A smokey version of 'Midnight Bus', then the combo sequed into 'When Joanna Loved Me'. The yearning composition instantly took me back to the early, happy days of my marriage. That was always our song. Perhaps we sensed even then that our time together would be short.
I turned the corner and my mood of pleasant reverie was torn apart.
My headlights picked up a group of four men. Three young men in their late teens or early twenties were punching and kicking a tall, silver-haired man. He was no match for the thugs. One thrust his hand into the man's coat and drew out a wallet which he triumphantly held aloft as he continued to savagely punch his victim.
I dropped into instinct overdrive. I flicked my headlights onto high beam. Seizing my baseball bat, I threw open the car door and, with the lights blazing and engine running, I sprinted down the street.
Even as the men turned, dazzled by the light, I began swinging my bat.
I cracked the bat down on the right shoulder of the man holding the wallet. The man collapsed, the wallet spilling its contents. I swung at another youth, and he staggered back, gagging and clutching his throat. The third and last youth I disposed of with a savage, upward thrust of the bat between his legs.
I didn't wait to find out if the men were armed or others were around. Scooping up the wallet and scattered credit cards, I pushed them into my pocket. Half carrying and dragging the semi-conscious man to my cab, I bundled him into the back seat. He was streaming blood from a cut to the eye. He groaned and lapsed into unconsciousness. I gunned the engine and heard a thump on a passenger door as one of the recovering youths kicked out. Then the car was speeding away.
In less than 10 minutes, I reached the casualty section of a hospital. I then cooled my heels for nearly an hour until the police arrived. I was tempted to open the wallet and discover who I had helped. I realised however that if any of the nursing staff saw me do this they might assume I was stealing the victim's money and credit cards. Besides, it seemed shabby to nose into a man's life when he was lying sedated in hospital. When the police finally arrived, I gave a young constable the wallet and credit cards. He laboriously recorded the few details I knew.
After that, I drove home where I soaped the blood off the back seat and spounged the carpet. At 5am., I was back on the road. Two hours later, I ended my shift and went home for a long sleep.
The next day, I visited the hospital and was surprised to find the man had already discharged himself. There was no mention of the attack in that day's newspaper. I soon put the incident out of my mind.
A fortnight later, I was building myself a sandwich at home, when there was a knock on the door. A short, tough looking man, dressed in an expensive Italian suit, stood on the front step, smiling. He established I was the person who assisted a man being attacked around 3.15a.m. two weeks before.
I felt wary of the man. Behind the smile, I sensed a ruthless, competent individual. I judged his background was ex-Army, probably SAS.
He then said his employer, Mr. John Gaunt - the man I had rescued - would like to thank me personally. He wondered if I was free for lunch. I looked at my sandwich and agreed to meet Gaunt.
A black Lexus stood gleaming at the kerb. We drove to Elizabeth Bay, the driver smiling but silent. At a jetty, we boarded a long, sleek power boat and were soon arrowing across the sparkling blue waters of Sydney Harbour. It was one of those gloriously limpid days that my city does so well. The harbourside mansions of the rich and famous, the coathanger frame of the bridge in the distance, the green and cream painted Manly Ferries, the gleaming shells of the Opera Hose - it was a tourist promoter's dream.
We reached the North Shore and powered up to Middle Harbour. Moored among many smaller craft was a magnificent 12 berth schooner. We drew up to an aluminium ladder on the side of the boat. I climbed aboard while Gaunt's driver spun the motor boat away and roared off on another errand. I saw the man I now knew as John Gaunt giving orders to a group of men. He was dressed in washed cotton shirt, slacks and deck shoes. He limped over and offered his hand.
'You're healing well,' I said smiling.
Gaunt touched his bruised cheek and the bandage above his eye with a slight wince.
'Yes. Good genes, my doctor tells me. I was lucky. One of them was wearing a ring and the stone cut me. Any closer to the eye and I'd be blind. Anyway, enough about that. I suppose you'd like to see around. Everyone does.'
I shrugged. 'I'd prefer a glass of tonic water and a chat. Boats don't do it for me.'
Gaunt grinned.'Thank heaven for that. Frankly, they bore me stiff as well. A drink and a talk it will be.' I noticed Gaunt wasn't surprised I opted for a soft drink. I suspected he had done some research on me.
'Why do you keep a boat?' I asked as we settled down into deckchairs, shaded by a a canvas awning. The gum trees along the shore shimmered in the heat, their reflections waving softly in the dark water.
'Oh, this isn't my boat,' Gaunt said dismissively. 'You rent it as a package. The crew too.'
Gaunt nodded. 'Also competent sailors who double as guards, servants or whatever.'
'Pity they weren't with you that night two weeks ago.'
'Yes, that was a mistake.You quickly tire of the company you pay for. I wanted some time alone. Wrong place for privacy.'
Gaunt paused then continued. 'Just one thing about that incident. I realised that the creeps who attacked me might trace your address through your cab's licence plate number. To ensure your safety, I had them picked up about a week ago and brought out here so I could talk to them.'
'Out here?' I asked in surprise.
'Yes. People interest me. I was curious to know what goes on the mind of three louts looking for an easy mark.'
'Very little, I imagine,' I commented sourly.
'Yes, not much,' Gaunt conceded. 'But then there's you. What makes a man go into danger for a complete stranger? Are you a saint, a scrapper or a fool?'
'A bit of each,' I judged. 'So what did you do with the three who attacked you?'
'We reached an understanding,' Gaunt said shortly. 'I see Gallo has prepared our lunch. Let's go and eat. We'll talk of more pleasant things.'
And so I spent an enjoyably casual lunch with John Gaunt. It was to be the first of many such luncheons.
It's strange to reflect how little I learnt about Gaunt. After all, I spent many hours in his company over the next six months. We examined a thousand topics in a hundred places. As a private detective, I would be hopeless but Gaunt was also skilled at evasion. He seemed more interested in learning my opinion than expressing his own. That afternoon in Middle Harbour, we discussed jazz (we both loved Charlie Mingus), literature, religion, politics, moral philosophy, the outrageously high property prices in Sydney, whether globilisation represented a threat to the economic advancement of the Third World (Gaunt, surprisingly, thought it did), terrorism and many other topics. I found Gaunt had a keen mind, was articulate and was often refreshingly original. He never paraded his knowledge, but on a number of subjects, I suspected he knew a great deal more about the background to issues or the true motives of world leaders than he cared to admit.
But as to the basics - where he was born, his education, his love life, whether he had children - I learned little. 'The only interesting stuff,' my partner, Rachel sniffed later.
The truth was that John Gaunt for all his charm failed to impress Rachel. Whether she sensed he was a rival for my attention or she found something distasteful in the man, I can't say. She was too wise and generous a woman to dislike Gaunt simply because he was rich.
Gaunt came to our tiny flat for dinner on four occassions and seemed comfortable there. Once he cooked up a very creditable Spaghetti Bolognaisse. 'The secret is in long cooking,' he told us. 'That reduces the sauce, as well as allows the flavours to infuse. I like to add carrots for sweetness and a pinch of curry.'.
Gaunt has the rare gift of being content whereever he finds himself. He hired the schooner he said because his clients were impressed by the boat. If it makes business easier to conduct, Gaunt is prepared to spend lavishly, but he has little interest in the trappings of material wealth.
One of the keys to his success is Gaunt's laser-like concentration. If he was planning a takeover, he would immerse himself not only in the details of company accounts, but also tall stacks of confidential reports on the staff of his takeover target and competitors. He also learns as much as he can on the history of the industry and company, manufacturing processes, current economic realities and anticipated future earnings of the product.
He would withdraw after tea, read most of the night at a prodigious rate and finally catch two hours of sleep. The next morning, after breakfast and a harsh exercise workout, he would be back at work again. His knowledge was thus wide. He draws lessons from the past and can imagine the future with astonishing clarity.
So where was I in all this?
Frustrated and increasingly bitter.
One day Rachel confronted me as I was carrying my travel luggage downstairs.
'How long will you be away?' she demanded.
'I don't know,' I shrugged. 'Days. Weeks. Perhaps months.'
'And what should I use for money when the rent falls due?'
'Take some money from our joint account,' I suggested, trying to edge past her.
'Some joint account! I'm the only one putting money away since you gave up your job with the cab company. Why don't you ask you rich mate for some money?'
'I can't do that,' I said stiffly. 'He'd think I was a beggar.'
'As opposed to him thinking that you're a fool. I see. You have too much pride to ask a friend for a favour, but not too much to expect me to carry you indefinitely.'
'Look, I'll sort out the rent when I get back.' I made another attempt to get past Rachel who was blocking the front door. 'I don't have time for this now. The cab is waiting and I could miss my plane.'
'Gee, my heart really bleeds for you,' she said sarcastically. ' What is with you and John Gaunt? Are you two lovers or something? Come to think of it, I've never heard you mention him with a woman.'
'He's not that interested in sex, but he likes women. He's certainly not gay and you know I'm not.'
'I don't know anything about you these days. Anyway, I wouldn't care if you two were lovers. At least it would explain the strange obsession you seem to have . Every time Gaunt snaps his fingers anywhere in the world, you drop everything and run off to play with him.'
'I've really got to go,' I said angrily.
Rachel stood aside and opened the front door.
'Go,' she ordered. 'But you won't find me here when you get back.'
And, true to her word, when I returned from an extended sail through the Greek Islands, having scarcely given Rachel a thought, she had gone without leaving a forwarding address. Instead, I found a terse letter from the landlord's agents informing me that, as I hadn't paid rent for the last two months, they had instituted legal action to ensure I vacated the property.
I found that I missed Rachel more than I thought possible. In the days that followed, I mooched around the bare flat. Most of the furniture and appliances had been hers and she had sold some of my possessions to pay back my share of the rent. I began for the first time in the last six months to seriously question what I was doing with my life.
I had to admit that beneath the surface glamour that wealth can buy, there was an ugly side to John Gaunt that repelled me.
The warning signs were there from the start. The night after my luncheon with Gaunt, I had a dream.
I was on board, but it was night. Although there was only a faint gleam of light from the galley, I could see clearly in the moonlight.
It was as though I was dead. I could see everyone, but noone could see me and men could pass through me as through the air. On the deck, I saw Gaunt and four of his sailors. All were dressed in black. They were grouped around the three thugs who had attacked Gaunt. The three had been stripped naked and were shivering with fear. One of them I saw had wet himself in terror. Each of the young men had chains wraped around their necks, one end of which had been welded into a heavy section of rail track. A section of the boat rails had been removed so the three stood with their backs to the sea. Gaunt was shouting in their faces. He looked a very different man from the urbane individual I knew. I couldn't hear the words, although I wasn't more than four metres away. I tried to speak. I wanted to plead with Gaunt to show compassion. I found I had no voice.
After some minutes, Gaunt tired of his harangue and gave the man closest to me a sharp push in the chest. The man fell back, his arms windmilling. The heavy iron fell after him as he splashed into the water. Then he was gone.
Before the second man had a chance to react, Gaunt punched him savagely in the face and he also fell into the sea.
Then the third man was on his knees, pleading for his life. For a moment, it looked as though Gaunt would save him. He shrugged and turned away. Then, with blinding sped, he swung on his heel, lashing out with his foot. The point of his shoe connected with the chin and the youth's head snapped back with a sickening snap. He fell with a terrible scream into the water and disappeared.
The sailors gathered around Gaunt laughing and patting him on the shoulders. It was as though he were a champion footballer who had just scored a winning goal.
It was the most horrible act of callousness I had ever seen. I woke with a start. My body was bathed in sweat. It was as though my body was trying to rid itself of the memory of almost unbearable corruption.
It was only a dream, I reassured myself. In dreams, the most innocent people are sometimes cast in sinister roles. Yet I couldn't shake a sense of unease. I knew that Gaunt had taken the three to the boat and perhaps my mind had seized on this fact and wove it into a dark fable. Yet it seemed to me that some unconsciousavoice was warning me that my charming companion was not all he seemed.
I never spoke to Gaunt about the incident. It seemed pointless, evenly dangerously niave. And so the matter stood: a locked cellar in a house of light.
But the mind is strange. I believe that nothing finally can be buried in our consiousness. Much as I hated the role, part of me became like a seedy detective always seeking evidence as a basis of divorce or, in my case, the end of a friendship.
I found it hard to detect the flaws in Gaunt's character. One sensed a detachment. He knew almost intiuitively what were my interests and prejudices and could subtly play to them but how passionate he really was about any subject other than business, I couldn't say.
There was one occasion however when I sensed something of the true nature of the man.
We were on board a boat that Gaunt had hired, laying off the Dalmatian coast near the ancient and picureseque town of Split. A Canadian businessman and his wife had flown across and were to stay on board for a week as we sailed the Adriatic.
On the second night aboard, the Canadian became drunkly abusive. He accused Gaunt of destroying his business. The man cursed and wept while Gaunt sat silent and impassive at the other end of the table. Before stumbling off to bed, the Canadian unexpectedly turned to me.
'You think I'm a fool, don't you?' he demanded.
'Yes,' I replied coldly.
'A shambling, drunken, middle-aged fool.,' he mumbled.
'Something like that,' I admitted.
'Well, I may be a fool,' he said, drawing himself up with exaggerated dignity, 'but at least I was once something better than that. What's more even I can see right through your precious friend, John Gaunt. He hasn't told you about the way he has driven dozens of executives or owners like me out of business. Or about the way to save costs, he's outsourced thousands of jobs to Third World countries and sent hard working, loyal employees onto the scrapheap.'
'You haven't anything to complain about,' Gaunt commented acidly. 'I gave you a very generous price for your firm.'
'That's all it means to you,' the Canadian swung around to face Gaunt, almost losing his balance. 'Well, I have a newsflash for you. Money isn't everything. It isn't much if it means a man loses everything he once treasured. The pleasure in making something grow. The respect in other men's eyes. The knowledge you're helping men and women build their lives and have children. The realisation that you're leaving something decent behind.'
'Boring,' Gaunt yawned.
The fight died in the Canadian's eyes. He slowly turned to me.
'You'll see,' he whispered.'You'll see.'
And then he staggered from the room, his apologetic, shame-faced wife scuttling after him.
The next morning, I found Gaunt alone at the breakfast table, calmly reading an airmail version of 'The Wall Street Journal'.
'Your dinner guest won't be joining us for breakfast?' I asked, sitting down.
Gaunt folded his paper and poured orange juice for both of us.
'No, he and his wife left early this morning.'
'That's odd,' I mused. 'Normally, I always hear when the launch leaves. He was very abusive last night.'
Gaunt shrugged. 'Yes. A pity. His wife told me he was depressed. Others had told me he was badmouthing me to others. I thought it might do him good to come out here for a while. Give him a fresh perspective. My mistake. Some people simply can't be helped.'
'So, what will you do about him?'
'Nothing. Let's forget him. He's history. Now speaking of history, I have something pleasant planned for today. I've hired a chopper to take us over the old town and along the beaches..'
And so yet another disagreeable subject was quietly swept away.
Is John Gaunt a good or evil man?
Even now, I can't reach a judgement on this important question. It's true that in the last six months, I've seen him in the company of some very wicked individuals. There was the Serbian general, indicted for war crimes, an Egyptian arms dealer who has made a fortune from selling landmines, a highly-placed Italian financier who has managed to evade extradition for a massive junk bond scam in the United States, assorted members of a Sicilian crime family who funnel hard drugs into Britain, and so on. But equally, I have dined on Gaunt's boat with a top United Nations official, numerous philathropists, respected political leaders and revered churchmen. What business any of these people had with John Gaunt, I don't know.
Some people would doubtless believe that Gaunt's meetings with both the good and bad in society is evidence that all are implicated in some form of evil conspiracy. I doubt it. The U.N. official only arived after the Serb general was long gone, and so on. It's possible, though I find increasingly unlikely that Gaunt is an honourable man. Perhaps the truth is more complex. To some, he is honourable, to others, I don't know.
I would love to portray myself as a person who finally, filled with moral indignation, turned his back on John Gaunt. Unfortunately, I can't. Firstly, my unease is not supported by hard evidence. The very rich are skilled at covering their tracks. I will never know the full, or perhaps even a small part of the truth about this complex man. Secondly, what caused the rift between us is less to do with Gaunt as the way I began to see myself.
Leaving Split, I was taken to the airport. The airline gave me the worst seat in the plane. I was placed right in the back, close to the toilets which began to stink shortly after the queqes formed. Screaming babies, boisterous youths, fidgetting passengers on both sides, someone kicking me from time to time through the back of the chair, the couple in front dropping their seat back into the miserable space I had been allocated. It promised to be, and was, the flight from Hell.
And for this, I reminded myself, I had withdrawn the last of the money from my bank account. I was also, I realised, flying back to an uncertain future in Sydney.
I had never felt envious of John Gaunt before or, perhaps, I had successfully crushed out any stirrings of envy. Now, for the first time, I felt resentful. He must have known I was struggling to buy an airline ticket to join him at a ringside seat to his life. He knew everything important about me. It was inconceivable he wouldn't know I was broke, yet not once had he offered to help.
Was that really because he thought I was a proud man who would reject help or was he gaining a sadistic pleasure in seeing me suffer as the price of enjoying, for a short time, a rich man's lifestyle? Was he curious to see how much pain I would suffer for his friendship? Like most men, I had no real friends and had been flattered that a very rich man had taken an strong interest in me.
On that long and wretched plane journey home, I faced some unpalatable truths about myself.
I realised that I was a dependent personality. First, it was dependence on drink. Then I became dependent on friendship. Both seemed to offer bright, new worlds. Both were disappointing.
The fact was that no matter how glamorous and stimulating John Gaunt's life seemed, it was his life, not mine. Is friendship really possible when two partners are so unevenly matched? What future could I envisage? In five years time, would Gaunt even welcome my company? Worse, would I have sunk into a pathetic cypher. Perhaps it was as well Gaunt had never offered me money. It may have locked me into a contemptible dependence on him.Was the mutual respect of our early days already dying? I had begun to seriously doubt him. Perhaps he felt the same.
It was time to move on.
I knew that I would always regret leaving John Gaunt's world. I knew that everything to the end of my days would seem an anti-climax. But I also knew that I had, for a time, lost the most valuable possession any of us has - a sense of self. The sense that one is an individual who makes good or poor decisions in life and is prepared to live with the consequences.
Profound thoughts from the steerage section!
Having made my decision to break with Gaunt, I immediately felt better. The screaming babies, the fidgetting passengers, the young couple wrestling amorously in front - none of it mattered.
I ordered a soft drink and began to compose a letter to Gaunt. I would be restrained, yet firm.
When the drink arrived, I took a grateful sip. Then, a horrible thought occured.
I was ready to leave John Gaunt, but was he ready to leave me?