I’m embarrassed. Not because I didn’t know. Of course I knew. I just didn’t know how much I didn’t know.
If you’d asked me if everything that happens in this house was legitimate, I’d have hedged. I’d have told you that I’m just one of a few upstairs house guests, and we don’t get to see what goes on in the downstairs rooms, but from up here we do have a view of the ornate, wrought-iron front gates, and we see who comes and goes.
Most days it’s our host, sliding out in his convoy of black limousines. I admit I had stopped wondering about that: about why a man who claims to be so loved by so many needs a bulletproof car and a platoon of armed guards. Perhaps I’d stopped wondering because there was so much more to wonder about.
Like arms dealers, for starters. They arrived just after my host bought this place. We quite liked him back then. He’d booted out the last owner, a real little shit, and he was dignified and generous. So when the arms dealers came up the driveway, we wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. For our own protection, he said, and led them away down to the secret rooms we aren’t allowed to peep into.
After that, I just kind of went with it. The police were always coming around and we’d crowd at the windows and catch snatches of conversation – fraud, drunk driving, missing funds – but they always went away and our host waved up to us and told us all was well.
And I believed him. I must have, because I stayed. Now that I’ve woken up, I can see the ludicrous lengths I took to stay asleep. Like a few months ago, the gates opened up and in drove a guy called Omar. Wanted for genocide in Sudan. Genocide. And what did I do? I went out into the corridor and tut-tutted with the other guests and used words like “outrageous” and “disgraceful” – and then went right back to my room and made myself a toasted cheese sandwich.
I know why I was like this, of course. Nobody likes acknowledging that they are the guest of a gangster. It’s upsetting. It makes exhausting demands on your sense of yourself as a moral person. Because if you’re a moral person, how can you make a life for yourself in a home that is fundamentally rotten?
the real problem is you know how it all ends
But that’s only half of it. I think I’m OK with being less moral than I hope to be. I’m flexible that way. But the real problem with admitting to yourself that you live on the top floor of a Mafia godfather’s mansion is that you know how it all ends.
It ends with shocking violence, or in late-night pandemonium, throwing things into a suitcase and then a frantic rush over a high wall. It can never end well, because only the most intelligent criminals grow old peacefully and launder their money into respectable legacies, and I fear that my host is not looking like the most intelligent of criminals.
So I’d gone on, kept safe by the easy cynicism favoured by people who live in slowly unfolding disasters they can’t or don’t want to walk away from. Cynicism feels good because it makes you look informed. On point. Ahead of the curve. It convinces you that eye-rolling is an action and not just a reaction. It persuades you that seeing a train wreck is the same as avoiding it.
I’d like to claim that it was last week’s revelations about the Guptas that woke me up, but we’d all seen the brothers shuttling up and down the driveway for years. No, something else broke through the bubble of cynicism and left me mortified. It showed me how naïve I had been in my small condemnations of small crimes; how I had so completely underestimated the scope and ambition of my host’s corruption.
What woke me was what happened after the Gupta story broke.
Our host simply smiled up at us, saying that everything was fine. The firm had met. The naughty Guptas were going to be given a time-out. Business as usual.
Well, almost. My host will have to find a new source of money, perhaps one that doesn’t have newspapers and television stations and can therefore remain hidden for far longer.
But otherwise he’s going to keep doing what he’s done for decades -waving and lying, lying and waving – until he’s so rich that he can’t remember why he’s trying to get richer. Until corruption is the only way anyone can remember. Until every beam and floorboard in this mansion has rotted, and one day it all subsides into a stinking pile of rot and mould.
Yes, I’m embarrassed.