All year they were telling us that the company was sailing with the wind. All the graphs showed rising trends: more clients, more turnover. And also more work: that is why they were always hiring more sales staff. Every ten or twelve days we saw new faces, although it seemed to me that they were the same mugs with different ties. That suit, that laptop, that aggressive smile, the hurry, the repetition of the same platitudes on the phone, that insufferable tone of “this is of vital importance” in every email. The one who always wore a pink tie had written to us a few days ago to tell us that we had to change the font used for the name of our company in the email program. Einstein’s letter to President Roosevelt warning that Hitler was on the point of developing the atomic bomb was written in a less angry tone.
What we engineers could not understand was why, in spite of the magnificent financial results of the year, they had drastically reduced the December bonus. We were all expecting to get an explanation at the meeting. It was yet another of those never-ending meetings during which they told us how great we are and what great dicks we had. Pink Tie hadn’t been talking for ten minutes and I was already completely fed up. I started day dreaming, my mind wandered and I remembered the story of the iron pyrite.
In the first two or three years of school, no child did anything. We were nothing, just like blank canvas to be scribbled on. Generally, we just kept quiet and watched each other. Over time, each of our personalities began to take form: many kids began to act, to express themselves, to differentiate themselves from others. One made us laugh, another sang, another ran faster than anyone, another jumped higher, another made sharp observations about things, another always gave the right answer to the teacher’s questions. There was one kid who could lick his own nose, another who could spit out of the window and hit the building over the way, even one who had read a whole book, without pictures, and appeared to enjoy it. Our identities were being formed.
Other kids kept on not saying anything and looking at the others. No one talked about them: we talked about those who stood out in some way. To stand out was good: many people knew your name, smiled at you, said hello to you. Now you were no longer a blank canvas; you were something. Something beautiful, or perhaps something original, or maybe simply something; but you were something. And you were recognised for it. Sometimes you were awarded a pat or a furtive kiss, and then you felt something big that you didn’t begin to understand, but every single one of your cells seemed to be crying out, “We are getting on OK, here, mate.” The survival of the species was at stake.
One day I was approached by one of those kids who was always looking and never said anything. I didn’t know his name. “Look,” he said mysteriously. He took out a piece of golden metal from his pocket and held it out to me. I stayed looking at the tiny golden ball for a few seconds. It was grubby. The kid’s fingers were grubby too. I raised my eyes: his face was also grubby. He looked at me very seriously and spoke to me in a low voice, as if he were revealing a hugely important secret.
“This is not gold,” he paused, “It’s iron pyrite.”
He was motionless for a few seconds and then he returned the grubby little ball to his pocket. He looked at me, arched his eyebrows and went off with a smile. I remained thoughtful, suspecting something. I didn’t know what iron pyrite was: I supposed that no one at seven years of age knew either. But this kid knew. He had a piece of it. He had to be a silly prat.
I didn’t ask his name; I wasn’t interested. For me, that anonymous kid became Iron Pyrite. Sometimes I would see him in the school playground. He was always showing someone his grubby little ball; some kids seemed interested, taking the ball so they could look at it close up, passing it from one to another. Then they returned it to Iron Pyrite who wore a smile of self-satisfaction.
It took me a while, but at the end I came to some conclusions. Iron Pyrite also wanted to stand out, but he neither ran faster nor jumped higher than anyone else. When he showed you that little ball, you automatically thought that it was gold. He told you that you were wrong. Oh, I could have sworn that it was gold, you would say. And if you were wrong and he right, then he had to be cleverer than you. You were a student who, after school, would go home to eat bread with Nutella and watch Sesame Street. Iron Pyrite was picked up by helicopter and he went with his parents, who were scientific adventurers called Thomas and Linda, to explore the Amazon. In one of their many adventures, they had got lost fleeing from the fearsome Potiguara tribe (liver eaters), had swum across the Orinoco and jumping over fresh water crocodiles and sharks, they hid in the volcano of the dark tarantulas, where by chance they found the entrance to the cave of the green scorpion. At the end of that dark cave they spotted a golden glow. They crawled over the ground silently so they would not awaken the mutant bloodthirsty bats and reaching the end of the cave they bumped into the scorpion, who was three metres long. Just then, the volcano started to erupt. Thomas grabbed hold of the enormous green sting and Linda jumped between the claws of the scorpion and ran in the direction of the gleaming golden seam. One of the walls opened up and started to spew incandescent lava. Linda glanced quickly at the wall, but filled with renewed courage, returned to the golden seam. It seemed as if she was about to get there, when suddenly, a voice shouted, “No, mum, no! “Its iron pyrite!”
Linda came out of her trance and the three fled at top speed, pursued by a river of lava and the giant scorpion. They jumped down an unexpected hole and fell down the crystalline waterfall into the deepest part of the lake of the bloodthirsty leeches. Now, on the banks of the lake they pulled off the leeches and smiled peacefully while the evening fell over the jungle. “But how did you know that it was iron pyrite?” Linda asked her son. He looked at her, arched his eyebrows and walked away in silence towards the gathering darkness.
Iron Pyrite seemed to hint at all this, and people seemed to believe him. I thought that he was no more than a silly prat who carried a ball of dirt in his pocket.
Pink Tie continued talking about motivation, effort, sales strategies, “It is a difficult market and everyone wants a slice of the cake. It is a race, and we have to come first.” Suddenly he looked at us very seriously and posed a question, “In this race, who do you think will take away the smallest piece of the cake?”
Silence. Suspense, curiosity. “The last,” someone whispered. Pink Tie smiled wryly, waited a few seconds and said in a low voice as if revealing a very hugely important secret, “The second,” he said and paused. “In this race, the second will take away nothing.”
More silence. Expressions of surprise. “But I could have sworn that it was gold,” I seemed to hear.
“We are very good. But we have to be the first.” He concluded.
Then came a similar kind of guy but with a green tie and made us look at a ton of graphs on the screen while he lectured us about the success of our product. Suddenly, he switched off the projector, gave us a smile of complicity and said, “I have to confess something.”
“I am the bastard that reduced your bonus”, I thought he was about to say. People looked at him with puzzled expressions.
The guy sat on the edge of the table and crossed his legs, letting us see one of his socks. He breathed deeply and said, “We are very much hated as a company.”
A pause. My God, who would have thought it? This is the end! We thought we were the cat’s whiskers! But we are finished, we are on our way down from the top to the dole queue!
“Yes. Although you may not believe it, they hate us,” he paused. “Our competitors hate us to death. They hate us because they dream of getting where we are today. And when they arrive, we will no longer be there; because we will already be much higher.”
He smiled at us and arched his eyebrows. People clapped. He walked away slowly away towards the darkness.
I felt that we were still in the school playground. But something had changed: it was we engineers, hired because we ran faster, jumped higher, read entire books, and answered all the questions correctly; now we were silent and looking at each other. Those who stood out now were the silly prats with their little balls of dirt.
They had reached high, very high. They had overcome sharks and tarantulas, had killed the fearful green scorpion and had succeeded in taking away a good piece of the gleaming golden seam. The only problem was that the company had not realised that the golden seam was only iron pyrite. They had bought it thinking it was gold and had paid for it with our Christmas bonus.
While we were leaving the meeting hall, I felt something big, very big. I didn’t know exactly what it was, but every single one of my cells seemed to be crying out to me, “We’re not doing so well here, mate!“