Sunday, 23 January 2011

Sharing an office on the seventh floor

For the last two years I've worked from a small office on the seventh floor of a municipal concrete block. Typical of 1960s office architecture, it's cold in the winter and too hot in summer. Each day the passing hours are marked by the raising and lowering of the plastic venetian blinds, as the sun crosses from east to west in front of my window.

From my desk I can watch the seagulls circling around then settling on the roof of the next block. Behind that, I can see the floodlights of the cricket ground; poking their heads up, like hyacinths in early spring. To the right is the now empty building plot, where the bulldozers, cranes and swinging steel demolition balls kept us mesmerised last summer, as they wrecked and flattened the old university buildings. In the distance span the graceful arches of the Victorian viaduct.


It's not a big space, only room for two desks and a small round meeting table. In one corner is the locked door to the cupboard where the IT servers live. At least once a day we're interrupted by a man from IT wanting to check something; the door is unlocked, and we're greeted by the cool blast and the whirring sounds from the air-conditioning installed in there to stop the servers over-heating. The irony of air-con for the computers, but not for the staff is, of course, not lost on us.

Throughout the two years I've shared this office with Chris. The air between us has often crackled with the sound of swearing and frustration from my side, patience and resignation from his. I've known for some time that he hasn't been happy in the job, but unlike so many of us, who whinge about it and keep turning up, Chris decided to find something else, and in a few days he will be starting a new job, something much closer to his heart and his ambitions.

On Thursday, I watched him clearing his desk, throwing paper after paper into a huge yellow plastic crate. As he flicked through the notes from meetings, the reports and strategies, I recognised the frown on his face as he recalled a particularly difficult transaction, saw the satisfied nod as he remembered the issues he'd resolved. I watched how carefully he peeled the blue-tack from the walls to take down the pictures and messages from his daughters, how he gently placed them in his bag, to be taken and re-hung on another wall in another office.

It's strange how you can spend so long sharing an office with someone, yet still feel you barely know them. I know the obvious stuff, like the names of his wife and children, the football team he supports. I know that he likes to dress well, a sharp suit and polished shoes. I've seen the limitations of his colour-blindness swept away by the bold, bright assertiveness of his shirt/tie combinations. Yet I've never seen him outside of the office environment; I have no idea what he looks like in jeans, or if he even wears them. We've never socialised, never got drunk together, both of us too keen to get back to our own worlds at the end of the day.

But I've seen the way his face softens when he talks about his girls, how it takes him a bit of time to adjust when he arrives in the morning, as he tries to switch his mind from home to work. I've noticed how his shoulders relax as he leaves at the end of the day and we walk together to the car park.

I work from home every Friday, so I wasn't there for his last day in the office. We said our goodbyes on Thursday, with a half-embarrassed hug and a kiss on the cheek - two years not quite long enough for us to know the etiquette of physical contact.

He's often looked at me with bemusement while I've banged on about the joys of Twitter, never quite understanding why I'd want to type something in 140 characters when I could just speak to someone's face, so I can't see us keeping in touch that way. He's said he'll come back for a drink in a couple of weeks once he's settled into his new role, but I'm not sure if he will. He knows I write a blog, and every now and then he reads it; but he's never left a comment and I don't know if he'll ever look at this. But I hope he knows anyway that the office will seem strangely empty on Monday.

21 comments:

Eternal Worrier said...

Its easy to forget how long we spend working with other people. It can end up that they are the ones we spend most of our time with, but know so little abouth them. Lovely blog post.

Philip said...

My word that was good. You have a real eye for things, and a rare talent for distilling that down to words on a page. I hope Chris reads this. What greater tribute can he have, than that you took the time and cared enough to set this down in the way you have.

Living in the past said...

I have been following you for a while (on Twitter as apm edwards), and I just wanted to say how beautifully written this post was. Thankyou for this

Rachel. said...

Wonderful post.

I left work the other week and it was full of the same awkward hugs. I saw the colleagues I didn't know too well, but was still fond of in Chris.

light208 said...

I always look forward to your posts as they make me think about things differently. I work in a field based environment so there isn't the sense of shared purpose that you've had with Chris. As Philip says, it is a great tribute.

Mr London Street said...

I liked this and simultaneously found it sad. If I didn't like the people I work with so much, and if I hadn't found out so much about them in the last three years, I don't think I could make it through a working week.

I'm not sure it matters if he reads it. I imagine he probably knows, and he's probably missing you too. But you never really know until you finish working with someone whether you'll stay (or maybe more accurately, become) friends. But it doesn't necessarily matter if you don't, because you'll always have those shared years. I hope his replacement is somebody you like, because it makes such a difference.

Simon H said...

Lovely to read and very deftly written if I may so. It touches on some many things - relationships; place; attachment and loss.

I know the place, the people and even the seagulls, but the way you pull it together has made me see it differently. Monday morning won't be quite the same.....

CAS said...

I do hope Chris reads this (perhaps others that know the place well will tell him. Once again you have captured things perfectly.That strange twilight of work colleagues you know and love and know nothing about.

legend in his own lunchtime said...

it's strange how these things can affect us. I work with a few people who I spend more time with than my wife (except for sleeping). Some of them i would really miss, but others I, well, best leave negative thoughts at the back door. After the death of a few colleagues recently, I now make a point of letting those I care about know it.
You always have such wonderful things to say, and you write with such feeling. Thank you for sharing

Barbara L said...

Nice post, I hope he reads your words and knows that in some way his moving on was "noticed."

Jeannie said...

It's always a stressful thing for your life to be uprooted. I'm sure that Chris would have been honored that you thought so much of him to write this post. He'd been too preoccupied with his family, career, and other worries to wade through. At the end the goodbye hug and means of contact was even indecisive.

For two years, the emotions had been carefully measured--whinge but not too much--and the restraint played out during the last hug and beyond to this one-sided post that he may never read.

We are not always matched well in business or in life, but we take what we are given and make the best of it. And you have done that--gone beyond the restraint and offered your heart. Even though it is after the end, it is not too late for you to have done so, to spread beauty into the universe.

Pat said...

That's a magnificent viaduct.

otherworldlyone said...

Lovely, as always.

I'm sure that if (or perhaps, when) he reads this, he'll be very touched. I would be.

Jayne said...

You have captured perfectly the awkwardness between coworkers thrust together in tight quarters. When it clicks, it's fantastic. But when there's uncertainty, it can be rather uncomfortable at times.
It sounds like the two of you floated in between, and had a healthy respect for one another. I'll bet he'll think of you and check in on your blog from time to time.
This post made me think of a box I shared, for six months, with a particularly crass woman who had a habit of babbling on, ad nauseum, about her childish escapades. I was so happy when she was let go. I know, a terrible thought, but I could finally breathe again.

Madame DeFarge said...

Sometimes I wonder if I know too much about my workmates, and if I need more separation. But I think that I;d miss them too much to want to find out.

Bth said...

I absolutely loved this post Sharon, so real and honest. I love the way you portray people, you have such a wonderful way of bringing them to life, making us feel we know them in only a few paragraphs. Really wonderful.

Shopgirl said...

"But I've seen the way his face softens..." I have a colleague (no shared offices here sadly) that is a Navy Seal, and he rarely shows softness, except when he talks about his little boy. Love how these little images that make people and stories come alive.

Sharon Longworth said...

Eternal worrier - thank you and yes, our office colleagues almost become our 'significant others' - at least in terms of the amount of time we spend with them.

Philip - thank you.I'm not sure how I feel about Chris reading this - I think I wrote it with the expectation that he wouldn't. I hope, if he does, he won't be embarassed.

Living in the past - thank you so much for your kind words. I'm really glad you enjoyed it. I read your last post on memories of school (which was great, by the way) and it was more than a bit of an influence on my latest post - so thank you for that as well.

Rachel - thank you. Hugs are funny things - sometimes so warm and comforting, sometimes just awkward. Hope you're settling in well to whatever you're up to next.

Sharon Longworth said...

Light 208 - that's such a compliment - I'm thrilled to think someone would look forward to reading something I write; thank you!

MLS - I'm with you on the sadness. This is the first job I've ever had that doesn't have a big social side to it - other jobs have given me lasting friendships, and I miss that enormously. I've always needed a 'partner in crime' in the office...

Simon - I'm so glad you commented, thank you. Re my comment to MLS above - I'm afraid you have the honour of coming closest to the partner in crime label - thought I should warn you...

CAS - I'm so glad that I still have you as a 'friend from work' and I'm glad we've made it last outside of work as well. Thank you for your comment.

Sharon Longworth said...

Legend - thank you for your lovely comment. It is odd, the amount of time we end up spending with some people - whether we want to or not

Barbara - thank you.

Jeannie - as ever, thank you for such a thoughtful comment - I'm often flattered that you find things to say about my writing that chime with what I've thought, even when I haven't expressed it too well.

Pat - It is indeed a very fine viaduct. And it's nice to have something to gaze on occasionally, that isn't a computer...

Sharon Longworth said...

OWO - thank you, you are very kind.

Jayne - thank you. I'm glad you're not still stuck in a box with the awful woman - makes me realise I should be glad I've had awkwardness, rather than having to tolerate someone who drives me bonkers.

MdF - I've had that feeling about past colleagues - and I still miss some of them.

Bth - that's such a lovely thing to say, I'm very flattered, thank you.

Shopgirl - I think we probably all have different degrees of softness, and it depends on the situation and people around us how much we let that show. Thank you for your comment