They arrive in a group just after five o’clock. If I walk through the lift lobby around that time, I see them gathered together, chatting away in a language I don’t recognise, though I guess it’s from somewhere towards the east of Europe.
They’re a mixed bunch; men and women, a range of ages, but they look pleased to see each other as they come together. It’s the end of my day, the start of theirs and I wonder what they’ve been doing since they went their separate ways last night. Maybe it's just having the same job and a shared language that brings them together, or perhaps there's something more; remembered histories, whispered secrets, common experiences or family ties.
I’m not very good at leaving work; there’s always just one more e-mail I could deal with, a paper to read for a meeting the next day, a new policy document I really ought to get my head round. So I’m still at my desk when there’s a quiet knock and he pops his head round the door.
“ahh sorry” he says with a heavy accent, backing away quickly but grinning widely.
“Oh, I’m still working” I respond. Never quite sure how strong his English is, I gesticulate clumsily, waving an arm vaguely in the direction of the papers piled up on my desk, the bright computer screen blinking in the corner.
“I’m really sorry” I add, “I’ll be done soon”.
But he’s gone: off to hoover the corridor outside. I hear him whistling over the hum of the vacuum.
I don’t know how to explain that I really am sorry. I know he’s got a job to do, that I’m getting in the way of him doing it, delaying the time when he can finish and go home. I don’t know where he lives, I’ve never asked him, but I imagine a small flat at the top of a converted Victorian house that’s seen better days. I picture him walking slowly up the steps to the front door, trying to open it quietly so he doesn’t wake the children. I wonder if he complains to his wife about the stupid English lady who makes his work take longer. Or perhaps he shakes his head pityingly as he tells a tale of the sad woman who sits at her desk long after the others have gone home.
I carry on for a bit, trying to make some sense of my inbox in the vain hope that it will give me a better start the next day, but I’m tired, so it’s not long till I start to pack up. As I leave the office I look around for him, hoping to catch him and tell him the office is clear, I don’t want to leave him hanging around any longer than he has to or guessing when it’s safe to knock on the door again.
As I get to the stairs, he walks out of the kitchen.
“Good night” I call out, falsely cheerful, knowing I’ve still got a long drive ahead.
“Gooood night”. He says in return. And then, slowly, articulating each word with the utmost care, he adds
“I hope you have a nice evening”
And I go down the stairs smiling.