I took the first flat the guy from the rental agency showed me. He was a fat Aussie, about twenty-four with a deep tan, short curly hair and confident demeanour - obviously doing the travelling thing, having an adventure as they say, although I can’t say it struck me as particularly adventurous to travel thousands of miles to a country where they drive on the same side of the road, speak the same language and watch the same crappy soaps as you, a country that is, when all’s said and done just like home, except colder.
Anyway, this Australian Francis Drake had brushed aside my lazy innuendos that for the money they were asking the flat seemed a bit on the small side. “It’s a studio apartment,” he informed me, as though that explained everything, “they’re going like hot cakes.” It’s true the flat was luxurious; fully furnished, a Jacuzzi bath, fully equipped kitchen with waste disposal unit and dishwasher, as well as a small private balcony with views across the harbour.
And so, despite his stupid and laboured simile, in the end I decided to take it. The monthly rent was a little more than I could afford but with the money that I had been left I could more than make up the shortfall. Besides, what else was I going to do?
It is a truism of office life, and of working life generally, that when you start a new job you will be the new man until someone else arrives and assumes that title. You may have been in your job for five years but in the eyes of your colleagues you will always be the new man. Thus I found myself indelibly marked on my first day.
Working for a large government department it isn’t difficult to arrange a transfer to anywhere in the country. After the usual introductions and how-are-yous from my new colleagues I fielded the inevitable questions about what had brought me down here.
It’s a good question, and one that cannot be easily answered, but I fobbed them off with a few off-the-cuff platitudes which seemed to satisfy their curiosity. After being shown to my desk I decided to work out who was who.
In every office each person fulfils a certain role. It is not the role for which they are paid; rather, it is the role which has been prescribed to them through their genes and upbringing: the clown, the geek, the bully, the mother figure, the flirt, the loner - clichés of course, stereotypes, but also alas, true. These roles evolve in the playground until they are fixed, immutable, and we seldom, if ever escape from them.
I spent the rest of the morning getting lost along the drab, endless olive-painted corridors of a building that was a perfect example of late Sixties brutalism; all concrete slabs punctuated by dull blue panels along the façade, a building whose sole function it seemed to me was to make it’s occupants as lifeless and compliant as possible. In this it was an unqualified success.
In four hours I smoked 7 cigarettes. After lunch the rest of the afternoon managed to evade me in much the same way. I must admit, I was disappointed to see that there was no obvious flirt in my office. In fact, there was no-one who looked even slightly fuckable, and I sensed that the move here would do nothing to improve my sex life.
It’s curious, but I remember that first evening in my new place with absolute clarity. I cooked a microwave-able Healthy Options vegetable korma I’d bought earlier from Tesco - only 162 calories per every 500 grams. I opened a bottle of beer, a Kronenberg, and settled down to watch “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”. Chris Tarrant is the consummate game show host, a paradigm of the profession in fact. Never patronising, the fact that he’s probably a cunt in real life becomes marvellously irrelevant, and you can almost believe that he feels the contestant’s pain when Kevin, 56, a business manager from Hastings with 3 children inevitably lets 60 grand slip through his fingers.
I have 3 more Kronenbergs whilst flicking channels. The news is full of anti- American protestors opposed to the latest war. The American President comes on, mouths some crap, and then it’s back to pictures of the protestors to wind up the report. I feel a little hazy, from the beer, and find it difficult to engage with the debate that is now raging in the news studio. Each side appears to be as dumb as the other. I finish the last bottle and go to bed.
Later that night I am wakened by the sounds of the couple next door fucking. They’re incredibly noisy and it goes on for ages. It almost sounds like they’re putting it on; grunts and squeals, groans, all punctuated by the earthy, protracted cries of sexual oblivion. They have fantastic stamina, but to my surprise I find that it doesn’t arouse me in the slightest. I reach over to the bedside table and turn up the clock radio a little, just enough to muffle the noise and then drift fitfully off to sleep.
The next morning I see one of the couple in the building corridor waiting for the lift to the street. She’s a redhead, medium height; not a bad figure all in all. In her smart business suit it’s difficult to imagine her being fucked senseless half the night. We say good morning to each other. I am tempted to ask her if she slept well but then decide against it. The British have a tendency to look at you strangely if you try to chat to someone you don’t know. A brief “good morning” is acceptable, a terse statement about the weather perhaps, but after that it’s best to shut up.
During the rest of my first week it became apparent to me that my colleagues were already drawing unfavourable comparisons between myself and Martin, my counterpart in the adjoining office. It’s true that in the beginning I felt a little sorry for him. An IT whiz according to all our colleagues who would be “lost without him“, he was in his mid 40s, had an awful complexion and still lived with his parents. This, along with an attempted goatee and pronounced limp, led me to surmise that he had no sex life to speak of. In short, he was a classic geek.
Jacqueline, my boss, was even worse. A flabby, short-arsed hyperactive woman in her late thirties, I assumed she was a dyke. It was a natural enough mistake to make. Her short cropped hair, loose, ill-fitting sportswear and cheap gold jewellery - all layered necklaces and big sovereign rings - combined perfectly with an aggressive yet slightly desperate manner to give her a certain inner-city lesbian chic. I pictured her relaxing in the bath at home with her life partner, an even fatter version of herself with tattoos and piercings getting all loved up under the bubbles.
Imagine my surprise when late one afternoon I saw her getting a lift from her husband after work. He was a huge man, his face covered in acres of straggly grey beard. I gave a cheery wave when she saw me but she just looked embarrassed, like she was ashamed of something. There was no need to be. Physically, and probably psychologically, they were perfectly matched. There were two big German Shepherds in the back jumping around, tails wagging furiously at the return of their mistress as she kissed each one on the mouth.
Her husband waited to pull out and then gently accelerated into the evening rush hour traffic.
I guessed that they probably didn’t have any children.
I performed my duties adequately, though with a slight perfunctoriness. Apart from anything else, virtually all the work that came in went to Martin. Mostly I just smoked cigarettes outside. The larger the organisation you work for, the easier it is to disappear. Don’t do anything silly and you can remain unnoticed for years.
I preferred smoking alone. If there was a group of workers huddled around the No-Butts bin I would wander a few yards further away. It wasn’t that I was anti-social or aloof, I simply couldn’t think of anything to say to them. I never enjoyed making small-talk. I just wasn’t very good at it. It always amazed me when I overheard a conversation on the bus or in a supermarket. The same guff over and over - last night’s TV, the football; anything sufficiently banal to distract from the unpleasantness of our lives was repeated endlessly, ad nauseum. I found it profoundly depressing, and thus did my best to avoid it.
One Friday afternoon I had just got back from lunch. I was having a quick fag, enjoying the late Autumn sunshine when I heard a voice. “You must be Trevor.” I turned round. A balding man in his late fifties was approaching at speed. There was nothing I could do. He wore a grey suit and was in the process of lighting up. He stuck out his hand. “I’m John. I used to work in your section. How are you finding it?” He spoke with a soft Scottish accent. I said it was ok, that I was still finding my feet. “Oh, they’re a great bunch of people there,” he enthused. I wondered if he had got the right section, but he went on. “Mind you, Jacky takes a bit of getting used to.” He was right there. I laughed. And so the small-talk started. It turned out he was only a few weeks away from retirement and didn’t have much to do so he spent most of his time wandering round the building looking up old colleagues. He told me he’d been with the department for forty years. He said it a little apologetically, as though he was aware that he had completely wasted his life, but I wasn’t fooled. I asked him what he intended to do when he finished. He mentioned going back to Edinburgh, where he had been brought up. It was then that I made the mistake of telling him that I knew the city a little. “Oh, beautiful city,” He replied, “beautiful. Of course, it’s not what it used to be. I mean, half the place is fucking Pakified now.” He spoke with the dewy-eyed sentimentality of the expat and the casual complicity of the bigot. As he pulled out another cigarette he let rip with a huge, raking cough; you could hear the phlegm rattling about in his chest and throat but it just wasn’t coming up. “Fucking hell, I should really give these up.” I nodded, mumbled something about having to get back to work then stubbed out my cigarette and went back to my desk .
I looked in on John’s retirement do a few weeks later. They were holding it in one of the big conference rooms at work - doing it on the cheap I suppose. I didn’t stay long, but his old colleagues had made a real effort. An uneven row of multi-coloured balloons that had begun to deflate was undulating gently along the top of each wall and someone had thoughtfully blue-tacked a “Happy Retirement” banner from the local newsagent above the door.
Some thirty-odd people were eating and drinking from paper plates and cups - cheap white wine, orange juice, sausage rolls and dried-up canapés. It didn’t seem much after 40 years. I wondered what they’d got him for a leaving present.
John had brought his girlfriend along. I learnt later that they were both divorced. She looked a bit younger than him, mid-forties maybe. I doubted it would last. She was physically much more attractive than he was and sooner or later she would find someone else, someone she could connect with better, and that would be that. John would be left with his basement flat, his whiskey and his fags. He had no known hobbies, his children despised him and even now the tumour in his lung, as yet undetected, would be splitting and dividing, growing, slowly yet ineluctably, and by the time he started coughing up blood and soft tissue it would be too late.
He would enjoy his retirement in solitude, wondering where his life had gone as he sat on a stool in his local once or twice a week drinking Bell’s or Teacher’s, where the students would giggle and wonder if he was a paedophile.
He would die alone in a hospital bed, vainly trying to suck the last few gulps of air into his diseased lungs from the oxygen mask strapped across his face, praying for just one more second, one more minute of life… or else the end would come suddenly; he would snuff it in his flat and the young people might notice that the sad old tosser who used to sit at the bar nursing a solitary whisky was no longer there. He would lie decomposing in his flat for weeks, perhaps months, until the couple upstairs called the police because there was “this funny smell coming from the basement”.