All My Friends: Jason

I was pretty drunk but that was not unusual so I had no problem catching Lizzie’s arm, steadying her as she stumbled over her dance steps. It was like I’d re-calibrated my own sense of sobriety over the past couple of years; no drink at all left the world too sharp, too acute and I needed a few units to take the edge off it. Otherwise there was just too much of everything. I suppose I was aware that it was taking a little bit more, steadily month by month, to blunt the razor. I was aware but I had no interest in stopping.

It had been an effort to come. Lizzie was hard to say no to, just like old times. Somehow she’d worn me down, stalking me on social, filling my mobile with texts, piling up mail in my in box. I wasn’t really in touch with the others and so perhaps curiosity had gotten the better of me. They’d all sent messages after 7/7 but Lizzie was the only one that I’d seen in person, insisting on taking me out to various pubs in Highgate, plying me with gin until I’d loosen up enough to talk about it all. Most of those nights ended in tears – my tears – and her arms around me, whispering that I needed to let it out. She meant well but I always felt like her therapy 101 approach to my psychological welfare was akin to her approach to parties when we’d all known each other as students: she was brilliant at making a mess but lousy at clearing up afterwards.

In the end it’d been the promise of some peace in the country that had convinced me. I think Lizzie had sent everyone an invite with a screen grab from Withnail & I on it underscored with a stolen line from the film: “what we need is fresh air, harmony, stuff like that”. Maybe she didn’t realise quite the extent to which I’d been drifting into the arena of the unwell, to steal another line, but seeing Richard E Grant’s disheveled indignance stirred something in me; one washed up, booze soaked loser calling to another. London wasn’t good for me anymore, I knew that. I was double dosing on beta blockers and citalopram just to function, slooshing the pills down with a glass of red on a good day and a bottle on a bad one. I’d started travelling in the rear of tube trains because I figured if someone was going to blow themselves up they’d be near the front, cause more damage as the momentum of the trailing carriages concertinaed into each other. I’d started applying rational assumptions to irrational acts carried out by lunatics. What did that make me?

If you’d have asked me before that day, before the smoke, before picking my way through darkness, nostrils filled with the scent of charred flesh, mouth stung with the iron tang of blood, before the starter-gun blast that had left my ears permanently tuned to a constant background of static, before hearing the confused, frightened cries for help, if you’d asked me just before then I’d have said I missed them all. Lizzie and Jo and Neil and Clare and Richard and Jon and Gina. There had been a time when that was our little universe, each of us orbiting the others. Afterwards a distance opened up. I guess the explosion pushed me out, gave me enough velocity that I just flew off into the darkest reaches of space. How do you break orbit? What would I know? Neil could probably explain it but none of us ever really had the patience for listening to him explain his degree except Jon. And even Jon seemed to give up on him after a while. Everything changed that day. I changed that day and they became, pretty much in an instant, strangers to me.

Nothing in the weekend had caused me to change my view. I saw all of the old routines play out but felt detached from all of them. I used to be a part of it but now I just felt like I was watching a bad remake of The Big Chill or, worse, Peter’s Friends. Jesus, let it be me that’s saved up for the end of the film as the big reveal: I’ll be the one with the incurable disease or the one that died or the one that’s about to be murdered. So I did what I always did lately and I drank. It made the movie more bearable. It slowed things down enough, dialed down my twitchy anxiety enough, to catch Lizzie’s arm as she faltered. I watched her dancing, the others calling her name in time to the song, and watched her unhook her bra, drop it to the floor. Everyone cheered. Same old Lizzie. It reminded me of something we used to do and I thought this was her last attempt to bring me back, to tractor-beam me back into their constellation.

I dropped my jeans, swung my hips in an exaggerated fashion. Lizzie mock spanked me just like all those nights a lifetime ago, all those nights before, and the others laughed and called out encouragement. I fixed a smile on my face and tried to tune in to the joy, to the nostalgia, concentrating on gyrating my hips, forcing as much comedy as I could from the simple act of removing my trousers, but it was drowned out in my head by screams and fire.

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All My Friends: Lizzie

It was all fabulous. Exactly as I’d pictured and planned it: the cottage, the reunion, the long rambling walk through the countryside, the dinner and drinks, the old times marked by a new time together. I’d seen the cottage in a magazine and knew instantly, surreptitiously ripping out the page and stuffing it into my handbag, nonchalantly glancing up to see if anybody in the waiting room had noticed. I just knew. We all had to get back together and it had to be there. It was the impulsive Aries in me but there was something so right about it that I spent the next few days trawling social media, tracking everyone down, getting this thing set up. The girls had pretty much all said yes straight away – Clare needed a bit of a pep talk – and once the boys knew that the girls were coming then they’d all fallen into line. Just as I knew they would. Predictable boys who’d become predictable men. Fun though. Hopefully they’d be caught unawares by unpredictable Lizzie.

The cottage leaned towards the ramshackle side of shabby-chic, all of the furniture was not so much distressed as pleading for help, but I still loved it. For the longest time I just stood outside taking in the sweet smell of the wisteria clambering up a trellis on the front of the house, a riot of pink and purple to rival the contents of my make up bag. Okay, almost rival. I had hoped the others would arrive to discover me resplendent in front of the flowers, perhaps toting a small glass of something fizzy, reading something serious and romantic like Emily Bronte or Daphne Du Maurier but a local farmer started muck spreading in the next field along, ruining the ambience, and I remembered that I’d only bought Jilly Cooper’s “Riders” with me anyway so I waited for them all inside.

If I was completely honest with myself my heart did sink a little when I first opened the door. The apparently very recently applied disinfectant didn’t quite mask the slightly musky, damp smell, as if someone had hurriedly tried to clean up after two wet dogs. Not dogs like my beloved Judy either, more like the ones that chased her around Hampstead Heath trying to mount her. Poor thing. Their outsized amorous attentions always reminded me of that unfortunate night I spent with Giles from the First XV who insisted on initiating sex by calling a scrum, shouting that he was about to bind on, before declaring ‘ball coming in now’ at the moment of penetration. He had a sticker on his door in Halls that read “I like playing with odd shaped balls: do you?” which I assume he meant as a joke but the strange thing was that he really did have very odd shaped balls. I told him he should probably get them checked out and we never really saw each other again after that.

I opened a few windows to let in some air – mostly slightly pungent manure tinged air – and bagged myself the best bedroom. Huge double bed – why not be optimistic – and the only en suite bathroom. The bath boasted a stained in tide mark, a yellowing brown line running a couple of inches below its top, but it was nothing that half a bottle of Molton Brown wouldn’t hide. An explosion of bubbles and a few carefully placed candles, quietly exhaling lavender and sandalwood, and it would suffice. I now hoped the others would arrive to discover me ensconced in foam, reclining, glass of champagne in one hand, spurting shower head in the other, their imaginations running wild, assuming they’d caught me in flagrante, exclaiming at my outrageousness. Sadly the plug didn’t fit flush in the plug hole and the bath would only stay full if I sat on it, the combination of that digging in to my buttocks and the taps poking me in the back forced me to give up. The shower didn’t work properly either. There wasn’t enough pressure to rinse clean the bath oils from my skin let alone get me worked up into a lather.

But it was fabulous. Really it was. When they all did finally arrive I felt as excited as I had the night Daniel Braithwaite had introduced me to his tongue piercing. Something of an oversight not inviting him to be honest although none of the others had really taken to him. Such prudes. It was wonderful. We talked and ate and then, later on, we danced in the kitchen. Someone had put on that Vic Reeves “Dizzy” song that had been out when we’d been at Uni and, just like they used to, everyone had changed the words to “Lizzie”. I was a little tipsy and had spun on the spot, the room blurring, faces from the past flickering in and out of view. I think Jason had caught my arm as I slowed down, stumbling a little, head still spinning long after my body had stopped. I was tipsy but not so drunk that I couldn’t still feel the lump under my breast rubbing against the underwire on my bra. Since it’d grown I’d stopped wearing all of the lacy stuff that I liked, settling for something more comfortable – god forbid, even those hideous sports bras – but I’d made an exception tonight. Just in case. To feel more comfortable I ran my hand up my back, unhitched the clips, and made great show of wriggling the straps free from my shoulders, pulling the bra free from under my top before dropping it in the middle of the kitchen floor. The others found it hilarious, bellowing “Lizzie” along with the song even more loudly; just another moment of spontaneous, delicious outrage to add to my long list.

After I went to bed, alone, I found, in my handbag, the photo of the cottage that I’d ripped from that magazine in the waiting room a few months ago. You get a decent class of magazine in the oncology ward at London Bridge. Next to the photo was an unopened letter with the hospital’s address stamped on the front and my test results inside. I turned it over in my hands and, like all the other times, teased at a small tear on the top of the envelope with a fingernail. A perfectly polished, manicured fingernail. I put the envelope back in my bag. It would be fine. No, it would be fabulous.

All My Friends: Jon

I’d spent too much time stuck talking to Neil. He’d cornered me as I’d gone over to the laptop – Jo’s I think – that was acting as jukebox for the evening. The screen was cycling through a bunch of old photos, all of us back in the day; a ragbag assortment of early 90s band tee-shirts, ill advised fringes, over sized graduation gowns, that weekend we went camping in the Peak District and tried to find magic mushrooms, out of focus shots of the inside of pubs, young blurred faces refracted through half full pint glasses and bottles of Diamond White. It was strange seeing us like that, all digital. Pictures had never formed part of our moments back then, they were something you dug out and looked at weeks after the event. I was surprised she’d kept them and gone to the trouble of scanning them all in. I’d long since discarded all but a handful of mine and I think I preferred our youth when it was analogue and disposable.

Me and Neil had been pretty close for a while. I’d been a bit surprised that he’d been invited as I knew the others had been happy to lose touch after we’d all drifted off after college. He’d single handedly got me through the stats modules on our course and I was grateful for that. He was lousy at reading people for someone that had a degree in psychology though, and all of the reasons why our friendship had waned over the years came back to me as he picked apart every song choice I made trying to liven things up after dinner had been cleared away. The Wonderstuff. Like a watered down Waterboys, they sounded old back then, let alone now. Okay then, The Waterboys. Celtic music for people that have never been to Scotland or Ireland, roots music for people with no roots. Nirvana. Pixies with a poster boy but without Kim Deal. Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Two words. Slap. Bass. And on and on. Eventually I put on LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” and left him mid sentence (New Order moved to New York, hired a publicist and started self referring constantly…) to cajole the others into dancing.

We were all pretty drunk and the effects of the alcohol, as well as some kind of nostalgia muscle memory, pulled everyone into place in the room as if we were all back, 19, 20 years old, as if nothing had happened to any of us since. I slipped back into my patented head down indie-shuffle, only now without my hair dropping across my face. What was it Lizzie used to say to me? Something about eyes being the windows on the soul so why did I cover mine with a pair of curtains? She was up and dancing too, as unrestrained and enthusiastic as she always had been. She still sang along loudly, seemingly untroubled by actually knowing the words although, by the end, she’d picked up the “where are your friends tonight?” refrain which she embellished with an expansive sweep of her arms which seemed to signify that said friends were right here. It was a bit literal. Clare was dragging Richard on to our make-shift dance floor. We’d all seen this before and knew how it ended. I watched her flick her hair, tilt her head to one side, saw her beckon to him with an out-stretched finger. He took his time, all casual disinterest, eventually  acquiescing with a hands-up gesture of mock surrender and then they were circling each other, orbiting closer and closer until he leant in, whispered something in her ear and they both laughed. I remembered too many nights and too many mornings picking up the pieces and forced myself to look away. Clare was as beautiful, as out of reach, as stupid as I remembered. But I think I still loved her and so I guess I was just as stupid too.

Later, as everyone started to drift off to bed, I put on Van Morrison, a gentle serenade for sleep. It was the record playing that one time we made love. You teased me about it for the longest time afterwards – it was just a drunken shag, Jon – but I know what it really was. To me at least. Another night that had started dealing with the fall out from another of your run ins with Richard but had ended with your mouth on mine, nails dug into my back. The way young lovers do. Sweet thing. Slim slow slider. Van was singing those sensuous songs just for us, the melodies swirling like tendrils of smoke around us as we entwined.

Now he was just singing them for me and my memory of you. Through the ceiling, from somewhere upstairs, I heard laughter and then, steadily, the rhythmic knocking of a headboard. I turned the music up and poured another glass of wine.

 

All My Friends: Clare

Remember that time when we danced in the kitchen to “All My Friends”? It was the end of the night, all of us back together, ten year anniversary meet up. Later on the two of us had drifted off to sleep listening to the sound of “Astral Weeks” floating up through the floorboards, rising like a soft, sweet spell through the house. The covers were still kicked off the bed, lost in the urgency of our prior entanglement. The last thing I heard before you started calling my name, over and over, breath rising faster, coming now in gasps, was Van singing love to love to love to love to love to love and then, for a good long while there was no sound except the beating of your heart, my head collapsed on your chest, your fingers in my hair. I guess I never learn.

I woke up around five a.m., skin raised in bumps against the early morning chill. You must have rolled across the bed at some point in the night taking the duvet with you. Part of me saw the funny side; everything between us in bed had been the same as it always was and you stealing the covers was no different. You were always selfish in bed. To be honest I’d been drunk enough this time that I couldn’t even remember if I’d come last night or even if I particularly cared.  I sat for a while on the edge of the bed, arms criss-crossed, knees pulled up to my chest, hands rubbing some warmth back into my body. The room was stale with the smell of last night’s booze and last night’s sex. The sun would be rising soon and it felt like watching it might be my only consolation from a predictable and miserable weekend. I pulled on some clothes and left the room as quietly as I could. Not out of concern. I couldn’t face another one of our morning-after conversations.

The night’s black was softening to a dark blue as I left the house. Someone was asleep on the sofa in the lounge, TV fizzing with static lines opposite them. The kitchen looked like a Tracey Emin installation, there was a skyline of discarded, empty bottles arranged in a line on the table we’d all sat round for dinner a few hours ago, and the floor was strewn with a set of clues about how the evening had gone. Several corks. Smudged cigarette ash. Somebody’s iPhone. A bra. Not mine. Too big. I guessed maybe it was Lizzie’s. A pair of Levi’s. Also not mine. I couldn’t place them but I knew they weren’t yours. I remembered enough to know we’d made it upstairs still dressed. I knew because the anticipation of you was always what tripped me up, seemingly even after all this time. Van was still singing quietly from the speaker in the kitchen. Stuck on repeat through the night.

It was chilly outside but the air cleared the fog in my head; the cold felt like clarity, cutting through last night’s heat. It had been a surprise to see you and maybe that’s why all my good intentions turned bad. What’s that saying? The road to hell is paved with good intentions. It wasn’t hell. At best it was two old friends rekindling something they once sort of had. At worst it was a drunken reunion fuck that didn’t last long enough to remember why we’d ever slept together in the first place. You seemed to enjoy it so I guess I could console myself with the fact that I’ve still got it. The worst of it really is that it happened, that I let it happen, made it happen even. It had been a good night, catching up with old faces and kicking around the times we’d all been together before, living on top of each other in student rentals and cooking up another variation on pasta and tuna, or toast, endless rounds of toast, and drinking cheap sherry straight from the bottle before we’d head out to some retro 70s night at the Union. It was only ten years on and now it was all Prosecco and tagines – one meat, one vegetarian – and swapping stories about first homes, second homes, mortgages, trips to Ikea and how many weddings there had been this year. Underneath I guess it was still the same. The dynamics in the group settled into the same rhythms. Me and you settled into the same rhythm.

How could I have been so fucking stupid? You hadn’t changed. The same cock-sure smile, the same easy conversation, the same self-assuredness. When you’d told me you were “in the City” now I nearly spat out my wine. It was too obvious and too perfect. Of course you were “in the City” and, no doubt, perfectly at home there. You didn’t look surprised when I said I was teaching. God, I think you even said something, it could have been “good for you” like the patronising twat you are and, instead of turning away and joining back in the conversation about that night we all moved our mattresses out of our rooms and slept outside in the Quad when we were all in Halls, I smiled and thanked you. I was like a needle being dropped on vinyl. I just settled back into a groove that had been well worn in years ago and let the same old song spin. We both knew the tune and the words. It’s a song I thought I’d given up singing.

The sun lit the horizon and a honey-glow spread across the gardens around the house. Birds began to chatter and trill, breaking the stillness of the dawn. My head was starting to ache and so I headed back into the wreckage of the kitchen to see if somewhere amid the carnage there was a packet of paracetamol. Even just a glass of water. Something to shake the pain. I guess, misguided as I was, that’s all you were the night before. Something to shake the pain.

Boxed in

It was the waiting that grated. You could sense it across the office, a palpable air of fidgety discomfort blended with impotent uncertainty. It felt like we should all be out stock piling canned goods and bottled water; hunkering down and bunkering up. I think that’s why I was daydreaming about escape all the time. Anything to be out from the slightly oppressive sense that something bad was coming. It was hard to maintain ‘business as usual’ knowing that business was currently quite so unusual. Hard to keep a professional face on it. What happened to authenticity? That was supposed to be the buzzy new thing in leadership. Be authentic. Bring yourself to work. Get to know people, show your vulnerability, watch that Brene Brown TED talk, dial up your emotional intelligence. I guess submitting to your basest instincts and retiring to the corner of the office to crouch, sobbing, whilst gnawing repeatedly on a pencil, fists bunched, occasionally stamping a foot and letting out a yelp of inchoate rage would be considered too authentic. It’s a fine line. I walk it delicately.

The strange thing is that I’ve been in this film before. Had a bigger role than I wanted. It was my estranged, disappointed face they cut to when they announced the runners up in the “who gets to keep their job” category. No gold statue, no tearful acceptance speech. No after show party in Venice Beach. More like being hit by a tsunami on Venice Beach as the fault line running through California finally cracks open and LA is disgorged into the ocean. It’s like a bereavement. That wave, that tsunami, hits, you lose your feet on the sand, and for a while you’re thrashing and tumbling in the sea, fighting for breath and a solid place to stand. I guess some people cope with it better than others, find some exhilaration in the loss of control, give themselves up to the swell, emerging laughing and shaking the water clear of their ears. It wasn’t really like that for me. After the shock I just sank, cold and numb and adrift. Even after I found the shore it was like I was always ankle deep in it, as if the tide line had shifted, and from time to time, without warning, the undertow would pull me over and I’d pitch back into the water. I don’t think I’ll ever really stand on the beach again. Or, at best, it’ll always be a beach flying the red warning flags. Probably without David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson.

Having seen this film before I know that once the end credits roll that life goes on. The lights come up and you pick your way out of the cinema, popcorn scrunching under foot, and emerge blinking into the day. Maybe I’m stretching this analogy too far. There’s other films, other roles. That’s the point. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say that being out of the industry for a while – a resting actor if we’re going to keep this up – wasn’t appealing. A chance to start again and to break out of all the little boxes that working in a big corporate puts you in. My favourites:

  1. Talent grids. There’s nothing quite so motivating as a three by three, nine box, talent grid. Performance on one axis and potential on the other. You can tell a lot about the prevailing culture by the labels assigned to each level on the axis. I’ve been rated ‘good’, ‘average’, ‘over performing’, ‘out performing’, and ‘astonishing and sensitive’ all within the same box, just in different places with different scales. That last one is a lie. That’s what Caroline Josephs said about me the first time we slept together. That may also be a lie. Potential is even worse. Like the myriad of possibilities and capability that anyone possesses can be wrapped up and summarily dismissed with an ‘x’ in a box. You have no potential. That’s the truth of what Caroline said about me. At least, to be fair to her, she gave me this feedback in the moment, with quite specific details on where I was going wrong, and didn’t hide it all by talking about me with her peers and putting me in a box on a spreadsheet. Who knows? Maybe she did that too.
  2. Myers Briggs. I’m using this as a catch all for all those development questionnaires that they make you fill out to discover who you are, a grand voyage of self discovery and awareness. The ones that are introduced with great sincerity by name dropping Jung, principally to distinguish the outputs from, say, reading your horoscope. But then I’m an INTP and so I would say all of this, wouldn’t I? And I would also violently kick against being put in a box. So maybe there’s something in it. I guess I believed it all more when I was junger. Yes, all of that was just leading up to that pun.
  3. Org charts. Here’s the rub. Org charts are for roles and not for people. I know they have people’s names on them, implying some kind of security sitting there snuggly within the confines of your rectangle, but they’re not for you. I’ve gotten short shrift in a variety of situations when I’ve claimed that it was my role’s responsibility to do something and not mine – paying for stuff in shops, that incident with Caroline Josephs after we broke up and I turned up drunk at her flat and shouted through her letter box that I had been practicing my skills and that she should give me another chance – that kind of thing. Turns out, as a pretty nice police woman patiently explained to me, that those things are my responsibility and not some amorphous, ambiguous title in a box in an org chart. Turns out that it’s people that do stuff and not roles. Live and learn. (Technically as an INTP I don’t so much live and learn as observe, over think, and learn but that’s less snappy and hasn’t been adopted as universal parlance).

Be authentic but fit in this box. And this box. And this box over here. It’s almost as if the beautiful complexities and contradictions of human essence – of an individual – can’t be contained in a one-size-fits-all categorisation. And yet that’s what we do to fit in and get on.

Right until they tell you to get out.

The escape committee

During the uncertainty about our jobs I liked to imagine what various people would do in the same position. Not, you know, what would Jane from Accounts Payable do? What would various famous people do? Though, to be fair to Jane, she would probably do something far more sensible and responsible than, say, Keith Richards who was one of my fictional reference points at this time of unsettling change. I think this was a way of trying to sift through what I wanted and make sense of the slightly conflicted set of emotions I was experiencing on an almost daily basis. It was all either romanticised notions of cashing out a big cheque and spending six months driving sea to shining sea across the States or it was a wildly conceived and wholly imagined dystopian future where I ended up selling my own organs on some dark web version of e-bay just to keep up my mortgage payments. I had quite a detailed view of the latter and had even factored in that my liver was depreciating fast in black market value as I soaked it in notes-of-cherry-and-oak reds and the occasional, more visceral, pleasures of a hastily banged out shot of tequila.

The list of celebs that I was mentally channeling for inspiration ran as follows:

  1. Simon Sinek. Accepting that Sinek’s not really a celebrity in the conventional sense (i.e. he’s unlikely to feature in “Hello” any time soon giving a guided tour of his house and built in meditation garden) he does, however, seem to have adopted a position as the leadership guru for millennials and so I like to imagine his thought process. I suspect he would question the meaning in the employment: ask why you do what you do. I guess he’d probably wax lyrical about how ill equipped for perceived failure the current generation are after being raised to believe that everything they did was inherently awesome; a relentless childhood and adolescent torrent of praise, drowned in their parent’s good intentions. He’d get us all to put down our phones and stop checking Instagram quite so much too (and I had questioned some of my colleagues’ willingness to post selfies of their new interview outfits, not least because I’m pretty safe on stuff like that and definitely not about to rock up to audition for a new walk on part in some big corporate play wearing a presumably ironic Thundercats tee-shirt. Kudos to Kam in IT though who had worn his Game of Thrones “winter is here” tee every single day since consultation had been announced in his own silent, bone dry commentary).  I wasn’t so sure I bought all of Sinek’s shtick about the generational shift. It sounded a bit like people worrying about Elvis in the 50s to me. It’s not like the Boomers all turned out terrible and fucked up the world, is it? All that gyrating hip exposure didn’t over sexualise an entire generation and poison us all. There’d be signs. Apart from the whole Trump and Stormy Daniels thing. At the very least I’d be getting more sex than Donald Trump. Hey, Sinek, why aren’t I getting more sex than Donald Trump?
  2. Jennifer Lawrence. Clearly I’m most interested in what the Katniss Everdeen version of J-Law would do. Less so the Red Sparrow version although a smattering of Russian and a working knowledge of ballet might come in useful if I figured that a career swerve towards the Bolshoi was my best chance of staving off unemployment. I am unlikely to figure this. To be honest it could just as easily have been Emilia Clarke slash Daenerys Targaryen but Jennifer’s experience in surviving a bloody everyone-for-them-self death match is what tipped it her way. Not that that’s how I’m thinking about the current situation. But if I was then the ability to shoot someone through the head with an arrow from two hundred yards might come in handy. That said, I suppose a trio of dragons and your own army of eunuchs would probably work too.
  3. Rutger Hauer. This one is quite specific and is for when I’m imagining my leaving speech which I’ve taken the liberty of sketching out. It steals pretty shamelessly from the end of Bladerunner and goes a bit like this: I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Changed toner in the photocopier, fingers glittering with ink powder, as you all just walked to the other end of the office to the other machine for three days straight rather than attempt it. Attacked the archive cupboard, shredder whirring and droning, as I destroyed the entirety of the departments’ output from 2003 to 2009 that somebody naively thought we might, one day, be asked for again. I’ve despaired as the new Director asked to see what we have on record from 2008 that might shed some light on current trading, trails of shredded paper scattered like guilty confetti on the floor around my desk. I’ve danced on the desks late in the evening after you all went home. The person that put up the sign reading “no, it’s just a bit startled” next to the “this door is alarmed” sign by the fire exit. That was me. All these moments will be lost. Like tears in rain. I am undecided on whether to deliver this stripped to the waist, soaking wet, and holding a dove. I feel the image would be powerful but the dove could make a bit of a mess in an enclosed space.
  4. Tina Turner. I’m mainly interested in her journey from being controlled and dis-empowered by an over bearing authority figure to redefining her entire career on her own terms. It’s a pretty straightforward analogy, I’ll grant you, but it’s redemptive and motivating and there’s been precious little of that going around. Plus, she was an absolute force of nature throughout and if I were to reprise my desk dancing – not that there’s been much working late in the evening recently – then she has moves to burn.
  5. Kevin Bacon. Not really. Just for the whole six degrees of separation thing. And he did stick it to the Man in Footloose. Mostly the six degrees thing.
  6. Houdini. Because some days, quite a few days, I just wanted to disappear.

What would any of them do? I don’t think they’d have waited, that’s what I think they have in common, the point of similarity that binds my unlikely allies of conscience. From the rational to the angry to the accepting to the empowered to, well, to Kevin Bacon. Some days I try to listen to them all at once and some days one of them looms large in the foreground and bends my ear exclusively. They all tell it slightly differently but, to my ears, they all say the same thing. Don’t wait.

Most days I day dream of Houdini and packing myself into a wooden crate, decorated with a flourish by some glamorous assistant charged with covering the crate in a brightly coloured, woven tapestry. They’d come find me on the day they were finally ready to break the news. Come to tell me what had been decided for me. They’d come, whip away the cloth, prise open the box, only to find no trace of me. Just an empty space and a crumpled piece of fabric on the floor.

Lockers and leaving

The redundancies started a couple of months after they implemented the clear desk policy. You had to hand it to them. They were nothing if not efficient and at least we were spared the sight of another job lottery loser trudging through the office carrying a box filled with their personal effects. There were a few odd exceptions:

  1. The people that actually used their locker (I swear I caught a glimpse of the inside door of one decorated with stickers and a picture of Kit Harrington like we were all back in High School or something. We’re not even an American firm. Winter was coming though: they had that right). They usually had a fair bit to carry away.
  2. The people that made a land grab from the stationery cupboard to round out their statutory settlement. This was usually people with only a couple of years service who presumably figured they didn’t have much to lose. One guy made it out with four packets of A4 copier paper, five highlighter pens (three pink, two yellow), and the large staple gun that sat by the printers. Said it was what he was owed as he wasn’t offered an outplacement scheme, apparently it was going to help him pull his CV together. I hope he went easy on the pink highlighter. And the staple gun – he seemed pretty upset…
  3. Finally there were the people who kept bringing in a picture of their family every day to prop up on whichever work station they could find. ‘Work station’ was one of those phrases we’d absorbed during one of the office refurbishments but I can’t remember if it was the one where we downsized from offices to cubicles, or from cubicles to curved desks with drawers, or from curved desks with drawers to the current set up: lines and lines of regimented tables demarcated at 120 centimetres into work stations. As corporate buzz words go it was one of the better phrases in my book as it bore some relation to the thing it was describing: a place where people waited for the arrival and departure of work. Just like a station. Only at this station the departures tended to be waved off somewhat more enthusiastically than the arrivals were greeted. You again? But you just left? Anyway this last little contingent of the lost, the family men and women, they didn’t have much to carry but they usually made sure their prized picture was overtly on display as they departed, often pausing pointedly by the desks where the HR Director usually perched. I couldn’t tell if they genuinely didn’t realise that he didn’t care or if they just wanted one final attempted moment of triumph; a small perceived victory to balance off, all things considered, a pretty shitty overall defeat.

I was primed and ready to depart with nothing. All I kept in my locker was a pair of unwashed socks that I’d used in the brief period we’d been offered free, trial membership of the local gym as a way to soften the blow of last year’s below inflation pay review. Boss had put a brave face on it during the team cascade but even his veneer of professionalism had started to crack as he tried to upsell the benefits of the twenty five state-of-the-art cardio machines, dedicated weights room, and tailored fitness programs to a room full of people mentally calculating the calorific loss they could attribute to their reduced opportunities to buy food given their cost of living. I admit, we were a little melodramatic. It’s not like anyone was going to starve and some of us could probably stand to take one less visit to Nando’s a month. But chicken or gym and chicken’s going to win out every time. Come to think of it I may have left an old box of unfinished KFC in my locker as well as those socks. Probably best, when the time comes, that I just leave that for someone else to discover.

Primed and ready but stuck in departure lounge limbo with the rest of my uncertain associates. Waiting for them to call our name to the gate. Waiting, our destinations unknown.