Thursday, May 11, 2006

Untitled - chapter 6


I just wanted to pop up a note to say that this blog isn't dead..... it's just resting.

It might look as though it's nailed to its perch, but it will be back.

In lieu of anything newer, here's the next exciting installment of my nano novel. Well, it's better than silence (just about).


Previously in our exciting serialisation: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4 , Chapter 5


Perhaps it’s all about context. Anyone could tell you that there are a myriad of reasons why people become friends, but perhaps the most important reason of all is the context in which your friendship is anchored. Maybe if that context changes, or even if it shifts a little bit, then you will find that the nature of your friendship has changed and may wither and die. Often this could be something as simple as geography. When I was growing up, I had a friend who lived just a couple of minutes up the road from my mum and dad’s house. Will was the same age as me and was in the same class as me at Primary school, and his mum worked in my dad’s surgery. Five year old Will must have been a little shy, as when he was introduced to the rest of One Red by Mrs. Thompson, he was trying to hide behind his mum. From the moment I was assigned the task of looking after him, we were firm friends. Our friendship lasted through much of the next fifteen years. For much of that time I was attending a boarding school, but the friendship survived over the course of those long summers we spent together playing “Bard’s Tale” on the Commodore 64 and playing cricket or tennis out in the garden. Our friendship only began to fragment when I went on to university and began to spend a lot more time away from home. Will remained based at his mum and dad’s house, and even when we were both in the same place at the same time, the things that we used to do to kill the time just wouldn’t cut the mustard anymore. As nineteen year olds, we were very unlikely to spend our time cycling around the streets or playing football until it got dark. We went to the pub a few times around New Year, but we were really only hanging onto the last traces of our relationship.

I sometimes still hear how he’s getting on, as my mum will bump into his mum whilst she is out shopping, but I basically haven’t seen him or exchanged a word with him in five years. I still remember his phone number off the top of my head too, so I could pick up the phone right now, ring up his mum, ask if he’s at home and if he can come round and play. I could, but I suspect that would be a little weird for everyone. It’s all about context then, and the context of my relationship with Will was one in which we both lived with our parents and had a desperate need to get though the long hours of the summer holidays. As we both began to spend less time at home, the relationship died.

I think that much the same is true of work. The fifty odd years of our working lives are dedicated almost exclusively to trying to make it from one end of the day to the other and from one end of the week to the other with the minimum amount of fuss. As far as I am concerned, work is something that I do so that I can earn some money to do the things I really want to do. That does not mean that I never have a good time at work, because sometimes I do. It’s just that I always try to remember where I am. Whenever I say that I find something interesting at work, I always try to remember that this is an extremely relative term: something that is ‘work day’ interesting is not necessarily something that I find interesting per se.

Can the same thing be said of the friends that we make when we are at work? Being friendly with some of your colleagues is an excellent strategy for getting through the working day sane. These are the people you can chew the cud with, people you can tell jokes to, chat about last night’s telly or tonight’s footie match. Is the relationship one that is based on mutual necessity though? You chat to the guy who sits next to you in the office because it helps the day to go quicker. Does that mean that you really like him? Would you spend much time with him outside the office? How do you find work dos? A little bit awkward? Do you often only go to them under duress and leave as soon as you can? Me too.

I started my first proper office job at the Head Office of some giant, faceless corporation in the autumn of 1997. On my first day, I was shown into the labyrinthine HQ building and informed that my boss would be on holiday for the next two weeks and that he had not managed to arrange for me to have a computer of my own. I was sat down in a cubicle and given a big file of documents to read. By the time my new boss returned, I must have read all of the documents in that bloody folder a thousand times. I had no idea who any of the people were, or any real concept of what they were talking about, but I could practically repeat every word of every document. I’m sure I would have gone completely mad if a colleague hadn’t decided to take me under her wing. Amy was a couple of years older than me and she clearly realised that I was finding the transition from student to tiny, insignificant cog in a vast, grey corporate machine a little bit overwhelming. Amy showed me the ropes and dedicated a fair chunk of her time to gamely attempting to explain the nonsensical organisational structure to me. More importantly, she took me to lunch every day and introduced me to some of her friends. It’s amazing how much difference a friendly face can make when you are trying to find your feet in a new job, and over the next few weeks, I began to look forward to these lunchtime sessions.

This carried on for a few months. One day we were at lunch as usual, when Amy’s friend Bee asked me if I was coming out on Friday night for a drink.
“We’re meeting up at the Coach & Horses on Upper Parliament Street at 8pm”. I didn’t know where that was, but I was quickly given very detailed instructions. The plan was that we would have a drink in the Coach & Horses and then move on to some of the newer bars, and perhaps finish up at the Lizard Lounge.
“So are you coming out then?” I must have looked doubtful. “It’ll be fun. Everyone will be there.”
“I can’t.”
“Why not?”
I’ve often thought about what I said next, and I many is the time that I have wished that I could take it back. Every time I walk past that pub, I think about it.
“I’m going out with my real friends.”

There was something of a staggered silence for a couple of seconds as everyone around the table played back what I had just said in their minds to check that it was what I had actually said. They took it pretty well, all things considered, and made it into something of a joke. We agreed that if I were passing that end of town with my friends, we would pop in for a drink with them. I nodded, knowing as they did that this was never going to happen.

What I had said was completely true: some of my oldest friends were travelling up to Nottingham to spend the weekend with me. We didn’t really have a specific plan, meaning that we would wait until everyone had turned up, would go out to the pub and would get leathered, go home, talk nonsense and then fall asleep on the sofa. It’s what we always had done, and it’s what we still do today. The lack of a concrete plan meant that we could easily have made our merry way to the Coach & Horses in time for a quick drink at 8pm, but the thought never crossed my mind. I seemed to have committed some sort of terrible faux-pas for saying so, but Amy was not my friend, Bee wasn’t my friend. None of them were my friends. They were good company over lunch and they had been brilliant in helping me settle into my new job… but they weren’t my friends.

Is it possible to form proper friendships at work? I suppose it must be. I met Catherine at work, and we’ve been happily together now for nearly seven years, but that’s not quite the same thing at all, is it? I’m not sure that anyone I have ever worked with has become anything more than someone I’m friendly with at work, although perhaps some have come close.

There was one job I had for a couple of years where many of my colleagues were of a similar age to me. We all worked ridiculous hours, loved music and had bonded over whole weeks spent working away from home in the London Offices of our partners. Three of us in particular became close, almost inseparable. We had our own language and any one of us could have the other two in stitches with a well-timed look or oblique reference to a conversation we may have had the week before. It was a hoot. Charlie was a hotshot technical expert with a taste for deli sandwiches and surrealist humour and Siobhan was a forthright northerner with an opinion for every occasion. Both were only a couple of years younger than me, and both worked like demons, but it was a happy time. We would often head down to London together on a Monday afternoon; spend four days living out of a hotel and then head back up to Nottingham on the Friday. During the time we were down there, we would get into the offices in Victoria for about 9am and would often still be there well after 9pm, eating pizza over our laptops. Absurd hours, but we had so much in common that the time almost felt like fun… In fact, it was so much like fun that I almost lost sight of the golden rule of relativity, that no matter how much fun work is, it’s not what you would choose to do with your time.

The three of us socialised a little bit outside of the office, of course: we often went out drinking when we were together in London, even if it was only in the hotel bar or over dinner, but we were usually with some other colleagues, and the conversation was often about work or about other people we all worked with. I almost managed to convince myself that they were really, genuinely my friends. Almost.

Siobhan was the first to go, leaving Charlie and me behind. She was still working for the same company and was in regular contact with us, but she began to lose touch with our in-jokes and felt increasingly excluded. Charlie and I naturally found this hilarious, and whenever Siobhan popped round to visit, we would invent in-jokes on the spot to confuse her. Naturally, she began to pop round less and less. Then I changed jobs, and although we all kept threatening to meet up for lunch or for coffee, it just seemed to be too hard to get our diaries to match.

Even when we were at our closest, there seemed to be an unbridgeable divide between my real life and my working life. Siobhan and her boyfriend once joined Catherine and me at a pub quiz. Siobhan and I spent much of the night obliviously carrying on with our working relationship – exchanging in-jokes and laughing uproariously at things that our partners did not understand. At one point, Siobhan and I got a question right, and in celebration, I chopped my hands up and down on Siobhan’s thigh. It was a boisterous gesture, and one that somehow wasn’t really out of place in our relationship at work, where we sat back to back, and were often to be found draped over each other’s chairs pondering something on the screen. Out of work though, it looked desperately over-familiar, and I suddenly became aware that both of our partners were staring at us, so I backed away. There was nothing in the gesture: my relationship with Siobhan was entirely rooted in work, and yet I suddenly felt uncomfortable and a little bit awkward about the whole thing, so I began to back away. Perhaps I had been spending too much time at work and was losing sight of where I should really have been spending my time.

As soon as our jobs changed though, we stopped spending so much time together and our relationship changed. The casual familiarity quickly disappeared and within a couple of months we were more or less on nodding terms only. Our familiarity had been based mainly upon our work and the amount of time we were spending together in the office. I thought we had a lot in common – We do have a lot in common – but that on its own clearly wasn’t enough. Once the physical proximity changed, so did the friendship.

I mourn that job. I have a terrible suspicion that I will never have as much fun at work again, and I find that thought deeply depressing. I am apparently not due to retire until 2049. For that job to be as good as it gets is something that really does not bear thinking about.


At 5:22 AM, Blogger L said...

this was a wonderful read. thank you.

At 5:25 PM, Anonymous Alexandria said...

ST- I *like* your story- I think it is more interesting since I can see your point of view on other things on your blog and then read a piece of (mostly?) fiction- although I suspect is is somewhat autobiographical.
At any rate, keep posting it! x

At 6:10 PM, Blogger SwissToni said...

thanks very much for the encouragement. I'll keep posting it up then! - I will issue you my standard caution about reading this as autobiography though: some of this stuff is clearly based on things that have happened to me, but if you were to read it as a description of what actually happened, you would be somewhat wide of the mark. Lots of the characters in here are based on people I know, but almost all of them are amalgams.

Some of this stuff definitely *didn't* happen though.


I'll keep posting if you keep letting me know what you think!


At 1:21 PM, Blogger Sasha said...

I think I read it as an autobiography simply because your opinions and outlooks come through while reading it and are similar to the opinions/style on your blog-
I can see you, as ST (a real person), liking the custard at school, but it is a little detail that most people wouldn't write about when writing fiction (about made-up people)- thus making it more believable and easier to visualise.
I don't know if that makes any sense but it does in my head and that's what really matters :-)


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