In the office, we can all be friends – it’s easy, there is so much to talk about: weather, commuting angst, forthcoming holidays.
By the coffee machine, conversations are guaranteed to be cursory and benign, and of course we can default to work chatter, if required. Step outside the revolving doors however, and it’s a different matter. I have often been caught in the ‘awkward walk’ – this is when one happens to leave work at the same time as a colleague. Despite our shared belief in the company’s overarching vision – beyond the reception desk, we are strangers. The AW plays out like this: you chance upon an associate by the lift, descend exchanging pleasantries, push through the revolving doors, and exit onto the street as a duo. If you happen to be going the same way, the next step is to disentangle yourselves with minimal offence. I haven’t quite mastered it yet, one trick I use is to pull out my phone and pretend I need to make a call. I then wander away slowly, scrolling through my apps in a furtive manner, buying valuable seconds while I plan an alternate route.
I found myself in this situation with Vicky from Marketing. On the same floor yet light years away, Marketing is the department with the best women – knowingly beautiful, charming, and ostentatious. Naturally, not a one had ever displayed the slightest interest in me – the Janus-faced HR practitioner, king of the dour bureaucrats. Nevertheless, despite my aversion to small talk, I actually enjoyed riding the lift with Vicky and tried to inject a little humour into our mini conversations – a bit like tweeting in real life. We established early on that we lived on opposite sides of London, and conversed knowing it would not continue past the security desk. Every night we concluded matters as the lift pinged, a final quip in the foyer followed by a brisk ‘goodnight’ to the guards – then with a little more warmth, each other.
My colleague Jess said Vicky was a fan of F Scott Fitzgerald. The following day, I started carrying my battered copy of The Great Gatsby. Unfortunately, my ’70s edition carried an abstract pastel cover with obscure lettering. After several fruitless lift-journeys I bought the movie tie-in edition with Leo’s coiffured head poking out of a Hollywood montage.
It was 5.35pm on a rainy Thursday and I was leaning out of the office door, watching the lift. Jess was behind me, clacking her keyboard with an inordinate amount of force.
She said, “You got the book then?”
“Yes, I have it primed and ready to go. I actually had to crease the cover slightly, it looked too new.”
She continued typing – I imagined her shaking her head, all-knowing and smug, perpetually single yet untroubled.
“You’re going to freak her out, you know,” she said.
“How? Don’t be ridiculous, we’re just two people who happen to catch the lift together.”
Ignoring the jibe, I watched my colleagues in the corridor, other beleaguered nine-to-fivers from the ‘support’ functions. My conduct was endearing perhaps, fumbled yet well-intentioned. Maybe, I was akin to an amiable Richard Curtis character, inept but ultimately successful. As a member of the cold blooded HR team, I knew that to be perceived otherwise was fatal – what if I was taken for a besuited-creep? A lift-lurker. I knew full well the penalty for degenerate behaviour.
Jess was telling me about her weekend plans when I spied Vicky at the far end. Leaving her in mid-flow, I hopped over to the lift. Vicky smiled and held it for me, fortunately, we were alone.
“Hey,” I said, “thanks for that.”
My faux-leather satchel was strapped across my chest, I pulled it over my head, catching my tie and dragging my hair against the parting. I gathered myself then held my book to my chest – cover outwards.
“Oh, you’re reading The Great Gatsby?”
“This?” I said, “yes, what a classic.”
I looked into Vicky’s deep hazel eyes then scanned the cover. Leo stared out with mocking nonchalance, below him in the hideous wood-panelled montage Carey Mulligan looked off into the distance, her attention elsewhere.
“It’s a good cover, too,” I said, “modern.”
“Really? I think it’s awful. I hate it when they do the whole movie cover thing.”
“Yeah, me too. But I’ve read it before.”
“A few times, actually. I was just thinking about how good it was, so I bought it again.”
“With Leo on the front.”
“Still the same,” I said, “DeCaprio can’t ruin a masterpiece, can he?”
Vicky held her hands up:
“Hey, I was just joking. But seriously, great book.”
The lift door pinged.
She said, “Anyway, hope you enjoy it – again.”
I shoved the book into my bag, trying to keep pace. Vicky stopped short of the revolving doors.
“Listen,” she said, “I’ve got to make a call so I’ll catch you tomorrow. Have a nice evening.”
I half waved then pushed through into the street. The rain had abated, but it was still cold. I turned and looked back at Vicky; she wasn’t talking, our eyes met and she put the phone to her ear.
“Leo”, I muttered as I pulled my bag strap over my head, “I hate you”.