In London, an office worker’s date goes like this.
You travel on a rammed train, eyes glued to your phone, harrumphing at the other commuters (who are just as crushed and crumpled). You head into the office and check your emails (if you hadn’t already done so on the train). To your horror – but not surprise – you discover someone wants something, and they are being slightly unpleasant about it. Sadly, it is not uncommon to find a passive-aggressive command while raking through your inbox. It rankles, but is nothing you haven’t seen before.
After a little email hatchet work you head off to the first of many meetings. Encased in the cold tomb of business jargon it is all touching bases, going forward, and promises to ‘take it offline’. After a disappointing sandwich from Pret you return to your desk where you squeeze a day’s work into the slender remains of the day. Then, when all is done, you insert yourself back into the train-crowd and stare into your phone until home.
I make this sound depressing, but it is merely the state of things, nothing more. Nevertheless, life in London is exacting and compassion is never the first emotion to well from a Londoner’s heart – especially in public. Everybody knows how it is on the street. Big Issue sellers are annoying; middle-class chuggers are risible; beggars who sit next to cash machines are cheaters.
We all have these feelings – to an extent. And, while I may be slightly more grinch-like in my worldview, I am not exceptional. These are merely the experiences we have. There is no malice in identifying them or the attached feelings. These intuitions are part of what make us us. And yet, they are thoughts we must keep hidden. We live in a world of corporate culture. A place where any form of negative opinion is seen as trolling (if you don’t know that, ask an office millennial). It simply won’t do to share these feelings with new playmates – lest you scare them away. And whatever you do – do not, under any conditions – reveal these feelings on a date.
I was with Sophie in a pub on Cannon Street. Like every after-work pub in the City it was filled with energetic suits.
“I like this place,” she said.
It was our first date, but we’d had numerous Internet chats and I felt I knew her.
I said, “Sure, me too, inasmuch as the decor is nice.”
She looked around, sipping her vodka lime and soda.
“Shame the people ruin it,” I said. “They remind me of everyone I detest at work. Thrusting, and sharp elbowed – almost literally. Just wait until you have to go to the bar, it’s a dog fight up there.”
Sophie narrowed her eyes.
I said, “Do you know what I mean?”
The tap had opened and the bile was flowing. A bile releasing tap – the imagery was nauseous, but it was, unfortunately, how I felt.
“I get you,” Sophie said. I felt a loosening in my chest. “There are a lot of annoying people here.”
She took another sip of her cocktail through a curly straw. Sophie was one of the few people I’d met who could use such an implement with style and grace. Most of us looked like louche tourists or decadent alcoholics. But then Sophie had an in-crowd air that granted her a little leeway. She wasn’t like the rest of the lewd patrons. She was an executive PA. And most definitely one of ‘us’. As for me, I work in HR – and sack people for a living. Very much one of ‘them’. Still, we seemed to get on.
“So how was your day?” She said.
“Oh, the usual.”
I could not think of a single interesting fact about ‘my day’. It was if the day belonged to someone else, a man altogether less interesting than my online dating persona. This man was not enthused by foreign travel or culture. He was certainly not up for bowling, country walks or curling up on the sofa with a bottle of wine. No, this man was an office soldier. A killer of careers and slayer of dreams. Only that afternoon I had offered someone company cash to go quietly. I looked at Sophie. After considering a high flown response I decided to be honest. It seemed reasonable, our online sparing had, after all, revolved around the topic of work annoyances.
“My days are pretty much filled with dread and terror,” I said.
“Yes, although a lot of the time I am the one inducing the terror. I’m that person. When someone is summoned into a meeting and they see me sat next to their manager, they know something’s wrong. I try to be nice, but it never helps.”
“I can imagine. I’ve never liked HR. How do you do it?”
“I suppose I just switch off really. I sacked some guy yesterday and he started crying.”
“Yeah, it was kind of annoying as it dragged the meeting out. And the thing is he had this big clock behind him so I could see how late he was making me.” I took a sip of my pint. “But, you know, this is how we live in London, right?”
Sophie straighten in her seat. “No,” she said. “Not right. It’s people like you that make the City such a cutthroat place.”
“It’s people like me that do the things the managers are too scared to do…”
She said nothing.
“…Which is just as well, otherwise I’d be out of a job.”
We fell silent. After a long moment, Sophie glanced at her phone – she required information.
“When’s your next train?” I said.
“I’m going to check.”
I downed my pint. “Of course.”
Corporate life in London is a great conflagration. And it seemed we were on opposing sides. Which was a shame really. In another world we would have gotten along.
Read more from Marcello on his blog by clicking here.