With a speed differential of about half a mile an hour between them, two lorries up ahead ruthlessly battle it out; I've left my lunch at home and I’m hideously late to work. Eventually - and I've never truly understood why this happens - one lorry backs down and flashes the other lorry to let him know it's safe to pull in – insane sporting behaviour from the former rival.
We've recently moved from a cosy office in the centre of town to a big open-plan office on the outskirts; walking into it is like walking into a supermarket - the building lacks character. The building exists to serve a purpose, a kind of giant work shed. I place my key-card against the sensor and a vibrating buzz sounds as the doors are released – like entering jail. The open space is a T shape with a long entrance opening out onto 2 large work spaces; the place is over-populated with tall bland plants and desk dividers; there's a giant clock which runs 5 minutes fast - to make you feel later than you actually are - along with all the other usual suspects: office computers, phones, calculators, calendars (sometimes 2-3 on a single desk) and the one piece of equipment that for me, makes an ordinary building an office: a water-cooler.
At work it's a typically phlegmy Monday morning and as I walk through the entrance to my work space, I'm greeted with a cacophony of coughing, sneezing and some of the most disgusting throat clearing I’ve ever heard: looks like another testing day for the ol' immune system.
There are two things that make today different from the rest: it's Rachel's Birthday which happens to fall on Valentine’s Day. Rachel has a childlike obsession with Birthdays and already has a prodigious pile of presents from nervous colleagues afraid of disappointing her. She's a product of society: a lazy, needy, crumbling mess; if work were a warm bed, she'd be struggling to get up out of it. My manager Susan, and also the card bearer for our section, is later than me. Shit! And as I look up I can see Rachel coming back to her desk from the kitchen; I've not even seen the card, let alone signed it. I flap my arms hopelessly towards Tom opposite me who shakes his head and gestures his hand across his throat, and he's right: we're screwed.
It's five past nine and Rachel is now so excited that her legs are shaking under the table as she begins to narrate Birthday messages from Facebook; Twitter is next as she excitedly tells us that amongst other cold brands, Kenco, has wished her a Happy Birthday. The whole display makes me feel ill.
It's later still and where is Susan with the all-important card? The present pile is now a tower; there's a cake with her name piped across it; strange people I've never seen before loiter like funeral guests who no-one can trace in the family, yet more cards appear - even Kenco has wished her a Happy Birthday for God’s sake.
The reception buzzer sounds – an intruder! It's actually a florist but the sound is so violent and alarm-like in tone that I often expect a SWAT team to filter through the room and hopefully shoot me. The florist buckles under the weight of roses of which there are hundreds! There's some deep sighs of relief from a crowd of dull men who are now waiting to see what their respective spend has yielded; it's a good chance to work out who's earning what. Who's bought that single thirsty looking rose faded in colour? And which bastard could afford a multitude of vibrant roses complete with rich chocolates and Prosecco? And before I can find out I've already lost interest and am headed to the toilet.
Trips to the work toilets can be stressful business. I usually perform a quick check to make sure that most of the men in the room are at their desks - a toilet as small as ours can get awfully busy. My calculations tell me that there's a high probability of there being at least one colleague in the toilet excreting for his life; excreting like a man only would at work. On entry to the toilet my worst fears are confirmed and there's someone here already. Luckily the urinals are free and I find my favourite (third on the right) and as flow is about to commence I hear some disturbing complications coming from the cubical; there's some grunting and shuffling followed by a deep sounding excretion that is so revolting, so troubling that the very urine about to leave my body clings inside my penis in sheer panic. As I urinate I swear I have sensed a rise in the room temperature. The toilet powerfully flushes and a very nervous looking Ryan emerges next to me at the sink. He looks like he's run a marathon. The atmosphere is awkward until Ryan, an experienced work toilet patron, looks at me in the mirror and says with a wry smile: 'I'm sorry you had to hear that!’, I jolt my head back with a half chuckle, half smile and leave the room with a new found respect for the guy.
As I sit back down at my computer I overhear a conversation behind me from the accounts team. They're comparing Sky TV packages and it's all terribly exciting. It seems like Sky TV is now the new career progression yard-stick. One guy has Sky +, another quickly trumps this with Sky+ HD, but that's pitiful in comparison to Jamie who has Sky Anytime (which includes Sky+ HD). The ace very few saw coming. That means the guy can watch pretty much anything ever captured on film. I start to wonder if there's a correlation between the number of channels each respective package owner receives and how much I dislike them. There is.
On the subject of pointless technology, Rachel is now talking about her favourite present: an iPhone. Let’s be clear though, she had one already, but the new one has more mega-pixels and is white and costs more and you can talk to it. It's sad that a feature that allows you to control your phone with your voice is a selling point – since when were we too lazy to use our own hands?
As I read through a few emails and carefully sort them in order of unimportance - which is proving difficult - I'm paid a visit from the office manager, Ruth. Nothing good ever comes from a conversation with the philistine and the mere sight of her numbs my very soul: her dying straw-like hair that no amount of conditioner could save; the gap in her front teeth that saliva sprays from when she talks; her short size and butch shoulders that make her look like a penguin when she walks. She informs me that last Wednesday must be taken as holiday. 'Holiday?' I say. 'That's right,' she barks and adds, 'after all, you weren't ill were you.' I mentally poke a couple of pencils up my nostrils and slam my head into the table.
It's an hour before lunchtime and one of my routinely thoughtless gazes out the window is broken by the sandwich van which pulls into the car park. The office clears out into the car park like a poorly rehearsed fire-drill. From where I'm sitting the van is hidden by a pillar; all I can see is a queue of sad looking people, like placid cattle waiting to walk onto a conveyor belt. It never ceases to amaze me just how many people are happy to buy their sandwiches from the back of a transit van.
Whilst eating my lunch I log onto Facebook to see who is coming to the Rachel's Birthday drinks tonight. It's not the best line-up. Most of the people coming are currently within a 25 meter radius of me. It seems that Facebook is also well aware that tonight could be a disappointment and is suggesting potential guests. The next step for Facebook, I imagine, will be a percentage chance of a 'good night out', followed by suggestions of particular people that could improve it : 'Inviting Gemma could improve 'Rachel's Birthday Drinks' by 4%'. Then you could narrate (hands-free) the updated guest list into your iPhone.
After lunch I'm warned that today is the day of a big management meeting with some self-important important bankers. In preparation, some smug-looking businessmen are here early and are given a tour of our new but, typical open-plan office. This doesn't stop Julian, the extremely camp, closet-homosexual manager, enthusiastically showing them the 'cute kitchen', the 'gorgeous break-out area , the 'raspberry office chairs'- which are bright pink - and my favourite: 'the plumbed-in water-cooler', can you believe it? Our water cooler has a supply of water to it – they've really thought of everything!
It's deep into the afternoon and I become aware that I've done very little work. After offering to make tea I make my way to the kitchen– which in our office, is now clinically named the 'tea-point'. In our old office there was a friendly lady named Margaret who made our drinks; it was a nice big space where we could talk to her and other staff about our days and the weather and the weekends, etc. The new office eliminates all this ‘unnecessary’ social interaction with a cleverly designed, near-on construction line approach to drink making. Gone is the seating area and troublesome kettle and in its place, an always-on boiling-water dispenser. One cruel bastard from payroll has even nicknamed the boiler, 'Margaret'. Poor Margaret. The kitchen is scarcely big enough to accommodate 3 people who can now make a drink in about 20 seconds. The result is minimum social interaction with now alien colleagues . This, coupled with unsatisfying nano-breaks that lead to a longer, more stressful and depressing day. Henry Ford killed the tea-break.
As the managers and bankers pour out of the meeting room, Mellisa (a middle manager) walks past us and explains that there's leftover food . She takes the platter of hardened leftover sandwiches and drying fruit into the production line (tea-point). On his way back from the photocopier James grabs a leftover sandwich from the platter, and, walking back to our section gestures his sandwich in the air and says sarcastically, 'we're feeding on the crumbs of big business'.
Twenty minutes have passed and during that time I may have actually done some work - after raping the Internet of every news story I could find, of course. Sandra walks past my desk and, although she's only in the office one day a week, that's often enough to irritate most of the office. She's a busybody, a typical dead-weight employee who's been at the company so long she's seen at the installation of at least a couple of new carpets. I stare at her obese body as she struggles to pick a file up off the hot-desk she's using. As she steps away from the desk her big clumsy left foot catches the end of the table leg resulting in one of the strangest falls I have ever seen. Her body stumbles and rolls into a dividing desk partition and her big pillow like torso becomes stuck, motionless, in limbo between the desk and the floor. There's plenty of surplus flesh on display to all those who dare to look at her caught degradingly between two desks. There's a gasp of genuine concern from the surrounding witnesses amongst some stifled laughter – mostly coming from the guys in accounts. As she's helped to her big feet by far braver and stronger colleagues than myself, she wades off in embarrassment, driven - perhaps - by pints of adrenaline.
Within seconds, as if by possessing super-powers, the penguin appears out of nowhere. Her face tries hard to feign concern as she carefully scans the area for obstacles and hazards. 'The table leg was it?' she snides, 'can someone tell Sandra that she must record it in the accident book.', the 'st' of must exposing her divided and buck front teeth. Moments later the penguin is down on her knees taping the offending table leg with hazard tape, the exact same desk that at least twenty other people in the office, including myself have. I ask if she'll be taping the other 'dangerous' table legs in the office, to which her momentarily grimacing face forces a professional smile and she informs me (with the hazard tape and in her hand and the accident book wedged under arm) that she shouldn't think it to be necessary – and she's right, that would be just ridiculous now wouldn't it?
With just under half-an-hour left of play another session of throat clearing breaks the afternoon quiet; it starts at one end of the office and is then reciprocated down the other; the exchange continues as heads begin to turn as we seem to be witnessing some kind of throat-clearing tennis match. I work extremely hard up until the very minute I can leave in an attempt to shed some of the guilt I have for doing so little work. As I shut-down my computer, gather my coat and begin to leave the office, I'm joined by several others who are also leaving on-the-dot. I talk to Rachel about tonight's event and, as we leave the building, I notice something strange happening. The passive and aggressive people I work with who spend their days as emotionless versions of themselves are now smiling, joking and laughing, a new spring in every step. It turns out that the office itself harbours bad feeling, stress and lack of real emotion. I catch myself savouring a deep breath of fresh air as I study the faces of the people who, since leaving the office, I don't recognise. I wish a universal good night and begin the walk along the hacked-up path back to the Park 'n' Ride whistling to myself.
Tomorrow, sadly, is today.