“I’m sorry if I’ve been a bit distant.” he tells me as we get ready to go into the meeting room. “I’ve been having some personal problems.”
I never know how to respond when people say this. Are you meant to ask? Say nothing? Is it an invitation to show an interest, or a get out of jail free card? Modern life can be complicated; I have personal problems all the time, but I don’t mention them. Perhaps I should:
Sorry I didn’t respond to that mail, but sometimes I have trouble being happy and yesterday was one of them.
Ah, the mistake in the spreadsheet. My apologies. It’s just that I’m not currently on speaking terms with my mother and I’m trying to decide how to reply to her latest email.
I should have picked up on that point in your voicemail, but you caught me on a day when I’d really rather not be here. I looked across at the trees waving in the wind, and paying attention to you was the last thing on my mind. Maybe if you’d been attractive, it would have been different.
Back in the present, I feel like I ought to say something.
“I’m sorry to hear that. Nothing serious, I hope?”
“It’s marital issues.”
I don’t know him at all well, so I’m very surprised to hear that. He’s always so bland and professional. Marital issues: he almost says it as if he’s having a setback in a project that isn’t going well, like it’s a problem that he could brainstorm his way out of. It sounds so incongruous; work is nothing like life after all, or at least mine isn’t. Arguments and fallings out escalate in an altogether more unpleasant way outside the office. You can’t solve them with whiteboards and slide packs, and you can’t hand them to someone else to deal with. In the end, it comes down to the two of you in a room, trying to sort things out.
We walk down the corridor to the kitchen to get a coffee. What must drive someone to the extent where they tell something like that to a complete stranger? How bad must things be before a tiny piece of someone’s inner life sticks out and is visible?
“That sounds awful. I really hope you can sort it out, because that’s the worst thing in the world. I’d be absolutely lost without my wife.”
And there, without me planning it, a tiny piece of my inner life is poking through the surface too, an emotional hernia, a sign of weakness. I wish it sounded anywhere near as comforting or sympathetic said out loud as it had in my mind. In theory it was supportive, in practice it reeks of rather you than me.
“That’s why I took a day off last week at short notice. Some stuff to work through.”
He always looks so dapper, I realise. Always a tie, knotted just so. Beautiful shirts and cufflinks that match them – proper cufflinks, not novelty jobs. I think about him making all that effort every day, having all that trouble at home, and I don’t know what I can say to him. There’s something so sad about the contrast between his exterior and interior, something nobody else round the table is going to see but me.
At that moment, I don’t feel like an employee, or a customer, or a teammate, or a manager. I feel like a human, and I know this is neither the time nor the place for that. But then the conversation is drowned out by the silence. Instead, I hear the repetitive tinkle of my spoon crashing against the side of the mug, the damp thud of the teabag in the bin, the deafening sound of the fridge door closing. We walk in silence down the corridor to the room. I have to tell him off for a lot of things he hasn’t done, and I don’t know how or whether to pull my punches.
Later on, business concluded, we stand in the car park and shake hands. I tell him to have a safe journey home, something I always seem to say to people when they leave the office. Like everything I’ve said today, it doesn’t sound right somehow. Does it still feel like home to him?
“Thanks for listening.” he says.
I don’t feel like I did, but perhaps it was enough. Perhaps it was just a small piece of kindness he wasn’t expecting that day.
“Please, don’t worry. Like I said, I feel for you. Some things are much more important than work.”
“I don’t think it was even an affair.” he says. Again, I am struck that some people just tell me things – on the bus, at parties, at times like this. Sometimes that might say something about me, but a lot of the time it probably says something about them. On this occasion, I imagine it’s the latter. “She says it was just a one night thing, and I believe her.”
“Oh. I’m so sorry.”
He gives me a rueful smile, a heartbreaking smile. I don’t know why, but I doubt we will talk like this the next time we meet. He will have got things under control and he will be corporate again. We both will be. That’s almost as sad in itself as the conversation we are having now.
“She was forty this year. We’ve been married for twenty years. It’s just… you know?”
I don’t. When I turn forty my wife and I will have clocked up just over a decade. And I don’t have children, have never had to reconcile myself to the fact that one day, out of nowhere, I might have more than one human being that I love more than life itself.
“I guess I can imagine.”
“We’ve talked everything through – more than I thought we would. I mean, she says she still loves me. I think you just take things for granted, and you – well, we – didn’t spend enough time together. It gets so difficult, there’s so much going on, and work as well. I think we need to try and get away more, book some hotels, get to know each other again.”
I don’t envy him that task. I suspect there are all sorts of unpleasant things he is going to get to know before he and his wife get to know one another.
“I’m sure that if both of you want to make things right then you can.”
As I watch him trudge to his car, I wonder whether it sounds different when you mean it. I do believe it’s true, but it still sounds trite hanging in the space between where we stood, like well-meaning fog. Nothing I’ve said has come out right today, despite my very best intentions. Sweep all those words away and all you’re left with is the truth: rather you than me.
The second thing I do when I get to my desk is look around me at everybody I can see. They are all being grown-ups, managing things, changing things, fixing things, complaining about things, presenting their best and most brilliant surfaces to everybody around them. And yet I think I know that beneath all that are cracks and flaws, failings and failures.
For instance, I know that the pretty girl with the jet black asymmetric hair and heavy-rimmed spectacles used to live with someone who worked in our post room, until he slept around and she had to chuck him out. I know that the man over there made a pass at the woman over there, even though both of them are with somebody else. She turned him down, and now everyone knows about it. I know that the man over by the corner got drunk at a party once and told a friend of mine that he had married the wrong woman.
There seem to be a lot of wrong women out there, and no doubt plenty of wrong men too. What happens to the right ones, do they all manage to find someone who’s right for them? Or are they at another party having the same conversation with someone else? I spend a few minutes wondering whether I could find everything that’s wrong with this picture, if I looked hard enough, and then it’s time to get back to work.
But that’s the second thing; the first thing I do when I get back to my desk is to mail my wife. She’s forty in a few years’ time. I don’t want her feeling taken for granted.