Iain and I have sat next to each other at work for over three years now, and I realised the other day that it’s one of the longest relationships I’ve ever had. Much like a marriage, there’s something comfortable about knowing his foibles and routines – his propensity for having clementines after lunch every afternoon for instance, or the way he guffaws at the Reading Post website while he eats them.
I particularly like the way he perks up whenever an attractive woman walks past his desk. Once, several months back, a rather fetching lady crossed his field of vision and I caught him – and he’s usually so subtle – gawping at her, much in the style of Kenneth Connor in the Carry On Films. There was a pause for a moment, and then my instant messenger flashed with a message from him (we always chat on IM, even though we sit next to each other). I’d break her back was all it said. From that, I deduced that Iain must have been without for a few weeks, and I briefly considered taking him to the vet and getting him seen to; maybe it’s not like a marriage after all.
Iain does like a good rant. He swears at his computer all the time – either it’s going too slow or too fast, or it isn’t doing what he wants it to. None of our computers work as fast as our brains, to the extent where we’ve started to suspect that they are built to accommodate the idiots we find ourselves surrounded by. But none of it’s for show, it’s just what he’s like; one time I came in early to find Iain at his desk, the only person in our area, in the middle of a tirade directed at his recalcitrant mouse. Iain bangs his mouse on the desk a lot - I think it might be the only thing that stops him from banging his fist on the desk a lot.
Yet whenever I have a problem with my computer I call Iain over for help and advice, he stands over me and everything works without any problems. I think he missed his vocation in life; he should have worked in IT. Everything seems to magically function better with Iain around – even me. He’s one of life’s eternal dads: patient, capable, yet always on the brink of exasperation. When he says “bloody” he sounds like Prince Philip, and you can imagine him as a very posh old man, instead of the very posh younger man he is. But at the same time he’s every bit as childish and puerile as me, and I’m very lucky that through a series of coincidences we’ve shared a workspace for so long.
We have much the same conversations every week, but that’s fine. They punctuate the five days we spend together and help to give them structure. We find we need that, too, in light of the changes. Phil is leaving soon, for a new job in our bigger, uglier building down the road. We talk about clubbing together and buying him a Fleshlight as a leaving present, and he knows me well enough to laugh but not well enough to realise that I’m not really joking. I move some things in my calendar so I can make his leaving do, because I already know I’ll miss him.
Gemma is long gone, though even months after she left I still find I look up when I see a figure heading towards her desk or think of something to send her in an IM before I realise she’s no longer here. We swap occasional mails and talk about meeting up, but her diary’s very full - I’m told a date has been fixed for January, though I half expect her to cancel about a week ahead of time. I heard second-hand about Gemma’s engagement in Edinburgh, saw people congratulating her on Facebook and thought A few months ago we would have been among the first to know. We would have seen the ring. This would have occupied us at lunchtimes for weeks. Now it is often just Iain and me at lunch. He has a round of sandwiches, a cereal bar and a packet of Frazzles every day, and every day I envy his Frazzles even though nothing is stopping me from buying some myself.
One conversation which is a good barometer of how the week is going starts like this: “What are you up to this weekend?” On a good week, when the work comes in quickly and isn’t too unpleasant and you’re out and about in meetings it can be Friday afternoon before you realise that you’ll soon be at home and free of the ring of the phone and the bold print of an incoming email. On a bad week your mind turns to the subject of two days off very soon. I think our personal record is Monday afternoon, and it wasn’t that long ago.
It’s funny; Iain and I are the same age, with roughly the same views on a lot of things. We both have the same view of what constitutes “working hard enough”. We both like toilet humour and terrible puns. We share an interest in indoor ornithology. And yet our weekends couldn’t be more different; his, planned for him by his wife, seem to involve trips to petting zoos or farms, days out and fun excursions, occasional forays into the centre of town (always described as if it is a dangerous, crowded place). Iain does not control his diary and seems no less happy for that – and I suspect many married men are like this, delegating the logistics to their other half and going wherever the calendar tells them to go. I on the other hand just do what I like, slouch into town if I want, loaf around the flat all day, eat out all the time. On Monday mornings when we have the conversation we always have, the one that starts “How was your weekend?” I often wonder what it must be like to have a life like Iain’s.
It was one of Iain’s more unconventional weekends that got me in trouble a while ago.
“You’re on leave in a couple of weekends’ time, doing anything nice?”
“We’re all off to Scotland.” he said. Another endearing thing about Iain is that he believes himself to be Scottish in the absence of any proof – birthplace, accent, cautious financial outlook – to the contrary. “We’re going to visit my brother’s soon to be ex wife.”
“That’s a bit unusual, isn’t it?”
“Not at all.” said Iain, in a rather frosty and defensive way which suggested that he knew perfectly well that it was. “It wasn't an acrimonious split, and she said she’d like to stay friends.”
“Oh.” I said. One thing I love about the word “oh” is that if you say it right, it can mean or suggest all manner of things but that technically, you haven’t said any of them. On this occasion, I meant it to say My, aren’t you modern? I like to think the dubious look I got from Iain meant that I had succeeded.
“So she’s booked a cottage and invited loads of her friends to stay. We’re going up with the kids, and there will be other people there at the same time. I’m really looking forward to it.”
“Is your brother going to be there?”
Sometimes I think Iain should just adopt a continuous frown whenever he’s speaking to me, only stopping when I say something that cheers him up. I suspect it might save him time and effort.
“No, don’t be ridiculous.”
“Oh.” I said.
“It’s a lovely cottage, I’ve seen pictures on the internet – it’s got all mod cons. It’s got a games room and everything.”
“Is there a hot tub?” I said. Iain didn’t seem very impressed by this.
“Yes there’s a hot tub.”
I meant that “Oh” to convey something like I imagine you’ll all end up in that hot tub like some kind of debauched swinging party, I know what you posh types are like, it’ll be “White Mischief” all over again, though I slightly blotted my copybook by then saying all that out loud.
“Anyway, she has a new boyfriend now and he’ll be there too.”
“A new man? How did she meet him?”
“Well, he’s known her for bloody ages.” said Iain. The bloody sounded remarkably like Prince Philip. “They were friends years and years ago, when she was first dating my brother, and we think he’s held a candle for her for years.”
We’ve all met men like this – the perpetual understudy, waiting for the situation to become vacant. Hoping against hope that the woman you want will go for coffee with you and complain about her useless, feckless boyfriend, daydreaming that one day she will realise what terrible life choices she has made. When I say “we’ve all met men like this” what I really mean is “we’ve all been men like this”. Or – more honestly – I mean “I’ve been a man like this”. I was secretly quite impressed by the persistence of Iain’s soon-to-be-ex-sister-in-law’s (someone really should think of a more elegant word for that) suitor. How many people’s lonely pursuit ends in success? And isn’t there always a risk that, like Gordon Brown, you’ll covet the top job for years only to discover that you’re rubbish at it?
“And he finally got the girl, did he? Hats off to him. What’s his name?”
“Barry.” said Iain, with a facial expression that seemed to say Go on, make something of it.
“You heard me. His name’s Barry.” Iain’s expression was unreadable now, not one I had ever seen before. It could have been irritation, trepidation or amusement. It never occurred to me that if I could work that sort of thing out I would have far better people skills.
“You have got to be joking. Barry? You have a friend called Barry? But you’re posh! All your friends are posh! You have friends called Bunty and Biffy and Timmo! You know Tobys and Tarquins! How could anybody take a Barry seriously in those circumstances? I could imagine it if, maybe, he was called Barrington but Barry? You don’t get posh Barries. Name me one posh Barry, I challenge you. You can’t do it, can you? Because I’m thinking about it and all I can summon up is the fat car salesman from EastEnders.”
I’m afraid I may have carried on in this vein for several minutes more; once you start me off it’s very hard to stop me, especially when I’m on my soapbox and finding myself amusing. Iain just looked on, still impossible to figure out. He looked as if he both wanted me to stop and wanted me to carry on. Not that I was paying him that much attention by then, maybe if I had been it wouldn’t have been so disastrous.
“I happen to think Barry is a perfectly nice name.” said Iain.
The signs were all there, and they all said “TURN BACK”. Nevertheless, my conversational juggernaut crashed through the barrier and continued towards the abyss.
“And another thing. How could you possibly date a man called Barry? Just imagine saying I love you Barry. I love you so much You just couldn’t. There aren’t any pop songs about people called Barry. You wouldn’t call a romantic hero Barry. And that’s just romance, imagine when you get to the bedroom. Fuck me Barry. Do it to me Barry. Oh Barry, that feels so good. More, Barry, more. Oh Barry, I want you. Again. Again.”
By the time I had run out of things to say I had sort of lost track of time, but I did have a sneaking suspicion that my voice had got progressively louder as my monologue had gathered momentum. Iain just gave me another curious look and said “He’s a very nice chap. Now let’s get back to work.”
Back at my desk, my IM flashed with a message from Iain. Nothing unusual there, after all we talk all the time on IM even though we sit next to each other. It’s like a marriage, you see.
IAIN: Do you remember the guy in the audit department that sits next to me?
ME: Yes. Why?
What a stupid question. Of course I did, he was in every day. In his mid-forties, friendly, walks with a limp. Sometimes comes to the kitchen with us on our coffee breaks. Has a Brentford F.C. mug which never looks one hundred per cent clean. Has kids from a previous marriage and a new girlfriend. If I turned to my left and craned over Iain’s shoulder I could see him, tapping away at a complicated spreadsheet. How on earth could I forget him, had Iain taken leave of his senses?
Tap tap tap. Smirk smirk smirk. Then another flash.
IAIN: What’s his name again?