The red chair looks like it belongs in a different office to ours. Almost all the other chairs are variations on a theme: brand new black, fading black, faded black, a whole colour chart of blacks. Some have stains, or wear, or dandruff on the tops of the backrests. The foam has come away from some of the armrests, and the levers to raise the back not quite enough, tilt the back not quite enough or lower the seat not quite enough no longer work. From a distance they all look exactly the same, and yet each of us would know if ours had been swapped with another. You stay in the same cage all day, every day and you become hypersensitive to changes. On the backrest of my chair the rubber tab saying height has become torn, leaving a rough sharp edge; I worry it with my fingers during boring conference calls.
The red chair isn’t like that. It’s not just from a different office, it’s from a different kind of office, from a different world even. It should be on the deck of a starship or in a Bond villain’s undersea lair. It should be elsewhere. It ought to belong to someone giving orders, mobilising forces, looking at a giant computer screen on a wall showing a map of the world, deciding where the first missile will strike.
It’s not just the colour, though the colour is bright red – not a powerful burgundy but the garish red of a ketchup bottle, except slightly more orange. It’s more the shape: the red chair is also a peculiar shape. The backrest is in the shape of a red cross, the headrest (it has a headrest, which none of our chairs do) – is a separate curved rectangle joined to the backrest by two slender rods. It looks like it has been built to withstand G forces no desk job could provide, tested in laboratories by scientists wearing white suits and protective glasses.
The chair’s owner brought it with him when he took a job here – that too, is unusual. We’ve all brought favourite pens or folders, bits and bobs of clutter from a previous employer (my wife, for instance, carries a tin pencil case - a hangover from school days - from job to job). But a chair? Stranger still, he transferred here from a company in Luxembourg: not only did he uproot everything and move here to sit in the same dreary clump of beige desks as us, not only did he pack boxes, say goodbye to favourite streets and familiar views, forward his post and get on a plane but his chair came too. A chair like that in the hold of a plane: just imagine. It must be one hell of a chair.
Its owner is not one hell of an owner. He has the bulk of a Bond villain, I suppose, but the similarities end there. He’s a big man with no neck, in his mid forties we think, although it’s difficult to be certain. His hair is like a schoolboy’s but is so thick and so dark, the top so shiny and the back so short, that it could easily be a toupee. We spend some time staring at the back of his head, trying to work out whether it is, searching for the join. At the very least it’s dyed, we’re reasonably sure of that. There’s something schoolboyish about his little glasses, too: it’s as if Billy Bunter left school, grew up and wound up with a middle management job on an industrial estate in the middle of nowhere. As we get to know him, we realise that this isn’t a million miles from the truth.
There is something cartoonish about him, and like a cartoon character he wears a costume, the same clothes every day. He always wears a blue and white deckchair-striped shirt with a bright red v-neck over it, standing out in an office of suits just as his chair stands out in a sea of monochrome. He always wears blue stonewashed jeans, dangerously light blue, a colour from decades ago. None of his clothes fit, but not in the sense that they used to and he outgrew them. Instead, you get the impression they never have and he just doesn’t care. Or, and this is equally plausible, he might just think he’s thin in the same way that he thinks he is charming, interesting and popular. His costume is an outfit you could describe as figure-hugging, that bright red v-neck clinging to his paunch and breasts, but his is not a figure you would want to hug. The only thing that does hug his figure is that chair: sometimes, from a distance, it looks like he is being spooned by a hammer-head shark. The red of his jumper is just different enough from the red of the chair to be irksome.
We have dubbed him “Jumperman”, as if he’s a superhero. Superheroes wear costumes too, just like cartoon characters.
By now you might feel sorry for him: please don’t, because the owner of the red chair is not a pleasant person. Another surprise comes when he opens his mouth – the build, the barrel chest, suggest a deep baritone, but what comes out is a squeaky West Country accent. It is loud though, or maybe it’s just pitched so you can always hear it from anywhere in the open plan office. Over the weeks since the chair arrived, and he arrived with it, we have heard his voice a lot – shouting on calls, being conspiratorial with the men across the partition from him, all laddish and ingratiating, complaining and showing off. We see him walking around on his hands-free kit treating us all to a demonstration of how brilliant at his job he is. He stands at the window, legs apart, hands on hips, looking out across the car park as if it’s a personal empire he’s just conquered, the Alexander The Great of this business park, delivering speech after speech which are only slightly for the benefit of the person on the other end of the phone. Look at me, they are really calculated to convey, I take no nonsense. I get things done. I’m the alpha male round here, and you wish you were me.
I notice another detail in his costume as he walks past me in the corridor – he wears scuffed brown moccasins, no socks. The same pair every day, without fail. His feet are the only small, delicate thing about him.
Someone so self-important should strut, but he doesn’t. Instead, he has a funny little walk – it looks a bit like he’s mincing and a lot like he badly needs the toilet and has done for some time. Like everything about him, the grand front isn’t backed up by the substance. Everyone has decided he looks like someone else; some say Peter Griffin, others say Mr Tumble. Although I think there’s more of the former in him than the latter, my theory, (which I don’t float with my colleagues) is that he reminds me more of the Wizard Of Oz. It’s the only way that I identify with this awful man at all; I’ve always felt myself that the booming voice of my intellect and my the force of my disapproval mask a scared little man behind the curtain, pushing the buttons frantically and pretending to be in charge of anything. I’ve always been that way, although work brings it out in me more than most things.
Shortly after Jumperman arrived, I took him to meet a colleague in another part of the office. He didn’t know where they sat, and I did, I needed the walk and I felt like being friendly. I thought I’d engage him in small talk, because I’m good at small talk: I like people, they interest me. I could have had no idea, back then, that I’d write about him, so I had only the very best of intentions.
“So, you’re from Luxembourg, right?”
Not a good start. I’d been hoping for a bit more to go on.
“What’s it like? I really don’t know much about it, apart from the obvious jokes about the Eurovision Song Contest.”
No smile, just a blank look. Was it me? Normally people were a bit warmer than this.
“It’s a shit-hole.”
This was turning out to be harder work than I’d thought: clearly he didn’t do small talk.
“That’s a shame. What’s wrong with it?”
So, it turned out, was getting anything out of this man. I began to realise that Jumperman was the kind of person who very quickly calculated how useful people could be to him, and that my usefulness was going to end the moment I introduced him to the colleague he was trying to find, if I’d had any to begin with.
“Not much going on there?”
“No. Every street is just bank after bank after bank.”
I wondered how much tax he paid during his sojourn there. It seemed a bit strange to complain about Luxembourg for something like that when the machinations of international finance were probably the sole reason he had gone to work there in the first place. I got bored of asking questions after that. Also, I also got the distinct impression that Jumperman wouldn’t have liked Luxembourg any more if all those banks had instead been theatres, opera houses or delicatessens. I wasn’t sure I wanted to live in his idea of an interesting country, after that conversation, and it wasn’t an experience I ever tried to repeat.
One of the biggest ironies about his red chair is that it is clearly ergonomic, but he sits in it like anyone would sit in any chair. He slumps, he slouches, he leans over his keyboard banging out emails like an unsubtle concert pianist, clearly pleased with himself. The chair is meant to improve his posture, and yet posturing is all he ever does. Nobody meets up with his exacting standards, and he takes great delight in telling people this, even if it has nothing to do with their jobs; some days I hear more of his conference calls than I do of my own. My colleagues and I have developed a certain roll of the eyes over the last few months, which is our way of sharing our exasperation at his latest display.
That suggests we’d sooner ignore him, and I’m not sure that’s true. I like to imagine him every morning going over to his wardrobe and opening it up to reveal shirt after identical shirt, neatly ironed and pressed, hanging from the rail. On the shelves, red jumper after identical red jumper, folded in a stack. Maybe he isn’t real. Maybe he’s a piece of performance art dropped into our daily lives for us to watch in simultaneous fascination and horror. So no, we don’t want to ignore him, and as he is the most intriguing thing to happen to our office in years we discuss him quite a lot.
“His jeans are far too tight.” said Chloe, who works for him, one morning as we talk about him in the kitchen. “I really wish he’d wear something else to work. Those jeans draw the eyes to places where they really shouldn’t go.”
“He’s amazing, isn’t he?” said Chris, who sits next to him. “No self-awareness of any kind. I’ve never met anyone like him. And he has such a funny walk. Have you seen his walk?”
Chris is right. I would love to stop Jumperman and explain that a man looking like him, wearing his clothes, with that voice and that accent doesn’t need to behave in a way that screams Look at me!, but I know that there’s no point. He doesn’t get it because he couldn’t ever get it. People with self-awareness don’t turn out like him, because they spend too much of their lives worrying that they will.
“I wonder if anyone likes Jumperman?” I said during a rushed lunch downstairs, eating my stodgy sandwich without enthusiasm and trying to avoid the stench of the garlic bread our canteen has decided to serve with every meal, whether it goes or not.
“I get the impression the people in his area don’t.” says Iain, midway through his daily packet of Frazzles. “Chloe certainly doesn’t seem too impressed, and nor does Chris.”
“No, I meant at home. Clearly everyone at work hates him.” I say.
It’s true. I’m sorry, but it is.
Later, we find out more about his home life. Chloe says that he’s friends with all the people on his street, and that every Friday night they go out to the local pub en masse and occupy a room there, eating and drinking and laughing. It seems hard to credit, but I suppose we’re not all the same in and out of work, and there’s no reason why he should be any different. Even so, I wonder if the other people round the table with him on Friday night go into work on Monday morning and bitch about him the way we do, or if (and this doesn’t really bear thinking about) they are as bad as him or worse.
The others have become obsessed with Jumperman’s car; none of us has any idea what he drives. There is speculation that he has a 4x4, the flagship vehicle of the self-obsessed and self-important. On the other hand, some people think he drives a sports car, the classic penis extension of the overcompensating middle-aged male. I don’t say much on this subject, because I don’t drive and know next to nothing about cars except how beautiful some of them look, and this isn’t that kind of conversation. But, because I’ve seen his moccasins, in the back of my mind I can imagine Jumperman climbing out of something small and battered, a car that he’s had for years.
One Friday, when Jumperman has knocked off early and sped away in his mysterious car, home to goodness knows where for a night down the pub with everyone on his street, we all congregate around the red chair. I’ve never seen it up close, because he’s nearly always there, and everyone else is equally curious. We look at it, hesitant to touch it, as if it has just fallen from space, as if there should be a crater around it. Nobody dares sit in it but me, but I’m not so easily deterred. It’s unnatural – I’m so used to my chair, as unsupportive as management, that I can’t get used to this. It forces my legs apart, subtly changes my position.
“Look how wide my legs are! This is just weird, I have no idea how he sits in this all day.”
“I wonder that explains his walk?” says Iain, practical as ever.
“Could be.” says Chloe. From the look on her face I can tell she’s trying to forget about the tight crotch of his jeans, and not entirely succeeding.
“This just feels wrong.” I say. “I almost feel like I should be sitting in it the other way round.”
“You can’t do that!” says Chloe. People shouldn’t really say that to me, but she doesn’t know me very well so she doesn’t know that. I get out of the chair, turn round and sit on it again, my legs under and my arms over the armrests. I’m trying to do my best Christine Keeler, but it doesn’t work – instead I look like I’m in the stocks, in some kind of corporate contraption that keeps me there while people come up and throw rotten fruit at me. Again, it occurs to me that the red chair isn’t a million miles from that – Jumperman isn’t trapped in it, but he might as well be, and we aren’t lobbing fruit but we do subtly chuck insults, comments, passive aggressive eye rolls. But then I get a grip on myself: he really is an awful man, and everybody knows it. Don’t we?
“That looks ridiculous.” says Iain.
“I know.” I say, and I disentangle myself from the hammer-head shark so we can all go back to our desks and prepare for the weekend.
There’s one thing about the chair that I didn’t tell my colleagues, though I thought it straight away. I suppose I’ll just have to say it here. It looks so bright red from a distance, but close up it isn’t. It’s worn, and starting to look frayed. The finish is beginning to wear off the metal, and the fabric is starting to look shiny, as if it has seen better days. I wanted the chair to be magnificent, and I wasn’t ready for it to be so tired and sad. I kept that fact to myself.
I kept to myself, too, the realisation that I was mistaken. The red chair, it turns out, is perfect for its owner. It’s meant to look impressive, but if you pay attention you realise that it isn’t. Pay attention and you see that it’s all show, a grand façade where the reality cannot back it up. Jumperman isn’t the only Wizard Of Oz in my office, and nor am I; the chair is a Wizard of Oz too. All the times I make jokes at work to deflect attention, all the times I act up and score easy points in meetings or on calls, all the times in the kitchen when the sound of my own voice is the easiest and most seductive music in the world; I’m not sure I’m really any different. On the train home that afternoon, I wonder whether there is another version of this life where someone else in my office goes home, opens up their laptop, fires up a word processor and writes something like this about me.