July 13th, 2005


Strange days, here we come

The open-plan office where I work is in a state of ongoing Cold War. On one side of the office, the web team, four plus one of us; then in the seeing-red corner, the rest of the department. The crux of the problem is that the web team talks, and the rest of the department does not. We probably crack our boiled eggs at different ends, too; but it's the talking that gets their collective goat. It doesn't matter if we're talking about work or not: it's noise.

The web team is four-plus-one rather than five strong because our original team of four gained an extra person, but he doesn't speak to us. (He doesn't sit with us, either, but that's probably more an accident of office layout than a deliberate snub.) As soon as anybody on our team utters a word above a whisper he goes into paroxysms of retaliatory noise: tapping his fingers loudly on the desk, clicking his executive-toy magnets together and apart, sighing and huffing and puffing fit to blow the building down, pushing his chair back and forth, standing up, sitting down, and generally fidgeting as noisily and as petulantly as possible. The last resort, if talking continues despite his best efforts, is to storm into the kitchen and slam the door.

On the other side of the office, in the rest of the department, the war is more icy. Over there there's just a gallery of curled lips, cold looks and colder shoulders. (There's also a persistent peal of phone-tones which would make even the crazy frog hopping mad; but that's not noise, that's normal. Noise is what those strange people in the web team make when they flap their webby mouths at each other. The freaks.) Those in the cold zone have no need to communicate with us to do their jobs, and they pointedly ignore every attempt at civilised small-talk over the cafetière. Which is fine. By the time I get to the kitchen, I'm more interested in caffeine than conversation.

The silence from the other side of the room is chilling, though. They erected bookcases between Us and Them, so we can't see what they're doing; do they communicate in sign-language? Do they carry objects around with them and point at them? COMPUTER. ROCK. Perhaps they carry flash-cards. There's barely even the sound of typing; sometimes I have to fight to resist the urge to walk round there and see if they are still there. I don't know what I'd expect to find; strange human-sized cocoons, perhaps? Or just the head office of the Marie Celeste Temping Agency? When they emerge from the Other Side, it's to go to the kitchen. They talk in the kitchen, we think. But they stop when we come in.


Today I saw one of their number, a thin and weaselly little man, crouching at the base of the door to the kitchen. It soon became apparent that he was trying to wedge a piece of tissue into the door-frame so as to muffle the noise of the door closing. "It's too loud," he said. "And it's louder when all the windows are open. I don't know why that should be."

I hazarded a hand-waving guess about air-pressure.

"Yes, that must be it. It's too loud. And especially in the morning, until about 10am. Sometimes," and his ratty face quivered with suppressed annoyance, "people are going in and out -- once every minute!"
"Probably just, ha ha, needing that first cup of coffee, you know, to start the day off," I said, vaguely, cheerily, making my own first cup of coffee. Black tar. I gave up sugar, there's no use for sweetening there.
"Once every minute," he repeated. It seemed to be an unforgiveable offence.
"Perhaps we should stop people using the kitchen between certain times?" I suggested, expecting a laugh. I got none. He swept at the floor below the door, deadpan and brush.
"It's just that first thing in the morning," he said, "when they're in and out," he said, like a terrier with a bone.
"We could limit the number of times each person uses the kitchen," I said. "Or do you think it's different people?"
"Different people," he said, all the while struggling with his piece of tissue paper and failing to silence the door. "I could stop the noise with this," he said, jiggling the key, "but it wouldn't do much good."
I couldn't see why. "You could just lock the door," I said. "And make people use the other door."
"Hmmmm," he said, inexplicably unconvinced. He closed the door on the tissue. It crashed shut like a coffin-lid.
"You could lock it at least just until 10am, or when it is that they stop coming in and out," I said.
"Once every minute," he muttered, defeated.

I took my coffee back to my desk. A storm of finger-drumming erupted from the corner behind the screen, accompanied with a forest-flattening sigh. I took great pleasure in slamming the coffee-cup down on my desk, almost hard enough for the wave of coffee to crest the cup's rim. That would have only added to the annoyance. But this time I got away with it. That was one up to me, not a bad start to the day.


Then there's the weather, though. We've been having lately. You wouldn't believe. Today we sweated in our greenhouse of an office, airless conditions, until suddenly crashing banging and quite probably walloping out of nowhere came a storm that made the wave in my coffee cup look like -- well, yes. Sheets of rain peeling themselves off the rooftops and billowing down onto the grass until the lawn became a lake and the paths became pools and you couldn't have had the one from the other without parting the waters like Moses, or God, or whichever it was, if it makes a difference. Leaning out of the window on tiptoes, laughing out loud at the tantrum the sky was throwing, I got my ears boxed by a thunderclap that made me yelp, which made it all the funnier, and so much for trying to muffle the noise of a door when the sky slams its coffee-cup down.

It does make you wonder, though, when you read about the tidal waves and the twirling water and twisting winds, and the temperature now is what it would have been somewhere else at another time except that that wasn't there then, and everybody says ha ha but we'd love it, really, wouldn't we. Ha ha, but hell will be great, because it'll be full of our friends. Sometimes though it seems as if we're all clinging to the ragged rafts of wood from a ship that's gone down long since. But that's all right, because we can go somewhere else, on our little raft; we can sail to Byzantium, to the shores of Bohemia, we can paddle up the river and beat the Swallows and be home in time for tea. Living on an island gives us a symbol for leaving, even when there's nowhere else to go.