Eavesdropping on the 10:44
I was having my hair done the other day, and the hairdresser told me about her dog which has started to go in to weird trances; he stands still, his eyes glaze over and then he goes bark raving bonkers for a few minutes. I suppose terriers in a trance is a better subject than the usual hairdresser chatter of “Going anywhere nice on your holidays this year?” something which in the months after JS died (on holiday) made me want to ram a bristle barrel-brush in to their mouth.
The reason I was having my hair blow-dried was because I had a meeting in London for which I wanted to looked groomed instead of grungy, and the meeting in London was the reason I was on a train which stopped at Letchworth in Hertfordshire. Letchworth is notable for three things: Being the world’s first Garden City (1903); The home of Britain’s first roundabout (1909), and the birthplace of Gorgeous Grey Haired Widower (1960).
Two men boarded the train at Letchworth and sat next to and opposite me, one in his fifties whose hair and head-shape combo made him look like a badger, and the other, a whip-thin eager-eyed guy in his mid-twenties wearing shiny pointed shoes, shiny pointed hair and a tie so weirdly thick and shiny, I wondered if it was made out of fire-resistent padding. Such was Eager Beaver’s general air of shine, I fully expected him to slide off his seat and slither along the carriage in his own oil slick.
It wasn’t only his appearance that made Eager Beaver seem oily; the young man spent the entire journey leaning forward in his seat talking to his (I discovered later) boss in an excitable staccato voice, crossing the line from complimentary to creepy and getting a brown nose in the process. He gushed to Badger Boss about what an inspiration he was to him, what a role model he was, how he wanted to be like him, become him and so on.
From what I could gather, both men worked for the same company and had been to see a client. It was the first time Eager Beaver had led a crucial meeting, and his approach to “tee up the idea, drive it off and see where it landed on the fairway” had gone well. I know he said this because I am reading the notes I started to take. From his appearance to his attitude, Eager Beaver was straight off the set of a Ricky Gervais sitcom, a thrusting young executive so perfectly ridiculous, I just had to make notes. Being a writer gives me a great excuse to listen in to people’s conversations and jot things down to use at a later date. In reality, I’m just chronically nosey. JS used to say he knew when I had heard something interesting, because like Trance Terrier I’d look dazed, my eyes would glaze over and then I’d spring in to life and get my notebook out and start scribbling.
After lots of talk of ‘blue sky thinking’ and ‘thinking out of the box’ and ‘let’s dial up that concept for a moment,’ I began to think about putting my notebook away because Eager Beaver was no longer hilarious, just irritating. This juvenile grease-ball knew nothing – I’d been using phrases such as ‘gender transparent’ and ‘let’s give this idea some oxygen’ since the 1980’s because our American clients expected it. I’d even make them up sometimes, one memorable one being: “Let’s shake the kaleidoscope and see what pattern emerges.” About six months later, I heard the phrase used in a meeting. I nearly wet myself with laughter.
There was a bit of personal chat about the work-life balance – Eager Beaver lived in Central London and had a great social life; Badger Boss was based in the country and had a family – and then the men started talking about their colleagues. Actually, it was Eager Beaver who started dissecting their team one-by-one. Badger Boss sat next to me, slumped on the seat in his Barbour jacket with the air of a man who wanted to put Eager Beaver’s greasy head on a golf tee and whack it with a Callaway Big Bertha whilst cackling, “Let’s see where this one lands, eh?”
‘Dave’ was a “great guy, but not a team leader.” ‘Phillip’ liked to “work hard for three days a week and then have a laugh for two,” which made things difficult. ‘Pete’ was a worker but not someone you could trust to “tee up an idea and let others drive it,” because he kept interrupting in meetings which disrupted the “pyramid of performance” they had agreed on. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
And then they got to Jackie.
Jackie was fantastic, an asset to the company. Bright, organised, focused and displaying fabulous attention to detail, this office dynamo didn’t just know her own portfolio, she familiarised herself with everyone else’s figures too. Both men agreed, Jackie was a joy to work with.
Eager Beaver leaned forward even further and said, “She’s amazing, especially given what’s happened. I really don’t know how she copes. She was so young to be widowed.”
I don’t know how Jackie was widowed, but I did learn that it was sudden and recent. Eager Beaver told Badger Boss that he understood sudden loss: his father had died without warning when he was a child and he remembered his mother struggling. “But my mum had children,” Eager Beaver said. “Jackie hasn’t any children to keep going for, no family, that’s why she is so focused. She just lives for her work.”
Jackie came in early and stayed late, but a couple of times, late in the afternoon, Eager Beaver had gone to speak to her and noticed that she had red-eyes, that she had been crying at her desk. “Really?” Badger Boss seemed surprised. He’d never seen Jackie cry, she had always been completely professional at work. Eager Beaver said that because of his experience of losing his father he had tried to reach out to her, but she didn’t want to talk about it.
The train pulled in to Kings Cross.
I walked down the platform after Badger and Beaver thinking about Jackie. I wondered if Jackie kept going during the day because the corporate world she was in gave her professional life a familiar and comforting structure that perhaps her personal life now lacked; because her work had a start time and a stop time and in between there were meetings to attend and reports to write and stuff to do, the flow of office life carried her through the day. But however late you work, there comes a time when you have to leave the office and go home, if only for a shower and a change of knickers. Does highly-efficient, focused and organised Jackie go home and collapse on the sofa, drink too much wine, eat a microwaved meal for one whilst looking at bereavement sites on her laptop, not even noticing the dollops of food congealing on the keyboard? Is Jackie in that terrible life-in-limbo-due-to-death state where she dreads going to work and yet fears coming home? Where she craves her bed and sleep and and yet knows the night will bring more terror? Where the nights seem to last forever, but morning comes around all too quickly leaving her body drained and her spirit crushed by the thought of another day? Is it any wonder that late in the afternoon when the rhythm of the office begins to slow down before close of play as people begin to prepare to go home to their families or to meet friends, she weeps at her desk, not just through grief but through the sheer exhaustion of trying to keep it all together?
I don’t know if Jackie does any of things, but I am sure of one thing. If I asked her if Eager Beaver was right, did she live to work she’d answer, “No. I work to live.”