An oldie resurrected in memory of my former colleague, John, who slipped out quietly into retirement today with a swift salute with his rolled-up newspaper. Just like every other day.
What happens when the electricity goes out in the office?
The first thing everyone does is go into denial.
Ten seconds. That’s roughly how long it took between gazing at the blank screen, up at the light that gone out, over to the phone charging that was no longer charging, back to the blank screen, and blinking for a bit before surrendering to the possibility that electricity had deserted the building. This was marginally longer than everyone else who had already been flushed out of their office into the corridor by disbelief over what was happening. Not today. Not now.
It was a panic I understood having shored up a shitload of admin for this day that was due to have me hatching a new crease across my forehead by close of business. With or without responding to passive-aggressive e-mails from self-regarding managers. Or over-ingratiating myself to the cleaners. Or hoping no-one could hear me doing a wee while they made a cuppa in the kitchen right next door.
“Has the power gone out?”, exclaimed everyone in unison. It’s not often we get to exclaim anything. Maybe on the rare occasion when the travel expenses haven’t been processed, or a team meeting has been proposed. The alarm was doing an unsubtle job of answering the obvious question but we were not done with them yet.
“Has yours gone out?”, inquired the occupants of the office above mine.
“Yes, has yours?”, I helpfully countered.
The second thing everyone does is to speculate on why it has gone out.
“I let the man in earlier to fix the central heating. Maybe it was him”, announced Christine setting the ball of suspicion in motion.
“Surely that wouldn’t cause the power to go out”, replied John, suddenly an expert plumber.
“Maybe he did it by accident”, pleaded Mary, who would be inclined to give Hitler the benefit of the doubt.
“Are the phones working?” I felt obliged to contribute to the theorising and what better way than to offer another unhelpful question.
By now, John had taken command of the receptionist’s seat and was dialling various numbers starting with head office, 300 metres round the corner. John is the longest-serving and oldest member of the team so assumes authority with ease and control. It was John who phoned our colleague after his house was subject to an arson attack to offer all our sympathy. And it was John who gave us all permission to laugh by cracking a joke about it being the work of some of his clients. The official line is that it was a case of mistaken identity. None of us are that certain but we wouldn’t ever admit it to one another.
When I say ‘team’, I mean a random rag-bag of individuals who can frequently be heard asking each other what it is they actually do. These exchanges occur during the slow motion minutes waiting for the ping of the microwave to call time on another round of small-talk. I tend to think the word ‘actually’ is invested with a heavy degree of suspicion. You wouldn’t hear someone asking another “what is your name, actually?” as if the one they go by isn’t it at all.
“What’s happening? Has your electricity gone out? We’re in darkness down here”, declared John, his legs crossed and perched across the desk demonstrating his indifference along with his potential as an understudy for a role in Glengarry Glen Ross. A man of his world-weariness should be conning gullible people into parting with precious cash for some real estate while straining to conceal his desperation, not acting as a conduit for questions that no-one has the answer to yet.
“OK, I’ll hold” (covers receiver) “she’s gone to find out.”
Everyone maintained an obedient silence.
“Sit tight? OK, we’ll do that. Thanks, girl”. He calls every woman that. I’m probably supposed to be annoyed by it but I couldn’t be arsed.
“She told us we have to sit tight, it should be sorted soon”.
The next thing everyone does is to get giddy.
Thirty minutes passed and by now the support group (Coping with Darkness) had swollen to half a dozen. Jennifer was the last to step out from her office to join the fray. She draped herself across two of the seats usually reserved for the public and jokingly asked if anyone had a bottle. This caught everyone by surprise, probably for the same reason: until that moment, Jennifer was the least likely of the group to hint at the existence of drink nevermind suggest we share one, even if it was imaginary. She is the only person to record her time-sheet accurately to the minute (e.g. arrival: 8:57am, departure: 17:03pm) and exhibits a degree of sober efficiency the rest of us only ever get to be mildly resentful about.
John couldn’t resist it any longer and set about disentangling the coiled chord on the phone that had been bugging him. I did a 360 swivel on the chair and reminisced about our teenage prank he reminded me about. Cold-calling folk on behalf of the national telephone company to request that they measure said chord by stretching it as far as they could was a popular pastime circa age 13.
At least they had electricity
The next thing that happens is that no-one wants the electricity back on.
Just yet. Forty minutes later, folk who wouldn’t ordinarily share a cup in the canteen interrupted each other with stories and wise-cracks. Shane rapidly fired out witticisms in his droll voice. Boring Shane whose default setting is to nod sideways when he means yes and no. He royally took the piss out of us all, probably in the knowledge he had a narrow window. The power would return soon and he’d be forced back into nodding and awkwardly banging into people in the tiny kitchen.
Ann was regaling us all with her typing skills (“I have 140 words a minute” Shane: “Talking or typing?”) when there was a brief flicker; then another. The small matter of the best local pub was being given consideration when there was a third that didn’t go out. The power had returned.
Then we all returned to normal.
No-one budged for another few minutes. The novelty of the unexpected huddle had unleashed an uncustomary air of conviviality folk were heating themselves up against. John got up first. “Well, folks. I don’t know about you lot, but I’m going home. Those computers won’t be right till tomorrow”.
And with that the middle-aged version of The Breakfast Club had come to an end. Details of the Christmas party were circulated the following day and we shuffled awkwardly around the microwave pitching our competing excuses for why most of us won’t make it. Everyone except Jennifer. And maybe Shane. I couldn’t tell if he was nodding yes or no.