I went to a meeting at work the other day and the lady running it spoke words I have always found chilling, ‘right, before we begin let’s do a quick icebreaker’.
This, as anyone who has worked in an office environment knows, will involve some sort of corny juvenile exercise designed to get everyone in the room talking to each other.
This particular ice-breaker involved us lining up in alphabetical order of where we were born, so if you were from Aldershot you were at the front, whereas if you happened to hail from Zambia, the chances are you’d be at the back.
As usual I sat aloof in a corner as if the whole thing were beneath me, refusing to get involved until the last possible moment (I’m 43 and not that interested in playing games – I mean on my lunch hour at work I don’t rush outside to play tig).
But what I found astonishing was that the 15 or so other adults in the room bounded about, joking and laughing hysterically, and generally looking as though this was as much fun as they’d had in years. Which, judging by the look of them, it probably was.
Things threatened to get interesting when a woman from Stafford got very irate with a young lad from Stoke in an Iron Maiden T-shirt who kept trying to stand in front of her.
‘No, you’re behind me,’ she told him with increasing irritation. ‘The A in Stafford is before the O in Stoke so you need to be this side of me’.
Whether he was thick or just trying to wind her up, but he looked genuinely confused and kept muttering, ‘no, I’m Stoke so I’m before you’.
I do believe they were seconds away from a fistfight before the woman running the course stepped in to smooth things over.
‘No Brian, Melanie is right. Stoke’s behind Stafford so you need to stand here.’ He looked crestfallen, poor lad.
The meeting that followed was incredibly dull – something about Excel spreadsheets and the best way to tabulate figures and it made me realise how cheesed off I am that I’ve ended up working in an office.
My dream as a youngster, you see, was to be an outdoor ranger in the Lake District.
I thought I would spend my days repairing paths and building dry stone walls, dressed in a tweed flat cap and wellies, with a faithful border collie by my side.
The most stressful my day could possibly get, I imagined, would be if a sheep got its head stuck in a stile. Alas life turned out a little differently and for the last two decades, since leaving university with a 2:1, severe debt, and a much-weakened liver, I have spent my days blankly staring at computers, and not rescuing sheep from the top of Scafell.
Sometimes working in an office is great, as you get to sit down all day and are allowed to put your mug on the desk without using a coaster.
But it can also make you ratty, for the monotony of working with the same people in the same environment day after day means that, over time, the smallest annoyances become magnified.
That stray piece of paper the bloke next to you leaves overlapping on your desk; the guy who takes up too much room in the staff fridge; or the woman who in a desperate attempt to cling on to her youth insists on dying her hair blue and wearing Converse trainers despite the fact she’s well into her 50s and all you want to do is shout ‘please, for the love of god, can you just have normal coloured hair – it looks rubbish’.
All these tiny trivialities in the great scheme of things become incredibly maddening over time.
There is, for example, at the place I work, a man who will always greet you with the words ‘how are we today?’ as opposed to ‘how are you?’
Now given we live in a world where terrorists plant bombs, giant corporations fiddle taxes, and malnourished children starve to death, it really isn’t something to get riled by.
But the fact this lad says it every single day drives me insane.
It’s a bit like my uncle, who, when you ask how he is, replies ‘not three bad’, instead of not too bad. It’s mildly amusing – extremely mildly, mind – the first time; the 745th time, not quite so.
Another chap at work constantly says ‘hmm, that’s interesting’ in a voice just loud enough for you to hear. So of course you have to ask ‘what’s interesting?’ at which point he will, without fail, tell you a lengthy story about something the very opposite of interesting.
The other day, he said: ‘The font on the BXJ253 Windows programme gets larger by 10 per cent if you press control and delete at the same time’.
I imagine he’s the kind of man who agonises over what sized Tupperware to buy.
In every office there is the food thief, who will steal milk and other items from the communal fridge.
I became a victim of it the other month when, at dinner-time, I went to fetch my portion of lasagne – leftover from the previous night’s tea and which I had carefully spooned into a container and bought to work – and couldn’t find it.
After 10 minutes frantic searching, I walked furiously back to my desk and noticed a colleague on a nearby table eating it.
“Excuse me”, I said, voice quivering with rage, “I think you’re eating my lasagne?”
He paused, fork-full of mincemeat halfway to his mouth, and said without any hint of concern or embarrassment: ‘That makes sense now, I knew it was spaghetti bolognese my wife did for me. But not to worry, the spag bol will be in the fridge so have that’. I have never been closer to kicking a man in the testicles.
There are a million other annoyances I can think of in my office – the girl who wears a scarf at all times, even at the height of summer; the lad who doesn’t wash his hands after going to the toilet, meaning you have to open the door to the gents with one finger for fear you will get his muck on your hands; the woman with a phobia of bananas, who has to leave the room if anyone whips one out (though it is a handy tool if you want to talk about her behind her back).
I could go on but we’ve not got time and it’s too depressing. Oh to be at the top of Helvellyn with a stuck sheep instead…