I had been working in the same bank for five years when it was announced that the office layout was going to be changed. For most people this would prove insignificant, however, for me it was a disaster.
Working in finance is not all it’s cracked up to be. Huge salaries, big egos and a high pressure environment do not usually combine for a happy working life. Most of my friends work in banks and the one major complaint from all of them relates to their co-workers. I was one of the few who shared his office space with pleasant people. The idea that they could be taken away from me and replaced with any of the other assholes in my department was terrifying.
When I started working there were no spare desks in my department so I ended up sharing an office with others in the same situation. Here we all carried out unrelated functions, had different backgrounds and had no idea how much the others earned. This resulted in a relatively relaxed atmosphere.
Of course, from time to time, one of us was transferred to an office within our respective departments. This was relatively infrequent as no one from the department wanted an extra rival in the office and we were all aware that it was much better to stay put. Every time this happened we had a drinks session and jokingly toasted to the death of whoever was leaving. Once the person broke into tears and admitted he was paralytic with fear at the idea of working with his “soul-less” colleagues.
As the existence of our office had been singled out as one of the reasons for the reshuffle, we knew we would never sit together again. The Friday of our last working week together, we went out and drank till closing time. It is very rare to like the people you work with in this business and we had been together long enough to have formed some pretty strong bonds. I lay awake that Sunday night wondering how bad it would be.
I hated my new office. Not only were my colleagues extremely disagreeable but I was so full of prejudice that even the nicest of people would have been labelled bastards. They were difficult to work with and genuinely miserable individuals who had created an environment where a smile aroused suspicion. I imagine they felt the same way about me.
Being in the same department I had worked with each of them before but our contact had been restricted to meetings and emails. Now that we had to share the same oxygen, their misery and frustration infected me. Lunch, previously a pleasant moment spent with friends, was now a sandwich in front of a screen. With my line manger next door and none of the others leaving their desks to eat, I felt obliged to do the same.
My one respite were my visits to the toilet. Here I could sit down, read the newspaper and relax. I began to thoroughly enjoy my toilet breaks, they replaced lunch time as my moment to unwind away from a screen. The only issue was the other people who used the facilities. My instant of peace was shattered as soon as someone else stepped into the room. Their presence reminded me where I was and made me miserable. Luckily I found a solution to the problem.
Unbeknownst to me, the tenth floor was completely devoid of human life. I discovered this when the elevator stopped there and someone got on. I caught a quick glimpse of the deserted hallway and wondered what business anyone could have on that floor. Perhaps someone who looked after the building? No, I recognised the man. He worked in risk analysis on the fourteenth floor with me.
Later that day curiosity got the better of me and I headed back to the deserted hallway. The offices were empty, clear of any furniture and there was no evidence of recent activity. I was walking back to the lift, disappointed that I had not found anything of interest, when I noticed the toilets. I pushed open the door and revealed 10 desolate cubicles. The sheer level of joy I felt upon making this discovery was depressing.
From then on, every time I went to the toilet was a small moment of pure delight. I felt like a child retreating to a tree house with a new comic. Inside the cubicles I was untouchable. I could relax and detach myself from the drag of my working life. Two weeks after my discovery, I was reading a newspaper, when someone came in. My heart jumped. I was terrified.
The man went into one of the cubicles, turned the latch, urinated and left. I waited a few minutes and opened my door. He was gone but had deposited an unopened pack of toilet paper next to the sink. Before then I had not wondered who maintained stocks but thinking about it, there was no reason to keep sending toilet paper and soap up here. After all, the floor was not in use. It made even less sense that they would leave a single unopened pack.
During subsequent visits I noticed that I was not the only one who used the tenth floor as my personal WC. Rolls of toilet paper disappeared from the pack and someone replaced the soap. I continued using the facilities but the sense of escape and freedom I had previously enjoyed was replaced with trepidation. Eventually the toilet paper ran out and was replaced. When this pack ran out it was again substituted. The same thing happened with the soap.
Based on some minor detective work I could see that at least three of us were using the tenth floor. Despite using the facilities for more than two months, I had seen no one and had no encounters with any other users. I decided to try going at different times. I usually went at three o’clock sharp, the moment during the day when I most needed a break. The morning had passed, the minor respite offered by lunch was gone and the final five hours always felt very long. That day I headed down at noon. No one.
The next day I tried at two, then at 10 and the following day at 11. After one week of changing schedules I eventually encountered someone. At 10.30 in the morning, just as I was getting out of the elevator, somebody stepped out of the men’s room. I recognised him from IT, the same person who had set up my laptop on the first day. He caught my eye briefly, looked quickly at the floor and brushed past me into the lift. I headed to the toilet with his eyes burning my back until the lift doors closed.
Finally. I had seen one of my mysterious toilet sharing colleagues. I wondered how long he had been using the facilities. I was curious but did not want to approach either the man in IT or my colleague in risk analysis. I was working on a rather elaborate plan to find out who my other elusive colleagues were, when a Post-it note appeared on the mirror. On it, someone had written; “WHOEVER IS USING MY TOILET PAPER AT LEAST HAVE THE DECENCY TO REPLACE IT FROM TIME TO TIME!”
During a subsequent visit I saw the note had been answered. “Apologies, thought it was the cleaners, will bring some tomorrow.” I decided to seize this opportunity and added a note asking if anyone knew how long before the tenth floor would be renovated. I left a notepad and pen by the mirror. A day later six people had replied. Four had written that they had no idea, one had heard four months and another claimed a decision would be made during a meeting in September.
After this initial contact the mirror began to be used as a message board. We shared rumours of the tenth floor’s renovation and complained about company policy. There was something liberating about talking to strangers who work with you. I often wondered who the others were, but I also decided it was best not to know. What if one of them was my bastard line manager? Best not to know.
There was a fairly lax set of rules about using the facilities. It was generally accepted that each person had their own time to use the room. I switched back to my three o’clock shift and never ran into any of the other users. The policy for replacing the toilet paper and soap seemed to be if you could, you should. Well that’s how I saw it. For all I know it was just me and one other person replacing everything. Either way, from my point of view the system worked.
Working late one evening I headed to the tenth for a lavatory break. Even when the office was empty I preferred to use these toilets. They had become my lunch time jog, my coffee break and my morning cigarette all rolled into one. Awhile later, as I headed back towards the lift, I heard footsteps. I looked up and spotted a construction worker, with his back towards me, measuring one of the walls at the other end of corridor.
Again I had a moment of panic. I froze for a few seconds before silently slipping into the stairway. Here I took a deep breath and calmed down. So it had begun, the renovation was finally underway. For the next few weeks our message board was full of rumours. Some claimed we had less than a month, others at least three. Personally, having recently had my bathroom redone, I doubted the whole floor could be done in less than six months, but my suggestion was rubbished.
Either way we were now sharing our space with a number of builders and their music. Our intimacy was melting away. After a few days I was on nodding terms with most of the workers, although I never said anything more than mumble “hello”. They seemed to regard me with a certain bemusement and never did more than nod and smile. Sometimes they completely ignored me, which I appreciated.
Inevitably, work began on the toilets. Luckily the first lavatory to be attacked was the women’s. At this point most of the notes were good humoured farewells – jokes about switching to the bush behind the parking lot, or paying the builders to take more time. One person seemed traumatised and wrote long notes about how much the place had meant to him and having no idea how to cope without it. After a couple of these messages appeared, someone suggested meeting up.
The post was met with a single enthusiastic response; “Great idea!!! We can talk about relocating options and keep this going!!!” Depressingly, this was the same handwriting that the previous unhappy notes had been scrawled in. Friday, from eight at the nearest pub was suggested as a meeting point. Again the newly enthusiastic poster responded; “Great, see you all there!!! I will be there at eight next to the bar with a G and T!!!” A couple of lukewarm “I’ll try and make it” and “maybe” notes appeared throughout the day.
When Friday arrived I was a bit nervous. I did not really want my getaway to disappear but at the same time I did not want to meet my fellow WC colleagues. I had already decided this would be my last day using the facilities. I wanted to do something special to mark my final visit to the place that had made everything a bit more bearable but had no idea what. In the end I just tried to pretend it was not the last time. Best to enjoy the moment. The message board was full of notes bidding the place farewell, I just wrote “thanks for everything”.
I finished work at quarter past eight and headed to the pub. My initial nervousness had been eroded by the stress of finishing project “Hunt” on time and I was ready for a drink. When I walked in I was immediately set upon by a friend, who dragged me to the bar for a pint. As he led me to the taps I looked around for a group which looked like it co-managed a lavatory. I noticed a lone figure, standing by the bar, on his second gin and tonic. He could not have been more than 21 and had a look of hopeful desperation on his face.
As the night wore on I watched the young man continue drinking alone. Initially he turned to look at the entrance every time someone came in, but after 10 he stopped turning round. I stayed chatting to my friend, confident that no one from the WC club had turned up except for the now distraught looking man by the bar. At this point he had consumed at least seven glasses and was beginning to look unsteady. Eventually, just before closing time, he made his way towards the exit, swaying slightly.
I felt a bit guilty that I had not said hello but I was worried that he would latch onto me for the rest of the evening and possibly beyond. Much of the appeal of using the tenth floor lavatories came from the lack of human interaction. It was a place where you could be alone with your thoughts. I was sure that anyone who might have considered meeting that night, would have changed his mind as soon as they saw the person by the bar. There was no question that he had been responsible for the depressing comments on the board. You could tell by how he hung onto his glass.
On Monday I arrived late and stressed. My commute had been delayed due to a “person under train” and I was feeling very irritable. My manager had been emailing me throughout the weekend about a new project which I had to finish by Wednesday. I was sure he would start shouting the moment I stepped into the office. I walked through the doors and noticed an unusual silence in the building.
Keith from accounting saw me and headed over. “Have you heard?” I shook my head. “One of the contractors hung himself on the tenth floor. They found him this morning, he must have done it sometime over the weekend,” he said. “Horrible thing to happen, he was only 20.”
Later that day we were sent an email asking us not to discuss the incident with the press. Another email, mourning the loss of such a promising individual followed a few hours later. I have since stopped using lavatories to take my breaks in. Now I go to a café. I don’t care if it annoys my boss.