It’s been a week now since the man with whom I worked for 16 years left his job. A two man team, me and him, 16 years. Think about where you were 16 years ago, in 2001. Think of all the changes you’ve been through in that time, the people you’ve worked with, alongside and for. One man, all that time.
I wasn’t sure how I’d react to it. I knew there were things I wouldn’t miss, aspects of working with him which sporadically demoralised and infuriated me. The most obvious example would be the lack of appreciation for what I do. He gave me three pieces of praise in the whole time he was my boss – and one of those was when someone sat with him, showed him something I’d done and said “It’s good, isn’t it?”, to which he could hardly say no. For a long time I just shrugged it off, laughed and said it’s just the way he is. Towards the end though, I realised quite how corrosive it had been. I had an interview for a job a couple of months back, and the feedback I got afterwards said that I was very negative about my own achievements and played down everything I had done. Wonder where I got that from?
The other fascinating quirk I’ll manage without was his inability to observe the fundamental principles of interaction – the basic give and take of conversation. You tell me about your weekend, I’ll tell you about mine. You tell me about your life, I’ll tell you about mine. Not with him. You tell me about your weekend, and that will conclude that exchange. I would have done the same, of course, but he was my boss and I felt like it was prudent to maintain a certain level of bonhomie. It all ran in one direction though. I’d be amazed if even at the end he could name my children, for example. After 16 years we were no closer than we were after 16 days. He told me early on that he hated football, so I learned quickly not to mention it unless I wanted to hear a rant about how everyone who likes football is a sheep and a moron. (Never mind that I was right there, quite evidently neither of those.) He learned equally quickly that I hate dogs, and yet for years would tell me stories about his, either oblivious to that fact or just not caring. You know, those stories people tell about their dogs where they’re dying for you to say how funny or adorable they are. And I would listen and nod and chuckle in appropriate places, all the time wondering what he was getting out of it. Sometimes I start talking to people about stuff I love – phrasal verbs would be a good example – and it doesn’t take more than a few seconds to realise they don’t really care, and my enthusiasm for communicating it swiftly vanishes. Doesn’t everybody have that experience? Apparently not.
You work with someone for that long, and just like a marriage, little idiosyncrasies become infuriating (only, crucially, without the bedrock of warmth to make them tolerable). I don’t ever again need to hear that the children’s TV show Captain Pugwash included characters called Seaman Staines and Master Bates (it didn’t); nor that George Bush once said that the problem with the French is they have no word for entrepreneur (he didn’t). Nor do I need to hear the hilarious name suggestion Norfolk & Chance (at various times proposed for a quiz team, a boat, a meeting room, and doubtless others I can’t recall). It sounds like something rude, you see? Ha ha ha ha HA HA HA.
I made a conscious decision not to say any of this to him in the last few weeks before he left. What would be the point? I don’t imagine he knew how I felt, and as such letting it all spill out would be an act of pure selfish catharsis. Plus, even if he did know, I don’t imagine for a moment he would care. He didn’t demonstrate any sense of giving the slightest damn how I felt about anything else, so why would he care what I thought about him? Plus, we did have some good times, some laughs, and he left me to my own devices which, while maybe not being the best thing for me, is what I would have chosen most of the time. It would be churlish to ignore all that just to let years of repressed aggravation come roaring out.
So how did I react, after all those years, to his departure, to the empty desk where he sat? I’d presumed there would be some relief, not to mention some elation, but it turned out that I’d processed all that in the months I’ve had since I learned he was leaving. The terrible reality is that most of the time, I just didn’t think about him. And that word terrible is aimed at myself as much as anything. I’ve spent 35 hours a week for the last decade and a half with someone who has now disappeared from my life, and my reaction has been to give a mental shrug. What a waste.