Normally I open here with two paragraphs that are barely-if-at-all related to the ensuing list, and I am flitting here and flitting there—you know, making jokes with it, doing an entire paragraph-long sentence that my editor just deletes entirely; I'm feeling good, I'm feeling foolish, I'm having fun. But also I am back at work today—just like you, unless you're one of those doomed souls who had to work in the dead days between Christmas and New Year, or worse on Christmas and on New Year, and if you are one of those people I applaud your bravery in the face of such appalling torture—but yes, normally, all the stuff I do at the top here: that is cancelled. That is cancelled forever, because I am back at work today and I want to die.
And worse than the feeling of death-wanting is this: the unendurable same seven conversations you have to keep having, again and again and again, with all the people you work with—who, similarly, want to die right now, bloated and sickly on the fumes of the last few Quality St. and nice Belgian biscuits; the same seven conversations that you have to have, again and again and again, again and again, until you're allowed—fucking finally, fucking hell—to go home again.
So here's a fun list!
"AH, OH GOD. OH, GOD. GOD. I HAVE FORGOTTEN HOW TO DO MY JOB."
WHERE THIS CONVERSATION HAPPENS: It is always the colleague who is sat opposite you, because they can lean just slightly around the raised plinth of their laptop stand and eyeball you with clear, piercing contact, and they have said it already, quietly but perceptibly, to themselves, and now they repeat it, although this time focused on you: "God," they say, then the words "ha ha." Then: "I have forgotten how to do my job."
CONSIDERATIONS: Have they forgotten how to do their job, though? Does anyone ever really forget how to do their job? If it's a particularly skilled job, I would argue: No, you cannot forget how to do it. You have put too many hours into study and work and finesse to forget how to do it just because you spent a day watching six (six!) Pixar movies in a row. And if it is not a very skilled job, which, come on, let's not be ludicrous here: a very tired toddler could feasibly do what you do—there's even less chance you can forget how to do it. Your job is literally logging into three separate backend systems, checking your email, then doing a big spreadsheet for eight hours with a Meal Deal in between. You can't forget how to do that.
WHAT YOU SAY IN RESPONSE: "Thank you for telling me this."
WHERE THIS CONVERSATION HAPPENS: This conversation happens anywhere someone half or one entire notch above you on the career ladder can talk to you, so it could be the kitchen or it could be an anonymous grey corridor or it could be—harrowingly, and did actually happen to me once—side-by-side at a urinal. "Ooh," they say, a sound you never want to hear when you've got your cock out, "emails."
CONSIDERATIONS: For some reason there is an unspoken rule in the office environment that whoever got the most emails in the eight-day period when they were ignoring their emails is by extension the most important, even though—what you can't see, because they have their screen tilted away from them—even though at least 50 percent of those emails are from ASOS telling them about a since-expired sale. Little heads bob over glowing screens and you hear the numbers yelled out across the floor to no one. "Two hundred," your boss says. "And forty-one!"
WHAT YOU SAY IN RESPONSE: Two ways into this one: take the number of emails they have and add exactly one to it (people who think the number of emails they receive in any way matters just get so furious to be very literally one-upped) or say something nonchalant like, "Oh, I didn't check. I just deleted them all before I could count them." And then, if you really want to get inside their head, casually quote a number ten higher than the one they just cited. "But it was probably something like 250, or something." But another good answer is, "Thank you for telling me this."
HOW WAS YOUR CHRISTMAS?
WHERE THIS CONVERSATION HAPPENS: Everywhere. Little low murmurs of it curl at you on the bus while everyone warms up for it in the office. It's just a stream-like question pouring out of everyone's little mouth. "How," they ask, eyes grey and filmed over, desperately trying to remember the one same password they use for fucking everything. "How was your Christmas?" And you lean close to them and whisper: " Fine, thanks."
CONSIDERATIONS: There is nothing to consider here. Someone asks you how your Christmas was and you say, "Fine, thanks." Then you ask how theirs was and they say, "Yeah, good." In olden days they had society dances, particular waltzes. In Japan they have complex little ceremonies with the tea. Here, we have our tradition, our warm little grooves that we have to slot into every year: the call and response of How Was Your Christmas, Fine Thanks.
WHAT YOU SAY IN RESPONSE: Breath out the word "fine" and then suck in the word "thanks", a holy chant that edges you ever closer to nirvana.
WHAT DID YOU DO FOR NEW YEAR?
WHERE THIS CONVERSATION HAPPENS: It happens wherever people's focus on their actual work dies, so I'd say about 9.01AM and directly in front of their computers.
CONSIDERATIONS: There is Work You, and there is Real You, and so it was ever thus. Work You, you think, is quite buttoned down, conservative: messy, yes, undoubtedly, and likely to turn up with a hangover at least once a week, but you've been there a year now and they sort of trust you—maybe bumped your hourly wage a little to reflect that—and you actually took that firm email from HR quite seriously, and you comb your hair and tuck your shirt in sometimes, and, hauntingly, in quiet moments, you find yourself having tried, having actively wanted to do better at your job, a fleeting feeling you buried deep down inside yourself, hid by getting two pints at lunch and coasting your way through the ensuing afternoon. And then there is Real You, which spent New Year's Eve in a sort of ketamine haze, found yourself at a weird house party in the bright stark light of the day come the 1st of January 1st. It was 11 AM and you were still going, down to the real muck, the real swill of the booze, drinking flat warm Diet Coke mixed with amaretto, and the few people still awake and moving their limbs chopped out one final line and went, "Shall we call some more in?" And, long story short, you didn't get home until 9PM that night, and didn't get to sleep until 1 AM, and you spent all of yesterday crying into a Domino's that was growing slowly greasier in the warm heat of your house, the smell pervading everywhere, the smell of it on everything, crust dip all down your pyjamas and on your bedding. Which one are you going to present to them, when they ask? Work You or Real You? How much of yourself dare you reveal?
WHAT YOU SAY IN RESPONSE: "Yeah, good."
THE PERSON WHO ASKS YOU WHETHER YOU HAVE "ANY NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTIONS, THEN?" AS A NOT-EVEN-TRANSPARENT EXCUSE TO TELL YOU ABOUT THEIR OWN
WHERE THIS CONVERSATION HAPPENS: It always happens when you're off to do something that contravenes a generic New Year's Resolution, so while you're putting your coat on to go for a lovely cigarette, or while you're making coffee, or while you're eating a big bread-heavy lunch, or crying in the toilets. "Any New Year's Resolutions, then?" they ask, and you say no—well, you say either "no" or some bullshit response like, "I don't like to set short-term goals, I just like to be constantly evolving, you know?" which is just a wanker way of saying "no"—and they go, "Ah," and then, "I do," and then you have to listen to them. They got you.
CONSIDERATIONS: Well, I mean, we all like to be cynical about the process of self-improvement, don't we, especially when other people's very real efforts to get on shine a light on and through our own perceived flaws, so like if we are feeling bad about our weight or caffeine intake or the amount of alcohol we drink and someone else is making a concerted effort to tackle exactly that in themselves, then I think it's a very human reaction to just very baselessly hate them for it and call them a twat, either in your head or to their face. I think that's what separates us from the animals. So there's that.
But then also there's a whole thing about if people are doing something to make themselves happier then that's nice too, so it's tricky. Basically: we all just want to be better people by the same old metric we use to judge whether something is good, and that metric is always the same, it's just we're the ones who shift around it. I'm just saying don't tell me about your diet please, lads, I put on seven pounds over Christmas and I'm pretty sure it's all stollen.
WHAT YOU SAY IN RESPONSE: I find if you want to distract someone from talking about the £160 running trainers they just bought because "they're trying to get out and run on their lunch hour more" then just hit them with any one of the conversational dead-ends above and below or, if you're feeling fruity, slam them with the old, "Thank you for telling me this."
SOMEONE HAS BOUGHT A GROSS LUNCH IN BECAUSE THEY WANT TO STOP SPENDING MONEY AT PRET
WHERE THIS CONVERSATION HAPPENS: In the kitchen, always, unless there is some sort of shared eating area, where a colleague will rock up next to you with a glowing Tupperware of microwaved fish and unseasoned brown rice and, when you look at it, go: "Last night's dinner. I'm tired of giving Pret my money. £6 for a sandwich? No thank you!"
CONSIDERATIONS: This person is always, always saving in a very doomed way for a flat deposit, and for some reason the lunches are the first bit to go on the new hell regime, as if eating lunch every day is some sort of wanton luxury and not a deeply necessary refuelling, and so they try it, for a week or two, always plain rice—perhaps they'll put a small bottle of sauce on their desk to "jazz it up a bit", but they rarely ever use it—and a simple protein is in there, too, and a really burnt-looking sweet potato, and they eat it cheerfully at first; then, after a few days, with a sort of deep in-the-bones resignation; then, by the end, fury—they are just mad at their little Tupperware of rice—and go out on a Tuesday to a nearby burger bar and blow, like, £26 on one big burger w/ shake, fries and cheesecake, and they just feel awful afterwards, and that dream of the flat is gone, because is it really worth living anywhere if you can't even eat a fresh sandwich at work now, and then, the next day, so predictably, they slink back from their lunch break with that telltale white bag: apple cider vinegar crisps, ham and greve baguette, latte and a love bar. Fucked it.
WHAT YOU SAY IN RESPONSE: You don't say anything. Just tip an entire bag of vegetable crisps into your mouth in one. Wordlessly chew £1.05 into a mush. Then, somehow, through the mess, choke out the words, "Thank you for telling me this."
SOME LAD WHO IS STRUGGLING WITH DRY JANUARY ON, LIKE, DAY THREE, WHICH IS ASTONISHING REALLY WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT IT
WHERE THIS CONVERSATION HAPPENS: At the water cooler. "Gor, just this for me now," he's saying, holding his forehead, filling a pint glass up. Turns to you. "Heavy Christmas. Even heavier New Year." Did you? "Err, think so: I forgot what I was drinking after the tenth pint!" Okay. "… of vodka! Only joking. No, doing that 'Dry January,' have you heard of it?" Yes, you say; you have heard of the most basic concept of seasonal sobriety. "Yeah, it's this new thing. Go all through January without drinking at all." He takes a half-step closer to you now, suddenly conspiratorial. "Although, to be honest, mate, I'm already struggling." It's 11 AM and I'm still hungover from three days ago. How is this man itching for a pint already? How is he not on a drip, in a hospital, dead?
CONSIDERATIONS: If you do Dry January and you mention you are doing Dry January anywhere before the 14th of January, go to the doctor and tell him you have a drinking problem, because you should off the bat be able to go two weeks without a pint without complaining about it.
WHAT YOU SAY IN RESPONSE: I don't know. "Thank you for telling me this"? Something like that??
SOMEONE WHO "WENT FOR A JOG YESTERDAY. DIDN'T LIKE IT MUCH!"
WHERE THIS CONVERSATION HAPPENS: Literally anywhere. The jogging people do not care for your social norms and boundaries. Plus, they can run up to you. One moment you're alone in a rec room, quietly thinking about setting off a fire alarm to see if you all get sent home early, and boom: here's a jogger, in full Lycra somehow, stretching out their hamstrings. "Second jog of the year," they say, unbidden. "Went out for one yesterday—5k, not ran since December 23rd." Did they like it? Wait for it—wait for it. Wait for it. "Didn't like it much!"
CONSIDERATIONS: On one hand, it's good that they didn't like it much. On the other hand: I do think that, secretly, they did actually like it. So it's tricky, isn't it? We all want the joggers to be unhappy. But we also want them to be quiet about it.
WHAT YOU SAY IN RESPONSE: "Thank you for telling me this."
"DON'T WANT TO BE BACK"
WHERE THIS CONVERSATION HAPPENS: It's not even a conversation; it's just a whine that emerges, a hum that sits high on the air for just a moment or two too long, a mass regression. We are all toddlers today. We are all toddlers, impatient and crabby. We are all stamping our little toddler feet, balled up little toddler fists by our sides. We are all toddlers who are at work in front of our computers, almost in tears with it, and going: "Don't want to be back."
CONSIDERATIONS: Nobody wants to be back, right? So saying "don't want to be back" is necessarily useless. However: has anyone considered how little I, the most persecuted man in history, want to be back? I don't want to be back. I want to be on a sofa, in my new dressing gown, eating exquisite foreign biscuits off a small clean plate. I want to watch family-friendly films in the middle of the day and slowly peel a satsuma. I don't want it to end. I don't want it to be over. Shower me with gifts and food again. Put on the fairy lights and bring me gammon and attention. Without them life is hell.
WHAT YOU SAY IN RESPONSE: "Don't want to be back either."
"YOU KNOW, YOU'VE HAMSTRUNG ME HERE. YOU'VE GONE OVER EVERY POSSIBLE CONVERSATION I CAN HAVE WITH YOU TODAY. THERE IS LITERALLY NOTHING I CAN SAY TO YOU NOW. YOU'VE ALREADY TAKEN THE PISS. I DON'T KNOW WHY I TALK TO YOU, JOEL. WHAT AM I MEANT TO SAY TO YOU NOW? I CAN'T EVEN ASK HOW YOUR CHRISTMAS WAS. IT—IT'S JUST SMALLTALK, MATE. JUST A LITTLE SOCIAL LUBRICATION TO OIL THE WHEELS OF THE DAY. IS THERE ANYTHING YOU CAN'T BE A COMPLETE FUCKING TWAT OVER? FUCKING HELL. FUCKING HELL."
WHERE THIS CONVERSATION HAPPENS: Exclusively in front of and towards me.
CONSIDERATIONS: I had not considered this. I have, as our lord and saviour DJ Khaled might say, played myself.
WHAT YOU SAY IN RESPONSE: The "you" in this case being… me? God, I don't know any more. Ah, mate: by turning my misery alchemy-like into content, I have condemned myself to an entire day and maybe a bit of the week to people not talking to me. Fucking hell. This is what 2017 is going to be like, isn't it? Long year ahead. Long, long year.