I went into my office for the first time in 18 months. The university set up a mandatory ‘return to work’ Moodle course last summer, but the requirement to work from home was only lifted on 1 September.
It was a warm, sunny day, possibly the last warm, sunny day of the year, since autumn has already chilled the air and shortened the days, and I was restless after yet another day working at home alone. I didn’t really need to go shopping, again, and I’d already been for a run, but I needed to go out into the world, again.
None of my immediate colleagues have any plans to return to the office any time soon, and I expected to be the only person in the building. I wasn’t going to work, just to look, to revisit a taken-for-granted life that had ended suddenly on 23 March 2020. What had the old me left behind? I knew there was a bag of dance clothes in my drawer and it was possible that my ballet shoes had grown mushrooms in my drawer. I’d bought a new pair, online, about a year ago, in a short-lived attempt to do barre practice at home.
The street door was locked, and I couldn’t get the key to fit. A university employee in a monogrammed shirt stopped and asked if I needed help.
‘I’ve forgotten which key goes in the front door. It’s been so long.’
He grinned, and only then remembered to ask if I was a university employee. (Would I be breaking in with a key?) He didn’t ask to see my card.
The lobby was dark. Three different hand sanitiser dispensers stood in one corner, one mounted on the wall. Carefully spaced arrows and outlined footprints had been stuck on the floor and up the stairs. In last summer’s Moodle, staff had been instructed to follow all the new instructions about how socially distance while moving around buildings. Last summer, the estates staff had gone around and set out adhesive footprints and sanitiser stations in preparation for the big return that had turned into another lockdown.
Even though I was obviously the only one in the building, I sanitised my hands. The first dispenser I tried was empty.
I thought I’d feel some spark of emotion on unlocking the two doors that led to my inner office, a former professorial sanctum, but the eighteen months suddenly shrank into no time at all.
Everything was tidy, just as I’d left it, no Miss Havisham cobwebs or layers of dust. I keep a neat desk. The only sign of expired time was that some of my Vietnam postcards, stuck to the wall over my desk with Blu-Tac, had fallen off.
I already worked three days at home back in 2019-2020, and I don’t remember the last day I came into the office.
My various workplaces have often seemed places of paid incarceration and I wouldn’t say I missed my office, which mostly belonged to the professor (now retired), but I miss being around other people. As much as I love my home, I also need to be out in the world, and for me, as for many people, work is how I engage in the greater world beyond domesticity and friendship. Being on an institutional email list isn’t enough.
There was no reason to linger. I took a few books, my unsprouted ballet shoes and an almost full box of Superdrug lens wipes (bingo!) and left, locking up the deserted department building behind me.
On the way down the hill, towards M&S, I passed a woman at a camp table, set up on the strip of park between the car park and the row of Victorian villas owned by the university. The table was covered in little potted spider plants, advertised at £2 each. She was sitting on a camp chair and reading a book.
‘Do they need sun or shade?’ I asked.
I have more shade than sun in my flat, although in those full summer days back in July, the light singed the asparagus and maidenhair ferns in my deep bathroom windowsill.
‘They don’t really mind,’ said the woman. ‘They’re not fussy.’
I can find space for one small spider plant, especially if it’s not fussy.
I said I’d been in my office for the first time in eighteen months and she rolled her eyes.
‘I’m so sick of Zoom!’
The experience of the pandemic has been both universally shared and personally specific. Zoom has become shorthand for the shared experience of lockdown office work, even for those, like me, whose Zoomage has been very low.
As I neared my building, I passed the corner tenement where a black and white cat often sits basking on the window ledge. A week ago, I saw flyers bearing its photo, proclaiming Zozo to be missing and requesting help in his return.
Zozo is the third cat who has gone missing in this part of town in the last month or so, after Sophia, who swam across the Kelvin, and beautiful Bagheera the black bandana cat, whose feline portraits have adorned multiple lampposts and rubbish bins. I’d thought of the security guard down in Brighton, obviously mad and evil, recently convicted of killing local cats, and feared the worst.
A few weeks ago, I’d seen two young women coming out of Bagheera’s house and missed my opportunity to ask if she’d come home. The signs have been taken down, but I haven’t seen her, so I think the answer must be no.
An elderly lady was sitting in the narrow garden outside Zozo’s house, in a suntrap arbour chair I’ve often envied as I walk past.
‘Have you found Zozo?’ I asked.
Her eyes took a minute to focus on the stranger on the other side of the fence.
‘Yes, he’s back. He was in a garden across the road. The people rang me.’
I told her about the other missing cats and said I was glad she had Zozo back.