Accidental Engineer

‘Do people not go to fuckin meetings anymore? Face-to-face?’ I said, stuffing a laptop into my backpack with haste. ‘And you!’ I pointed at my boss—‘I expected better from you!’
    ‘What you wanna go to the meeting for? They sent out an online invite.’
    ‘I wanna see the white of someone’s eyes!’ and with that I swung my backpack on and rushed out of the office.
    The temperature was falling, day by September day. It was sunny in the city, and it was cool; my favourite weather, when the blue is for you, cut tremulously by a falling leaf, always one in shot, picking like fingernails along the kerbside; the sun is lower, emphasising in black & white the contours of faces, the bricks of buildings, before the dim of winter freezes everything in a shadowless blur. There was a vague precision of direction. Smithfields was shuttered, the odour of cold meat bleating over the pavements in detergent dark stains; white fridges inside, all hollowed and empty. I came upon new streets, lanes, markets and backstreets, but had not time to pause and appreciate. Although I am uneasy in public, on rare occasions I am joyful for it, and this was one of them; I sung along to music, smoking a cigarette, cursing at my new shoes. It was indeed a beautiful day, and I was glad. Autumn! how I love autumn!
    After no more than fifteen minutes, (having passed a bar I, two years ago, went to on a date with a quite repugnant Italian woman, absorbed in self-importance and entitlement; my passing its worn wooden tables summoning a grin) I found myself before a large old building with steps leading up to a grand doorway, looking somewhat like a decommissioned town hall. The address was correct, although I did not believe it. Inside, there was a hall, empty, but for an African man behind some glass, who smiled at me and began gesticulating in a manner I could not understand. I tried—‘I’m supposed to stand here?’ He waved some more. ‘Here? Will someone come down?’ Still he refused to say anything, just smiling and moving his hands, both hands playfully. ‘I’m here to see…’ but he shook his hands and head and smiled as if I were disclosing a secret he did not wish to be a part of. I stood still and took a sip of water. There were two men next to me, each introducing themselves by turn, forgetting their names as soon as I heard them. One of them motioned for us to climb the stairs. The stairs, too, were grand, marble bannisters, and wide; stairs that one could imagine the love of their lives descending in an extravagant gown or dinner suit. I was struck, yes, that the building, almost incomprehensible in scale, was silent as a library. Only six feet scuffing a red carpet runner upwards.
    He knocked on a small door with a number next to it. Within moments, it was opened and the client stood before us. I was last to enter, assuming a standing I had assigned to myself on account of importance, age and qualification.
    I had met the client two weeks previous at a boutique hotel he owned in the west end. Immediately he appealed to me. Some people – albeit very rarely – possess a magnetism that is hard to articulate. If one is sensitive to such things, then it is really something. Back then he was dressed in a tailored suit, with his dress shirt undone halfway down his chest, clicking in bracelets and necklaces; we shook hands and our eyes met; his grip was undeniable, firm but not imposing. I imagine great generals, conductors and historians possess such a quality.
    Again, he greeted me warmly.
    There was a faint smell of marijuana that was then overcome by tobacco smoke. I entered and acclimated myself to the surroundings, as I usually did when walking into a meeting room full of people. My eyes adjusted.
    It was a cavernous room, two storeys tall. There were three panelled windows that reached full height, and grandiose columns holding everything up. There was art everywhere. After the windows, one’s eyes were drawn to the art; it covered the walls, the floor, there were tables and plinths, podiums upon which art rested, paintings, photographic prints, sculptures. There was a sofa as long as my flat. There was a bean bag – or perhaps a sculpture itself – as wide as my flat. There were four coffee tables, each bigger than the last, and all of them bowing under the weight of art books. On the first floor, behind balconies, there was the library, rows and rows of books, taking up the walls. Into the balconies were sculptures belonging to the original building. In the middle of the room, a long table was covered in paper, laptops, glass ashtrays, packets of cigarettes, bottles of water, chocolates, speakers, tumblers, candles, and more delicate sculptures afforded the smallest of berths. I spun, astounded, before someone directed me to the head of the table. I went anticlockwise, shaking everyone’s hand. They were most genial. I took my seat, unable to stop gazing around. The client brought me a large wine glass filled with cold water, and I thanked him. He then carried over a tray of truffles and I said no thank you. It soon became apparent that this was his apartment. I half-expected the Velvet Underground should appear and perform an impromptu gig; or Capote with a martini; it seemed like that kind of place.
    The meeting began and I remembered I was employed. There were people milling about in the background, busying themselves, who knows what they were up to. The client – the art collector – chainsmoked through proceedings, offering input when he felt inclined. I spoke frequently, and with assurance. There was a groove I had found myself in. Often times I became distracted by the contents of the room and looked around in wide-eyed wonderment.
    Towards the end of the meeting, a remarkable thing happened. Always something remarkable must happen, otherwise it is an unremarkable day and there would be nothing to pen. I was sitting on my chair in the meeting and next to me, at an angle and plain for all to see, not just me, was a parallelogram of light from the window in strong sunlight. It was only sunlight though and we, all of us, have sunlight, but boldly trees outside the window – sweet planetrees of London – were ruffling in the latesummer winds to shimmer and distort the white that fell at my feet. I smiled to myself: how far the sun had travelled to this spectacular setting until it was interrupted at the last second by something as insignificant as a tree!
    The end of a meeting is sometimes like the end of a mass from my childhood; everyone assembles themselves quite somberly, gathers their possessions, they file out with mild words, exchanging niceties, they shake hands at the door; after all the noise and ceremony, there remains only the stillness of humans being.
    The head of the architectural practice struck up a conversation with me, after arising to shake my hand – I was, of course, the first to break the timid silence with a ‘good-bye all!’ I told him that it was a magnificent space, and he informed me he had designed it, and began to tell me all the details, to which I listened with keen interest. It was not long before others joined too in our light chatter. The quantity surveyor started to speak to the art collector of an installation he had heard of but could not recall. I allowed him to struggle for a moment before I reminded him of the artist and gallery. ‘Yes, that’s it!’ he said. The art collector stared at me and I avoided his stare as though it was nothing. He must have thought—What kind of engineer is this? An accidental engineer, I replied secretly.
    The structural engineer and I left together. To avoid his company, I slowed my pace on the red stair carpet until I was silent; he walked on; and I hid behind a wall so that I might leave alone. He disappeared, oblivious, thinking I was at his side all along! I smiled with relief.
    I walked back to the office at my leisure, afforded the time I had missed on my way there. The stiff leather of cursed shoes cut into my ankle and heels, yet I strode slowly, relishing the pain and scenery of north London. The sun burst upon me, undisturbed. Even passing by an old architect’s office, I was reminded of my previous company and dear friend there, who warmed me just with his remembrance. Outside of cafes and workshop windows, I paused to peer inside. Everybody moved unobserved.
    Not far away, many queued for miles to honour a dead queen.
    When I got back to the office, I quickly exclaimed of my meeting’s setting and how wonderful it was. My colleagues and boss all poked fun at me—‘I’ve been somewhere just like that! Better even!’ ‘You need to get out more, mate!’ ‘O yeah, I know that place, it’s all right…’ I groaned, turning to unwrap my sandwich from its plastic; it breathed back at me. I put my headphones on and watched something on my computer. The man opposite me – a junior, although paid more and in a better position – poked his head around the side and asked me a question. I held my hand aloft like the African from earlier—‘Fuck off,’ I said, ‘I sure as shit didn’t interrupt you on your lunchbreak. I’ll speak to you once I’m finished.’ His head recoiled. He began to mutter obscenities at me. My boss, who had also been poking fun with the others, messaged me on my personal phone, flashing up, which I read—‘You left me to lunch with him…’ I responded—‘I’m a cunt hair away from stabbing him. Particularly annoying today.’ A draughtsperson approached and I shooed her away, too.
    There was a man in the five o’clock café who I recognised. I walked up to him and said—‘I was speaking to someone the other day who knows you.’ He said his name back at me. ‘Yes,’ I said. He introduced me to his beautiful Italian wife who was uninterested. We ordered the same coffee, and I waited as he stirred in some sugar and we walked out of the café together, exchanging memories.