The Body of an American

To John—Just a quick question…—Firstly, I just wanted to say a big personal thank you for all your help whilst at J &Son. Both as a mate & a colleague. I certainly wouldn’t have stayed sane if it wasn’t for our daily rant on the phone and general laughs we have had in the office, I’ll miss all the short jokes & asking you what you have had for dinner.—Really hope you enjoy your new place and I’m sure you’ll absolutely smash it there & I hope there is someone there my height so you can recycle all your fantastic jokes.—In all seriousness, thank you! and good luck.—Up the chels – keep the blue flag flying high!—Much love, James xx

John,—For the last 5 years I have been swapping your imported designer coffee for the Tesco value brand.—All the best—James

John,—Good luck for your new job! Sad to see you go!—Best wishes – Jenny

All the best in your new job, John (wherever it is you’re off to!) Thanks for not making the work too hard for me on my first day.—Take care, Jenny

John,—All the best for the future. Stay happy and never change!! Good luck in the new job.—James

John!—I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time.—FINALLY you and that attempted northern accent are out of here!—All the best in the future, geez, and I hope the next spot isn’t a shithole.—James ︎

Pieces!—Going to miss all of your ‘short’ jokes but I’m sure I’ll ‘shake’ it off in not time.—Honestly will miss you around the office and being your colleague, mate. All the best for your future – you will smash it. Up the Chelsea, keep the blue flag flying high.—Much love, James x

Hopefully it would brighten up, I thought, but at that moment the boardroom was awash with dirty grey London skies, drowning out the overhead luminaires, and beneath them all sat a director who, upon my entry, shuffled himself straight in the chair. I prepared myself with a mischievous grin and sat down, but not before I set my coffee and laptop down in front of me. Straight away, with a lungful, he bellowed—‘Right, let’s get this out the way… that e-mail! You do not e-mail me like that!’

‘O here we go,’ I said.

‘No, don’t give me that. You don’t talk to me like that!’

I rolled my eyes and leaned back in the chair. My coffee was warm enough for me to sip, but I wanted to hold it off just a little longer, to look forward to it, longing. Instead of sipping, I said—‘Everything I wrote in that e-mail was fucking bang-on. I don’t regret a single word of it.’

He slammed the desk—‘If I had forwarded that on to [managing director], then—’
‘Yeah, but you didn’t! … And we both know why you didn’t!’
‘Why didn’t I, then?’

‘Because he would’ve hammered you for not getting this all sorted out beforehand, for leaving it till the last minute. I’m out the door. He don’t care about me.’ I let the words hang for a moment. It was still very grey outside. There was a seagull on the lead coping of the building opposite. The seagull was hoping from one ledge to the next, it appeared to me to be practicing its balancing; it was focusing tiny black eyes on its exercise and its plumage was neat, white, shimmering even in the grey light. ‘And, believe me, that e-mail was the polite version – the edited version! If I’d sent you the original, you’d probably be punching me in the face right about now.’ At this point, my friend, who was also sat at the large table and had resorted to nervously sipping his coffee, excused himself.

‘But formally, tomorrow is your last day,’ he said at last, the door shut.
I sighed—‘It’s not and you know it’s not.’
‘It’s one extra day. We’ll fucking pay you!’
‘I don’t give a fuck about the money. Keep the fucking money. I don’t want it. Today is my last day. We agreed it.’
‘Why won’t you work it?’
‘It’s a matter of principle now.’
‘O, don’t give me that “principle” bollocks!’

‘I will give you that “principle” bollocks… I’ll tell you what,’ I said, leaning across the desk, enflamed with the guts of someone who no longer has anything to lose—‘I would’ve worked tomorrow. I would’ve worked it. If you’d came with the right attitude… if you’d said—“Sorry, mate, your leaving has snuck up on us and we’ve still got some shit to sort out. I know I said Thursday’s your last day, but are you available to go over some things Friday?” I would’ve said yes. I would’ve! Because I don’t want to leave you in the shit, I don’t want to leave my mates in the shit. But you didn’t, did you?’ I asked the question into his eyes, and he turned away. ‘No. Because that’s not your style. I’m sick of it. Todayis my last day.’ I finally sipped the coffee. ‘Now let’s crack on because I’ve got a shitload to do.’
John,—End of another era. Not many of the ‘old school’ left. Good luck in your new job! James

John,—Sorry to hear you’re leaving after such a long time. Thanks for all your help and being a great colleague. Good luck with your new endeavour. Keep in touch!! James

John—I’m going to miss you, my friend. Onwards & upwards. Enjoy but don’t be a stranger. All the best, James. PS Sorry writing is shit!!

All the best, John. Good luck and hope it works out well for you. James

John,—All the best for the future! Sure I’ll see you around [redacted]!!—James

John,—Definitely going to miss you… going to have no-one to insult!—James

Happy easter—Love James xx

The meeting carried on once my friend re-entered the room, and during the course of proceedings, my director’s demeanour changed and within a couple of hours he was his usual self, the self that I preferred most of all over the fifteen years of us working together. I bore no sour grapes. Back at my desk, I would occasionally be inclined to remember that it was indeed my last day, and yet it did not seem real, did not seem solid. Catching myself looking around in circles, regarding with finality the furniture and the dull silence of printers and air conditioning, the tremors of half-a-phonecalls. Next to me was a large giftbag, a hanging tag of—‘From your favourite little man x’ I smiled every time I looked at it, bringing tearyeyed joy; and the first time I had seen it, walking into the office at quarter-to-eight, I was so choked up that I could barely thank him coherently, without trailing off to the toilet.

At lunch, taken later after another delayed meeting, I realised fully that it was the last time I would perform that route of footsteps about the city. What I had walked so many times had at last come to rest upon that final loop. There was the quiet alleyway; there the Dutch church and people lunching in the sun; there the binman in the same spot he was each day at my departure; there the security guard kept watchful outside the bank; there the pub; there the cornershop I patronised; there the dim lane between old buildings where the pathway dipped to the middle of old cobbles collecting puddles. As I had done that very first time, so I looked up and all around me, always trying to see with ‘soft eyes’ the things I never grew bored of, after all this time. How wonderful it might have been to do so in the full swell of summer city’s before! I snuck past my new office-to-be, glancing out sideeyed, wondering at all the time that would come to pass and then how familiar it would become, and everything else historic. Soon I was back on London Wall and in my ears, beneath headphones, I could still hear the rap of my heels over streets; sounding like moving.

And then finally, once the closing tumult of habit had faded away, I fell to the remembrance of Her. Always Her. How we had rounded this corner and that. How back there I had placed my March hands into gloves with Her. How at that spot there – right there! – we had joked with each other, and I remembered us laughing, both of us laughing, and when we were laughing together there was no better feeling. I could still smell her, could still feel her knuckles between mine. I came past the sushi café we went to for lunch, now dark and abandoned, faded advertisements of reopening-soon and get-these-in-your-local-supermarket. I paused and looked into the darkness, spotting in the back and distant, the table we sat at the end of her first visit, when we both had not yet voiced how we felt, although unbeknownst to me there was a note in Her scrawl on my coffee table that five hours later I would read with sad and happy red eyes. And then coming back towards the office, my last and final length, outside of the newsagents where She would meet me after work. The newsagents vacant too, gloomy about the dust, but where She waited for me to finish work; and as I approached Her, the happiness new to me, Her little dance of stretches that She timidly played on the worn pavement. What a treat it would be to go through that spot and not be overwhelmed by Her ghost! Even so, I kiss Her ghost on the lips, for what else is there? I will have no cause, I thought, to pass that place again.
John,—It has been an absolute pleasure to work with you & be your friend for the last 8 years! ︎ Thanks for all the fun nights out and I’m sure there will be many more! All the best ︎ Jenny—PS. Is it alright if I go now?

John—As I look back on our time together, I can honestly describe you as one of the people I happened to work with. ︎—P.S. Wherever you’re going, they’re lucky to have you!—James

John, can’t believe you’re leaving! All the best for the future, mate. Been great working with ya, much love, your friend James

John!!!???? —All the best for the future, we will all miss you round the office. —James

Good luck in the new place, John! Thank you for making me laugh every day and making J &Sons bearable! You will be missed but we will always have old codgers’ nights every six months ︎ —Lots of love, Jenny, aka [redacted] x

Dear John—It’s been far too long! Have enjoyed every second (not so much with the sound effects!)—All the very best—James

Hey John—It’s been good working with you if only for a short time.—All the best & good luck—James

John (E Poo)—Been a pleasure in all aspects – best of luck in your new position & keep in touch – you’ll be missed – best, James


At my desk, I was eating my lunch with headphones in and a crossword on the screen in front of me. A coworker and fellow smoker approached from behind and scared me with a booming laugh—‘I’m going to miss the sight of you and your crosswords!’ I smiled. At quarter-to-four, another meeting was spontaneously arranged, although I had neither the time nor interest in it. I slouched there, again with a black coffee. The lid had small balls of condensation that I rolled around, then dripped onto the desk and smeared with my finger in circles until they dried. If a question was asked of me, I answered without hesitation, then went back to my condensation in circles. ‘What time we going down the pub?’ people asked me as I left to urinate. I told them to go on without me, who knows how long I will be in there. At five o’clock, just beyond the glass partition of the boardroom, I watched my colleagues walk past, look in at me and raise their eyebrows. It was a grand event, for it had been eighteen months since everyone – this group of friends we were – had been out at once. They were all excited and I itched my palms as I mouthed apologies and excuses to them.

The office floor was empty by the time I had finished. I stood in the centre and looked all around. Not a sound. Even the air conditioning had ceased. There were stripes of desks and tall white walls, there were windows and grey carpet, the chairs tucked in, the silence sorrowful. What had I expected after fourteen years than to watch the number of the approaching lift from G to 5, and sound at me, my reflection in the car’s mirror after I had taken one last look at it all, but in the quiet, without people, it was nothing at all.

The sun was heavy and the air just as much. My heart beat quickly, fluttering with a terrific weight. Nerves tumbled inside me and I began to focus on my breathing as I turned the corner off Bishopsgate into Spitalfields, and all of it alive and bustling! I spotted them seated at a long table outside of a busy pub. As I approached, someone called my name and everyone started to clap and to cheer. I lowered my face, smiling, shaking my head. A dear friend who I had not seen in months; I said hello to him and sat down beside; holding my trembling hands out, trying to catch my breath. Someone shoved a beer in front of me. There were faces all around, new and old, gazes met and hellos exchanged by smile, nod or wink; my heart wished to leap out of my chest; I sought to soothe it and was confronted with a barrage of questions and so forth that I answered briefly. For a moment I shrunk behind the shoulder of my dear friend, until, after ten minutes, I could emerge and begin to engage.

A large brown envelope was thrust before me. ‘Sorry,’ came a voice—‘but someone lost the envelope.’ I asked if I should open it then, and they all cried yes, so I read the card. I could not take it all in, but I chuckled and my tremors intensified at times. I came to a particularly wonderful note, and, as the gentleman in question was sat next to me, I wished to embrace him, to squeeze his thigh and thank him through a cheekful of tears, but instead I simply choked—‘That’s a lovely message, James. Thank you, thank you.’
[redacted] aka (Millions of)—Well it’s an end of an era. Can’t believe you’re leaving but as they say all good things must come to an end. Am going to miss your quick wits, lightning retorts and your crass & crap impressions. I doubt you will miss my singing of crap songs, leaving earworms, songs stuck in your head or my accents.—Stop with the f**king accents!—I’m sure we will catch up over a pint in a few weeks.—Good luck with everything.—Take care, mate—Much love—James x

John,—It’s been great working with you for the past 2 years.—Hope all goes well in the next place.—James

You’re still here?! I thought we got rid of all the deadweight. Surprised you’ve managed to shake off all attempts of people trying to fire you. In all honesty, wish you the absolute best in your graduate role.—Lots of love, James xx

Best of luck, John and thanks for propping me (& J &Sons) up for the last 5 years, Solid set of hands! James

All the best, John. Good luck, James

John—All the best in the future. I’m sure we will meet up for a drink soon.—James

John!—All the best with your new career venture. You will be dearly missed and will be an asset at the new company. Hopefully we will still be able to go out for a few beers at your new job. James

John—So sorry to see you go.—It’s been a pleasure knowing you.—You will be greatly missed.—All the best on your new role.—Take care xx Jenny xx

I only feared for the future of this place twice:—When [the chairman] left and now.—Coming to the office during the lockdown only made sense for one and a half reasons. The reason was being in the presence of your unique personality and sense of humour. The half reason was that convoluted email that [redacted] sent and I am still trying to make sense of.—Oh John, you will be missed! The office will not be the same without you. I don’t blame you for leaving, only for beating me at it!—Who will write something witty on my leaving card now that you are gone? Sad, but also happy for you.—James

There was a time when I sighed. The scene dawned upon me. It felt like something. The sun came down in bold shafts that twinkled off the scenery, there were people all around and the mood was fine, no one was drunk or angry, the warm sound of animals talking so sweetly and their laughter bright like a chime. I reflected gaily that it was indeed wonderful to be out again, and they agreed, and we all smiled. The evening party passed in a series of blurs. I mingled. As the night turned, so people appeared before me and offered sad good-byes, and we embraced. Some good-byes were tougher than others, some embraces longer; old friends, drinking buddies, people who I have worked closely with for years and who, during lockdown, became even more important; they embraced me fully and I them, big chests pressed against my own, kisses and honest words, a last drain of emotion and kindness; ‘I will miss you.’ In all of this, though, the occasion escaped my comprehension, and it was really just a good night out and never my farewell. What kind of final hurrah could I muster? As it was my turn to leave, I announced it so to the last few remaining. I made my good-byes to all, but those who I had grown to love, those who I had known for a decade or more, I held close and drew into my hug. All terror and dislike for such displays were dismissed. And so, at the bar I approached the director with whom I had argued with that morning. He arose off the stall, shook my hand and then embraced me tightly and I with my arms around him. ‘Good luck, son.’ He broke off and placed both hands on my cheeks, called me ‘son’ again and said that I was going to be great, and he kissed me on the side of my face. I smiled and thanked him, for this and for everything he had done for me and he thanked me, too. Then I rushed for the train with my friend.

We sat there, drunk, vociferous but unclumsy, in a long sedate carriage of the last train home as it stormed out to the country with midnight’s black curtains over the windows. He was one such dear friend who I had worked with for twelve years before leaving the company two years ago, and had invited me to his wedding. He sat there, opposite me in the booth, saying how good it was that I was leaving, how it would be the best decision I ever made. It was a peaceful denouement to the evening, and in no time at all the hour’s journey had passed. At its end, I shook his hand and leaned down to say my true good-bye. His train fled the station, leaving me behind in the one a.m. hush. I smoked for a while outside, then addressed the waiting cabbie—‘Do you accept card?’ He said nothing and neither did I, but balancing my gaze on the immobile stars, grinning like a fool, completely satisfied and calm, I ran my hand over the cold empty seat next to me. I did not look at the meter. My brother and his girlfriend had fallen asleep on the sofa with a horror film playing on the television. The microwave pinged. I ate alone at the kitchen table. Because of everything that filled me, everything that sung its emotion throughout my frame, I understood that I had neither fear nor regret, and was now between the end and the beginning of something.