In my worst nightmares, I am like Hugh from work.
Hugh has been promoted twice in the time I've known him, but he still wears the same clothes as when we first met: mustard coloured pullovers, polo necks, moleskin trousers. He seems to pick his clothes purely on their ability to trap and hold the dandruff that drifts, in slow motion as if in a snowglobe, from his greasy dark hair. It is beginning to go grey.
He never seems to clean his clothes either. We spot an odd stain on a moleskin jacket, and track it over many, many weeks. It does not disappear, and we are disgusted by that but not surprised. We speculate about what it is; the charitable guesses involve food, or baby drool, the less charitable ones don’t bear repetition. Initially, we think he doesn't own a suit but we are proved wrong one day when he turns up in one for an important meeting. It looks as if it’s a lightweight polyester blend and it probably cost less than my cufflinks, though he earns considerably more than I do. Ironically it may well be machine washable, though he will never find out.
His chair smells; it never takes too long for people to notice. When he’s in the office, the person at the next desk starts to complain within fifteen minutes.
When he talks about his wife he never says her name, it’s always “the wife” and when he talks about his child it’s always “the baby”. You could be forgiven for thinking that he has forgotten his child’s name. It all sounds functional and efficient, as if their courtship was a merger or an acquisition. There isn’t even the slightest hint that there might be a life for him outside this network of meeting rooms and corridors, organisational charts and project plans.
We all assumed he was happy but then at one Christmas party he told one of us that he wasn’t, in a way that makes the listener feel uncomfortable. It's a secret that should never have come out of the box, a box we didn't even know he had. Now we all know, and he doesn’t know that, and everything has an extra dimension which is hidden to him. It makes him make more sense to us, it makes everything more sad.
He seems boyish, he has an almost endless desire to please and that puppy-doggish quality is most obvious at lunch. He is a messy eater. There is always something caught in the corner of his rubbery bottom lip. I have a feeling he eats with his mouth open, though I try my best to look away.
He likes to hold court when we sit round the table. He will talk about something that was on television the night before, or something in the news, and he has some jokes prepared on the topic of the day. It feels mechanical, as if he’s learned it from a book on how to relate to people. You can hear the grinding of the gears, or you would if he stopped talking long enough.
Perhaps the most painful thing is when he regales us with his impersonations. He can impersonate former bosses, former colleagues, famous people. Every lunchtime he finds a way to bring them into the conversation and it doesn’t matter whether it's relevant to what we're talking about, because he’ll showcase his skills none the less. His public expects it, and he can’t disappoint them. And because we can’t disappoint him either, we all laugh - not because we love his impersonations, but because he thinks we do. We are also doing an impersonation, but he doesn’t realise that.
It must be terrible to be Hugh. He has no idea that none of us like him.
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