“Don’t do it!” we shouted, with our usual mirthful, carefree abandon.
Bob looked up and around at us, a tiny smile appeared at the side of his mouth. I can’t remember exactly what he said as we passed him by, but it was something to the effect of: “I’m just having a rest.”
The bridge was the halfway point between our office and the bus station. Our place of work, Centenary House, was the most miserable, sick office in Scotland. It was practically abandoned, apart from a security guard on the ground floor and a single floor of temporary staff. The floors above and below us were empty, dead. Everyone who worked there called the building Cemetery House.
Colvin and I would celebrate leaving the damp, dripping corridors of Cemetery House every day of the week. We’d cross the Clyde and wander into as many record shops as we could on our way up to the bus station. We travelled by bus because it was cheaper than the train and more spare cash meant more records. We gave our mothers money every month and what was left after our travel expenses was our own. Other than work deadlines and staving off repetitive office brain death strain, we didn’t have any worries in the world. We naturally assumed no one else did either.
Then, one day, we met Bob on the bridge.
Bob was some kind of supervisor. Maybe he was a manager. To be honest, we didn’t know his job title, let alone his surname. Colvin only knew he was Bob because he’d been polite enough to ask. Bob would queue up at the drinks machine at 9.30 every morning, same time as us. The coffee was vile but it got us away from our desks, gave us a change of scenery. Not that anywhere in Cemetery House was anything but gloomy. Bob would have white tea at 9.30am, then would come back at midday for chicken soup. Colvin told me that, he used to notice these things. Colvin even knew where his desk was.
When we met Bob on the bridge that winter day, it was the first time we’d seen him outside of work. It took us ten minutes, at an ambling pace, to get to the bridge from Cemetery House. We saw Bob as soon as we turned the corner, standing almost exactly at the halfway point, staring over the wall, down into the Clyde. I said to Colvin something like, “oh, there’s Bob! I hope he’s not going to jump into the river.”
Colvin chortled. So we both shouted: “Don’t do it!” It was the funny thing to say. We were nineteen.
* * *
I’ve had dreams about Bob before. I still have them. It was only a ten minute walk to the bridge from Cemetery House, why did he need a rest? The dreams sometimes make me cry.
I have no recollection of seeing Bob again after that day. I know for a fact he went on the sick for a while. I don’t know what age he was then, but I’m guessing he was marginally older than my parents. Marginally older than I am now. Or maybe he just looked it.
One day, shortly before the job in Cemetery House came to an abrupt end, Colvin said to me: “You know how we shouted ‘don’t do it’? I think we were right.”
I wish I’d noticed Bob more. I wish I’d really seen the way he smiled at us on the bridge. What registered was that he smiled with the corner of his mouth only; his eyes didn’t smile at all.
He was probably in his late 40s. He worked as some kind of middle manager in a hastily-organised emergency office for government administration. The office was set up in Glasgow because Scots like Bob and us would work for less money than anyone else in Britain. Cemetery House was, by design, a dead end job.
Bob wore a shirt and tie to work while everyone who worked for him wore what they liked. He may or may not have wondered why he dressed that way, what it signified, what it meant to him and those around him. If they even noticed. He may or may not have had a family, Colvin never asked him. All we wanted at 9.30am was a gritty, grimy coffee to punctuate our day. We didn’t have a care in the world. We naturally assumed no one else did either.
Colvin also reminded me that Bob always wore glasses in the office, even when at the drinks machine. They weren’t reading glasses. When Colvin and I saw Bob on the bridge, staring into the dark water, he wasn’t wearing his glasses.
If I dream of Bob tonight, I hope I remember to ask him about all of these things.