Rowan Pelling: In my office, there's always someone going bump in the night

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The Independent Online

Anyone who has read The Secret Garden will remember its haunting opening, in which young Mary Crawford wakes to a silent house, devoid of any human voices or bustle – it later transpires that the area is stricken by cholera.

I thought of poor Mary one morning last week when I woke in an eerie void; a silence sinister enough to rouse me from my slumbers. Had I been at home in Cambridge, it wouldn't have been odd; it would just have meant my husband had risen early to commune with his beetroot. But I was in London, in Regent Street, huddled under a pile of coats on my office floor, and this was most irregular.

As a veteran of workplace sleepovers, I have an intimate knowledge of the sounds an office makes as it wakes up. At 6am the cleaners arrive and Hoover round you with the mute resignation of people who spend the small hours gazing at carpet tiles. Then there are the aliens in human-shaped pods on the floor below who breeze to their desks at 8.30am sharp, while your own workforce are still tucked up with Sue MacGregor. You hear the aliens exchanging metallic good mornings as you pull your boss's mac over your head to block out the sun glaring through the windows. At 9am some treacherous jobsworth from your own office lets herself in to "get on top of some paperwork". This person, freshly laundered with a designer coffee in her hand, is the horrific embodiment of a new working day forcing its existence upon you. She's looking at you with equal horror because she's just tripped over a bundle of rags, spilt half her latte, then realised it's you.

Private Eye's Soho office, in which I worked 10 years ago, had its own idiosyncratic nocturnal rhythm. Ian Hislop and the day troops would filter out around 6ish, then a second shadowy force emerged in the manner of Mary Norton's Borrowers. My familiarity with this tribe was due to the fact that I was practically living in the office, sleeping on the sagging sofa in reception. My official accommodation was a squalid bedsit in Maida Vale, which I shared with a girlfriend. Frankly, the office was less crowded. At the weekends it was pretty much me watching movies on Ian's TV, but in the weekdays there was a steady flow of traffic.

Some nights it was the Johns, a bearded warlock and his friend the crop-circle expert, who came to format pamphlets on bizarre phenomena. They were ably assisted by Celia, the silver-voiced lady who ran the Eye's lonely hearts column. Occasionally the office took on a night-club atmosphere as the Grovel columnist, Christopher Silvester, perfected his role as the poor man's Sinatra at the office piano. Then there was the City journalist who only ever appeared as darkness fell and locked himself away in an office on the fourth floor. Around midnight the Kiwi hack Paul Halloran would lurch in with some giggling lovely in tow. More often than not, it was Antonia de Sancha (whom Paul subsequently introduced to David Mellor). Then, later still, the performance poet Michael Horovitz would materialise. I was once sound asleep when Michael appeared at 4am in a string vest and floral boxers, dragging a tartan shopping trolley stuffed to the gills with poetry books he wanted to photocopy. As fast as David Cash, the Eye's MD, confiscated Horovitz's keys, an international poetry terrorist would slip him another set.

Until today, Horovitz's vest was the rudest awakening I had ever experienced – but the blanket silence that hung over my office this morning was more disturbing yet. I crawled from beneath the coats and stuck my head round the door: nothing. I walked down two flights of stairs. Total quiet. I reached the front door and, bracing myself, opened it a couple of inches. Instead of a 12ft reptile launching itself at my jugular, there was a WPC staring at me crossly. The entire area was cordoned off owing to a double shooting on Hanover Street at 3am. They've only just reopened it. For the first and, I dare say, the last time in my life, I'm the only person in my office to have done a full day's work.

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