"So how are you finding it having all three children at school?"
It was about the three millionth time I'd been asked this question in a fortnight and I had to take a deep breath in order to summon up the energy to answer. Rob didn't wait for me to reply, however. "Must be nice sitting around in your pyjamas playing computer games all day," he said, ushering me into the lift.
I gave him the benefit of the doubt and assumed he was joking. "That's next week," I said. "Marie's only in until lunch-time at the moment, so it's not much different from when she was at nursery. She goes full-time next Tuesday."
"You won't know what to do with yourself."
"As you're fully aware, I'm going to have a little lie down and then I've got nine years worth of chores to catch up on. Marie will have gone from learning her letters to beating me at Scrabble before I've run out of things to do. Now, seriously, are you going to show me your new office or am I going to have to beat you to death with your own grin?"
Rob swiped his LBO staff card, entered a passcode and pressed the button for floor five. "I'd like to see you try. I've been taking fencing lessons."
"That's not going to help much unless you've brought your rapier to work," I replied and then registered the improbability of Rob choosing to do exercise without good reason. "Besides, it's the kind of 'special' fencing where the swords glow and you and your opponent make 'shwuuuuuummm' noises, isn't it?"
He looked shifty. "Well, erm..."
"Hang on. Didn't you say you were on the third floor?"
"The building's new - there are still some issues."
"But..." The lift stopped at floor two and the doors opened to give us a brief glimpse into the accounts department. Amidst the cubicles and fax machines, the sight involved far more middle-aged men wearing swimwear than I was expecting.
I bit my lip and tried to look nonchalant as a blast of roasting air entered the lift, closely followed by a plump, perspiring individual attired in trunks and a tie.
"Hi, Geoff," said Rob. "Heating vents still on the blink?"
Geoff mopped his brow with his tie. "Should be fixed by Wednesday."
"Great. Oh, this Ed. Ed this is Geoff."
We shook hands stickily, a look of confused recognition on Geoff's face.
"I used to work in IT," I explained. "You had to sign-off when I put in a budget request for a new vending machine and some shrubbery."
Geoff's eyes narrowed. "Was it you who requisitioned a van to retrieve office chairs from roadworks they'd fallen into at the foot of the Royal Mile?"
"In fairness, that was the result of a separate incident that had nothing to do with me. It was my first day and I needed something to sit on. I was acting on a tip off."
"You what?" said Rob, losing something of his air of professional politeness.
I sighed. "It was before your time, obviously. I could never prove anything but I think the nightshift mainframe operators had a low-budget street racing syndicate going. A couple of the chairs still had huge stereos strapped to them. The one I got landed with for the next six months had rear spoilers and lit up underneath with an eerie green glow whenever it spun round."
Rob blinked a few times. "Now I'm kind of glad those guys got out-sourced."
"Tell me about it," I said, nodding.
There was a short, awkward pause as the conversation died and everyone examined their fingernails. Rob whistled to himself quietly. Then the lift doors slid open with a ding and he shoved me out. "This is us. See you, Geoff." The lift seemed to think we were on fifth floor but we were actually on level four. "We can take the stairs down from here."
"That sort of thing is why I don't like visiting you at work," I said once the lift was safely on its way again. "Even after a decade, I'm nervous who I'm going to run into. The nice ones are liable to look on me with pity for having nothing to show for the last ten years but children, and the not-so-nice ones are probably still holding a grudge."
"Geoff's pretty harmless."
"Yeah, I know. It was rather hard to take him seriously in those clothes anyway."
"You should have seen dress-down Friday..."
Rob led me through the actuarial department towards the central atrium of LBO's new headquarters. The quality of the fittings was a marked improvement over what was visible in the troubling snapshot of the accounts department which was indelibly seared into my mind. The whole floor seemed more airy and spacious. There were also far more potted plants than semi-naked accountants, which I couldn't help feel added to the general ambiance.
"What's floor six like?" I asked.
"Is that where Sarah's going?"
"Yeah. It's another couple of months until her PR department moves in, though, so I said I'd get the low down on how the place is shaping up. She's slightly wary of the architect's glossy leaflets."
"Not really," I said, unwilling to discuss the irony in case it got me into trouble later.
Rob shrugged. "Floor six isn't bad. That's where the gym is, and some of the meeting rooms and the AV auditorium. Should be quiet and relaxing. Even has all the walls it should have."
"She'll be glad to hear that," I said, nodding. "I... Oh, that's not... Ugh."
We'd reached the atrium, the building's central open area, which stretched all the way from the ground floor to the glass roof. The marbled-coated reception area was visible below, despite the wall above the main entrance being composed entirely of windows and half-blinding us with light. We stood on a balcony which ran all the way round the edge of the shaft.
"She and the kids OK?" asked Rob, oblivious to my discomfort.
"Vertigo," I muttered, grabbing the rail of the parapet for support.
"It's worse over there." Grinning, Rob pointed at the tier of balconies above the entrance. "Big drop one side; nothing but window on the other. Getting from the printer room to Desktop Services is like crossing that rope bridge in Temple of Doom." He slapped me on the back. "Come on. I wouldn't lean on that anyway. They probably checked it's screwed in but..."
I let go of the railing in an unseemly hurry and shuffled after him. The stairs jutted out from the balcony, suspended over the drop, and appeared to me made more of air than of metal. I began to find breathing difficult and my ankles started to feel strangely queasy. "This is mental," I said, backing up against the wall. "Why haven't they fixed the lift?"
"Other priorities. They've got to shoot some pigeons first and then make the toilets flush on sunny days."
"Really. The birds keep messing on the solar panels and someone needs to connect a mains back-up for the rainwater tank which fills the cisterns... Although there might be some delay on that..." He motioned across the atrium to another set of lifts, much posher than the one we'd used and made of glass. This was slightly worrying in itself but I was reassured the glass was fairly thick because the banging and shouting of the three plumbers trapped inside wasn't audible from where we were standing.
Rob rolled his eyes. "Security measure. If you don't swipe your card and enter your passcode within five seconds of the door closing, the control panel locks. The door won't even open again."
"Shouldn't you get them rescued?"
"They'll be fine," said Rob, dragging me towards the first step. "Someone will call the lift to another floor any minute and they can get out of it there."
"Good job they're not terrorist plumbers. I think there might be something of a loophole in the system."
"Try telling that to senior management." He shook his head. "The whole thing's a pain. Five seconds isn't long. A guard put his card in upside down the other night and he was out of time before he noticed. It was five hours until the cleaners found him."
"Urgh," I mumbled and edged my way down, wishing unpleasantness on whoever first imagined that risers aren't an essential part of stairs.
* * *
The next few minutes were a blur and we were in Rob's office before my legs entirely stopped quivering and my vision cleared. I had a vague recollection of corridors and an anecdote about losing a trainee. Somehow, a cup of coffee was in my hand.
No one else was around but the room fitted three desks, assorted filing cabinets and a whiteboard comfortably and seemed quite pleasant. It was a bit dark, though.
"Shouldn't you turn on the lights?" I asked.
"Yeah, just a minute." Rob promptly went out the door, entered the room across the hall and did a star jump.
A fluorescent tube flickered into life above my head.
I didn't even have to ask the question this time - Rob was explaining before he was back through the door. "It's to save energy when the room's empty. The lights have a motion-detector so they go off if nothing moves for a while."
"Like if everyone's getting on with work, staring intently at computer screens?"
"But then why...?"
"Some of the wires are crossed and not all the bulbs and detectors are paired properly. It's up to Roger across the corridor to keep the lights on in here but it looks like he dozed off in the middle of a code review a while ago. Tell me if you see anyone head along to the photocopier suite 'cos we'll have to do some stretches or they'll need torches."
Rob sat down at his L-shaped desk which nestled in one corner of the room and I pulled up a chair to sit beside it. He fished a packet of chocolate digestives out of a drawer and offered them to me.
"Should anyone actually be working in this building?" I said through a mouthful of biscuit.
"No one's had an accident yet. Least, not one that hasn't involved a stapler or lifting shipping crates. It's here or the street anyway. The old IT building's already been let out as a Laser Quest venue till they find someone to convert it into luxury flats."
"What happened to the support guys in the basement? You know, the hairy ones who grunted in UNIX?"
"They're..." A brief expression of concern crossed Rob's face. "Er... I should check someone told them we were moving. Could go badly for those Laser Questers if not." He scribbled on a Post-it and stuck it beside the screen of his monitor. Sadly, thanks to improvements in technology, this technique doesn't work as well as it did back in the day, when monitors were the size of fridges. The millimetres of casing surrounding the TFT display were already over-crowded with dozens of other barely-adhered reminders. As I watched, a couple gave up the struggle and slipped off, drifting down like autumn leaves to mulch in the tangle of cables and fluff between his desk and the wall. I idly wondered what effects this loss might have on the stability of the computer systems maintaining my pension...
Rob interrupted my thoughts. "So, as I said, how are Sarah and the kids?"
"Fine." I hadn't seen Rob for months. What with him becoming a dad and then moving out of town, it's been hard finding opportunities to meet. Recently, our conversation has been restricted to name-calling while shooting at each other online. Dropping by to check out the new building was really an excuse to catch up. "Sarah's got a lot on her plate but the kids are back into the swing of the new term. Marie's learnt about dinosaurs and pirates in her first fortnight. If she does Vikings and Romans next week, there'll be nothing left for her to cover before Primary 5."
"What about the usual suspects? How's Steve these days?"
"Between the consultancy business and the golf course, he's beginning to forget what his children look like again. Deborah's interior design work has dried up, so she's doing all the childcare while they search for yet another nanny, but Steve's dragging his feet over the expense this time because, as he puts it, they're 'coping fine without' at the moment."
"Same old Useless Dad then."
"Same old Useless Dad. Scary Karen's organising a Fun Day to raise funds for the Millennium Centre. She's wanting me to help out but she's hired a fire-eater and a taxidermist as the entertainment, so I'm not so sure. I may not be able to avoid it, though - her son's in class with Marie and I see her every day... Erm... My nephew Ned has just started at art college and is really enjoying it. My niece Lisa got into Cambridge, much to her parents' delight. I'm not so convinced it's the best place for her but there's not much to be done about it now. Who else? Oh, Mike was asking after you the other day. You and Liz are overdue for your one-year marriage MOT. If you don't arrange a date for him to come round soon, he's threatened to phone your mum and raise his concerns."
Rob went pale. "Can he do that? Don't ministers take some kind of oath of confidentiality?"
"I don't think this counts. I'd just invite him over before it gets to that stage or you'll never hear the end of it."
"You're telling me." He hastily scribbled another Post-it and went to put it on the monitor but then hesitated. After a moment's thought, he stuck it to the packet of biscuits instead.
"How are you and Kate and Luke doing?" I asked.
"Luke's toddling around all over. Wish he wouldn't do it at three in the morning, mind you. Thomas the Tank Engine's really surreal when I'm only half awake but it's the only way to make him nod off again. Why didn't you warn me about the whole sleep thing?"
"I did. You laughed and told me it was my own fault for having kids."
He pulled a face. "Did I?"
"You know fine well you did."
"I'll take your word. I'm losing it. I was at work for ten minutes this morning before I'd been shot by enough teenagers with laser rifles to figure out I'd gone to the wrong place. I've forgotten everything that happened longer ago than last Tuesday. Sorry for any lack of sympathy I may or may not have given you in the past." All at once, he appeared very tired.
"You OK?" I said, becoming worried.
He sighed, rubbed his eyes and leant back in his chair. Then, after a pause, his grin returned. "Yeah, actually. Pretty happy. Luke's full of beans and laughs. Kate's work's been very understanding about her going part-time. The house is coming along nicely. It's all going not bad. I might just join Roger with his reviewing in a few minutes, though."
"Give it another six months and your sleep should be back to normal," I reassured him, relieved there was nothing wrong that a few nights of unbroken rest couldn't fix. Something about the look he gave me made me do a double-take, however. "Unless..."
He reached into a drawer and pulled out a black-and-white satellite photo of a hurricane over Cuba.
"Oh," I said, "you're screwed for another two and a half years."
"Thanks a bunch. Most people we've told so far have thought that, but they've at least managed to say, 'Congratulations'."
"I meant to say that. Are you sure I didn't say that?"
"OK," he said, his face creasing in pain, "now you're messing with my head."
"Totally. Congratulations - that's fantastic. I take it you put some planning into this one?"
"Yep. Not as much practice as I was hoping, though. I thought..."
My eyes went wide as I realised that in his sleep-deprived state, he was about to give me far more information than I wanted to hear. Thankfully, at that point the fire alarm went. The lights burned suddenly bright as, across the corridor, Roger woke with a start and did a couple of star jumps in panic.
"Not again," groaned Rob. "That's the third time in a week."
"Personally," I yelled above the din, "I'd be suspicious of the finance department setting it off as an excuse for some fresh air." We grabbed our coats and headed for the exit.
"Doubt it. Last time, we had to wait three-quarters of an hour for the emergency services to give the all clear. It's September in Scotland. Some of them got so much fresh air, they turned blue."
"Fair enough," I said. "Mind if we take the secondary escape route and use the back stairs?"
"Fine by me. That's the quickest way to the pub."
I checked my watch. "Sounds good but I don't have time. I need to head off to collect Marie."
"Shame. Still up for a shot of Killzone on Wednesday?"
"Sure. Talk to you then."
And with that, we stepped into the corridor and were separated by a raging throng of techies sensing an excuse for an early lunch.
I can only assume he made it out alive...
(Although the text message he sent me twenty minutes later commenting on the coldness of his beer is something of a hint. Grr.)
Yours in a woman's world,