The oldest colleague I ever had was Mrs Paisley. She died within months of finally retiring, aged 96. When I first met her she was 92. Her job appeared to be to take care of the coffee and biscuits in the kitchen, and to engage us all in a little light conversation about the weather. She believed she was not allowed to leave the kitchen, and only ever referred to the boss by his second name, and in hushed tones. Unfortunately she was almost deaf, so conversation with her was never an exact science.

On my first day, after my first encounter with her in the kitchen, I had to go back to my desk and ask my colleagues if they could see an old lady in the kitchen too. I was relieved that they could, and I concluded therefore that she was fully corporeal, and nothing supernatural was at work.

Talking of which, Mrs Paisley used to arrive at work at about 7.30am every morning, long before anyone else, having already woken and lit herself a real fire at her house and travelled in on the bus on her own. She once confided in me that she would sometimes hear a door closing somewhere upstairs in the disused part of the building, just as she was coming in alone. She said she thought it was a ghost. I think I heard it a few times after she retired and I was first in instead, but after she died I think it stopped.

Nobody knew why she kept on working. Perhaps her pension fund had been squandered by some spotty youth in a Far Eastern trading house, or she had made an existential discovery that without work a human being was a self-destructive loop of empty thought. Several times I arrived to find her bleeding profusely from the face and hands having fallen on the doorstep and being taken away by taxi or ambulance. But nothing deterred her. The biscuit tin and coffee urn would be lost without her. The weather might not happen without her daily platitudes to ease the sun’s path across our weary northern sky.

My most treasured memory of our limited interaction is a suitably surreal one. The day after the 11th of September 2001, I was pouring myself a coffee as she offered me a biscuit, and I said: What a terrible business all that was yesterday then, eh? That will be World War Three starting soon. Her reply astounded me: I think it’s started already… -she said. Now this was exciting, because we had never done geo-politics before, only weather and biscuits, so I had no idea where this might go next. Really ? –I enquired, spinning around. Yes… -she said, her brow furrowing thoughtfully …I opened the front door this morning and saw the frost on the doorstep… and then I knew it was starting. It will be the leaves next you know… and I think it will be a really hard one.

(First published on the BAD IDEA Magazine Website: "Show & Tell").

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