The first time I walked into the room I turned back almost at once. I was actually trying to find the toilet but got the wrong door. A musty smell hit me when I opened the door, but I don't remember thinking much about it. I hadn't actually noticed there was anything at all along this corridor leading to the lifts, apart from the toilets. Oh, I thought. A room.
I opened the door, then shut it. No more than that.
I had started work at the Authority two weeks before, and in many respects I was still a newcomer. Even so, I tried to ask as few questions as I could. I wanted to become a person to be reckoned with as quickly as possible.
I had gotten used to being one of the leaders in my last job. Not a boss, or even a team manager, but someone who could sometimes show other people what to do. Not always liked, not a sycophant or a yes-man, but well regarded and treated with a certain respect, possibly even admiration. Ever so slightly ingratiating, perhaps? I was determined to build up the same position at my new place of work as soon as I could.
It wasn't really my decision to move on. I was fairly happy at my last job and felt comfortable with the routines, but somehow I outgrew the position and ended up feeling that I was doing a job that was way below my abilities, and I have to admit that I didn't always see eye to eye with my colleagues.
Eventually my former boss came and put his arm round my shoulders and told me it was time to look for a better solution. He wondered if it wasn't time for me to make a move? Move on, as he put it, gesturing upward with his hand to indicate my career trajectory. Together we went through various alternatives.
After a period of consideration and reflection I decided, in consultation with my former boss, upon the big new Authority, and after a certain amount of discussion with them it turned out that a transfer could be arranged without any great difficulty. The union agreed to it, and didn't put the brakes on like they so often do. My former boss and I celebrated with a glass of nonalcoholic cider in his office, and he wished me good luck.
The same day the first snow fell on Stockholm, I carried my boxes up the flight of steps and into the entrance of the large, redbrick building. The woman in reception smiled. I liked her at once. There was something about her manner. I knew straightaway that I had come to the right place. I straightened my back as the words "man of the future" ran through my head. A chance, I thought. Finally I would be able to blossom to my full potential. Become the person I've always wanted to be.
The new job was no better paid. Quite the opposite, in fact, it was actually slightly worse in terms of perks like flextime and vacation. And I was forced to share a desk in the middle of an open-plan office with no screens. In spite of this, I was full of enthusiasm and a desire to make a personal platform for myself and show what I was capable of from the start.
I worked out a personal strategic framework. I arrived half an hour early each morning and followed my own timetable for the day: fifty-five minutes of concentrated work, then a five-minute break, including toilet breaks. I avoided any unnecessary socializing along the way. I requested and took home files documenting previous policy decisions so as to be able to study which phrases recurred, and formed the basic vocabulary, so to speak. I spent evenings and weekends studying various structures and investigating the informal communication networks that existed within the department.
All this so that I could quickly and efficiently catch up and create a small but decisive advantage over my colleagues, who were already familiar with our workplace and the pervading conditions.
I shared my desk with Hakan, who had sideburns and dark rings under his eyes. Hakan helped me with various practical details. Showed me round, gave me pamphlets, and e-mailed over documents containing all manner of information. It was presumably a welcome break from work, a chance to escape his duties, because he was always coming up with new things that he thought I ought to know about. They might be to do with the job, our colleagues, or decent places to have lunch nearby. After a while I felt obliged to point out to him that I had to be allowed to get on with my work without interruption.
"Calm down," I told him when he turned up with yet another folder, trying to get my attention. "Can you just calm down a bit?"
He calmed down at once and became considerably more reserved. Presumably sulking because I had made my feelings plain from the outset. It probably didn't sit well with the accepted image of a newcomer, but it fit with the reputation for ambition and tough tactics that I was happy to help spread about myself.
Slowly but surely I built up profiles of my closest neighbors, their character and place in the hierarchy. Beyond Hakan sat Ann. A woman somewhere round fifty. She seemed knowledgeable and ambitious, but also the sort of person who thought she knew everything and liked being proven right. It soon became clear that everyone turned to her when they didn't dare approach the boss.
She had a framed child's drawing near her computer. It showed a sun sinking into the sea. But the drawing was wrong, because on the horizon there were landmasses sticking up on both sides of the sun, which of course is impossible. Presumably it had some sort of sentimental value to her, even if it wasn't particularly pleasant for the rest of us to have to look at.
Opposite Ann sat Jorgen. Big and strong, but doubtless not possessed of an intellect to match. Pinned up on his desk and stuck all round his computer were loads of jokey notes and postcards which obviously had nothing to do with work, and suggested a tendency toward the banal. At regular intervals he would whisper things to Ann and I would hear her squeak, "Oh, Jorgen," as if he'd told her a rude joke. There was something of an age gap between them. I estimated it to be at least ten years.
Beyond them sat John, a taciturn gentleman of about sixty, who worked on the financing of inspection visits, and next to him sat someone called Lisbeth, I think. I don't know. I wasn't about to ask. She hadn't introduced herself.
There were twenty-three of us in total and almost all had a screen or little wall of some sort around their desks. Only Hakan and I were stuck in the middle of the floor. Hakan said we would soon be getting screens as well, but I said it didn't matter.
"I've got nothing to hide," I said.
Eventually I found a rhythm in my fifty-five-minute periods, and a certain fluency in my work. I made an effort to stick to my schedule and not allow myself to be disturbed in the middle of a period with either coffee breaks, small talk, telephone calls, or trips to the toilet. Occasionally I felt like going for a pee after five minutes, but always made sure I sat out the whole period. It was good for the soul, character-building, and obviously the relief of finally easing the pressure was that much greater.
There were two ways to get to the toilets. One, round the corner past the green potted palm, was slightly shorter than the other, but because I felt like a change that day, I decided to take the longer route past the lift. That was when I stepped inside the room for the first time.
I realized my mistake and carried on past the large bin for recycled paper, to the door alongside, the first of the row of three toilets.
I got back to my desk just in time for the next fifty-five-minute period, and by the end of the day I had almost forgotten ever having looked through the door leading to that extra space.
The second time I went into the room I was looking for photocopy paper. I was determined to manage on my own. Despite all the exhortations to ask about things, I was unwilling to expose myself to humiliation and derision by displaying gaps in my knowledge of the setup. I had come to recognize the little stress wrinkles they all got whenever I did actually ask. Obviously they weren't to know that I was aiming to get to the top of the Authority. To become someone who commanded respect. And I didn't want to give Hakan any excuse to indulge his work-avoidance.
So I checked everywhere, all the places where in the majority of offices you might expect to come across photocopy paper, but there was none to be found. Finally I made my way round the corner, past the toilets, where I had a feeling I had previously seen a small room.
At first I couldn't find the light switch. I felt along the walls on either side of the door, and in the end I gave up, walked out again, and found the switch on the outside. What an odd place to put it, I thought, and went back in.
It took a moment for the fluorescent light to flicker into life, but I was quickly able to ascertain that there was no photocopy paper there. Even so, I got an immediate sense that there was something special about this place.
It was a fairly small room. A desk in the middle. A computer, files on a shelf. Pens and other office equipment. Nothing remarkable. But all of it in perfect order.
Neat and tidy.
Against one wall stood a large, shiny filing cabinet with a desk fan on top of it. A dark-green carpet covered the floor. Clean. Free from dust. Everything neatly lined up. It looked slightly studied. Prepared. As if the room were waiting for someone.
I went out, closed the door, and switched off the light. Out of curiosity I opened the door again. I got a feeling I had to check. How could I be sure the light wasn't still on in there? Suddenly I felt uncertain whether up or down meant on or off. The whole idea of having the switch on the outside felt strange. A bit like the light inside a fridge. I peered in at the room. It was dark.
The next day my new boss came over to our desk in the big, open-plan office, with his thinning hair and cotton cardigan. His name was Karl, and the cotton cardigan wasn't very new, but looked expensive. He stopped next to Hakan and pointed out, without any introductory pleasantries, that my shoes were dirty.
"We try to think about the floor," he said, pointing at a metal basket full of blue plastic shoe covers hanging on the wall right next to the entrance.
"Of course," I said. "Naturally."
He patted me on the shoulder and walked away.
I thought it was strange that he didn't smile. Don't people usually try to smooth over that sort of remark with a little smile? To show that you're still friends, and make me, as the newcomer, feel welcome? It wasn't nice, getting told off as bluntly as that. It had a serious impact on my work and I sat there for a long while with an uncomfortable feeling that I'd just been taught a lesson. It was annoying that I hadn't thought about the shoe covers myself. Obviously I would have done it if I'd had time to think about it.
He had managed to make me feel both stupid and insecure, when in actual fact I was one of the smartest. Besides, it was just rude to walk off like that. I counted the number of errors my boss had made during my short time there and came up with three. Plus one minor infraction. Three or four, then, depending on how you looked at it.
Hakan, who had obviously heard the whole thing, sat there unusually quietly, apparently preoccupied with some document. Carry on pretending, I thought. Carry on pretending.
I leaned down and undid my shoes even though I was in the middle of one of my fifty-five-minute work periods, and something like that really ought to be dealt with during one of the short breaks.
I looked around the room. Everyone was immersed in their own business. Yet it still felt as though they were all watching me as I walked, in just my socks, over to the small kitchen at the other end of the office and fetched a cloth. I cleaned up as best I could, fetched a pair of shoe covers, and put them over my shoes. They rustled as I took the cloth back. I tried to see if anyone else was wearing shoe covers, but they were all wearing either slippers or normal shoes. Maybe they were indoor shoes, I thought.
I wrote a note and stuck it on my briefcase:
Then I went to the coffee machine and got a cup of coffee. I reasoned that this fifty-five-minute period was already ruined. I would just have to sit it out and start again with the next one.
The bulb in the ceiling of the little kitchen was broken and needed changing. When I opened one of the cutlery drawers, I discovered that there were plenty of new bulbs there. It would be a painless task to unscrew the broken one and replace it with a new one. It seemed odd that no one had done anything about such a simple problem.
The coffee was far too hot to drink straightaway. I had to keep moving it from hand to hand to avoid burning my fingers, so I thought I might as well take a turn around the department and try to build up my social network.
First I went over and stood beside John's desk. But as I was standing there it struck me that it might be best to start with Ann, seeing as she, in purely geographic terms, was closest to me and Hakan. If I was going to expand my contacts, obviously I ought to start at the center and work my way outward. Like ripples in water, I thought. Besides, John made a hopelessly bland impression. What did someone like that have to offer me that I didn't already have? It would be unfortunate for my profile to be seen with such an insipid individual from the older generation, and thus become associated with the colorless crowd.