A week of silent goodbyes – first published 19 December 2013

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The last week at Silver Helm had arrived. Every day felt full of silent goodbyes and last evers, even though some, like a visit to the warehouse in the docks, were really first times. Slowly, the building that had been our lovely, organised office was turning into a ghost town of boxes and empty shelves. We all bustled about, sorting, packing and shredding while trying to pretend we were fine. Inside we were crying, at least I was. The only things that kept me sane were the little things in each day to make me smile.

19 December 2013

The wind blew me and the rain drenched me on the way to work on Monday morning. Wet and windy weather seemed quite fitting for my final Monday in The Penthouse. In a park almost completely devoid of leaves (on the trees anyway), the few maples leaves by the lamp post are still clinging on, they looked quite strange.

In the office there wasn’t much to do other than packing things up and trips back and forth to the big bins in the car park. When Arabella arrived there was a little light relief by way of a visit to the warehouse. This turned out to be rather an anticlimax, even if it was my first ever time inside Southampton port. We had to don very fetching high vis jackets before we were allowed inside the warehouse. Unfortunately, despite pre arranging the visit and exactly what we needed to see, none of the things we wanted had been found for us. This was annoying.

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We wandered around with cricks in our necks looking up at all the high shelves trying to spot our boxes and pallets. Typically, the only things we found were the things we didn’t need to see, although we did manage to climb up on a high platform and identify some rolls of carpet. Two hours later, with aching necks and filthy hands, we gave up and left. Arabella is going back on Wednesday morning and they’ve promised to have everything out for her. Hmm, that’s what they said this time.

The rain never really stopped, and rest of the day was just more carting boxes up and down, getting hot, dirty and wet. Seriously boring but probably good exercise. There must have been a sunset at some point but it was so dark outside all day I didn’t notice it and the windows were so spattered with rain it was all but pointless taking pictures. It felt like it was going to be one of the longest weeks in the history of the world!

I was a little groggy when I got up on Tuesday, waking from a half wishful dream. The original MD from Dream Factory had started up another tour operator and I was in the middle of a flurry of activity. Beside me were many of the old faces, Gigi, Pat, Galina, Alfie and a few of the new ones, Arabella, Alice, Rose, Anika, Sue. CJ was there too. We were all dashing about getting things ready because the MD was due in the office. Then he was there, older, rather more portly, but just as much a demanding, perfectionist. There was the same frisson of fear and excitement in the air. It left me wondering if I could even cope with all that again. Probably not?

In this season, in this weather there isn’t much opportunity to get out in the garden. On the odd occasion it’s not actually raining it’s usually dark. Even when I do get out, there’s not much to see. The vivid colour of summer flowers has gone. The leaves have fallen so the excitement of autumn colour is past. The snow hasn’t materialised yet (if we ever get any) so no beauty to be found in snow covered shrubs. We have had unseasonal mildness so no delicate ice crystals on leaves. There is still one interesting corner though…

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The pansies and violas I bought on a whim in a two for one sale in the supermarket are still going strong. How’s that for value for money? On Tuesday morning, on my way out of the house, I couldn’t help but stop to take a closer look. There is definitely something about pansies and violas. Rich colour combinations, velvety petals. To me they look as if an artist has been at work painting them, adding delicate veins, splashes of bright contrasting colour. Just what I needed on a cold and gloomy winter morning filled with goodbyes.

It was drizzling as I walked through the parks, wet leaves clinging to the paths. The hydrangea flowers have begun the process of turning to lace. While the autumn leaves have left behind plain old green and turned to brilliant reds and golds, the hydrangea pinks and blues have slowly washed out, turning dull brown. Their time is yet to come as the flesh decays and the delicate skeleton remains.

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Work was all about packing paintings and awards. Who knew we had so many of them in the office? I spent most of the day up on the mezzanine surrounded by boxes and swathed in bubble wrap. It’s like being on the deck of a ship up there with the white metal rails and the port hole windows looking out over the patio. I was in a world of my own wrapping and taping, sticking on labels. The pile of plastic coated paintings grew larger and larger and I got hotter and hotter. Bubble wrap makes a surprisingly warm blanket, maybe we should be handing out rolls to the homeless.

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By lunch time the sky was bluish, so Alice and I walked up into town for some fresh air and a little bit of Christmas shopping. One more present down but way too many people about to even think about getting more. Then it was back to the mezzanine and more paintings. It felt like someone must be painting them somewhere just to keep me busy. Down below I could see Arabella going through the filing cabinets.

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Around four the old COO came in with his lovely wife and some bottles of wine so we all went into his office for Christmas drinks. Alex, from the ship, came in too. It was sad to think this was probably be the last time I’d ever see her and these were the last Christmas drinks we’d share together. Two glasses of wine later (the COO just won’t take no for an answer) and we set off for Oxford Street to eat. One last Christmas meal together. The food was good, the wine flowed (as if I needed more wine) and the company was the best. If only it hadn’t felt so much like the last supper.

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The dawn sky outside the gym window was brooding on Wednesday morning, dark grey clouds scudding fast across deep blue, rooftops and the bare branches of trees in silhouette. The clouds had a touch of pink to them when I came to six dials and the blue seemed bigger and brighter giving me slight hope for a nicer day although I did wonder about the wind up there above the buildings and how hard it must be blowing to make them move so fast. As I walked past St Mary’s church the bells were ringing the hour and the clouds behind the steeple were golden. Everything I passed, everywhere I looked, had a feeling of finality about it. Soon this will not be my daily walk, will I ever come this way without feeling sad, remembering what I’ve lost?

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I got an email from the University. Thanks but no thanks. It didn’t add much cheer to the day. Another road I won’t be travelling then. As I was in the office early again I hopped out onto the patio to take a few more photos of the New bridge side of the building with some blue sky behind it. I even snuck into the COO’s office to take a photo. If that was my desk, with those views outside the window, I don’t think I’d ever get any work done and I’d be even more unhappy to leave than I am now.

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At lunch time of course the sun had gone and it was raining, not much, but enough to put me off walking up into town. Instead I nipped into the corner coffee shop for a skinny latte. Everywhere I go I’m looking at things with fresh eyes because I know I shan’t be back this way, at least not often. While I waited for my coffee I looked around at the old battered coffee shop clock contrasting starkly with the clean paint and damask wallpapered walls and the glass jars of coloured baubles on the windowsills. There were only two other customers, both sitting at a table wrapped up against the cold and wet even though they were indoors. By the door there were more baubles, these on a small tree, and a few decorations hanging from the ceiling above the door. As I walked under the round stained glass window I’ve admired so many times I said a silent goodbye.

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Once I’d eaten my lunch at my desk looking at the piles of boxes all around me I went up to the mezzanine to wrap the last of the paintings. At least I think they were the last ones, there may be others hiding somewhere. Then it was back to my messy desk and a coffee, made by Arabella and left there for me. Mostly today was about moving boxes and sticking labels on things. The place was beginning to look very bare apart from the piles and piles of boxes and we all had a haunted look about us. Behind the smiles and the little jokes I guess we are all silently saying goodbye.

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Last night, the wind that had been so high in the clouds in the morning was right down on the ground along with driving rain. It felt wonderful to be indoors, sitting by the fire while the rain lashed the windows and the wind whistled down the chimney. All night the wind whistled around the house and this morning the news was all stories of floods, things blown down and people with no roofs and no power. Luckily things had calmed down considerably and my roof and power seemed to be intact. When I left the house the full moon hung in the sky above the houses looking huge.

As Dave, our security man was AWOL when I arrived at the office I took the opportunity to take some pictures of the foyer. It truly is a beautiful building. At that time of the morning the soft lighting and the curved lines really do make you think you might have walked onto a ship. Looking back through the revolving door that frightens me slightly the early light seemed blue. The bare tree branches made the upper windows look like stained glass.

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Memories of the first time I walked into the building flashed through my mind. Then, I sat in reception waiting for Arabella, feeling a little nervous and Dave joked that she was always late. Back then I never even made it up to the fourteenth floor, my interview was in the empty office on the floor below and I wondered if floor thirteen would be my lucky number. I’m pretty sure it was, even if it may not feel so lucky right now.

When I got up to the penthouse the moon was still hanging there, looking smaller and paler with the city spread out beneath it. The removal men from the Frozen North were in today, taking away all the boxes. Slowly the office became emptier and emptier. I tried hard to ignore it all and concentrated on sending out all my ‘Happy Christmas and Goodbye’ emails.

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The lovely Malcolm sent one of his little e’pistles back.

‘I was terribly distressed to hear that there is no longer going to be an office in Southampton, and even more appalled to hear that we are not going to be working together in the future. We’ve had such a happy and productive association and it’s very sad that it has to come to an end.’

Of course it made me cry although I was flattered that someone as famous as Malcolm should ask for my personal email address and want to keep in touch. He has been such a pleasure to work with, sending me funny little email diaries that I’d love to be able to show you with the most beautiful photographs from the ship and his travels. I’ve printed them all out and put them in a special folder to look back on when I need to laugh out loud.

Of course Malcolm couldn’t leave things on a gloomy note and the rest of his e’pistle was full of tales of his latest tour, a Christmas Gala. He’d thought it would be a nice easy job in the run up to Christmas. He wrote a little script, funny of course, because Malcolm is always hilarious, and thought all he’d have to do was stand in front of the orchestra and deliver a few lines. What he hadn’t counted on was twelve changes of costume. Bless his heart he sent me photos of all of them, the ballet tights, the breeches, the bow tie, the writer in silk smoking jacket, a very dapper Prince Charming, an hilarious cow, a wizard, a stern looking hussar, a fairy godmother that actually had me crying again (with laughter this time) and finally Santa.

There were a few phone calls too. One from Geoff who finds the Dewie numbers for the library books and another from Tony who leads the Royal Marine Band. The final call was from Basia Zarzycka, the fashion designer whose amazing shop Arabella and I visited in the summer. She was very unhappy about the office closing and me going, she and I had really hit it off when I showed her around the ship and I was so much looking forward to working with her. When I told her I would miss visiting her shop she told me I must pop in and see her when I was in London. I will be holding her to that for sure.

At lunch time Alice, Rose and I walked up to the German Market for bratwurst and gluhwein to cheer ourselves up. I think we all needed it. All morning I’d been close to tears, Alice had been in a tiz waiting for news from her latest interview and Rose had been all manic and chirpy, overcompensating. It really had been the strangest morning. So we sat in the big tent eating our bratwurst and chatting, trying hard to forget about our lives being dismantled back in the office. Of course I didn’t have any gluhwein.

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Commando popped in in the afternoon half way through one of his runs. He came up to the penthouse to say goodbye to everyone and have a last little look out of the COO’s window. By then all the boxes and the men from the Frozen North were gone. I was hoping for one last spectacular sunset but, sadly, the clouds had swept over during the afternoon bringing heavy rain and dark skies. The best I could manage was some final views of the city lights and a cruise ship, just a blurry collection of lights, slowly making its way out to sea.

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Just one more day to count down now. We will all be leaving at lunch time, probably bound for the pub and I’m pretty sure there will be tears.

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Marie

Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

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