'Hi,' I said to the man in the corridor. I didn't mean much by it. But it was late. The rest of the floor was empty, I thought. Sure, he was done up for business, and I was in my work clothes. But his tie was loose and he had that rumpled, frazzled look of a guy who'd put in nine solid hours and was staring down the barrel of a good couple more, although his shoes still gleamed. We were two guys working late. I thought there was some vague camaraderie in that scenario that deserved acknowledgement.
'Huh,' was all the reply I got from him, but he smiled, awkwardly, with half his face and neither of his eyes. It was an expression of indulgence, I thought at the time. I felt him watching me as I strolled on past the photocopier. Unnerved, I turned to look back at him, composing my features into a more challenging mien, but he was gone, then.
The building was not one of spectacular architectural merit, but it was an impressive structure nevertheless; glass-faced and steel, stretching twenty-two storeys up from the street. At reception level it had polished marble, an elegant mezzanine and an impressive desk to contain the lumped drones of contract security. Key-card access lent a sense of exclusivity. It was an Address. On this street, just one amongst many, no doubt. And it wasn't the best. But it was there, in the pantheon of Addresses.
But beyond the impressive facade it became twenty storeys of poorly-arranged life: a dozen or more different companies, trading and chattering their way through the day, doing stuff I could barely follow. They did their homage to the building. I didn't belong to them. I belonged to the building. I was maintenance, with my plastic box of tools and wires and spare bulbs, my grey overalls and black jacket. My keycard went everywhere. I saw every office, every store room. I peered into the gaps between stud walls and above false ceilings. I cleared blocked toilets and managed the exchange. It wasn't my building, but it was still my building. No one knew my building like I did. No one saw it like I did.
I saw the man again, later. I didn't know it was him. I was in the basement, first thing – my favourite time to be in the building. I didn't go in the front door, past the grunting drones. I didn't have to. I got to use the service entrance. Or the maintenance stairwell. Or the way in no one else knew about, through the doors into the emergency generator shed, around its grey bulk and through the tunnel that took you into the boiler room.
The boiler room was my second-favourite part of the building. Great metal columns criss-crossing the ceiling while the massive boiler grunted and strained. In the Summer it stood silent while the air-conditioning on the roof took the strain of the work. But in the early Autumn it growled a complaint as I coaxed it to life, carefully observing the thousand rituals essential to easing it into its duty rather than risking it biting at me with steam and shrieking and thousand voicemail message complaining about the cold.
It was as I was leaving that morning, pulling the boiler room door shut and juggling my keys off their belt-loop to lock up that I sensed someone behind me and turned, annoyed at any intrusion in my realm. I caught a glimpse of him passing the end of the dark corridor: walking with purpose and focus. He didn't even look at me as I called out.
'Oi! Who're you?'
I jogged after him to the end of the corridor and turned to look where he'd gone. The motion-sensitive lights at the junction flickered on in response to my arrival. He stopped in the dim light and turned, briefly to look at me. I took in the suit – it looked like a good one; not the sort of thing you'd wear in a basement if you could help it – and the gleam of the ambient light of the polished caps of his shoes.
'What're you doing? You're not allowed done here!' I called, feeling my heart pound uncomfortably in my chest as I ran. At the bottom of the stairs I looked up. There was no one there and the door at the top was shut. Unnerved, I clambered up the narrow case, heaving myself along with the handrails on either side, and checked the door handle.
I shrugged it off and made a note to change the lock on the door. I think it was the toecaps that stayed with me, that day. Not many people made that sort of effort on their shoes, these days. It struck me as odd.
I saw them again when I was in my favourite part of the building.
The mechanism that lurked at the top of the lift shafts wasn't, strictly, my responsibility. Twice a year, we got a visit from the company with the maintenance contract. They came in the front and spoke to the grunts. They called me on my walkie-talkie and I saw them up. I watched them perform their maintenance. I saw them back to the doors and I waved them farewell. Never the same technician twice, but always the same routine. So I did it myself, once a month. It was a treat I reserved for an otherwise bad day, if I could. Today had not been good. The boiler packed in – partly, I suspected, thanks to the idiot on Fifteen – and it took me most of the morning to see it right again. No fewer than three blocked toilets. And someone jammed the recycling chute with what looked like the detritus of seven years of flip-charts.
It was coming on for four o'clock and I needed a moment. So I plodded up the stairs to the twenty-third floor.
The mechanism itself was suspended inside a cage set into the floor. The whole thing was bolted onto the steel superstructure of the building itself. The lifts could not have been more safe and secure. However, when you were standing in the cage itself, you could see straight down, all twenty-two storeys. I preferred not to use the lift, to be honest.
But I didn't mind the cage. I made my supplications to the mechanism – removing the access panel, checking the gears and emergency brakes, applying a little oil here and there – and stood up. My eyes were pretty much dead level, at that point, with the shoes. They were, indeed, as perfectly smooth and polished as ever. Smoother, perhaps, than I had even realized at first. The lights on the floor were on – just exposed bulbs up here – and I could see my own elongated features curing around the tip of the black, mirror toe.
I recognized him, then. He watched me as I pulled myself up out of the cage and, as I straightened up, I took in the whole ensemble: polished, perfect shoes. Business suit all the way up – good quality and expensive, but a little rumpled. A face to match. He had nothing to say to me. He never did.
'So here we are, then,' I said.
'Mm,' he agreed.
'You're the guy I really work for.'
'Oh, you don't pay me,' I agreed. 'But it's you I work for, isn't it?'
He shrugged again, but this time he smiled that same weird half-smile I'd seen the first time we met.
'I heard the Romans had these things called household gods,' I told him. 'Spirits of protection. They made sacrifices to them and prayed to them. I wonder if that's what you are.'
He turned away, then. But I knew the answer. Buildings have their own sort of life. Like us, they ebb and flow with the days and the seasons. Like us, they have needs and you have to make sacrifices to really know them and appreciate who they are and what they do.
Even the dullest of them have their moods and moments. I mean, I like my building. I understand it and I make the sacrifices and follow the rituals to keep it happy. But I won't be here forever. I'll do my best to pass it on to whoever follows me. If he learns well, then maybe he'll see the man, too. If he doesn't... I wouldn't like to see an angry building.