YOU JIBBER, NED. You are the worst jibberer I know. It's incessant. Stop it – just stop it for the rest of the day and you can start afresh tomorrow.
Ned takes my criticism well. I know, I know, he says. Sorry. But he's smiling, enjoying what he probably thinks is just banter, as though any sort of communication is a pleasure.
Ned is my desk neighbour. When I took up the job, colleagues warned me that Ned would drive me away. No one ever lasts more than a year sitting next to Ned, and most leave the company. They comment about it in front of him: it's the office joke. I'm sure people have moved on for entirely different reasons, though. Surely. Some office chairs are simply a hot seat.
I hear every conversation Ned has, up to half a dozen times over. I work, while he does a little bit of work then calls a handful of friends and relays the same daily anecdote to each one, pausing each time in the same place for his great punch line or revelation.
Ned's into Revelations: he's a born-again Christian. I'm a don't-ask-don't-tell atheist. This bothers him.
We work at a newspaper but he never reads it. He only reads his own stories in the entertainment section. I suggest that if he ever gets in real trouble for this he should blame his eye, the one that doesn't work any more. Ned wears glasses with one of the eyes blacked out.
He swims regularly and catches the bus to work. He once told me that, after catching the same bus for several years, he changed lines – I can't remember why; maybe he'd moved house. On his last day on the bus, he stood and made an announcement. Folks, this is my last day on this bus, and I just wanted to thank you all for the last few years. It's been great fun travelling with you. I want to wish all of you all the best for the future. Au revoir! Ned made some sort of flourish, and with it missed his stop. He flailed around for a bit in the aisle on the moving bus, then sat in silence until the next chance to get off.
I tell him a friend asked me, on the weekend, to describe him to her. He's only got one eye, I said. And he's kind of a dork. And he's quite big. She got the picture. A big one-eyed dork. I'm not sure why, but I repeat the story, word for word, to Ned. Most people would be better off not knowing a story like that, but he wears it with pride. A big one-eyed dork! He laughs at the joke. He repeats it over the following weeks and months. Eventually he somehow changes 'dork' to 'jerk'. I'd never call you a jerk, I snap. Why would I call you a jerk? That's a horrible thing to say. Why would you even talk to me if I'd called you a jerk? But the distinction doesn't concern him.
We discover we share a love of cooking. He makes things like beetroot chocolate cake. Anything I make I tell him about, all my culinary triumphs. He finds this amusing. It takes me a long time to figure out it isn't so much my latest dish he's interested in, but my unashamed portrayal of it. I rave about my own cooking. I'd never noticed this before.
One day, I tell him about a spectacular kitchen failure. I made a curry, uncharacteristically forgetting that smaller chillies are hotter than the big ones the recipe called for, and so I used more. We laugh about it and even the woman who sits near us joins in, cackling at the thought of everybody's seared sphincters! Ned laughs, but 'sphincters' is not a word he would use.
One day I use 'evangelical' in a conversation. He takes umbrage. He believes it's a word that can only ever be used in a religious context. I say I think that's wrong: that, in a modern sense, it can refer to someone with an unchallenged belief, and a desire to convert others to it. He is adamant that it can only apply to religion. It's the most serious I've seen him. It's a true argument, the only real one we ever have.
He wants to convert others, and regularly, over the small partition that separates our desks, he asks me why I don't have faith. He chooses the busiest time of day. Ned! I'm not going to have this discussion with you in the office, on deadline. Ask me any other time. He is infuriating. Eventually he gives up and leaves for the day, bidding his trademark farewell: It's been warm and real.
Ned adores his wife, Louise, and their daughter, Madeline. I can see that to him they are two wondrous blessings. He is a man grateful for these angels in his life. It's beautiful to hear him talk about them: he speaks with pure joy. I ask him if he'd like to have more children. Yes, he says quietly, his one eye looking away. God willing. Some years later, despite my remaining an atheist, it is a handy phrase I adopt when people ask if I'm going to have children. God willing. I don't mind if it makes them think I'm religious – at least it makes them think.
On weekdays Ned and I visit the same coffee shop. We like not just the coffee but the people who run the place. On a small blackboard on the counter there is a daily question, and the first customer to answer it correctly wins a free coffee. The questions are hard but they always make for good discussion. One day I walk in to the crowded little café, without Ned, and the question is: What was Jean Valjean's prisoner number? I burst into song – TWO FOUR SIX OH ONE! – raising my best jazz hands in the air. Scott behind the counter puts down his stainless steel jug of milk and applauds, laughing. You've got it! he says. Yes! Yes, you've got it!
Years later, I tell Ned that that remains one of the best moments of my life. He is baffled and yet, quickly, not surprised. That sums up everything about you, he says. I realise it's true. What about your wedding? Tell me about that. I didn't invite Ned to my wedding. I wanted to, and my husband likes Ned too, but guest lists are tricky.
One time, while working next to Ned, I have an argument with some idiot over the phone, and I tell the idiot I don't appreciate his efforts to stonewall me. Ned thinks this is a great phrase. When I hang up, my face red and shoulders scrunched tight, he congratulates me, relishing the word: 'Stonewall' – I love it.
Ned plays music at his church and gets a red electric guitar, nail polish red. I buy him some red nail polish. He never wears it, but he appreciates the gesture.
He has a friend called Eric, who has cerebral palsy. Eric is wheelchair-bound and his speech is impaired, but he sells pens for a children's charity on the streets near our office. We meet him for coffee. He has a dry and quick sense of humour and, like me, enjoys teasing Ned. Despite this, Ned doesn't regret making the introduction, and he even seems to enjoy that Eric and I have something in common.
Ned arrives at work one morning with an empty shopping bag from his local fruit shop. This is for you, he says. The man in the fruit shop gave me one, and then he gave me another one and said, 'Here! Give it to your friend!' Ned says this instruction made him wonder who his friend was, and he realised it was me, though I've never been to the fruit shop.
As predicted, Ned remains at the same desk in the same job, but I move on after about a year. I change jobs and cities several times in the next few years. In one town I shop at a place called Ned's fruit shop, even though it's more expensive. The chair next to Ned, I'm told, remains a hot seat.
Eventually, after almost six years, we meet for a lunch organised by a mutual friend – the one who once asked me to describe Ned to her. We may have never met again otherwise, though I have been sending Ned the occasional email about any remarkable success in the kitchen. It is raining, and Ned is even taller than I remember. His shirt has miniature guitars all over it. It's great, I tell him. He says it's unappreciated in the office. He tells me he still has the red nail polish, though he's never worn it. I assumed he would have given it to Madeline. He and Louise now have a second daughter, Olivia, and I am hungry for pictures of the three of them. He pulls out his phone and scrolls through images of his shining, growing girls. I didn't expect that, I say. I sort of thought you'd have a couple of pictures in your pocket, you know, slightly crumpled and dog-eared.
I tell Ned about the wedding, and about life since the wedding. He understands. I know this, and yet it dawns on me like a great warming glow. But we don't go on about things. He makes jokes about his buffoonish tendencies and tells stories about the things Olivia says to him. He took her to the toilet one night when she was sick and at the doorway she turned and thrust her hand at him, saying, 'No! Stop! Mummy! I don't want the man to do it!' He laughs. He talks about why he has changed churches, to a bigger congregation. Ned pays for lunch without us noticing, and when we walk outside the rain has stopped.
The next day I email Ned to say thanks for buying lunch, and tell him it was warm and real. I don't say any more than that. There's no need to gush.
He replies with equal brevity. My thoughts (and words) exactly.