Chloe and I were in her favourite pub in Shoreditch. She knew the bar staff by name, they did not however know hers. It was a typical East London locale, lots of old mismatched furniture, '70s reggae and obscure beer served in strange glasses. The concept of 'shabby-chic' is artful in its deception. The conceit is a simple one: cram a ramshackle building room full of junk, add a few bearded men and push the prices up. The well-off have always appreciated a veneer of disorder - how else do you explain the hipsters of Peckham? The new generation of London pub provides this illusion: a place of rustic abandon and gentle decadence.
We were on our second date and I was feeling good. Chloe worked for a charity in a fundraising role. My initial thoughts were of the infernal chuggers scattered across London. She was too accomplished to actually be one, perhaps she was their master - a kind of charity Fagin. I pictured Chloe in a darkened riverfront basement, her minions close as she issued detailed orders. I could see her dispatching bib-wearing flunkies to the four corners of the city, her face twisting into a scowl as she commanded her 'pretties' to fly.
Chloe said, "but really it is so worth it, at last I feel as though I'm giving something back."
I had missed the beginning of her monologue but I figured I had the gist.
"Sounds great, I wish I could do something more meaningful. I seem to spend a lot of my time sacking people."
She looked solemn. "That's right, you work in HR, don't you?"
"Yes, I do." It was the third time I had told her.
"I understand that feeling, when I worked in finance I felt the same. But then something happened to me. I know it sounds silly, but when I went to India..."
What followed was a ponderous tale of redemption in Calcutta. A holiday in hell had seemingly transformed Chloe from careerist banker to benign activist. This was good, the world needed more people like her. We didn't necessarily need to hear about it though. To be fair, Chloe did listen to me ramble about the 'human' side of HR. I peddled furiously, trying to present each bloodless initiative as some kind of benevolent gesture, rolled out exclusively for the betterment of the workforce. I could see the cogs whirring as she processed the counter-narrative. The corporate world was heartless and decayed - were it not so, she would never have left.
"That sounds great," she said, "passion is so needed at work. I get it, I used to feel the same. But don't you ever yearn for more than the office life? Doesn't it ever seem like a big waste of time?"
She reached across the table and took my hand.
"Oh god," she said, "that came out wrong. What I meant to say was..."
"You work in an office as well, you know."
Chloe smiled, clearly I didn't understand. She went on to denigrate all office work outside of the charity sector. Her tirade reminded me of the Antipodean backpackers I had met as a youthful traveller. They also had a fascistic view of work and reviled any job that entailed wearing a suit.
Chloe said, "in a lot of ways I think its brave to live in the corporate world. I look at those people suppressing their dreams and just think god, how do you do it? Not you of course, you've travelled in your life, seen things..."
I had indeed travelled, this somehow got me off the hook. Ordinarily, I would have switched off but Chloe was a woman of striking beauty and limitless compassion, so I accepted her blandishments. Perhaps she was right, maybe the corporate world was nothing but a snake-pit. Perhaps we were wasting our time. My mind flicked back to the jobs I held as a younger man: I laboured on rain sodden building sites, and moved pallets in dusty warehouses. I even did a (surprisingly mundane) stint in the Royal Navy before finally pushing myself into the professional world. Now, Chloe would have me poo-poo my place in Capitalism's great machine. Still, I fancied her so I was prepared to go with it.
"Maybe you're right," I said, placing my hand on top of hers. "There has to be another way. It seems mad, toiling away just to pay some idiot's bonus."
She smiled. "Yeah, right. And yet, so many people don't give it a second thought."
I shook my head. "Just crazy."
The pub had filled with couples, many of the men were bearded and bespectacled, all of them skilfully dishevelled. At least four were playing board games. A man in luminous trainers was talking loudly about the new Wes Anderson film. Chloe lifted her jam jar and took a long swig. We were lucky to be here I thought, but of course, it was not enough.