As Doreen Owino entered the open-plan building on her way to Mr. Cartwright’s office to ask for another fortnight’s leave of absence, conversations broke off and a hush followed her wake. She lengthened her stride to minimize the swishing sound of tights rubbing together at her thighs. And she studied the carpet to avoid eye-contact, and the inevitable expressions of sympathy from her colleagues at Global Beauty.
The black dots on the carpet reminded her of long-ago helicopter beetles. When she and her brother, Caleb, had caught the fat black lazy fliers, they tied the legs with string. And raising skinny arms, they twirled the beetles around and round buzzing like helicopters. Caleb and Doreen stared up at the blur of insect and string until it seemed the sky was closing in, and God, the God of Sunday school – oh be careful little hands what you do – would knock them on the head. And laughing for all of Africa, they’d fall to the ground, onto that worn dusty clearing, dizzy and uncaring that Mama would scold about their filthy clothes, especially her, the eldest daughter – Yawa nyamama!, and make them scrub their bodies with loofah.
Now the only one with a buzzing mind seeing things was her. If it wasn’t malaria-carrying anopheles mosquitoes blending into the flowers on her curtains to digest her blood, it was weevils visiting her meals in the guise of innocent beans, and now these beetles pretending to pattern a carpet. Resisting the urge to root in her bag for her trusty can of Doom – Doom Kills Dudus Dead!, Doreen trampled the dots.
“Wait, Dori, wait for me.”
Doreen scowled at her sister. Half-running, Philo waved a long skinny arm in the air as though there remained a single soul on the whole damn floor who hadn’t noticed her.
“We agreed you’d wait in the car,” hissed Doreen.
“Whatever you’re stamping on must be deader than dead by now.” Philo slipped her arm through her sister’s. “Anyway, it’s too hot out there. I’d rather wait inside. And you looked like you’d swallowed a fly getting into the building.”
Doreen blinked. Flies were something else she didn’t want to think about. But she softened her tone. “I’m fine. Really. You’re the one…”
“The one who…?” Philo asked, pointedly. She hated to be reminded of her status. “Mm! These people staring. Isn’t there any work to do in this place?”
Discreetly using a handkerchief to avoid direct contact, Doreen pushed the button. The light didn’t come on. She noticed an OTIS sign that had fallen on the floor – Lift Undergoing Repairs. Light above indicated the other lift was stopped on the eighth floor. She’d be late for the meeting with Mr. Cartwright – a man who refused to understand that in Africa time was negotiable. Just as she sighed, the lift doors opened, and there he stood, as though she’d thought him into being.
Brought in to overhaul the finance department following rumours of corrupt dealings, Mr. Cartwright had been in Kenya for eight months. He was a neat, yellow-haired Englishman with khaki-coloured irises that spooked Doreen particularly when he smiled – like he was now, in what seemed to her an awkward flash of teeth rather than an expression of pleasure.
He stepped back to make room for them. Only when they’d settled into their respective corners did Doreen notice that Mr. Cartwright wasn’t looking at her, but up at Philo, who at almost six foot, towered over them. With her solid build and thickened waistline, Doreen appeared shorter than five-foot-six, but she and Philo shared the same skin tone – the dark hue of coffee grounds. It contrasted sharply with the brilliance of their teeth and whites of their eyes – their fish-eater attributes as Baba used to say.
Philo’s irises glittered with mischief.
“Good morning, Mr. Cartwright, I was just coming up to see you,” Doreen said, loudly, to cue her sister to be on best behaviour. She pressed the already-lit button for the twelfth floor – the directors’ level.
“Good to have you back Miss. Owino.” He paused. “Terrible news. Absolutely awful. Your brother, wasn’t it?”
Doreen nodded, and closed her eyes, hoping he wouldn’t probe any further. She wanted to project a sorrowful image in order for Mr. Cartwright to agree to her taking more time off, but she didn’t want to talk about death.
“I trust the funeral arrangements went smoothly.”
She directed a meaningful look at Philo before turning back to Mr. Cartwright. He lifted and lowered his brows in acknowledgement.
Instead of mirrors, framed posters of beautiful girls graced the walls of the lift. Mr. Cartwright gazed at them, and then at Philo, squinting to disguise his interest. Of course, this made it more obvious to Doreen.
Though of different nationalities, the oval faces, sparkling eyes, bleach-white teeth, and powder-perfect skins of the models on the walls made them appear oddly similar – like looking at the same person through different coloured glasses. The Global look. To Doreen they looked as thin as the images of famine victims broadcast during the latest televised Africa Needs You concert. Yes, as thin as Philo. But they had no blemishes to remind Doreen of bugs, although their very act of lacking made her more aware of an absence. Like the absence of heat and noise in this multinational cocoon rising high above the potholed streets of Nairobi. Like the absence of her father, the headmaster who’d believed education was the route to salvation – a man so certain of what was right and what was wrong that Doreen never thought to question his thinking. Not until he’d refused to accept that his eldest son, Ambrose, had died of AIDS and that his baby daughter was likely to follow suit. Even now, Doreen didn’t understand her compulsion then to correct him. She’d badgered the old man to admit that he was wrong. He’d died, it seemed, to spite her.
“Mdosi?” The Boss Philo asked, in Swahili, although Mr. Cartwright would have to be a fool not to realise she was talking about him.
“Siyo mbaya,” Not bad. Philo added.
Doreen widened her eyes at her. “Philo!”
“Sijafa,” I’ve not died yet said Philo, displaying her molars, thus accentuating her too-wide jaw and starkly defined cheekbones.
Mr. Cartwright certainly didn’t look like an accountant, not in the blue short-sleeved shirt that showed off muscular forearms honed in a gym, and the shiny leather belt emphasising a flat stomach. But the skin on his arms was scaly, and tiny flakes hung onto the curly light-brown hairs growing off them. Dandruff, Doreen wondered, or lice?
“Me Philo. Dori’s sister.” Philo lifted her chin towards Mr. Cartwright. “You?”
Doreen hoped Mr. Cartwright read Philo’s mock Tarzan-speak as her having fun rather than testing his racial sensitivities.
He stretched out his hand, stiff and formal. “I’m, eh, Bob Cartwright. Pleased to meet you, Philo.”
The overhead lights switched off and back on.
“Yawa,” Philo said, “I hate when that happens.”
She held onto Mr. Cartwright’s hand as though acting in the Mexican soap opera on KBC TV in which characters over-dramatised every little scene as if to allow time for the language translation. As he disentangled and tucked his hand into his trouser pocket, a dark red flush moved up from Mr. Cartwright’s throat to his cheeks.
Men’s reactions to Philo scandalised Doreen. Once, Philo had called Doreen from Mombasa, crying, and going on about a mad sailor. The mad sailor turned out to be an earnest, Arabic-looking clearing agent. In the six hours it took for Doreen to drive from Nairobi to the coast, they’d become engaged. Instead of staying at his flat, Philo had hauled Doreen to the Mamba Village, a disco where drifters, runaways, twilight ladies and their multi-hued customers acted as though happiness were a matter of life or death. There they’d met another besotted man, an older, sharply suited political aspirant whose fingers kept straying to the chain of beads that peeked from Philo’s midriff whenever she reached or stretched. The political aspirant bought Doreen and Philo drinks, and later got into a fist fight with the young man who followed them there. Philo made up with the young man, (although she left him again two days later), and encouraged the political aspirant to direct his attentions to Doreen. Although he kept darting his eyes at Philo, the political aspirant had played along.
Exhausted, out of her depth and unable to deal with the desperate glitter in Philo’s eyes, Doreen had drunk and danced until morning. It was the most fun she’d ever had.
How little she and her sister knew each other. Philo had been little more than a baby when Doreen had gone off to boarding school at fourteen, and later on to university. As they’d driven to Nairobi, Doreen had asked, “What is it about you that they want?”
“I love men,” Philo had said, simply, “and they know it.”
Doreen had never thought about loving men in the plural. A specific man. Once. He’d dumped her for someone else. She’d liked a couple of others since, but not enough to take it anywhere.
It was after that ride from Mombasa that Philo moved in with Doreen, for a month at first, while she looked for a job. Then Ambrose had died. In the course of his funeral arrangements, Philo’s health deteriorated, badly, and she lost what little fleshiness she’d had. Only then had she disclosed her own positive status to the family. Two months later, their father died.
The overhead light flickered.
Doreen gazed up. Behind the Perspex, the fluorescent strip light glowed, uncertainly, like a wobbly cluster of fireflies. It shuddered, and with a limp flash, extinguished, sucking light from the enclosure.
The lift jerked. Doreen clutched her stomach. Swallowed. The lift dropped about a metre and juddered to a stop.
Probably due to a blackout, Doreen thought before she remembered the sign.
“Just what I need!” Mr. Cartwright muttered.
“I’ll get the emergency button.” Doreen fumbled, and then placed her mouth near the holes on the panel, careful not to touch them with her lips. The panel probably crawled with bacteria. “Hello. Hello.”
Doreen half expected a voice to respond in the same diffident manner, ‘Well, hello there!’
“AWA!” said Mr. Cartwright, with an exaggerated Kenyan inflection.
Did he really expect them to concur, Doreen wondered, with a foreigner denigrating them? His mimicry irritated her.
But Philo laughed. “Africa Wins Again.”
Doreen pressed the button, banged on the doors of the lift. “Help,” she shouted. “Help.”
It sounded too loud in the dark of the enclosure.
“It’s early,” said Mr. Cartwright, his voice crisp, composed again. “Someone is bound to notice the lift is out of order.”
“Too true,” said Philo. “In fact, we saw the sign…”
Her sentence dangled unfinished, growing in weight and recrimination in the silence that followed. Doreen was glad they couldn’t see each other.
The buttons flashed. Eight. Four. Five.
“See, someone is working on it.”
Doreen wondered if Mr. Cartwright felt as calm about it as he sounded.
Six. Three. Eight. Doreen jabbed the eight.
They’d been eight in her family once. Baba used to line them up, eldest to youngest. Ambrose, Caleb, her, Bella who lived in America, and Elizabeth – the one you’d assume would be dead now, Doreen thought, married to a drunken bully in Kisumu, and Philo – the baby born to fetch Mama water in old age. Stamping a beat on the floor and enacting the words by gesturing at eyes and sky, the eight of them had sung for Baba, ‘Oh be careful little eyes what you see…for the father up above is looking down with love…’ But clearly, when He looked down at Africa, all God saw were self-inflicted wars, genocides and famines. And turned his backside. Farted. So much easier to damn all than weigh individual merit! Ambrose gone, Baba gone, Caleb…
“I should have used the loo,” Philo said.
Serve you right for following me, Doreen thought. She rubbed her forehead. Her cornrows pulled at her temples. Philo had braided them that morning.
Nine. Four. Six.
The flashing stopped. Nothing happened. No movement. Nothing.
“Help!” Doreen jabbed the buttons, and banged the doors of the lift. “Help!”
“Someone is working on it,” Mr. Cartwright repeated.
Breathing deeply, Doreen struggled to compose herself. She owed Mr. Cartwright. He’d promoted her to head internal audit, and detailed her on a project to trace paper trails – the tangible proof of corruption.
Philo said. “Don’t know about you guys but I’m going to sit. We might be here awhile.”
They heard her slide against the wall.
“We could play a game?” Her voice rose up at them, like a child begging Mama and Baba to pay her attention.
“I’m not in the mood for games,” Doreen snapped.
In exactly the same tone their mother used, until you had to give in or escape – kind, reverential, yet loaded with disappointment – Philo said, “Don’t be like that.”
The words reverberated in the enclosure. Don’t be like that. Don’t be like that. “Your sister’s right. Every trial is an opportunity.” Mr. Cartwright too slid to the floor. “Philo, what game do you have in mind?”
Doreen imagined the criss-cross of legs on the floor. If only she could relax enough to join them, prove to Mr. Cartwright that she too could cope with this adversity. She didn’t want to be like that. Maybe if they’d used a different carpet in the lift. All those beetles…
“I say we tackle riddles,” Philo said, in a rush of words. “I’ll go first. Give me your hands.”
Doreen felt the fumbling along her skirt, and scratching up her side. It sounded obscene. Trying not to imagine Philo exploring Mr. Cartwright in the same way, Doreen bent one knee, awkwardly, and gripped her sister’s hand. It was hot and sweaty. Philo pumped enthusiastically.
“How can you tell if a good swimmer is drowning or just showing off?” Philo asked.
Their father had often tested that one on them. In the living room of their three-bedroom home in Kisumu – the one with the larger garden at the end of a row of identical two-storey maisonettes – the children congregated around the large coffee table. While they rolled balls of maize-meal ugali with their hands to pad the tilapia and kale greens, their mother cautioned them not to mess with the yellow vitambayas she’d crocheted to protect the arms and backs of the imitation leather sofa from the liquid paraffin oil the girls applied on their scalps.
Baba preferred to sit and eat by himself at the nearby dining table. From his perch, he’d fire questions at them, or riddles or proverbs. Underlying them all was a moral fable to be unravelled. To Doreen it had seemed an extension of his classroom grilling, yet another examination. She could never relax her guard. Years later, on home visits at Easter and Christmas, she’d been shocked to find Baba lounging (lounging!) on the sofa with Mama and Philo, eating with them and watching TV, quietly too, content to let even advertisements slide on by without comment; Baba conversing in Dholuo instead of English; Baba chuckling when Philo picked the best piece of fish for herself, teasing him for being old and slow. Although it was what she’d once yearned for, how let-down Doreen had felt by the way her father had relaxed his standards. And now there was no-one to talk with about it – that history buried along with her brothers.
Darkness closed in. Intimate. Probing. Was this scraping sound she heard inside or outside her head? It was like something trying to get in. Like the voice of her father, but creaky, ancient, asking again and again, “Doreen, my daughter, what is this, what is this thing you are telling me?” Then the scraping developed into more of a rustling, like the sound of bugs gathering. Dudus closing in. Doreen reached into her bag, and wrapped her hand around the hard, firm shaft of the Doom can. When the rustling took on a big, physical timbre, Doreen began to wonder what other game Philo and Mr. Cartwright were playing down there on the floor.
To distract them, and herself, Doreen prompted, “How to tell if swimmer is sinking or swimming?”
“What if the swimmer shouts, ‘Help’?” asked Mr. Cartwright.
Doreen shook her head.
As though he could see her in the dark, Mr. Cartwright spoke up again. “What if he throws up his hands, gulps water?”
“I’ll give you a clue,” Philo said, “It’s never the obvious answer.”
“Okay. What if his head stays under?”
To Doreen, Mr. Cartwright sounded like their eldest brother, straight-line Ambrose, who never clicked their father’s riddles and proverbs unless they were spelt out for him. But he persisted in trying out answers until their father lost his temper and shouted that even the little children, Caleb and Doreen, were cleverer than his stupid first-born. Ambrose would stalk off, long-faced. In the silence that followed, something would squeeze Doreen’s heart. The pain was so palpable that Doreen felt their presence. Right there in the enclosure with them. Ambrose. Her father. Caleb, pretending to fall off the sofa, peddling his feet in the air, his giggles easing the tension. Their mother’s reverential voice, saying, “Yawa, my dear husband, you can’t say that to our child.”
“You can’t,” Doreen said. “You can’t.”
“Can’t what?” asked Mr. Cartwright.
“That’s the answer,” said Philo. “You can’t tell if the swimmer is showing off or drowning. You just dive in to save them.”
‘I can’t,’ Doreen wanted to tell the ghosts in the room. So many ghosts. So many bugs. So many.
“Is it hot in here or what?” asked Philo. “And you office people insist on ties and tights! Aren’t you boiling?”
“I got stuck in a lift once…in New York during a power blackout in the summer of ninety-seven. Lasted four hours.” Mr. Cartwright said. “Now that was hot! We took off our shirts…”
“You and who?” asked Philo.
“Actually, I was with this woman. She also worked for Global, but we’d never met.”
“Was she pretty?”
“Couldn’t tell. Dark in the lift, you see…”
Mr Cartwright laughed a bit.
“Did you tell your wife about her?”
“It wasn’t like that.” Mr. Cartwright laughed a bit more, and coughed. “Really.”
“Dori,” Philo said. “If a man couldn’t see in the dark, how would he know what item of clothing a woman takes off?”
“Your sister is impossible,” said Mr. Cartwright, his tone oozing pleasure.
Doreen chose to misunderstand. “Philo, I don’t think you’re being fair to Mr. Cartwright.”
“Okay,” Philo squeezed her hand. “You okay?”
As though in response, the buttons lit up again. Seven. Nine. Eight.
Doreen pressed the eight. The hard, slick, rounded button felt like the back of a helicopter beetle. She squashed it until her finger throbbed.
The lift jerked.
The doors opened.
Light flooded in.
Greeted by the usual buzz of photocopiers and tapping of computer keys, and spits of gossip around the coffee maker, Doreen blinked. Nobody looked up, or more accurately, nobody looked like they looked up. They were on the eighth floor. What had seemed forever, had barely taken fifteen minutes.
As she emerged, Doreen noticed that the smell emanating from the lift was sour and warm like yeast. She heard rather than saw Mr. Cartwright and her sister scrambling up from the floor, Philo mumbling about stiffness. They didn’t quite look at each other, but busied themselves with little movements. Mr. Cartwright notched up his tie, and looked at his watch. Philo re-wrapped her scarf. But not before Doreen glimpsed the line of rashes beading her neck like a white army of termites before the rains. Philo’s CD4 count had crashed after Baba’s death and she’d been bedridden for two months. Doreen had learnt to cope with the runny yellow-green diarrhoea that sometimes missed the toilet seat, and the blobs of mucus that Philo coughed up into a plastic bucket. But she couldn’t stand these rashes that appeared on Philo’s skin – even in periods of relative health – white pimples popping out of nowhere like an infestation of fleas. Particularly when they insisted on dotting her wrists and neckline like terrible jewellery.
“I’ll get someone to mend the fault before anyone else gets caught in that lift.” With the red file, Mr. Cartwright indicated the stairs, “I also need to drop this.”
“I’ll first show Philo the ladies,” Doreen said, “if that is okay with you.”
“Of course. Whenever you’re ready, please wait in my office. Make yourself comfortable. And eh, good to meet you Philo.”
“The pleasure has been mine,” said Philo, in a voice rich with mischief. “even though we didn’t take off our shirts…”
Doreen shook her head, glanced about.
Mr. Cartwright frowned as though he didn’t understand what was going on, or, perhaps, to force distance between them. With a curt nod, he walked to the staircase. He leaped up the steps two at a time.
They waited for the sound of his steps to disappear, before climbing to the twelfth floor. Because of the open-plan, glass-partition layout, they spied the trio of directors in the meeting room beyond Mr. Cartwright’s office. The marketing director, a tall woman who’d once epitomised The Global Look and consequently assumed a hard manner in order to be taken at more than face value, gestured at the operations director – a bespectacled elder, said to have two wives and eleven children. The sales director, a stocky Nigerian man as slithery with words as the evangelical preacher on Christian-Hope FM, stroked his blue-black, well-groomed beard. Sitting around a table surprisingly denuded of paper, the directors raised their heads in her direction. By the time Doreen lifted her lips in the semblance of a smile, they’d turned away.
“They’re probably talking about me.”
Philo stopped to study them. “Bet you the woman is having an affair with the beard. Over the table they’re leaning away from each other, but look at the way they’ve angled their hips…”
“All you think about is sex!”
“You try too hard not to think about it.”
“It’s going to kill you. Like it killed…”
Philo’s eyes lit with anger. “You’re so wrapped in correctness. You think we chose this?”
“Well, your lifestyle is certainly conducive to….”
“Tera mos! I don’t have to justify my behaviour.” Give me a break.
Yes, you do, Doreen thought, close to spitting the bitterness – you have a duty to me, to us, to read the posters, to heed the messages on TV for God’s sake. We all do. She scowled at Philo.
Philo fingered the scarf around her neck, and bit her lower lip, her shiny, unblinking face absorbing the unspoken blows, not denying. She suddenly seemed so young – the baby who closed Mama’s womb, the little girl who teased Baba, the one who called Doreen when she was in pain. Doreen wanted to relent, mumble something understanding, something like, ‘Accidents happen. Or condoms fail. Or emotions overwhelm’. But the ugly inside stopped her.
Philo sighed. “You can get tired of treating your partner as a dangerous weapon.”
“Dori,” Philo said, “One in five is HIV positive. But you never ever think it will happen to you.”
Doreen sneered at the stupidity of this.
“Yawa, my sister, you are hard.” Philo touched Doreen’s shoulder. “But you know what? You’re the one in danger.”
Doreen shrugged her off. “From what?”
Philo shook her head at Doreen, as though she were a fool not to see it.
“Where is the toilet?” she finally asked.
Philo walked off.
Doreen glanced at the directors again, tried to see them through Philo’s eyes. Brandishing his file, Mr. Cartwright popped into the room with them. The directors listened to him, each shaking their head or squinting or stroking a beard, gravely, like a trio of village elders determining a land case. Feeling foolish, Doreen dragged her feet to Cartwright’s office.
At his threshold, she dithered. It was a big room, one side of which featured wall-to-wall glass overlooking the city skyline. Before she could decide where to sit, Mr. Cartwright rushed back to his office. Placing a hand on her elbow, he led her away from the chair next to his desk, away from the photographs of his wife and yellow-haired daughters, and guided her to a leather sofa. Doreen plonked herself down too hard and felt herself being swallowed into the depression where two plump cushions met. Wriggling, she surreptitiously tried to commit her bottom to one side or the other. Slowly, her feet rose off the ground leaving her as unbalanced on the outside as she felt inside.
“They’ve stopped the lift now.” Nothing in his pale eyes or cool demeanour hinted at the intimacy shared in that enclosure. “I trust you’re no worse for the experience?”
“I’m fine,” Doreen said.
From a tray with jug and glasses, Mr. Cartwright filled and then passed her a glass of water clinking with ice cubes. Perching himself on the heavy coffee table in front of her, he placed elbows on knees, interlocked fingers under chin, and leaned forward. He nodded his head in an encouraging fashion, reminding her of the Power of Positive Thinking books he’d distributed to everyone in the finance department, even the messenger whose mangled efforts could hardly be described as English.
“I’m glad you’ve come back.”
“I need more time off.” Her voice came out more harshly than intended. “Two weeks. Please.”
His pale eyes surveyed her much like a scientist puzzling over a new strain of bacteria in order to contain it. “I figured you didn’t want to talk about it back there. It must be painful?”
Doreen concentrated her gaze on his thin moustache – the little hairs trimmed and disciplined into shape like soldier ants guarding his thin mouth. Forcing herself not to blink, she tried to fill her eyes with tears. After all, he believed in evidence – paper trails, facts, tangibles.
“How many are you in your family?”
Did he mean her family back then or now, she wondered. Caleb would have lectured her on the power of the particular. He’d have said nothing impacts as much as an intimate story of an experience well told. He’d taught literature at the University of Nairobi. He was dead now. A death very particular to Doreen, but she doubted her ability to tell it well enough to mean more than just a number to this man sitting in front of her.
“Six. Eight if you included my parents. Now four, plus Mama. Still alive, I mean.”
Numbers halved, subtracted, divided.
“You’re the eldest?”
“No.” But she was the eldest now, and already thrust into Ambrose’s responsible shoes – maintaining Mama, retired to a small farm near Kisumu, and Ambrose’s wife and two children. She’d probably have to contribute college fees for Caleb’s son…
“Could you tell me what happened?”
The precipitation on the glass spread its cold though the nerves in Doreen’s hand, along her arm, into the trunk of her body, and upwards to merge with the ice in her mouth so that the confidences he invited froze unspoken.
Still, he waited, like a stage doctor play-acting. Noting the flaking skin on his arms, she almost felt sorry for him – a foreign man groping dark matters instead of issuing the usual platitudes that passed for sympathy. Yet, what she wanted he seemed determined to deny her.
“AIDS. Stroke. Accident. AIDS.”
Mr. Cartwright stiffened as if she’d spat a little blob on his nose that he was too polite to wipe away. He didn’t seem to notice that the numbers didn’t add up.
I am too, she wanted to say. He’d politely asked about Caleb and she’d dragged in Baba, Ambrose, and even Philo who was not yet dead. But in comparison to the individual images of the living, calling up one death invariably brought home the others. Just like dudus. If you spied one, you knew others lurked around the corner. When she’d last gone to visit Mama with Ambrose’s children, Doreen followed what looked like an isolated bee to a nest in the rafters of the shed where Mama penned her cow. That night, while the bees updated their queen on the day’s doings, she’d climbed a ladder (much more difficult at 40 years and 160 pounds than it had been in childhood) and into their nest, emptied a can of Doom. Of course those that staggered out stung her.
“Yawa! How could I have raised such a foolish child,” Mama asked, raising hands to the sky, “wasting all that honey?” But there was relief in her words, and in the way the children laughed at Doreen. Days later, face still swollen, she’d popped into the office to ask for more leave, and without comment Mr. Cartwright had obliged.
“It’s a leave of absence. I’m not asking to be paid.”
With a delicate little cough, Mr. Cartwright cleared his throat. “You realize you’ve been out of office for forty nine working days this year?”
“In the eleven years I’ve worked here, I never paid attention to the clock. I’ve worked days, nights, weekends, holidays, whenever they or you…”
“That’s why we’re having this conversation,” he said. “Doreen, you’re a bright, talented human being. You have an exciting future here that I wouldn’t want this tragedy to derail…”
“Sir, I’m grateful for your confidence in my abilities.”
He wagged a finger at her.
“Bob, remember? Call me Bob.”
For such a compact man, Bob had surprisingly long, artistic fingers. Doreen wondered if Bob’s thing, nestling in innocent folds of material, was just as creatively endowed. Was his thing alive and ticking, ever-ready, like its African brethren, to pleasure itself to death? She was beginning to think like Philo.
“I appreciate your patience, Bob. Really, I do. But I need this time,” Doreen added, isolating each word. “Just two more weeks. Please.”
“That’s what you told me last time.”
In the harsh office light his intense yellow eyes seemed to glow at her. She turned her head, and caught sight of the three directors huddled like wasps sharpening their stingers. There was something false in their studious concentration. She sensed that if she suddenly stamped her foot, they’d jump a mile. They’d probably found out about the secret project. Everything leaked in this place. In fact, everything leaked in the whole bloody country. Hadn’t the pastor, during Ambrose’s funeral, delivered an impromptu speech promoting the use of condoms even though Doreen’s family never revealed the cause of his death?
“What slight,” her father asked, later, when Philo disclosed her ailment, “even imagined and unintended, had he visited upon anyone to reap such bitter fruit?”
Hard to imagine Baba, the headmaster, talking of curses in the shape of an evil word that turned the natural order upside down and forced father to bury his children. He never spoke the word, but it worried his mind until a stroke claimed him. But Doreen couldn’t help it – she wanted to say it all the time, AIDS, AIDS, AIDS.
“Wallowing in grief is not going to change things for the better.”
“I know. But I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t need the time.”
“What do you hope to do in this time?”
She could go back to Mamba Village, disco all night with The Deliriously Happy. Now that would surprise Mr. Cartwright. He probably slotted Doreen amongst the saved brigade – those pious spinsters who pledged themselves to Jesus and buzzed around the pastor. He would have been right once. Before Ambrose wore out his knees in the New Redeemer’s Church praying for redemption.
“You’ve not thought it through, have you?”
Well, she could always lay more traps for cockroaches. She’d stand by the light switch in her kitchen All Night Long. Every now and then, in no particular pattern because bugs were bright, she’d flick it on and spray the ones that fell for bits of food strategically placed on the tiled floor. Though she scrubbed her floors and walls daily, Doreen could always count on roaches honing their antennae beyond the smell of bleach. Hardy little suckers probably hid in neighbouring flats waiting for her to fall asleep. And because they looked the same, she could swear it was the same bloody roaches she’d emptied a can on the night before. Doreen hated enemies who hid themselves.
Mr. Cartwright drawled into her reverie. “Is your sister a model?”
“You should introduce her to the advertising people. I like her attitude.”
“Good,” Doreen snapped, even as she noted the light in his eyes – an opening.
Of course, there were depths to Philo that surprised. Apart from when bedridden, Philo refused to let anyone fuss about her condition. She’d even started a diploma on counselling. But Mr. Cartwright’s innuendo implied that compared to her sister, Doreen was over-reacting. What could he understand of this haplessness, this loss of control that not even her upbringing, education, and relative wealth inured her from? He probably assumed that she was sliding into the generic African condition – a general malaise that required firm handling, ‘a jolly good talking to.’
“Look, I’m not unsympathetic as to how you feel…”
“But there are deadlines to meet,” she finished for him, “Global expectations and obligations.”
“I need you to help me help you,” he said in an exasperated tone. “I need your help to put this corruption business to bed.”
Of course, even Doreen’s best efforts barely dented insect life. Bugs outnumbered humans thirteen billion to one. During the rains a few days previous, manual workers and children in her estate harvested winged termites by the thousands. They fried them in shallow pans and Blueband tins – no need to add oil – popped them into brown paper bags and crunched them. Though they smelled exactly like vinegary chips, and she’d dipped happily in her own childhood, Doreen couldn’t stand the sight of them. But she didn’t have the heart to deny Ambrose’s children so she’d sat in her car in the parking lot, armed with her can of Doom, until the feasting was done.
“We’ve got choices, Doreen. And choices have consequences. You know that and I know that.”
So this was it, she thought – Bob’s artistic fingers held out either the promise of directorship or the door. She shut her eyes. Her legs parted as she sunk deeper into the foundations of the accommodating sofa. She hoped there were no dudus down there. She become aware of a faint discordant noise rising from the streets as matatu drivers revved their engines and blared horns, and conductors called out to potential customers, “Beba! Beba!” The noise prickled the air-conditioned façade of the office. Even here, Africa ruled. It just fed enough rope to fool some into thinking otherwise.
“Caleb was driving home, like he always did. Driving a plain white Toyota. Dusk. Broken streetlight. Lorry stopped middle of the road. Maybe Caleb was tired – he lectured at the public university – you’ve no idea how crowded the classes. Maybe he was distracted by a fly – lots of flies in Nairobi. Because of the quick hands of street children, he’d probably opened only the slightest gap in his window for fresh air. But flies have a nasty way of finding the littlest gap don’t you think?”
Mr. Cartwright frowned in either concentration or consternation. “I’m not sure where this is going…”
Doreen sipped the cold water, and carefully placed the glass on the table. Her hands were wet with condensation. In an intimate conversational tone, she continued, “Those first on the scene helped themselves to his mobile phone and briefcase. Those who came later – small fish because big fish never stop unless they recognise the car – asked if he had medical insurance or a card, and checked his car for stickers. But the scene was a mess by then and his wallet long gone. He died before they could get him to hospital. What I couldn’t get over is the idea of a bloody accident! In comparison, AIDS seems meaningful.”
“Doreen, I hear your pain.”
“I need more than that.”
“I’m terribly sorry, but my hands are tied.”
Doreen caught sight of a movement, the tiniest blur above the jug on the table. But when she blinked it was gone. “Maybe the truth will untie your hands.”
“Caleb did have AIDS. They found a bottle of retrovirals in the mashed-up glove box of his car. See, he hid his status to spare me, my mother, Philo…us. Impossible task. Like trying to rid the world of dudus.”
“God! That’s terrible.”
“As they emptied his pockets, how many hands, do you think, touched his blood?” Doreen shuddered. “Blood crawling with invisible bugs.”
Mr. Cartwright’s Adam’s apple moved up and down as though a helicopter beetle were stuck there. “Doreen, I think you need to talk to an expert.”
“A pastor who’d tell me to count my blessings? A counsellor who’d listen to me rant and then advise me to channel my anger more productively? Or my mother who’d shame me with her tears? Perhaps,” Doreen twisted her mouth, “you think I should turn to Philo with her games and positive…attitude?”
Relief washed over Doreen that she hadn’t betrayed her sister’s status, even though that was probably the only news that would shake Mr. Cartwright. Bitterly, it struck her that even though he’d only met Philo for a few minutes, she was more real to him than Doreen.
“I just don’t think it appropriate for me…”
“Then why did you ask about me, about my family?” Doreen hesitated, and then lifted her chin towards the glass partition, towards the directors who now stared openly, not even pretending to talk amongst themselves. “Is it because of them? Did they, in not so many words, imply that you don’t know the way of Africans? Did they ask you to probe, see if my grief is real and not just an excuse for malingering?”
Mr. Cartwright started to shake his head, but she spoke before he could reply.
“Why the questions then? Why not just fire me?”
“That is simply not fair. I’d wanted to persuade you to come back to work.”
His use of past tense registered. He’d not only given up trying to determine if she was drowning or pretending, he’d decided it didn’t matter.
“Yellow, yellow, dirty fellow,” she mumbled under her breath.
She caught sight of the blur again, flitting along the windows behind him – a dark speck weaving a groove through the glassy reflection. At this distance, the city of Nairobi looked so polished and possible, the edgy topography of concrete buildings setting off the warm green sprawl of Uhuru Park. But Doreen knew it didn’t bear closer scrutiny. She could visualise the iridescent flies resting about the eyes of the child carried on the back of the beggar woman on Koinange street, beetles skittering out of sacks of beans and cereals lining the floor of the dukawallahs on Biashara Street, bedbugs proliferating a River Road hotel, and the lice on the heads of her nephew’s classmates at Akili Primary. If she concentrated hard enough Doreen was sure she’s spot a haze of locusts on the horizon, the ayaki, the thing determined to consume and obliterate.
Doreen awkwardly scrunched up the sofa until her feet found purchase. “Bob, it must be something about the air here – hot and unforgiving. I suggest you apply Global intensive-care cream. On your arms, I mean, to counter the dryness.”
He flushed, tapped his mouth with his fingers. “Because of the…exceptional circumstances, I’ll overlook that.”
The whirring in the air drew closer and then flitted away again, not staying long or still enough for Doreen to figure out what kind of bug it was. Visible. Invisible.
“What else are you prepared to overlook?” With her chin, Doreen indicated the glass partition.
Mr. Cartwright clipped his words to match the stiff demeanour of his moustache. “Perhaps you could explain what you mean by that?”
“They’re guilty,” she said, “The marketing and sales heads share pillow secrets if you know what I mean. They cover up for each other. And probably half the operations director’s extended family works for Global Beauty – in the factory and out in the field. They use first and middle names to obscure things.”
“What evidence do you have to support these allegations?” Mr. Cartwright massaged one hand with the other.
It might have been a trick of light but it seemed the whirring in the air was getting frantic. Her hand inched towards her bag.
“That’s just the stuff floating on top, Bob, the lesser proofs outlining the pattern of the whole. Smelly stuff but not legally indefensible. To prove what’s eating the bottom line, I need more time. Time to root around in that corrupt armpit so we can yank out all the pubic crabs once and for all.”
Was that Philo knocking on the glass door and mouthing something at her?
“I wonder if I’m mistaken about you,” said Mr. Cartwright, without a shadow of doubt in his voice.
Doreen’s gaze drifted back to the little soldiers guarding Mr. Cartwright’s lips. She wondered if he realised that after the knowledge came the fallout. And fallout affected so damn many – Ambrose’s wife and children, Caleb’s wife and son, those arms that reached for Caleb’s wallet or prodded his broken body, whoever Philo had shared a bed with and whoever they were related to. Mama. And her. She sighed, but as the air expelled from her lips, Doreen spied the speck zooming in the air towards them. She recognised the danger.
She grasped Bob’s hand. Startled he leaned back. Pulling against him, Doreen leveraged herself out of the sofa. He was forced up, his face turning a violent red. Their bodies smacked.
Doreen extracted the Doom from her bag and held up the nozzle.
“Careful,” she said, puffing air in his face. “Careful.”
He blinked, tightened his mouth, the soldier ants bristling.
She aimed. Pressed.
With a shriek, Bob lifted an elbow to shield his face.
Gesticulating with her long arms, Philo entered the room. “Dori, Dori, stop. Stop…”
The directors from next door rushed in behind her, flapping their hands in front of their faces and coughing in an exaggerated fashion.
One of them grabbed the icy jug of water, forced down Mr. Cartwright’s elbow, and splashed his face with water and ice.
Tears streaming down her face, Philo wrapped an arm around Doreen’ side and gently eased the Doom from her grip. The sales director guided Mr. Cartwright to the bathroom to wash out residue.
“Madness,” the marketing lady declared. “Did I or did I not say there was something wrong with this woman?” She dialled for an ambulance. And security. Just in case. “Did I or did I not say?”
“Oh dear,” The elderly operations man said of Doreen to Philo. “I think this young lady needs help. Is she your friend?”
Philo waved her hand in front of her nose, as though he, along with the room, smelled bad.
Doreen coughed to clear the air. “Nairobi Eye.”
And from the tips of unvarnished fingernails, she dangled the delicate red and
black insect that caused a particularly painful form of conjunctivitis and
corneal inflammation. Like a gem it glimmered, light and dark.
As Doreen Owino entered the open-plan building on her way to Mr. Cartwright’s office to ask for another fortnight’s leave of absence, conversations broke off and a hush followed her wake. She lengthened her stride to minimize the swishing sound of tights rubbing together at her thighs. And she studied the carpet to avoid eye-contact, and the inevitable expressions of sympathy from her colleagues at Global Beauty.