As a rule, Añuri’s alarm clock sounded off at 5.45am every morning. In truth, she was really awake two hours later, after she had had her bath. Always a cold bath, the stinging feel of air-chilled water to jolt her back to reality. After that, she was good to function.
Most mornings, she dressed for modesty; dark-colours, low-heeled shoes, shoulders-length dreadlocks pulled back to a ponytail with rubber-band. Usually, that also meant pink or red lipstick or none at all. On Fridays, or as the mood dictated, she favoured tight blue jeans, tank-top, the black Italian blazers she bought seven years back and had worn over and over, but which still looked good as new – at least to her – and screaming make-ups in all colours known to man.
Today was one of such mornings; it being a Monday notwithstanding. The lucky thing was she could wear anything she liked, being her own boss as it were, at home, work and everywhere else. And why not, she felt. The sun was up and shining, the pigeons that loved to perch by her window sills cooed, plus the sound of the gentle flow of a stream from behind her estate. All testified that the day was bound to bring with it good tidings. Thus, she whistled, danced, and took her time to look good. She could afford to do that, considering that 10am was to her the perfect time to get to work. By then, she reckoned, her secretary/receptionist/organizer/care-taker of all other ‘lower functions’ imaginable, but who went by the fancy name administrative assistant, would have settled in on the mundane side of running the advertising slash business-plan consultancy firm she owned with one other person.
And she had obviously, thought Añuri, as she packed in front of the office and watched Njideka trot out of the door. The girl had a habit of delivering one news or the other to Añuri right out there while she struggled to gather all her feminine whims into her handbag. Once she had asked her if she feared she’d forget every single word is she just waited a few minutes longer. Whatever effect that was supposed to have on Njideka waned in a week.
“Good morning, Njideka.’ Shouted Añuri in greeting, supposing it a more effective way of hushing the girl up than words of wisdom.
Although Njideka stood aside when Añuri leaped out of the car, her mouth hung open ready to prattle on cue. So, as she strode past her into the office, Njideka followed behind in earnest. However, Añuri was so much taller. On any day she was in high-spirits – God help – she simply flew. Therefore, it went without saying that Njideka was soon out-walked, causing her to retract to her table, awaiting Añuri’s call.
Añuri entered her office and immediately noticed that something was different about it. Last Friday, her desk had been stacked with papers scattered here and there. Now, those were arranged neatly in place. Even the shelves at the east and west end of the room, of unread management books (with little hope of their state ever getting changed if it depended on Añuri) were wiped free of many months old dust. The windows had been cleaned too, the damask curtains thrown open to let in fresh air. No air-conditioning today then, Añuri appraised. None of the stale, damp odour the prolonged use of it had given the room either. Good, she thought. Good work, Njideka. As annoying as the girl was at times, Añuri had to admit that she was of some use. She just needed management.
All that fellow-feeling, however, was interrupted by Bem’s abrupt presence in the office. He just opened the door and stood there, his 1.98m, 120kg of soft flesh taking up every space. He, like her, was clothed in jeans. No blazers for him though. The ex-engineer in him could not stand, as he liked to put it, the restriction. Añuri thought he looked divine, momentarily forgetting that she was angry at him.
Bem was the ‘man’ of their two-man founded firm. At night, he doubled also as Añuri’s lover. Until lately, when he got into the habit of canceling their dates. Four times in a row! His wife conveniently summoning him away on each occasion. At first, Añuri had accepted it as one of the hazards that came with being with a married man, but the last incident was one time too many. It just seemed too easy an excuse. She was very upset. If Bem wanted out, didn’t he respect her enough to tell her the truth? After all the years they had known themselves? Had the introduction on sex really made that much difference?
“Good morning, Bem.” Añuri greeted him, smiling inspite of herself.
He didn’t smile back. His mind apparently preoccupied by other matters.
“What’s the matter?” The old worry for him once more at play.
Whatever it was he waved aside.
“Later. Right now, what I need to know is why you refused to answer my calls during the weekend?”
“I was busy.” Answered Añuri, her mood changing for the worse.
“With your Dr. Peters?”
Dr. Peters was a former client. Two months ago, he had taken quite an interest in Añuri. But, he was married with three children. Añuri was not that anxious to relive her experience with Bem all over again. However, in the mean time, she was enjoying the attention, especially since the last episode of being stood up.
“Do you know what a comical picture you cut playing the jealous lover?” Now, she had on a sardonic, little smile, which should have warned Bem not to proceed further. The message was lost on him.
“That is a yes, I take it. Explains your recent detachment.”
“I’ve no desire to continue in this conversation. If you haven’t anything else to say, please you close my door on your way out.” Her voice had became icy.
“Añuri, this’s so unlike you. What’s going on?”
“I’d be asking you that, but I’m not. Besides, don’t we have a standing agreement not to discuss personal issues here?”
Seeing he would get nowhere with her, Bem dropped the subject. He then entered the office, shut the door, and pulled a seat opposite Añuri, as she sat down herself.
“Actually, I’ve a favour to ask of you.” Said Bem.
“So long as it is related to the office, I’m listening.”
He shifted uncomfortably on his seat; opened his mouth to speak, then, as if he’d had a change of mind, closed it. Next thing, he took a pen-holder from the desk, and began fingering it. He was taking much more interest in it deserved, given that he’d seen it at least a few hundred times before. Añuri made an attempt to hide that she had gotten very curious as to why he was so ill at ease.
“Well yes, it is. In a way.” He paused to clear his throat. “First, I want you to understand that I wouldn’t come to you with this unless it was absolutely necessary.”
Añuri couldn’t pretend anymore. She was clearly grimacing, and her mouth formed in a pout – her typical posture when impatient. Bem looked up, saw her that way, and grinned to lighten the mood.
“It’s not a life and death situation, I assure you. It’s just that Mbong has been without a job for five months now as you know, and well, frankly she’s become pretty restless and it’s getting on my nerves.”
Mbong was Bem’s wife. She had dated Bem for four years, and been married to him for half of that. And in all those years, she and Añuri had been no more than cordial to each other. They were like the North and South Pole. Where Añuri was adventurous, Mbong was Ms. Proper. Añuri was nearly as tall and big as Bem; Mbong was the exact opposite. For those reasons and more, Añuri often wondered what Bem saw in Mbong, but she had never asked him that for the fear of appearing insecure. But she wondered all the same. She wondered every day, more than ever of recent.
At the initial stage of her affair with Bem, Añuri had been indifferent to Mbong’s existence. If she was all that, would Bem be cheating on her barely one year after their wedding? Then, it became a fierce competition. With each time Bem be ran off to Mbong soon after being with her, she began to question her own allure. Finally, it was resignation, followed by self-protection. Bem was the one having the best of both worlds, why should she suffer on his behalf? Therefore, if Mbong was making his life impossible, what business of hers was it? Not that she could imagine Mbong being restless. The word just didn’t sit well with her. What came to mind was her seated primly, close-mouthed, legs together – not a space between them – hands on her laps, clutched or tapping her knees. Yes, that would be it. And if that represented restlessness, Bem had a lot to thank his stars for.
“Getting on your nerves, is she really?” Añuri remarked with undisguised sarcasm, “Are you saying that for my benefit?”
Bem ignored that. “She wants us to give her a job here, until she gets another offer else where.”
“You can’t be serious.” Spat Añuri.
“Añuri, you know I wouldn’t come to you with this unless I have to. Mbong has been going on and on about this. I told her I’d speak with one of my friends to take her in, but she wouldn’t have it.
“I’ve to admit, her argument has some credit. We need another hand here. Njideka can’t handle everything with the influx we are expecting, and Mbong needs somewhere to go to every morning. She says she’d accept anything we can pay, and truly, Mbong is pretty committed to work. More so, she’s level-headed, she won’t be in your way. Añuri, please.”
“Please, what? I should help you save your marriage? What do I care about it? We have an agreement, Bem. Keep business and our personal life separated.”
“But you had no problem compromising that so-called agreement when it came to sleeping with me.” He snapped.
“You’ll not throw that on me, you’ll not throw that on me at all.” She retorted, raising her voice.
Bem calmed down. “Please, Añuri. Please, hear me out. It’s eleven years we’ve known ourselves. Before all these – sex, business – we were good friends. All I ask is that you see me in that light now – your friend who’s been with you through thick and thin, and allow me just this one favour.”
He spoke gently, appealing to her emotions. He was successful.
After a long silence, she mumbled, “This can’t be good.”
“I’m aware. If it could be any other way, I’d make it so. I promise you, Mbong won’t be here for too long. I’ll double my efforts to find her something else.”
And if she decided she did not want to leave anymore, pondered Añuri, what then? Just how much potential damage does granting that favour hold for her? What if Mbong suddenly got a super-inflated idea of her own worth? All it took was one day of husband and wife evaluating her value and deciding that she was dispensable after all, and all she’d work and sacrificed so hard for would go down the drain.
“Let me think this through, Bem.” She said, “I’ll get back to you ASAP.”
The next day, Añuri came to work looking much the same as she did the day before, except that a purple tank-top substituted the white one she wore on Monday. Mbong was already waiting at the reception. A situation Añuri had been alerted of a minute earlier by her assistant-cum-informer, thus giving her the opportunity to check her make-up and put on an air of importance before their meeting.
Mbong’s sparse body was all covered up in beige trouser suit, her hair done in a bum, not one strand out of place. She looked very pretty and young (but Añuri would be the last person to notice). She stood up when Añuri entered the room.
“Hope you haven’t been waiting for too long?” Asked Añuri, feigning concern. Had she known that Mbong would be so prompt, she would have come in after noon.
“No. it’s only been ten minutes really. Bem dropped me off. He said he’s an appointment to catch, so I said I’d better just follow him here.” Giggling, Mbong narrated.
Her voice, as always, irritated Añuri in no small measure. It was so nasal Añuri wondered if snorts were stuck in her nose that she had to speak and breathe through her mouth all at once. She had initially assumed it was out of bashfulness, but later concluded that Mbong was only playing at meekness. She was not impressed.
“I was to be in that meeting too. Lucky you, I’d a change of mind.” Said Añuri, playing at niceness, but not quite pulling it off. “Let’s go to my office. Njideka, please bring us some coffee or tea as Mbong prefers.”
When they were seated, and had politely exchanged pleasantries, the serious talk begun.Añuri asked Mbong for her CV, which she handed over with such flourish, Añuri fought hard not to let her resentment show. Focusing on the CV instead, she noted Mbong’s qualifications, and her first thought was: good, an accountant to the rescue. On reconsidering, she disregarded that. She wanted Mbong close, but certainly not that involved. The idea was to do to Mbong beforehand what she anticipated the woman had in stock for her – bring her in, prove to Bem how inconsequential she was, and when Bem came running back to her, boot him to high heavens. (Or, maybe not. But he’d pay somehow for all the times he gave her hopes he had no intention fulfilling and for ever making her feel inferior to Mbong) – not play herself out of the field.
“I think there’s something here for you.” Said Añuri.
“Really? Thank you. And please, anything is fine. I’m not very choosy.”
“Maybe you should.” Quipped Añuri, smirking.
If Mbong had any inkling that she was being put down, it was well masked. She went along with Añuri, flashing even, polished teeth that just soured the older woman’s fun.
“This place is structured such that Bem is the field man. He’s in charge of marketing, publicity etc. I oversee admin., aided by Njideka, who can more trouble than help. Your duty would be to supervise Njideka. The girl suffers from youthful exuberances – you know, over-enthusiasm and all, which can really be good if harnessed. That’s what you’d be doing – fine-tuning her.
“I understand you won’t be here for too long. That’s why I was thinking to give you something reasonably uncomplicated so we wouldn’t be handicapped when you’ve to leave. It’s all right with you?”
Yet another flash of teeth and a few nods from Mbong.
“Fine. One more thing: here, we are all business. Within these walls, Bem ceases to be your husband. He is strictly your boss. And I’m not that woman who eats dinner every other night at your home. I, too, am your boss. That is saying that there may be times I’d address you in an angry tone or probably ignore you, but I promise it won’t be frequent,” She smiled then. Mbong followed suit. “When this happens, don’t take it to heart. It’s the work pressure. Can you handle those times?”
More nods. “Yes. I believe I can.”
“You can start today. I’ll work out your salary with Bem before COB today. What else can I say, welcome aboard.” She stretched forth her arm for a handshake, Mbong grasped it. Her grip was so weak, Añuri was tempted to roll her eyes.
“Thank you very much, Añuri.”
“You’re welcome. Any questions? Comments?”
“No.” Then she tittered. “Well hmm, yes. This stays between us, right?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Well, em.” Another titter and a sigh. “I’m positive Bem has a woman – a girlfriend if you may. Now, where would shady associations likely to feel safest? Not our home for sure. So, I tell myself, why not check out their territory?”
Suddenly, her voice lost its timidity, every sentence emphasized.
“Please, don’t get me wrong. I’m not here to build a fence around Bem. I just want to keep things in perspective, so no one forgets that I’m in the picture and would always be there. You do understand, don’t you?”
Mbong slowly smiled that smile again. This time, it carried the full weight of what she aimed to convey. Añuri eyed her.
“Yes, I do.” Replied Añuri, rising to the challenge.