“Sorry,” a shoulder bumped me as I rounded the corner to the staff cafe. I looked up. “Oh, hi Todd.”
“Hello. Abby,” Todd bared his teeth. “Rocking the dominatrix look today I see,” he gestured up and down with a pointed finger.
I crossed my legs at the ankles. The heels of my shoe-boots made a grinding sound as the studs met. “It’s just a leather skirt, Todd. Since when do you notice fashion?”
“About the same time as you started paying attention to my projects, I would say,” Todd bared his teeth again.
“You heard me.”
“I did. I’m just having trouble understanding what you’re saying.”
“Now she has trouble understanding me. I don’t seem to recall you having much trouble when you shot down my project in front of Nigel.”
“I didn’t shoot down anything. Nigel asked my opinion, and I gave it – not that I owe you an explanation or anything.”
“You don’t, do you? You think you have the right to go about shooting your mouth off on people’s hard work – my blood, sweat and tears went into that project. In just five minutes you just undid what I spent six months putting together…”
“Then it must not have been a very solid project, must it, Todd?” I raised my hand as if to pat my braids in place and wiped away the sweat beading my upper lip. Todd’s shoulders seemed to be bursting out of his suit as always.
“Listen to her. Alicia was right about you,” Todd’s breath came hot on my face and I stepped back even though he was standing far enough away. “I should have kept my eye on you but I didn’t think you were a threat. You’re just a PA after all. I know you have the boss’ ear and all…”
“Excuse me, Todd.” I stepped around him and into the cafe. Once in, the pale orange glow did what it always did to me – I felt my shoulders droop. I accepted my bowl of cauliflower soup on a tray, making my way to my favourite spot; the swivelling armchair in the corner that I liked to turn towards the wall as I ate lunch so that I wouldn’t be disturbed. I don’t know if it was my period or the general nastiness in the air, but suddenly, all I wanted to do was weep.
What do you mean ‘No’? It’s not like you’re doing anything. You’re a secretary for goddsakes.
Don’t worry, it’s not my REAL wedding. It’s just a lil’ som’n to please the folks. I wouldn’t let you plan the real thing!
You ungrateful bitch. I only said you could to please my darling aunt. You’re out.
I’m kidding! LOL. But you are planning this wedding. You’re family. Look alive, bitch.
“No, no, no. If this is another Belinda phone call, you just hang up now,” said Greg. “If you even say ‘Belinda’ I will hang up on you, I swear it.”
“It’s not,” I said, blowing bath bubbled away from my knee.
“Hey, are you OK?”
“Don’t be nice, you’ll make me cry.” I submerged myself in the bath water, taking care not to wet the back of my head.
“Why aren’t you saying anything?”
“You said not to be nice. I can’t be mean when you sound awful.”
“How do you do that?”
“Know when I’m feeling sad? Stop shrugging.”
“You know when I shrug.”
“Nothing. Never mind. What are you doing?”
“I’m having a bath.”
“At six in the evening?”
“I needed it after the day I had.”
“You couldn’t call me after?”
“I miss us being friends, Greg.”
“Then why did you stop?”
“I didn’t stop. Life got in the way.”
“Life got in your way, you mean,” said Greg.
“God, she’s so annoying. So selfish! Just like when we were kids. Do you remember? She used to make you follow her around and do things for her and she would make you do them over and over and over…”
“Huh? Oh. Otito, com’on. We were kids. I let her do that stuff to me.”
“She said I was just a secretary!” I sat up, sloshing some water over the sides of the bath. “Why does everyone say that? There is a lot of skill to what I do. I am responsible for over seven thousand people directly – not to mention thousands more contractual staff…”
“When did she call you a secretary?”
“Today. I told her I wouldn’t plan her wedding and she asked why not since I was just a secretary.”
“Who cares what she thinks? You’re not asking her for anything.”
“I bet she’d like that. I bet she’d like me to grovel for everything…”
“If she’s bothering you, you might need to ask yourself why,” said Greg. “If you want to be a secretary, be a secretary.
“I’m a PA to Nigel Foyles, majority shareholder and CEO of the Foyles Group…!”
“And that is good. If that’s what you want for yourself.” Greg sighed. “Why do you care what she thinks? And why do I keep ending up in the middle of it all?”
“Because you’re my friend and you love me and care what happens to me.”
“Right,” said Greg. I could hear his breath down the line. “Otito…”
“Abby,” I corrected.
“Abby,” said Greg. “I have to go OK? I have some people coming.”
“Why do I let her bother me, Greg?”
“You know why, Abby.” There was silence on the line. “Look, I’ll see you at Christmas or whenever you choose to seek me out. But I really have to go now OK?”
“But Belinda…” Beep. The line went dead. It rang while I was still looking at it. I pressed the ‘Answer’ icon.
“I told you I would hang up if you said her name,” said Greg.
“Nigel? I wonder if you have a moment.”
“You make my schedule, Abby. You know I have ten minutes before I have to be on the roof.”
“I’ll need three,” I said. Nigel looked up, eyeing the papers under my arm.
“I like when you’re like this. Come in. What’s on your mind?” He leaned back in his chair as I closed the door behind me.
When I finished, Nigel was sitting forward in his seat. “Is that the research?”
I nodded. “Yes, everything that I have told you – well, there is more stuff but this is what you need to know for now.” Nigel stretched out his hand for the folder and flicked through it. He got up, walked to picture of Van Gogh’s Lilies and took it down from the wall. He punched the number for the safe and slipped the folder into it. “I’ll take a look at it, later. Obviously the board will have to vote on it but I daresay that’s good thinking Abby.” Nigel reached for his phone. I came up behind him and slipped his arms into his jacket, giving his suit the once over with a clothes brush, PA style. The meeting was over. I grabbed his briefcase and existed, picking up my bag and running a sticky-roller over my jacket. Nigel marched out in front of me and I followed, testing the limits of my skirt.
Sarah Jane Harper. The men buzzed around her like flies. I knew she was going to sign from the first meeting we had with her over eight months ago. Everybody knew she would. Nevertheless, she had taken her sweet time getting to this point. I watched the men gravitate towards her flame-coloured hair like they were months and she was the flame. Nigel was positively glowing when she signed on the dotted line, refusing his pen for one of hers, which turned out to have turquoise ink. They were clinking glasses before I let myself escape to the ladies room, taking Nigel’s briefcase along with me. In the cubicle, I placed it on the toilet shank and tested the door before I pulled down my pants. The door opened.
“Don’t stop going on my account, eh?” said the voice. I cleared my throat.
“I can’t go if you’re listening,” I said. There was a brief pause and then the sound of gushing water. I finished up and rearranged myself.
She stood in front of me, as impeccable as she had been during the meeting. A smile turned up both corners of her mouth as she turned off the tap. “You must be Abby. I’m Sarah-Jane.”
“I know who you are,” I said. I held up my free hand. “Sorry, I haven’t washed.” Sarah-Jane’s hair came almost to her buttocks as she flung her head back, laughing.
“I’m from South Africa,” she said. “I’m not afraid of a few bugs.” She moved aside to let me wash my hands. I dried them and shook hers. Sarah-Jane slid her hands into the pockets of her suit.
“I’m just wondering,” I said.
“How you can get away with wearing a white suit in the middle of a British winter,” I rubbed the back of my neck, hefting the suitcase.
“I’m wondering how many hours it’ll be before I lose my tan! With any luck, I won’t have to spend too much time in the UK. Nigel was just telling me of his plans for a new project in Nigeria – very hush-hush, off the books.” Sarah-Jane looked down at me, standing with her legs apart. Her crotch was almost level with my chest.
“Oh indeed. It sounds up my street,” she lowered herself one of the sofas lining the wall. “I hear it’s your brainchild. Tell me more.”