“Ms. Gqukani, they’re ready for you in the decision room now.”
Lerato stood and smoothed out her navy pencil skirt. She smiled at the pretty redhead who had butchered her surname. At least she had tried. But proper pronunciation of her family name was the furthest thing from her mind right now. At this moment, she was mere minutes away from discovering if she would be on The Global Consortium’s elite economic policy making team. Everything she had studied and prayed for had led her to this event. There were two other candidates being considered for the position, but she put her faith in her ability – which she was certain was even more obvious to the board – and sailed into the conference room, clutching her leather bound portfolio to her chest.
It’s show time, she murmured.
Three men and women would decide the fate of her career that morning. Henry Butler, who was the team lead, Henia Stolv, who had been her advisor on her project of the effects of maternal health on the global economy, and Paul Tumbo who had completed the same process just two years before. Lerato offered each a genuine smile as she shook their hands. With the pleasantries completed, they took their seats. Henry launched right into the discussion.
“Well, Lerato, congratulations for making it this far,” he said warmly.
“Thank you, Henry. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it’s been a grueling year.”
“And yet you persevered to the end,” Henia interjected. “That’s exactly the type of candidate we’re looking for on this team.”
Her tone was forceful. Something was wrong. Henia never showed any emotion. Lerato looked into Henia’s eyes searching for an answer, but she refused to meet hers.
“While it’s true that many other candidates have given up by this stage, it is imperative that we only have the best on the Zeta team – and in this case, the best means the most thorough.”
This was Paul talking. Lerato looked at him quizzically.
“Whatever do you mean, Mr. Tumbo?”
Paul did not like to be referred to by his first name. He had “trained” all the first year analysts to call him ‘Mr. Tumbo’. Lerato had never minded. In fact, she preferred the formality between them. Paul Tumbo was an imposing figure at 6’3” with ebony dark skin. His chiseled features included an impressive six-pack that Lerato had never seen, but had a fair idea of how it might look. A few weeks before she had accidentally spilled a bit of her coffee of his white Vilebrequin linen shirt while she was rushing to her desk. Apologizing profusely while brushing the creamy liquid off his shirt, her fingertips came into contact with his hard belly below. Paul had stared at her with cold, brown eyes without saying a word. Lerato never forgot that disapproving look.
“I’m talking about the figures on your research on South Africa,” he countered coolly. “I would think as a native, you would take more care in making sure the figures were relevant.”
Lerato felt her knuckles stiffen. She didn’t like his tone, for one, and secondly, her figures were correct. She had stayed up every night for 6 months poring over them.
“I used figures from the last ten years,” she replied. “It’s the standard.”
“Yes, I know. But the problem is you should have used 2002 as your base year, not 2003. 2013 has not come to a close yet.”
Lerato gawked at Paul Tumbo. Was he really going to sabotage her career because she was off by six months? She looked at Henia and Henry and she knew that that is exactly what was happening.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Gqukani, but Paul has a point.”
“But it’s such a small error,” Lerato panted.
She struggled to steady her breathing. She had to keep her emotions in check. How could she turn this around? Fumbling for her portfolio, she pointed out all the other findings she had discovered – questions that none of the other researchers had bothered to ask; personal details about the study’s participants that no one else had cared to ask.
“And all those things are wonderful,” Henry said kindly, “but as Paul stated, we need everyone on this team to be completely thorough and ready to work independently. We don’t have time to devote to checking on possible errors.”
“That doesn’t mean you can’t work for The Global Consortium, by any means,” Henia added quickly. “Just not for this team. I’m so sorry, Lera.”
Lerato staggered to her feet and forced an artificial smile on her lips.
“There’s no need for sorrow, Henia. It’s been a wonderful experience.”
She thanked each of them curtly and fled from the room. She didn’t turn around as Henry Butler urged her to try again next year. She didn’t want to do this again next year. She wanted all her hard work to pay off now. She wanted to scream and cry. But most of all, she wanted to kill Paul Tumbo. He must of exaggerated the error and convinced the other two that she was unfit. She hated him.
Six hours later, when the shock of her defeat had worn off and the rest of her colleagues had congratulated Mark Yen for getting the position on Team Zeta, she closed her file cabinet and stepped away from her desk. She was always one of the last to leave the office and tonight was no different. Besides, she didn’t want to go home and face her sister, who had promised to cook her a grand dinner. There was no avoiding it though.
“Good night, Berihun.”
The Ethiopian janitor turned off his vacuum cleaner and leaned against the handle. He had made no secret of crush on Lerato and had made several promises to kidnap and marry her at the first opportunity.
“Good night, Lera. Oh! How did it go today?”
“Just fine,” she lied, drawing in a sharp breath.
That’s when she smelled it. La Mer cologne from Barney’s. Paul Tumbo was approaching from behind. When Berihun turned his vacuum back on, she knew it was so. Without turning around, she slung her purse over her should and made a beeline for the elevator. Before she could close the door, he had leapt in beside her.
“Can I walk you out, Ms. Gqukani?”
“No thank you. I’ve been walking in and out of buildings on my own for the last 20 years or so…sir.”
She stared at the floor with her jaw clenched and hoped he wouldn’t say anything else. Paul Tumbo had plenty to say, however.
“You know, you really were the best candidate for the position, believe it or not.”
Lerato ignored him, keeping her molasses brown eyes fixed on the floor.
“Sure, the other guys were a close second, but I couldn’t afford to have you on the team, you see.”
This made her look up. Seeing that he finally had her attention, he crossed his arms casually.
“Well as you know, The Global Consortium has a strict policy against fraternization… and I certainly couldn’t hope to date you if you were a subordinate on my team.”
“You understand, don’t you?”
Lerato sputtered. She could hardly contain her rage. She would throttle him if he weren’t two feet taller than she. That didn’t stop delicious images of her head ramming violently into his crotch, however.
“How dare you presume to ruin my career because you presume that I would ever date you? You pompous, arrogant little – “
“Ah, ah, ah! Let’s not say things that might get us sent to Human Resources and fired, shall we?”
The elevator finally chimed. They were at the basement level. She gave him a parting glare and stomped toward the tunnel leading to the street. She needed air. Paul matched her stride easily.
“You know I can offer you a ride home,” he said congenially. “You don’t need to take the tube this evening.”
Lerato looked around the bustling London street and then finally up at Paul.
“Mr. Tumbo. Now that we are no longer on company property, allow me to say, with all sincerity, that you can go to hell and fuck yourself while you’re at it.”
Paul chuckled to himself and walked back into the car park.
Three months later, Lerato left her job at The Global Consortium. Eight months after that, she and Paul were dating. A year later they were engaged. This is how life had begun with the man who was standing in the lobby of the African Regent Hotel, tapping his crocodile leather shod foot impatiently on the shiny tile floor.
“Baby, where have you been?”
Lerato stood on her toes and kissed him on the neck, explaining that she had been on the other side of town.
“You look like hell,” he said disapprovingly. “You weren’t out drinking, were you? You know how I feel about women who drink.”
He put his hand possessively on the small of her back, squeezing the tender flesh ever so slightly.
“No, my love. I was not drinking. Just carrying on with the girls.”
There was no way to she was going to admit to being shit-faced just hours ago and invited to join in a threesome within the same space in time.
“Let’s get your bags upstairs, shall we?”
As Lerato reached for his hand luggage, he stopped her promptly, telling her that’s what the bellhops were for.
“These Africans need to earn their keep,” he muttered, signaling to a vested man to come and collect his bags.
Lerato sighed and led Paul and the man pushing his bags on the bronze cart to her suite. It was going to be a long next few days. Exactly what was Paul doing in Accra, anyway? He had yet to explain…