It was as if someone poured water all over my body. In a minute my clothes, my very sexy clothes I had chosen for this occasion were drenched. My trousers stuck to my bum. My hair started to come undone from the bun and slide down my back.
Doreen brought the papers forward. Nigel brought out his platinum fountain pen and offered it to Greg at the same time Eke handed him a sleek black one from his jacket pocket. In that brief moment everyone laughed; a dry sound like a mini-sandstorm. Eke walked back to his place beside me as the flashes went off, documenting the event for posterity.
There was a buzzing sound to my left. I ignored it. My mouth opened and closed like a fish on dry land. Each time it was like paper tearing. My throat was that dry. The buzz came again. Eke nudged me.
“Are you alright?” he mouthed. I think I shook my head. Or nodded. Or nodded, then shook. I am not sure but the look that came over his face was not encouraging. Some of that water that had been poured on my body must have made it into my ears. I was sure I was going deaf.
People were looking my way in slow motion. Nigel was gesturing towards me in slow motion. I could feel them laughing at me; some with mouths so wide their uvulas dangled in front of me like forbidden fruit. I wanted to punch someone. I wanted to get under the long, wide table and…
“Abby?” said Nigel. It was as if someone had poked a needle in the balloon of water blocking my eardrums. I heard him clearly. The tone of his voice and the raised eyebrow told me this was not the first he had called.
Eke whispered out of the corner of his mouth. “Smile.”
“What?” I turned towards him panic-stricken. “What?”
“Smile and walk towards him for chrissakes, everyone is staring.” In the dazed part of my mind I thought ‘Surely Eke could work as a ventriloquist?’ his lips were hardly moving. He nudged me again and somehow I managed to lock both my high-heels together, almost flying onto my face. I landed on my knees.
“Are you alright?” Greg was suddenly by my side. He held out a hand. His fingers looked unreal. They gleamed. Greg smelled like Nigel did. Like Mr Kanakaredes and his ilk. That scent that wasn’t a scent. How had I not noticed it before? Greg smelled of money.
“Are you alright?” he asked me again. That snapped me out of it. That innocuous question and the look of concern in his chocolate button eyes. I stood, leaning heavily on the back of one of the conference chairs with someone in it.
“I am fine, thank you.” I avoided his gaze. Greg took his hand away, brushing a bit of imaginary fluff off his impeccably cut suit to give his rejected hand something to do.
“Well, Abby old girl, don’t take a nap now, good heavens. You have the rest of your life for that,” said Nigel. The room tittered politely at his attempts at humour. He motioned and one of the receptionists came over with the largest bouquet I had ever seen. I frowned. I noticed Greg out of the corner of my eye frowning too.
“Don’t look at me like that, old girl, it’s your last day here, after all. You didn’t think we were just going to let you slink off without a proper goodbye?”
I didn’t. I just did not think he would do it in front of strangers…
As if reading my thoughts, Nigel guffawed. “Come, come. We’re all family now. And these are hardly flowers, look. I made sure.” I took the bouquet from him.
“Thank you so much, Nigel.” I examined the bouquet. He was right. There were ferns and all kinds of green plants, but I noticed a green flower or two.
“What kind of woman hates flowers anyway? I say whoever marries you will be so lucky,” said Nigel, shaking his head at me. “You should have seen when Abby started working here. I got her a bouquet to welcome her into the company. You could have thought I had given her a box of scorpions, she was so horrified.” Laughter started up again. I blinked. I could hear my eyelids click, click like the wings of a grasshopper. I really, really needed some water to drink. In contrast I could feel the weird water-ear feeling return.
Greg had not taken his eyes off me except to sign the papers. I refused to look. He wanted me to acknowledge him, but I refused. I refused.
I cursed myself for looking.
Nobody writes poems about the colour brown. Brown is a normally such a dull, weak colour; poo-brown, mud-brown. But to this day, I have never seen brown blaze so fiercely as it did in Greg’s face. I had never seen Greg look at me like that before. It was as if I was…I was…
I looked away. “Asshole,” I said under my breath.
Eke chuckled again. I was beginning to get used to his voice and the way he seemed to slide like a ninja. “You see it now, don’t you?”
“Shut up,” I hissed.
“Yes, Abby,” he said and didn’t say another word.
“Speech, Abby!” someone said.
“Yes, speech! Don’t let Nigel steal your shine,” piped up Doreen. The room laughed.
“Err…yes,” said Nigel. And for the first time in three years I saw him go slightly pink. He looked at Doreen and nodded. She smiled back boldly looking him in the face. “Where are my manners? Of course Abby, you simply must. And then you are all welcome to join us for nibbles next door. Nothing too heavy. You all have to go back to work after all.”
I cleared my throat. “Erm, right….” I started.
I still couldn’t tell you what I said.
I kept dodging Greg when we got to the spread next door. Anytime he started towards me I always found a reason to start talking to someone else. I had the feeling that would not have worked as much as it did if he hadn’t been constantly waylaid by other upper management honchos and Nigel, steering him the elbow and generally monopolising him.
Eke lounged on one of the walls, looking lean and lethal. I made a mental note to ask him if he was bodyguard as well. Something in his stance, in the way his eyes raked across the room, following Greg’s movements like a snake even though it looked as though his body language told anyne who cared to look that he was bored out of his mind.
Greg started towards me again. I turned around and slipped out of the room, seeking the balcony of the just-vacated conference room. Rounding the bend, I crashed into a solid wall of flesh, sloshing my red wine all over a white shirt.
“Sorry!” I blurted out, looking upwards into a face as red as the spreading stain. “Oh, hello Todd. I am so sorry.”
“Look who it is,” purred Alicia. “It’s the Princess. Sad to see you go. Not.” She giggled.
“Look where you are fucking going, you black bitch,” he hissed under his breath. He dusted off the wine ineffectually, looking to anyone else as if he was smiling.
“You do not talk to me like that, Todd. I will have to make a mention of your racist remarks…”
Alicia started laughing. “She’s scared Todd. No Nigel to protect her now. We were only kidding, lighten up, Abby. God.”
“You are no longer an employee of this company so I can and will fucking talk to you how I like.” The veins in his neck bulged. “And I say, you are a black bitch who got too uppity for your own boots.”
“Uppity for my boots?” I laughed but because I was so parched it sounded froggy; croak, croak, croak. It hurt too. I quickly stopped. “You don’t know anything about me.”
“You going back to fucking Bongo-Bongo land then? Going to marry a tribal war chief and be his seventeenth wife, eh?”
Todd swayed and Alicia clutched his arm. “You need people like me to whip your lot into shape instead you have your fucking dyke bitch bawl me out in front of the natives like I am some boy,” said Todd. He was still smiling. “She’s gonna get a bullet in the head that one. One of these days.”
“Hey, hey, Todd.” Alicia looked about her as if she just realised where she was. “He’s drunk Abby, that’s all. Don’t mind him.”
Todd shrugged her off. He nearly fell trying to disentangle himself. “What’s got into you? You scared of her? You said this place was going to the dogs with frickin’ gingers and nig…”
“I’d watch the next word out of my mouth if I were you,” said a very low, very menacing voice behind me.
Alicia stepped back. I could see her trying to drag Todd away but he shrugged her off.
“’Ere we go! Not another one,” Todd almost roared. “What I want to know is, what the fuck have you got to wrap men round your fucking finger?” He took a step towards me, pointing. It was as if he wished his finger was something else so he could stab me with it.
“Not another step,” said Greg. His voice was all icicle and steel.
“Or what? What are you going to do eh?”
“Abby, he doesn’t mean it. He’s just joking. Com’on Todd, let’s go.” Alicia tried to move him again. “We hope you enjoy your company,” she said to Greg.
Todd looked at Greg then, really. “You’re the wanker that bought that dud. What the hell you do that for then, eh? He gestured at me. “Did she blow ya?”
“You’re inebriated. You should go. And I will try to forget all you’ve just said. Come Abby,” said Greg, hustling me away. My wine glass tipped at an awkward angle as he ushered my by the elbow.
Alicia gasped. I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye.
“Greg, watch out!”
Todd was a hulk. There was no way Greg stood a chance. I plastered myself to a nearby wall, hoping to get out of his way. Greg was as fluid as water, he half-turned on his heel and just when I think an enraged Todd would have pounded his imprint into the carpet, he sort of flicked (?) a hand at Todd’s throat. Or maybe it was a jab. Whatever it was, I got the impression of a bow just after it is drawn back and released. Or maybe a catapult. It was a blur really, but next thing Todd clutched his throat, gurgling on the ground.
“Todd!” Alicia made as if to attend to him. She took one look at Greg and vanished, pushing me aside as she ran down the corridor like Speedy Gonzalez. I would have laughed. I was shaking.
“Are you alright?” asked Greg for the third time that evening, reaching for me. “I am going to have to talk to Nigel about this.”
I knew I was terrified and relieved and embarrassed and hurt and angry the last two at him. I chose to make him the target because it was so much easier than feeling all the feelings I had bubbling.
“I don’t need you to save me Greg,” I snatched my hand away. “I had it all under control! I don’t need you telling Nigel anything either. This was not how it was supposed to turn out. This is not the legacy I wanted to leave behind!”
Greg’s stance softened. “I know, Otito, I just think…”
“Oh screw what you think.” I knew I was being Belindaesque, but I couldn’t help it. I had to be alone. I turned and ran for the lift.
I took my bag and my coat and I walked. I walked and walked and then walked some more until my feet began to hurt. I stopped at Barratts and bought a pair of cheap trainers and socks and I walked. I stopped for lunch and I walked. I tried not to think of how badly I was behaving, leaving my own party without a word to anyone. I told myself I had said all I had to say and walked. I told myself it wasn’t really as if the party was just for me, I bought a cup of coffee and walked. Then I bought another.
Three coffees and a whole load of walking later, I hailed a cab and set out for home. I was jittery and tired and my mouth tasted of kettle.
“How did it go?” asked Jackie, popping out like a Jack-in-the-box as soon as she heard my keys rattle in the keyhole.
“What? Oh, hi Jackie. It went alright.” I opened the door.
Jackie tutted. “You looked wrecked. What? No presents?”
“I left them at the office. I need to lie down for a bit Jackie, I’ll talk to you later okay?”
“Come in for a minute, love. Don’t just lock yourself away. You keep pulling away. I give and give and give you all my love but you just don’t love me back.” Jackie made a face.
“What’s got into you?”
“Come on, I’ll make you another bit of Christmas like I did this morning,” she said waggling her eyebrows.
“Come on, we need to celebrate! I get to see you around more often. I get to make you over, change your wardrobe…”
“What?” I asked in alarm.
“What?” she said as if she could not hear me. “Anyway, the point is,” she slammed my door. “Today is a new day. We should celebrate. One drink and I swear I will leave you to masturbate to your heart’s content.”
“I was not going to masturbate!” I laughed as she pushed me into her flat and shut the door.
“What the hell is he doing here?”
Greg stood up. He had brought my gifts; all of them including the Marys’ present. His tie was gone. He stood with one side of his jacket pushed back, hand in pocket.
I whirled to eye Jackie but she had disappeared. When I turned around again and Greg had moved. His breath was on my face.
“You forgot this,” he leaned into me and kissed me. Hard.
“No, stop.” I pushed him away. My body flowed southward. Greg, Greg, Greg, it panted.
“You think too much.” His voice was a growl. He reached for me again.
“You bought my project and you knew just how…”
“Can we talk about this when I am done with you?”
“What?” I forgot to breathe. “No.”
Greg stared blinking. His eyes were chasms sucking my soul under. I felt my pulse in my tongue. “I. Bought. It. For. You.” He shook his head. “Crazy must run in your family but God help me I love it.” He grabbed my waist, nibbling on an earlobe.
“You did?” I almost swooned. “Well, I didn’t tell you that I needed your help, Greg!” I didn’t know if it was the tonguing of my ear or the face that my brain sang mine mine mine about him, about my project, but I grabbed his shirt right back to steady myself.
“Right. I’ll take it back then.”
“No!” I practically screamed.
“Good.” Greg lifted me up. His legs made short work of the corridor. “Now shut up and kick your bloody door open. I intend to fuck some kinks back into your hair.”
“Wait, Greg. What about our friendship.” I placed a hand on his chest. I could feel his heart racing like a caged beast. He growled.
“Screw our friendship. I have waited for twenty years; I am crazy about you, I intend to make love to you, tonight and for as long as you will have me. No more thinking, no more dallying, no more…just no more okay?!”
“Wow, you’re really strong,” I said, looking down at him. He didn’t even sound strained.
“Karate. It also means I have very good control,” he grimaced. “Although, I am finding it hard right now with your chest in my face. Now just so we’re clear, so I am not raping you. Do you feel that any of my aforementioned…”
“Aforementioned,” Greg said sternly. “Points reflects your wishes?”
“Yes, all of them.”
“Thank God.” He slung me over his shoulder and punched my door in. The wood splintered. And for the next seventeen hours, I forgot my own name.
…..OR IS IT?