‘Please wait!’, Denise called out just before the doors of the elevator closed. She slid in just in time, mumbling her thanks to the man who kept the door open. ‘Fifth floor, right?’, he asked and for the first time since she got in, she looked up at his face. It was one of the relatively new employees, he was in the Finance Department. ‘Yes please, fifth floor’, she smiled gratefully. The elevator hummed quietly as they went up. He was older, probably in his late forties. He had laugh lines around his eyes and he was carrying a copy of Count of Monte Cristo on top of his newspaper. His hair was slightly curly and he was beginning to grey around his temples. She could tell from his monogrammed shirt and the smell of his perfume that he knew how to take care of himself. It was when he turned slightly that she noticed that he was clean-shaven and he had manicured nails. He looked abruptly from staring at his Blackberry screen, almost like he could feel her staring and said, ‘I am getting off on this floor. Have a nice day, Denise.’ When her lips parted in shock, he smiled and said,’I make it my business to know the name of every beautiful girl in this building.’ Before she could react, he was gone, leaving the lingering smell of his perfume behind.
‘Why are my palms sweaty? And why is my heart racing? He is not even my type; I mean what kind of guy has manicured nails?’, she asked herself as the doors opened on the fifth floor. The cool air from the central air conditioning welcomed her immediately she stepped out of the elevator. Ali, the carpenter, was right in front of her. She smiled and waved. She had learnt very early in her career to befriend the support staff- it made life easier for you. The drivers, cleaners, secretaries and the errand boys- they were all useful allies. Take Jacinta, the Executive Assistant for Project Management for instance. She was loud, aggressive and wore too much perfume, but it took just a ‘How are the kids doing?’ to win her over. She had even covered up for Denise once when she missed her project submission deadline.
Denise made it to her desk just before Esaaba walked in. Prim and proper, holier-than-thou Esaaba. She came to work every day at 7:45, always wore a white long sleeved shirt, a brown skirt and dark brown pumps. She took a 5 minute bathroom break at 9:50 every day, yes every single day! She always ate the same thing for breakfast at 7:50- two slices of brown bread with a cup full of oats- and that was it for the day. You could set your watch by her. She always had her files and pens arranged alphabetically and she never left her desk to chat with the others. She was the last person to ask to cover up for you if you were late- she would give you an entire sermon about principles and commitment to work. She was a little annoying but she was much better than Akwele.
It is said that in every workplace, there are two bosses- the official one and the unofficial one. The unofficial boss was the one who could make and unmake you effortlessly because she had her lips close to the ears of the official boss. Akwele was the unofficial boss and Denise’s sworn enemy. There was no telling what had brought about the bad blood and Denise had to work extra hard to make sure that she didn’t give her reason to complain. Rumour had it that some boy must have picked Denise over Akwele some time back and Akwele still held a grudge. A few weeks ago, she had combed the entire floor looking for a ruler with no success. Rather than ask Denise for her ruler, she went all the way to the supplies office on the second floor.
Denise liked her office. It was a nice building with an interesting mix of people. Grace walked in, sweating profusely. Denise did not need to turn her head to see that Esaaba was probably wrinkling her nose in disgust. Grace always came in late and spent the first two hours chatting on the phone with God knows who, ate a very heavy meal at about 11am and always had a nap immediately afterwards. Her excuse? ‘It is the niggaritis oo..it is not my fault. Africans are programmed to sleep after a heavy meal’. On a day when she had particularly enjoyed her meal, the sleep would be interspersed with quiet grunts and snoring. Somehow, everyone loved Grace, because she remembered everyone’s birthdays and genuinely celebrated people’s successes. True to her nature, Grace unveiled a bowl full of ampesi and kontomire stew shortly after getting seated.
The day was full of meetings, emails to reply and phone calls to return, but Denise found her mind wandering back to the mystery man who got off on the third floor. She had never been an older man person, but she couldn’t stop thinking about him, and how flattered she was when he said that she was beautiful. She had replayed the elevator scene in her head no less than 15 times. It felt like betrayal to Kojo. They were engaged to be married in December. Kojo had always been her friend- dependable, focused, a gentleman, but she had never felt this much excitement around him. Her phone rang. Her boss wanted to see her in his office. She did not expect to see Mystery Guy- it almost felt like a movie scene. Her face must have betrayed her when her eyes met his.
‘Denise, I’d like you to meet Mr. Arhin. You will be assisting him with the Hillspurn Culture project.’
‘We have met, haven’t we, Denise?’ His eyes twinkled, almost as if they were sharing a secret.
‘Yes, we have. I look forward to working with you, Mr. Arhin.’ Her lips curled into a smile without her permission.
‘Please call me Kwesi. I insist.’
The weeks flew by and Kwesi and Denise became closer. She was drawn to him in a way she didn’t understand. He was witty and well-read. They spent afternoons analysing books over lunch. They had inside jokes and signals. They could have entire conversations with just their eyes – without uttering a word. She had learnt that he was divorced and had two children, one 16 and the other 12. It was like a well-rehearsed dance. They were dancing to the music but they were careful to avoid stepping on each other’s toes. They never talked about the elephant in the room- that they were entertaining feelings for each other. They just avoided the topic and enjoyed each other’s company. Denise thought it was a well-kept secret until the day Jonathan made a joke about it. Jonathan was the blunt guy who made inappropriate jokes about everything, and said the things that everybody else was afraid to say. He was the only one who could openly laugh at Grace for snoring or Jacinta for being too aggressive.
‘Denise, you don’t look for me these days. I understand – I am not 56 years old, with nice perfume and a great sense of humour. Sweedy, you need to take a step back. Office relationships can get messy.’
She was thankful when the phone rang, and used that as a diversion. Later that evening, she sat on her bed, thinking through the whole thing. By morning, she already knew what she had to do. She avoided Kwesi all day, afraid that he might read her eyes. At lunch time, she locked herself into one of the bathroom stalls and began to type her ‘essay’.
‘Kwesi, the last two months have been amazing. I have enjoyed spending time with you and learning from you, but I can’t do this anymore. It is not fair to Kojo. He is a great guy and he doesn’t deserve this. I have given him my word to marry him, and until I close that door, I can’t do this with you. I am afraid that one day, things would become awkward between you and I, and I would hate that. And that is why I am ending this now. I will miss you to bits, but I need to do the right thing.’ She took in a deep breath and pressed the send button.
Ten minutes passed. There was no reply. She could hear him laughing in the hallway.
‘Why hasn’t he replied? Is he ignoring me already? Maybe he hasn’t seen the message’, she thought to herself.
Her phone buzzed. It startled her so much that she almost dropped it on the floor. Her stomach lurched when she saw what was on her phone screen.
‘Denise, what is going on? Who is Kwesi?’
She had sent the message to the wrong man.
The story continues here…
©Maukeni Padiki Kodjo, 2015