At his threshold, she dithered. It was a big room, one side of which featured wall-to-wall glass overlooking the city skyline. Before she could decide where to sit, Mr. Cartwright rushed back to his office. Placing a hand on her elbow, he led her away from the chair next to his desk, away from the pictures of his wife and yellow-haired daughters, and guided her to a leather sofa arrangement. Doreen plonked herself down too hard and felt herself being swallowed into the depression where two plump cushions met. Wriggling, she surreptitiously tried to commit her bottom to one side or the other. Slowly, her feet rose off the ground leaving her as unbalanced on the outside as she felt inside.
“They’ve stopped the lift now.” Nothing in his pale eyes or cool demeanour hinted at the intimacy shared in that enclosure. “I trust you’re no worse for the experience?”
“I’m fine,” Doreen said.
From a tray with jug and glasses, Mr. Cartwright filled and then passed her a glass of water clinking with ice cubes. Perching himself on the heavy coffee table in front of her, Mr. Cartwright placed elbows on knees, interlocked fingers under chin, and leaned forward. He nodded his head in an encouraging fashion, reminding her of the Power of Positive Thinking books he’d distributed to everyone in the finance department, even the messenger whose mangled efforts could hardly be described as English.
“I’m glad you’ve come back.”
“I need more time off.” Her voice came out more harshly than intended. “Two weeks. Please.”
His pale eyes surveyed her much like a scientist puzzling over a new strain of bacteria in order to contain it. “I figured you didn’t want to talk about it back there. It must be painful?”
Doreen concentrated her gaze on his thin moustache - the little hairs trimmed and disciplined into shape like soldier ants guarding his thin mouth. Forcing herself not to blink, she tried to fill her eyes with tears. After all, he believed in evidence – paper trails, facts, tangibles.
“How many are you in your family?”
Did he mean her family back then or now, she wondered. Caleb would have lectured her on the power of the particular. He’d have said nothing impacts as much as an intimate story of an experience well told. He’d taught literature at the University of Nairobi. He was dead now. A death very particular to Doreen, but she doubted her ability to tell it well enough to mean more than just a number to this man sitting in front of her.
“Six. Eight if you included my parents. Now four, plus Mama. Still alive, I mean.”
Numbers halved, subtracted, divided.
“You’re the eldest?”
“No.” But she was the eldest now, and already thrust into Ambrose’s responsible shoes - maintaining Mama, retired to a small farm near Kisumu, and Ambrose’s wife and two children. She’d probably have to contribute college fees for Caleb’s son…
“Could you tell me what happened?”
The precipitation on the glass spread its cold though the nerves in Doreen’s hand, along her arm, into the trunk of her body, and upwards to merge with the ice in her mouth so that the confidences he invited froze unspoken.
Still, he waited, like a stage doctor play-acting. Noting the flaking skin on his arms, she almost felt sorry for him - a foreign man groping dark matters instead of issuing the usual platitudes that passed for sympathy. Yet, what she wanted he seemed determined to deny her.
“AIDS. Stroke. Accident. AIDS.”
Per Contra Spring 2007