The moment he stepped into room T105 and shut the glass panelled door behind him, Wale knew he was a dead man. He thought of turning back quickly and dashing out before his face registered, but the two women dressed in well tailored business suits were sitting up with eager smiles, their pretty backs arched with anticipation. With great effort, he shuffled closer to the desk, his body prickling with tension as he glared at the woman sitting on the left side.
‘Would you like a seat? ‘The first woman asked; her red hair, excess lipstick and too- wide- smile flashed in his face before she sent him another questioning look. He remembered her from HR… Coleen something.
Wale groped for a word, but his tongue felt as though it had been weighed down with a sack of wet cement. He remained on the same spot, statue-like, feet planted firmly to the ground, nose reflecting on his black- seven-pound-fifty pence- shoes.
Coleen tapped her finger nails on the desk impatiently and threw an apologetic look across her shoulder. ‘He seems nervous, ’she said to no one in particular. ‘You know, they sometimes freak out.’
He forced his shaking legs to shuffle closer to the chair, ignoring balls of perspiration forming under his well pressed shirt. He’d done more than necessary to ensure this day developed no sudden surprises: To start with he’d thoroughly researched Maryann Butcher, the project manager who had been scheduled to interview him: She was unmarried, a plus since women generally adored his 6’ 1 height, dark olive skin, black onyx eyes and cheeky grin.
Her best friend was mixed race, which was great, since he was officially the darkest black man working for Syms & Syms, without counting Dante, the security bloke. And the final plus, Maryann was sweet; the kind of sweet that would tap you with a wave and a smile, even when it was obvious you were trying to avoid her. That said, he’d also worked hard. While his colleagues chattered over fish and chips in the cafeteria, he sacrificed the coveted hour-long lunch breaks to explore every single white paper on project management.
He’d even chosen a special outfit, avoiding anything with stripes because someone said that striped clothing carried bad luck. There was also a black, knife-shaped stone, laced with a string of cowries; tucked inside the flap of his suit jacket, as precautionary measure to “bring good, good things, and chase away devil powers,” as his mother had sternly advised when hunched under the bold yellow and black departure sign at the Lagos Muritala Mohammed International airport. She’d tearfully slipped the stone inside his chequered raffia sack as he gripped her gaunt body in one final hug and bade her farewell three winters ago. It was nothing short of a miracle that the metal detectors hadn’t blared the moment he’d slid past those daunting gates.
And nothing forewarned him, not even with the slightest sign… that Jennifer Lennox…would find him…interview him…determine his fate… for the most important job of his entire life.
‘Everything all right, Mr Ademola?’ Coleen asked.
Wale…speak up, he silently screamed at himself. Or you will really be a dead man.
‘Perhaps, you should take a seat?’ Coleen suggested again, forced concern now brimming on the edge of her voice. ‘Or would you like to step outside for a bit of fresh air?’
He shook his head no, shifting the weight from one faux-leathered foot to the other, dragging his gaze to the square wooden table. It was kept clear, but for a half- filled jug of water and two small Styrofoam cups on the far left side. It took every ounce of willpower not to jump out of the window. But then, judging from its size, he’d probably get stuck mid air. He sagged into the chair like an invalid, placing a trembling hand on the table. Coleen exhaled with obvious relief.
What was Jennifer doing here? And what, in the whole of the glorious land of United Kingdom had happened to Maryann?
Wale tried not to stare. Even though she had lost an awful lot of weight and dyed her hair a nice shade of blonde, he was certain: It was her. He wiped his brow with his sleeve and sat up straight with a tight smile, mug-shot like. There was no question about it. Someone from the depth of his village in Nigeria had it bad for him, and they’d chosen the best time to strike the juju, African black magic.
Jennifer was now looking at him, bright eyed. ‘I apologise,’ she laughed, throwing her head back. ‘It is hard to say your names…Mr Ademola,’ She turned to Coleen and breathed another lazy laugh. ‘Excuse me; I am bad with accents.’
Her performance deserved applause.
Coleen pulled a folder close to her chest and chuckled, probably thankful that her candidate was not as crazy as she thought. ‘It’s taken us about six months, she said, ‘We always used to call him Wally, but it’s Wah-lay.’
Great job, Coleen, except she already knows.
Coleen turned to him, clearly proud of her accomplishment. He wished she would stop showing those teeth. ‘Well,’ she said, her voice pitching with excitement, ‘Andrea is an expert in project management and she will lead the interview. I will do the HR part for the second half. If you have any questions, feel free to interrupt.’
‘Full name is Adewale Ademola,’ he mumbled as his tongue finally loosened. ‘Wale would do just fine.’
He decided to be optimistic. Perhaps it was not her. Maybe it was somebody who looked exactly like her, smiled just like her… and had the exact husky voice with the Scottish drawl. Highly unlikely, but with 21st century technology… who knows?
‘Water?’ she offered, pointing to the jug on the table. Her nails were perfectly manicured, metallic blue with silver sparkles.
Rat poison would be perfect. ‘No…No thank you.’
‘Good, I will allow you a few minutes to get yourself together,’ She sipped water from her glass and added, ‘Maryann called in sick.’
Wale muttered an ancient Yoruba curse on Maryann, that she would develop an incurable craving for bush meat, for choosing today, of all days, to fall sick.
And her name was not Andrea. The woman in front of him was Jennifer Lennox. He willed his memory to cooperate, as his eyes darted about her face, searching frantically for anything that would uniquely identify her. And he found them: The raised mole on her chin; the high cheek bones and light blue eyes that twitched constantly –especially the left one- the smile that curled up from one side of her lips and travelled lazily down the other, as though her thin lips were train tracks soaked in crimson paint. Jennifer also had a tattoo that sneaked up from under her collar bone and up her neck. He attempted to peep but the thought was discarded as quickly as it came.
Wale pinched the flesh of his thigh under the table, just to check that he was really sitting in front of Jennifer Lennox. He didn’t flinch as the pain pricked through his navy blue, iron- pressed, cotton trousers. Street noises faintly filtered through the small window:- There was a fast food restaurant downstairs and people often queued up to grab an early morning sandwich before lumbering off to work. The determined drone of the newspaper man could be heard as he chanted the headlines from the daily news. The engine of a bus creaked, as it stopped in front of a bus stop, to let down its passengers.
Wale pushed the distractions aside and sat ramrod straight. Okay boy, he thought, you fought hard for this. Don’t lose it because of her.
Her smile had vanished, and now, she was studying him with cold, cerulean eyes. Coleen’s head was bent, her hands poised to take notes.
Finally, Jennifer flicked her hair backwards, twitched her left eye, and asked, in a jarringly calm tone; ‘Shall we begin?’