When the faculty director called you into his office, it wasn’t to chum up. Professor Tayo Banks never called you into his office unless something was amiss. You didn’t have to tremble with fear; you just needed to be concerned and on the lookout.
As I entered his office, I tried not to appear guilty, forced an air of mild curiosity around me and ended up feeling like a lamb to slaughter.
“Mala,” he said, turning from a shelf stacked with journals to indicate one of two high-backed chairs before his desk. “Sit, sit.”
He sat after me, ominously placing a single sheet of paper before him. “I got this notice minutes ago. Evidently, someone’s convinced you sexually harassed or assaulted her.”
“I’ve seen the notice, Professor, and spoken with my lawyer. I wouldn’t worry myself over a complainant claiming offence when he doesn’t have locus standi.”
“He?” Professor Banks stared at me, curious. “It’s a man? I never figured you for being that way.”
“No, I didn’t harass a man,” I said vehemently. What was happening here with conflicting pronouns? “I think there is some mistake. I got a notice from some man. Are you saying the notice you have is about a woman?”
“A student actually. Prisca Braithwaite. She’s been seeing you for counselling?”
I stopped breathing. Prisca Braithwaite was claiming sexual harassment after seducing me out of my mind. So, all that battle for my self- preservation and ethics was down the gutter. I was officially screwed.
Finally, I responded. “Yes, but nothing happened. I would never do a thing like that.”
“Well, the Counsellors Guild is going to have a hard time listening to that.”
“Counsellors Guild!” My insides quaked in terror. “It’s not a court notice?”
The faculty director shook his head sadly. “This one is straight to the big board and guild people.”
Big practice board people who’d love nothing more than to withdraw licences if it made them look good and important. Mine was about to go up in smoke.
“Are you saying there is another notice from court?” Professor Banks asked. “As if dealing with the Counsellors Guild wasn’t enough.”
“What do they want?” I asked, irritated.
“A quick meeting in two days, just preliminaries I would assume—before they constitute a panel for an actual hearing. It’s going to get messy.”
“I know, and that’s what I was trying to avoid.”
“So, something did happen?”
I gave the professor a level look. “Of course not,” I denied aggressively. “And that is exactly what the Guild will find out when it begins sitting. I did nothing. There is no way on earth I’m losing my licence so Israel can live happily ever after with himself while Prisca goes on merrily with her life.”
Faculty director Tayo Banks wasn’t new to denial, but it was aggrieved denial he saw in me. He lifted an eyebrow in slight indifference as if to say, whatever you say.
He said instead, “I don’t doubt you, but it’s the mess it will create I’m worried about. The press will be crawling over the faculty for weekend front-page stories and badgering students with interviews. Everyone will have an opinion, even those who couldn’t identify you on a poster. Students will get ten-second sound bites on evening television news to say harassment has never been new between lecturers and female students. So-called educationists will be on breakfast shows yakking on about how sexual harassment on campus corrupts the education of the younger generation. And newspapers will have lots of blown-up colour photographs, screaming headlines and scanty analysis from very knowledgeable experts. Women’s magazines love Prisca’s mother, Mrs Braithwaite, in their society pages, where they’ll have pictures of both of you touched up on Photoshop to look like the beauty and the beast just to dish more dirt. And in their gossip pages, they’ll eat your heart for snack. Nothing will be sacred anymore. Trial by media will be more painful than anything the Guild and the court can throw at you.”
“And then there is this newfangled thing among young people they call social networking. They’ll form hate groups named after you on Facebook and bits of dirt on you will be on everybody’s wall. They’ll poke and flag and post and tweet on Twitter. All they need is a hundred and sixty characters of smut to pile more rubbish on your name.”
Talk about the shit hitting the fan blowing full blast!
When this is over in court and before the practice board, you won’t have a licence to practice. You won’t even be able to counsel your grandmother.
Israel’s threat echoed in my head. He was behind the unending episodes of inconveniences that had assailed my day. And Prisca was the key.
Half-heartedly, I said would be prepared.
* * *
I wasn’t prepared for the paranoia that stayed with me the rest of the day. My scepticism reached new heights. Everyone I came across tapping at a phone was on Facebook or Twitter, every byte going out had some digits carrying information about me. All calls and text messages weren’t about bits of personal information or gossip, weren’t about looking up airtime balance, weren’t even about harmless flirtation. They were all about me. The life of a paranoid was difficult.
I wasn’t prepared when Cecilia Braithwaite appeared at my door. “What is going on?” she snapped without preamble. “I’ve been getting calls from some editors wanting me to confirm or deny a story they want to run.”
“Mrs Braithwaite. You want to come in?” I still held the door open.
“What is it between you and Prisca?” she said, walking past me into the office.
I closed the door like a guilty servant. “There is nothing between Prisca and I.”
She faced me, angry. “So, what is this about a lawsuit and an enquiry to look into malpractice?”
“Mrs Braithwaite,” I said, hoping to goodness I sounded as calm as I wanted to appear, “you sound more worried about the possibility of scandal than you are about Prisca.”
“I don’t want any scandal, Doctor Mala.”
“I’m afraid it can’t be avoided. Your daughter should have thought of that before she complained of being sexually harassed by her counsellor.”
She took a moment to digest the information before speaking. “Is that what happened, all of it?” I expected more angst from Cecilia but she seemed to be on my side.
“It doesn’t matter what I tell you now, Mrs Braithwaite. It’ll all come out at the enquiry, every ugly detail. You know Prisca.”
“Just what is that supposed to mean?” she flared, and I saw the tightly bottled anger emerge. “Of course, I know Prisca and what she’s capable of. I thought of all that before I sent her to you, hoping it would be different. But you are just like every other man, aren’t you? Couldn’t wait to jump on it when you were convinced she was putting it out free? Is that going to be your excuse? She’s a sex addict and that makes it okay to assault her when she comes to you for counselling?”
“Mrs Braithwaite,” I said in placation.
She was beyond being pacified. “Look here, Doctor Mala, Prisca has never said no to any man in her life, no matter how forbidden he is to her. The phrase off limits doesn’t exist in her vocabulary when it comes to sex. I wanted you to help her change that and you took advantage of her weakness.”
“Mrs Braithwaite…please!” I repeated, sterner this time.
“So, what if she’s on the wild side?” she ranted on. “That gives you no right and I hope you lose your licence.”
“Why then didn’t you push the case against Abdel Gilpin?” My question was crafted to shock her into silence. Her pause came with a cost.
“You manipulative son of a bitch!” she spat.
“Please, Mrs Braithwaite, watch your language!” I spat back. “I’m not making excuses of any kind. I just want you to understand that we are all in this mess together and will remain neck deep in it unless your daughter decides to be honest.”
“How can you talk about honesty?” Mrs Braithwaite fired at me. “You are already scheming on labelling my daughter a slut in the eyes of the world.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” I said uncertainly.
“You’ve already done it.”
“Mrs Braithwaite, your daughter should have thought about the consequences before her boyfriend threatened me with a court notice this morning and she went to the Counsellors Guild to complain of sexual harassment that never happened.”
“You can’t stand there and accuse my daughter of lying,” she sneered. “As bad as it is, Prisca can honestly admit she came onto you—and even boast about it, if she did, as devastating as that might be. But she has never complained of sexual assault by anyone until now, until you.”
“I never did.”
The three simple words stunned us because they came from neither of us. We turned in unison toward the door, which had come ajar. Priysca stood there in all her devious glory.
“Sorry to drop in unannounced. I overheard you. What are you doing here, Mummy?”
Her mother wasn’t comfortable seeing her. Weeks of separation was taking its toll on mother and daughter.
“Prisca,” she simply breathed. “Back where I started, cleaning up the mess, which isn’t your doing this time thank goodness.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked, wide-eyed. “I didn’t sleep with Doctor Mala. And I never complained that he harassed me.”
My chest swelled with righteous relief. Prisca had never looked more loveable until her simple admission. I could just walk over and hug her.
Cecilia Braithwaite stared at her daughter, aghast. “You didn’t petition the Counsellors Guild?”
“No, Mummy. Whatever for?”
“And you didn’t push for a malpractice suit against me?” I asked.
Prisca frowned. “What malpractice suit?”
“I got a court notice this morning, very handsomely delivered by your fiancé.”
“Israel,” Prisca finished for me. Her face twisted in disgust and she might have muttered shit under her breath. “It’s him. He is the one behind the suit and the complaint.”
“After you gave him the impression I sexually assaulted you on Friday night and left you drenched and manhandled,” I argued, with emphasis on Israel’s choice words.
“I did no such thing. If he got that impression, it’s all in his head. And he assumed since I didn’t sleep with him and spent half the night out with you, it must have been because of sex—which it was in a way.”
“Okay, hold it right there,” Cecilia Braithwaite ordered, looking from me to her daughter in bafflement. “Just what is going on?”
I didn’t know where to start explaining.
Prisca took the bit between her teeth. “I spent half the night with Doctor Mala on Friday.”
“Why?” Cecilia Braithwaite couldn’t get it yet.
“It was all because of Israel. He proposed and then he wanted to play naughty. I had to stop him. My only option was to the leave the flat. Then I ran into Doctor Mala. I thought I’d be safer, but I was wrong.”
“What happened?” Cecilia was on tenterhooks.
“That’s just it. Nothing happened. I was wrong about being safe that night, because I found myself wanting him,” she said, then paused and met her mother’s gaze steadily. “I wanted to sleep with him. Mummy, it was humiliating and embarrassing and I can only admit it to you. I threw myself at him, did everything possible to seduce him. He didn’t fall for it. He drove me home and that was it.”
Cecilia chose the moment to lower herself into a seat. “So, why would Israel lodge complaints if nothing happened?”
“What he thinks is not important. I’m just setting the records straight, Mummy.” She fixed a steady gaze on me, making me simultaneously anxious and proud. “I respect Doctor Mala a lot. Any other man would have thrown caution to the winds that night. But he didn’t. He knocked sense into my head. I appreciate that. I don’t want him suffering for something that didn’t happen.”
“It’s rather too late for that, don’t you think?” I questioned her. I thought of the suit, the panel I had to face in two days, Jemima somewhere unknown.
“I’m sorry, Doctor. I’m truly sorry for what I did, all the things I said. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” Prisca looked genuinely contrite and my annoyance thawed. What the heck!
“Fine words, Prisca, but get one thing clear. There is no way I’m going to sit back and lose my licence over this unfortunate incident.”