The most depressing weekend ended and the crappiest week began with an unexpected call on the dot of eight. I was walking into my office on Monday morning when the phone buzzed. It was Prisca Braithwaite.
“Good morning, sir.”
“Yes?” Indignation flooded me.
“I want to apologise, Doctor Mala, about Friday night. I’m truly, truly sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”
“What came over you was pure old-fashioned lust,” I said vehemently, surprising even myself.
“You said it was transference.”
“That doesn’t mean you can’t take care of it. I realise how you might think you are helpless to stop it, but must you drag everyone down with you?”
“I would never dream of doing that,” she argued.
She still had the nerve to defend herself and it galled me. I struck back bitterly, seeking to hurt her pride. “You are racking up quite a number of casualties in your trail—Jonathan, Abdel Gilpin, your mother.” Not to mention me, Jemima. I stopped myself from adding that.
“Please, doctor, it isn’t that way.” Her voice cracked and I sensed the waterworks about to erupt. “I respect you a lot, and I never wished for any of it to happen. You have to believe me. I don’t know whether that is going to change anything, but I’m so, so sorry, doctor. Believe me.”
She paused when I said nothing but just listened. The sound of crying came clear across the line. I was too furious for woman’s oldest trick in the book to work.
“Can I come in today?”
“No.” The word was out sharply before I considered it. I was resentful, but I was still her counsellor and she was listed for Monday. Keeping that role, it would be difficult not to show my resentment if I saw her. Better she even called than came in person. The indifference I prided myself on was about to come undone. Realising how I sounded, I amended my words. “Not today. I really am busy today.”
I swiftly ended the call. Yes, I would be busy—busy repairing the damage you’ve done.
The damage was quickly getting beyond repair. I called Jemima on speed dial and listened to the phone ring on her end for a full minute.
It was the closest I had gotten to trying to explain how I turned our coupling into a triangle. I’d gone to her house after she left my apartment and met it locked. Her neighbour had been quick to duteously inform me she saw Jemima on Saturday—rather odd, because she rarely spent weekends at her apartment, and odder, because she didn’t look too well. She wasn’t home, and now she wasn’t taking calls.
Strange names in the heat of passion were a bitch.
I repeated the call and listened to her ringtone. She answered on the fourth call with a click.
“Jemmy, it’s me. Stanley Mala.”
“What do you want?” Her voice was gravelly.
“I want us to talk about this before we do something we’ll both end up regretting,” I said.
“What more will you do? Aren’t you full yet?”
“That’s not what I meant.” I wasn’t even thinking straight after hours staring at an empty apartment. Choosing the right words was difficult.
“What then did you mean?” she fired back.
“We have to talk.”
“I have nothing to say to you.”
“Come on, Jem,” I prodded. “I have to see you, so we can talk. You are not at your apartment. I have been there. And this is the first time you’ve taken my call since … since Saturday morning.”
“It should be plain enough that I don’t want to talk to you,” she replied.
“Where are you?”
“None of your business,” she shot back.
“Come on, Jem, just tell me where you are.” I persisted and she took a moment to think it over. I waited patiently.
“I’m out of town,” she finally said with a sniffle. “Where you don’t know and can’t reach me.”
Was she crying wherever she was? How much more could I hurt her?
“You know our first serious misunderstanding doesn’t have to go this way. Fine, you were right to be angry when you walked out, and I respect that a lot. But you have to realise that the infidelity you accuse me of doesn’t exist.”
“That’s bull!” she shot back. “Who do you think you are talking to? I was the one who had to hear you moan that slut’s name over and over again. Did you for one moment even think it rhymed with my name?”
“It could have been anything, but we can never get to it if we are miles apart. I’m sorry, but we’ve got to start somewhere.”
“How about ending what you already started?” If she was trying for an award for cattiness, she was winning hands down. Each word knocked my socks off and stripped me bare without even trying.
“I didn’t start anything,” I shouted down the phone. “That’s what I’ve been trying to say to you, if only you’ll listen to me. Whatever you heard, I won’t call you a fool by denying it. But there is nothing more.”
She had listened in silence while my tirade wore itself out. In a calm voice, she said, “Okay.”
“Okay?” I didn’t get what she meant.
“I said okay,” she repeated.
I emphasised the punch line again. “Nothing happened, Jem, I swear I had nothing to do with her.”
“Whatever helps you sleep at night.”
The spite in her voice gnawed at my gut. “In three years, three whole years, have I ever given you any reason to doubt me?”
She didn’t answer that.
“Have I?” I pushed.
“You’ve just never been caught.”
My mouth hung open with an unspoken retort. At the point where I could officially hang up on her, she stole my thunder and left me with a dead phone.
I threw the phone into my pocket and hoped to muddle through the day with resignation. Only one faculty gathering was scheduled for the day. It lasted forty minutes and I returned to my office. No student showed up for counselling. They didn’t need it, not from me—and I couldn’t have offered any, if my life depended on it.
At midday, one hour before official lunch break, I was rearing to be anywhere but my office. The familiar space became stifling, making my lungs burn for air.
Once outside, I made a beeline for the garage. Students respectfully stayed out of my way.
“Doctor Mala!” A strange voice stopped me a few paces from the Picanto. He wasn’t supposing; he knew me. I couldn’t return the favour to get on equal footing.
Only a couple of years younger than I was, he was in a suit that belonged with the denizens of LuckPot at evening—expensively tailored, exquisitely perfumed, tastefully accessorised.
He eyed me from foot to head. “Fancy meeting you at last. I’ve had sleepless nights about you.”
“I wish I could say the same about you,” I said, prepared to leave him. The morning was fast turning messy. “Who did you say you were? I didn’t get that.”
He produced an official-looking manila envelope. “Here is what you should be getting,” he said, holding it out. “I took the liberty of serving you a prior notice myself just for the pleasure of seeing you squirm.”
He got my attention and held it. “What is this about?” Serving me a notice? That didn’t sound good. I was officially squirming.
“Someone from the court registry should be along any moment and then you can sing to charges of sexual harassment.”
I tried to laugh, but it came out false. “If running into people you don’t know from Adam and accusing them of sexual harassment doesn’t make you certifiable, I don’t know what does. Secondly…” I said sliding my gaze down his middle to give him the message, “I’m not that way, never have been.” I couldn’t believe I was standing in a car park talking with a strange man about not being gay.
I sidestepped him to cover the last few paces to the Picanto and his next words stopped me cold.
“You’ll have time to describe how you were with Prisca last weekend.”
“You’re Israel?” In a flash of realisation, I knew my unknown visitor. His silence was confirmation.
“The one she left to spend Friday night with her counsellor and didn’t get back home until Saturday morning. I didn’t think counselling sessions were held at that time of the night.” Israel’s words dripped with spite.
“I fail to see how Prisca’s counselling sessions are any of your business, which, as a matter of fact, I can’t be discussing with one of her boyfriends.”
My words were calculated to hurt and they hit their mark. Israel’s face darkened with rising anger. “Is that what you think I am? One of her boyfriends?”
“The one who bothered to propose is more to the point,” I said levelly, approaching the car and opening the door with the air of a very busy man. I tossed the envelope onto the passenger seat. “Since you know so much about Prisca’s counselling schedule, you should also know why she left you that night.”
“She left me—right after speaking with you on the phone. What does that say about you?”
“That she doesn’t trust you to help her get over her problem?” I sat in the car, closed the door and wound the window down to hear his response.
“And you helped her, didn’t you? Until one the next morning when she got back drenched and looking manhandled.”
Manhandled. The word hardly fit with the image in my head. If only this little pisshead knew the half of what happened that night.
“She had no bruises the last time I saw her.” Despite the class his suit gave him, he seemed on the verge of losing his temper and I enjoyed goading him. I longed to see him lose his cool and rant like a street urchin.
“She’ll be the last person you ever work with, I promise you,” he swore, shaking a finger at me as I started the car. “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.”
“Okay, look here, Israel,” I said, tamping down my resentment as the car revved, “you have no business walking up to me, accusing me of sexually harassing a woman I work with and then threatening me with sexual assault in the same breath. I’m a very busy man. Have a nice day.”
I hit a button to roll the window in place. His parting shot was inaudible beyond the glass. as I drove away I caught him in the rear-view mirror, looking righteously angry. When I couldn’t see him anymore, I reached for the manila envelope and freed the single sheet within. At its top, I sighted the words HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE and alarm seized me.
The image of a man walking a tightrope and juggling four balls made sudden sense. I had Jemima to deal with, Prisca was second, now there was her jealous boyfriend and his green-eyed litigation. In the years I have counselled, there had never been a hint of unethical conduct. That comforting knowledge was gone, replaced by a steeling resolve to fight back. The first strategy was the problem. The solution came as I reached for my phone.
Anthony Carew, Barrister at Law, answered on the first ring.
“I’m not sure I believe the name on my caller ID display. Is that really you, Stan boy?”
“The voice from the grave.” I injected amusement into my voice. It was an immense task.
“Long time, no hear. Amazing how we both live in the same city and never see each other.”
“You know what they say. Lawyers and doctors can never be your friends.”
I hadn’t truly seen Anthony Carew in months, which was odd since we’d shared a hostel room at university. We’d begun university together, but I graduated a year earlier leaving him and mostly medical students to battle an extra year or two swotting up tomes. Our paths hardly crossed after that.
After national service, I headed back to school for postgraduate studies and he went off to law school. I attended his party when he was called to the bar and we connected briefly. After that, his path turned to chasing down cases at police stations and court houses, any case at all, just to have something to litigate about. We called it “lawyer for hire” and joked mercilessly about it.
The joke ceased when he scored big with a prestigious law firm and got on an election petition. Months of wrangling over invalid votes, giving evidence that voters didn’t cast votes in some wards because thugs violently stopped them and ordering nail-biting recounts ended with a petitions tribunal ruling in favour of his client.
Anthony Carew was only one of four lawyers on the petitioner’s bench, but the ruling forked over legal fees with six zeroes into his bank account. He has been riding with the big boys ever since. That he still had time for little fry like me was amazing.
“Are you still sure about that, my boy, about not having lawyers for friends?” my former roommate asked over the phone. “You never know when you’re going to need them.”
“Still sure, but I need them now. I need you.”
“I smell trouble,” he said with a whistle. “But then what is a friend if they can’t inconvenience you now and again. How soon do you want us to see?”
“I’m driving out of campus at the moment. Where are you?”
“Just going out to lunch at LuckPot. You know the place?”
“I didn’t know you haunted the place.”
I was there Friday night, you amateur. That’s where my trouble started or gelled, whichever came first. I thought of the dinner I never ate and the incidents that followed with Prisca Braithwaite.
Don’t even go there, Stanley Mala! Don’t!
“That’s where I’ll be,” Anthony was saying. “It should be okay, right?”
“I’ll be there in twenty minutes,” I said, relieved. “And…Tony?”
“I know it’s very short notice, but thanks for this.” I sincerely meant it.