Tuesday went like a breeze, a stinking breeze. I didn’t want it to end, because I wanted to keep Wednesday at bay as long as possible. Talk about stilling time. I was again a toddler balking at waking up on the first day of school.
I’d grown up independent, which served me well in the past. Tuesday, my independence failed me completely, because I longed to see Jemima. I missed her—a difficult thing to admit—not because she wasn’t around—it wasn’t weekend—but because she was inaccessible. Calling her number repeatedly dashed my hopes: it either could not be reached or was switched off. My nemesis drew closer, loud and relentless, as the minutes wound down to my nine o’clock appearance before the Counsellors Guild.
The Guild’s secretariat is housed in one of few storey buildings that clutter the middle of town. From the outside, it was unremarkable, unimportant. Watching the indifference of cars zipping along the expressway, you could never guess how many careers were made and lives unmade within the building. It was a place where counsellors at the top of their profession sat behind large polished tables of oak and played god.
The tables weren’t oak the morning they sat to decide my fate. They were carved from mahogany, sprayed and polished to within an inch of their lives, and structured in a horseshoe that filled the middle of the room. Soft cushioned seats lined the outward curve. A lone seat was prepared for me in the middle of the concave formed by the table, squarely facing the chairman of the panel who occupied the middle seat with the highest back.
The panel was evenly picked—two men and two women. They differed only in how much grey hair they spotted. No way were they going to take up all the space around the huge mahogany table.
The gospel of trial by media according to Professor Tayo Banks came to haunt me. After my twenty-four dread of Facebook and Twitter, I faced the real thing on Wednesday morning. A handful of reporters milled in the lobby of the secretariat, clutching mini tape recorders, equipment you could denigrate as unimportant until the red record button was pushed down. Two more shouldered cameras, ready to push their microphones into faces when necessary. Beyond conferences, workshops and end-of-year get-togethers, the press had never been a big part of the Guild’s activities. By that token the mikes and cameras had no place there. But a recondite counsellor was going on trial—that’s how some of them actually described it—and it was worth some sound bites and ink.
Happily, they didn’t badger me with their equipment. That was for later. Now, I was an interesting species to be considered from a distance while they sifted through adjectives to qualify the odious sexual assaulter of helpless women in their reports. I was allowed to enter the panel room in peace.
Positions were taken with a scrape of seats. All four members of the panel were complete. The chairman welcomed all, made a brief speech about the reason for meeting. If he went any further, I’d be hanged before I breathed. His words were well selected, though, revealing nothing about my guilt or innocence. We were gathered, he said, to see due process in action. Of course the outcome didn’t matter; that couldn’t be determined from the outset, but just wait for it, it’d come unfailingly. That was the procedure.
At the end of ten minutes, he politely thanked the journalists for their presence and announced they could leave the room. The rest of the sitting would be behind closed doors, he joked, full aware his words would be quoted in their reports. The cameras, mikes and recorders filed out. The door closed with a click behind them. The judge was in the building. The trial of Stanley Mala, Ph.D officially commenced.
The panellists looked upon their lone victim, a colleague turned predator. The men saw a younger version of themselves who’d waddled into a mess. The women saw the arrogant bastard who created the mess. The questions came, hard, fast and furious. Each statement went through me like a lance; each comment tore my carefully crafted reply to shreds. They anticipated every comment; they second-guessed every reply. Running commentaries routinely met my responses with deliberate misinterpretations that forced me to launch into rationalisations. It was a psychological catch-22. The less I said, the better. They realised the trick and framed questions to demand a simple yes or no. The four panellists were out to cook my goose.
When the chairman called for a break, I was ready to run or faint, anything but face this undeserved ordeal. I didn’t get farther than the men’s room. It was empty and the quiet, away from voices and eyes in the corridor calmed my nerves. The air conditioner had kept the room cool, but my shirt was damp under my suit. Why ever was I the subject of an inquisition? Simply because I agreed to work with Prisca Braithwaite.
The fifteen-minute break was up before I knew it. Thoughts of Prisca brought up words that would have given the panel convulsions to hear. I stepped out of the room, saw her and almost walked over to strangle her.
The cameras whirred to get an entry shot of her. Cecilia Braithwaite’s daughter was a show made for lenses. They trained upon her progress through the lobby as she walked straight to me with a mischievous smile.
“What are you doing here?” I spoke before thinking. I was wrong: I couldn’t stop anyone visiting the secretariat, but I thought this was an exception
“Good morning, doctor,” she said.
The cameras zoomed in, as though zoom lens could pick up sounds.
“That’s not the question.”
An orderly appeared at the door to usher me back in. I walked toward the door; Prisca walked beside me. As we got to the door, the orderly said, “The chairman says the panel isn’t ready for you yet. Miss Braithwaite?” He politely held the door open while Prisca marched determinedly through.
When it shut, I turned and stalked past the cameras to the lobby to sit wearily on a leather sofa. My imagination went into overdrive thinking what on earth Prisca was telling the panel. Her imagination was fertile; she was at liberty to say anything she wished and nobody would question her story for the same reason no one could corroborate mine. It was her word against mine.
Stanley Mala, you’re fried.
My head ached. Suddenly fatigued, I took off my glasses, pinched my eyes shut and leaned back into the sofa, stretching my feet. Slowly I counted the minutes Prisca spent with the panel, piling her tales to bury me and my licence.
A hand touched me. It was a familiar sensation but I was lost in my own misery to recognise the touch. I opened my eyes straight into a smiling face.
“Hi, Stan,” she said.
I had missed Jemima for hours and days, spent endless moments plotting how to reach her and had my face rubbed in the futility of that attempt. Seeing her before me was a dream I didn’t want to wake from. She was real, as were the men and women on the panel about to decide my fate. As much as I wanted to throw my arms around her, the reality of my business at the secretariat stopped me. I was going down, and I didn’t want Jemima with me at the lowest point of my life.
“Where have you been?” I asked.
She sank into the sofa beside me and reached for my hand. “Darling, I’m sorry you’ve had to go through this alone. I should never have left.”
“You had a valid reason to leave,” I said, relieved and confused at the same time.
“I thought I did,” Jemima replied, shaking her head slowly. “I didn’t wait to listen, too angry thinking you’d been having something on the side with Prisca Braithwaite.”
“Jemmy?” I whispered.
“I was jealous,” she admitted. “When I heard you moan her name while you were with me, I simply went…berserk.”
“So, what’s changed?”
I recoiled at her response.
Jemima noted my hesitation. “Nothing’s changed because you are still the same man I know. You’ve never been the cheating bastard I called you. That’s what I’ve realised.”
“That’s what I tried to tell you every time I called, Jem. You never made it easy.”
“I know. I was angry. Angry that you called—”
“Could you not go there?” I cut in softly. “I don’t remember doing it, even though I know I could have done it. The reasons are so many and I don’t have the mind to explore them. I just want to forget.”
“You’ve invested so much time and thought into Prisca Braithwaite, everything she says plays in your mind. You are practically living her life.”
I nodded, defeated. “I know, and it has to end.”
“Absolutely. Her life, her words? Erotic fantasy on legs.”
I looked at her sharply. She smiled thinly.
“I read the blue folder,” she explained. “Last Friday, before you got back. I know I shouldn’t have. But I was fighting for you, against the Prisca living inside your head. The descriptions were plain pornography. I don’t know how you managed to listen to all of it.”
“Jem, you know how I feel about that,” I stated.
“I do.” She was nodding before I even finished. “But Prisca’s words were living inside your head and consuming you. I had to know the root of it, if I could ever put up a fight against her. It wasn’t easy battling an imagination instead of a real woman. With a physical rival, you can pull her hair out and scratch her eyes. What do you do with a woman who’s only imagined?”
Anger didn’t spurt within me. Resentment was a far thought. At the moment I couldn’t care less. I began to crack a smile, which faded when Prisca emerged from the panel room. She made a beeline for us, but her attention was focused on Jemima instead of me.
As we rose together, I watched out for hostility to erupt, waited for rivalry to spill over. Any moment the claws would emerge and the catfight would begin. They didn’t.
Prisca was smiling as she approached us. “I’m glad you came.” She directed it to Jemima.
Jemima dazed me by smiling back. “Thank you.”
I looked from Prisca to Jemima and back. “You knew she was coming here?”
Jemima touched my arm comfortingly as she responded. “She told me the panel was sitting here. She called me and we spoke quite at length about things.”
“Spoke about what?”
“What do you mean everything?” Everything with Prisca was the most compromising time of my life. Just how much had she revealed?
“Everything, Doctor,” Prisca said with a little. “The little one and the huge ones. No matter how compromising they were. I had to spill my guts. You didn’t do anything to be ashamed of. You are a man any woman would be proud to have. Any woman who doesn’t trust you to be faithful is blind.”
“And I am not that woman,” Jemima said.
There was a buzz near the door as the cameras circled in on their darling socialite.
Prisca turned before we did. “Mummy?”
Cecilia Braithwaite majestically squeezed through the group of journalists and came toward our little group with a smile. Mother and daughter embraced, a simple show of affection that didn’t seem so simple after all.
“Mrs Braithwaite,” I said it as a hello.
She gave me a nice-to-see-you smile over Prisca’s shoulder. When she released her daughter, she said to me, “How do you do, Doctor Mala?”
What did you expect? “I don’t get why you are here?”
“To stand for my daughter,” she said.
Her daughter said with a smile, “I did it, Mummy. I told them everything.”
Them? The panel? Everthing? Questions rose in my head. No answers were forthcoming.
“I know and I’m glad.” Ever the doting mother, Cecilia smoothed a hand down Prisca’s hair. “And, honestly, doctor, I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you. You’ve given me back my daughter.”
“Did Jonathan come with you?” Prisca asked.
“He has nothing to do here for now. But we’ll meet up later, three of us, and have a nice long talk.”
I said simply, “Jonathan?”
Prisca turned to me rather solemnly. “It’s not going to be easy, but I’m ready to take responsibility for what I did. I hurt my Mummy deeply. And you, Jemima. I have to stop hurting those around me. That’s what you’ve taught me, doctor.”
My heart swelled with pride. “All I said was you had to be sorry.”
“I am. That’s why I had to beg Mummy for forgiveness. I may have ruined her chances with Jonathan, but I do my best to make it up to them. And that’s why I had to find Jemima and make her come here to be by your side.”
I saw tears in her eyes.
“Can you ever forgive me, doctor?”
I didn’t trust myself to speak. On cue, Jemima leaned into me, rubbing her hand slowly down my back. “Of course, he can,” she said for me.
Prisca went on. “I hope to find what you two have some day. When I do, I’ll think of you.”
Everything was happening so fast my head spun. Prisca and Cecilia Braithwaite had cried and made up. Mother and daughter had papered over the cracks in their relationship; the man at the heart of a major betrayal was still with them. No matter what would come from meeting Jonathan, they were ready to move on. I’d never seen this much cleansing and healing at work. Dealing with people’s minds was still to teach me that. What did that say about me? Where was I headed from here?
Prisca hitched her head toward the door and said, “In the mean time, the panel wants to see you.”
With a final rub down my shoulder, Jemima released me. The orderly was already at the door, holding it open. I left the group and the vultures began to circle in. When I looked back, the three women were on the sofa, mother and daughter holding hands, Jemima on one end watching bemusedly. The mikes poked the air in front of them. through a gap between two journalists, I caught Prisca’s eyes. She smiled at me, a secret smile only she understood and which she expected me to understand.
I held my features rigid, pondering. The smile was imprinted in my mind as I went in to face the panel again. I walked through the door and my life changed.