As Doreen Owino entered the open-plan building on her way to Mr. Cartwright’s office to ask for another fortnight’s leave of absence, conversations broke off and a hush followed her wake. She lengthened her stride to minimize the swishing sound of tights rubbing together at her thighs. And she studied the carpet to avoid eye-contact, and the inevitable expressions of sympathy from her colleagues at Global Beauty.
The black dots on the carpet reminded her of long-ago helicopter beetles. When she and her brother, Caleb, had caught the fat black lazy fliers, they tied the legs with string. And raising skinny arms, they twirled the beetles around and round buzzing like helicopters. Caleb and Doreen stared up at the blur of insect and string until it seemed the sky was closing in, and God, the God of Sunday school – oh be careful little hands what you do - would knock them on the head. And laughing for all of Africa, they’d fall to the ground, onto that worn dusty clearing, dizzy and uncaring that Mama would scold about their filthy clothes, especially her, the eldest daughter – Yawa nyamama!, and make them scrub their bodies with loofah.
Now the only one with a buzzing mind seeing things was her. If it wasn’t malaria-carrying anopheles mosquitoes blending into the flowers on her curtains to digest her blood, it was weevils visiting her meals in the guise of innocent beans, and now these beetles pretending to pattern a carpet. Resisting the urge to root in her bag for her trusty can of Doom - Doom Kills Dudus Dead!, Doreen trampled the dots.
“Wait, Dori, wait for me.”
Doreen scowled at her sister. Half-running, Philo waved a long skinny arm in the air as though there remained a single soul on the whole damn floor who hadn’t noticed her.
“We agreed you’d wait in the car,” hissed Doreen.
“Whatever you’re stamping on must be deader than dead by now.” Philo slipped her arm through her sister’s. “Anyway, it’s too hot out there. I’d rather wait inside. And you looked like you’d swallowed a fly getting into the building.”
Doreen blinked. Flies were something else she didn’t want to think about. But she softened her tone. “I’m fine. Really. You’re the one…”
“The one who…?” Philo asked, pointedly. She hated to be reminded of her status. “Mm! These people staring. Isn’t there any work to do in this place?”
Discreetly using a handkerchief to avoid direct contact, Doreen pushed the button. The light didn’t come on. She noticed an OTIS sign that had fallen on the floor – Lift Undergoing Repairs. A bad sign. Light above indicated the other lift was stopped on the eighth floor. She’d be late for the meeting with Mr. Cartwright - a man who refused to understand that in Africa time was negotiable. Just as she sighed, the lift doors opened, and there he stood, as though she’d thought him into being.
Brought in to overhaul the finance department following rumours of corrupt dealings, Mr. Cartwright had been in Kenya for eight months. He was a neat, yellow-haired Englishman with khaki-coloured irises that spooked Doreen particularly when he smiled – like he was now, in what seemed to her an awkward flash of teeth rather than an expression of pleasure.
He stepped back to make room for them. Only when they’d settled into their respective corners did Doreen notice that Mr. Cartwright wasn’t looking at her, but up at Philo, who at almost six foot, towered over them. With her solid build and thickened waistline, Doreen appeared shorter than five-foot-six, but she and Philo shared the same skin tone - the dark hue of coffee grounds. It contrasted sharply with the brilliance of their teeth and whites of their eyes - their fish-eater attributes as Baba used to say.Philo’s irises glittered with mischief.
Per Contra Spring 2007