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Published: July 21st 2013
It was Thursday, and Friday was diplomatic pouch day and the usual rush was on to get everything, reports, letters and all the paperwork generated by the UN aid programme ready to put into the week's pouch destined to be accompanied by a courier to New York. Sunita was on a week’s leave, so the office was under-staffed. A report on foreign aid Frank had been working on was one of the things that needed to be checked and typed. Jegan was meant to be peer-reviewing it, but since he had done absolutely nothing, and merely gave Kalpana the draft for typing, Frank decided to take the thing back into his own hands.
“I’m pleased to see you taking an interest in this project. Is it more your cup of tea?” Jegan said sarcastically.
“No it isn't, but I've been working on it since May and want to see it finished properly.”
“Good!” he replied, “Keep up the good work!”
Overtime was normally required to beat the deadline, but on this occasion Kalpana needed to collect Dawa, her eldest son, from the hospital and could not stay on. It was first thought that he had contracted meningitis, but when his ailment did not respond to the meningitis drugs, the doctor tried treating him for typhoid instead. This did the trick, and he was now well enough to return home. Kalpana asked Frank to accompany her, since Tashi had said that he was unable to do so. He reckoned they had enough time to get the proof-reading of the report and typing done in the morning before the pouch left. They would be rushed, but he felt that the priority was to give her moral and practical support on this occasion.
In fact Tashi had turned up after all and was having fun flirting with the nurses when they arrived.
There were some disturbing cases in the same ward - very young children suffering malnutrition and looking like tiny old men, too helpless to do anything but utter strange animal noises; others, so immobilised by the gadgetry of post-surgical treatment, that they could move nothing but their eyes for weeks or even months on end; there were still others who, at first glance, looked normal, except for the dullness of their eyes and lethargy of their movements - children who had lost interest in life before it had begun. Whether or not she felt the instinctive revulsion that Frank felt in the presence of the infirm and abnormal, Kalpana unhesitatingly visited each child, and spoke to it, and gently held its emaciated limbs.
They checked Dawa out of the hospital and were walking down the street looking for a taxi to take them home. A taxi came by and a young girl leaned out and called out to Tashi. He went up to her, ignoring them completely, and started chatting with her.
“What’s going on?” Frank asked. Kalpana said nothing. They waited in vain for Tashi to break off his conversation. Finally she said “Let's go.” And so they left him, and walked on until they were able to get a taxi to stop for them.
“What was all that about?” he asked.
“I'll tell you one day,” she said. It was not a weekend, and so he returned to his flat after accompanying Kalpana back home.
Come Friday morning, Frank handed the typed sheets to Mr Al Fulan as they came off Kalpana's typewriter. He noticed that his boss’s face had darkened ominously. The storm broke after he had given him the completed report. Mr Al Fulan careered into the room yelling “I don't know why these people can't do overtime! I have to!” He had found an error.
Frank was taken aback. He had the page in question quickly corrected, but Mr Al Fulan was doing his best to find other errors, changing spellings that were in fact perfectly correct. Frank didn’t think it would be in his interests to dispute his erroneous changes with him, and so left them untouched.
It was always very important to Jenny to please Mr Al Fulan. As the secretarial staff's line-manager, Frank guessed she had got her own earful of verbal abuse, which would have distressed her enormously. She was behaving in a very cool manner towards him all day, and did her best to keep out of their shared room. He asked her, as she was packing up to leave, what the matter was. She turned on him:
“I'm really surprised at you, Frank. You let Mrs Lopchan take all the blame; and if the pouch had not been so late Mr Al Fulan would have made you type out every single filthy word of that report again. He's still in a fury about it.” Each word was spat out. He was so shocked by this unexpected rage, he couldn't find the words to respond.
In strode Jegan. “Jenny, I couldn't help over-hearing that. You know, I was going through that report and he took it away saying it wasn't necessary,” he said. He shook his head sorrowfully. “I blame myself. I should have insisted on finishing the job myself.”
“Hold on!” Frank said.
“Look, Jegan!” said Jenny angrily, ignoring Frank’s interjection. “We were sitting in the office jeep outside your house this morning for quarter of an hour waiting for you to come out. If you hadn't made me late, I could have helped out.”
“I would be grateful if you would not call me Jegan. Please remember that you are a secretary, not an Assistant Resident Representative. The name is Mr Rajasingham.”
“And my name is Miss van der Byl. Okay?” She stormed out, and Mr Rajasingham followed, neither of them giving Frank a glance.
Waiting until there was no danger of bumping into them again, Frank finally emerged and went over to Mr Al Fulan's office in order to put the record straight, but Jegan had beaten him to it. Voices were raised, and Frank overheard Mr Al Fulan reeling off a long list of complaints about his past misdemeanours. It was his considered opinion that leaving Mr Al Fulan to expend his ill-humour on Jegan rather on him would constitute the better part of valour. He tip-toed away leaving Jegan to his fate.
On Monday morning, without looking up at him, Jenny mumbled 'good morning' and Frank responded in kind, but didn't volunteer to break the ice that enveloped them once more. After a while, her eyes still glued to her documents, she said: “I hope you are free next Saturday. I'd like to hold a farewell dinner party for you.”
He consulted the calendar on his desk and regretted, in icily polite tones, that he was unable to make the date. “Perhaps after I return from my trek?” he suggested. “I'll have a week to kill before I leave Nepal.”
Kalpana didn't come to the office that morning. She appeared after lunch and immediately handed him a rough draft of a resignation letter for him to improve on. There was no doubt that she had been hurt by the reprimand she had received, though the reason she gave in her letter was the health of her baby, and her inability to cope with both family and office.
A few days later she handed in her notice, which was accepted. The contractual period of notice was one month. Mr Al Fulan would then be losing a treasure he had never taken the trouble to value.
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