A PRIVATE AFFAIR

WE DECIDED TO let her have her affair, and pretended not to know.

We all work in the same office, she sits in front of her computer right at the back of the office, and computes away. We all sit in front of our computers, computing away.

I saw one of the first emails. It was one of those accidents that happen in the workplace. I don’t know where she went to, I don’t know what compelled me to get up and go to her empty desk, and click on. I shouldn’t have. Seeing that she was not there, I should have just walked away; shouldn’t even have gone there in the first place. But I was in a hurry, she should have forwarded the email to me an hour ago, I needed information in it to help me finish the contract I was drafting for an agent, and the deadline was noon. Without thinking, I grabbed the mouse and began to browse her inbox which surprisingly was open on the screen. Normally she always locked her screen before she left her seat.

Suddenly I hesitated. She was a person who guarded her privacy intensely. She was a bit different from the rest of us in the office, at least in this regard. With any other colleague it would not have mattered, but she was… Hmm… Come to think of it, what did she have to hide anyway? Why was she always locking her screen? Mchw!

My annoyance at knowing I would have to let go of her PC without getting what I wanted, thereby facing the risk of not meeting my deadline, almost rubbed me of my morals. But still I hesitated, which in itself irritated me all the more. She was the only one in the office who guarded her privacy with such tenacity. But the moment of hesitation had done its job. I sighed. Don’t be a jerk! I told myself, she’s different from the rest of us, just let her be. I shook my head and started to turn away…

Then I saw the name. The email at the bottom of the page. It rang a shrill bell. I did a double-take. That name! But, even more than the name, was the subject title of the email. “Babycakes, can’t wait”. Almost mechanically, without any conscious effort, I pointed the mouse at the incomprehension and clicked. The clarification came. I closed the email, returned the inbox to the face of the monitor and walked away, thoughtful, to my seat. She was having an affair. With him. It hit me like a thunderbolt.

For the better part of the next hour, my mind was in turmoil. Needless to say, I missed my deadline. Even when she returned to her seat five minutes after I left it, and eventually forwarded the email to me, I couldn’t work. It took me a long while to find my composure.

For some reason I kept it to myself. Over the next couple of weeks, I began to observe her more closely. Such a quiet, shy, unassuming, unobtrusive personality. Babycakes, can’t wait. How had it started? Every once in a while I would turn around, steal a glance at her, or watch her as she walked by. And each time, the wedding ring on her finger would catch my eye, and I would think of her four year old son who she once brought with her to the office. Babycakes, can’t wait. What was she doing? I noticed that she began to receive lots of phone calls. Private phone calls on her mobile phone. Each time, she would jump up and hurry out of the office; and in between the phone calls, frequently, the buzz of incoming text messages. Babycakes, can’t wait.

I don’t know how the others came to know, truly I don’t. Maybe because of all the sudden personal phone calls. One day, while she was out, we were all talking, and the conversation gravitated to love and affairs… and it turned out that we all knew she was having an affair… and with whom.

Maybe because none of us had ever met her husband. Maybe because all of us liked her, liked her quaint, quiet, modest personality. But we never discussed it again amongst ourselves. For some reason hard to explain, we all hushed it up.

The months passed. No one came to visit her in the office. Was she still having the affair? She remained her usual self, quiet, generous with friendly smiles. The phone calls and the text messages kept on coming, an insistent flood of private vibrations.

One day, her husband came to the office. I think that was when the pain of conflict drove all of us into intense inner reflection. He was a nice guy, with an unassuming, almost self-deprecating air, greeted everybody with a wide smile, an eager handshake. In the following days, we started to talk about her affair again. It was moral, it was immoral, life is a mystery, she needs salvation, maybe he’s doing it too, who knows how it really is in their home, it is a sin, everybody has free will, monogamy is unnatural, polygamy is unnatural, judge not, love thy neighbour, trust nobody, watch out for the devil, what a man can do a woman can do better, are we sure, maybe we’re mistaken, stop gossiping, stop spreading rumours, it is true, I have the proof, the world is coming to an end, he must be doing her well, maybe her husband has stopped performing, it’s his money she’s after, but she’s such a good girl, we must put her in our prayers, there must be a reason, love is a mystery… As always we only spoke about it when she was not there. Was she still having the affair? I didn’t know. I didn’t ask.

And then came the day when everything changed. Her phone burped. A short conversation. A loud gasp. An ominous pause… and then it broke out: a frightening, low, howl that gripped every heart in the office. It seemed as though we all started up at once. I turned around. Her face was in her hands, she was sobbing. Wracking, ugly sounds, primitive and real.

I jumped up and hurried with the others towards her. It took a long time to calm her down. After she had shut down her computer and left, I walked into the toilet, to avoid the chatter of the colleagues. I put the seat down, sat on it, closed my eyes and watched again in my head the scene that had played out after we all rushed to her.

“What’s wrong?” someone asked.

She sat frozen, staring at her mobile phone, as if hoping it would ring again. Her voice was a whisper:

“A friend of mine… just died… he took part in the fuel protest in Lagos today… he got hit by a stray bullet… his best friend was with him… “

Silence.

“What’s his name?” someone whispered gently.

A pause.

“Kulie Oto.”

“The artist?”

“The activist?”

“The lecturer?”

All three questions came at once.

She answered mechanically.

“Yes…, the sculptor. He is… was… my husband’s cousin.”

“Really?” Even I felt my eyebrow rise. She was still mumbling softly, almost to herself.

“He’s the one who just called… I mean my husband… to tell me… there was some shooting… people ran… Chiya… was hit… fell… his best friend found him… I don’t understand… he flew to Lagos yesterday evening… he was to travel back to Abuja this evening…” Her eyes travelled from mobile phone to PC screen and back again.

Babycakes, can’t wait.

A very uncomfortable silence followed.

She breathed out slowly, very slowly. As if she was letting something out. She shook her head.

Silence. Longer.

And then:

“I’m so sorry for his wife and three children,” someone said, evenly.

Months have passed again. The calls don’t come anymore. Her smiles are few and far-between. Somewhere in the quiet depth of her heart, her secret, her loss and her pain continue to rest, unshared. In the office nobody talks about it anymore. Silence has encapsuled it once more, like a matter that has been put to rest.

– Che Chidi Chukwumerije.

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