I continue to wear the new girl tag around my neck. I continue to wear it because I haven’t quite settled in to the regularity of a routine. A routine which includes, among other things, a payday that comes at the end of the month.
So it was that on this Tuesday the sixteenth that I wanted to get paid. I ask for the Accounts office and I am sent three floors up. I ask to see Wanjama*, our payroll accountant. He is pointed to me. There’s a queue to see him so I take my place and wait.
I know Wanjama. We have met before. I met Wanjama in 2010, mid January. That week when there was a solar eclipse, remember it? Wanjama is an accountant. And like all accountants, he cherishes his short sleeved shirts and shiny cheap ties. Those ties that reflect more light than they absorb; the ones which are sold by those street vendors who set up shop on the streets of Nairobi; those ties which sell for 50 bob a piece. An accountant also means that he doesn’t like to ask questions. He likes to give answers instead, concise and choreographed ones. Holding a conversation with him is painful.
But all this is secondary to Wanjama because he has a poker face; he shows no emotions. His forehead doesn’t knit with worry, his eyes don’t light up with excitement, he doesn’t throw his head back in laughter, he doesn’t spit with disgust. I have never even seen his goddamn teeth. Wanjama can tell you bawdy things like, ‘Give it to me baby’. Or things to mist up your eyes like, ‘My baby just called me papa for the first time’. Or things that will grate you like, ‘Did you hear what Kingwa Kamencu did with her neighbours’ underwear?’And he will say them all with the same expressionless look on his face. And it is because of this that I remember why we didn’t keep in touch after when we last met. It was because I wasn’t sure if he liked me or not.
It gets to my turn. And I approach Wanjama’s desk with the excitement of a toddler running to his mom. Wanjama looks up at me and does something with his mouth which is akin to a smile.
“Wanjama heeeyy,” I say.
Wanjama looks up from his computer to meet my eyes, “Hallo.”
“Don’t you remember me?”
He shakes his head, “No. I don’t remember you.”
“ABC Audit from 2010, yes?”
“No. I don’t remember you.”
“When your office was on the other side? Down below, near the courier office?”
“Yes, I remember the audit. Quarter Three and Four. But, I don’t remember you.” He continues to stare. This is uncomfortable. I scratch my cheek and pull on my earlobe then take the seat he has offered. My outstretched arms that were eager for some affection are bracingly embarrassing.
I wait for Wanjama to ask me why I am here to collect a cheque. I want him to ask how audit is going. I want him to ask how I have been fairing since we last spoke three years ago. I want him to be curious. I want him to ask something, anything. But he doesn’t. He clicks on his mouse, and fiddles with his keyboard, eyes fixed on the screen. This poker face, my God.
Wanjama prints something out, like all accountants do, and brings out a register of names.
“Remind me your name?”
I tell him. No smile. No manufactured excitement. No false light-bulb moment. Not even a smirk. The pregnant pause is punctuated by shuffling of papers and the purr of his computer.
Wanjama asks me to write my ID number and sign against my name. Then he hands me the cheque. “This is yours.”
Excellent. Great. Except that. Wait. Hang on. OK. Something is wrong here. I flip the cheque over three, four times looking for a second attached cheque. Nothing. This cheque, it has my name on it alright. And whatever Wanjama has printed holds details that do relate to me. But the amount on the cheque? Something is amiss here. Someone butchered the cheque; some figures are missing. Someone decided instead to pay me instalments. Someone sabotaged my payday.
Wanjama interrupts my disbelief and dismay to ask for my bank details, “So we can be making transfers directly to your bank account.”
I rub my forehead as I fill out my bank details on the blank sheet he has given me.
He says yes, “That’s it.”
Besides the figures that are missing from this cheque, I have mixed feelings about my first writer’s pay cheque. On the one hand, I am thrilled to have made a sale of my words. I am glad to have partially erased the scepticism I had of living off my art. On the other hand, there is the reality of how many miles this modest cheque can run.
Am I surprised? No. I had been warned about what to expect. Severally. But I ignored those warnings, just as a pregnant teen does. I dove into this headfirst and carried on as these sentences dictated, not bothering to fix a cautious eye on the (financial) consequences of my newfound pocket of freedom. Am I wiser now than I was before this found me? Yes I am. I have learnt not to have expectations – not of people, not of things, not of situations, not of consequences. Not even of Wanjama’s poker face. Expectations set you up for disappointment. And disappointment can be the reason why a man never makes it to the finishing line. The only person I allow to have expectations of is myself; which means that the only person who can truly disappointment me is myself.
That said, the one way this payday – after three months without one – can become acceptable is if it is taken with the levity it begs. So I laugh. I laugh as I start to take the stairs down to my desk. I get to the landing of the stairwell, pause for a second to finger the cheque and I continue to laugh. I look at the attached print out and remember the thrill of the first publish, now, several weeks later with this cheque in my name, and I break into a rib-cracking laugh. Oh. My. Goodness. I can’t even invite my pals to celebrate with me because I shall go home having ‘squandered’ all my month’s earnings. Sweet Jesus.
I get to my desk and gain some composure. Here’s what I will do: I will cash the cheque with glee. I will use most of it to buy myself a well-done steak dinner. I will wash it down with a bottle of Dolcetto d’Alba red wine. And I will make a toast to new beginnings. And after my lone meal, I will use whatever remains to call a cab home. Pray that there is something left.
I underscore Daft Punk’s philosophy. One of the band members said this of their new album, “We had the luxury to do things so many people cannot do, but it doesn’t mean that with luxury comes comfort.”