Anjali’s Red Scarf Ch. 09

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Chapter 9: Wood For Sheep

January is my favourite time to work. It’s so quiet while everybody else is off on holiday, and I can get stuff done without constant distraction. It was especially welcome the year we joined Preussler-Kennedy, giving me the chance to settle into the new office without having to deal with all the new people at the same time.

Change, as I may have said, is bad. Our acquisition by P-K meant I had to get used to a new commute, find five new places to buy lunch, and get to grips with all the small and not-so-small differences between the old work and the new. OwKeMa had been pretty informal about administrative stuff, as small businesses often are. P-K had an official system for everything from stationery orders to getting a flickering light fixed. That wasn’t so bad—I like systems—but there was a lot to learn.

The toughest part was getting my head around my new responsibilities. During the Christmas party Lincoln had talked to me about reorganising the Technical Specialties teams to align the work we were bringing in with P-K’s existing projects. By that stage in the evening I was in autistic overload, unable to take in more than half of what he was saying, but I didn’t want to show weakness and I’ve never been great at saying no. So I’d nodded and agreed to everything he said. Some people wake after Christmas parties with hangovers; me, I woke to find myself “Director – Logistics Projects”.

This meant that as well as the scheduling and warehousing work that I’d brought over from OwKeMa, I was now responsible for something to do with freight tracking and supply chain management, topics I knew next to nothing about. In the space of three months, I’d gone from being responsible only for myself, to running two different teams totalling eight people, something for which I was far from prepared.

I spent a large chunk of January buried in documentation about SKUs and inventory management software and a hundred other things, trying to get to grips with what my new team was doing and how it all worked. Every time I felt like I was starting to understand the tracking work, I found myself losing my grasp on the important details of the warehousing side of things, and every time I refreshed myself on the warehousing work I found the tracking stuff slipping through my fingers once more.

Normally I would have vented to Anjali about it all, but she was away on another family visit to Mumbai. We rarely managed to be online at the same time together—time zones didn’t help—and every time I tried to write an email to her I ended up second-guessing myself, feeling silly for complaining about something that anybody else would’ve considered a success.

* * * * *

Lucy returned from holidays in early January, and promptly appointed herself my tour guide to the neighbourhood around our office. Every Tuesday and Thursday, when our schedules synced up, she’d drop by my desk. “Are you doing anything for lunch? Come on, I’ll show you a little place…”

She knew a lot of little places. I followed her down cobbled laneways and up narrow staircases to one eatery after another, well-hidden places that I would never have found on my own in a month of exploration. Dumpling houses, Italian cafés, tapas joints, sushi parlours, you name it: most of them priced for students and all of them delicious enough for me to overlook the break in my routine.

Every time she’d ask me how I was settling in, and I’d tell her “not bad”, and then we’d chat about inconsequential things. Until one day, as I was cautiously sticking a spoon into a bowl of dumplings swimming in an orange-red haze of chili oil, she asked a follow-up question.

“Sarah, if you’ll excuse me asking, when you say ‘not bad’ what does that mean to you?”

“It, uh.” I had to think for a moment. It was one of my scripts, the default answer to a how-are-you. Sometimes we get so used to the mask that we forget that it’s possible to take it off. “To be honest, I feel a little bit out of my depth. There’s just too much to keep track of and I’m doing my head in.”

“The new team?”

“Uh-huh.” I’d just eaten a dumpling and I could feel my lips tingling from the oil. “I’m taking on this project I haven’t worked on before, and…”

In between mouthfuls of flavoursome incendiary, I monologued at her about my woes. She nodded along for most of it, just asking a question here and there, and when I stopped for a drink to soothe my mouth she leaned forward a little.

“Is this your first time managing people?”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

“Smack me down if I’m out of line, but… Sarah, I’ve only known you a little while, but I hear you’re scary smart. I get the impression you’re really good with details, and you’re a perfectionist. Am I wrong?”

I shrugged, shook my head slowly. I’m no good at accepting compliments, but all those things had been mentioned by my previous bosses more than once, and I took some pride in them.

“Can I give you some advice?”

“Okay?” I replied.

“I know you’re a giant güvenilir canlı bahis siteleri shiny brain and I love that, but it’s also a kind of a trap. People like you, you’re so good at the details and you get praised for it, so you get the message that it’s always going to be your pathway to success. But that only goes so far. You’re still human. If they give you more and more responsibility, eventually you can’t be on top of all the details, and if you try to do that you’ll just break yourself.”

I coughed as a trickle of chili seared its way down my throat. “So… what then? How can I manage my team’s work if I don’t understand it?”

“You need to understand some of it, but not all of it. Understand the big picture, but beyond that… you have to learn to trust your team. Not blind trust, it doesn’t mean you walk away from it and leave them without guidance, but you need to give up some of that control and let them do their bit. They might not do it the same way you do it, they might not be as perfectionist as you about it. All that matters is whether they can do it well enough. You’re there to help them when they get stuck and help them get better at what they do, not to hover over their shoulders trying to do it all for them. My rule of thumb is, when you’re feeling a little bit guilty and wondering if you’re delegating too much work to your reports, that probably means you’re delegating about the right amount.”

I toyed with another dumpling, watching the oil swirl in the bowl. “That seems… I don’t know if I’m good at that. It’s hard to know how much I need to know.”

“Of course it is. Nobody’s born good at managing teams, it’s a skill that needs to be learned. Give yourself permission to suck for a little while. Speaking of learning, you know we have training courses for this?”

“We do?”

“Oh yes. Let me fill you in…”

She talked me through the intricacies of the corporate training programs, and halfway through I asked her to stop for a moment so I could take notes. Then we strolled back to the office together. My head was buzzing, and I was far outside my comfort zone, but for the first time in weeks I didn’t feel absolutely doomed.

* * * * *

Late in January, about a week before Anjali was due back, my phone woke me at one in the morning at the end of a weekend. It was an overseas call from a number I didn’t recognise. I was about to drop the call when I blearily remembered that 91 was the country code for India.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Sarah?” There was noise in the background. It sounded as if she was somewhere crowded, but there was also an engine rumbling and traffic.

“Anjali? What’s up? Are you okay?”

“I’m okay.” I knew the cadences of her speech well enough to tell she wasn’t. “Sarah, can I borrow some money? I promise I’ll pay it back as soon as I can. I’ve got some saved up, I just can’t access it in a hurry.”

“Sure. What do you need?”

What she needed was a ticket back to Melbourne as soon as possible. She was already in a bus on her way to Mumbai Airport, with her phone battery on twenty percent, and for reasons that she wouldn’t discuss in front of strangers she couldn’t or wouldn’t use the return ticket her parents had bought. I figured she’d tell me when she was ready.

Neither of us was sure how long it would take a money transfer to clear, so in the end we agreed that I’d buy the ticket for her and send through the details and the bill. By the time I’d done that it was three in the morning. I went back to bed, but I was wide awake, my mind whirring through every conceivable scenario that might explain the evening’s drama. I wanted to help, and I didn’t know how.

In the end I decided that if I couldn’t fix the situation, I could at least do something nice for Anjali. If I had my time zones right, she’d be arriving at the airport in the evening, with her flight not due until mid-morning the next day. Remembering my Dutch trip, I thought—why not upgrade her ticket, so she could at least stay in the business lounge and have a little bit of space and quiet on the flight?

Perhaps it was a silly plan. It was a lot of money for a few hours’ comfort—I could’ve booked a week in a decent hotel for the cost of an upgrade to business—and I would have balked at spending that much on myself. But I needed to do something, and this was something, and I couldn’t think of anything else so I did it. Then, having impulsively spent a couple of thousand dollars in the small hours of the morning, I went back to bed and finally managed to fall asleep.

I woke to two messages from her. The first: You shouldn’t have.

The second, sent several hours later: But thank you. Business lounge is nice. Got to switch off now, ttyl.

She was due to get in early Tuesday morning, and after some consideration I texted her back: Want me to meet you at the airport? My protective mode had been triggered, and after several weeks of almost no contact I was suddenly feeling her absence.

There was no reply. I wasn’t sure if she’d received güvenilir illegal bahis siteleri my message. Unsure whether to take her silence as yes or no, I waited until four p.m. before making my apologies at work and arranging to take the Tuesday off. I got up early and caught the Skybus to International, and waited at the exit point from Customs.

Several flights had landed more or less together, and the queue was badly backed up. I waited for almost an hour before at last the Mumbai passengers started to trickle through. Mercifully, Anjali was among the first of them. She had her head down, and from her shock when I hailed her I realised she hadn’t seen my message.

“Sarah?” She didn’t seem pleased or displeased to see me, just confused.

“Hey. I sent you a message but I don’t think you got it. I was worried about you.”

“Oh, sorry,” she mumbled. “I had my phone switched off.”

“Battery?”

She shook her head. I waited for her to elaborate, but when no elaboration was forthcoming I said, “We’re blocking traffic here. If you want to talk, you’re welcome to come by my place. I’ve got the day off. Or I can just head home and we catch up later…?”

“Sorry. Can’t think. Give me a moment.” She pulled her suitcase into a corner, out of the traffic, and then took out her phone, swapped over her SIM card, and powered it up. After a while the screen came on. A moment later: buzz-buzz-buzz-buzz-buzz. I could see a host of message notifications.

She muttered something that sounded suspiciously like “fuck”, and powered the phone off again. “Sorry. Yes, maybe I will stop by yours, actually. I don’t want to be findable just now.”

We took a taxi back. She sat in the back seat, fiddling restlessly with a pen, while I rode next to the driver, who was in a chatty mood and hadn’t noticed that we weren’t. I did my best to deflect him from bothering Anjali, who remained almost silent, and eventually managed to steer him onto the topic of roadworks, which kept him occupied until we arrived back at my place.

It had been some hours since Anjali had eaten, and I hadn’t breakfasted, so I made us some muffins. She sat quietly at my table, still rolling her pen between her fingers, until food was ready. Only after eating did she speak again.

“Sarah, can you do me a favour?”

“Sure?”

She switched on her phone. “Can you please go through my unread messages and delete anything from my family? I can’t deal with reading them and I don’t want them sitting on my phone.”

“Okay…?”

She handed me her phone and I did what she had asked. There were a lot of messages. Most of them looked to be from her parents, and those were in Hindi. In among them were a few others from names I vaguely recognised as family members, and a couple from her brother Mahesh in English. I deleted them as quickly as I could, but couldn’t help reading a few:

hey A where r u?

sis u got to call mum and dad

not funny A they’re going mental here

“I had a fight with my parents,” she said flatly. “They said some things. I said some things. I couldn’t stand it any longer so I came home.”

“Aw.” I touched her shoulder gently, unsure whether to offer a hug.

“It wouldn’t have been so bad if I could get away from them at all but we were sharing a room and they just kept pressuring me.” She was stimming with the pen again.

“What about?”

“Oh, everything. All my life choices. The degree, my lack of interest in getting married, did I mention Mahesh is engaged so now it’s officially my turn, my moving to Melbourne. Then Mama said if I wasn’t looking to marry and wasn’t going to pursue a proper career then maybe I should look at moving in with them after I finish my doctorate. It’s a thing she does, she makes it sound like she’s doing me a favour, but… neither of them are getting any younger, if I move back with them I’ll be taking care of them for the rest of their lives. I’ve seen it happen so many times. Is that selfish of me?”

I shook my head.

“I told them I plan to live alone and they said I was ungrateful. She called me andar se gora, it means ‘white on the inside’, said I must be ashamed of them from the way I behave.”

She was twiddling the pen furiously, staring into space. “Oh, Sarah, I do love them, but… god. They just don’t understand. I don’t think they will ever understand.” At that point the pen flew out of her hand and clattered on the floor. She stared after it, and I handed her one of mine.

“They’re right, I’m too white for the family, but who was it sent me to a school full of white girls? And I’m still too brown for the white people and I’m too weird for the normal people and I’m too brown and female for the weird people. Fuck! I just, I just… and they think I want to not belong anywhere?”

She set my pen aside—wrong weight, wrong texture perhaps, I don’t know—and I clasped her hand. “I got really angry and I think I burned some bridges. Then I grabbed my bag and went for the airport. When I got there, güvenilir bahis şirketleri once I had my ticket, I left them a message saying I was going to be out of touch for a while and then I switched off my phone. Sorry I missed your message.”

“It’s okay.”

“I just want to be in my apartment and not talk to anybody for a week. But I know my parents, they won’t let up until I talk to them again, if they can’t reach me on the phone they’ll have somebody knocking on my door. Sarah, is it okay if I stay here for a couple of days?”

“Always.”

“Not… working, I mean. Just staying here.”

“Yes. Of course.” I tried to remember what one says to houseguests. “Do you need to do laundry?”

“As a matter of fact, I do…”

We threw her clothes into the washing machine. She was yawning and swaying as she separated the colours, and I realised she was exhausted. “Feel free to use my room if you want to crash out for a few hours. I’ll set you up on the sofa later.”

“You’re the best. I was hoping to push through until evening but… not going to happen. Didn’t sleep at the airport, not much on the plane either.” She wobbled up the stairs and closed the door behind her, leaving me alone to wonder what might come next.

I didn’t have to wonder for long. Mrs Kapadia phoned not ten minutes later, trying to find out what I knew and where Anjali was. She obviously didn’t want to admit to what had happened, so I put on my best chirpy voice and asked a series of innocent questions – I had thought Anjali wasn’t due back for another week? Was everything all right? Should we call the police? That succeeded in discomfiting Mrs K enough that she didn’t quiz me too hard—just as well, I’ve never been good at outright lying—and I promised her that if I heard from Anjali I’d pass on a message.

Anjali emerged at about two, and I dutifully relayed the message. She rolled her eyes.

“I love them, I really do. But they don’t even believe I’m autistic and when I try to tell them what I need, they just think I’m being difficult. Sometimes I think I should just find some nice gay Brahmin boy who’s up for a lavender marriage. But it probably wouldn’t…” She shook her head, trailing off.

“You okay?” I asked.

“Just thinking… I think maybe one day they’re going to finally understand that I can’t be the daughter they want me to be, and I don’t know what happens then. I’m scared that I’m going to lose them altogether.”

I hugged her; she hesitated for a few seconds, and then leant into the hug, hard, and started to cry. I patted her shoulder in the slow, stupid way one does when confronted with another person’s distress and unable to solve it.

Eventually she said, “Well, I’d better get my things out of the wash”.

As we were hanging up her underthings, I asked her, “Is there anything I can do?”

“I don’t think so. Well, to be blunt, the money helps. At least I’m not financially dependent on them. Beyond that… I don’t know what I need. If I figure it out, I’ll tell you.”

We ended up getting pizza—she insisted on paying her half—and chilling out on the sofa watching a Bollywood film on my cable while Anjali rattled off the names and histories of every actor to appear in shot. I was vaguely aware that she had a group of Desi girlfriends who’d go see the latest Indian releases together, but it wasn’t something I’d seen first-hand before, and as she talked I realised this was a comfort thing for her, like me tracing the lines of my tattoo.

Before Cassie died, she and Mum and John and I used to watch crime shows together. It was a topic of amazement for them that I—socially oblivious, the girl most likely to be hoodwinked by any passing liar—could usually pick the villain within about fifteen minutes into a one-hour show. At the time I couldn’t explain to them how I did it, but now I understand better: every show has its rules. Chekhov’s Gun, the seemingly inconsequential dialogue that must be significant or they wouldn’t have put it in, the person who has no obvious motive or opportunity for murder and must therefore be the murderer… it’s nice when you understand the rules. The hero and heroine will find a happy ever after (though if you’re queer, not so much); the guy with a guilty conscience will get the opportunity to redeem himself, though it’ll cost him his life; the murderer will face justice of one kind or another. Every pain and every joy fits into the bigger picture; it all makes sense in the end.

Nothing like real life, where so often the gun goes unfired, the happy ending never arrives, the murderer dies old and rich and comfortable. After Cassie died, well-meaning people told us “everything happens for a reason”, and I half burned out my brain trying to understand what that reason was, before I came to understand the lie.

Anjali had her laptop out, and as we watched I noticed she had a spreadsheet open. I didn’t mean to pry, but it’s hard not to look, and what I saw puzzled me. It was a list of names—some I recognised as friends of hers—and dates, highlighted mostly in reds and oranges, with several columns of other data and text. She had the spreadsheet sorted from reddest to greenest; every so often, she would pull out her phone, and do something with it, and then she’d edit the spreadsheet and one of the red entries would turn green.

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