Sorry, I have to go

Agnès Martin-Lugand

Translated by Sandra Smith

 

 

– 1 –

            For four months, I’d been twiddling my thumbs: long live the Internships after graduation! Looking back on it, I better understood why I managed to find this one at the last minute. Unlike all my friends at business school who were prepared to work themselves to death, I hadn’t looked for one with the idea of working like a dog to win my first permanent contract. I was a fan of making the least effort possible and I knew what I liked: working with my two languages – French and English – and helping people to communicate with each other. I loved to talk. No one in the world could talk more than me. Because I’d stuck my nose in the directory of my school’s alumni, I happened to come across details of the agency of interpreters in the business sector. I’d sent in my Resume, had an interview with the boss’ assistant, and the problem had been solved. But quite frankly, who else would have wanted this cushy job to get their diploma? I must have been the only one to find it interesting since it was the “photocopying internship” par excellence, without a penny’s pay, while the others were earning a little money each month. The advantages – not insubstantial: no responsibilities whatsoever, no requirement to wear a suit, no late nights either, and the chance to get free coffee and meet up with my little group of friends for Happy Hour! In another life, I might have found it interesting to work there as I was bilingual.

            I was hung-over that day. We’d partied all night and I’d barely managed to get two hours sleep on my sister’s awful sofa bed whose springs had torn my back apart. Even though I arrived an hour late, I seemed to have succeeded in going unnoticed as I went to hide in the closet they called my office. In the afternoon, while I was fighting to stay awake, the boss’ secretary, clicking her tarty high heeled shoes, came toward me, a devilish smile on her face; this frustrated woman was going to offload some of her work on me, again.      

“Go and bring coffees to Bertrand’s office.”

            “I can’t. Can’t you see I’m busy?”

            “Really?”

            She smiled in a nasty way and looked at her manicured nails before nonchalantly continuing:

            “Oh, in that case, as soon as you finish your important job, there are five files that need binding; I’m not going to have time to do them.”

            What a pain! I’m really useless with the binding machine. I leaned my head to the side and smiled back at her as inanely as she smiled at me.

            “OK! I’ll make the coffee; that makes more sense because when you make it’s disgusting. We wouldn’t want to upset the boss.”

            Annoyed, stiff as a board, she stared at me as I got up and made a nasty face at her, sticking out my tongue.

            Ten minutes later I was carrying a tray and concentrating so I wouldn’t fall in front of everyone.

I pushed the boss’ door open with my butt and sighed; the smell of tequila hit me. I still stank of alcohol from the night before.

            I went into the room, secretly taking a peek at the four men in suits and ties. Their serious, self-conscious expressions made me want to laugh. I put a cup down in front of each of them. You’d think I was invisible: not one of them leaned over to say “thank you” for my impeccable service. I stopped for a few seconds, still waiting for my Brownie points and took advantage of the time to listen to what they were saying; my curiosity was aroused. Were they trying to solve the problem of world hunger which made them incapable of the slightest show of courtesy? At first sight, no. On the other hand, the boss has just royally screwed up by confusing two English homonyms. And he calls himself an interpreter! I have to teach them everything! Without a moment’s hesitation, I took the three steps that separated us, put my hand on his shoulder and proudly whispered a solution to his mistake. His fingers tapped nervously the wooden table.     

“Get out!” he hissed, giving me a nasty look

            I leapt back, smiled awkwardly at all of them and rushed out of the room as if my pants were on fire. As soon as the office door had closed behind me, I leaned against it, sighing and laughing. Good. At least he knew I existed now. But my God, I’m such an ass! I have to learn to keep my mouth shut sometimes.      

Two months later I was finally about to be free! This damned internship was coming to an end. Still, certain conversations I’d listened to from behind closed doors – I had to keep myself busy after all – had aroused my interest. The boss and his three interpreters were like oil magnates to their clients – the smart set in the business world – and their job seemed thrilling. From what I had understood, they met lots of interesting people from all different sectors. That was attractive to me, to say the least: it excited me. Anyway… just a few more minutes and I’d be on vacation. And I could finally start preparations for my big plan, which I hadn’t yet told to anyone. I wanted to take a year off and go backpacking around the four corners of the earth before thinking about any kind of professional future. I wanted to see different countries, meet people, enjoy life and, most especially, have a good time. At 6:00, I picked up the certificate confirming I had completed the internship from the boss’ frustrated secretary and I was ready to leave. I took one last look around my closet, hesitating whether I should pocket a few pens and notepad.

            “You, the intern. In my office!”

            I jumped. What did the big boss want from me? One thing was sure: I wasn’t going to be given a little check to thank me for my good and loyal service. Ever since my stunt, I’d kept my head down any time our paths had crossed, preferring to avoid being shouted at again. What was I getting myself into now? When I went into his office, the big man was typing frenetically on his keyboard. I stood up in front of his desk without really knowing what I should do, wringing my hands, feeling totally ridiculous for the first time and out of place in my magnificent Puma sneakers with my red hair loose and wild.

            “Don’t just stand there!” he said, without looking up.

            I sat down on the edge of an armchair opposite him. Still not looking at me, he continued:

            “It’s your last day here, or so I’m told, and you’ve finished your studies.”

            “Yep, Sir.”      

He scowled when he heard me call him “Sir”. Did he have a problem about his age? Deep down, I really felt like laughing! Ah, the middle age crisis!

            “I’ll expect you here on Monday at 9:00.”

            For the first time, he deigned to look at me.

            “Why?” I replied, without even realizing it.

            He raised one eyebrow, dubiously.

            “I doubt you’ve already found work somewhere else. Am I wrong?”

            He was offering me a job, and what’s more, he wasn’t kidding! I couldn’t understand it. I wriggled around on my seat. Why me? I’d done absolutely nothing for six months, apart from that wonderful blunder!

            “You can go now.”

            “Uh… um… OK… thank you,” I finally managed to say with a tense little smile.

I stood up from my chair, feeling as if everything was happening in slow motion, then walked to the door. But just as my hand was on the doorknob, he called me back:

“Yaël!”

Well, well, he knows my name.

 

“Yes.”

            “Three things: two pieces of advice and one question. The advice to start with: don’t you ever repeat what you did to me last time, and apply yourself to the work.”

How horrible, I’d just been given a warning, like at school!

“I promise,” I replied, trying to look upset.

“The question: how did you get so competent at English?”

I stood up tall like a little rooster ready for a fight and gave him a predatory smile.

“I was born that way!”

He raised one eyebrow. Was he stupid or what? You had to explain everything to old people.

“My mother is English. My father went to England to finish his studies in architecture…”

“Fine. Spare me the story of your grandmother and pet hamster, that’s all I need to know. And you’ll learn more about your job next week. Have a good weekend, and don’t forget, on Monday, don’t be late! I will not tolerate any lateness whatsoever from now on. And for goodness sake, wear some decent clothes…”

– 2 –

Ten years later…

            The carpeted hallway had one advantage: by silencing the sound of my high heels as I paced up and down, the migraine caused by my sister wasn’t getting any worse. I replied to her in monosyllables, to save my energy, while she continued to whine, clearly refusing to take into account how much of my time she was wasting. I had a meeting to go to, and Alice, who couldn’t understand that I might still be working at 7:30PM, had been talking non-stop for five minutes, absolutely insisting that I come over to her place. Impossible to get rid of her!

            “Yaël, please, come over and have dinner with us, the children are asking for you. We haven’t seen you in weeks.”

            I raised my eyes to the heavens while gritting my teeth.

            “How many times do I have to explain it to you? I have to…”

            “Work,” she cut in, frustrated and annoyed. “Yes, I know! That’s the only word that ever comes out of your mouth!”

            As if I didn’t know! If she had really understood, she wouldn’t have called me to talk about her kids! I stopped walking and clenched my fist.

            “Exactly, and now, you’re making me late! I have to go. Speak to you later.”

            I hung up before she could get another word in. I breathed in deeply to calm myself down and recover the concentration I needed. Once my heart stopped beating so fast, I headed for the conference room and pushed open the door, looking as impassive as possible.

            “Sorry, I was delayed.”

            They replied with a nod while I took my place next to the happy British purchaser of some failing factory in the countryside. His French lawyers, like him, were gloating over the terrible terms they were imposing on its soon-to-be former owner. That didn’t concern me. I sat down to his left, slightly behind him, crossed my legs and leaned forward to be as close to his face as possible. From then on, the lawyers’ words entered my ears in French and emerged from my mouth in English, in a slight whisper. To tell the truth, I had no idea what the words meant, the meaning was secondary to me, my job was to transmit the information and nothing else. The situation and what was at stake meant little: I had to be able to translate any kind of business the agency was hired for.

            Two hours later, the contracts were initialed and signed. Weary, but relieved and satisfied smiles appeared on all the faces around me. My head was pounding but I had to accompany them to the bar in their hotel where the negotiations had taken place to drink to their success. When one of the lawyers handed me a glass of champagne with a flirtatious wink, I gave him my coldest stare; I was just there to work. What was he thinking? I wasn’t for sale. Men like him sometimes assumed that because we had spent several hours together sitting around a conference table, the fees for an interpreter included a blow job. Poor guy! My day was nearly over; they were capable of communicating with each other from now on without my services; they all spoke English well enough to congratulate each other on having made such a good deal. I took a tiny sip of champagne out of sheer politeness, asked the barman to call me a taxi, put down my glass and turned toward the group of self-satisfied men. I shook hands with them and headed for the exit. Sean, the British client, caught up with me as I reached the revolving door of the hotel. I let out a long sigh before turning to face him. I remained professional to the end, as always.