A Novel by Mira Steffan
The hollow cheeks, the black circles under her eyes, the hurried expression on her face. Justus didn’t like this at all. Charlotte worked too hard and too much. But when he spoke to her about it, she closed herself off like an oyster and immediately changed the subject. He saw her distress and could not help her. The wall between them had grown thicker and higher since her mother’s death. His marriage was tipping off the cliff in slow motion, and he stood by powerless.
His mobile phone rang.
Charlotte’s name showed up, “Justus, I just got a call from school. Emma’s cold has gotten worse. She’s not feeling well. Can you pick her up?”
“Good, great, because I’m in an important meeting. And you know I’ve got to get involved or Schneider will get the division director’s job. See you later.”
The line went dead.
Reluctantly, Justus got up from his desk, told his secretary and went to Emma.
Sunk in and with a running nose, Emma sat on the bench in the hallway outside the classroom door.
“Hello, my darling,” Justus took Emma in his arms, “come on, let’s go home. And there you’ll rest and you’ll feel better again soon”.
“Where’s Mama,” Emma looked miserably at Justus. His chest was tight with love for his child: “She’s in an important meeting. Come, at home I’ll make you some hot lemon tea first.”
Once there, Justus carried Emma upstairs, helped her undress and carefully put her to bed, tucked her in, gave her a kiss on the forehead, “I’ll be right back.”
In the kitchen, he turned on the kettle, squeezed a lemon, then picked up the phone, “Karl, do you have time? I had to pick Emma up from school. She has a cold and needs to rest. Charlotte is in an important meeting, and I have to get back to the office, too.”
“I’d love to come. But I’m at the doctor’s myself right now for a cold.”
“Oh, damn,” annoyed, Justus slumped down on the kitchen chair, “okay, Karl. I’ll think of something. Get well soon and take care of yourself. We need you.”
“Yeah, sure. I’m really sorry.”
“It’s okay.” Justus lowered the phone to the kitchen table and ran both hands through his thick blond hair. He’d just have to stay home, then. He called the office and asked his secretary to have his laptop brought home and to postpone all appointments for the rest of the week until the next. That way he could work and see to Emma. It would be all right for a day or two. And maybe Karl would be fit again and could take over Emma’s care.
8 p.m. Charlotte looked at her watch in amazement. She hadn’t noticed how quickly the time had passed. She listened. Only now did she notice that it was very quiet in the hallway. Was she the only one still working in the office? No, Schneider was probably still working, too. Good, then another hour. She wanted to be well prepared for the meeting with the power company tomorrow.
The computer was connected to the screen, and Heinze’s secretary had provided coffee and cookies. Another half hour. Charlotte checked her PowerPoint presentation one last time, took a pen and pad out of her bag – she was ready. Nervously, she strode around the meeting room. Emma came to her mind. This morning she had looked all huffy and miserable. The guilty conscience opened its greedy mouth. She shook her head vehemently. Stop. Stop. She had to concentrate on her lecture now. Justus was with her. All is well!
First Schneider came into the room, then Heinze, Kevin Meier, Peer Schuster and the four representatives of the power company. Things got underway. Charlotte took a deep breath and turned on the presentation.
An hour and a half later, it was done. Charlotte had presented the company’s position well, and the group’s offers were profitable. After saying goodbye to the interviewers, she concentrated on collecting her documents.
“Well done,” Heinze jovially patted her on the shoulder.
Pleased, Charlotte looked up as Schneider slid into her field of vision, “I’m glad I could help you decisively with the numbers.”
“What numbers,” Charlotte looked at Schneider in confusion. What did he have in mind?
“The ones for your presentation, of course.”
With a furrowed brow, Charlotte shook her head, “You gave me nothing.”
The exchange of words obviously irritated Heinze. For he looked back and forth between her and Schneider in alarm.
“Oh, then I must have mixed it up,” with a smug smile he turned through the door.
There was an uneasy feeling that increased when she looked at Heinze. She could see it clearly on his face. Schneider had succeeded in sowing doubt. Any further explanation would put her in the wrong and make things worse. It was her word against Schneider’s. Charlotte pressed her lips together, tucked her papers under her arm and hurried to her office. How could it be that her feeling of happiness turned into despondency within seconds?
“Mrs. Reimann,” Charlotte, who was on her way to the restroom in the late afternoon, turned around. Not ten steps away from her, she spotted Heinze with a young woman in tow.
“Wait. I’d like to introduce you to our new intern,” as he approached, he pointed to the confident-looking blonde in a tight-fitting cornflower blue suit and miniskirt, “this is Ricarda Baldus. She is studying economics and is doing a six-month internship with us,” Heinze said as she shook Ricarda Baldus’ hand and watched Heinze’s eyes, in which she recognized undisguised lust, crawl over the young woman’s figure and linger far too long on her bottom.
Charlotte was fascinated and repelled at the same time. There was nothing she could do about it. Her eyes took on a life of their own. Mockingly, they slid over Heinze’s considerable belly, which hung over his suit pants, his tonsure, and his wobbling double chin. Ricarda Baldus retaliated in her own way: “I’m looking forward to the work. I can certainly learn a lot here. And when I graduate in two years and you retire,” she turned to Heinze, “I can take over your post,” smiling innocently at him.
Charlotte almost laughed out loud at this clear rebuke. But she camouflaged it with a cough. Heinze looked at Ricarda Baldus, perplexed. Only when an office door opened did life come back into him: “Well, well,” he said in a mumble, “now let’s first see in which office there is still room for you. Mrs. Reimann, we can put Mrs. Baldus with you after all.”
Charlotte stumbled. But the following words found their way naturally: “No, that’s not possible. But surely you can find another solution. Mr. Schneider has a very large office, after all.” Charlotte exhaled with relief. Where she had gotten the courage to say that, she didn’t know, but she was very pleased with herself and patted herself on the back inwardly.
“Hmm, hmm,” Schneider went on, “I’ll have to think about that some more. Come on, Ms. Baldus. I’ll introduce you to the other colleagues.”
“Very good reaction,” Dorothea said when they met later for lunch and Charlotte told her about the encounter, “putting an intern in your office as a future department head, that’s just not on.”
“We’ll see. Let’s see if the promotion works out. Schneider’s really getting into it.”
“Then get more involved.”
On the way home, Charlotte thought about Dorothea’s words. Was that what she wanted? Hang in there? Get power? To trample over other people’s needs? To be ruthless, dominant and deceitful?
“I don’t understand the problem,” Susanne said on the phone a few days later. Charlotte had decided to talk to Susanne and ask for her assessment. Susanne was, after all, in the middle of her professional life, knew all about her, and had been her longest friend.
“What’s wrong with having power?” asked Susanne, “It depends on what you do with it. I think you equate power with oppression. Of course, power can lead to abuse and corrupt and make you a smug, bigoted idiot. If there are no checks and balances and you are a greedy asshole. But I don’t see those hazards with you. Power provides you with the capacity to tackle things, to make things happen, to get things going, and to flourish. I believe that power only brings forth qualities that are already inherent in a person. And you are a person who has the greater good in mind. That’s why I’m convinced you’ll operate altruistically after gaining authority.”
Pleased, Charlotte grinned to herself, “Thank you for your good opinion of who I seem to be”
“Well, it’s the truth,” Susanne said, and Charlotte heard her smile through the phone receiver. “My God Paul. Don’t scare me like that,” Susanne abruptly yelled into the receiver. Then Charlotte heard a giggle and Susanne’s breathless voice: “Paul has just come home and sneaked into my study,” again.
Charlotte heard giggles again, “Charlotte, I have to hang up. My husband…leave it Paul…. I’ll be in touch tomorrow or something. Bye.” Suddenly Susanne had hung up. Amused, Charlotte also hung up her phone and went into the bathroom. On her way there, she peeked into Emma’s nursery and listened at the doorstep. She heard Emma’s steady breathing. Calm descended on her thoughts. How peaceful everything was.
When she came out of the bathroom fifteen minutes later and went into her bedroom, everything was dark and quiet there, too. Justus, like Emma, was sound asleep. How relaxed and vulnerable he looked. Gently and very carefully, so as not to wake him, Charlotte stroked his cheek with the back of her fingers. She missed talking to him. When had this silence between them actually begun? Charlotte thought of the moments full of commitment and trust, when the strains of everyday life had not yet manifested themselves. And again the questions came to her mind: Was the promotion and all that it entailed really that important? Was it the right thing for her? Charlotte’s thoughts went in circles. She tried to take a look inside herself. But everything was tightening up. And any sense of feeling died away. Stunned, Charlotte lay down on her side of the marital bed and stared at the ceiling. What was wrong with her? She must have fallen asleep at some point. Because the screech of her alarm clock made her start up in her bed. 7 o’clock. Time to get up.
“Guess what? That’s when stupid Kurelski said, ‘My dear, you spoil your students far too much. You need to be more firm,” Pauline mimicked her colleague’s voice. “Then I said, “Ms. Kollegin, you let me worry about that,” Pauline continued.
She glanced cautiously at her wristwatch. Another ten minutes. Then she urgently had to go to the office. Actually, she had only stopped by her father’s house to pick up Emma’s gym bag, which they had forgotten to take with them yesterday. There she had met Pauline, who had brought her father some rolls for breakfast. Since Pauline’s class didn’t start until second period today, she had time. But Charlotte’s meeting started in half an hour.
Apparently Pauline didn’t notice Charlotte’s hurried look. For she continued talking in a chatty tone without interruption.
“I have to go,” Charlotte interrupted her after five minutes. Pauline ignored the interjection and continued with her narrative.
“Pauline, didn’t you hear what I said?”
“Yes, I did, but I suppose you can listen to me for a minute. That’s not too much to ask, is it? You’re always talking nonstop,” Pauline looked at her sister, offended.
The unfair reproach made Charlotte aggressive from one moment to the next: “You’re stupid. You’re the chatterbox in the family.”
Angrily, the sisters looked at each other. Charlotte was the first to avert her eyes.
“I have to go,” hastily she yanked open the front door, slamming it behind her more than necessary, and jumped into her car.