A Novel by Mira Steffan
The large conference room was full of people standing closely together, each holding a glass of champagne. It was Günter Heinze’s celebration for his 60th birthday and the company anniversary. Charlotte was glad she had found Dorothea amidst the crowd because she didn’t feel comfortable with the stiff and formal atmosphere. Three colleagues she had never seen before stood behind her, too close for comfort.
“Have you seen the intern from the Controlling Department?” one of the three asked.
Charlotte perked up, listening.
“You mean Baldus?” another voice replied.
“Yeah, she’s cute. I wouldn’t mind spending some time with her.”
“I’m getting all excited just thinking about it.”
Dorothea looked at Charlotte, rolled her eyes, and whispered, “Doesn’t surprise me. I know their wives. Let’s just say there’s a difference between appearance and reality.”
Before Charlotte could reply, the official part of the celebration began. After enduring four very long speeches, with Heinze listening with a touched expression, the buffet was finally opened, and queues quickly formed.
“Can’t we sneak away and eat somewhere else in peace, without the crowd and the small talk pressure?” Dorothea asked.
“That wouldn’t look good. Besides, Heinze is my boss. I can’t just disappear,” Charlotte said, shaking her head vehemently.
“Too bad,” said Dorothea, linking arms with Charlotte, and together they headed towards the end of a queue.
There, a colleague was pompously telling a female colleague about his last vacation, fake laughing, and clearly thinking he was incredibly funny, while she gave him a disgusted look that he seemed to misinterpret, as he continued talking to her undeterred.
Dorothea followed Charlotte’s gaze. “These big talkers are hilarious, aren’t they?”
Charlotte chuckled to herself. “It’s always entertaining to observe the behavior of a peacock.”
After the meal and enduring 333 small talk conversations, Charlotte’s jaw hurt from constant smiling. She discreetly checked her watch; she had been here for over two hours. She looked around, unable to spot Schuster anywhere. Glancing at Dorothea, who stood at a nearby high table chatting with an older woman in a tailored suit, Charlotte walked around the table and was introduced by Dorothea as an old acquaintance from university days. They chatted for a while until Dorothea’s acquaintance excused herself to talk to Heinze.
“Let’s go. The most important boss is gone, and I have a lot of work on my desk,” Charlotte whispered.
“Finally. We’ve been here long enough,” Dorothea grimaced.
Back at her desk, Charlotte sorted through her mail and quickly reviewed the construction plans and costs for the new building. She lost track of time. When she looked up because it had gotten dark and she wanted to turn on her desk lamp, she noticed her blinking phone. Justus had sent her a message over an hour ago.
“I left work a bit early today and picked up Emma from Karl’s. I’m taking care of dinner. Emma and I are in the mood for lasagna. I’ll make a salad to go with it. I’ll be done with dinner around 8 p.m. How does that work for you?”
Startled, Charlotte glanced at her watch. It was 7:45 p.m. She could make it. She quickly typed her reply: “I wasn’t paying attention to the time. I’m heading home now. Looking forward to seeing you both.”
Feeling rushed, she arrived home. As soon as she stepped into the hallway, Emma ran out from the kitchen, excitedly recounting their cooking adventure, while Charlotte was still standing there in her coat and boots by the coat rack. In that moment, what Charlotte longed for most was a few minutes of quiet to take off her things, wash her hands, and catch her breath. But Emma’s joy couldn’t be contained, and Charlotte reminded herself not to react irritably and destroy her enthusiasm.
“Sweetie, wait a moment. I need to take off my coat and boots first, then you can continue telling me,” she said calmly, placing her handbag on the chair beside the coat rack.
“Can I take your bag upstairs to your bedroom?” Emma asked eagerly and hyper.
“Sure, go ahead. Where’s Dad?”
“In the kitchen. He’s chopping onions for the salad,” Emma called out as she ran upstairs with Charlotte’s handbag.
After washing her hands and slipping into her slippers, Charlotte opened the kitchen door.
“Hello, handsome chef,” she said, giving him a kiss on the cheek.
Justus smiled at her with red eyes. “Hello, love. I’m almost done. Just need to chop the tomatoes. Emma already set the table. Our wine glasses are on the counter. I opened the wine bottle ten minutes ago,” he said, nodding in the direction of the counter.
Charlotte felt the tension leave her. She reached for a glass, poured wine into both glasses, handed one to Justus, and clinked it with his. Savoring the sweet wine on her tongue, she observed Justus, who was finishing chopping the last onion. This is how life should always be.
“By the way, Julia was here today and brought the painting for Emma. I hid it on the top shelf in our wardrobe. It’s a wonderful piece,” Justus mentioned.
Charlotte, about to put her glass back, froze in the middle of the movement. “Emma just took my bag to our bedroom. I hope she doesn’t peek into our wardrobe.”
“Nonsense, why would she? Besides, the shelf is too high for her height,” Justus reassured.
“I’ll go and check just to be safe,” Charlotte said, ready to leave the kitchen, when Emma skipped into the room.
“I put your bag away,” she announced, then turned to her father. “Can I help you with something?”
“Sure, can you please chop the rest of the tomatoes?” he replied.
After Emma finally fell asleep, and the dishes were loaded into the dishwasher, Charlotte went upstairs to her bedroom and opened the wardrobe. She carefully lifted Julia’s painting off the shelf, placed it on a chair, and admired it. Julius was right. It was beautiful. So young and already so talented, she thought wistfully. Julia was doing things right: learning the craft at a young age and developing her talent. Charlotte had never been as good as Julia, but the engagement with colors brought her joy and inner peace. Dorothea was right. She should see it as a hobby. Her skill lay in the business field.
That night, she dreamt of her college years, but curiously, she wasn’t studying business administration; she was studying art history.
Charlotte jolted awake when Bärbel Grüntal entered her office and placed the folder of documents on her desk. She had gotten lost in daydreams and had been browsing through the art history program at the University of Bonn on her computer. Quickly, she minimized the window and turned her attention to Frau Grüntal.
“Thank you. I’ll go through it right away,” Charlotte said.
Frau Grüntal mumbled something unintelligible and left again.
As soon as the door closed behind her, Charlotte maximized the image and clicked through the examination regulations and the various subject areas. There was so much that interested her. Perhaps it could be something for her retirement. Charlotte took a deep breath and then turned her focus to the folder.