Redolence



I wasn’t crazy about Matilda, but I adored meetings in her office. Her desk was always almost bare, her In-Box nearly empty. The framed posters hanging on her wall were never askew. Like her person, the room was pristine. When I sat in one of the royal blue, lightly padded chairs that surrounded her small teak conference table, I felt serene.

Maybe it was the tea. Matilda was the only person in our unit, maybe in our entire multinational corporation, our entire Sixth Avenue skyscraper, to keep a silver tea tray on her credenza. The tray held a porcelain pot and sugar bowl bedecked with blue and yellow posies. Tins of tea leaves, a strainer and a dish of thin lemon slices completed the tableau. If there were visitors from our London or Delhi office, a tiny pitcher of milk appeared.

She didn’t offer tea to everyone; you knew where you stood with Matilda by whether or not that offer came your way. And, it might come on one day and not another. She was given to ‘moods.’ On a good day, Matilda poured a fragrant cup of lemon balm into your delicate cup, or perhaps hibiscus or rosehips, and it was all you could do to stay awake for the meeting at hand.

She, herself, never drank the tea, not that we ever witnessed, which caused talk of a possible ploy meant to keep her teammates less able to outperform her. Alas, the members of our team actually were opponents, one-upping one another at every turn, fighting for supremacy in the eyes of our higher-ups, who also preferred to meet in Matilda’s office, to sip her tea, to inhale the subtle fragrance of the lotion she applied to her hands several times a day, an exotic floral and spice blend that permeated the room and pleasured the senses of all but the most allergic of us.

I last saw Matilda on the day before our budget forecasts were due. I didn’t actually see her, because she told her assistant to cancel any scheduled meetings and kept her door closed. This was disconcerting. I needed a cup of tea and a whiff of her fragrance to calm my nerves; budgeting was my short suit.

I rang for the express elevator to the lobby, where a vast Starbucks franchise operated, and took my tea there. As an afterthought, I plucked a paper-wrapped scone from a tray on the counter and carried it up to Matilda’s office, knocking timidly on her door. No answer. I rapped lightly again.

“Yes.” I heard.

“Just me, Matilda. I have something for you.”

“Slide it under the door.”

“That’s not possible.” The scone had a redolence of its own, and I decided to abandon my good intentions and eat it myself. “Never mind,” I called. “I’ll come back later.” As I walked away, I sensed that Matilda cracked open the door to see what I was carrying, having second thoughts, I surmised, in case my delivery was budget-related and vital to her task-at-hand.

The scone was delicious—raspberry—the tea had settled me, and I dug into my work, blocking out the world until, at around noon, the hall outside my office took on an air of Pamplona in July. “What’s happening?” I called, as the herd rushed by. Someone shouted back, “Matilda!” I waited a moment, then sauntered after them with utmost nonchalance.

The door to Matilda’s empty office was open. It was not like her to leave without locking her door. Had something terrible happened? I didn’t even know if she had children. Was she married? Perhaps a parent had died. I vowed to introduce some details about my personal life in our next conversation, with the hope that she would do the same.

I elbowed my way through the crowd and saw that Matilda’s desk was bare, save the In-Box and telephone. Her empty chair was turned toward the wide window with its unobstructed view of the Empire State Building, which had always enchanted me. The credenza was bare, the tea tray gone. Matilda’s scent was gone, too, obliterated by the bodies that filled the room: creatives from my department, assistants, bookkeepers, tech men. They had always longed to be inside and now, finally, they were. “It’s past noon,” I said, in as stern a voice as I could muster. “Shouldn’t you be having lunch?” They filed out reluctantly and I followed, closing the door behind me.

My voice mail alert was flashing when I returned to my office and there were several frantic messages from my boss’s secretary. “Hey, Arlene. What’s up?”

“You’re wanted on 27 immediately.”

I had a lunch date for one o’clock, and quickly cancelled, then headed down to the 27th floor, where the honchos resided. An ashen Arlene showed me into the office of George Duncan, the executive vice president of our division. “Hey, George. What’s up?” I asked, curious about the odd goings-on.

George indicated a chair and I sat. He opened a file that lay on his desk and pointed to the letterhead of his boss, the CEO of U.S. operations whom I had met once in Matilda’s office.

“I had hoped Matilda would do this, but she’s goddamned disappeared,” said George. He read: “After an intensive review of the last six quarters, the decision has been made to shutter the lowest-performing divisions worldwide.”

“Los Angeles, for sure,” I interrupted.

“For sure,” said George, then continued. “Leases and contracts will not be renewed. Urgent projects in motion will be assumed by other units. Please inform your staffs of this decision and the need to vacate your premises, effective immediately.” He closed the folder and stared at the building beyond his window. “And New York, too.”

I followed his gaze. It had always seemed odd to me that George’s spacious corner office was on the 27th floor, while Matilda had that sublime unobstructed view of the most important city in the world, the vista I coveted. Now, looking out at window upon window upon window of workers at their tasks, I doubted I would ever have an office with a view of the Empire State Building or a corner office. I certainly would never again sit in the fragrant comfort of Matilda’s office drinking tea with the higher ups. “And you?” I asked, when I found my voice.

George looked embarrassed and didn’t answer. He thrust another file toward me. My name was neatly typed on the tab. It was my severance packet. It would include a boilerplate reference, myriad legal disclaimers and the ream of paper that constituted our ethics policy. How often had I passed just such a file to employees who had failed to do the job or indulged in activities outside accepted corporate practice?

“You, George?” I asked again. “What’s your fate in all this?”

“I’m going to head the new Singapore office.”

“You’re just up and moving your whole family to Singapore?”

“No. I left my wife months ago. Matilda is coming to Singapore with me.” In my dazed mind, I heard my long-gone mother singing an ancient lament, “How Long Has This Been Going On?” George saw my bewilderment. “You must . . . . you must have known about us,” he stuttered. “And here I was, thinking everyone must know.”

I rose and George reached out to shake my hand, but I declined the gesture. I pivoted blindly toward the door, my file in hand, but a hearty sneeze stopped me, then another. I blew my nose with a wad of tissue proffered by George and was overtaken by a familiar fragrance. Matilda’s—her exotic blend that pleasured the senses of all but the most allergic of us.

 

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