Mr. Richardson was a frequenter of our office. It wasn’t unusual to see him pop in four or five times a day to coordinate various administrative and technical processes, invariably ushering in an atmosphere of jovial camaraderie, which was inevitably missed when he was absent from work. Al was about sixty, thickly moustached, with hair that had entirely succumbed to the refractory will of time. He was, incontestably, the most audacious among the advisors of the foreign section. He would never refrain from boldly baring his innermost feelings and thoughts. Given his age, however, he was never taken earnestly. I quite liked the guy, as did all the other girls. Jack and Al were both Americans; Larry was British. Jack and Larry were coevals in their mid-forties. Jack was tall, with a well-shaped muscular body, fair-haired, and had blue eyes. Larry was brown-eyed with a crown of greying hair, shorter than Jack and slimmer too.
My attention wandered around. Jack’s desk was placed to my left, facing Larry’s; mine faced Gerhard’s. To my right there were three filing cabinets lined up against the wall, facing the door. Adjoining each of the main desks was a side desk, on top of which were the telephone and office supplies. The office that I occupied faced on its left side another one across the corridor, fairly smaller in size; it belonged to Tom, a British advisor. An irregular shaped space that functioned as a kitchenette adjoined both offices. At the far right end of the suite was a storeroom; it contained the stationary, an enormous strident photocopier that occupied most of the left side of the room, and several other filing cabinets aligned against the walls, filling the remaining vacant space and screening thus the glass walls; a chair and a desk were placed to face the doorway. Tom’s office on one side shared a glass wall with another suite, similar in size and design, but having its own separate entrance. This was where Fury worked. The BMS group, as I dubbed Ban, May, and Sumer, worked in offices that were dispersed around different sites, all related, nonetheless, to the foreign section. The section where Fury and I worked was nestled in the corner of the top floor of a two-storey rectangular building. A corridor, overlooking the road on one side, ran round three sides of the building.
I glanced towards Fury’s office. The situation was not dissimilar to mine except for one difference: risking failure, shyness and timidity avoided any sort of confrontation with Fury. She shared the office with four other advisors: two who appeared to be Westerners, while the other two looked Asian, Pakistani or Indian. She seemed as if she was having the time of her life, “fraternizing” with the four.
Jack grabbed a chair and sat next to me. He placed some charts on my desk. Explaining ‘what’ and ‘how’ took over fifteen minutes, after which he left me to proceed on my own. All the time, the offices, packed like a beehive, hummed along busily. People constantly dashed in and out, Iraqis and foreigners. I was too immersed with the work in hand, and too shy to be a part of it. My presence, however, patently drew attention, and gave a feminine touch that Jack deemed as quite essential for the taming and the toning down of this male domain, where audaciously explicit remarks flew between its occupants and its frequenters every so often, contributing seriously to my blushing attacks. In the majority of cases, earnest apologies followed with blame cast squarely on their inadvertent regression to their previous standards of verbal intercourse.
I was beginning to feel mounting stiffness along my neck and shoulders and some slight twinges, which I ascribed to the stress and anxiety of the first day rather than to hard work. I glanced at my watch; it was nearly ten-thirty. Jack checked upon my completed work and expressed his satisfaction, ‘Not bad for the first day’. He asked if I could use a cup of coffee or tea, to which I replied smiling, ‘No, thanks’.
Jack or Larry would interrupt occasionally, introducing me to more advisors, and also to some Iraqis from other sections. The ambience was quite affable and cheery, and I just loved every bit of it, especially as Jack and Larry were so helpful and understanding about first-day asperities. Around noon, things eased off a bit, and for the first time I was on my own. Fury sneaked in for a few moments, excited, with lots to recount.
For the rest of the day I carried on learning and performing. A couple of times Jack suggested taking some time out, to stretch the legs, ‘No rush, it’s not that urgent’, he would say. ‘Now that you have got the hang of it, you could go easy on the rest’. Jack boosted my confidence with his encouraging remarks as he checked my finished jobs, ‘You’re a quick learner, Liana’. It wasn’t a secret that he was pleased to have me in his team. Jack was a real gentleman. Often he would jump in swiftly and tactfully to avert breaches of conversational decorum from someone or another. Gradually, our friendly relationship, his and mine, deepened. I liked and trusted the guy.
I took to the work and to the people with each passing day. The particulars of my job were like a breeze. Jack started assigning to me even more complex matters, trusting my accuracy. My relationship with the closest circle of advisors tended to diminish in formality with time. I began to extend my circle of acquaintances to my co-workers in the vicinity, and even developed a comfortable and relaxed relationship with some beyond the foreign section. I even started a cautious friendship with some female co-workers, like Sandy, from personnel and administration, who was a mere five-minute walk down the aisle. Our friendship, Sandy’s and mine, grew from strength to strength, despite her being a Baathist. With time, however, the girl proved to be quite guileless and truly aboveboard. She unfolded how she had been instructed by the establishment’s security department to keep a watchful eye on the girls in the foreign section, and to report each and every peculiar happening. ‘Like what?’ I asked naively. ‘Forget that I mentioned it’, she said reassuringly with a comforting smile. ‘I’m telling you this not to scare you but to alert you. I know how to handle those so-called patriots upstairs,’ she said, pointing with a gesture of contempt towards the adjacent towering building. ‘What they really care about are not the country’s interests as much as displaying their sickening arrogance, manipulating people, especially good-looking girls, like you and the rest of your team’.
Watching clouds of disquiet gathering over my face, she confirmed there was nothing to fret over. She emphasized, however, that vigilance was imperative in my dealings with the advisors. And that unrestricted gregariousness could lead in its consequences to the red region. But then any sort of interaction with them beyond the borders of work would have most definitely issued a free ticket to hell. She warned that I was to refrain from giving any information about my work or that of my relation with the foreign section to any outsider. She advised that words travel around fast, and return re-phrased and laden in such a manner as to ricochet on me and jeopardize my safety.
Sandy intensified for me the sense of hidden eyes and ears that were constantly on the ball to seize and report. Working in such an extremely sensitive area, she counselled, obliged one to be wary and to avoid unnecessary clashes or disputes with anyone in one’s work circle. She went on to say that grudges could lead to the cooking up of unpleasant scenarios, which could culminate in irreparable damage. She even disclosed the names of some of those ‘hidden eyes and ears’.
Sandy's attitude left me at sea for a while. I wondered why on earth she would endanger her own safety to reveal top classified information to someone she barely knew, and if the whole incident was some sort of bait, or a trap, contrived to gain my trust, and thus get me to divulge more of what she would’ve been fishing for.
My parents firmly recommended caution. Sandy, however, proved to be above suspicion. And she became my first line of protection, the one to whom I would turn to for refuge when I sensed any approaching peril. It wouldn’t be fair, or even right, to exclude the possibility that good could exist even in the direst situations.
Sandy and I remained strongly bonded until she got married, and left Baghdad, following her husband to another province up north. Throughout the whole time that we spent together at the establishment, Sandy never disappointed my positive expectations, not even once. And when it was time for her to leave, she had become another version of Fury in respect of the trust and reliance I placed upon her.
To Be Continued.......