I emerged from my usual subway scuffle with only a slight bend in my wrist, and most of my outfit intact. In fact, only my right pocket had suffered a small tear. I pat myself on the back, figuratively, of course, not in person. Although, let it not be said that Vanessa E. Vasa cannot pat herself on the back in person, for that is not the case. I am extremely flexible thanks to my morning stretches.
There had not been much conversation once I had returned from Cousin Andrew’s flat. Ypres greeted me in her usual warm fashion of muted enthusiasm. This is how she greets most people she is pleased to see: like a herring spotting the odd Dutch trawler in the distance. She soon retreated, or are near retreating as one can in the Park Avenue flat. I am not sure it would qualify as a successful retreat in the better military circles. She encamped herself in a corner listening to Radio 4. I ignored her as she was evidently ignoring me.
So I found myself on Monday morning back at UNDO. Madison was in by the time I crossed the office threshold. She had momentarily deserted her desk at DPRK. She greeted me with her familiar shriek. It hit me, as often, like a sonic boom, but I was able to stick the landing, and I did not fall off balance. Undeterred, Madison approached me.
“Vanessa wasn’t the weekend marvellous! I think Aunt Jeanne has taken to you. She has a very kind temperament. You must ignore all those things she said about you.”
“Well, you see Madison, I tried to ignore all those things she was saying about me in French, but it was very difficult to ignore when she switched to English. When a middle-aged woman approaches one, and tells one that she will do to one what the Bolsheviks did to the moneyed classes during the Russian revolution, and then proceeds, with great detail, to illustrate what she means, one is, to say the least, taken aback.”
“You mustn’t be taken aback, Vanessa. You know, in New York people can be very forward. You cannot take everything they say to heart.”
“True. But your aunt, as far as I know, is not a New Yorker. Nor would she ever want to be cast as a New Yorker, or anything other than a Frenchwoman, preferably a parisienne. So you may understand my slight bewilderment, and momentary lack of British phlegm, when she declared, in a voice not unlike Lenin’s, that she would suddenly appear in the street one morning and start to shoot down people who matched my physical description.”
“Yes, that does seem like something my dear Aunt Jeanne would say.” Madison emitted a girlish guffaw as if I had just delivered a successful limerick from my New England series.
“Surely it was not in jest. She then enumerated her legal immunities under the Vienna Convention, noting that she could easily get away with it.”
This interrupted Madison’s laugh.
“Oh yes,” she resumed, “but she did laugh wildly after she said that, didn’t she?”
“I would call it more of a cackle. I overheard the word on NPR. Something to do with congressional debate as I gather, and it seems to apply very well to your aunt.”
“Oh Vanessa, you are such a tease!”
“No, I am not! Why else would I have fled the scene with such urgency?”
“It did not appear urgent,” she said, whipping a solitary tear of mirth from her eye. “It looked like a normal New York speed walk. Happy to see you finally adopted it.”
“I am glad you are in such a jovial mood, considering the circumstances. But worry not, I shall soon be back on the case, out of office hours, of course.”
“Actually Vanessa,” Madison could not finish her thought, a sentiment that was not too foreign to her. Mr. Ducale had just glided in like an imperious maître d’. He usually came in after the interns, and, having the working hours of those empire builders of yore, started his professional day at 10:00.
“Good morning, Vanessa. I have a task for you.”
A loud shriek occurred in the distance. I had got used to Madison’s audio performances, so I did not budge an inch, either British or American. Oddly enough, neither did Mr. Ducale. Clearly, Madison had emitted the sound before ducking out the back way, out of sight of Mr. Ducale. Unable to see her, he had only heard her usual greeting hitting the airwaves. I shrugged it off, thinking that, used to all sorts of cries of anguish and mental breakdown emerging from UN offices, Mr. Ducale was immune to them.
“I am meeting with a colleague at 11:00 for a very important bilateral over espresso, and it should only last until lunch. I will therefore need you to take notes at an intergovernmental event of primordial importance taking place in the Conference Room Building, I am sure you are familiar with the place, from 10:30 to 14 15. Lunch will not be provided, but there might be light refreshments.”
He walked out of the room before I could ask him what the meeting was about. If I have learnt one thing about the UN it is that information, even trivial, is a rare commodity that should be shared under no circumstances.
I made my way nonchalantly to UNHQ, where the Conference Room Building is situated. In that odd parlance that is UN jargon, the Conference Room Building has many conference rooms, but no “s” in its title. As for its nom de plume, I once heard an Eastern European diplomat refer to it as the building where the laws of physics are suspended. Ever since I have been careful to look up every time I visit the building, but I have yet to see anything suspended. Not even a chandelier.
I reached First Avenue, noting the reckless abandon with which pedestrians cross intersection while cement mixers barrel down on them. I arrived at the meeting room, situated in a corner of the building unrelated to the logic of its room number, at the appointed hour.
The room was nearly empty, as it were. It was inhabited only by Vanessa E. Vasa of Mayfair fame, a woman reading a romance novel, a man thinking silently, and two old men sleeping. The two sleeping men were snoring in alternate breathing patterns, so as one inhaled loudly, the other exhaled with greater force. This created a continuous snore. I am sure some scientist would have found it most amusing.
I struck the appropriate pose, looking suave and glamorous. Finally, a young person whom (who?) I assumed to be part of the legions of unpaid interns approached me.
“Are you here for the Third Informal Working Group to coordinate the Intergovernmental Working Group?”
I have learnt a neat trick from conversing with Ypres over the years. When she goes on on a subject that is usually reserved for the postdoctoral set, asking me what I think, I usually respond with a question and hope for the best. I tried this approach with the intern.
“You mean the one that starts at 10:30?”
I gave a quick glance around the room. The snorers were still snoring, leaning upon one another.
“Yes, that’s the one. Please sign this sign-in sheet. We’ll be starting momentarily.”
I signed the sheet and the mysterious intern disappeared.
I set myself up, laptop at the ready. There was some movement by 10:45. At 10:50, someone dropped their coffee onto someone else, and apologised profusely. At 11:00, all the interns had taken their place. Finally, the snorers awoke in unison at 11:07. The Chair appeared at 11:10 to warm up the crowd and assure that the meeting would be starting soon. Finally, 11:21 struck and the meeting was ready to start.
It was not much of a start. The most valuable information was that there were free water bottles at our disposal. While delegates and representatives were calling each other Excellency and thanking one another for convening the meeting, I slowly went through four bottles of water. In retrospect, I was merely hydrating myself to feel something other than boredom. It was as I was finishing my sixth bottle of water that I did indeed feel something: a sudden and irrepressible urge to pee.
This called for immediate action. I had to make a dash to relieve myself. Of course, life being as it is for the fashionably fabulous, the moment I chose to exit the room was also the moment the Chair chose to say something of interest in the form of an executive summary. (You must understand that when I say Chair, I am talking about a chairperson, not a piece of furniture – even if, in this case, they shared the same level of charisma.)
I patiently waited for him to give his assessment of the state of the working group. I crossed my legs through many platitudes.
“As we recognise the delicacy of the situation,” here I nodded to agree. “Rome was not built in a day.” This seemed like obvious insight to any visitor of the Eternal City. “We must realise that this process is like a stream. A long, powerful, robust stream. It pours millions of liters of water down its path, irrigating the surrounding countryside, sometimes, in the raining season, when the soil can no longer retain water, it bursts out of its banks! Mightily rushing. . .”
He paused to find the right word.
I could not afford such a break in conversation midstream of thought. I silently rushed out of the room.
(Cue ladylike ellipse.)
I came back as quickly as I could, unsure whether I had actually found the ladies or a badly lit translator’s booth.
“. . . that is why, like the river, we must not rush towards a hasty outcome. We must not burst, but meander to successfully irrigate the valley. Therefore, I take it the members of the Third Informal Working Group to coordinate the Intergovernmental Working Group will have no objections to an added afternoon session to discuss progress on the implementation of our framework. The session shall start at 15:30. I take it we aim to finish by 18:30.”
I looked at my Chopard watch (a unisex chronograph, since you insist on knowing). It was 16:08. My stomach started to make noises in a lady like manner, but progressively became animated and bereft of restraint. Dedicated to duty, I buckled down.
The meeting finally ended at 19:16 as the Chair, who had been in and out of the meeting, spending perhaps a grand total of one hour fifteen minutes in the room, announced that he had Broadway tickets. The meeting was adjourned until the next morning.
I dragged myself to the office. As I walked on First Avenue, I understood why the pedestrian crossed with such reckless abandon.
As I reached my desk, I thought nothing could make the day worse. I was sorely mistaken. The light on the telephone’s answering machine was flashing. I picked up the phone. It was a message from Madison.
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