It took all of my willpower to keep from slamming the door as I rushed out of the room. Their laughter followed me out the door. Only one of them had been laughing when I walked to the door, but the others must have joined in because the laughter had multiplied in my head, amplified.
My neck and ears burned from embarrassment as I walked swiftly down the corridor. Tears stung my eyes, but I was not going to give any of the other applicants in the waiting area the pleasure of seeing me cry.
I blamed Dele, my cousin who had put in the application on my behalf; I blamed Monsura, Iya’s house help for advising me to wear those shoes; I cursed the shoes for being one size too big especially given my narrow feet; most of all, I blamed myself for daring to believe this was my opportunity to change my life.
I grew up in a quiet part of Ibadan, and had gone to school in Ilorin. National Youth Service had taken me to Plateau state and, with family in Lagos, there was the occasional holiday visit there. By the time NYSC was over and I relocated to Lagos, I was not as worldly wise as a lot of people I knew, but I was not too lacking in street smarts.
The transition from an Ajuwaya to a stay-at-home labour market hopeful was not as easy as I had thought. During my service year, I could not wait to be done so I could have time for leisure, now I had more than enough time on my hands and I soon grew restless; I needed a job fast. I looked through want ads in the papers – Guardian Tuesday was my favourite – and I sent my CV to family and friends; one never knew.
When my cousin Dele told me he had submitted my CV at an airline, I did not ask him for what position, I just shrugged. I was certain the positions were already filled by ‘special’ candidates, making the advert a mere formality.
I got a call from the airline inviting me for an interview a week later. I was ecstatic. I had never really considered working as a cabin crew, but I had heard stories about the job and I could not get the glam lifestyle out of my head.
On the morning of the interview, I woke up early and took my time to prepare. The night before, I had laid out my clothes: a crisp white blouse, starched and ironed, a black skirt just reaching below my knees and my one good pair of shoes. A much worn black affair with square heels. I then packed my credentials together into a manilla envelope which I left out on the dining table.
I was dressed and ready to leave the house in good time for the interview which was to take place at the airline’s offices in Ikeja. Heading for the door, I stepped off the not-so-plush carpeting onto the terrazoed floor of the sitting room, and then I heard it: the clack, clack of hard plastic each time my left foot hit the floor. Yes, I had some time before I had to leave for the interview, but not enough time to find a shoemaker to fix the heel.
I considered walking on my toes, I even tried it, but I kept forgetting and landing on my heel, the broken shoe heel.
“Auntie, why don’t you wear one of Iya’s shoes?” Monsura asked.
“I did not ask her permission,” I told her, already going through my aunt’s array of shoes in my head.
“Ehn, I know, but I don’t think she will mind. You know she likes you a lot, abi?”
I fell in love as soon as I saw the shoes with their 3inch heels, in a green colour that was both cheery and soothing. I tried them on and found them too big for me – I am a size 40, Iya is a 41, her feet wide. The shoes kept slipping so we decided to pad them with some tissue paper.
I arrived at the venue to find about fifty people waiting. They were also clutching brown envelopes and there was a wariness around a few of them. After waiting for about an hour, friendships were beginning to form and nervous laughter could be heard in some parts of the waiting room. I kept to myself.
The interview eventually started and candidates got called into a room where they spent approximately 20minutes.
They went in they went in brimming with confidence; some came out slumped and looking dejected. Gone were the measured confident strides, replaced by shuffling feet. I found myself wondering what it was about that room that aged people so.
Soon enough, it was my turn.
I smoothed my skirt, mentally braced myself and walked, with as much confidence as I could muster, towards the slightly parted door. I knocked, waited for the invitation to come in, took another steadying breath, and plastered a smile across my face.
“Good afternoon.” I said to the three ladies sitting behind the desk in the far side of the room, making sure to let my eyes rest briefly on each of them.
“Please take off your shoes.” The lady in the middle said in response to my greeting.
Without a word I stepped out of the shoes. I saw a look pass between them, and followed their eyes to my feet.
Out, with my feet, came some of the tissue I had stuffed the shoes with. They had become damp during my wait and tiny islands of white adorned the brown earth tones of my feet, and darker almost black bits wedged themselves between my toes.
I stood there, willing the carpet to open up and swallow me. My face was burning as I looked up to meet their eyes. I could not, so I picked a spot on the wall behind them.
“Have you ever heard of shoe pads?” One asked me.
“Please walk back and forth across the room.” Another told me.
The brown envelope with my credentials felt like lead in my hand as I walked the length of the room and back. I could feel their eyes following me.
The rest of the interview passed in a blur. The next thing I knew, I was done.
I thanked them for their time before getting up to leave. I made it as far as the door and, with my hand on the knob, I turned and blurted.
“Excuse me please, just so you know, these shoes ain’t mine.”
I turned the doorknob and fled the office. I was shocked at myself, and mortified beyond belief over the entire episode; the look on their faces etched in my mind forever.
It took all of my willpower to keep from slamming the door as I rushed out of the room. With their laughter still ringing in my head, I went straight to see my best friend at home. It was there that I broke down and cried as I recounted my experience to her.
She told me I would be fine, and I was thankful for her encouragement even though we both knew all she was trying to do was console me. I put the entire experience behind me.
Two weeks later, I got a call from the airline: a list of successful candidates had been published at the office on their notice board. My best friend encouraged me to go and have a look. “At least you will know for sure, one way or the other.”
Whether to stand, or sit, or cry or laugh, to jump and shout or dance and sing, I did not know how to react when I saw my name at the top of the list that Friday morning.
“I hope these shoes are yours,” a soft voice behind me startled me.
The smile started from the pit of my stomach, and I positively was preening as I turned to flash the owner of the voice one of my brightest smiles.
“A new pair I just got, thank you.”
“You know, it was hard to ignore you that day. You made an impression on all three of us, and I found I kept thinking about you throughout the rest of the interviews we had that day. I hope you will enjoy your time with us, and that flying brings you as much joy and freedom as it has brought me over the years.”
“Thank you,” I replied with a demure smile.
PS: They say the truth sets you free, I say flying is freedom. Above all that though, doing what you love is true freedom, and rarely does it come easy.
Whether it falls in your laps, or you sweat and work for it, a lesson is to be learnt from @bezidakula’s Zuciya Daya: give it your best, give it your all.