The cold air stings my face when I step out of Walczak Tower. I stand outside the swooping building, tapping the sole of my burgundy shoe on the pavement, as if deciding which way to go. A taxi glides by, the display strip on its body flashing at me in hot blue. November 16, 2021 the scrolling text informs me, 21:02 hours. Then: Jody Jumps inside the Bridge Box… Three London shows only… I miss the rest.
My foot taps insistently on the pavement. I am seeking control of myself. Of that beast, desire.
There are some things I am good at controlling. Contracts, computers, print on paper. People. You have to be good at dealing with people to be a successful family lawyer. Although I like to pretend that I’m a dental nurse, especially if I’m out with my mother. She disapproves of what I do. Not that she dislikes the law; it’s my specialization which is the problem.
‘People drawing up contracts to control each other,’ she says. ‘I can’t agree with that.’
‘I’m a pioneer,’ I tell her. ‘An inventor. And a multi-millionaire.’
‘Look what your work has done to you,’ she snaps back. ‘What kind of life do you have?’
There we stop. She won’t believe I like my set-up. She won’t believe that my character is so unlike hers. I don’t argue. Arguments bore me. I am in command of myself and always have been. Until last week. That kerfuffle has left me unsteady. But at the beginning, I was in control.
It was in June last year, in a soggy marquee at my cousin Jolie’s wedding reception, that I was introduced to her friend Libby Larsen. Libby didn’t give me a chance to go into my dentist’s assistant routine. She pinned me with her arresting blue gaze. ‘I’ve heard of you. I’ve seen your name in the paper. When there’s a famous person brandishing a pre-conception agreement drafted by you and the poor judge has to decide whether the accused spouse is holding up their end of the bargain or not.’
I grimaced. Not all publicity was good publicity. Especially now, when some former clients were ending up in the courts.
‘Uh huh.’ I tried to change the topic, asking her ‘Are you on call all hours like Jolie?’ Libby worked with Jolie in Tech Support at the HQ of Stilling Environment. But the lady was not for swerving. From her clutch bag she brought out a black-and-cream duo-pho, similar to mine. ‘What’s your number? I’m being nagged by my boyfriend. I know I’m going to need you soon.’
I gave her my office number, which she inputted on the cream side of her duopho. The black side must be for work. Funny; I had chosen black to store my personal protected data and the cream casing for work.
‘Were you really the first to draft pre-conceps for couples?’ Libby asked.
I nodded. ‘The first one I produced was five years ago. I was working with Clara Redmond on pre-nups, but when I saw how difficult men were finding it to persuade their partners to have children, I thought this would ease the way. That first document was for a colleague.’ I smiled at the memory. ‘She could articulate all her concerns very clearly, so I had a pretty good template and then I added to it as I went along.’
‘So you’re doing your bit to stop the birth rate plummeting further.’ Libby spoke as if uttering a witticism.
I heard a chuckle behind me. It was Jolie. ‘Ask Lena what her mother thinks.’ I didn’t reply and Jolie sang, ‘Contracts, contracts, what good do they do?’
Libby looked at me with intense interest. ‘And your answer?’
‘If we can protect our wealth with pre-nups, why can’t we safeguard something more important: the welfare of our children? And ourselves? Isn’t it better to be prepared for your responsibilities than not?’
‘If we are among the lucky few who can create life,’ added Jolie. She seemed bent on teasing me because she carried on, ‘Do you know that Lena forgot to congratulate me when I told her I was getting married? Instead she reminded me very seriously to bank my eggs and Paolo’s sperm.’
Paolo was the cherub-faced physicist who had just become her husband. I spied him at the opposite corner of the tent. I left Jolie and Libby having a fit of the champagne giggles and headed towards the groom. I may be a secret romantic but I was not going to make a girly display of cackles or tears. I needed male company to offset the bridal vibes.
It was three months later that Libby rang to make a formal appointment with me. ‘My boyfriend is mad keen on having a child,’ she said. ‘He insists we should just try. But really, I need a pre-concep.’
‘He’ll have to do many more child-hours than me,’ she went on. ‘I want it in writing. Shall I see you alone to put down my terms?’
I gave her the usual advice. ‘Firstly,’ I said, ‘it’s better if the agreement is drawn up before you start trying. Some clauses deal with the months of pregnancy. There’s even a pre-pregnancy clause about vitamin programmes and such, should you want it. And since this is an agreement, you should both be committed to it from the outset. My recommendation is that your boyfriend should be at the discussions.’
That is how I come to have the pleasure of meeting the allegedly impatient father-to-be of Libby’s to-be-conceived. Adam Gillick walks into my office and makes my heart thump. He is breathtakingly beautiful.
Libby shakes her duopho at me. ‘I told you I’d need your number. When you know who the best is, why go anywhere else? Especially when you can afford the best.’
I sense Adam squirming. I hold out my hand and say something welcoming. He starts at my voice. It’s husky, like it’s scraped past pebbles in my throat. It always surprises people. It doesn’t match my too-round cheeks and my long hair, which falls straight to my waist. If my hair doesn’t get me a second look, then my voice definitely does.
Clara Redmond, the senior partner at our practice, often ribs me that I have trained my voice to be sexy. ‘It always cracks on an important word when you speak, you must have practised that.’
‘All natural,’ I tell her.
What we get given. Clara has the plaintive ‘please, miss’ voice of a shy eight year old, the softness of it emerging from her throat a sudden contrast to her stern bony face.
What people like Adam get given. Everything.
I sit at my aluminium desk while Libby and Adam arrange themselves in the chairs opposite. I have plenty of experience in reassuring uncomfortable men. ‘This first meeting,’ I begin smoothly, ‘is just me talking about fairly dull things. I’ll give you a rundown of how we put together the agreement. I’ll give you a list of all the suggested clauses for you to discuss between yourselves. That usually throws up any issues either of you might have. Those we’ll resolve together at the next meetings.’
Clara tells me that when she started in pre-nups, back in 1998, most men were supremely confident about what they wanted in the contract. The women tended to shrug as if they didn’t really want to be there. I hadn’t noticed any such difference between the sexes when I started my training in 2009. Certainly, in the pre-conception side of things, women are in control. With the current birth rate standing at four births for every thousand people, I can see why they are special; the ones who agree to have children; and even more so, the ones who succeed in doing so.
Clara also tells me that human needs don’t change. She may have a point. I’ve observed that most women do want children, but it’s a good ploy to pretend they don’t. Oh, how they need to be persuaded. They worry incessantly about micromanaging the future: work, childcare, parentcare, their own bodies, the cost of nappy laundry, contractual obligations to save for education, and whom the precious ones belong to, if it comes to that, as it can do.
As if you can predict anything at all. I run my eye over Libby and Adam. I suppose you can predict a few things. This document will not take too long to draft. Here are two charismatic, evenly matched specimens. The only oddness I note is Libby’s habit of running her fingers down Adam’s thigh to his knee, as if unconsciously stroking feathers. Feathers ruffled by discussion. By the ignominy of sitting in my office?
I see their shadowy outline through the frosted doors as they arrive for the next meeting. Adam’s thumb caresses the top of mine as we shake hands. It’s a fleeting sensation, like I’ve imagined it. I react by looking up swiftly into his face. Is that amusement lurking behind his opaque blue eyes? He’s just testing, proving he’s irresistible. Regaining his power on my turf. I’ve dealt with one or two charmers like Adam, I know better than to rise to the bait.
‘As you know, this agreement sets out in detail the responsibilities and divisions of duty between yourselves, should you have a child. These terms are legally binding, and once signed, are in effect when you’re actively working towards a pregnancy.’ I pause. ‘Let’s see how we’re doing on the standard clauses. First question, childcare. One of you; other family; or bought services?’
‘One of us,’ Libby answered.
‘Depends on the day,’ said Adam.
‘Huh?’ Libby was surprised.
‘What if I have to work?’
‘But your time is flexible. You can’t take on a lesson if you know you’re not free.’
‘But I may have to. I may want to. My time is flexible not to suit me but to suit my clients.’
I interject quietly. ‘It sounds like you need to make provision for outside help too. Let’s return to this later. Let’s look at…’ I skip the question of financial responsibility for the moment; thinking I know the answer to that.
Then I declare decisively, ‘I need five minutes privately with each of you.’
I lead Adam to the small conference room. I ask him if he wants separate representation.
‘What do you advise?’
‘You only need it if you feel the contract would be unfair to you. If, generally, you both are of one mind, it’s not required.’
We are sitting adjacent to each other at one end of the egg shaped table. He pulls his chair forward so his knees touch mine. I can’t be sure if this is deliberate. ‘I’ll stick with you,’ he says. ‘I’m sure we’ll be fine.’
I know I should stay away from this type. ‘That’s settled then,’ I say blandly, letting the file I’m holding brush across his knees as I stand up. He follows me back to my office, walking closer than is strictly decent. I can feel him in my space. But I don’t turn around to check, so I can’t be too sure, if he’s blowing into my hair. There’s mischief in his soul. It takes one to recognise one.
I lead Libby to the conference room. I look into her striking eyes, so large and clear. ‘You must run through these questions at home,’ I insist. ‘It’s best if the first objection to any clause is aired early on. You’ll both have time to think it over by the next meeting. It’ll be easier then to reach a compromise.’
‘He’s a hot head,’ Libby says. ‘He makes snap decisions. But yes, we’ll thrash out some of this before we see you again.’
There is something else I want to mention to the two of them once we are back in the crisp white confines of my office.
‘It can be a strain drafting the pre-concep,’ I begin delicately. ‘Although we recommend it, you need to know that having a contract does not necessarily lead to having a child. With these high infertility rates…’ I shrug. There’s no legal reason for me to provide this disheartening fact, but I feel obliged to. It rarely stops anyone from proceeding.
Libby brushes aside the comment. ‘Oh, Lena, let’s sort out the contract and then worry about whether we’ll be among the lucky few or not. We’ve got a good chance. Adam is super fit, you know.’
My desk reflects a distorted image of the super-fit Adam. I sneak a look at the real thing. Tall, broad shouldered. Wavy dark hair. Carries off a bandana. Fine featured. Looks good in polo shirt and baggy shorts. I haven’t seen him in shorts, but he’s a tennis instructor, so I imagine he spends some of his working life in them. At the moment he’s wearing grey casual trousers and a light blue jumper.
‘See you in a week or so,’ I say, watching them leave. Adam catches my lingering eye. He gives a half smile, a satisfied ‘gotcha’ expression on his face. We are similar animals. Except he rates higher on the scale of beauty. In my book.
I am a connoisseur of the stolen moment. I collect these, the moments focused on me, thieving from a time which is not mine, from a story which is not mine. From a man who is not mine. I daisy-chain these moments to make a play to amuse myself. I call it Preludes and Elusions.
Sometimes I can’t be sure if these delicious momentary encounters really took place or my mind converted a pencil scratch into an ink sketch. I like beginnings. Newness. The start of something. The first locked glances. The first electric touches. That’s where my interest lies.
‘Beauty is to be admired,’ Clara remarks, on the button, walking in as Libby and Adam depart. ‘That one knows he’s a leopard,’ I tell her, ‘he flaunts his spots without thinking about it.’ She looks at me keenly, but sees I’m grinning.
‘They’re a sweet couple,’ I say. ‘This will be over in a few weeks. File closed.’
My desk bleeps thrice: a prompt to call my mother. I click my tongue and re-set the reminder. I’m momentarily distracted from what I was explaining to Libby and Adam, who are leaning back into the white chairs in front of me.
‘He’s in a huge rush,’ Libby says, taking over confidently and talking about Adam as if he wasn’t there. ‘You’d think the estrogen in the water has made men develop body clocks. At thirty six!’
Adam is examining the aluminium floor lamp with a jaded eye. I start again, diplomatically, ‘How did you get on with the latest draft I sent?’
‘Adam’s a bit sick of discussion. But as we’ve sorted out the financial responsibilities and the child-hours, he says to just go with the standard format for the rest.’
‘Right. Standard terms. Each infidelity will cost one million,’ I say cheerfully. I want him to sit up now, but am unprepared for his sudden vehemence.
‘This isn’t a pre-nup.’ His voice is raised. ‘What’s infidelity got to do with conception?’
‘I was joking,’ I reply, ‘but since you ask the question… plenty.’ I glance at Libby who is suppressing laughter. ‘Anything can be covered in the pre-concep,’ I continue. ‘Undesirable behaviour can be curbed for the sake of the child’s welfare. Any habits you dislike…’ This is one of the ways I amuse myself.
Adam’s body stiffens and puffs out. One glance at the rage on his face and I know I have made a mistake. Mentally, I scold myself. Libby lays a calming hand on his arm. ‘She’s teasing us,’ she says. ‘Of course, we could put in “the child must have the Gillick cheekbones but not the temper.”‘
I rush headlong into being serious, hoping to deflect his glower. ‘There are just a few points left on which I require your feedback. You two are on a roll; let’s tie it up next time.’
It only takes another ten days and we are at our last meeting. There’s very little to amend from the recent drafts I’d sent out. We discuss the minutiae, because I’m paid to get that right, for half an hour. Libby excuses herself to use the washroom. I gaze at Adam’s image in my desk when something makes me look up.
He’s making a moue with his lips. Waiting for a reaction. I’m suddenly conscious that my lipstick is a hot pink. My Schiaparelli party pink. It strikes me that I’ve been applying a steadily brighter shade of pink with each visit of the Larsen-Gillick couple. I’m embarrassed, but I will brazen it out. I curl my tongue into my mouth behind closed lips, so he can make out that it’s a secret smile. I won’t let it break out, it will be held in; mine. He leans across the desk and puts his lips close to my right ear. I can’t be sure I’ve heard clearly. It sounds like: ‘Luscious pink’. My eyes look up at his, querying. He returns my look innocently. I frown into the distance, betrayed; then I turn my attention to some papers.
When Libby returns I tell them that I’ll send out final copies of the document for both of them to sign. I stand up to shake hands. ‘Good luck,’ I say and funnily, I mean it. It always happens to me at this moment. I want this couple to succeed. Adam squeezes my hand tight, mumbles a ‘thank you’ and rushes off. He has a coaching appointment.
Libby lingers. ‘Care for a coffee?’ she asks. ‘That underwater café downstairs looked so inviting.’
I hesitate. It’s a quarter past three. The meeting has finished earlier than I expected. I don’t usually socialise like this, but I accept. ‘Yes, that would be nice.’ My legal relationship with them is almost over.
We go down to Aquascope on the ground floor. It’s situated beneath the swimming pool, entry to which is on the third floor. The bottom of the swimming pool, also the ceiling of the café, is a toughened translucent glass. Hazy shapes of swimmers flutter above us. The wall to the street is clear glass and the other three walls are ultramarine blue. I feel unsteady in here, even when sitting down. It’s like having an out-of-body experience. I breathe deeply and focus on the sunburst of yellow coral painted in the centre of the glass table.
Libby launches into amusing gossip from Stilling Environment, making me laugh. Then she dives into a spate of questions about my work. She is so direct and forceful, it is hard to give guarded replies and I find myself being more honest than usual.
Adam’s gloss has a brooding underside, I think to myself, but Libby’s brilliance is steadfast. She will be a good mother. I am about to tell her so when I realize it’s after four o’clock. ‘I must get back now,’ I exclaim.
As we walk towards the door Libby asks impishly, ‘Is your own pre-concep drawn up ready for when you decide to have children?’
I should brush away this question. Instead I reply with rare candour. ‘I don’t need a pre-concep.’
‘Would you advise that?’
‘Let’s not talk about what I would advise. Most people want a contract. It makes the game serious. I meant that I don’t intend to have a child. So there should be no need.’
Libby looked so baffled that I carried on. ‘We legislate for most things, but the law can’t predict human behaviour. In everyday life removed from the contract, couples have to find their own logistical and emotional solutions. Sometimes the pre-concep worsens the situation. When it is clearly not being adhered to, one party feels wronged and bitter. Time spent in conflict would be better spent with the child.’
As I speak it dawns on me that having my name bandied about in court is troubling me more than I have admitted.
Libby persists, ‘But why no child?’
I sigh. ‘I think I know too much. I get all the feedback, after. To improve the agreements, to add in clauses we didn’t think about before.’ I force a smile. ‘I’m of the firm opinion that I will be a sure-shot for pre and post-natal depression.’
Before she can drown me with another ‘Why?’ I press the lift button.
That was last October and I hadn’t seen either of them since. I’d asked Jolie how Libby was getting on and the response was ‘Fine.’ I didn’t ask about Adam. But whenever I spotted someone who looked vaguely like him, his face would come sharply into focus. His shoulders, his hands. His hair.
I hadn’t thought about his voice. Until last week. I had left late from work after a drinks-do for a colleague from the Macedonia office. I was standing by the lift at the car-charge depot. I had just entered my bay number and put away the swipe card when my arms were gripped from behind. For a second, I felt blind terror.
‘Hello, Lena.’ It took me a heartbeat to recognise the voice at my neck. My scream was aborted as the voice continued, ‘I must speak to you. Now.’
It was Adam who had seized my arms. My handbag dangled from three fingers, which I curled tightly around the strap. My wrenched wrists were held fast by my coccyx. Adam turned me around and started walking me back to Walczak Tower.
‘Let’s go to your office.’ I struggled to free myself, but was surprised at just how physically ineffectual I was. He held my wrists behind me with one hand, and walked by my side, pull-pushing me along. I hadn’t managed to articulate any actual words.
‘We’re going to talk.’ The grim set of his lips gave me a sinking feeling.
‘My arms… Let go…’
He replied roughly, angrily, ‘I’m not letting go till we get to your office.’
I knew I was scared because I had an urge to giggle. It’s my default setting when I really don’t know what to do.
Adam got the security fob out of my handbag. We took the lift up. He marched me into my office. The lamp came on.
‘My arms hurt,’ I protested, as he imprisoned them behind me again. He pressed me back into the metal edge of my desk. I squared my shoulders. I would not be cowed by his burning eyes. The next moment he let my left arm go free, but began rattling my body with my right arm, bruising me, swearing at me, with spittle landing on my cheek. I recoiled involuntarily from his name-calling. I couldn’t even think with my head being shaken off my neck.
‘Stop. Please stop.’ I realized I was crying. ‘Why are you doing this?’
The slamming stopped.
‘Why are you calling me a vile bitch?’ My voice broke on ‘vile.’ This was the least hurtful label he’d thrown at me in the space of a minute.
‘Didn’t you hear me, bitch?’ he said. ‘It’s your fault. And after wasting our time and money.’
‘What?’ I was still puzzled.
‘Libby,’ he said, his tone turning nasty and his face in a snarl, ‘has spent all these months considering whether to conceive a child. I told her, “If anything in the pre-concep is bothering you, re-draft the damn thing however you want.” But no, it’s not the contract bothering her. It’s the bloody lawyer.’
He put both hands on my shoulders and shook me violently. ‘What did you say to her, bitch?’
‘I didn’t say anything…’ I faltered, finding it difficult to speak. ‘Why do you think-‘
‘Yesterday I had enough of Libby’s considering.’ He loosened his grip again. ‘We had an…’ he paused. ‘I tore up the contract. But guess what Libby said. She said “No point in that anyway. When the expert’s experience is that the agreements come to naught after the child is born, and when the expert isn’t prepared to get on the child tramline…”
His hand dug into my shoulder like he wanted my bone to crumble. ‘Libby wonders why I begrudge her time to think. Time to think. That’s what the woman says.’ Then he was shouting, ‘How can you be an expert when you haven’t even had a child?’
‘I never claimed to be an expert.’ My voice was shaking. ‘I just… made the mistake of… giving my opinion.’
‘Who asked for your opinion?’ He was still very loud. I hoped someone would hear and come in to see what was going on.
‘I honestly didn’t mean to put her off the idea.’ I felt near to tears again.
He was silent. I stuttered on, ‘Believe me, I wasn’t giving advice… I was just… answering her questions.’ ‘
So answer this. What were you playing at with me?’ This he whispered and held my arm. My skin prickled. He was in my space, his body only two centimetres from mine. I tried to shake free my captive right arm.
‘Same as you.’
But I wasn’t sure now. I like the sudden surprise of arousal and the dispelling of it, out of necessity. I can go too far, but only for an instant, then I slide back to equilibrium. I don’t want to prolong stolen moments; not even into an hour; the fleeting ephemerality is the thing. Nothing could be worse than having the object of your lightning fantasy loll around your feet all day.
Adam’s game was slightly different. His rules included violence.
‘No,’ I said. I pushed at him with my free arm, and pulled at his shoulder. ‘No. I don’t like force.’
But the man was not for swerving. ‘You don’t like,’ he said, ‘Tell me something different, bitch.’
I was squashed back against the desk, he was pressed into me, and there wasn’t anywhere to go. For a few seconds, I went limp. I felt his hand on the hem of my skirt, lifting, dragging it up to the top of my thigh. He put his mouth to my ear. I heard: ‘Luscious pink’.
I detected laughter in his whisper. Betrayed, I frowned into the middle distance before stamping my heel on his toes and poking two fingers into his eyes.
He took both hands off me to clutch at his eyes. I escaped to the door, opened it, and ran down the corridor to the next office, slipping into the darkened space. He had followed me to the door, but he wouldn’t dare assault me in another office. Would he?
I waited. There was silence. I didn’t care to peep out into the corridor. I smoothed down my hair with my fingers, righted my clothes, and rubbed my arms where the bruises would come up. There were clicks and little clacks, unidentifiable sounds outside. I shivered. Eventually I talked myself into running fast past my office, and to the lift; a sanctuary which came for me no sooner than I had touched the button.
I took it down to the main entrance. I hobbled to the security desk with a conspicuous limp. The guard on duty was a man whom I recognised, but whose name I didn’t know. I do, now. His name’s Izhar.
‘I slipped in the washroom on the seventh floor,’ I winced as I spoke, ‘and I barely managed to get to the lift. It’s so painful. I think I’ve sprained my ankle.’
I flopped down on a chair. I think I really did look stricken and drained, because Izhar displayed the right degree of concern.
‘Do you need a doctor?’ he asked, ‘or shall I call a cab for you?’ ‘A cab would be good,’ I said, ‘but I’ve left my handbag in my office. Will you be able to bring it down for me please?’
‘I can’t leave my post, but I can ring security on the fifth. If he comes down to take my place, I could…’
‘Whatever. Please arrange it. I don’t think I can put any weight on this ankle.’
As an afterthought, I said, ‘Oh, I hope my client found his way out.’
‘The big guy?’
‘Yes. He’s gone?’
‘Yeah ’bout fifteen minutes ago.’
Izhar retrieved my bag while another guard manned the desk. He called me a cab and solicitously put me in it.
In a short while I was in the safety of my home but I couldn’t sleep. I was too disturbed. I don’t like violence. In any form. I don’t like having to resort to it. I hoped I had not damaged Adam’s pretty eyes.
I didn’t think I could face my office the next day, but I couldn’t excuse myself either. I went in but had a quiet day creeping about in my own space except for two meetings. I left early, just as the light was fading. I looked over my shoulder all the way to the car-charge depot. As I approached the car lift, the curly-haired youth in the cubicle, another familiar face whose name I didn’t know, slid open the window to call to me. He was angry.
‘Your car came down last night,’ he said ‘and there was no one waiting to claim it.’ Before I could apologise, he went on. ‘You’re lucky I knew it was yours. I could have let them tow it away. But I used my pass to send it back to your berth. There’s a fine slapped on it.’
I thanked him. I explained there had been a sudden emergency and I’d had to return to the office. I drove home.
Strangely, sleep is now a problem. Not in the sense of insomnia. The problem is my recurring dream. In my dream, Adam stalks me. He seizes my arms from behind. He marches me into my office and gives me an earful of abuse. I cry. He calms down. He takes hold of me again, pushes up my skirt. I yield.
In another week’s time, the dream will cease; I’m sure of it. But right now, I can’t help but loiter outside Walczak Tower in the dark. Straining to hear footfalls behind me. Waiting for a leopard to finish the kill. But the temper tantrum may have passed. The air around me remains unruffled. There is no heavy breathing. I fear that I am in no danger at all.
Published in The Mechanics’ Institute Review – Issue 6, Birkbeck, 2009