‘I am absolutely terrified of losing a job I absolutely hate.’
This realisation came to Stephen Maserov when he woke suddenly at around 3.30 one Wednesday morning. He wondered whether any of the other second-year lawyers who also worked at the prestigious commercial law firm, Freely Savage Carter Blanche, felt this way. If they didn’t, how was it that he, an English literature major, former high school teacher and now a law graduate, did? In any event, lying there in his rented one-bedroom apartment, he found this unspoken articulation of his lose–lose predicament perversely liberating.
Among the equity partners of the vast legal empire that was Freely Savage Carter Blanche, the most feared was Mike Crispin ‘Crispy’ Hamilton. Maserov had heard the name even before he’d joined the firm. Hamilton sat in a corner office so high above the ground that a prolonged and studied stare out of either of the floor-to-ceiling glass windows would never permit identification by the naked eye of even the species way, way down on the street let alone its individual members hurrying to work for what would never, not ever, come within a light year of the annual salary, much less the partnership dividends, much less the private extra-legal entitlements and the trust fund accruals of Hamilton, who sat in the corner office no more inclined to imagine the lives of the people on the street than he was inclined to imagine the inner life of a bat.
And so he never looked down when he looked out the window. He certainly couldn’t remember ever looking down and if it wasn’t on his time sheet, where each hour was divided into ten billable units of six minutes, then he hadn’t done it, not even when Joy was standing next to it. Joy, a young woman he had instructed to allow herself to be known as ‘Joy’, was his personal assistant. She was to be known as ‘Joy’, he explained when she started working for him, because her predecessor had been known as ‘Joy’ and this would avoid confusion.
It was in Hamilton’s corner office that Malcolm Torrent sat in a plush chair with his back to the window – Hamilton had the window view – watching Joy pour them both a glass of Perrier from Hamilton’s office minibar. Malcolm Torrent was the CEO of Torrent Industries, a giant company in the construction industry locally and internationally with a market value that hovered around $37 billion. They were waiting for the second-year lawyer, Stephen Maserov, who had just been summoned to join their conference. Mr Torrent was paying for every second Hamilton’s Joy sashayed to the minibar, poured the water and sashayed out of the office again. Hamilton observed that it also served to distract Malcolm Torrent from the stress of whatever it was that had brought him there. Hamilton felt Maserov was taking far too long to arrive but Joy’s comings and goings eased the ninety seconds they had to endure before his arrival.
Few lawyers below the Fifth Years ever spoke to Malcolm Torrent in person and all of the First Years were instructed not to engage with him if ever they should come upon him anywhere in the building. There was an unwritten rule within the firm that costs and disbursements that the lawyers couldn’t otherwise hide should be buried in one of the many hundreds of files the firm had opened under the name of Torrent Industries.
As a second-year lawyer, Stephen Maserov knew of this unwritten law and thought that – since no lawyers below Fifth Year had ever been known to attend a conference with Mr Torrent – he must have been caught putting disbursements on a Torrent Industries file that properly belonged somewhere else. Perhaps the unwritten rule was not a rule but a myth. But with his own eyes he had seen other lawyers, senior and junior, billing Torrent Industries for non-Torrent costs and there had been no repercussions, none that he’d been aware of. Maybe it was an unwritten rule that had been implemented by so many at the firm so often that Torrent Industries had got wise to it. Perhaps Mr Torrent had been alerted to it by one of Freely Savage’s disgruntled former staff members – there were five disgruntled former staff members for every current staff member. They had even formed a support group, the ‘FSS’, the Freely Savage Survivors.
Stephen Maserov was worried that an example was going to be made of him. This would explain why he, a Second Year, had been summoned to Hamilton’s office for a meeting with Hamilton and Mr Torrent. The firm was going to offer him up as sacrifice to Torrent. What other possible explanation could there be?
Joy knocked at the door, stood at it without entering and announced, ‘Stephen Maserov is here,’ whereupon Stephen Maserov entered Hamilton’s corner office.
‘Maserov, I don’t believe you’ve met Malcolm Torrent.’ Of course he hadn’t met Malcolm Torrent. He’d spoken to Hamilton no more than six times and on most of these occasions when he had gone home at the end of the day and told his wife about it she had poured him a double Scotch to help him recover. This was in the days before they had separated, or, more precisely, before she had asked him to leave.
‘Pleased to meet you, Mr Torrent,’ he said as he and Malcolm Torrent shook hands.
‘Maserov, I want to thank you for your work on the Hoffner file.’
Stephen Maserov’s forced smile froze as did the layer of sweat that adhered to his back, a miniature vertical Dead Sea that no shirt or suit jacket could be trusted to hide. Stephen Maserov had not worked on the Hoffner file. Not only that, he had never heard of the Hoffner file. Should he accept thanks for work he hadn’t done in the hope that it would help him or should he immediately volunteer that he hadn’t worked on the Hoffner file and hope for praise for his honesty or at least a quick and neutral return to the position he was in when he had walked into the room? There was no time to consider it, no time to call his wife, even assuming she was free and agreeable to taking his call. Following the birth of their second child she had resumed teaching on a part-time basis and he knew she would probably be teaching at that very minute.
They had met when they had both been teachers. They had married and, soon after putting a deposit on a house, reached the conclusion that at least one of them needed a better-paying job. So Stephen Maserov got himself into law school as a mature-aged student and Eleanor supported them both on her teacher’s salary. The arrival of their first son, however, and the years and money sacrificed so that Stephen could study law took a toll on their marriage. They thought things might improve when Stephen took a job at a prestigious city law firm but they were wrong. The long, gruelling and bewildering hours Maserov spent at work only deepened the chasm between them. In an attempt to save their marriage, he mounted a case for having another child which was an especially heroic offer given that he barely saw his wife anymore and hadn’t seen his libido since the previous financial year. Sure enough another son was born. He was loud and healthy but the marriage was, by Eleanor’s reckoning, terminally ill. Describing herself as a corporate widow in all but liberty, one who had contracted a sexually transmitted debt, Eleanor suggested a trial separation. ‘If you keep a clean shirt in your office you won’t even notice,’ Eleanor advised.
But Stephen Maserov didn’t have an office. He lived in a collapsible workstation in one of the interstices between other people’s promising careers in the glass and steel tower that caged Freely Savage Carter Blanche. Most nights since they’d separated four months earlier, Stephen Maserov, now aged thirty-two, would visit the marital home to help put their two young children to bed with the additional not-so-well-hidden hope of reconciling with Eleanor. Then he would return to work for a few hours to try to make the day’s budget. Then he would return to his recently rented one-room apartment.
Now, as the early morning sun streamed through the windows of Hamilton’s corner office, he was being thanked by the firm’s most important client in front of its most feared partner for work on a file he had never before heard of. Telling the truth had for him always been entirely autonomic, but he had been at the firm long enough to learn that the truth was actually just one of a number of options open to someone. It was always good to have options but one needed time to consider them otherwise one could choke on them. Malcolm Torrent of Torrent Industries and Hamilton were waiting for a reply concerning his work on the Hoffner file, a file Maserov had never heard of.
There was no Joy in the room. Her presence could have bought Stephen Maserov some time. What harm could there be in admitting the truth? It wasn’t as if he had done anything wrong on the file. He hadn’t worked on it at all. But credit from Malcolm Torrent, especially credit given in front of Hamilton, could be the genuine launch of a career. It could deliver him from obscurity, nay anonymity, and then later, once his tenure was more secure, the truth could be wheeled out like an overlooked driving infraction.
‘Maserov?’ Stephen Maserov heard Hamilton say, interrupting Maserov’s terror-fuelled internal debate with himself and forcing him to imagine how he must have looked standing there mute in response to Malcolm Torrent’s praise. This imagining itself took a few seconds and that, too, suddenly dawned on Stephen Maserov. ‘I wish I could accept your thanks, Mr Torrent, but I didn’t work on that file.’
Hamilton and Malcolm Torrent looked at each other in surprise.
‘Is this true?’ Torrent asked.
‘Then why are you here?’ Hamilton asked.
‘I had a message from Human Resources late yesterday to come here but perhaps there’s been some mistake,’ Maserov volunteered before clearing his throat.
Hamilton picked up a file from his desk and started scanning it.
‘Perhaps there’s another Maserov in the firm?’ Stephen Maserov said, as though he needed to explain not merely his presence but his existence. ‘Perhaps he’s the one who worked on the Hoffner file?’
Stephen Maserov knew there was no one else with his surname working at the firm.
Without looking up Hamilton spoke quietly, ‘Yes, it’s the other Maserov. Not this Maserov.’ Stephen Maserov was astonished by the speed with which Hamilton had made the misinformation his own. ‘I don’t know why this Maserov is here. I’m sorry, Malcolm,’ Hamilton said.
‘Shall I get a message to him, Mr Hamilton . . . to the other Maserov?’ Maserov asked nervously.
‘No, you just go back to your workstation.’
‘Just a minute,’ Malcolm Torrent said. ‘I like the fact that you didn’t even for a moment try to get credit for something you didn’t do.’
‘You like that?’ Hamilton asked, perplexed.
‘I do. I like the look of this particular Maserov. I smell integrity of some kind. What level are you? I haven’t seen you before.’
‘I’m a Second Year, sir.’
‘Aren’t you a bit old to be only a Second Year? There must be some kind of a story attached to you, am I right? Integrity can hold you back, you know.’
‘I was a teacher before I studied law.’
‘A teacher – that’s actually something socially useful!’ Malcolm Torrent exclaimed.
‘What do you mean, “socially useful”?’ Hamilton asked.
‘He doesn’t even know what it means,’ Malcolm Torrent laughed, addressing Maserov. Stephen Maserov was stunned to be having a conversation like this with Malcolm Torrent, of all people, and in Hamilton’s office. None of his colleagues would believe it. His wife wouldn’t believe it.
‘What made you give up teaching to practise law?’ Torrent continued, to Maserov’s amazement.
‘Well, before we were married, Eleanor, my wife, and I used to joke that there was an inverse relationship between the social utility of one’s job and one’s salary so we decided that one of us better —’
‘Joy, will you get in here please?’ Hamilton said with agitation over the intercom.
‘Actually, it’s no joke,’ Malcolm Torrent interrupted. ‘Look at what teachers, nurses, social workers, child care workers, aged care workers and paramedics earn. When you think of the help, the vital service they provide, every day, and then think of what they earn. How do they live? What the hell kind of society is this? And it’s not just them —’
‘Social workers!’ Hamilton spat out. ‘Joy, will you get in here, please, right away?’
‘I have to go,’ Malcolm Torrent said, looking at his watch, ‘but whichever Maserov you are —’
‘It’s Stephen Maserov.’
‘Stephen, I’d like you to assist with my legal work, not the company’s legal matters but my personal ones. You’ll arrange that for me, won’t you, Hamilton?’ Torrent said as Joy entered the room.
Hamilton focused all his agitation on his personal assistant. ‘Joy, I want you to find the other Maserov who works here.’
‘Mr Torrent,’ Maserov began, ‘I’m really very grateful for the interest you’re showing in me. Frankly, I can’t believe this is happening.’
‘It’s not,’ said Joy.
‘This isn’t really happening,’ she reiterated to Stephen Maserov as she kneaded Hamilton’s shoulders from behind his chair. ‘You do have a meeting with Mr Hamilton and Mr Torrent this morning,’ she continued, ‘but this isn’t it. This is an anxiety-related dream you’re having in the very early morning before the real meeting.’
‘No, I’m not. Ask yourself, which part of this, given what you know about the world, seems real?’
‘Oh my God! None of it does!’
‘No, the fear you brought in with you to Mr Hamilton’s office truly reflects your reality. But have you ever known me to talk so freely, so eloquently and so analytically?’
‘No, no I haven’t! Oh God! What happens now?’
‘Well, you had felt in the dream that it was all going well but that was only because thinking of me had given you a testosterone rush. You’re about to wake up desperately out of breath. It will feel like a heart attack but that would get you out of this morning’s meeting so you won’t be that lucky. See the daylight sneaking in through the gaps in the curtains and the cracks in your squinting, crusty eyelids, uncaring, bright white light lying in wait for you? Here comes your real life. See the hot red numbers on the digital clock, the seconds sizzling contemptuously on the time allocated to you like an angry skin condition? Those numbers are not there to help you. They’re there to chronicle your torment. Staring at your reflection in the toilet bowl before you urinate in it, which you are about to do, will somehow trigger fond memories of the days when your son would wet himself in the bed you used to share with your wife. Then you’ll picture her already up making his school lunch in the marital home you’re still helping to pay off. But right now you haven’t even lifted your head from the pillow. It won’t be easy. Your lower back’s going to hurt you on your left side and you won’t know why. There it is, feel it catch on your left side? Quite young for that, really, aren’t you? Counting you in now. Four, three . . . Know you’re running late. Here you go. Sharp pain, back and chest. Is that the beginnings, the faint stirrings of a headache? Is it? Can you hear its gallop growing ever louder and louder? Okay, mouth dry, desert dry, tumbleweed dry, tongue a tumescent swatch from a fetid shag-pile carpet of pathogens. Have to scrape it off to join society. Bladder full as an ocean. Paid off the house yet? Running quite late. Own that chest pain. Two, one . . . All on your own now . . . Breathe!’