The secondment

I hadn’t been home for a year, an excruciating long exhausting and fateful year. I had kept in touch, as I promised with Mum and Dad by email, and sent them postcards of San Francisco’s many and varied tourist attractions, a fictional narrative portraying my life in the states as a whirlwind of new adventures and excitement.  As the pilot announced we would soon be descending into Heathrow I knew it wouldn’t be long until I had to come clean to my proud family and admit I’d been living a lie for the past twelve months.  

I still remember how nervous I’d been when I made the announcement during a family dinner, I’d never been good at lying. I told them I had been offered and accepted a much sought-after secondment at the San Francisco office of the law firm I worked for. Chewing stopped mid-mouthful, there were gulps and most of my siblings and both parents had either scepticism or utter confusion sketched on their faces. I’d started my slow-burning and much bellyached about career at one of the city’s most prestigious law firms, not long after I’d graduated. With LLB proudly written after my name and clutching my freshly awarded law degree, I had somehow managed to secure the role despite only being a few points away from failing my qualification and not having much interest in the law. My Dad, now retired, had been a partner at a small firm and had managed to persuade me, his youngest and brightest daughter, to follow in his footsteps and pursue a career in law, it was his disappointment I was dreading the most.

I’d struggled as I watched many of my friends and fellow graduates soar as they gained training contracts, they fought competitively to be offered trainee roles and who were now high-flying lawyers bouncing from case to case and from firm to firm as their careers rocketed. Whilst I remained a paralegal, my career stood still, I was static, supporting solicitors much younger than me, I watched them impress their clients with the painstaking and uninspiring work I’d completed which ultimately helped them rack up their promotion points.

Then I met Joey. Although UK born and raised, he had moved to America in his mid-teens with his parents and had worked his way through the ranks after college to become the youngest partner in the firm’s history. He was based at our San Francisco office and had come to the UK for six months to work on a long-running dispute case between two brothers, one of whom was claiming for fraudulent misrepresentation over a property sale in the states. I’d been assigned to support him and for the first time in my career I started to enjoy going to work. Joey was passionate about what he did, and his extensive knowledge of the law and razor-sharp mind made sure he was one step ahead of all the other lawyers. He was tall and had the most beautiful smile I’d ever seen, his eyes sparkled when he became animated and his body, it left me speechless. This man didn’t do anything half-heartedly; he gave everything his all regardless of whether it was his career, his relationships or as I knew intimately his well looked after body. 

We started to sleep together a few weeks after he arrived at the firm. We had stayed late in the office one-night working through a complex document. As our colleagues started to leave one by one and saying their goodbyes, the office slowly emptied. The tension and electricity between us increased.  Working in such close proximity we often found ourselves leaning in closer and talking softly to each other, the heightened sexual attraction indisputable. I found myself staring at his lips, his arms, his chest and thinking about how much I wanted to kiss him, all over, I wanted to explore every delicious part of him. Oh god, the things I would let this man do to me. When we were confident, we were alone Joey took my hand and led me to the archive room, a perfect location for an indiscretion and probably premeditated. The room had no windows and a lock on the door. We didn’t speak, he just kissed me and I responded eagerly pulling at his clothes. Before I knew it, he’d unzipped and removed my dress which now lay in a pool of silky fabric at my feet. His hands and mouth were exploring my almost naked body. I was softly moaning as the pleasure oozed through me. That was the first of many clandestine encounters.

When the case was finally settled Joey started to make plans to go back to the states. As his leaving date rapidly approached, I’d often lay in bed crying after he’d fallen asleep. We’d kept our relationship secret, partly because I would have been taken off the case and the sneaking about added an element of drama to our liaisons. It had been fun, but we’d never discussed our future, or lack of. I knew I’d fallen in love with him and he was going to be leaving within a matter of days, I felt hopeless. Neither of us had wanted to face we were soon going to be separated, so we’d ignored our imminent situation.

A week before his scheduled flight he appeared in my cubicle, his beaming smile back, “do you have a second Helena?” Why the hell was he smiling, my heart was breaking, I was in turmoil and he was happy.

I followed him into the boardroom, slightly annoyed by the obvious spring in his step. He closed the door and indicated we should sit down.

“OK, I have some awesome news. I’ve had a chat with Leo back home, and he’s agreed to let you come to the states on a secondment, we’ll have to go through the motions of advertising internally but it’s in the bag, it’s yours. I’ve told him and Bill here how fantastic you are, how I couldn’t have won this case without you and how this could be the making of you career wise.”

I remember feeling shell shocked, unable to take in all the information. I felt a tinge of excitement as he told me for the first time that he loved me across the boardroom table, and that he couldn’t leave without me. I vividly remember sitting across the table opposite him, his beautiful blue eyes sparkling. I wanted to touch him, feel his skin against mine and tell him I loved him too, but I didn’t. I couldn’t speak, Joey had done all this for me, I should have been happy.  

After a couple of days when the shock had subsided, and I’d had time to process what was happening I agreed to the secondment. Following fake interviews and an announcement about the pre-agreed offer the firm started putting things in place and I was soon given a date when I would be leaving and joining Joey in the states.

I remember how nervous I was during the flight, I hadn’t seen Joey for three months, what if he’d met someone else?

The firm had arranged for a driver to meet me in the airport arrivals lounge and take me to a furnished apartment which had been arranged for me. When I’d arrived a bouquet of flowers had been left on the kitchen counter, accompanied by a note from Joey saying he couldn’t wait to be reunited with me. We’d kept in touch over email, but I hadn’t seen him since his last night in the UK.

Two hours after the chatty taxi driver had dropped me off at my new home the unfamiliar apartment buzzer sounded, and I opened the door to a beaming Joey who looked shinier and healthier than ever. His skin was glowing, and I could see the outline of his muscles through the thin linen shirt he was wearing. San Francisco must agree with him. Our kisses were frenzied, I stumbled against the hard kitchen wall which felt cool against my skin. Both of us grabbing and clawing, unable to get enough of each other. We moved to the bedroom and our bodies fused together, our limbs tangled in a delicious collision. I finally drifted off to sleep in his arms, exhausted but content. I woke up a few hours later alone in bed, I felt disorientated, a combination of jetlag and fear about why Joey had disappeared. I wandered around the still strange apartment which confirmed his absence. I spotted a note on the breakfast bar informing me we’d catch-up in the morning at the office and that he loved me. I went back to bed happy, he had a breakfast meeting and that was the reason he couldn’t stay.

The first week in my role was a whirlwind and I didn’t see Joey until Friday night. I’d suffered a back-breaking week of back to back inductions and training sessions and I’d been given a stack load of files to review for my first case. I was exhausted but excited to see him. I’d asked if we could go out somewhere to eat and have a few drinks, but he insisted on bringing a takeaway to my apartment.

It was that weekend when the fog lifted, and the stark reality of my new life came into focus.

Joey had brought a takeaway, he wanted to introduce me to California Burritos, he said they were a staple of west coast cuisine and a must-try. They were messy but delicious and the white wine he’d brought was the perfect accompaniment, and tasted sublime. After we’d eaten, we talked a little about the office, who I’d met and what my inductions had covered, then he started to undress me and led me to the bedroom.

That night was the last time I’d feel happy about being in San Francisco. We’d snuggled up under the duvet, Joey was stroking my hair and I started talking about the weekend and how I was looking forward to exploring the city with him. He cut in, surprised that I was expecting him to spend time together over the weekend. His next statement jolted me, I felt like my nerves were pumping with electricity and all I could hear was my own heartbeat, I had to concentrate on breathing as I sat up and tried to process the information he’d just casually shared.

“It’s the weekend, I’ll be with Fiona and the kids.”

I sprung out of bed and made it to the bathroom before I threw-up. My naked body was trembling, and I couldn’t muster the strength to stand so I flopped on to the cold bathroom tiles. Joey was a married man and I was his mistress, a mistress he’d had flown in from the UK so he could carry on his extramarital affair at his convenience. He didn’t come in and check I was ok, he left quietly, leaving me a scrawled note saying he’d call me.

I muddled through a second week in my new role, but I felt like everyone knew I was Joey’s bit on the side, I was convinced everyone was talking about me, judging me, and I didn’t blame them. How could I be so stupid. My second Friday night in fog city I bought a bottle of cheap plonk on my way home and downed the lot, throwing back glass after glass, not tasting the contents. I had three choices, I either held my head up high, ignore Joey and the minute my secondment is over hot foot it back to England. Or I go home now with my tail between my legs and probably lose my job. I doubted I was strong enough to face Joey at work whilst my feelings of loss were so raw, I didn’t want to see him, never mind have the courage to get through 12-hour days working on cases together. I even doubted my standard of work was good enough to be here, he’d given me a glowing report after the Bradshaw case but that could have all been a bluff to get the firm to agree to move me here. Or finally the last choice, the choice which made me wretched with despair, I carry on and pretend his wife and kids don’t exist.

Loneliness cradled me every night, I felt so desolate. Joey insisted on trying to call my mobile or speak to me in the office, but I ignored him or blanked him unless it was work related, then I would mumble a response before racing to the bathroom to silently sob in a cubicle.

I was coasting, the firm had started making noises about how they expected more from me and that I needed to improve my performance. Joey had been assigned to give me the hard word and pressed upon me how lucky I was to be given an opportunity like this and pleaded with me not to embarrass him. I stared at him during our conversation with a blank expression, my indifference laid out for him to see.

As the weeks went by my emotions rampaged and I struggled to keep them in check, one minute I was mourning my relationship, weeping and wanting him so badly I was doubled in pain and the next I was so overcome with outrage and felt so aggrieved I wanted to physically hurt him. The extremes of my feelings were exhausting.

Then one night as I lay on the sofa, watching a painfully bad made for TV movie I started adding the weeks up in my head, how long I’d been in San Francisco, and how long I had left. When it occurred to me, I hadn’t had a period for the whole time I’d been here. My head spinning, I headed out, my wobbly legs got me to the nearest 7-Eleven, and I bought a multi-pack of three tests. I didn’t want to take any chances of getting a duff one. Thirty minutes later I was staring at three positives. I felt numb.

I didn’t cry, I wasn’t sure how I felt. I’d been on the pill; this shouldn’t have happened. I must have missed a day or days, I laid for hours trying to get my head around how again I’d been monumentally stupid and what the hell I should do.

I didn’t tell Joey. I made an appointment with the HR officer at work who was sympathetic but firm with me. She explained I would not be entitled to paid maternity leave but kindly helped me arrange a prenatal visit with a doctor and talked me through what the corporate health insurance covered. 

Not having the baby wasn’t an option. I tried to avoid Joey at work and kept the news to myself until I couldn’t hide my expanding stomach any longer. I lied to my co-workers about my due date, which believe me is tricky when maths isn’t your strong point and your brain is mushy, I hoped and prayed he wouldn’t put two and two together when I went into labour. I managed to keep on top of cases at work, enough to keep my job but my health and the life growing inside me were my priority, I didn’t care about my career.

Nine months later, right on schedule, Bethany Rose screamed by way into this world. After announcing her imminent arrival she took her time; I was in labour for 36 hours. I was a nightmare patient, all the books I’d read on techniques and methods to control the pain went off the window. I screamed and swore at the nurses who were trying to help me and I told whoever would listen what I planned to do to the man who had got me in this position, in minute graphic and gory hate-filled detail. I cried and I was angry, then in contrast I had moments when I laughed hysterically especially when I thought about how stupid I looked. When it was finally over, I felt serene as I held my daughter and as I gazed at Bethany’s red blotchy, screwed up and grumpy face, I thought my heart would burst. Joey, my career, and the last nine months didn’t matter.

Bethany had behaved perfectly on the flight home; she had become grizzly a couple of times but slept most of the journey and settled down after I’d fed her. I didn’t see Joey after I’d given birth, he tried to arrange a meeting, sent letters which I didn’t read and asked me outright on a text if Bethany was mine, but I ignored him. We didn’t need him or want him in our lives.

I had handed my notice in a few days after I’d given birth and the firm agreed to let me stay in the rent-subsidised apartment until I flew back home. I think they were glad to see the back of me if I’m honest!

Getting through border control and customs was a breeze, the airline kindly organised a chaperone for me who fast-tracked Bethany and I and accompanied me through to arrivals. I spotted my parents straight away; their faces were wearing a puzzled expression as they clocked me pushing a buggy and a member of the airline dragging my luggage alongside me and chatting away.  

I took a deep breath.

“Hi Mum, Hi Dad.” 

Photo by Jasmine Carter on Pexels.com

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