Mine – J.L. Butler

I don’t remember much about the night I was meant to die. It’s funny how the mind can block out the memories it no longer wants to store, you must know that. But if I close my eyes, I can still hear the sounds of that night in May. The howl of an unseasonably cold wind, the rattle of the bedroom window, the rasp of the sea against shingle in the distance. It was also raining. I remember that much, because the thin scratch of water against glass is still vivid in my head. For a minute it was hypnotic. For a minute it disguised the sound of his footsteps outside: tap, tap, tap, soles against flagstone in slow determined steps. I knew he was coming and I knew what I had to do. Lying under the duvet on the iron bed, I willed myself to keep calm. A faint glow from the string of bulbs on the coastal path leaked into the room. Usually this spectral darkness soothed me, but tonight it made me feel more alone, as if I were floating in space without a tether. I balled my fist, hoping, praying that the comforting twilight of the new day would present itself at the window. But even without looking at the clock, I knew that this was at least four or five hours away and I didn’t need to tell myself that it would be too late. The footsteps were right outside the house now, and the faint metallic grumble of a key being pushed into the lock echoed up the stairs.

It was hard to disguise sounds in the big, old building, it was too tired and weary for that … How had I let myself get into this? I had gone to London for a better life, to improve myself and meet a more interesting set of people. To fall in love. And now here I was: a cautionary tale. I heard the front door creak open. Chilled air seeped through the cracks in the window pane and pinched my nostrils shut. It was as cold as a mortuary; a macabrely apt simile. I was even lying like a mummy, arms by my sides, trembling fingers tucked under my thighs, as heavy and immobile as if they were dead weights, anchoring me to the bed. As the footsteps reached the top of the stairs, I pulled my hands out from the warmth and settled them on top of the cool cotton duvet cover. My fingers were clenched, nails pressing against my palms, but at least I was ready to fight. I suppose that was the lawyer in me.

He hesitated outside the bedroom door, and the moment seemed to compress into a cold, suspended silence. Coming here had not been a good idea. Closing my eyes, I willed the single tear not to weep on to my cheek. A soft push of wood against carpet as the door opened. Every instinct in my body told me to leap out of the bed and run, but I had to wait and see if he would, if he could, do this. My heart was hammering out of my chest, my limbs felt frozen with fear. I kept my eyes shut, but I could feel him looming over me now, my body retreating into a menacing shadow. I could even hear his breathing. A hand pressed against my mouth, its touch cold and alien against my dry, puckered lips. My eyes opened, and I could see a face only inches from mine.

I was desperate to read his expression, desperate to know what he was thinking. I forced my lips apart, ready to scream, and then I waited for things to run their course. Chapter 1 Three months earlier I had only been back in chambers five minutes when I felt a presence at the door of my office. ‘Come on, put your coat back on. We’re going out,’ said a voice I recognized without even having to look up. I carried on writing, concentrating on the sound of my fountain pen scratching across the paper, an old-world sound in the digital age, and hoped that he would go away. ‘Chop-chop,’ he said, demanding my attention. I glanced at our senior clerk and gave him a grudging smile. ‘Paul, I’ve just got back from court. I have work to do, orders to type up …’ I said, taking some papers out of my pilot case.

I noticed it had a rip in the leather and made a mental note to get it repaired. ‘Pen and Wig for lunch,’ he said, picking my black coat off the rack by the door and holding it out so I could slip my arms inside. I hesitated for a moment, then resigned myself to the inevitable. Paul Jones was a force of nature and insubordination was not an option. ‘What’s the occasion?’ I asked, looking at him as if a lunchtime excursion was the most extraordinary suggestion. Most of the time, it was. I don’t think I’d had anything other than a sandwich at my desk for the past six months. ‘A new partner’s started at Mischon’s. I thought it was time you met.’ ‘Anyone I know?’ ‘She’s just moved down from Manchester.

You’ll get on.’ ‘Wooing clients with the Northern card,’ I smiled, flattening out my regional accent for comic effect. I grabbed my handbag and we walked out of my office, down the long sweep of stairs into the bowels of chambers. It was like a ghost town, although at this time of the day – a little after one o’clock – that was not unusual. The clerks were on their lunch breaks, phones went quiet and the barristers were still at court or making their way back. Stepping out on to the street, the crisp, February wind slapped against my cheeks and made me catch my breath. Or perhaps it was the sight of Middle Temple, which after fifteen years of working here, still had the power to dazzle me. Today it had a particularly bleak beauty. Sandwiched between the river and Fleet Street, Middle Temple, one of London’s four Inns of Court, is a warren of cloisters and listed buildings, a sliver of London that has remained locked in time, one of the few places in the city still lit at night by gas light, and it suited dank and grey days like today. I thrust my hands in my pockets as we walked to the pub.

‘Good day?’ This was Paul-speak for Did you win? It was important to Paul to know how well we did in all our cases. I liked our senior clerk a lot, he was supportive – paternal even, although I didn’t pretend for a moment his concern was altruistic. Work for all barristers in chambers came in by referrals and personal recommendations, and Paul, who as senior clerk juggled the entire system, got a percentage commission of all the fees that came through the door. ‘You’ve got something interesting this afternoon, haven’t you?’ he said. ‘Pre-First Directions meeting with solicitor and client. Big-money divorce.’ ‘How big? Do you know yet?’ ‘Not Paul McCartney big.’ I smiled. ‘But big enough.’ Our senior clerk shrugged.

‘Shame. We could do with a few more headline-making cases. Still, nice work, Miss Day. A divorce that size is usually a job for silk, but the solicitor requested you specifically.’ ‘It’s Dave Gilbert. I send him excellent Scotch at Christmas and he’s good to me all year.’ ‘Perhaps he knows you’re the best-value wig in London. I’d come knocking at your door if the missus ran off with a millionaire scrap-metal merchant,’ he winked. The Pen and Wig, a typical Temple pub that had fed and watered barristers since Victorian times, was located a few minutes’ walk away from chambers. I was grateful for the warm blast of air as we were sucked inside the cosy, wood-panelled room.

I frowned in puzzlement as I recognized a group of my colleagues huddled in a raised alcove area, at the far end of the bar. It was unusual to see so many of them in one place, unless they were gathered for clients’ drinks at chambers. ‘What’s this?’ ‘Happy birthday!’ Paul grinned as Charles Napier, our head of chambers, turned and waved over the tops of the heads of our two petite female pupils. ‘So we’re not meeting a solicitor?’ I asked, feeling stitched-up and self-conscious. Although my very line of work demanded that I stand up in court, I hated being the centre of attention. Besides, I had deliberately kept the fact that I was turning thirty-seven that day under wraps, not least because I wanted to forget about my march towards forty. ‘Not this lunchtime,’ he grinned, leading me through the pub. ‘Bloody hell. Decent turnout,’ I whispered, knowing how difficult it was to corral so many of my colleagues in one place. ‘Don’t let it go to your head.

Rumour has it old Charlie-boy has made the short-list for High Court judge. I think he was in the mood for celebrating and promised everyone champagne if they came down.’ ‘And here I was, thinking he actually wanted to raise a glass to me.’ ‘What are you drinking, birthday girl?’ asked Paul. ‘Lime and soda,’ I called after him as he headed for the bar, leaving me to make my way over to join Vivienne McKenzie, one of the most senior barristers at Burgess Court. ‘Happy birthday, Fran,’ said Viv, giving me an affectionate hug. ‘I think I’ve hit the age where I want to pretend this is just another day,’ I said, taking off my coat and hanging it over a chair. ‘Nonsense,’ said Viv briskly. ‘I’ve got two decades on you and I always relish the idea of new starts and fresh resolutions – a bit like New Year without the cliché and pressure of failing by Epiphany. ‘So.

You know what day it is tomorrow?’ she continued, with a hint of complicity. ‘The day after my birthday?’ ‘The Queen’s Counsel List is posted. Which means …’ she prompted. ‘The fulfilment of someone’s lifetime dream.’ I smiled. ‘It means that the application round for next year’s silk list begins,’ she replied in a theatrical whisper. I knew what was coming next. Hoping to avoid the conversation, I let my eyes drift across the pub. ‘Are you thinking of applying?’ she pressed. ‘No,’ I said, with a finality that I had not been wanting to admit even to myself.

‘You’re not too young, you know that?’ I glanced up cynically. ‘Just what every woman wants to hear on their birthday.’ ‘It was meant to be a compliment.’ Viv was studying me intently. I had seen this look many times before. Nostrils slightly flared, eyebrows raised a fraction, her grey eyes unblinking. She had the best court face in the business and deployed it to great effect. When she was my pupil master, I used to watch her in court and practise at home in front of the mirror. ‘You are one of the top juniors in the industry,’ she said with feeling. ‘Solicitors adore you.

I can think of a dozen judges who would give you an excellent reference. You need to start believing in yourself.’ ‘I’m just not sure it’s the right time to apply.’ ‘Wine and soda for you,’ winked Paul, struggling with two goblets, a bottle of Pinot Grigio and a small can of Schweppes. ‘How did you know it was my birthday?’ I smiled, taking the glasses out of his hands. ‘I make it my business to know everything that goes on in Burgess Court.’ He poured the wine and looked up. ‘So. Silk. Are you up for it, Fran?’ ‘Paul, not now,’ I said, trying to make light of the interrogation.

‘Why not now? Applications open tomorrow,’ he said, glancing at Vivienne. The broad back in front of me twitched and then turned. ‘I think it’s time to join this conversation,’ said a smooth baritone. ‘Hello, Tom,’ I said, looking up at my contemporary in chambers. He was several inches taller than me, his rower physique toned on the Thames. ‘I thought Eton taught you the art of good manners,’ I chided. ‘It did, but I’m not above eavesdropping. Not when something sounds so interesting,’ he grinned, helping himself to a top-up. ‘Well?’ said Paul. ‘What are Burgess Court’s brightest juniors thinking? To apply or not to apply for silk …’ ‘Well, I’m under starters orders.

Aren’t you, Fran?’ ‘It’s not a competition, Tom.’ ‘Yes it is,’ he replied bluntly. ‘First day in pupillage, remember? What was it you said? Despite my “so-called superior education and astonishing self-confidence”, you wouldn’t just beat me to silk, you’d beat our whole year.’ ‘I must have said it to annoy you,’ I said with mock terseness. ‘You were entirely serious.’ I looked at him, silently admitting my own surprise that Tom Briscoe was not yet a QC. His reputation was growing as the go-to barrister for trophy wives in unhappy relationships – and what wife wouldn’t want him representing them. Handsome, clever, single Tom Briscoe. He didn’t just give women legal advice, he gave them hope. ‘I think Charles is about to give a little speech,’ said Tom, nodding towards our head of chambers, who was tapping a spoon against his wine glass.

‘I’m going in for a ringside seat.’ Paul stepped outside to take a call and I was left alone with Viv. ‘You know what Tom’s problem is?’ ‘Too much testosterone coursing through his bloodstream?’ I smiled, watching him flirt with one of the pupils. ‘You should at least think about it,’ said Viv more seriously. ‘All that time, the effort, the expense of applying for silk … And what for? Two thirds of us will get turned down.’ ‘You’ve done your homework.’ Viv folded her arms in front of her and sipped her wine thoughtfully. ‘You know, Francine, I have a theory about the gender pay gap.’ ‘What is it?’ ‘Women simply don’t ask.’ I snorted.

‘I’m not joking. I’ve seen it time and time again. Men believe in their own brilliance – warranted or not.’ She paused for a few questioning moments. ‘What’s really putting you off?’ ‘People like Tom.’ ‘Don’t let him get to you,’ she said, rolling her eyes. ‘It’s not him. It’s the system,’ I said quietly, voicing the fear, the paranoia I had felt ever since being called to the Bar. ‘You can’t deny how snobby it is.’ ‘Things are changing,’ said Viv in those crisp Cheltenham Ladies’ College vowels that reminded me she didn’t really understand.

‘How many state-school-educated QCs are there, Viv? How many women, Northerners, ethnic minorities … The very top end of our profession is still full of white, upper-middle Oxbridge men like Tom.’ ‘I thought you’d see that as a challenge,’ she said as a more insistent sound of metal against glass rang around the pub. ‘You just need a big case, Fran. A game-changer that will get you noticed.’ ‘A case that will change my life,’ I said softly. ‘Something like that,’ Viv smiled approvingly, and we both turned to listen to Charles. Chapter 2 I only stayed for one drink at the Pen and Wig before drifting back to chambers. I decided to go the long way, through the maze of quiet back allies, so that I could have a cigarette. It wasn’t even two o’clock and already the day looked as if it was drawing in, the skeletons of the naked trees imprinted against the pewter sky like cave paintings, the dark clouds pressing down on the rooftops, lending the city a wintry gloom. I got back to Burgess Court a few minutes past the hour, in time for a meeting that was scheduled for a quarter past.

Ours is predominantly a family law set, with a little bit of criminal work thrown into the judicial mix. I like the word ‘set’ to describe the collection of barristers that room together in chambers. It makes me think of badgers, an image that pretty much sums up this division of the law: wise, industrious men with their long black gowns, white horsehair wigs and Caucasian complexions, although there is a little more diversity in our chambers, which is probably why they let me in – a Northerner with the scar of a nose-piercing and a comprehensive school education. These days I have two areas of speciality. Matrimonial finance and children-related cases. I thought the latter would be satisfying, crusading work, but the reality is difficult and heart-breaking cases. So now I concentrate on high-net-worth divorces, for the entirely shallow reason that the work is generally less distressing and, regardless of how long proceedings go on, you know that they have the money to pay my fee. I don’t go home and think I have changed the world, but I know that I am good at what I do and it pays the mortgage on a maisonette with an N1 postcode. David Gilbert, the instructing solicitor, was already waiting for me in reception. He was dressed for the cold in a heavy navy woollen coat although his head was bald and shiny like a Burford brown egg.

‘I just saw Vivienne,’ he said, standing up to kiss my cold cheek. ‘Apparently, you’ve had a chambers trip to the pub for someone’s birthday and you didn’t even tell me.’ ‘Would you have come bearing gifts?’ I chided. ‘I’d have come to the office with champagne at the very least. Happy Birthday, anyway. How are you?’ ‘Older. Wiser.’ ‘Mr Joy will be with us in a moment.’ ‘I’ve just got to pop upstairs. Do you want to go through?’ I said pointing towards the conference room.

‘Helen can bring Mr Joy in when he arrives.’ I climbed the stairs to my office, a small space beneath the eaves at the very top of the building. It was little more than a broom cupboard, but at least I didn’t have to share it with anyone. I scooped up the case files, grabbed a pen from the pot and ran my tongue around my teeth, wishing that I still had a packet of Tic Tacs on my desk to get rid of the sour tang of alcohol and cigarette smoke on my breath. When I came back downstairs meeting room two had been prepared for clients in the usual way, with a tray of sandwiches and a small plate of Marks and Spencer’s biscuits in the middle of the conference table. The pump-action coffee pot I could never work sat ominously on a chest of drawers by the door, alongside miniature bottles of Evian. David was on his mobile phone. He glanced up and indicated he would just be a minute. ‘Water?’ I asked, gesturing towards our catering. ‘Coffee,’ he whispered, and pointed at the biscuits.

I grabbed a cup, faced the coffee pot with determination and pushed the top hard. Nothing happened so I pushed it again, harder, spurting coffee over the back of my hand. I winced in pain as the liquid seared my skin. ‘Are you OK?’ Someone handed me a tissue and I used it to wipe my stinging hand. ‘I hate these things,’ I muttered. ‘We should buy a Nespresso machine and be done with it.’ ‘Or maybe just a kettle.’ I looked up and a suited man was looking at me intently, momentarily distracting me from the burning sensation on my skin. David snapped his phone shut and turned to us. ‘Do you two know each other?’ ‘No,’ I said quickly.

‘Martin Joy – Francine Day. It’s her birthday. Maybe we can put a match in one of those fancy biscuits and sing to her.’ ‘Happy Birthday,’ said Martin, his green eyes still fixed on me. ‘You should go and run that under the cold water.’ ‘It’s fine,’ I said, turning to throw the tissue in the bin. When I faced the table again, Martin had already poured two cups of coffee. He went to sit across the table from me, next to David, which gave me the chance to observe him. He was not particularly tall but had a presence that filled the room, something I noticed a lot with very successful people. His suit was sharp, his tie neatly drawn into a Windsor knot.

He was around forty, but I could not say a precise age. There was no sign of grey in his dark hair, although a hint of stubble around his jaw glinted tawny in the strong lights of the conference room. His eyebrows were flat and horizontal across mossy green eyes. Two frown lines carved into his forehead gave him an intensity that suggested he would be a very tough negotiator. I looked down and gathered my thoughts. I felt nervous, but then I always did when I was meeting clients for the first time. I was conscious of my desire to please those who were paying my fee, and there was always a certain awkwardness dealing with people who thought they were tougher, smarter than you were. ‘I take it you’ve read the file,’ said David. ‘Martin is the respondent. I’ve recommended you to him as leading counsel.

’ ‘So you’re the one who’s going to fight for me in court,’ said Martin, looking directly at me. ‘I’m sure David has explained that no one wants to go to court,’ I said, taking a sip of my coffee. ‘Except the lawyers,’ replied Martin without missing a beat. I knew how this worked. I had been in this situation enough times not to get offended. Family law clients tended to be angry and frustrated, even – especially – with their legal team, so first meetings were often tense and fractious. I wished he wasn’t sitting opposite me – a configuration I hated. I preferred to remind people that we were all on the same side. ‘Actually, I’m a member of an organization called Resolution. We favour a non-confrontational approach to marital dispute, avoiding courts where possible, encouraging collaborative legal solutions.

’ ‘Collaborative legal solutions,’ he repeated slowly. I wasn’t sure if he was making fun of me by using the stiff legalese. He was certainly judging me. The woman. The Northerner. The junior. He leant forward in his chair and looked at me. ‘I don’t want this to be difficult, Miss Day. I’m not an unreasonable man; I want this process to be as fair as possible, but I can’t just sit back and let my wife take everything she wants.’ ‘I’m afraid the concept of “fair” isn’t for you or Mrs Joy to decide,’ I said carefully.

‘That’s why we have courts, judges, case law …’ I shifted tack: ‘Do we know her starting position?’ I knew some detail about the case already having spent two hours of the previous evening digesting it. But it was always better to hear it from the horse’s mouth. ‘My wife wants half of everything. The houses, the money, the business … Plus, a share of future earnings.’ ‘What is it you do?’ I asked briskly. ‘I head up a convertible arbitrage fund.’ I nodded as if I knew what that meant. ‘We trade off anomalies in the market.’ ‘So you’re a gambler?’ I asked. ‘It’s financial investment.

’ ‘And is it successful?’ ‘Yes. Very.’ I was reminded of Vivienne McKenzie’s words. About men and their buoyant self-confidence that makes them believe they are kings of the world. ‘We have only thirty employees, but it’s a very profitable business. I set the company up with my partner, Alex Cole. I own sixty per cent of the business, he owns the rest. The bulk of my assets are my shares in the business. My wife wants the valuation of my shareholding to be as high as possible. She’d prefer liquid cash to shares.

’ ‘When did you start the business?’ I said, writing it all down. ‘Fifteen years ago.’ ‘Before your marriage,’ I muttered. According to the file, they had been married for eleven years. ‘We should probably go through the Form E,’ said David Gilbert. I nodded. I had seen the financial disclosure documents for both Martin and his wife. His were remarkably similar to the dozens of other declarations of wealth I had seen over the years. The properties dotted around the world, cars, art, and overseas bank accounts. I ran my finger down the form that his wife had submitted.

Donna Joy, a thirty-four-year-old with a Chelsea address, had the typically heavy expenditure and low personal income that seemed standard for a woman in her position. There were pages of it, although my eyes picked out the more remarkable details. ‘Annual expenditure on lunches: £24,000,’ I muttered out loud. ‘That’s a lot of sushi,’ said Martin. I looked up and our eyes met. I’d been thinking exactly the same thing. ‘She claims she is unemployable. Mental fragility …’ I noted. Martin gave a soft, quiet snort. ‘Has she ever worked?’ ‘When we met, she was the manager of a clothes shop, but she handed her notice in once we got married.

She said she wanted to educate herself, so I paid for a lot of courses. Art courses, mainly. I set her up in a studio. She works there, but she won’t call it work for divorce purposes.’ ‘Does she sell her stuff?’ ‘A little. Honestly, it’s more of a vanity project, but she enjoys it. Her paintings are quite good.’ His face softened and I found myself wondering what she was like. I could picture her now. Beautiful, a little bohemian … high maintenance, definitely.

I felt I knew her without having met her. ‘And everything that’s listed here. That’s it?’ ‘You mean, am I hiding anything?’ ‘I need to know everything. Pensions, off-shore accounts, shareholdings, trusts. We don’t want any surprises. Besides, she’s asking for forensic accounting into your affairs.’ ‘So what do you think?’ asked Martin finally. I noticed that his shirt was very white. ‘Your wife is young, but she enjoyed a very high standard of living during the marriage. You had what we call a mid-length marriage.

Her claim would have been more concrete if you had been together over fifteen years, less so if you were married under six years.’ ‘So we’re in a grey area that the law loves.’ ‘Provision for the financially weaker spouse is generous in this country. The start point is generally one of equality. But we can argue that she didn’t really contribute to the accumulation of wealth, that the business is a non-matrimonial asset.’ I scanned the file, checking a detail. ‘You haven’t got children. That helps.’ I looked up at him, realizing I shouldn’t have said that. For all I knew, the relationship might have broken down because of an inability to have a family.

It was one of those things I never found out as a divorce lawyer. I knew that people wanted to get divorced, and I advised them how to do it. But I never really knew why, beyond the broad strokes of infidelity or unreasonable behaviour. I never truly got to know what made two people who had once genuinely loved one another, in some cases, grow to hate each other. ‘We’re keen for a clean-break settlement,’ said David. ‘Absolutely.’ I nodded. ‘What sort of split do you think I can realistically expect?’ I didn’t like to be drawn on a number, but Martin Joy was the sort of client who expected answers. ‘We should start at a seventy–thirty split and go from there.’ I put my pen down, feeling exhausted, wrung out.

I wished I hadn’t touched that wine and soda at lunchtime. Martin shook his head, staring at the desk. I thought he might have been pleased at the suggestion that we could avoid a fifty–fifty asset split, but he looked absolutely shell-shocked. ‘What happens next?’ ‘The First Directions meeting is in ten days’ time.’ ‘Will any decisions be made then?’ He had seemed composed throughout the meeting, but hints of anxiety were beginning to show. I shook my head. ‘The clue is in the name. All very preliminary stuff, I’m afraid.’ ‘Fine,’ he said uncomfortably. It was dark outside now.

He stood up to leave and pulled his shirt cuffs down from under his jacket sleeves. One and then the other. Then he looked at me. ‘I’ll see you then, Miss Day. I look forward to it.’ I stretched out my hand and as he closed his fingers around mine, I realized I was looking forward to seeing him again too.

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