Work was gradually parcelled out, with everyone heading off to begin their assigned tasks. Soon, there were only a few people left in the room.
"As for the rest of you," Alan said, "we need you to hold down the fort with the rest of our case load for now. Wrights is important, but it's not the only thing on our books."
Those words were like a punch in the stomach. Again I was being relegated to the bench.
It wasn't considered proper to object about your duties, but I was sick of playing second fiddle to people with less dedication and experience than me.
"Excuse me, sir," I said to Alan, as the others were filing out. I didn't know him well, but he had a reputation for being difficult to deal with, so I wanted to tread carefully.
"Yes Sophia, what is it?"
"I just wanted to talk to you about my assignment. To be honest I'm kind of disappointed not to be working on the Wrights case."
He shot me a sympathetic smile, but it lacked any real warmth. "I know it's not ideal, but we need people on our other cases too."
"I know. It's just there are plenty of less experienced associates working on the case. I think I can be more useful there than here."
His lips tightened. "Nobody doubts your talents, Sophia. They're the reason we've got you doing this. We need someone with your kind of experience keeping things on track elsewhere. You'll get your chance on the Wrights case soon enough, don't worry."
It was a classic Partner trick; act like the shitty job you've just doled out is more important than it actually is. But there wasn't anything I else I could really do. The only person who might consider helping was my direct boss Ernest, and Alan outranked him.
I thanked him and headed back to my desk.
With the majority of the floor now occupied with the new case, my morning quickly grew hectic. Phone calls and emails streamed in, never giving me time to catch my breath. I was so set in my rhythm, that when a call arrived around one o'clock, I didn't even notice that it was from a familiar number.
"Sophia Pearce," I said, doing nothing to hide the strain in my voice.
"Well hello to you too." I recognised Ruth's voice instantly.
"Shit, sorry. Kind of busy here. Thought you were another fucking client who didn't know his ass from his elbow. What's up?"
"What's up is that I'm downstairs."
"Why wou—ah shit."
She exhaled loudly. "I take it that means you forgot?"
"This was your idea, for Christ's sake. 'Come have lunch on Monday,' you said. 'We'll catch up, just the two of us.'"
"I know. I'm sorry. I'm just really busy today and it slipped my mind."
"Well, I can wait a few. Finish up what you're doing and come down."
"I don't know, Ruth. I've got a mountain of stuff to do here—"
"Even mountaineers need to eat. Come on, I came all the way across town. The least you can do is give me half an hour. We'll go to Pablo's."
It was my turn to sigh. Ruth wasn't going to give up. And as much as I knew I should power on, the thought of escaping, even for a little while, was very appealing. "Okay fine. Give me five."
"Atta girl. I'll be out front."
Fifteen minutes later we were climbing down a narrow staircase and into a dimly lit basement. Pablo's was one of my favourite restaurants. It had the perfect combination of upmarket panache and homely comfort food. The tables around us were piled high with steaming olive rolls and mounds of bolognese, while waistcoated waiters darted nimbly between them like insects, ensuring the glasses of wine and sparkling water never quite reached empty.
More than a few men's eyes followed us as we walked. I sometimes liked to pretend that those stares were for me, but the truth was, whenever Ruth was in a room, it was all eyes on her. There was just something about her that men couldn't resist. She wasn't stunningly beautiful — she had a little too much of her mother's sharp nose for that — but she had a way of moving that just exuded sexuality. Men seemed to melt in her presence; a fact she took ample advantage of.
"So, how are the unhappy couples of Sydney treating you?" I asked, once we'd ordered. Ruth was a family law attorney, specialising in messy divorce.
"No complaints. Things are a little quiet, but that's just the calm before the post-Christmas storm."
"Yea. Haven't you noticed I'm always super busy come January?"
I thought about it. "Sure, I guess. But why?"
"Two words. Christmas parties. Unlimited booze, no spouses, lots of mistletoe; it's like divorce lawyer heaven."
I laughed. "Good to see you're still bringing that notorious professional sensitivity to the table."
She raised her hands defensively. "Hey, ninety percent of the time the divorcee is getting what they deserve. I've got a couple of doozeys right now." She leaned in close. "This one poor guy just found out that his wife was cheating on him... with his dad."
Ruth shook her head. "But it gets worse. They have a kid, about four years old. Paternity tests just came back."
She shook her head.
"Exactly. The guy has been raising his own brother. You couldn't make this shit up if you tried. It's like an episode of Jerry Springer. But anyway, enough about my sordid little life. I've already said too much. How are things on your end?"
"Fine, fine, just busy."
She gazed at me for a second. "You look tired, Soph. Busy doesn't mean you can't get a proper night's sleep every once in a while."
I rolled my eyes. "Yes mum."
"I'm serious! You can't keep working yourself into the ground."
"It's not like it's intentional. Sometimes there's just too much to do. We just landed a really big case, so I doubt things will let up any time soon."
"Is that Wrights? The one you were telling me about?"
"Well, that's awesome!" She noticed my resigned expression. "Right?"
"It would be if I was actually working on it."
She blew out a long puff of air. If anybody knew about my frustrations at work, it was Ruth. "They're seriously not using you at all?"
I shrugged. "Not so far. It's early days yet, and Alan said I'd be rotated in, so maybe I'm just being bitter. I'm just so sick of sitting on the sidelines."
"I know. They're idiots for wasting you like that." She reached out and squeezed my hand. "But eventually someone there is going to recognise how fucking great you are at your job, and when that happens, the sky's the limit."