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.
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.
‘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’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.