Natalie Heiser was far too busy and important to drive all the way out to Henry’s for a consultation, even if they were friends. She also had a policy of not providing legal advice over the phone.
“So, of course you need to go into the city and meet her personally,” Sarah snickered when I called her to tell her what I was doing. “Does Bree know?”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m getting legal advice, Sarah. It’s not a date.”
“Pfft. I’ve seen how you look at her,” she said, as if catching me glancing at her chest one single time meant anything, and then paused. “You know, I’m not sure I don’t look at her like that, and that’s saying something. That woman is some sort of evil siren.”
It would be hard for anyone not to look at her like that, this was Natalie we were talking about: six foot in heels, curves like a centerfold, and walking circles around everyone like she was wearing leather and brandishing a riding crop. The irony was that she specialised in discrimination and harassment law, which meant that anyone who was foolish enough to comment on how terrifyingly beautiful she was—or worse, make a pass at her—would probably find themselves $2mil poorer and unemployable.
“You know what Gemma says about her?” Sarah asked me sagely. “She says that Natalie only insists on meeting people because she knows the effect she has on them. In person, she can walk all over you.”
I scoffed. Gemma was great, but walking all over her wasn’t exactly hard mode. “I’m not Gemma,” I reminded her. “Henry will be there too, I promise he won’t let Natalie eat me alive.”
She seemed unconvinced. “I normally don’t pay much attention to the rumour mill at Frost, but apparently ‘that hot union lawyer’ has Henry wrapped around her little finger, and they’re right. If she wanted to eat you alive, he wouldn’t be able to stop her. No one would. You’d be done for.”
I rolled my eyes. “Sarah.”
She was ignoring me. “I’m going to come too,” she decided. “I mean, aside from trying to stop her from eating you alive, it’s advice about something I’m doing too, right? I should probably hear it. What time are you meeting her?”
I sighed audibly. “Seven, at Rockpool.”
She stuck the appointment in her diary and left me to finalize the marketing materials for the rest of the day while she wrapped up all the other admin before the launch.
When it was time to head into Sydney, I had three options: Uber, taxi or train. Given the state of my credit card, I hadn’t even given the train a second thought until I stepped outside into the afternoon sun and remembered that we were in the middle of a heatwave. Great, I thought, I’m going to die of heatstroke as penance for my poor financial management. I accepted my fate, but somehow managed to survive the entire scorching walk to the station without passing out or burning to a crisp.
The trains weren’t much cooler than outside, though, and so even in the light shirt I was wearing, I felt sweaty and swollen and my binder felt like a boa constrictor by the time I arrived in the CBD. I arrived at Rockpool Bar & Grill probably looking like I’d just run a marathon to a doorman who gave me the type of haughty once-over normally reserved for boutique clothing stores. “Surname?”
“Lee,” I said, without thinking, sweating everywhere and worrying my binder was visible. I only realised at the last second I hadn’t actually booked a table.
He glanced at the list on his tablet and spent an agonising few seconds searching for my name. Then, his expression changed. “My apologies, Mr Lee,” he said respectfully instead of tossing me outside to wait in the heat. “The boardroom is right this way.” He led me past the tables to the corner room and showed me inside. “The wine list is on the side table,” he told me, pointing at it. “Would you like a drink while you wait for your colleagues?”
I stared at him. When people read me as a man, they typically thought I was a teenager. I definitely didn’t think I looked old enough to be offered alcohol. I shook my head.
Oblivious to my discomfort, he smiled. “Very well. Let us know if you require the dinner menu,” he told me, and then exited and left me standing in place.
It wasn’t until Henry and Sarah arrived, and Henry commented, “I figured I should book the boardroom in case we discussed anything confidential,” that it all fell into place.
“Oh!” I put the wine list I’d been fanning myself with back on the table, and laughed. “That’s why the waiter was so polite to me! He thought I was you!”
Henry blinked, but didn’t miss a beat. “I mean with a great shirt like that one, I can understand the confusion.” I laughed again; my shirt was great, but Henry’s terrible fashion sense was legendary, and he knew it. He still needed me to pick out his ties. He seemed entertained by it, anyway. “If it’s that easy to fool people, perhaps I can send you to some of my breakfast meetings,” he suggested.
Sarah reached for the wine list I’d discarded so she could fan herself with it, too. “Can you go to my meetings, too?” she complained. “I’m sick of my team. You want to hear what I’ve had to put up with all day?”
She’d only just begun to launch into a tirade about work when the door opened again—all the way.
Standing in the doorway was an imposingly tall brunette with perfectly coifed hair and a perfectly cut dress suit. There was a no-nonsense smile on her bright red lips. “Sorry to interrupt,” she said, glancing at her watch as she sauntered in, “but I’ve only got about forty minutes before I’m due back at the office.” Her eyes ran across us and rested on Sarah. “Sarah,” she said. “Good of you to join us.”
Sarah smiled a bit thinly at her and I understood why; it was difficult to tell if Natalie was pleased or annoyed that Sarah had come as well. She was one of those people who held her cards very close to her ample chest.
Henry gave her a very bright smile as he greeted her. “Natalie, good to see you again!”
She nodded in a somewhat familiar manner at him, cool as usual. “Henry.” If I hadn’t known they were genuinely good friends, I’d probably have believed what everyone else at Frost did: the he adored her and she was just using him to get the inside story on Frost.
She sat down in a chair opposite us as if she owned the entire restaurant, leaning back and lacing her fingers casually across her slender middle. She looked directly at Sarah. “Should I give you a moment to finish what you were saying?” It was hard to tell if it was a genuine offer.
Sarah tried to make light of it in case it wasn’t. “Sure, I bet you’re totally interested in hearing about how everyone’s decided I had my baby with this ‘mystery graphic designer guy’,” she indicated me, “and not my boyfriend. No, it’s fine. I can tell these guys about that later.”
Natalie’s sharp eyebrows lowered slightly. “Everyone at work is discussing that?”
Sarah blinked. “Yes?”
She pivoted her chair towards Sarah. “Actually,” she said clearly, “as your union legal counsel, I would be interested in hearing more about it. You do realise it constitutes sexual harassment, don’t you?”
Sarah looked a bit startled at ‘sexual harassment’. “Wow, no, I was just having a rant! It doesn’t even rate compared to most of the stuff that goes on. Sex scandals are a dime a dozen at Frost, it’s fine, really.”
Natalie wasn’t letting her off that lightly. “’It’s fine’?” she asked flatly. “So you feel completely comfortable with the men in your department openly discussing your sex life and gossiping about who fathered your child at work, to each other and in front of you?”
Sarah gave her a look that said, ‘of course not’.
Natalie fanned her hands out. “Well, then,” she said, “I’m just letting you know it’s illegal and complaining to me is an option.”
Henry piped up beside me. “If you’d prefer to complain internally, Sarah, I can email you the forms if you’d like. You can even complete them anonymously.”
Natalie rolled her eyes. “Yeah, my professional advice is don’t do that,” she told Sarah. “There’s only two women in the marketing department and only one of them has a baby, so the promise of anonymity is a completely hollow one.”
Henry frowned. “It’s not a hollow promise. I personally de-identify all the—”
She turned her chair slowly towards him. “You know I like you, Henry, but you’re a toothless tiger at Frost,” she said, and then reached across the table to pat his hand somewhat patronisingly. “One of the two CEOs would get a hold of the original complaint and then it’s curtains for Sarah’s career.”
Henry’s expression hardened. “Natalie, I find it unfair that you think I wouldn’t try to protect Sarah from—”
“Oh, I do think you’d try,” she told him easily. “Of course you’d try. I bet you tried to protect Min from what happened to him, as well, and look how that went.” While we were still reeling from that, she turned back to Sarah. “My best advice is never, ever complain internally at Frost. Most of the managers couldn’t care less about the health of their staff as long as everyone’s getting their bonuses.” She sat back in the leather chair again and threw her arms open in a frustrated gesture. “And yet, mystifyingly, my complaints list contains exactly zero submissions from Frost employees. It’s infuriating. Anyway!” She slapped her hand commandingly on the table. “I probably only have about fifteen minutes left now. So, let’s hear about this contracts dilemma of yours, Min.”
I was completely winded from listening to that whole exchange. “Um,” I managed, glancing at Henry. He looked just as silenced as I felt. Somehow, despite all that, I managed to pull myself together enough to explain all about how Sarah had been feeding me information about the graphics tenders to make sure I got them. Natalie listened, occasionally asking questions. I couldn’t read her, so at the end, I had no idea if I’d just confessed to some terrible crime or not. “So, if Frost finds out, Sarah and I aren’t going to be accused of, like, the graphics contract-equivalent of insider trading, are we?”
Natalie looked entertained. “No,” she said clearly, but then gave her answer some further thought. “Look, you haven’t done anything illegal in the criminal sense. I suppose it’s possible other competing graphics companies could find out what’s happened and attempt to sue either you or Frost over the lack of transparency, but it probably wouldn’t go further than that. Not against Frost. And Min, am I right in presuming you have no money or assets?”
Not unless an enormous credit card debt was considered an asset. “None.”
“Good. No one’s going to bother spending thousands in legal costs suing someone with no money to take, so you’re pretty safe in that regard.”
I felt like I just needed to clarify. “So, we’re not really doing anything wrong?”
She nodded once. “You’re not doing anything wrong. It’s not even against Frost’s policies to outsource to related providers. The entire board all have their fingers in the pie somewhere.”
Both Sarah and I breathed a big sigh of relief. It felt good to hear that! “Whew,” Sarah said, pretending to wipe her brow. “I was a bit worried for a second that it was something I could get fired over.”
Natalie didn’t even blink. “You could get fired over it.”
The smile dropped right off Sarah’s face. “I—” She swallowed. “But I thought you said—”
“Of course you could get fired over it.” Natalie looked perfectly calm. “You could get fired over anything, if someone wanted to fire you enough.”
Sarah and I glanced at each other.
“’Legal’ doesn’t mean ‘a good idea’. So, Min,” Natalie said, making a lazy hand gesture at me. “I don’t know if your little side hustle sniping Frost graphic contracts is necessarily a good idea. But there’s nothing legally wrong with it, so I suppose it depends just how much risk you’d like to take on.”
“None,” I said immediately. This conversation wasn’t giving me the relief I’d hoped for at all; I couldn’t live with myself if Sarah got fired over trying to help me get the graphics contracts!
Natalie shrugged. “Well, that’s my advice, then. It’s not illegal or against Frost policies, but I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that you’re taking a risk given how unpopular you are with upper management. It’s even more of a risk because the person at Frost with her head on the chopping block is a woman, and she has a new baby, and you know how Frost feels about women with ‘conflicting priorities’.”
Sarah took issue with that and leant forward. “Now, wait a minute,” she said firmly. “My priorities have never been in question. I didn’t take my maternity leave, only the two weeks of leave at Christmas that everyone else took, and I don’t leave early or neglect my work in any way because of Charlie.”
“Sarah,” Natalie said with the hint of paternalism that always followed her calling us by our names, “Do you think that matters at all to someone who wants to get rid of you? They’d frame it as generosity, giving you the opportunity to step down so you can focus on your family.”
“But I’m getting great results with all my projects and—”
“The truth isn’t pretty,” Natalie said, cutting her off. “Mega corps like Frost do whatever they want until you either sue them or drag their name through all the papers enough to scare their shareholders, or both. That’s just how it is. The only reason 480 workers didn’t lose their jobs before Christmas was because we had a story in the papers every single week about it so the board got cold feet and started worrying about Frost’s reputation.”
Sarah looked exhausted. “So basically, what you’re saying is technically Min and I aren’t doing anything wrong, but anyone who wants to fire me can, even if that’s illegal, and they probably will because I’m a woman with a new baby.”
Natalie made a ‘tada’ motion. “Welcome to being employed by Frost, and why I have such a special interest in this company.”
We all sat there for a moment and processed that. Eventually, Sarah closed her jaw. “Well, that’s it, then: I’ll just have to make sure I don’t get anyone offside,” she said. “I can play nice. I’ve been doing it for years.”
“In a department full of men who sexually harass you. Sounds like a healthy work environment.”
Sarah shrugged. “I’ve been there for years,” she said, sounding like she was feeling every single one of those years right now. “Besides, according to you there isn’t really anything else I can do, because if someone wants to get rid of me, they will.”
“That’s not what I said at all,” Natalie told her. “You can sit tight and play nice and endure constant disrespect, discrimination and harassment if you wish.” She paused. “Or, you can do something about it.”
“You already said that if I complained, that would be the kiss of death for my—”
“Not you,” Natalie told her, and then swung her chair around to face me. “Min.”
My lips parted. Me?!
“If Min makes a public wrongful dismissal complaint, Frost won’t want to be seen taking any sort of action that seems to support the concerns raised in it. Action like firing or demoting one of only two women in the very department Min was complaining about.”
As I sat there with my head spinning, Sarah looked thoughtfully across at me. My eyes were probably as wide as saucers. When she saw my expression, she shook her head sharply. “No. Everyone knows I’m friends with Min, though. Diane would kill me. No,” she sounded firmer, “thanks, but playing nice will just have to be it for now.”
Honestly, I was relieved Sarah had said that. The very last thing I wanted to do was lock horns with Frost again; I still had nightmares about that place. “And I’ll just have to stop taking graphics contracts with Frost. It’s okay. I’ll find another job,” I said like I hadn’t already spent months trying to do exactly that.
Natalie exhaled at length and leant back in her chair. She spent a moment watching us, and then held her hands up in a ‘yield’ motion. “Suit yourselves,” she said coolly. “You asked for my advice, and now you have it.” In a smooth motion, she stood and checked her watch. “At least I’ll have plenty of time to get back to my office, I suppose.”
Henry stood with her. “I’m happy to drive you.”
“Good,” she said, giving him a smile as they left together. “The aircon in your Lexus is going to be better than whatever someone’s Uber has to offer.”
Sarah and I watched the door swing shut behind them, sitting in silence for a minute or so while we digested all that information. Eventually we looked at each other.
This was not the conversation I’d hoped for. “Well, fuck.”
Sarah looked just as haunted. “Yeah,” she emphatically, and then reached for the wine list. “Since I’ve just learnt that I’m completely doomed, how about I bottle-feed Charlie tonight and we just order everything on this?” She waved the wine list at me.
“Tempting. As long as everything on that costs $17, which is how much I have in my bank account.”
She sighed and put the list on the table. “Yeah, and given that my destiny is apparently to be fired by Frost, I should probably be careful, too.” She leant back and ran a hand through her hair.
Eventually, we decided that the best option was going back to Sarah’s place and drowning our sorrows in a big bowl of Bree’s cheesy pasta. At least spending the night at Sarah’s would ease my guilt about living off Henry, even if I still had to worry about how Sarah helping me might ruin her career at any second.