When I grow up...
"You need a plan B," said Alicia’s mother when at five years old she told her what she wanted to be when she grew up. Thirty odd years later, Alicia is on plan D: sharing a flat, no tangible savings, and working for hateful Julia, whose sole purpose in life is to make her existence utterly miserable. Good thing she has Oscar and the girls to make the long hours at work bearable. But when a series of events tears the close-knit group apart, putting friendships and motives under suspicion, will Alicia be able to restore balance and set things right? More importantly, will she ever be able to upgrade her life to at least plan C?
I glance at the clock on top of my desk, willing the time to go faster. I have been painfully watching the seconds pass by all morning. In five more minutes Oscar and the girls will be at the kitchen for our accustomed tea break. He had sent a group message half an hour ago informing us when he was taking his break and asked if anyone else was free.
I look nervously at the door, hoping Julia, my boss, won´t choose that moment to open it for one more useless urgent request, when we both know it can also be done three hours from now or even tomorrow. She has a knack for being most inopportune, and if she gives me a task and I take my break late, I´ll have to sit on my own as the others will already have returned to their desks. We are only allowed ten minutes off outside our lunch hour—we always add one or two more, though, as we feel time spent in route to the kitchen should not be included— and we try to coordinate with one another so we can take our breaks together.
The seconds tick so slowly. I can hear Julia on the phone speaking in the voice she uses when she is talking to a client, the same voice that would mislead anyone who didn´t know her into actually thinking she is remotely human.
Just in time, I grab the handset and race to the staff kitchen where Oscar, Emma, Amparo, and Carmen are sitting around the wooden table staring hungrily at the cream-filled buns resting on a plate. We take turns in bringing something to accompany the pot of steaming coffee the first one to arrive makes, and I can´t wait to sink my teeth into what Carmen has brought for us today.
“Ah, there you are!” Emma exclaims as I rush to pour a cup of coffee. “We were only going to give you half a minute more before starting.” The rest start tucking in, while at the same time trying to fill each other in on their hectic days and how our bosses seem to have a goal of making our lives even more difficult than necessary, if possible.
We work for Fernández & Associates. It´s the kind of law firm where the lawyers bill their clients six figures just for answering the phone. We have some of the most prestigious and wealthy clientele, both in Spain and abroad. One of our departments deals with international law, so we cater to all the legal needs of a lot of Spanish businessmen who own companies in other countries, as well as foreigners who come to set up businesses here in Spain. It was started by Sergio Fernández Castellón, the father of our present senior partner, Alejandro. He wanted to provide very personal service to his clients, so our policy has always been to have just five lawyers, each heading a department. This enables them to have a very close and direct relationship with each client. Now that Alejandro has taken over, he is following the same philosophy and, as a result, we have clients that have been with the firm for over thirty years. We accept new clients strictly on recommendations and only on rare occasions.
The firm occupies three floors of a building located in Calle Serrano. The ground floor holds the reception area and conference rooms. The secretaries and junior lawyers have offices on the middle floor. And finally, on the top floor, where few venture except when summoned, the partners have what we like to call their dens.
The five of us are “corporate personal assistants”, which is an important sounding title that really means your job description is whatever the boss wants, no matter how ridiculous it is. We all speak various languages, have university degrees, and are known for our discretion—except during our breaks, of course. There, we have no secrets from each other. But really, apart from it being extremely interesting to know all that goes on with the other four bosses, confiding in each other has really helped us on more than one occasion to narrowly escape impending disasters that might otherwise have cost one or two jobs. So our undercover network is of utmost importance to us and probably to the firm as well.
I love a good gossip, but sometimes knowing what someone else´s boss has done is important for me. I can then feel that I am not the unluckiest person on Earth because I work for Julia.
Julia is a brilliant lawyer. She has two law degrees and a Masters degree, and she speaks perfect English, German and French. She is thirty-five years old—I saw both her passport and ID card, information that was quickly shared with my friends as soon as I discovered it—but she has the character of a cobra, always ready to spring and attack. For some reason, only those of us beneath her station have been “lucky” enough to see that side of her. Her colleagues respect her, and I admit she has earned that esteem by having practically no life outside of work. But that is where her charm ends, especially with me. I seem to always be at the receiving end of her attacks. Sometimes she is all smiles and extremely solicitous, but a second later succeeds in almost reducing me to tears.
After five years of working for her, I have finally developed the ability to look directly at her and not lower my head when she berates me. It all enters through one ear and goes out the other. That, and the fact that I have convinced myself, after some intense online searches, that she must have some sort of emotional disorder that she is probably unaware of.
“It has been a difficult morning,” I say. “Julia missed her dentist appointment and blamed me for it.”
“I know you didn´t forget to tell her,” Oscar replies. “Go on; shock us with what really happened this time.”
“Yesterday morning, I reminded her that it was at nine today. Good thing I also sent a text message to her mobile last night. She got there at ten and was surprised they weren´t able to squeeze her in. She seems to think everything should be dropped when she arrives somewhere. I tried to get her to look at the text message where she could have easily seen the time it was sent, but she refused to, claiming she didn´t receive it. I´m sure she has erased it. I have a good mind to go through her phone, but I´m not going to waste my time as I wouldn´t be able to use it as proof anyway. I know she knows that she isn´t right. It just annoys me how she always seems to blame me for everything that goes wrong without giving me a chance to defend myself. Honestly, this firm does not pay me enough for the mental stress she puts me through.”
“I know what you mean,” says a visibly upset Emma. “Gonzalo forgot his wife´s birthday again, which must be because when he isn´t working he is pursuing anything that closely resembles a female. I sent her flowers as usual, but he didn´t follow it up with a call or do anything special, and she came to the office looking extremely furious. There was a mighty row. I´m surprised it wasn´t heard in the surrounding buildings. Guess who was to blame for everything?”
Amparo says: “You guys are really paying for some past sins in a big way. I have to say that Alejandro, apart from being very easy on the eye, has never treated me in a demeaning manner and is quite considerate for a boss. He even knows when my birthday is and sends me flowers.”
We can´t help but nod in agreement with our mouths full. Even Oscar, who is about to marry his longtime girlfriend, has often said that Alejandro is one of those men that should not exist, as they make women compare what they have at home to them and probably wish they could trade. Every woman in the firm is secretly in love with him— except Julia who seems quite indifferent to his charm, but that just reinforces my belief that she isn´t quite human. He has the dreamiest blue eyes and abundant hair that he absentmindedly has to push away from his eyes occasionally as it is quite long. He looks as if he has just effortlessly stepped out of the cover of a magazine; not at all the image that comes to mind when one thinks of a lawyer. Alejandro heads the International Law Department, so he is not just a pretty face. He has succeeded in maintaining and even upgrading the high standards his late father left the firm with when he handed the reins over to him.
I don´t think he knows I exist, but, like every female worker here, I too have imagined walking down the aisle with him at one time or another. Pity that all his girlfriends have been models or rich heiresses and I, not being one or the other…
We cram all that we can into those short ten minutes, then hurry back to our desks and daily work routines. As soon as I sit down, I read a message from Julia asking me to go to her office, where she proceeds to dictate various letters that need to be sent out. I look up when she finishes the last one to see if she needs anything more from me and see that she is looking at her computer screen intently. I take this as an indication that my presence is no longer required.
“You need to reschedule my dentist appointment and apologize for the mix up,” she says as I reach for the door handle. I hesitate, about to argue, but then I wonder what use it would be. I have no desire to give her one more reason to humiliate me.
I walk away and call as she had asked me to. I say how sorry I am for the misunderstanding, but Esperanza, the receptionist, and I both know who really made the mistake. It´s not the first time it has happened, and it won´t be the last.
I print out the letters, put them into a folder, and take them back to her so she can sign them and so I can post them on my way home. Whilst I do this, I reflect on how difficult some women make it for their own kind sometimes. There is no love lost between us, but for the life of me, I have no idea what Julia has against me. In my case, it´s because of everything she has done to me throughout the years. She has killed any affection or respect I tried time and time again to develop for her. I wonder what she does when she isn´t working. I know there is no husband or children. She keeps her personal life under a closed lid. It seems to be women in general she has a problem with, as the only one of us lowly PAs I have ever seen her smile at is Oscar.
I go online, as I always do when I need a boost, and type the words that will lead me to the images that have always taken me to my happy place...
 In Spain, everyone has two last names; the first is the father´s first last name and the second is the mother´s first last name.
 Also called Milla de oro because it is where the most exclusive and expensive shops in Madrid are located.
Author of I stand Corrected, Rewind, Balou Uncensored, Bienvenidos a gatos anónimos, Pasarse cuatro Pueblos and Sesenta segundos dan para mucho, Patricia Asedegbega Nieto was born to a Spanish mother and a Nigerian father in Madrid. As a child, she relocated with her family to Nigeria and later returned to Spain, where she acquired her BSc and master´s degree.
She is currently living near Madrid with her family and her very stubborn cat, Merlin Mojito.