Laura was many things, as all people are.
But she hadn’t realised how much of herself was bound up in the Australian myth of egalitarianism until she stepped through the colonnaded entrance of the palatial Ascot home she had been escorted to in an expensive, yet discreetly classy, limousine. Part of her really had believed that most people were the same and were treated the same and that therefore nobody here really lived this way.
Marble benchtops, imported tile floors, chandeliers. How did they deal with the cognitive dissonance of it? The jarring disconnect between who Australians were supposed to be and this? This excess?
Six bedrooms, six bathrooms. A library. A conservatory. And all wrapped around the expansive ice-blue pool; the guest bedrooms running down each side so they could step straight out of their rooms and into the refreshing sunlight-dappled waters.
It was bigger than her room. The pool and the pool alone had a larger floor space than her entire home.
As a servant ushered her down the terrace towards that pool, Mrs Park stood up from a small table laden with chocolate cake and plunger coffee but waved to the servant to remove it as Laura approached. So she had made that clear. This was not a social call and she would not be offered refreshments.
And if Laura had not been so overwhelmed by the overstated grandeur of the home and the immaculately elegant Mrs Park she may have remembered that she had seen her somewhere before. She may have remembered the little voice muttering away in the back of her head in the car ride over here. The annoying little narrator she never could stop whispering away in the back of her brain.
The one that wondered if this overt display of wealth was obnoxiously oblivious or meant to either entice or intimidate her. Because if it was designed to intimidate then it had worked. She was intimidated. And so the inner voice was drowned out by other, more primal sensations.
Who picks up an unemployed Uni student in a limousine? drowned out by the wave of social anxiety, of being suddenly out past the breakers and out of her depth.
As she’d left the limousine, driven by a man so detached and effortlessly polished that she suspected he may be a butler from some Victorian novel, she was aggressively ignored by the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen in her life. She strode past her as though life was a catwalk, dressed in exquisite understatement and seemingly unaware of Laura’s existence. Her long brown hair, golden skin and round brown eyes spoke of a perfectly blended melange of ancestries, seemingly having received the very best qualities of all of them. A scent of spring floated through the air as she passed and then she was gone in a silent exchange of understanding between her and the driver.
Laura was acutely aware of, in no particular order, her store-bought fading suit, her generic shoes, her $15 hair cut, her utilitarian scent of cheap soap and Pantene and the fact that life had not taught her how to be in a place like this. How did one behave? Were there rules that she had never learned? At Uni, a friend whose father was a lawyer had invited her to a wine tasting at the Brisbane Club. She’d felt like that then; like this was a world she had not been raised to move around in.
“Chen Li Hua,” Mrs Park said officiously, using Laura’s Chinese name correctly. She moved out from behind the table with conviction and said curtly, “Please accompany me to the study. We can have our conversation there.”
Laura simply nodded, her natural politeness stepping in to cover for her feeling of being off-balance.
“This is my mother-in-law’s home,” Mrs Park explained to her as they moved through the elegant residence to the muted wood-panelled study. This was a serious room where serious things happened. Laura felt the weight of the need to be serious as though someone had thrown a winter blanket on her. Did people whisper in this room? She felt as though they should.
“My family lives in Hamilton and that is where you will move if you choose to take this position,” Mrs Park added, as she moved behind the desk and pulled over a file that seemed to relate to Laura. She had large stylish glasses that somehow seemed fashionable, even though until now Laura hadn’t known that glasses could be fashionable at all.
Her expression as she looked over the file was ice cold with just a hint of disdain and she somehow managed to remain completely professionally expressionless while also communicating that the student standing awkwardly before her was beneath her.
“I’ll be blunt,” Mrs Park said. Bluntly. “I have a job that needs to be done. You’re not qualified for it. But you are,” she pursed her lips as she squeezed out the word, “available”. Squeezed it out in a way that left Laura in no uncertain terms that her availability reflected poorly on her but was nonetheless convenient.
“I also trust Cynthia’s judgement and that is the main reason why you are here.”
Laura just nodded, her curiosity, terror, inadequacy and sheer overwhelming desperation leaving her uncharacteristically speechless. If Mrs Park had wanted her overawed then she had succeeded. And the display of wealth paled before the knowledge that she needed this. A fact she wondered if Mrs Park knew.
Mrs Park gave her a glance that suggested that her silence spoke volumes as to her unsuitability but nonetheless continued.
“If you take this job, you will defer your studies for a year. That is the term of the employment. The remuneration is $150,000.”
Laura almost gasped at the pay – far above the starting wage of a data scientist.
“This is commensurate with the commitment to the position that I expect,” said Mrs Park severely, “The job is to be on call 24/7 so you will also receive full bed and board. And,” she paused as though she realised this would be the carrot that would most entice her, “at the end of the year we will pay for your Masters in full. Depending on your performance, there is the option to earn a $50,000 bonus as well.”
Laura’s knees nearly collapsed. Two hundred thousand dollars? No living expenses for a year? Her degree paid in full? Not just the remaining subjects but the whole thing? This… this offer didn’t make sense. It was too good to be true. She had a commerce degree, she knew very well that…
“You may think that this offer is too good to be true,” Mrs Park continued, relentlessly reading her mind. “Trust me that it is not. There is a stick with this carrot. Aside from the job, which will be difficult and exhausting, the bonus and the degree are the golden handcuffs. But if you leave before the end of the year, you not only get nothing but you have to pay a hefty break fee equal to the total remuneration package. Do you understand, Ms Chen? I am buying a year of your life.”
“Is that legal?” Laura asked before she could stop herself.
Mrs Park just stared at her between the perfectly coiffed hair and the flawless makeup, as though to say, “try me”. Her stare wasn’t ice, she realised, it was steel. Reinforced and thick. Cool, impenetrable steel.
Laura shook herself, “I don’t…,” she was almost stuttering, it was embarrassing, “I don’t even know what the job is,” she finally managed.
Mrs Park gave a strangely-familiar ghost of a smile as though she knew she had her and just needed to get her into the best permission to slap on those gilded restraints.
“The job,” Mrs Park continued with her apparently trademark directness, “on paper is Personal Assistant to the CEO of Park Holdings. I’ll send you a background briefing on the holding company and the subsidiaries. Memorise it.”
“I don’t… you know I don’t have secretarial experience or…”
“There will obviously be secretarial tasks and I would of course have preferred somebody with that kind of experience. However, what my son really needs is… management.”
“When he’s supposed to be somewhere, he’s there. When he’s not there, we know why. If he has a crisis, somebody helps him solve it. When he commits to something, that commitment is undertaken. Do you understand?”
Laura did not understand. She didn’t understand at all. What she was describing seemed to be basic adulthood. Unless… she was a babysitter? Someone to get him up and tuck him in and force him into meetings. Some kind of strange overpaid nanny. Or au pair? Or…
“So if I take this job, then I’d be his personal assistant and he would be my boss? I’d report to him?”
“You report to me,” Mrs Park said. Her tone was clear. This was not a negotiable part of her employment.
“Ahh,” she said, thinking she’d finally understood the job. As though she’d somehow grasped the subtext here. What kind of mother hires someone to spy on their own son?
“I need to think about it.” Laura did not need to think about it. Laura had no choice. But Laura was not so far gone in desperation that she didn’t realise how badly this whole thing could go.
“And I need someone right now. So don’t think long. I’ll email you the contract. You have until the end of the week.”
Even as Laura walked through the mansion and into the limousine and then into her concrete slab of a building, past her busted up car and into her overpriced hovel, she knew.
She was in. She had absolutely no choice. A fact that Mrs Park must know.
“This is a huge mistake,” she whispered to her bathroom mirror.
But she was going to do it anyway. It was an offer perfectly pitched to make it impossible to refuse.
“You have no choice,” she told herself. And she was right.