The young woman gritted her teeth as the phone on her desk began ringing again. She spread the papers she was filing in order along the counter above her desk and took a deep breath. It's okay - I'll get the hang of all this soon, she told herself before picking up the phone and answering in a cheerful, confident tone.
"Good morning, Pelican Point Spinal Rehab Centre, this is Claire Williams. How can I help you?"
As she spoke the automatic doors facing her desk slid open, and a salty breeze fresh off the lake swirled into the reception area and began scattering the carefully sorted papers across the counter.
"I'm sorry, did you say you were already on hold for the Physio Room?" she asked the caller, slapping her hand on a pile of papers just as they began to slide off the counter, "I'm so sorry - I didn't realise your call hadn't been answered. I'll put you through again. Thank you."
Reaching down to transfer the call, several pages escaped from her grasp and fluttered down towards the wooden floor in front of her desk. As she glanced after them, she noticed the young man who had just entered the reception area and was watching her with an amused smile. His damp sandy hair was ruffled by the wind, and eyes as blue as the night sea met hers in obvious appraisal.
"Good morning -" she began to say to him, when the shrilling of the phone interrupted. "Just a moment . . ."
Clamping her elbow down on another page before it disappeared over the counter, she reached over and picked up the phone again, making sure as she answered that her voice was just as fresh and professional as when the phone had first begun ringing when she'd arrived over an hour ago.
"Good morning, Pelican Point Spinal Rehab Centre, this is Claire Williams. How can I help you?" Her face fell, as she heard the same caller's voice for the third time.
"You're still waiting on the physio room? I'm so sorry, I'll try one more time for you. Thanks for your patience - this is my first morning here - I've been kind of thrown in at the deep end. . . This time I'll stay on the line until someone answers, okay? Let's hope it's third time lucky. . .thank you, you're very kind - I'm putting you through now."
She clenched the phone against her shoulder, and grabbed at two more pages that had become airborne.
"Excuse me," she pleaded to the blue-eyed man in front of her, "You're keeping the doors open - you're right in front of the sensor. Would you please just move in a little more? Thank you - I'll be with you in a moment."
He grinned and moved his wheelchair forward another half a metre, and stopped in front of her desk. Her overwhelming impression of him was that of strength and vitality, and without saying a word his presence seemed to dominate the room.
Although he was seated, she guessed that he would be well over six feet tall, and his shoulders and chest were broad and muscular. His face was tanned and attractive, and his easy expression spoke of a confident self assurance. She noticed a heavy gold chain around his neck, and even though he was dressed casually in jeans and a navy polo shirt - his clothes had the stylish look of an expensive label.
As the doors closed behind him, he leant down and retrieved the sheets of paper that had settled on the floor, and placed them back up onto the counter. He looked as though he were about to speak to her, but her attention was taken when she finally heard a voice on the other end of the phone.
"It's Claire from reception here - Is that the physio room?. . . Kitchen?! . . .Oh, no!I've been trying to get a call through to physio for 10 minutes now. What extension number are you? . . ..Yes - that's what's on my list for physio. What - the numbers have changed? Do you know the number for physio then . ..thank you so much, no wonder I haven't been able to get it through. Yes, I'll look forward to meeting you too."
Claire shook her head in exasperation and apologised once again to the person on the phone, before dialling in the new number. This job was so important to her - but how was she ever going to make a good impression when no-one had even bothered to show her what to do on her first morning? This was impossible!
As she listened to the phone ringing the extension, she glanced back at the attractive young man waiting in front of her. He was openly staring at her, and she was surprised to find herself blushing under his gaze. His blue eyes twinkled mischievously and his cheeks were dimpled with the hint of a smile, and she guessed he was enjoying seeing his masculine charm unsettle her.
She looked away quickly, but even then the stirring scent of his aftershave made her vitally aware of his presence. She thought it strange - men didn't normally have that kind of effect on her - her feet were too firmly planted on the ground to expect that anyone she met outside of her church circles would be likely to share her strong commitment to God. And as far as she was concerned, it was entirely irrelevant how attractive any man was if he wasn't a Christian.
She sighed, waiting for the phone to answer at the other end - not that any man she was likely to meet, Christian or otherwise would be interested once he realised how complicated her life was.
"I'm sorry about this," she apologised to the man who was still watching her intently, "I shouldn't be much longer."
He smiled, but glanced at his watch, and giving her a cheery wink turned and wheeled himself noiselessly down the corridor. She followed him with her eyes, his powerful shoulders effortlessly propelling the low-backed wheelchair. She smiled to herself, if the patients here looked that good, she had no doubt that the centre's rehabilitation program for spinal cord injury was every bit as effective as it claimed.
"Hello - physio? Chris, it's Claire on reception - I've got Paul Carters on the line for you, I'm terribly sorry but I've been trying to get him transferred for over ten minutes. Thank you."
With relief she finally replaced the handset into the cradle and gathered up the papers that had spread right across her desk. She glanced at the clock, nearly nine o'clock - she'd only been here an hour, and already she felt more stressed than she had ever been in her last job.
She was incredibly thankful that despite her lack of qualifications, God had miraculously answered her prayers in giving her the job - not only was it exactly the kind of work she enjoyed, but the pay was much higher than in her previous job, and she was also closer to home, where she cared for her invalid father and brother.
However, she was yet to meet Dr Cameron Alexander, who was the director of the centre and who would be her boss. He had been overseas at a conference at the time she was interviewed, and when she had been given the job she had been warned that Dr Alexander would still have the prerogative of dismissing her if he didn't think she was the right person for the job.
She had expected him to arrive before nine - and as she caught her reflection in the tinted glass of the front doors, was glad that he was running late. Her thick waves of auburn hair had been tousled into disarray by the wind, the sleeves of her turtle neck jumper were pushed up to her elbows and most of her lipstick had worn off on her coffee cup.
Reaching into her handbag and finding her make up case she quickly reapplied her lipstick, and ran a comb through her hair. She wondered what Dr Alexander would be like - even before applying for this job she'd read a lot about his work - and had been very interested when he'd set up a rehab facility in her area, trialing innovative methods he'd been studying in the United States.
It was only a small establishment, set in several acres of bushland on the foreshore of Lake Macquarie, and at first glance it appeared to be run more along the lines of a relaxed holiday camp, than a hospital.
That laid back attitude was all well and good for the patients, Claire thought grimly as she started to re-order the pages on her desk again, but she'd never seen an office in such disarray.
At the interview the panel had explained that they had not had anyone permanently in the office for some months, and as there was only a small staff, as well as taking responsibility for the clerical work in the mornings, she would be expected to assist Dr Alexander and his team in the afternoons with a variety of other activities.
After working with severely disabled people for nearly ten years at a conventional rehabilitation centre she had no concern about whatever duties the afternoons might bring - but she realised that she would never appear competent until she'd brought the clerical work under control. And if no-one was going to tell her what to do, she'd take advantage of that and organise things her own way.
First of all she'd locate an up-to-date list of extension numbers, and then look at computerising the filing system - and perhaps she'd even rearrange the reception area so that her desk didn't take the full brunt of the wind every time those doors opened.
She smiled to herself - wondering if that young man with the deep blue eyes had kept the doors open on purpose just to get her attention. Well, it had worked, she thought, surprised to find her thoughts returning to him again. Inevitably, with only about a dozen patients living in the "campsite" at a time she was sure she would get to know him, along with the other patients and the small staff, very well.
Unless, of course she was unable to impress the unknown Dr Cameron Alexander and he decided to dismiss her. She closed the drawer of the filing cabinet slowly, her heart pounding unpleasantly as she considered that possibility.
I can't afford to lose this job . . .not with David depending on me . . . I'll just have to give it my absolute best, she thought anxiously, and then caught herself and prayed quickly, Lord, thank you for this job, please help me to glorify You in it . . . and please help me to make a good impression on Dr Alexander when I meet him.
Reminding herself that her future was in God's hands, Claire took a deep breath and began to tackle the huge backlog of correspondence and paper work. Over the next hour Claire met several members of staff, as well as a number of other young men in wheelchairs as they entered the building through the automatic doors and stopped to say hello as they made their way past the reception area.
While the patients were accommodated in separate cabins closer to the water front, the rest of the site's facilities were contained within the one large, two story building. The gymnasium and most of the patient facilities were on the lower floor with the dining room upstairs along with the conference rooms and professional suites.
With the reception area positioned at the downstairs entrance, Claire found that she was in the ideal position for knowing who was coming in and out of the building, and now that she had found a current phone list and was feeling much more confident, she was looking forward to meeting Dr Alexander when he arrived.
She was surprised that he still hadn't made an appearance by ten o'clock, when she answered a call for him from a Dr Winterbourne.
"I'm sorry, I haven't seen him this morning - I don't believe that he's in yet," she explained.
"Try him for me anyway," Dr Winterbourne requested, "he's usually in his office by nine at the latest."
Claire rang the extension, and was caught unprepared when it was answered immediately.
"Hello, Dr Alexander."
"Oh . . .hello Doctor - it's Claire here at reception. I have a Dr Winterbourne on the line for you."
"Thank you. I'm sorry I didn't have time to stop and meet you this morning, Claire, but I'm flat out with conferences until lunch time." His voice was deep and cultured, with just a hint of an American accent.
She liked the sound of his voice, and pictured him as an approachable man in his early middle age, perhaps with warm brown eyes and hair greying at the temples. "I know you've been thrown in at the deep end - how are you managing with everything?"
"Fine, thank you."
"Really?" he asked with a chuckle which Claire found quite unnerving.
"Yes," she repeated firmly, determined that he should think her nothing but efficient, "Shall I put Dr Winterbourne through now?"
"Thanks. And I'll catch up with you as soon as I can, Claire."
Claire transferred the call and hung up the phone with a frown, wondering when he had arrived. Two physiotherapists, an occupational therapist and a few nurses had all introduced themselves to her when they'd come in, but apart from the patients in wheelchairs, there had been no-one else.
Perhaps there was another entrance to the building that she didn't know about, or maybe the doctor had actually arrived before she had. Claire had little time to wonder about the mystery though, as she was fully occupied keeping up with the phone calls and other reception duties.
It appeared that a large part of the conferences that Dr Alexander had mentioned included telephone conferencing with several doctors in other cities, and she spoke with him again a number of times as she put their calls through. Although at times she could hear the voices of others in discussion in the background, his voice was always relaxed and friendly, even when once she'd had to apologise for losing a call she'd been trying to connect for him.
Her morning continued to be as hectic as it had begun, and the first time she glanced at the clock, she was amazed to see that it was already nearly twelve. She wasn't sure what the arrangements for her lunch break would be, so she decided to duck upstairs to the tea-room and make herself another coffee to carry her through in case it didn't turn out to be until one o'clock.
Claire grabbed her cup and made her way along the corridor to the stairs, dismayed that her thoughts were returning yet again to the handsome young man with eyes the colour of the night sea.
As he careened around the corner in the upstairs corridor, the young man with the dark blue eyes smiled as his thoughts returned to his first encounter with the new receptionist that morning. Although the phone hadn't stopped ringing long enough for him to introduce himself to her, he'd very been impressed by what he'd seen.
Tall and athletic, vitality and fitness were evident in the way she stood and moved, and he liked the way she'd dressed - her dark red turtleneck sweater and brown suede pants were practical and not too formal, but still feminine and professional.
She was a very natural looking young lady - her wavy ginger hair seemed to have a life of its own, her face was bare of make up and covered with freckles, and despite her confident manner, he thought he had detected an attractive vulnerability in her large hazel eyes.
Arriving at the lift, he pressed the button - but was not surprised that it was taking a while to respond. It was right on lunch time, and he knew that often patients found themselves gridlocked as they got the hang of manoeuvring themselves in and out of the lift on their way upstairs to the dining room.
He tipped his wheelchair up onto its back wheels, and experimented with turning in small circles while he waited. He'd borrowed a new fluorescent green sports chair from the gym, and was enjoying putting it through it's paces. It was narrower than a standard wheelchair, and very light, and while it seemed a lot less stable than what he was used to, he felt that if he could get the balance just right it would prove to be extremely manoeuvrable.
He was in high spirits - his morning had gone much better than he had expected, and he was on his way downstairs to see if he could catch the new receptionist before she went for lunch. He hoped they'd be able to go up to the dining room together and that he'd have a chance to get acquainted with her.
As he tilted further back in the chair and pulled hard on the right wheel to try out a tight turn he heard a door closing behind him further up the corridor. Swinging his head round to look he misjudged the balance and the wheelchair went straight over backwards.
He sat there for a moment, laughing at himself, the back of his head against the carpet, and his legs up in air. He knew he would not be able to right the chair from this position, so he rolled himself onto the carpet and sat up, then pulled the chair upright beside him. Now he just needed to haul himself back up into the seat before anyone came along the corridor and saw him on the floor.
With one muscular forearm he gripped the wheelchair, and with the other he held onto one of the plastic chairs that were placed in a row against the corridor wall. Just as he swung himself up, the chair rolled backwards, and he fell flat on his back onto the carpet between the wheel chair and the plastic chair.
He sighed, how did he manage to forget to put the brake on first? It wasn't like him to be so distracted.
Just as he reached out to pull his chair toward him again, he looked straight up into the wide hazel eyes of the attractive young lady he'd seen at the reception desk that morning.
He felt his ego deflating like a ruptured tyre as he realised how he must look sprawled on the floor.
"Are you okay?" she asked in concern, squatting down on the floor between him and his wheelchair, "I saw you fall."
"Yes, fine," he answered through clenched teeth, "Just pull my chair over a little closer, and I'll be able to get back up, thanks."
"No - I'll have to get the doctor or a nurse first before I move you. You may be hurt."
"What? I'm not hurt! Just pull my chair over like I asked you."
"I'm sorry, but it's the policy, if someone falls they can't be moved without the clearance of medical staff," she insisted firmly, pushing the chair further from his reach, "I'll only be a moment, and I'll get someone to check that you're okay."
Indignation rose up within him at her patronage, and as she started to stand his hand shot out and gripped her wrist so firmly that she could not pull away from him.
"You have been here for less than four hours - how would you know all about our policy?" he demanded.
The young woman seemed unperturbed by the iron grip of his hand which restrained her from rising, and patiently answered like someone familiar with dealing with unreasonable people.
"When I was told I had the job, I took home and read everything I could about this place, so I am quite familiar with the policy," she replied calmly and slid her long, slender fingers gently over his, attempting to coax him into loosening his grip, "Now if you'll just let go of me, I'll go and get the doctor."
"Claire - I am the doctor." His voice was hard, and he was infuriated that she had somehow assumed control of the situation, "Now hurry up and pass me my chair."
"What?" Claire's hand fell to her side, her eyes wide as she stared at him disbelievingly.
"I . . am . . .the . ..doctor." he repeated slowly as if he were talking to a backward child, then released her wrist, turning himself so that he was sitting eye to eye with her, "I am Dr Cameron Alexander - pleased to meet you." he said in mock formality, extending his right hand to her.
Claire didn't shake his offered hand, but continued to stare incredulously. "You're Dr Alexander?"
"Yes," he sighed with annoyance, "You've been putting calls through to me all morning."
"That was you? You've taken me completely by surprise - you're the last person I'd expected to be Dr Alexander!"
"Why - because I'm in a wheelchair?" he demanded, feeling so insulted that he didn't even attempt to keep the harsh edge of his anger out of his voice.
"No - because you're so young! Goodness - I'm only 27 and you really don't look much older than me! I find it hard to believe that you could possibly be old enough to have done all that research I read about!" Claire exclaimed, then her hand flew to her mouth in horror.
"I'm so sorry - I can't believe I said that! Obviously you are old enough - how rude of me. You must get sick to death of everyone telling you how young you look."
She scrambled to her feet, and pushed his chair over to him, snapping on the brake once she had positioned it beside the plastic chairs.
"Let me help," she offered, but stood back as he waved her away and deftly manoeuvred himself back into his wheelchair, and then wheeled himself away from entrance to the lift just before the doors opened and three patients emerged and headed down the corridor to the dining room.
Claire was still staring at him in dismay, and began to apologise again.
"I'm so sorry I said you didn't look how I expected, Dr Alexander . . .you just took me completely by surprise . . . I . . .I had visualised you as middle aged and greying . . . not someone . . . so . . .so . . ."
She dwindled off in embarrassment, unaware as she spoke that the gestures of her hands and face were clearly betraying her exact thoughts about his looks and physique.
Cameron Alexander couldn't help but laugh, the anger he'd felt when he'd assumed she'd thought him incapable of being a doctor because he was in a wheelchair had been replaced by his pleasure in her innocent complement.
"It's okay Claire, I admit I am particularly young to hold a position like this, I've just worked hard to get here. But I guess thirty-two is a bit early for me to start experiencing middle age spread and grey hair."
"Well! That makes me feel a whole lot better. I haven't insulted you too dreadfully by saying that you look that young then!" she breathed out deeply, "I can't believe it - I've been worrying all morning about finally meeting you and making a good impression, and then when I finally do meet you I really put my foot in my mouth!"
She shook her head and laughed at herself, "Well, I'm pleased to meet you too, Doctor, but I'm sure you must think me dreadfully unprofessional. And when you came in this morning and all my filing was blowing around the office and I couldn't even transfer a simple call . . . I had no idea that it was actually my new boss watching me! Please don't judge me too harshly by this morning, I promise that I will do a very good job here."
Although Claire had regained her composure, Cameron realised that she was actually very anxious about what he thought of her, and now that he was in his chair and back in command of the situation he was beginning to enjoy their conversation very much.
"I'm sure you will - I'm sorry that I didn't have the time to stop and introduce myself this morning, and it really was unfair of me to throw you in at the deep end with all that mess in the office. I know I've let the clerical side get right out of control, unfortunately for you I've always tended to put the patients first, and the paperwork last," he smiled warmly, glad to see her relaxing as she realised that he wasn't still angry with her.
"And I'm sorry I was rude to you when you wouldn't pass me the wheelchair earlier - if I hadn't been so surprised that you didn't know who I was, I would have been very impressed by your sticking to protocol, though we are fairly relaxed about that too."
"So I'm not about to get my marching orders on day one?"
"On the contrary - I'm very pleased to have you on the team. I briefly skimmed through the applications before I went overseas - and from what I read in your application I would have liked to have chosen you myself. But I was relieved that the decision wasn't going to be mine at all, since it would have been hard to justify why I had chosen you when several of the other applicants had tertiary qualifications and you . . ."
He stopped himself, realising that what he was saying might offend her.
"And I haven't even finished high school?" she finished for him without embarrassment.
"I know. I can see that you're surprised that I was given the job over the others that were much more qualified than me. The panel obviously put more importance on my experience than my education. But that's unusual these days, so I know that it was God's special purpose for me to come here."
"Exactly - your faith in God came through clearly in your application, and that's why I wouldn't have been able to hire you on my own account."
She narrowed her eyes in confusion, "I don't understand what you are saying - did the fact you knew I was a Christian from my application mean that you wanted to me to get the job, or that you didn't want me to get the job? It's fairly important to me that I know what you mean."
Cameron smiled, he appreciated her blunt question and was already forming the favourable opinion that she was a young woman who spoke her mind. He had little time for people who said only said what they thought you wanted hear and he liked Claire's honesty.
"I have you at a disadvantage, don't I? I already know a little about you. . . and you have no idea where I'm coming from. But I do respect you for being open about your Christian commitment even without knowing what my reaction would be to that."
"Well, my belief in God is the most important part of my life, and it affects everything I do and say, so it's much easier if you're aware of that right from the beginning," she answered slowly, running her hand through her thick ginger hair, "But you haven't answered my question - is this going to be a problem for you?"
"No, not now that someone else has taken the responsibility for employing you." he smiled mischievously as she frowned at him, clearly exasperated that he was not giving her a clear answer, "Because as much of an issue as it is to me - I couldn't have employed or not employed you on the basis of your religious commitments."
She sighed, and he wondered if she knew how apparent her annoyance was as she stood glaring at him with her arms folded across her chest. He could read her like a book, and now that she had realised that he was deliberately teasing her she had obviously decided that she wasn't going to be drawn any further. He regarded her steadily for another few moments, savouring his advantage. But while she appeared to have a good sense of humour, he thought he'd better not take things too far until he knew her better.
"I am Christian too, Claire," he said, watching as relief flooded her face, "But while I'd like nothing more than having another Christian on staff - it would have been unfair to the other applicants for me to have employed you on that basis alone. I could only pray about it and leave it in God's hands. So I was glad that I was going away and could leave the decision to others, and doubly glad to find out that you had won the job anyway."
"And you had me worrying that I was going to be working for a boss who would resent me for my beliefs!" she scolded, her auburn hair dancing as she shook her head at him, "But I don't understand how you could form such an opinion of me just from my application - I know I mentioned that I was a Christian, but I certainly didn't go into any great detail. It didn't even rate a mention from the panel in the interview."
"It probably wouldn't - there are no other Christians on the board or the staff here. The real giveaway was the personal reference you submitted from Rev. Malcolm Muxlow. I know him very well - his son Justin and I did Medicine together at Newcastle Uni - and I was very interested that you had been in their church all your life. When I mentioned your name to Muxy . . .ah. . . Justin, last time we were talking, he told me you were a very good friend of his family, and especially his wife. I knew that if the Muxlow's thought so highly of you, that you must be okay."
Cameron was surprised to see she wasn't smiling at his compliment, but regarded him with a puzzled expression, "What is it Claire? I can see that there's something you still aren't convinced about."
"Well, it's just that you said that you did Medicine with Justin - but he's always said that there was only one other Christian in his whole year, and . . .he married her."
"Oh, I wasn't a Christian back then," he shook his head with a rueful smile, "and unfortunately Muxy knew the worst of me during our uni days. It wasn't until a few years later when . . .he heard about my accident, and out of all our friends, he was the only one who even bothered to come and see me. And he kept coming, and by God's grace, he led me to the Lord. I have a lot of respect for his whole family, and I would have liked to have joined his Dad's church when I came back from the U.S. - but although I live here through the week, I go back home to my parent's property up in the Hunter Valley over the weekend, so it made more sense to become a member of a church up there."
"You live here - at Pelican Point?"
"Yes - we have to have a doctor on site 24 hours a day, so I stay in one of the cabins down by the water Monday to Friday, and I've got several doctors on a roster to cover the weekends while I have a break and go back up to the farm. It's been a good arrangement, and I can get a lot more done by living here through the week than if I lived off-site. I get to know all the patients very well, and I like to have a hands on approach to running this place anyway."
Claire was about to reply when she looked over his head, and Cameron turned to see Chris Powell, his head Occupational Therapist coming towards them down the hall.
"Let the poor girl get some lunch, Cameron!" he said, his loud voice booming through the now empty corridor, "When I realised that you still had her bailed up out here in the corridor I knew that if I didn't come and rescue her, there'd be nothing left to eat by the time you finally let her get into the dining room."
Cameron laughed and turned to Claire, "Have you met Chris?"
"Yes, I have. Chris got me a coffee and showed me around the building first thing this morning. Thanks for thinking of me, Chris - at least I won't be left to starve with you around."
"Might have guessed that I could trust you to look after the new girl!" Cameron winked at his friend as he pressed the lift button, "Have you had lunch, Chris?"
"Yeah, mate - gotta eat and run today. I've got a few things to attend to." The lift doors opened, and he reached inside and held the doors open while he turned back to Cameron, lowering his voice. "You might keep your eye on Tyrone, mate. He's worrying me."
Cameron nodded, "Yes. Thanks for mentioning it - I will."
© R Brown 2005