© R. L. Brown 2005
When Cameron pulled up in front of the Muxlow’s house early on Friday morning Claire was still standing in the driveway with Justin and David, having arrived only minutes earlier. Returning Cameron's wave, she handed her keys to Justin, gave David a kiss on the cheek and ran across the lawn to the waiting sports car.
The air was still cold but the sky was already bright blue and promising, and Claire was glad Cameron had the top down on the red convertible - it would certainly be a new experience for her and she was very much looking forward to her time with him.
Cameron leaned across and opened the door for her, taking her hand as she climbed in. It seemed the most natural thing in the world for him keep hold of her hand and pull her close enough to kiss her lightly on the lips before releasing her, but his action gave her great reassurance. It meant a lot that he had no hesitation in showing his affection even though David and Justin were watching, and she turned to them and waved goodbye, grinning with sheer happiness.
Although she had been looking forward to the day with Cameron, she had been growing steadily more nervous too, mostly about meeting his parents. While she had abundant confidence meeting people in the line of work and held no fears about attending the conference, social situations always daunted her and she dreaded the inevitable small talk curious questions about her family and her background.
Cameron’s hand rested across her shoulders while she put on the seat belt and he gave her a gentle hug when she looked up, and seeing the love in his smiling eyes she knew that everything would be okay. Every day she was growing in her awareness of his great strength and was slowly learning that she was safe to put her confidence in him.
Everything will be just fine, she thought, smiling back at him.
As they wove through the suburban streets towards the bypass she sat quietly just enjoying being close to him, watching his profile as he drove. Every few moments he would glance across at her, his expression telling her that he was as aware of their closeness as she was.
Every day of that week had been precious to them, that same intimate awareness of each other whenever they were together; the stolen moments where he’d taken her hand briefly in passing, or run a tender finger across her cheek when he’d chanced to find her alone at her desk.
She smiled remembering what had happened at lunch the day before, as they’d sat eating in the dining room with a table full of patients. Sitting beside her and caught up in the general conversation, Cameron had taken her hand in his without realising it, lacing his fingers through hers as it rested on the table top.
She’d been aware of the sharp glances of the men sitting with them, and turned to him, her eyebrows raised in silent inquiry. He’d understood her message immediately, but far from showing any embarrassment, merely laughed.
“Yes, my darling, I’d quite forgotten where we were!” he admitted, lifting her hand to his mouth and kissing her fingers, to the delight of the others, “But I hardly think our relationship is much of a secret around here anyway.”
“Nope,” answered Tony from his place opposite, “we’re just waiting to hear when the wedding is.”
Claire felt the heat flooding her cheeks, but Cameron was undaunted, turning her left hand over and thoughtfully stroking her bare ring finger.
“I’m just not ready for that kind of commitment yet,” he admitted seriously. “Not until I’ve had an opportunity to taste her cooking.”
The men laughed loudly, even more amused when Claire answered in the same mock serious vein, “But darling, doesn’t frozen pizza taste the same whoever makes it?”
“You’re very quiet this morning, my sweet Ginger, what are you thinking about?” Cameron asked as they moved onto the highway.
“About us, about everything,” she replied, leaning closer and tucking her hand under his arm. She could feel the latent power of the car as it picked up speed, enjoying the novel sensation of the wind whipping through her hair and tugging at her clothes. It was an invigorating and reckless sensation and she almost felt as though she were flying.
Used to driving the slow and bulky van, it was an unaccustomed thrill to be zipping in and out of lanes and passing everything in sight and she felt completely relaxed with Cameron’s competent handling of the vehicle.
Driving with the top down at high speed made any kind of in-depth conversation difficult, but the time sped by as quickly as the undulating country side and all too soon Cameron pulled into a petrol station within an hour of Tamworth, explaining that it would save being caught in the morning rush once they’d arrived at their destination.
“Sure,” Claire replied, undoing her seat belt and opening her door. “Which fuel do you use, unleaded or premium?”
“What are you doing?” he demanded, frowning.
“I thought you wanted to fill up - I was just going to do it.”
His hand shot out and grasped her hand firmly, “Sit down, Ginger - I’ll do that.”
“Oh, I don’t mind at all,” she replied lightly, “it’s no trouble.”
“Sit down!” he reiterated, his strong grip giving her no opportunity to demur further. His tone shook her and she was forcibly reminded of that first day at work when she had found him on the floor beside his wheelchair.
“This is my car, and I do the filling, thanks.”
She sat as asked, feeling a little crushed as she watched him reach over to the space behind his seat and haul out his wheelchair over the side of the car, opening it out on the ground beside the car.
“I was only trying to help.”
“I don’t need your help,” he said shortly, reaching back in and retrieving the large rear wheels and clipping them into place, one after the other, “Would you normally hop out and fill up when any other man was driving you somewhere?”
“Let me think through my vast experience of driving with other men . . .” she teased, not realising yet how annoyed he was with her, “There was that time Justin brought us back from a medical appointment in Sydney, I filled up while he used the men’s room. He appreciated it.”
“Well, fortunately I don’t have anything else I need to do, and I’m hardly going to sit in my seat watching you do my job for me!” he muttered, swinging himself into his wheelchair.
And like I feel great, sitting here watching you go to so much trouble to do something I could do so easily? she asked herself, watching as he reached for the nozzle and began filling the car.
His crankiness had caught her off guard and she wondered how best to respond, or whether to just let it go. That would be easier - but she was trying to learn to resolve any difficulties as they came up, not let them grow. After a minute or so of reflection Claire looked up in surprise as a sudden silence fell around them.
“What the . . .?” Cameron exclaimed in annoyance as he clicked uselessly on the nozzle, the fuel no longer flowing.
“I think the power’s cut,” Claire pointed out, “Look, the pump display is blank and the shop lights are off.”
Cameron slammed the nozzle back into it’s holster and headed toward the shop. There was a slight step up to a concrete porch, and then another at the door. She watched as he negotiated the porch, raising the front wheels first and then forcing the back wheels up over the step with sheer arm strength, but because of the closed glass door he had to approach that step backwards, wedging the door open behind him with the back of his chair. He was about halfway in when the attendant rushed over to him, grabbing the door and talking with him for a few moments before following him back out to the car.
“How much did you manage to get?” he asked Cameron, after directing a searching look at Claire that made her feel less than two inches tall as she sat in the car with her hands folded in her lap.
“Just over ten dollars worth, I think. How long is the power likely to be off?”
“No idea. Hasn’t happened before that I know of, I was just on my mobile to the manager when you tried to come in, he’s going to make some calls. I’m really sorry, mate, have you got enough to get where you’re going?”
“Yes. I wasn’t quite on empty,” Cameron answered. “I’ll fix you up for what I owe if you’ll take my word for the amount.”
The man shook his head, “Don’t worry about it. You’ve been put to enough trouble, I’m just sorry you didn’t get more.”
“I hardly need your charity!” Cameron snapped back, wallet in hand, but the attendant held out his hands in surrender.
“Look, I can’t take your money now - not while everything is offline. The whole transaction was lost when the power went down, so I don’t need to account for it anyway.”
Cameron nodded curtly, opening his door and pulling himself into the car.
“I’ll be coming back this way this afternoon, so I’ll fill up and fix it up then.”
“Righto,” the attendant replied as Cameron began disassembling the wheelchair. “Can I give you a hand?”
“No, thank you.” His tone was at it’s most quelling, and the man stood awkwardly by while Claire stared straight ahead, avoiding his eyes. Her heart was pounding uncomfortably and she desperately wanted to give vent to her frustration, but made herself wait for several long minutes until Cameron had hauled the chair back into the car and they were finally on the road.
“I just don’t understand - can you please explain to me why you took offence when I wanted to put the petrol in?”
“You can’t understand why inferring I’m incapable of doing it might be offensive?”
“I wasn’t inferring anything like that at all. I just thought that it would be much less trouble for you if I did it.”
“What do you think I do when you’re not here?”
“I have no doubt you manage fine, but why can’t I help since I am here?” she sighed, “I hate to think what lifting your chair over the side of the car like that is doing to your shoulders.”
He shot her a scornful look, “You don’t think my shoulders are strong enough for that kind of lifting?”
“Oh, I know your shoulders are capable of far more than that - I’ve seen you in the gym, remember? And during sport, doing a dozen other things I certainly don’t have the upper body strength for,” she smiled, reaching across and resting her arm on his broad shoulders.
“I was only thinking about the awkward angle you have to lift at, and the risk of wearing out the cartilage over time. After all, you’ve got to rely on your shoulders for the rest of your life, and it would be a shame to risk the sports you enjoy and keeping your independence in other ways, just for the sake of doing everything yourself even when it’s totally unnecessary .”
He laughed harshly, “This is unbelievable! I am on my way to speak at a conference as a Specialist of Rehabilitation Medicine, and I’m being lectured by my receptionist on overuse injuries!”
No, you are being loved by your girlfriend who would do anything in the world for you! she wanted to say, but found that her throat was too tight to speak.
She sat in silence for a long time until she was able to bring her hurt emotions back under control. Her arm was still around his shoulders and she slowly became aware that the tension in them hadn’t subsided even though he seemed content to let the subject drop over twenty minutes ago.
“Are you worried about the conference?” she asked, wondering hopefully if there might be a reason for his uncharacteristic hardness toward her.
He sighed, nodding. “I am actually. It is going to be difficult to convince State Health that it is worthwhile to continue funding the kind of program we use at Pelican Point.”
“How can it be? I’ve read all your submissions and reports when I typed them - the programs results are undeniable.”
“That’s not the point, there is no question about the effectiveness of the protocols I’m using, it all just comes down to funding. Even with the excellent outcomes we’ve seen, it is still hard to justify a program which has running costs two or three times higher than the conventional programs which are far less staff intensive and yield lesser but supposedly satisfactory outcomes.”
“Wouldn’t everyone want the best possible outcomes?”
Cameron shrugged, “There are limits to public funding, I can appreciate that and they have to decide where it can be most effectively spent. I am just frustrated because we are too early on with the program to be able to demonstrate that the better the outcome from the initial rehabilitation program, the lower the long term drain on public funding will be.
Besides, a lot of our patients are going to be dependent on welfare whether they achieve their ultimate rehabilitation or not - and how do you define quality of life in terms of dollars and cents?”
“What will happen if you can’t convince them to allocate the funding,” she asked, relieved to be back on safe ground with Cameron, their differences seemingly forgotten. “Is the program at risk?”
“Oh, no. There will always be a high demand for the most effective programs for patients with private medical insurance, or whose injuries come under compensation insurance - you’ve seen the length of our waiting list - it’s just the publicly funded places that are at risk. The kids like Tyrone who need the help most, and yet wouldn’t be able to access by their own resources.”
He looked across at her with a slight smile, “But nothing is being decided today, this is only one battle in a long campaign, although any victories early on will be a great help. Besides, at Pelican Point I can afford to keep a number of places open in each intake for special cases like Tyrone, it’s just that I believe in our protocols and would like to see them used as widely as possible in other institutions.”
Claire nodded, relieved to feel him relaxing again. She admired him and certainly believed in him and the work he was doing and was glad she was able to support him at the conference. It didn’t seem long before they were turning into the car park of a large motel and Cameron slid his car into a space between several other expensive vehicles.
Claire gathered up her handbag and climbed out, automatically heading around to Cameron’s side.
“Are you sure I can’t just lift it out for you?” she couldn’t help asking as he began to reach for the wheelchair. He ignored her question until he had assembled the chair, and was finally seated in it.
“I thought we had settled all that!” he answered, his annoyance obvious, “I don’t need some kind of personal care assistant - I’ve asked you here purely to take notes. That is all you have to worry about. My laptop is in the boot, I’ll get it out for you and then you’ll have something to do with your hands.”
Claire let out a slow breath and followed him to the back of the car, there was no way she was going to take up the issue now that they had arrived at the place the conference was being held. Here at least her role as his employee was clear and she would just have to accept his attitude for the time being.
She followed him to the entrance, biting her tongue as he slowly forced his chair up one after another of three wide, shallow steps. It would have been the easiest thing in the world just to provide a counterweight to the back of his chair and help ease him up . . .
“Will you quit hovering over me as if I’m going to fall or something?” Cameron snapped and she turned on her heel, waiting for him at the door. But when he reached the open door where she stood he refused to enter it while she held it open.
“You just don’t get it do you?” There was no softening of the reproach in his voice, “I don’t need you to fetch and carry, help me up steps, open doors or anything!”
“What, I’m just supposed to walk through and let it slam in your face?”
“Isn’t is the norm for a lady to wait for a door to be opened for her?”
Claire forced a laugh, trying to keep things light, “Maybe a hundred years ago. My understanding of modern etiquette is simply whoever reaches it first holds it open for whoever follows. You’re being pedantic over nothing.”
“On the contrary. I like to think of myself as a gentleman.”
Biting back the caustic retort that sprang to her lips, Claire stepped aside and allowed him to barge his way through the door, shouldering it open until she had followed him.
“Cam . . .” she began gently, hoping to smooth things over, but he cut her cold with a stony glare.
“Just back off!” he said, shaking his head in frustration, “If I need your help for anything, I’ll ask for it, okay?”
She nodded mutely, thinking how ridiculous she’d have found the whole scene if only she didn’t feel so much like crying. They heard voices behind them and as Cameron moved away from her she turned to see a stocky, white-haired man in a rumpled suit walking up the stairs, flanked by a young woman in her early twenties. Entering the ante-room, his voice boomed merrily.
“Ah, young Cameron - good to see you!” he took Cameron’s hand and pumped it vigorously, then turned to Claire, “And is this the lovely young lady I’ve spoken to so many times? Even more beautiful than I imagined! Glad to finally meet you.”
“Dr Winterbourne, this is Claire Williams.” Cameron made the necessary introductions.
“Glad to meet you too Doctor, though I feel as though I already know you after all those phone calls.”
He smiled, obviously pleased with her and patted her heartily on the shoulder, then turned to the girl beside him.
“And this is my personal assistant, the ravishing Amanda. Why don’t you girls get yourselves a cuppa - I’m going to bend young Dr Alexander's ear for a few minutes, while I’ve got him all to myself.”
Claire glanced in Cameron’s direction, but he nodded her away, his attention already taken by the senior doctor. She followed after Amanda, still reeling from their confrontation at the door and wishing there had been the opportunity to sort things out. Cameron’s inflexible attitude had taken her by surprise and obviously it was something they would need to work through together later.
She was ensconced in a deep sofa at the far end of the foyer and had nearly finished her coffee to the accompaniment of Amanda’s shallow but good-humoured commentary on everyone in the room, when the two doctors finally entered the room and were immediately surrounded by several other delegates.
It was a novel experience seeing Cameron away from Pelican Point, and despite her ruffled feelings, it thrilled her to see how even amongst so many other eminent physicians his presence still dominated the room.
It was the most formally she had seen him dressed, and she had to admit that he looked even more handsome than ever wearing tailored suit pants and a deeply coloured silk shirt and tie. She wasn’t even aware that she hadn’t taken her eyes off him from the time he’d entered the room until she felt Amanda nudging her in the ribs.
“Want to swap? I wouldn’t mind a boss that was so good to look at either! But I’m hardly going to lose my head over old Doc Winterbourne,” Amanda joked, nodding toward where Cameron and Dr Winterbourne were standing talking, the latter with his foot on a chair and his open jacket swinging away from a portly stomach.
Right at that moment Cameron glanced in their direction but far from giving Claire any sign of warm recognition he seemed to look through her as though merely noting her position before looking away immediately.
“But like a typical man, your Dr Alexander looks like he’s totally unaware you’ve got the hots for him anyway. You have haven’t you?”
Claire blushed and faltered, Cameron hadn’t minded their relationship being public at Pelican Point, but here she wasn’t so sure.
“I certainly admire him,” was all she felt safe to admit.
“No wonder, he’s drop-dead gorgeous, isn’t he? What a waste he’s in a wheelchair,” she mused, not giving Claire a chance to protest her petty dismissal of him. “What’s he like to work for?”
Claire sighed, thinking of the difficult morning.
“Demanding?” she offered vaguely, only to have Amanda lapse into a bout of giggles at the possible double meaning of her remark. Claire shook her head, glad when the first session was announced and Cameron indicated for her to follow him into the conference room.
Throughout the next two sessions his manner to her was entirely business-like, but she wasn’t able to determine whether that was merely due to the nature of the occasion, or whether he was still annoyed at her for her earlier actions. Concern over their conflict ate painfully at her heart and Claire longed for him to reassure her that everything was still okay.
It was a relief to be so busy taking notes that she didn’t have too much time to spare for her thoughts and despite everything she couldn’t help but feel very impressed by Cameron’s performance in the sessions. Although his presentation was not until after lunch, many questions were referred to him and he answered with easy confidence and compelling authority.
By the time they broke for lunch Claire’s heart was swelling anew with her love for him, and she firmly told herself not to be so foolish as to panic over such a minor hiccup between them. Hadn’t Cameron told her many times to have the confidence in their relationship to overcome whatever difficulties they would encounter as they went along?
Claire was left behind backing up her notes when Cameron was swept out of the room with the rest of the delegates and while she wished he’d given her even so much as a backward glance, she fully understood that he was here on business and it was only to be expected she’d have to fend for herself.
She hadn’t noticed that Amanda was still in the room with her until she came up beside her and told her to hurry up, obviously assuming they would go to lunch together. Claire closed the laptop and followed her, feeling unexpectedly grateful for the younger girl’s offer of friendship.
“I’ll just get old Doc Winterbourne a cuppa first,” Amanda said, as they headed back into the foyer. “He gets so busy yakking he won’t stop to get one for himself. I’ll meet you back here in a minute.”
Claire nodded, but headed out for the refrigerated drinks machine she’d seen in the ante-room when they’d come in. Cameron wouldn’t want a coffee, but surely after all the talking he’d appreciate a mineral water and it was an innocuous way of showing him that she was thinking of him. She smiled to herself as she returned with a bottle of his favourite brand, pleased to catch him momentarily between conversations.
“Thought you might be thirsty . . .” she began, holding out the drink to him, but the smile died on her lips under the force of his scowl.
“But I don’t want you to think for me!” he snapped, refusing to take the offered bottle, “I told you, if I want your help - I’ll ask for it.”
She stared at him in stunned silence for a moment before a middle-aged woman in a severe suit cut in front of her and began talking to him. She turned, blinking hard and made her way back to Amanda. She was glad of the distraction of her inconsequential chatter throughout the lunch hour and found that while she was too miserable to contribute much, little response was required from her in any case.
Cameron returned to his place beside her near the front of the conference room with only moments to spare before the next session and although she knew his thoughts would be too preoccupied with his coming presentation to expect him to make any attempt at conversation, she had done everything she could to have his notes and the studies he’d be referring to set out in order on his desk. He gathered them up quickly without a word and headed around to the table in front of the microphone as soon as his introduction had been made.
The front table was raised on a slight platform and Cameron manoeuvred himself carefully up the step and laid out his papers on the table in front of him. As he reached for the desk top microphone and pulled it forward its cable trailed behind, snagged the spine of one of the report folders and shot the rest of his paperwork off the side of the table.
There was a collective intake of breath as the pages scattered around him and Claire was about to leave her seat to help him when their eyes met, the icy warning in his freezing her in her place. She frowned unhappily, watching as he stretched awkwardly to retrieve the pages one by one.
It took some difficulty for him to reach the ones which had slid under the table and Claire could feel every eye in the room on her, wondering why she wasn’t helping him. Not only was she there as his assistant, but she was by far the closest person to him in proximity - anyone else would have to push past her if they were to offer to assist.
She stared at him, trying to understand why he was so intent on proving that he didn’t need her. Surely he could see that her desire to help wasn’t some kind of condescension because of his disability - in fact he had done the very same service for her when he’d retrieved the paperwork which had blown off her desk on that first morning she’d started at Pelican Point.
Claire’s heart was pounding from the force of the conflict within her and she seriously considered ignoring him and jumping to her feet and helping - merely to preserve her own peace of mind - and only her respect for his position of authority as her employer held her back.
Just when he had nearly collected all the papers and Claire felt as though her nerves had been stretched to breaking point, another page shot out of his hands and down onto the floor below the platform. She looked straight up at him, begging him with her eyes to let her help.
He understood her mute appeal, quelching it with a nearly imperceptible shake of the head and she sank back in her chair, unable to watch as he slowly lowered his wheelchair down the step, retrieved the last sheet and then hauled himself back up the step to his position at the front of the room.
Glancing up she caught Dr Winterbourne’s reproachful glare at her from his seat directly opposite and quickly lowered her eyes, praying for a sense of peace for herself but also that Cameron might overcome such a difficult start to his important presentation. Whatever his problem with her was, she would hate him to be distracted by it and undermine his impact at this conference.
Within moments however, when he began his presentation with a smooth and humorous apology, Claire realised she had nothing to worry about on that hand. Cameron was as relaxed and confident as ever, an engaging speaker and natural communicator who held his listeners in the palm of his hand. His audience saw none of the hardness in his deep blue eyes which had flashed in her direction only moments earlier and it was Claire who felt sick from the tension of it all.
She reached across for the bottle of mineral water which Cameron had so pointedly ignored and drank it herself, willing herself not to get upset about what was happening. At least she did not have to keep up with the note taking during his presentation, she had studied Cameron’s submissions and reports so many times she knew their substance by heart.
Half an hour later, when the meeting was thrown open to questions, Claire was glad to have her wits about her again as various reports and research papers from several other institutions were tabled and discussed in comparison amidst heated debate and fierce questioning.
Determined to keep accurate notes so as to provide Cameron with the best possible record of what opposition he was facing and from whom, she was so drawn into the complex objections and counter arguments that she was barely aware of the time that had passed when the meeting was brought to a close at four o’clock.
As the delegates began to file out of the room, Claire was about to offer to gather up Cameron’s folders for him, but painfully aware of what had passed before, thought better of it. After waiting in her place for another few minutes in case he actually asked for her help, she left without a word, and as the door closed behind her caught a glimpse of Dr Winterbourne heading towards Cameron as he descended the platform, his papers and files sliding precariously forward on his knees.
Deliberately turning her back on the doorway - so Cameron couldn’t accuse her of “hovering” over him again - she walked over to Amanda to make her farewells and offer the mandatory empty promises of keeping in touch.
Cameron was again surrounded by a throng of people, but as Claire knew her official duties were over and that he had been planning on a quick getaway she felt the safest course was to wait for him in the car. As she headed for the foyer doors she was surprised to feel a hand imperatively take her arm and draw her aside, and looked up into the stern face of Dr Winterbourne.
“Just a word, my girl,” he said in a low voice that was almost a growl, “I didn’t expect to be so disappointed in meeting you - but I’m sorry to say that I am! Cameron is a plucky kid, but for a long time he’s tried to manage far too much on his own, and I was pleased to see for once that he’d brought someone along with him. I’d have thought a girl with half and ounce of common sense and even a bit of compassion could have extended herself slightly to make things a little easier for him.”
He shook his head dismissively, “I don’t know if you’ve got some kind of aversion to his wheelchair or what, but if you’re going to be any help to him at all you’d better get yourself over it. The way you just sat there in that conference room as though you wanted to force him to beg for your help disgusted me - next time get off your pretty behind and help him out before you make him look such a pathetic figure to everyone else.”
He released her arm, and it was all Claire could do to manage a strangled “Yes, sir,” before blundering through the doors and running down to the car, literally choking back her tears.
How could Cameron put me in such a position? she thought bitterly, hating herself for letting him force her into behaviour that had disgusted herself as much as Dr Winterbourne and probably everyone else at the conference. She’d been making excuses for him all day but now she finally admitted to herself how badly he had acted.
When Cameron finally joined her at the car her hurt had hardened into resolve, but Claire had the sense not to open the subject while they were still in the motel grounds. She sat staring at some of the handouts while he took his time levering himself into the driver's seat and dismantling his wheelchair and stowing it away behind his seat.
Yes, she understood how much his independence meant to him, but at what price?
“All set?” he asked before backing out of the car park and heading back out of town. She nodded, feeling the chill of the early evening in the air and glad of the warmly lined, woollen check jacket she was wearing. About to suggest he might want his own jacket, she caught herself, unwilling to risk making such an innocent suggestion.
This is ridiculous! she thought, determined to get to the bottom of the issue as soon as possible - but Cameron spoke before she had a chance.
“I know I said I was expecting some difficulties in having our protocols accepted - but that was certainly a much stiffer opposition than I’d anticipated. I wouldn’t mind going through all the objections later and preparing detailed replies in preparation for the next round - how did you go keeping up with your notes?”
She answered him and for some time they spoke about the discussions they had heard, but all the while Claire’s resentment was growing, that not only was he speaking to her so matter of factly, he hadn’t even touched on his earlier treatment of her, let alone thought to apologise for his harshness. She wondered if he considered the matter settled now that she’d apparently learnt to toe the line - because she certainly didn't.
© R Brown 2005