Some minutes before reaching the service station they’d visited that morning, Claire had already determined exactly what she was going to do and when Cameron pulled up at the pump she was out of the car and crossing behind it before the engine had even stopped.
“Claire!” Cameron’s curt warning was far too late as she was already standing beside the fuel cap, nozzle in hand. “You know exactly what I said before! Don’t you dare!”
“I’m off duty now, Cameron, you no longer have the authority to ride rough shod over my feelings, thank you,” she replied quietly. “Will you please open the fuel cap door - I would hate to drip any petrol on your lovely duco.”
He glared at her, finally releasing the catch under his dash. “I couldn’t care less about your childish threats, Claire - but I am not going to argue with you in public.”
“Thank you,” she answered, unscrewing the fuel cap and carefully inserting the nozzle, “I wasn’t planning to argue either.”
Although she kept her eyes carefully on the job, terrified lest she spill even the tiniest drop of fuel, she could not ignore the smouldering reproach in Cameron’s eyes which seemed to bore right through her. He was not a man she cared to cross, but for the sake of their relationship the issue had to be faced and she had known no other way of making her point.
When the tank was finally full and she was replacing the nozzle in the pump, Cameron spoke, his voice heavy with sarcasm, “And you’re going to sign my name on the credit slip too, are you?”
She patted her back pocket, “Nope. I’ll pay now and reimburse myself from petty cash on Monday."
“Don’t be a fool!” he snapped, tossing his wallet at her, and reminding her to pay the ten dollars owed from that morning as well. She caught it deftly and strode inside without a backward glance, only pausing when she knew a tall stand of magazines was shielding her from his sight.
Her heart was thumping and she felt as though her very bones were shaking and she leant back against the large fridge door, trying to breathe slowly. Something within her always forced her away from backing down, yet she hated all confrontations to the very core of her being.
She only allowed herself a few moments grace before straightening up and turning to the refrigerator full of drinks behind her. A generously sized bottle of coke caught her eye as being just what she needed right now and without thinking she also reached for a bottle of water for Cameron.
No, he didn’t ask for it - so he won’t want it! she told herself, but didn’t replace it in the fridge.
Good manners dictated she would never provide a drink or anything else for herself without thinking of her companions, and she would not allow his inflexible attitudes to force her into equally uncharitable behaviour. But for some reason she felt it imperative to pay for it herself and when she reached the cash register she pulled the money from her own pocket for the two drinks before settling up for the petrol.
“And the ten dollars from this morning,” she reminded the attendant, as she rifled awkwardly through Cameron’s wallet, withdrawing the notes from what seemed to be a stock of several hundred dollars and an array of plastic cards.
“Don’t worry about it, love.”
“Please,” she nearly pleaded, embarrassed by the way her hand was shaking as she held out the money, “it would make things so much easier for me.”
The attendant shot her a concerned glance and she made herself smile quickly, realising how it might look and not knowing if he’d caught anything of their argument in the driveway and explained, “It’s fine - he just like things done his own way.”
No, it’s not fine, it isn’t normal for someone to react that strongly, she told herself firmly, despite the excuses she was offering for him. Cameron was just as unhappy with the service station attendant’s offer of help as mine, and even Dr Winterbourne didn’t think I’d have been fussing to assist him when I thought I should have . . . it’s not just me. . . I’ll have to make him understand somehow.
She thanked the man as she took the change and the receipt and made her way back to the waiting car, dreading the coming confrontation. She walked slowly, replacing the money inside the wallet, her fingers absently stroking the monogram carved into it’s smooth leather. Like everything else connected with Cameron it was classy with an understated but unmistakable quality.
Cameron was silent as she climbed back into the car but in the fading light of dusk she was aware of the whiteness of his knuckles as they gripped the steering wheel and drove the car out of the service station.
“What exactly was your comment that you were no longer on duty supposed to mean?” he began with evident restraint when they were back on the road a few moments later.
“When we were at the conference you gave me no option than to swallow my hurt and sit on my hands, instead of responding like any decent human being and giving you even the slightest support or assistance in anything,” the frustrations of her day came spilling out. “But now our work is over, you cannot continue to force me to go against what everything within me tells me is right to do.”
“And your overpowering internal desire is to treat me like a cripple, off the job as well as on?”
“No! All I want is to work as a team, help each other whenever we can!” she found herself shouting to make herself heard over the road noise as their speed increased, “Not to be pushed away as if I don’t exist!”
“How can I get you to understand that I don’t want your kind of help in our personal life any more than as my employee?” he demanded, his voice also raised, “I have coped perfectly well up till now without you in my life and I am not about to give up my independence just to make you happy!”
Claire shook her head in frustration, “What am I meant to do if I can’t act normally with you, if I’ve got to continually walk on eggshells for fear of offending your pride?”
“What did you say?” he roared, although Claire was sure he’d heard exactly what she said.
“That you are too proud to accept anyone’s help, and I don’t think you’ve given a moment’s thought to anyone’s feelings but your own! How do you think I felt when you rejected me every time I tried to show my care for you today? How do you think I felt when everyone looked at me as if I was totally selfish and indifferent to your needs?”
“So I have to sacrifice my independence to your pride, so you can look good, do I?” his sarcasm was chilling.
“No! I don’t want you to sacrifice anything - I just want you to let me give you everything that I have to give! A relationship is meant to be about working together - not guarding your independence - from the way you’re talking I don’t even know what you want me for.”
“It certainly isn’t because I need your help!” he answered fiercely, “I had no idea that because I found you attractive and wanted to be with you I’d have to submit to being treated like a helpless fool!”
Claire swallowed hard, “I think we have a lot to work out then - I assumed we were going into this to give each other everything we could. I don’t see how caring for you can be seen as insulting.”
She hadn’t realised they had turned off from the main road some minutes earlier, until Cameron slowed down at a massive set of wrought-iron gates and the silence of the countryside sat heavily upon them.
“I suggest we leave the rest for later. We’re here now.”
He leaned across her to the glove box and retrieved a small remote control that sent the huge gates swinging slowly inward. Claire gazed in horrified disbelief along the sweeping gravel drive to an imposing mansion which was set on a small rise, overlooking what appeared to be acres of manicured lawns and gardens.
“You’ve got to be joking!” she gasped involuntarily. “When you said your parents had a property up here in the valley I had no idea you meant anything like this!”
“Why - were you expecting a fibro and tin hut and a herd of cows in the front paddock?”
“No, I wasn’t. But I certainly wasn’t expecting something straight out of ‘Gone with the Wind’!”
Her heart felt like a cold hard rock sinking deep inside her as Cameron drove slowly up the driveway, past immaculately trimmed hedges and a massive fountain, unlike anything she had ever seen before in real life.
It all made sense now - Cameron’s education and travel, his car, his clothes . . . even his wallet - and she wondered miserably why it had never occurred to her before that Cameron’s background was worlds away from her own.
“You seem to be forgetting,” she added pettishly, “it is my suburb that boasts the fibro and tin homes.”
“I seem to have been forgetting a lot of things today,” he returned with stiff irony.
They followed the circular driveway as it swept past the front of the massive pearl white rendered building, a grand columned porte-cochere over the front entrance rising majestically to a huge gable overshadowing a second floor balcony. When he did not stop the car but continued around behind the building past a sparkling pool and fenced tennis court, Claire couldn’t resist remarking, “Servant’s entrance for us is it?”
He didn’t answer but swung the car onto a paved parking area beside a huge garage, pulling up in silence and beginning to get out his wheelchair. Clare stared with growing apprehension at the grounds beyond them, dozens of lights beginning to twinkle throughout the gardens as the last streaks of colour left the darkening sky.
Although she had never felt ashamed of her background in the past, suddenly Claire was painfully aware of her cheap haircut, worn shoes and second hand clothes and would have done anything to remain in the car. Obviously this was Cameron’s home, and she should have felt safe being there with him, but this was not the Cameron she knew and trusted.
“Are you coming?” his voice prodded her out of her daze and she climbed out reluctantly, following him towards a small flight of shallow steps.
“What, no ramp?” she queried with surprise, remembering also the imposing staircase leading to the front door, “It’s not like they haven’t had time to make alterations or anything.”
“There is no need for any alterations!” Cameron returned through his teeth, bumping his chair up one step after another, and glaring at her as she automatically extended her hand towards him as he teetered on the edge of one stair, “Don’t even think about it!”
“Sorry - I forgot that you don’t need me at all!” she replied bitterly, as he paused at the closed door.
“This is my home and my family, Claire, and although my injury seems to be a major issue for you it has no relevance to us whatsoever.” He ground out his words with barely suppressed fury, his fists clenched, “I would never have imagined I’d have to warn you to watch what you say, but I hadn’t realised that you have such a problem accepting - ”
“I don’t have the problem accepting the situation!”
Claire’s eyes blazed dangerously. The anger in his body language had not been lost on her and although his hands remained by his lap, the fleeting impression of violence had triggered an ingrained response in her.
A surge of adrenalin flowed through her, overwhelming her fears and compelling her to stand her ground against his threat - as though she would force him either to defy her or to back down himself, “It’s you who has the problem and I will not be cowed - ”
She broke off suddenly, spinning around as the door opened unexpectedly behind her.
“Dr Alexander, it’s good to see you,” a man in his late thirties extended his hand in greeting to Cameron and then turned to Claire. “Miss Williams, lovely to meet you.”
“Claire,” she corrected automatically as she followed Cameron inside, wondering how much the man had overheard.
“Claire, this is Bevan, he looks after the household here and in Vaucluse,” Cameron said curtly as they followed him down a wide, thickly carpeted hall.
“You have a butler?” Claire whispered in disbelief in Cameron’s ear. It had never occurred to her that a butler could exist in this century, especially in Australia, anywhere outside of a romantic novel.
She rolled her eyes at his stern reply, mouthing back, “Butler!”
Bevan waited for them just inside the door of a large, opulently furnished room and once they had entered, asked if they would like any refreshments.
“Not for me thanks, but I’m sure Claire would appreciate a strong, black coffee - and she probably wants lots of sweetening,” he answered grimly. “And will you please tell my parents we’ve arrived, and that I’ll let them know when we’re ready for dinner.”
Bevan nodded, running his eyes over Claire in an obvious assessment before leaving them alone.
“Make yourself comfortable, Claire, there are plenty of magazines under the table if you would like something to read,” Cameron said over his shoulder, beginning to turn away. “If you’ll excuse me, there are some things I need to attend to before dinner - I’ll be with you as soon as I can.”
“Certainly, take your time,” she replied without hesitation, instinctively putting her broiling emotions on the back burner. Almost unconsciously she had been aware of the length of time they had been out together, fully aware of the needs of a paraplegic to have the time and the privacy to attend to the procedures which had to take the place of normal bodily functions.
This was not the time force a resolution of their differences, and she assured him without any rancour, “I understand perfectly.”
Cameron’s face hardened with sudden annoyance, his eyes half closed with anger as he swung away from her and left the room. She stared after him, the reason for his antagonism towards her suddenly clear.
He had realised that she did understand the details of what his disability involved - and he resented her for it. Most people would be completely unaware of many of the limitations and special needs of Cameron’s condition - but because of her background, Claire wasn’t - and she automatically took those things into consideration.
But she had thought that her knowledge and ready acceptance of those needs would have overcome obstacles that many other couples in their circumstances would have to face - why would Cameron resent her so strongly for it?
Her thoughts were interrupted by a middle aged woman, bringing her a mug of steaming coffee and a small plate of biscuits. And a maid! she noted, the very strangeness of the situation making her smile. Thanking the woman, she sat down in a deep leather lounge and slowly drank the coffee - the unexpected treat of restauraunt quality fare seeming at strange odds with her situation.
Claire was experiencing a growing sense of unreality - the day had become like some kind of strange and unsettling dream - surrounded by luxury yet feeling terribly frightened and alone. Placing her empty cup on the table, she stood up and walked over to the huge stone fireplace at one end of the room and gazed at the photos displayed on the polished mantelpiece above it.
The impish blonde boy flanked by two serious adults in a posed portrait were unmistakably Cameron and his parents but several candid photos gave an intimate glimpse into his childhood and early adult years. It was a different perspective to see him standing and unrestricted by a wheelchair and Claire was aware that none of the photos would have been taken in the last several years.
Her eyes lingered on one large photo of Cameron looking more handsome than ever in a tux, his arms possessively around a petite, curvaceous blonde who was pouting provocatively at the camera. It was like a celebrity shot from a glossy magazine and Claire knew she could never have belonged in a photo like that.
It was ridiculous, but she felt an instant antipathy against that girl in the elegant, low cut dress - as though she posed there somehow knowing how plain and flat and straight she made Claire look in comparison. Who is she? she wondered, picking up the frame and looking at it more closely, finding the young woman vaguely familiar.
“Sarina Walsh. Was my fiancee.” Cameron had joined her unannounced and while she felt caught out by him answering her silent question Claire refused to show her embarrassment.
“I feel like I’ve seen her before.”
“Undoubtedly. She’s in high demand as a model and she’s begun breaking into television work as well.”
“No wonder, she’s certainly very beautiful,” she replied, returning the photo to its place and longing for some kind of reassurance from him. Sarina was the kind of woman who looked just right on Cameron’s arm - how on earth could she measure up with her?
She glanced down at Cameron, wondering if he still felt anything for his ex-fiancee, even though she’d abandoned him straight after his accident?
“You’ve kept her photo?”
“No - my parents have,” he gave a short laugh, “I don’t think they’ve quite forgiven me for losing her. Anyway, we’d better not keep them waiting any longer.”
Claire’s stomach knotted even tighter as she followed him from the room, dreading even more the ordeal of meeting his parents. She steeled herself as she entered the dining room, but was surprised to see no-one seated at the vast table which was set beneath a soaring ceiling.
She was still taking in the incredible grandeur of the room, the opulent furniture, and the polished timber French doors which opened onto the porch when Cameron moved past her towards the table. He pulled out a chair for her and as she seated herself, he went to the head of the table and pressed a button on a small remote that lay on the table. Bevan appeared through the far door just as Cameron slid himself from his wheelchair into the seat next to her.
“I’ll tell Dr and Mrs Alexander that you are ready,” he said and Claire frowned in consternation as he took Cameron’s wheelchair with him as he left. It seemed incomprehensible that he would cut off his mobility like that, but when she opened her mouth to ask Cameron about it the warning look in his eyes made her stop short.
“Just keep your - ” he began tersely, halting as he saw his parents in the doorway. The ensuing silence was painfully obvious and Claire’s heart hammered as she looked up as the couple she recognised from the photographs paused momentarily before entering the room and walking toward them.
“You didn’t get away too late then, after all,” the elder Dr Alexander said, pulling out a chair for his wife on the opposite side of the table. Although his hair was white, he was so much like his son in looks and presence that Claire smiled despite her awkwardness, but there was no answering acknowledgment from him as he looked across at them.
“No, it was a long day and I think everyone was anxious to have a break before the dinner. Most of the delegates aren’t leaving until the morning.” Cameron replied tensely as his father sat down, then added, “Mum, Dad - I’d like you to meet Claire Williams.”
Their acknowledgment of the introduction was stiffly formal and as Claire looked across into Mrs Alexander’s eyes she was aware of her critical scrutiny. The older woman was elegantly dressed, her glossy brown hair beautifully styled and her make-up immaculate. She seemed to be assessing every detail of Claire’s appearance and not finding it pleasing.
She tapped one of her fingernails silently on the damask cloth, and as Claire took in the vivid red talon-like nails, she found herself sliding her own hands under the table. It had never bothered her before now that her own nails were cut so short to avoid scratching David’s fragile skin or that she’d never had the time or inclination to manicure them in any way.
Cameron sat rigidly beside her like a stone statue, as always his body language making no secret of his mood. Claire glanced at him in annoyance, wishing he’d make at least some attempt of friendliness toward her for appearance sake.
His brief introduction gave her no clue as what his parents understood as to the seriousness of their relationship but she could not imagine this degree of hostility from them if they thought she were merely a colleague.
His father’s gaze travelled speculatively between the two of them, a malicious gleam in his eye as he asked if they had had a pleasant day together. When Cameron remained silent, Claire returned his question with an impossibly sweet smile.
“Delightful, thank you - although this is certainly the highlight.”
The senior Dr Alexander pursed his lips tightly, Claire unable to tell if he were suppressing an angry retort or an amused smile.
“May I pour you a glass of wine?” he asked her after a few moments, lifting a bottle from the table beside him.
“Oh, no, thank you.”
“Not to your taste?” he turned the bottle so she could see the label, “Although I think it quite a nice drop myself.”
Claire’s eyes flew to Cameron for assistance. In one of their nightly phone calls when he’d asked about visiting her at home, she’d explained a little about her father’s alcoholism and their discussion had gone on to include her abhorrence of all alcohol. Cameron had been very understanding, yet now he didn’t so much as look in her direction, let alone help her out of the awkward situation.
“I actually don’t drink alcohol at all,” she explained with the slightest lift of her chin, realising she was on her own.
“Really?” Cameron’s mother looked at her in consternation, “Is it a religious belief?”
“No, just a personal choice.” Although for her it was a matter of conscience, Claire had had too many debates with Justin to know that while drunkenness was certainly wrong, the Bible didn’t actually condemn alcohol in moderation.
“I just don’t think it is wise - I’ve seen the terrible damage it has caused in so many people’s lives.”
Dr Alexander Snr raised his eyebrows. “Do you drive?”
“Although the misuse of motor vehicles also causes terrible damage to many people’s lives? Following the logic you apply to alcohol perhaps we should forgo the benefits of vehicles because of their potential for misuse.”
She met his faded blue eyes squarely, seeing in them not so much an attack but a challenge, and answered him coolly. “Yet if we simply removed the factor of alcohol then the destructive potential of motor vehicles would already be significantly reduced.”
He nodded in acknowledgment of her point and turned towards his son. In answer Cameron held out his own glass to be filled and Claire felt completely betrayed. After a small sip he held up the glass and said to his father that he thought it his best yet.
“Even smoother and a richer taste of berry fruits. It’s very good,” he added after a another sip.
“Yes, we’re getting a bigger market for it too, which is gratifying.”
Claire felt the colour rising in her cheeks as she realised that her abstinence would be no small issue to the family. “You made it?”
“Not me personally,” the older man chuckled, “but from our vineyard - it’s mostly a hobby but hopefully a fruitful investment in time. You didn’t notice the vines?”
Claire shook her head. She knew of course it was a grape-growing area but she’d been so involved in her discussion with Cameron that she’d taken little notice of anything on their approach to the property. He could have warned her.
“No, Cameron gave me the impression of cows in the front paddock and a tin and fibro shack. I was looking forward to the milking. Never mind.”
Cameron’s father shook with laughter at what he thought was an obvious joke, but Cameron’s expression remained grim. He drained his glass in a couple of short gulps, then lifted it up as his father reached across the table to refill it.
“Let’s make a start, shall we?” Mrs Alexander lifted her hand and pressed the same remote which Cameron had used earlier. They sat in silence until the lady who had brought Claire her coffee served them each with bowls of steaming soup.
“Anne, this is Claire, whom I work with.” Cameron made the perfunctory introduction, “Claire, Anne is our Domestic Manager and a superb cook.”
“Thank you - I’m looking forward to enjoying your cooking,” Claire replied quite dishonestly, her stomach so tense that even aroma of her meal made her nauseous.
So Anne was a Domestic Manager and not a maid, just like Bevan was not a butler! If only it were the Cameron of this morning sitting beside her, surely he would meet her eyes and share the humour of it with her - yet it seemed as though she were now a stranger to him.
The others had already begun on their soup, so Claire quickly picked up her spoon, murmuring a silent grace before starting.
“I must admit you are not at all as I expected, Claire,” Mrs Alexander began in a precisely enunciated voice, “when Cameron mentioned his receptionist I pictured someone much younger.”
Claire forced a smile as she searched for a suitable answer to the thinly veiled insult, her mind reeling at the insinuation. If Cameron had fallen for his receptionist, his mother had obviously expected she would be young and beautiful and perhaps in the mould of his ex-fiancee.
Claire knew there was no way either her appearance or her background would impress these people, and if the man who supposedly loved her was not going to stand up for her, she had no intention of trying either.
“Oh, no - I’m not young at all - I’ve been working in this field for many years. I’d already earned my long service leave in my previous job.”
That should make me sound even older, she thought with grim satisfaction, not many people would assume I’d started working full time at seventeen.
Mrs Alexander was already calculating. “And how long did you study beforehand?”
“Not at all. I didn’t even finish high school.”
Which way would she take that? It made Claire younger than she first worked out, but obviously uneducated.
“And have you travelled?”
“I’ve been to Sydney a few times, and I went to Canberra once on a school excursion,” Claire smiled blandly, well aware the woman opposite was referring to overseas, or at least interstate travel, “And you?”
“Well, yes - we travel regularly.” She had been caught off guard, unsure how to take Claire’s answer, but rallied quickly, “Cameron had visited nearly a dozen countries before he began high school - though these days we’re not as keen on exploring new places as enjoying quality destinations. And my husband’s always being asked to speak at conferences around the world.”
Her husband seemed to be enjoying the interplay between the two women, rather like a spectator at the Colosseum, Claire thought darkly, the more blood the better.
“It seems most young people take overseas travel as a matter of course these days. Have you ever wanted to go, Claire?” he asked, fixing his penetrating eyes on her.
Claire thought for a few moments before answering. Cameron knew her situation, he could have explained how ludicrous an idea that was! The resentment of his continued abandoning of her to his parent’s “mercy” led her to answer more honestly than she would ever have expected to, about an offer she hadn’t even mentioned to Jenny or Justin.
“Yes. There was an opportunity to go to Africa several years ago that I would have liked to have taken up.”
Cameron replaced his empty glass on the table and actually turned to look at her, making Claire wonder if he thought she were making it up.
“With friends?” his father prompted.
“No, it was through work. Every year or so a team of volunteers from Australia and New Zealand travel overseas to assist in spinal injury rehabilitation centres in third word countries and I was asked to go along. There’s an incredible need too, while in countries like ours after the initial recovery from spinal cord trauma the survival rate is extremely high, not to mention the quality of life, in the third world the death rate is as high as it was here before the 2nd World War.”
Claire was acutely aware of Cameron’s displeasure as she continued speaking, “There’s often no attempt at rehabilitation and without wheelchairs or assistance, patients are merely left in bed to literally rot away from skin sores and other completely avoidable complications. The team's work is honestly life saving.”
Mrs Alexander said mockingly, “Yes, but I wouldn’t have thought there was great call for receptionists in a third world country.”
“No, I can’t imagine there would be either. They wanted me to help with training patients to use the donated wheelchairs and other equipment which they took with them. Dr Hounslow, who was heading the team that particular year, was a consultant at the centre where I worked. He knew the experience I had and offered to sponsor me to join his team.”
“Nathan Hounslow?” Dr Alexander queried.
“Yes, do you know him?”
“Very well. We’ve played golf many times together.”
Claire smiled warmly, “He’s a wonderful man, isn’t he? I miss working with him, he was very kind to me - much like an indulgent uncle.”
“He’s got daughters about your age, hasn’t he?”
“Three. All a bit younger than me though. It’s funny, I’m actually wearing his daughter’s clothes tonight.”
The moment she’d said that could see the hardening of disapproval in Mrs Alexander’s face, but rather than embarrassing her it prompted her to continue boldly, as though she expected her to appreciate the joke.
“It’s the only way I’d be in brand label clothing - even the Op Shops put too high a price on them these days! Nate’s daughters would redo their entire wardrobes every season, and knowing my circumstances he always passed their offcasts on to me. It’s the advantage of being tall and skinny, everything fits even if it’s a little short at times.”
She grinned widely, just as though she hadn’t been aware of the suppressed tension of the young man beside her or the icy regard of his mother opposite. Although she could sense from his body language that Cameron would like to strangle her there and then, she felt entirely unrepentant. If he was going to throw her to the lions he should not have expected her to lie down without a fight.
“But you didn’t take up Nate’s offer and go on the trip after all,” Dr Alexander continued. “Why was that?”
Claire let out a slow breath, considering her answer. She was hardly about to explain to these judgemental strangers that there was no way she’d have taken up David’s suggestion that he go into temporary respite care even if they had been able to afford the centre’s residential fees. Dr Hounslow simply hadn’t realised that Claire was solely responsible for David’s care and she couldn’t bring herself to explain for fear he’d think she was asking him to pay for David’s nursing care as well.
Cameron’s continued silence stung her - he knew how impossible it would have been for her to leave home even for a weekend - yet he made no attempt to speak in her defence, so why should she care what his parents thought of her?
“You know how it is, these things sound great in principle,” she said with a flippant shrug of her shoulders, “but when it came down to it I guess I wasn’t prepared to make any personal sacrifices for it.”
She was relieved when Anne returned to collect the soup bowls, regretting having been reminded of an unattainable dream she thought she’d forgotten years ago. Usually she kept herself so well protected that no-one even suspected her vulnerable places, but she’d under-estimated the deceptively sharp perception of Cameron’s father. His conversational gambits were not as idle as they appeared.
Glancing surreptitiously at her watch Claire was dismayed to see how little time had passed and despite feeling less like eating in her life, the arrival of the main meal came as welcome distraction from the tense atmosphere in the room. There was a natural pause as the plates were served and Dr Alexander topped up the glasses from a second bottle of wine.
“Tell us about the conference, son.” Dr Alexander requested when Anne had left the room and Claire was able to address herself to attempting to make a passable indent on the unfamiliarly rich food in front of her while Cameron gave his father a brief overview of the meetings.
When Cameron began to relate his frustrations regarding the unwillingness of the conference delegates to accept that the Pelican Point protocols justified the greater program expenses Claire found herself listening intently.
Had he really missed the point of their objections or was he just stubbornly refusing to acknowledge their arguments? In either case, Claire knew her notes had captured their case well and surely when Cameron read them later it would give him greater clarity about the issues.
“Hold it, son, Claire’s frowning you down,” Dr Alexander cut into her thoughts, “You think Cameron’s got it wrong?”
She looked up in surprise, her cheeks burning in silent betrayal. “I was just concentrating on what he was saying.”
“But you don’t think he’s got it right?”
Claire glanced from the older man to the younger, her eyes halting on Cameron’s defiant glare and taut jaw.
“No, I don’t - but that’s only my opinion. Cameron can go through my notes next week, and he’ll be able to get more of an overview then. It was all very intense at the time, I don’t know that things were spelt out as clearly as they could have been.”
There was a suspicion of a smile on Dr Alexander's lips. “Yet you were able to observe it all from a less personal viewpoint than Cameron. You were familiar with the protocols that were being presented?”
“Yes, I’ve been through them many times while Cameron’s been preparing them. And the drafts and source material.”
“So have I. And they seem to be quite compelling - so how could they come under so much fire?”
“It wasn’t the Pelican Point results that caused any objections,” despite her best intentions Claire was tricked into entering the argument.
“It was the fact that the three other centres also following the Pelican Point protocols simply did not replicate those results. Their rehabilitation outcomes were certainly greater than the conventional centres, but nowhere near ours, and it was their results that were arguably not able to justify the greater expenditure. What the detractors were arguing was not that the program at Pelican Point couldn’t justify the greater expense, but that the protocols taken at face value couldn’t.”
Dr Alexander nodded appreciatively, then turned to Cameron, “So where did the protocols go wrong?”
Cameron shook his head in frustration, “It could only be in their execution - they capture to the smallest degree what we do with such great success at Pelican Point.”
“And was their execution deficient?” his father asked Claire.
“Not according to the reports. But I don’t believe there is anything wrong with the protocols either - in as far they go.”
“What has Cameron left out?”
She hesitated, glancing at Cameron’s formidable profile before saying reluctantly, “Himself.”
“So he’s the missing X factor?”
“You’re laughing at me, but I am completely serious. This is not the only rehab centre I’ve worked at. Over the past ten years I’ve seen patients responding to many different doctors and health professionals, but never anything like the way I’ve seen them respond to Cameron. That factor has simply not been addressed.”
“I’m sure Cameron is flattered by your attributing Pelican Point’s success to his personality, but do you realise that if your conjecture is correct it completely undermines the validity of establishing protocols for other centres?”
“Perhaps it would if it were a mere matter of personality, but that’s not what I meant.”
“What exactly do you mean?” Cameron put to her impatiently.
“If I may be blunt - ”
“Why stop now?” he asked dryly.
“No-one seems to have made the obvious connection - that despite identical programs, spinal cord injury patients are responding so much better when treated by a doctor who has survived spinal cord injury himself.”
It seemed to Claire that no-one in the room was breathing and she ran her tongue over painfully dry lips.
“No-one has made the connection because it is completely irrelevant!” Cameron snapped, his face flushed with anger.
“I disagree. I became aware of it from the day I started at Pelican Point when Tyrone spoke of his injury in comparison to yours and gauged his potential outcome on what you had told him based on your own experience.
I could relate a dozen other remarks from patients and my own observation of how they model themselves on you - when Cameron is speaking to his patients, they know he is not just a professional spouting studied theories to earn his wage and then knocking off at 5 PM, they know he is speaking from experience and with passion about his work. I had taken it for granted that everyone took that into account - it was only today I’ve begun to realise that it wasn’t so.”
“Personality or personal experience - in either case they are not replicable,” Dr Alexander said, “you’re still not providing a solution for producing protocols that can be applied beyond Pelican Point.”
Claire leaned forward, her meal forgotten, “But it can! No, although personality cannot be reproduced, to an extent personal experience can - what about targeting spinal cord injury survivors for scholarships in Rehabilitation Medicine? Everyone finds the Paralympians inspirational, why not seek people like them out as potential candidates for retraining in occupational and physio therapy?
"One of our guys in the current program was a high school Physical Education teacher - it would not take much to interest him in that kind of retraining, and he could potentially have a similar impact to what Cameron has had on him.”
“That is hardly good science.” Dr Alexander admonished her.
“It might not be good science, but it’s certainly good psychology.”
“Oh, you’re a psychologist too, now, are you?” Mrs Alexander gave a brittle laugh, her voice at its most condescending, “I hardly think you’re in a position to make these kind of suggestions.”
“Yes, it certainly shows me up for wasting several years actually studying Rehabilitation Medicine when you see what my receptionist can come up with over dinner,” Cameron replied with bitter sarcasm, letting his cutlery clatter onto his plate and picking up his glass again.
Dr Alexander’s face was serious, but Claire was sure there was amusement lurking in his eyes.
“Yes, you do seem to have sadly wasted your potential by stopping as a clerical worker, Claire. You are obviously very interested in this field - why don’t you study further and pursue a career in it?”
His joke at her expense amused her no more than did his wife’s blatant animosity and galvanised her into a bold counter-offensive.
“Oh, no - that would be too much like hard work,” she answered blithely, her sweet smile at her ready command. “I thought it would be much easier to find a rich husband.”
Claire wasn’t sure if refined ladies of Mrs Alexander’s social standing actually ground their teeth, but that’s what the muscles working in the older woman’s jaw seemed to indicate to her.
Her home hit afforded Claire a great deal of satisfaction until she noticed with deep concern that Cameron had reached across the table for the wine and was in the process of refilling his glass. Her stomach tightened painfully on recognising she was in a no-win situation and she approached it as carefully as possible.
“Cameron, were you wanting me to drive home tonight?” she asked quietly, gently resting her hand on his arm.
“What are you talking about?” he paused midstream to face her impatiently.
“Were you aware that is your fourth glass - ”
He muttered something angrily, and Claire wasn’t sure if he swore.
“You are counting my drinks now, are you?” he demanded in a harsh undertone. “Nothing you could do would amaze me after tonight!”
“It’s just that it’s been less than an hour, but perhaps you were planning to stay for a few hours yet?”
“No, I am certainly not.” He thumped the bottle onto the table and picked up his glass, not seeming to notice that it was only half filled, “I will be driving you home very shortly.”
After his crushing response, Claire barely had the courage to lift her eyes from her plate although out of the corner of her eye she was aware of Dr Alexander reaching for the bottle and making a token refill of his own glass before placing it well out of Cameron’s reach. She glanced up at her unexpected ally, her eyes briefly meeting his and silently conveying her appreciation.
Unaware of this exchange, Cameron placed his empty glass on the table and pushed his plate away from him.
“If you’ll excuse us, I think we’ll head off. We’ve got a few hours driving yet and the meals at lunch time were very substantial - I don’t think I could manage dessert. Is that okay with you, Claire?”
The insincerity of his concern prompted another loaded response from her, “Yes - I’ve certainly had more than enough.”
His mother didn’t even bother responding to her artificial smile and stood up.
“In that case, I think we’ll wait and have ours in the lounge. It’s been lovely meeting you, Claire.”
“Likewise, a pleasure. Thank you for such a memorable evening,” she returned in kind, perversely thrilled to discover how polite words could be used to such devastating effect.
Dr Alexander also rose, nodding briefly at Claire before confirming with Cameron that he planned to return in the morning.
Claire felt a terrible depression descending on her as they left the room, realising as Cameron reached for the remote that the whole thing had been so carefully orchestrated so that his parents had never seen Cameron in his wheelchair all evening. It was unbelievable that three intelligent people could participate in such a farce and as Bevan appeared in the doorway she knew she could not endure watching its conclusion.
“May I use the bathroom before we leave?” she asked, getting to her feet.
“I’ll wait for you in the car then,” Cameron replied shortly. “Bevan will show you the way to the bathroom.”
Claire followed in the wake of the Household Administrator, her mind in a turmoil as she was shown along the wide hall and eventually into a gracious marble bathroom. She took her time and after drying her face on a luxuriously soft towel she sat down on the steps of the raised corner spa, resting her head on her knees as she tried to accept what she had just experienced.
It all began to make sense now, Cameron’s general defensiveness and unwillingness to accept any help and his resentment towards her when she showed she understood exactly what his disability involved. They had apparently never accepted his paraplegia, neither him nor his parents, and had simply carried on as if it didn’t exist. He was angry at her for reminding him that it did exist.
Claire felt her heart go out to him, knowing that she was aware, as perhaps he was not, of this painful vulnerability. To feel that admitting his situation would somehow be admitting failure, or that he was some how worth less as a paraplegic than he was before his accident was so sad - and she longed to reassure him, to make him see that it simply was not the case.
The way he had treated her had hurt her deeply and although she could not brush over what he had done to her, she loved him none the less for being made aware of his failings. But she could not simply dismiss them and the drive home tonight was as good a time as ever to work towards resolving these issues.
She took a deep breath and stood up, praying that God would give her the strength and courage to see it through.
© R Brown 2005