The time Cameron spent waiting for Claire in the car did nothing to soothe his seething emotions. He felt raw from her repeated attacks against the very core of his being and there was nothing he longed for more than to be able to retreat somewhere alone and lick his wounds, yet he had another few hours to endure before there was any chance of escape.
He leant his head back against the driver's seat and screwed his eyes shut. How could he have been so wrong about Claire? To be on the verge of making the greatest possible commitment to her and then to realise how she really saw things. . . it made him feel sick.
Yes, he’d had a spinal cord injury, but that was buried in the past - he’d overcome that long ago - yet for some reason Claire was fixated on making it the focus of every movement, every sentence. After years of feeling free of the devastation of his injury, she’d brought it all back - determinedly trying to entrap him with it again.
Flicking his eyes open at the sound of her long, mannish strides across the pavers, Cameron leaned forward and started the car. He had already put the convertibles top up and didn’t even glance in her direction, waiting until she had climbed in and buckled up her seat belt before asking curtly if she were ready to go. Apart from a murmured assent, she did not break the tense silence and as he pulled out of drive and onto the side road his angry thoughts jostled one another tormentingly until he could restrain himself no longer.
“And to think I’d been sure that all of my parent’s misgivings about my being involved with my secretary would be put to rest by meeting you in person!” he remarked bitterly, glancing across at her shadowed profile. Now the gates had been left behind a bend, the only light in the car was the dim glow of the dash instruments.
“Well, I wish you’d given me some warning of what to expect from your parents - for one thing I would have dressed more appropriately,” Claire began with a deceptive meekness, “Like something in chain-mail!”
He gripped the steering wheel even tighter and swung out onto the main road, rapidly gaining speed. He wasn’t proud of his parent's behaviour or unconcealed snobbery but he resented Claire’s antagonist attitude for bringing out their worst.
“You’ve no right to complain about what you brought on yourself. I don’t know how you did it - you couldn’t have trodden on any more of their sensitive points if you had tried.”
“Oh, but I did try,” she corrected him, her voice conveying her indignation through the darkness. “Before they had even met me, your parents had obviously decided I was an unconscionable fortune hunter bent on taking advantage of their poor son - and since you had no intention of convincing them otherwise - who was I to disabuse them? Although I expected they would have had a better opinion of you.”
“What are talking about?”
“They’re not rating you very high if they think the only thing that would attract someone to you is your wealth, are they? For all the elaborate charade of normality they apparently can’t accept that life continues even with a disability - and you’re not doing them any favours by perpetuating that myth.”
“It all comes back to that, doesn’t it?” he replied through gritted teeth, his jaw aching with tension. “It wasn’t enough for you to humiliate me all day by insisting on treating me as though I’m pathetic and helpless, but then you have to make disability the central theme of dinner table discussion with my parents!
" I’m beginning to realise that you have some strange need to label me as disabled! Can’t you get it through your head that it is not an issue, not with me, my parents, my patients - no-one in the world except you?”
“For goodness sake, Cameron - you’re paralysed from the waist down - if that’s not disabled, I don’t know what is!” she exclaimed in exasperation, “It’s as though you and your parents are in total denial - like the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes where no-one is willing to state the obvious.
You can’t force me to pretend your paraplegia doesn’t exist - but accepting it and taking it into consideration takes nothing away from you either! I love you for who you are, and all of what you are - even if it includes being in a wheelchair and everything else that goes with it.”
A pair of tail lights like the red eyes of a serpent approached swiftly from in front, then flashed by on the left as they swept past in the centre lane.
“If only you’d stop pretending it isn’t there but accept it as a gift from God you could achieve so much more,” Claire elaborated on her theme. “That’s what I meant tonight about needing to recognise your disability as a strength in your work. Look at where your life and work have gone since your accident - God has taken you to places I can’t imagine you could possibly have gone otherwise.”
“I have worked so hard and for so long to achieve what I have - and yet you would regard all my own efforts as utterly insignificant? Not only do you refuse to see anything other than my disability in terms of our relationship, you’re now saying I’m only successful as a doctor because of it!”
“No - but it is one of the factors God has allowed that makes you who you are, including being an incredibly effective doctor. Why reject what God has given you? I read recently that Fanny Crosby, the prolific hymn writer who did so much for God’s kingdom in so many ways, said that if she ever met the doctor who had unwittingly blinded her, she would thank him for the gift he had given her.”
Cameron thumped the steering wheel, making Claire jump, “That’s exactly how you see me isn’t it? Categorised as one of the blind, the poor and the lame? No wonder you’re not comfortable about my family’s wealth - it makes it so much harder to make me seem pitiable, doesn’t it?”
“The only thing I pity you for, Cameron, is this chip on your shoulder!” she replied hotly. “And having met your parents I know exactly what boulder it came from! What does it matter what God providentially gives you - whether it’s wealth or poverty, health or physical suffering - if you’re prepared to accept it from Him and use it to serve Him?”
The road was quiet again, in the darkness their headlights illuminating an empty road and a swathe of trees rushing past them in a blur on their left.
“So it’s not enough to just get on with my life, I’ve got to hang a sign around my neck that says: “Never mind what I’m achieving, just don’t forget for a moment that I have had a spinal cord injury?”
“No - that’s not what I’m saying at all! How can I make you understand -”
“Oh, I understand perfectly what you are saying. I’m just glad I found out now, before I made the biggest mistake of my life!” he cut her off bitterly. “I can’t believe how wrong I was about you. I had kidded myself that you actually knew who I was as a person and cared for that man - but your only concern is ensuring I remain in my designated role as disabled and needy. Well, I don't need you and I certainly don't need any kind of relationship like that.”
She made no reply to his last statement and he couldn’t even hear her breathing as they sped along the open highway. Even though he had expressed his grievances against her bluntly, he had failed to budge her from her intolerable position and he felt no sense of relief. The more he thought about it, the more he realised that he had misjudged her right from the beginning.
He’d been blinded by desire for her, closing his eyes to the clear signs of her obsession of surrounding herself with people who needed her help. Well, he didn’t need her help - and if all she wanted him for was another boost to her ego - he didn’t need her either.
Cameron’s head was beginning to throb and he stretched his shoulders stiffly, the muscles across his upper back so taut they were nearly cramping. The more he thought about it, the more he realised from experience how entrenched Claire’s attitude was.
From that very first day when she assumed an air of gentle authority over him when he’d fallen from his wheelchair she’d been determined to continue undermining him - he remembered her insistence on being free to physically assist and lift patients like Tyrone. He drummed his fingers against the steering wheel, she’d succeeded early in making Tyrone dependent on her, just like her own father and brother . . . but there was no way he was letting her go any further with him.
“Cameron, could you slow down a little please?” Claire’s quiet voice surprised him after her long silence, “Maybe you didn’t realise how far you’re over the speed limit.”
Cameron glanced down at the speedo in annoyance, he hadn’t noticed it climbing so high but he bitterly resented her looking over his shoulder and pointing it out.
“You have to be in control of everything, don’t you? Can’t even allow me to drive my own car without your interference!” he retorted, his anger prompting him to further increase rather than decrease the speed. “I assure you ma’am, I am perfectly capable of handling my car without your help.”
He was now 60 kph over the limit and while he had never driven this road so fast, he knew every curve and dip like the back of his hand and felt secure in the handling of his vehicle and his own competency.
He did not slow up as they approached a sweeping left hand bend and although centrifugal force flung them against the seatbelts and it felt as if though back of the car must slide out from under them, the vehicle hugged the corner perfectly. Cameron savoured a warm sense of vindication as they came out of the bend still in the centre of their lane.
“Please, Cameron, you’re frightening me!” Claire’s voice sounded a little breathless, and he felt her hand reach out gingerly to his left arm. “Please slow down. You might be prepared to take risks with your own life, but I can’t afford to. I’ve got to get home to David and Dad, they need me there.”
“That’s the crux of it, isn’t it? You need to make people dependent on you so that you can feel worthwhile!” He shook her hand off his arm, his thoughts finding expression in a harsh torrent of words.
“Have you any idea how pathetic that is? You’re like a parasite sucking the life out of all the people around you so that you can feed your self esteem. Look at your life - the dependence of your own family isn’t enough for you, so you’ve made a career out of it. Anyone else would be looking to escape the pressures of caring for people with disabilities, but no, you’ve got to make it your job.
"And if that story you were pitching to Mum and Dad about travelling overseas is to be believed, immersing yourself in the poor, the blind and the crippled is your dream vacation too,” he paused, wincing as the glare of high beam headlights hit him in the eyes before shooting past them.
“It doesn’t seem to matter to you what the cost is to anyone else, so long as you’ve got them entangled in your web so they cannot escape you. Instead of letting your father take responsibility for what he did to David, you maintain this conspiracy of silence over him, like a life-long blackmail to keep them both under your thumb, with no chance of escape or resolution for either of them. You’ve even arranged things so that both he and your brother have to be grateful to you for the roof over their heads, and won’t let either of them spend so much as a night without you hovering over them.
"And you’re well on the way to making Tyrone just as reliant on you as they are - I’ve done that boy no favours by encouraging you to court his confidences or overruling my better judgment about him attending your church and getting involved with you outside of work.
"Well, your family may have no way of escaping you and Tyrone might just want that kind of dependence - but I certainly don’t - and there is no way I will allow you to entrap me like that, or take away my independence just to fulfil your craving for control. It makes me sick to realise that probably the only thing about me that attracts you is that I am another person with a disability you thought you could conquer. But you were wrong, Claire, if you thought I could possibly want a relationship on those terms, you were wrong!”
He rounded another corner and saw ahead a semi-trailer labouring up the hill but had left it in his wake within seconds as he waited impatiently for some response from the young woman beside him. But even as the minutes ticked by, there was not a word, not a single acknowledgment of what he’d said to her, no reassurance that she had ever truly cared for him nor any objection to his dismissal of the relationship. Obviously if she couldn’t have him her way, she didn’t want him at all.
He flicked the switch to lower his high beam lights as another car crested the rise ahead, his stomach tightening as the oncoming car flashed his own high beams at him twice in quick succession. Instantly recognising the courteous warning, he released the hand throttle immediately, his heart sinking when he glanced at the speedo.
He began braking hard and although he applied as much pressure as he dared and both their bodies were flung forward against the straining seatbelts the speedo was impossibly slow to respond. The terrific pressure of sudden deceleration seemed to nearly crush them, yet already he could see the flashing blue lights of the approaching police car and he was still far above the legal limit.
There was no way he could bring the speed down any faster without risking locking his wheels and losing control of the car and he watched the dial grimly, noting he was still nearly 20 kmph over the limit when the police car flashed past.
His heart thudded hollowly in his chest as he steeled himself for the coming recriminations. He watched the police car receding in his rear view mirror, waiting for Claire to gloat over the inevitable siren wail and fine. Although the flashing lights disappeared without the patrol car turning and following them he felt no relief, expecting that his registration details had probably been radioed to another police car waiting for him on the road ahead.
The car was briefly lit up by the lights of a passing truck and Cameron glanced across at Claire, surprised to see she wasn’t even looking in his direction. Her face was turned toward the side window, her knees tucked up tightly against her chest and her arms wrapped around her legs as he’d seen her sitting once before. She was leaning against the passenger door and Cameron felt painfully rejected as he sensed she had moved as far away from him as possible in the compact confines of the car.
So that’s it for our future, he thought in angry desolation, and she doesn’t have a single objection. That’s how little it must have meant to her.
He had to acknowledge that not only had Claire been reluctant to begin the relationship from the start, she had tried to take every possible excuse for breaking it off with him. Obviously he’d read far too much into her responses to him - his own desperate longing for her deceiving him into believing the feelings were reciprocated.
What a fool she’s made of me! he told himself harshly.
Still expecting the blare of a siren at any moment, Cameron kept his eyes carefully on the speedo, after such sudden deceleration their speed feeling ridiculously slow. He was as tense as a coiled spring and it wasn’t until they finally reached the outskirts of Maitland that he began to feel safe from prosecution for his speeding.
Stopping at a set of lights he turned again to Claire and saw that she was still curled up in ball and huddled against the door, her head resting on her knees. Although she was still facing away he could see her reflection in the window and realised she must be fast asleep, her eyes tightly closed.
The thought that she could be calm enough to sleep, while he was so upset he could barely keep from screaming infuriated him even further and he reached down to turn on the stereo. The music did nothing to distract him from his thoughts, but at least it filled the silence for the rest of the horrendous drive.
Claire remained silent and motionless beside him until they pulled up at the Muxlow’s, so Cameron was taken completely unawares when she shot out of the passenger door and into the darkness the instant the car had stopped moving. He watched after her for only a moment before taking off sharply - a renewed sense of anger and betrayal that she cared so little to leave without even a word.
Stumbling blindly through the Muxlow’s front yard, Claire barely made it to the garden tap beside the house before doubling over and being violently sick. It felt as though she would never stop retching. Even when the food which she’d been barely able to eat in the first place was long gone her whole kept body heaving with involuntary sobs.
She turned the tap on hard, plunging her hands into the icy water and splashing her face - the shock of the sudden cold on her flushed skin calming her enough to manage an answer when she heard the back door open and Jenny call out, “Is anyone there?”
“Just me.” Claire turned the tap off and mopped at her face with her sleeve as Jenny made her way around from the back of the house.
“I wasn’t expecting you guys for at least another hour - I heard the tap and didn’t know what to think.”
“Sorry Jen, got car-sick. Barely made it out the car.” She tried to smile but couldn’t and had to close her eyes quickly to keep the tears from spilling out.
“You poor thing, come inside!” Jenny reached out to her in concern, “I’m sure Cameron won’t be long.”
Claire shook her head, quickly walking ahead so as not to have to meet the other woman’s eyes. “He’s . . he’s left.”
“What, already? Why?”
Claire went inside without answering, her only thought being to get home with David before she fell apart completely. She felt like a pane of shattered glass, somehow still holding together but only until the first puff of wind.
Seeing that the dining and living rooms were empty Claire realised that David was probably with Justin in his study, but before she could make her way toward him Jenny caught up with her, taking hold of her by both arms and gently pushing her down onto a dining chair.
“You look dreadful. Can I get you something?”
Claire shook her head automatically, then realised how much her throat burned and asked for a glass of water. Jenny handed it to her, her face creasing with concern as she saw how much Claire’s hand shook as she took the water from her.
“What’s wrong, Claire?” she asked urgently, dropping into the chair beside her, “You’re not just car-sick, are you?”
Claire sipped slowly at the water, her stomach rebelling even as she swallowed and put the glass down.
“Sorry, Jenny - I’m just a bit upset.” She leant her elbows on the table and pressed her face into her hands. “Can you please get David, I just want to go home.”
“But what’s happened?” Instead of getting up Jenny moved closer, putting a gentle hand on her shoulder, “Have you argued with Cameron?”
Claire nodded, her face still hidden in her hands. She knew if she tried to say anything about it she would cry and simply repeated her request that Jenny get David for her.
Jenny hovered beside her for ages before finally getting up and when she eventually returned it was with Justin, not David.
“Jen said you and Cam have had some kind of problem. I’m quite surprised he went without stopping in too, that’s not like him,” he began, sitting down on her other side and despite his good intentions making her feel trapped and panicky. “I’ve never seen you this upset either - I guess it was pretty serious?”
There was no way out of answering . . . and Claire realised that she would have to face the truth sooner or later. If she could just force herself to stay calm . . .
“Yes, it was pretty serious,” her voice wavered - she’d had no idea it could be so much worse putting it into words, “everything’s finished between us.”
“You’ve had fairly serious misunderstandings before, but managed to sort it all out in the end,” Justin said in his matter of fact way, putting his hand on her shoulder. “You don’t think you’re over-reacting?”
“No, I’m not!” Claire wrenched her shoulder free and struggled unsteadily to her feet, her chair scraping loudly on the slate as she pushed it back. “He hates me!” An anguished gasp escaped her and hot tears began to well in her eyes.
“Sit down, Claire and tell us what’s happened.” Justin said gently, the look of shock and concern on his and Jenny’s faces making her feel even worse. “Jen can get us all a coffee and we’ll talk things through.”
Claire stared back at them in dismay, remembering too clearly the things which Cameron had said about David and their father, matters she’d never dreamed he could be aware of.
Her hand flew to her mouth, her stomach lurching again with the knowledge of the total betrayal of herself and her family - only Justin and Jenny could have told him those details. They were her only close friends and she had thought that they at least had cared for her and David . . . now she could never trust them again.
She started to back away, unable to stop the tears which were coursing down her cheeks. “How can I talk to you about Cameron?” she demanded, her voice catching as she began to sob, “You’re Cameron’s friends!”
“But we’re your friends too!” Jenny insisted, her face puckering and her eyes filling with tears as well, “You know we love you, Claire!”
Dashing her hand across her eyes, Claire turned quickly, stopping suddenly and filling with remorse when she saw David watching her from the doorway, his eyes full of pain. He must have followed Justin through from the study - but she would have done anything to have not had him see how much she had been hurt.
“Can we go home, David?” she pleaded, relieved that he understood her need and instantly made his way towards the door. She was struggling with the latch when Justin came from behind her and put his hand on hers.
“Don’t go like this, Claire - if you don’t want to talk at least wait until you’re feeling a little better.”
She could see Jenny standing beside him, her own eyes wet and lips trembling, and Claire hated herself for her weakness in exposing her distress so openly. All these years they had known her and she knew they had never seen her cry, let alone lose control like this.
“No, please - I just want to go home!”
“How about you let me drive? We can drop the van off again in the morning.”
She shook her head dismissively, wresting the door open and holding it open for David. Since the Muxlow’s would follow them out to the car, Claire left Justin to help David in and quickly climbed into the front of the van, shutting the door behind her.
“O God help me!” she prayed in desperation, wondering if the tears would ever stop. The back door of the van was closed now and as Jenny and Justin stepped back onto the lawn, Claire blinked rapidly to clear her vision and backed out of the drive.
“I’m so sorry, David,” she began apologising, her voice watery and uneven as she guided the car automatically through the familiar streets. “I didn’t mean to cry, I must just be too tired - it’s been a long day.”
Pulling up in her own driveway, Claire leapt quickly out of her seat and gulped in the crisp night air, willing herself to stop crying. When she’d managed to steady her breathing a little, she helped David out of the car and took him through to the bedroom. He tried to speak to her as she lifted him onto his bed and began undressing him, his eyes clearly conveying the concern that his body struggled to put into words.
“Thank you, David, I love you so much too. . . I know you want to help,” she whispered, somehow forcing herself to smile, “But I’m not going to talk about it - not to you, not to anyone - it’s over and I’ve just got to put it behind me. Dwelling on what’s been said would only make it much worse.”
She gently rolled David onto his stomach and began slowly and methodically rubbing cream into his skin. When she had finished working on the lower half of his body, she dressed him in his pyjama pants and began on his back. For a few minutes Claire had nearly convinced herself that she really could just put it all behind her like that, but despite her best intentions Cameron’s words kept repeating themselves in her mind.
How could he possibly think that she wanted him to be in wheelchair, that somehow that had been her preference? More than anyone did she know from the outset the potential cost and responsibility of his disability - it was just that she loved him so much that it outweighed the disadvantages for her.
Apart from the help he would inevitably need from her, whether he admitted it or not, if she hadn’t have wanted him so badly, would she ever have chosen to consider a lifetime of carrying all the physical burdens of a household herself? Of not having a husband who could mow the lawn, or climb up on the roof to fix the aerial?
Had Cameron ever given thought to the dreams she’d had to give up before she could even contemplate marriage with him? The things that everyone else in love takes for granted; walking along a sandy beach at sunset, hiking up mountains, even being able dance the bridal waltz with him at their wedding . . .
Her fingers paused their gentle massaging as she gasped with the pain as the full realisation hit that there would be no wedding now, no life with Cameron, no future with him at all. The tears she had been so bravely holding at bay gathered again in her eyes, her vision swimming as she fought to keep control of herself.
What devastated her most was not merely the break up of their relationship, but the knowledge of how much he despised her, how he thought that she thrived on his weakness.
Oh, Cameron, can’t you realise how much I hate your paraplegia, just as I hate what happened to David, and hate what Dad is and what he has done . . . it’s just that my love is stronger than that hate . . .
Her tears spilled over, splashing in huge drops on David’s bare skin. She wiped them away quickly, knowing how much it worried David when she was upset, but the tears kept falling and his skin was soon wet with them. He groaned and writhed in frustration and she quickly rolled him onto his back.
“I’m so sorry, David, so sorry,” she sobbed, the ever present pain of his condition overwhelming her, “I would give my life . . . if it would make you well . . . he thinks . . . I want you to be like this . . . that I like that you needing me . . .”
Her brother flung out his arm, and understanding his gesture she curled up beside him on the bed and buried her face in his shoulder, crying as though she would never stop. She had no idea how long she had cried before finally dropping into an exhausted sleep, but when she woke up in the early hours of the morning David was still awake.
She felt appalled by her own selfishness in not shielding him from her hurt, and although her eyes were already beginning to burn with tears once more, as she crept through to her own bedroom she resolved never to let him down like that again.
© R Brown 2005