While the sky was still an ominous grey, the overnight rain had eased to a light drizzle when Claire climbed out of the van on the following Monday morning. She normally walked to work no matter what the weather, but when David had suggested at breakfast that she drive instead she thought it safer not to argue the point. She hoped he had only been thinking of the rain, although the concern in his perceptive brown eyes made her worry that he might have guessed how weak and shaky she felt.
Since Friday night she’d been careful not to let him see how distressed she was again, avoiding spending any length of time with him and merely breezing in and out of his room between chores. As she’d fed him his breakfast that morning, she’d been aware of how closely he was watching her and forced herself to eat a few bites of toast for appearances sake.
Well, I’m here, she told herself encouragingly as she picked her way through the puddles in the car park. Even over the buzzing in her head the sound of the gravel crunching under her shoes sounded particularly sharp and loud, and although she’d only fallen asleep a few hours before her alarm went off she felt unnaturally alert - like a painted marionette whose strings were held too tightly.
If she’d had any other option than having to return to work with Cameron she would have taken it - but her financial situation was too precarious to be able to afford as little as one week without pay while looking for other employment. Carrying on as normal after his bitter rejection of her seemed impossible, but she would have to endure it for the time being.
He may hate me personally, she thought as she headed inside and turned on the lights above her desk, but I will not give him the slightest reason to complain about my work.
She’d set her alarm even earlier than normal and had taken great pains over her appearance. A thick mask of foundation and generous use of blusher hid her pallor and the dark mascara and eyeliner made her eyes appear larger than usual and ensured that no-one would know that she’d cried herself to sleep again last night.
A rich plum lipstick added colour to her face and matched the sophisticated skirt suit she hadn’t worn since her interview. It wasn’t as practical as her usual pants, but she knew it made her look very professional and the added boost to her confidence helped her feel a little stronger and more able to face Cameron. She knew she would never be able to stop loving him - but if she was going to keep this job she would have to keep her feelings to herself.
There was always plenty of work waiting for her on Monday mornings and Claire quickly immersed herself in collating and filing the nurses' reports from over the weekend. Each time she heard the sliding doors open she felt as though she couldn’t breathe until she knew it wasn’t Cameron entering and she was extremely relieved when Tyrone joined her at her desk a little before nine.
“Wow, don’t you look gorgeous!” he said after an appreciative whistle as he swung around to her side of the desk, “You look great! I really like your hair like that.”
Claire glanced up briefly, “Thanks, Ty - how are you?”
“Oh, I’m fine, didn’t know how you’d be though - thought you mightn’t be here even.” His voice became more serious, “Missed you at church yesterday. Justin said that David emailed him say’n you weren’t up to church, but didn’t say why. Were you crook?”
Claire shook her head. During the sleepless hours the previous night she’d had ample time to consider how she could cope with getting through the first day at work and had eventually decided that being up-front about the situation would be the least stressful way to handle it.
“Cameron and I have broken up, Ty,” she explained quietly without looking up. “It’s been a hard weekend.”
“I bet! What happened?”
She knew his question was genuine but she shook her head. “I . . . I can’t talk about it, Ty, I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay. I understand.” He sat quietly beside her for several minutes before speaking again, “You’ll let me know if there’s anything I can do for you?”
Claire nodded and looked up at him, blinking back tears. “Will you stay here with me until Cameron’s gone upstairs?”
“Sure. And I’ll meet you here at lunchtime too, if you want.”
“Thanks.” Her voice was barely a whisper now and she turned back to her work, incredibly thankful for Tyrone’s reassuring presence. Without prompting he took it upon himself to watch the door, for the next half hour telling her who was coming up the path and Claire found herself beginning to relax until she felt his hand on her arm and heard him whisper “Cameron” under his breath.
As though compelled she found herself looking up as he entered and was completely unprepared for what she saw. Cameron was unshaven and heavy-eyed, his forehead lined with a deep frown. His eyes met hers, hardening perceptibly as they held for just a moment before breaking off as he turned abruptly and wheeled himself with angry thrusts into the corridor.
She sat, stunned, the look in his eyes when he saw her seeming even worse than anything he had said to her on Friday night. She didn’t realise she was shaking until she felt Tyrone’s arm around her shoulders and then turned to him in dismay.
“It’s okay,” he told her with an encouraging smile. “Don’t look like he’s exactly celebrating.”
She shook her head, knowing that Cameron wasn’t upset that the relationship was over but that it had ever started. Finally she let out a long sigh, realising that deep inside she’d been hoping that somehow he’d have softened towards her over the weekend. At least now she was out of her suspense and it was time to get on with the rest of her life.
“Thanks Ty, you’re a good friend. I’ll be right now, anyway.”
He glanced at the clock, “Yeah, Doc Alex is in late, isn’t he? Didn’t realise it was after nine-thirty. Better go.” He pushed back from the desk, “See ya at lunch.”
Claire forced her mind back to her work, knowing better than to allow herself even a moment’s reflection. She was frowning over the handwriting on a visiting consultant's report an hour or so later when she heard Lynette leaving the lift and looked up to see her carrying two steaming mugs towards her.
“Hadn’t heard you come up to make a coffee this morning, so I thought I’d bring you one,” she explained, handing one of the cups to Claire. “Actually it’s a bribe. There’s a letter I should have sent Friday . . . I wondered if you could do it for me now and have it ready for today’s post?”
“Sure.” Claire took a few grateful sips of her coffee and then turned to the computer, quickly typing as Lynette dictated. A few moments later she handed the letter to her for signing, and assured her she’d put it straight in an envelope.
“Thanks, darling! Here, I’ll take your cup back if you’re finished.”
Claire handed it to her, thinking quickly. “If you’re going straight back upstairs, would you mind dropping Cameron’s mail in for me? Save me a trip.” She tried to make it sound off-hand, but while Lynette held out her hand for the mail she looked at Claire keenly.
“Mmm? Something’s wrong if you pass up a chance to see Cameron. And he’s like a bear with a sore head this morning . . .” She let her remark hang for a moment before continuing, “I guess the path of true love does not always run smoothly?”
“Actually, Cameron and I have decided not to continue with . . . ” Claire’s attempt at seeming unaffected was betrayed by her voice breaking, “with our . . . our relationship.”
Oh, but it hurts so to say it out loud, Claire thought and despite her brave resolve felt her eyes beginning to sting again and looked away quickly, blinking hard, but not in time to keep Lynette from noticing her pained expression.
“Oh, sweetheart - obviously it was Cameron who decided, wasn’t it?” She leaned forward in sympathy towards Claire, “Do you want to talk about it?”
Claire shook her head, walking quickly over to her drawer and retrieving an envelope, effectively turning her shoulder toward Lynette. She felt rude, but it was all she could do, knowing she would break down completely again if she had to say another word.
“I’m so sorry, Claire - but I’m sure it will all come right - Cam’s got a dreadful temper, I know, sometimes he does go off the deep end over things.” She waited for a few more minutes, but when Claire didn’t answer she straightened up to go, “Anyway, sweetie, you know you can come and talk to me anytime if you want, sometimes it just helps to have an understanding ear.”
Claire nodded without turning, appreciative of Lynette’s offer of support but all too aware that she’d been Cameron’s friend and employee for several years and was unlikely to suddenly abandon her loyalty to him.
Upstairs in his office, Cameron flicked aimlessly through a pile of medical reports and although the terms were familiar, nothing he tried to read made any sense to him. It was useless - he should have never come in to work today - but spending another day shut in with his festering emotions had appealed to him even less.
After dropping Claire off at the Muxlow’s on Friday night he’d gone straight on to Pelican Point knowing there would be no way he would be returning home to face his parents’ disapproval until his own sense of shock at seeing Claire’s true character had lessened. So he had spent the weekend alone in his cabin, his anger too raw to be amongst other people and tried unsuccessfully to distract himself from his black thoughts by reading and watching television.
Even though he refused to contemplate the humiliating things Claire had said about him they remained in his consciousness, along with the awareness of the total ruin of his future. He knew now that his dreams and desires about a life shared with Claire could never have eventuated - that he’d built them on a fantasy by closing his eyes to reality - yet he felt an immense grief for their loss.
He’d sat up very late again on Sunday night, knowing if he went to bed before he was actually dropping off he’d only be tormented by his pain, and had slept right through the alarm, waking with a sudden jolt of awareness of how late he was. There was no time to shower and barely time for the absolute essentials, since on Friday afternoon Dr Winterbourne had promised he’d call Cameron first thing Monday morning to discuss the conference with him.
Maybe it’s for the best, he’d thought as he dragged a clean polo shirt over his head and headed for the door, hoping that if he threw himself back into normal routine without any time to think about it, some semblance of normality might return to him as he went along.
Perhaps it would have, if he hadn’t have had to face Claire the moment he’d entered the main building. Over the weekend he’d neatly blocked out the memory of his own despicable behaviour towards her on Friday night, but the moment their eyes met he knew exactly how she would be seeing him and he felt immediately ashamed and disgusted with himself.
Well, let her despise me! he thought bitterly, knowing he’d given her every right to, but unwilling to acknowledge it to her or anyone else.
When he reached his office he realised he had probably already missed his mentor’s call, but rather than ask Claire whether he had left any message he rang the doctor's number himself. Finding out from his secretary that her boss had come down with the flu and wasn’t expected back at least until Wednesday had been the final insult.
I should have stayed in bed! he fumed, slamming down the phone in annoyance.
Not long after that his mobile began ringing, and pulling it out of his shirt pocket he glared at it before returning it unanswered to his pocket. He let the phone ring out until it diverted to his message bank like he had the other half a dozen times Justin had tried contacting him over the weekend, saying he was concerned about him and asking him to call.
Whether Claire had told Justin anything about what had transpired between them or not, he was not prepared to speak to his friend. He could hardly explain his own actions on Friday night without admitting how ungodly they were - and since he wasn’t willing to admit that to anyone, not even God - he was not about to give Justin the opportunity of pointing out what he was doing wrong.
Cameron knew that well enough himself - he wasn’t praying and could hardly seek God’s peace when deep within himself he knew he was going directly against God by harbouring and acting on the anger he felt against Claire, but he simply was not prepared to forgive her for what she had done to him.
He made one more attempt to peruse the sheaf of papers in front of him before thrusting them towards the back of his desk in frustration and staring out of the rain splattered window instead. Even though he was achieving nothing of his own work, when there was a knock at his door the further interruption grated on Cameron’s nerves and he snapped back, “Yes - what is it now?”
Lynette ambled over to him and held out a pile of letters, “Claire asked if I’d drop in your mail.”
“Oh, so she’s delegating to you now?” he snarled back, further irritated by Claire’s obvious avoidance of him.
“Hardly - I was coming upstairs anyway. Though I thought it was unusual she didn’t come up herself,” she replied, and leant back against the side of his desk. “I asked her if there was some kind of problem between the two of you and she said that you’d decided not to continue your relationship.”
“She did, did she?” It angered him that Claire had obviously accepted the end of their relationship without the slightest difficulty, announcing it publicly as though it were of small consequence.
“Look Cam, I know it’s none of my business, but - ”
“You are absolutely right it is none of your business!” he replied harshly. “Now if there is nothing else you need to interrupt me with I’ve got work to do, and I’m sure you have as well!”
Lynette raised her eyebrows at him, but got up and slowly left his office without another word.
Cameron’s mood had not improved by lunchtime and his stormy countenance effectively dampened any conversation at his table in the dining room. When he entered he was immediately aware that Claire had absented herself from the dining room - but it was several minutes until he realised that Tyrone was also missing.
He ground his teeth, remembering how Tyrone had been faithfully by her side at the reception desk when he’d come in that morning. The boy was like a lap-dog to her, no doubt that made her happy! Probably he should do something about it, but now she had him involved with her brother and her own church any intervention he took at work could have very little effect on the relationship.
As it was there were only a couple of weeks before the end of the current program when Tyrone would no longer be his responsibility. But next intake he’d ensure she had no opportunity to ensnare anyone else.
He was feeling less charitable about it though, when everyone else had assembled for the afternoon activities and still neither of them had appeared. Due to the weather all the groups had been combined in the recreation room for a round robin of pool, darts and table tennis and while he could have managed perfectly well without Claire he resented her absence intensely. He was about to make a start when he saw Tyrone enter the room and turned towards him.
“Thanks for finally joining us! I hope we’re not putting you to any inconvenience.”
Despite the sarcasm in Cameron’s voice, Tyrone grinned.
“Just a bit, but that’s okay! I was watchin’ the photocopier guy take apart the copier - never seen right inside one of them before. Would’ve stayed too, but Claire sent me up.”
“Get this straight, Tyrone - Claire is not the person who is setting your program.” He was using a tone which he had never used with his patients before, “No matter why she’s not bothering to turn up, I expect you to be here on the dot.”
“She’s just gotta show the guy where it’s been jammin’ before she can come up. Didn’t think it would take that long.”
“And what does that have to do with you?” he demanded.
“Well, she asked me to let you know,” he replied without rancour.
“Just go and join your group! You should be concerned about your own movements, not her's. I don’t tolerate any kind of slack attitude around here, especially from someone who should be grateful for a place in this program! Have you got that clear?”
“Yeah - it’s okay, Doc,” Tyrone replied quietly, “I understand.”
As Tyrone met his eyes squarely, his expression strangely soft, Cameron realised that in refusing to retaliate the teenager had shown he had understood that he was not the real cause of Cameron’s outburst and had excused it - showing up the older man’s immaturity with painful clarity - and making him feel even worse.
Cameron swung away and although he saw Chris was watching him, he didn’t need to read his friend’s expression to know how badly he was behaving. He hated himself for it, but felt powerless to stop - Claire had hurt him so badly he hardly knew himself.
The activities were well under way when she walked in several minutes later and as she made her way towards him, Cameron was annoyed to find that his first thoughts were of how good her figure looked in the tailored jacket and short, straight skirt she was wearing. He swallowed hard, speaking before she had a chance.
“It’s about time you made an appearance!”
“I’m sorry . . . I asked Tyrone to explain that I was caught up - ”
“Yes - I heard all about it - but Tyrone is not your message-boy!” he cut her off, lowering his voice so that no-one could hear, “Do you really think you are doing him any favours by cutting him off from his peers like this or do you always think only of yourself?”
She stared at him for a moment, her lips compressed in a tight line before turning on her heel and joining her group at the pool table. Cameron stared after her, fuming that she hadn’t even deigned to answer him. She was so cold, so emotionless towards him that it made her rejection of him as a whole man even more apparent.
He watched as she shrugged off her jacket and hung it over the back of a chair and was immediately absorbed into the activity of the group of young men around the table. The slim-fitting cream top that sat snugly on her hips showed her figure to perfection and Cameron wondered if she had dressed that way purposely to taunt him.
He had the time now to take in every detail of her appearance, her dark make-up and the way she had styled her hair enhancing the beauty of her face in a way he had never seen before. Was she making sure he realised exactly what he was missing out on when he refused a relationship on her terms?
He took a deep breath, unable to understand how he could still desire her so strongly despite everything that had happened, yetaware that his longing for her had not lessened - but if anything had intensified.
If only he had not been so foolish to have tasted her lips, and to have felt her melt in his arms - perhaps it wouldn’t hurt so badly now. When he had been counting on making her his bride that longing had been like a warm fire in his body, filling him with hope and joy - but now, knowing it would never be sated it burnt through his bones like acid.
He watched as she took the cue from Skinner, crouching to his level to explain a better angle to make the shot from his seated position. Instead of listening, Skinner lay his hand on her arm and Cameron caught his voice over the general babble of voices.
“So, do you come here often?”
She shook her head at his line, laughing along with the rest of the group as he added, “Can I buy you a drink?”
She returned the cue to him and nodded towards the soft drink machine in the corner, replying with a similar light-hearted banter, “Only if you make this shot!”
Cameron turned away, his heart bitter that he also had been enslaved by her. She didn’t need him, and never had.
Everyone else was assembled around Cameron’s conference table for the afternoon meeting when Claire entered the room ten minutes after the others had arrived.
“I’m so sorry, I just went down to sign off the photocopier man - he was about to go but he still hadn’t got the problem with the duplex tray fixed,” she explained, quickly taking her seat, “Have you started?”
“No, we haven’t. Perhaps if I had realised you wanted me to make other arrangements to suit your convenience?”
“I said I was sorry - last week when I discussed it with you, you told me not to let the guy go until I was certain he had fixed the problem.”
“I had never intended you hold his hand throughout the whole process!” Cameron’s patience had been sorely tried by the none-too-subtle comments and inquiries from Chris and Lynette while they had all waited for her.
“Now, shall we spend another ten minutes arguing about this, or will we just make a start? It’s late enough, Claire, and you’re the one who always wants to get away.”
He opened the first file, squarely meeting the censuring look in Chris’s eyes as though daring him to challenge his conduct before requesting his report.
It seemed nothing would go smoothly for him today and on every patient either Lynette or Chris appeared determined to query his recommendations. They were still brangling over the second last file when Claire stood up.
“It’s already ten past five. Do you mind if I go and catch up the notes in the morning?”
“Yes, I do mind!” Cameron was annoyed by this further distraction. “You seem to have the idea that we run this centre around your convenience, but we don’t! Now let’s get on with this.”
She remained standing, “I’m sorry, Cameron - but I really have to go. If I don’t leave right now, I won’t be home before David is dropped off.”
“And he’ll probably think it’s Christmas to have ten minutes to himself without you hovering over him as if he didn’t have a mind of his own! I bet he counts his blessings everyday that you lost your last job, even if you are waiting on the door step ready to have him back under your control the moment he comes home.”
He could almost imagine that it was himself and not David still caught so firmly in her trap, “Now sit down and get on with your job!”
She stared at him wide-eyed as though she’d been slapped, but sat down wordlessly as Cameron returned his attention to the file, his heart pounding.
“Now, what were you saying, Chris?”
“Nope, I don’t have any more to add.”
Cameron looked at Lynette, then after she shook her head he made his summary and moved onto the next file. Chris and Lynette made extremely brief reports and this time offered no comments to Cameron’s suggestions.
His mind was beginning to buzz with a sense of dread over his actions as he gave the final summary, and the moment he finished speaking Claire shot up from her place and fled from the room.
“I didn’t think you had it in you to be so low, Cameron!” Chris said before the sound of her footsteps had even disappeared.
“Whatever Claire has done, I simply cannot believe she deserved that,” Lynette added sharply.
“No - no, she didn’t,” Cameron admitted, then dropped his face into his hands, appalled at what he had done. For the first time since Friday the mists of his anger cleared enough for him to see how unfair and cruel he had been to Claire.
He had wanted to hurt her, to make her feel at least some of the pain she had inflicted on him - but he saw now she hadn’t set out to hurt him intentionally as he had done, she had done nothing except shared with him more of who she was. It wasn’t her fault that it had repulsed him, and it was certainly no-one’s fault but his own that he’d refused to see all the blatant signs right from the beginning.
He looked up at his friends in dismay.
“Go after her, Cam - she’s got to get her handbag from downstairs - you might still catch her,” Lynette urged, and without a moment's hesitation he raced out of the room thankful that for once the elevator was empty and waiting at his floor.
She was already at the front glass doors as he came out of the elevator and he called out quickly, “Please wait, Claire!”
Her back was still towards him and he saw one hand reach up to her eyes, and for a split second thought she was crying, but when she turned to face him he realised she had only been putting on her sunglasses.
Only my imagination, he thought as she waited rigidly by the door, just wishing she had ever felt something real for me.
“Thank you for waiting, I have to apologise,” he began as he reached her, for the first time his heart churning with an emotion other than anger. “That was a dreadful thing I said to you - and I am truly sorry. There’s no excuse for the way I’ve been treating you . . . I’m very upset that things didn’t work out between us the way I’d hoped . . . but I’ve got no right to take it out on you the way I have been. It’s not your fault, I just should have realised much earlier that things were never going to work out between us.”
“You don’t need to rehash it all again for me now, Cameron - you made it perfectly clear on Friday night that if you’d known me better you never would have started anything.”
He could not see her expression behind her dark glasses, but her voice was brittle, “You made your choice that you want to end our relationship, that you don’t want me - why can’t you just leave me alone now? We have to keep working together somehow . . . ” she broke off and looked at her watch, shaking her head in frustration, “I don’t have time for this! I’ve really got to go.”
Just as she turned and the doors slid open, letting in a gust of wind and rain, the phone began to ring on her desk. She let out a heavy breath and stepped forward, closing the darkening evening out behind the doors again.
“Just go, I’ll get it,” Cameron said to her, making his way over and picking up the receiver across the counter. She waited by the door as he answered.
Cameron frowned in annoyance at the strange voice and long silences on the other end of the line.
“Who is this? Is this some kind of prank?” he demanded.
“What is it Cameron?” Claire was coming towards him.
“I don’t know - they’re asking for you, but it’s like a machine, or a recorded voice.”
She crossed the distance between them in two strides and snatched the phone from him.
“David? Are you okay?”
There was a long pause as she listened intently to the phone, and Cameron watched in concern as the colour drained from her skin, until even her lips were grey. She swayed as though she were about to faint and he moved forward instinctively towards her but before his hand reached her she had recovered herself, turning her back to him and supporting herself on the counter.
“How long will Justin be?” she asked eventually, her voice hoarse. “Are you sure I shouldn’t just come straight home?”
After a few more moments she said goodbye and hung up the phone, then turned quickly as though she would walk straight past Cameron and out the door.
He caught her arm, asking her in concern, “That was David? What’s happened?”
Claire ran her hand shakily through her hair. “Yes . . . he uses a voice synthesiser on the computer to make phone calls . . . I think Dad has had a stroke . . . he let David in and . . . I don’t know what Dad was going to do . . . but . . . he collapsed . . . he was unconscious . . .”
“Has anyone called an ambulance?” he interrupted.
She nodded, regaining control of her voice. “It’s been and gone. He managed to dial 000 and they traced the call . . . then one of the ambulance men helped him on to the computer so he could call me. When he couldn’t get me at first he called Justin, and he’s on his way over to David now.”
She put her hands up to her eyes and groaned, “I should have been there! I can’t believe I wasn’t there when he needed me!”
Cameron found it hard to swallow, knowing it was all his fault that she’d been late. How did I become so callous?
“I’m so sorry Claire - I’ll drive you straight home now.”
“No - David wants me to go directly to the hospital. I know Dad’s medical history, the medications he’s on - I need to let them know.”
“I’ll take you there, then.”
She stared at him for a moment and frowned in confusion, then seemed to recover herself. She straightened up, pulling away from his hand which had still held her arm firmly and shook her head.
“No, I’m right - I drove today because of the rain.”
“Is there anything else I can do to help?”
She was already walking to the door, and paused only to return his own words which he had used so many times on Friday.
“No, if I need your help I’ll ask for it.”
As he watched her disappear alone into the storm he was engulfed by a feeling of emptiness, and had the unpleasant sensation of realising that he’d only just begun to discover how much he had lost.
© R Brown 2005