Cameron frowned in concern as Claire re-entered the room, followed closely by Lynette. Claire looked absolutely dreadful - with her makeup gone her face was deathly pale and dark shadows circled her eyes. Although she held her chin up and moved confidently, there was a haunted look in her wide amber eyes.
“I’m sorry to hold you all up,” she said briskly, walking to her seat.
Chris stood up from where he’d been sitting on the table next to Cameron and sat down in his chair, but Cameron didn’t move towards his own place.
“You’re obviously not well, Claire - go home now.”
“I am perfectly okay now, thank you,” she replied, her voice unsteady, “and I am ready to start when you are.”
Cameron was about to insist on her leaving when Lynette caught his eye and shook her head. He glanced back at Claire as she sat down behind the computer, her body visibly stiff with tension.
“Okay, let’s start with Tony,” he began gently, understanding Lynette’s unspoken message, “How is he responding to the new exercises, Chris?”
The meeting continued on a seemingly normal path, but they were all somewhat subdued and Cameron couldn’t keep his eyes from where Claire was sitting, her face mostly hidden by the computer monitor. He had been shocked by her appearance - and couldn’t stop wondering what was wrong.
Chris and Lynette got up to leave as usual while Claire finished up with her notes, but Lynette met his questioning look with an understanding nod before she walked out of the door. Cameron remained at his desk, pretending to read through a report until Claire handed him the printed notes and, without meeting his eyes once, told him she’d see him in the morning.
He just smiled and said goodbye, deciding not to press anything further until he had spoken to Lynette. He didn’t have long to wait, Lynette returning to his office and closing the door behind her just minutes after Claire had left.
“She looked terrible. What was wrong?” he asked urgently as she sat down beside him.
Lynette sighed, “Well, when I went in she was hyperventilating and her pulse was racing and she seemed very distressed.”
“A panic attack?”
“That’s what occurred to me at the time. Once I got her to slow her breathing down she was okay, though still pretty upset.”
“It does rather sound like some kind of anxiety attack,” he said thoughtfully “and she is under a lot of pressure with her father at the moment.”
“Not just regarding her father, Cameron.” Lynette looked him straight in the eye, “I don’t know what happened between you two over the weekend, but that girl was barely holding herself together on Monday morning. She was ready to crack before she even got the call about her Dad.”
Cameron frowned in consternation. “What are you talking about? What happened between us couldn’t have bothered her too much - I’ve felt like living death since we broke up - but it’s like nothing’s even happened as far as Claire’s concerned. You’ve seen her, up till this afternoon she’s looked like she’s stepped straight off a catwalk.”
“She’s fooled you then, Cam,” Lynette shook her head with a sad smile. “Didn’t you realise that when a girl suddenly works so hard to look that good, you can be certain something is very, very wrong?”
Cameron stared at her in dismay, surely Lynette was mistaken.
“Has she spoken to you about what happened between us? Did she say that was why she was upset this afternoon?” His heart was beginning to pound with apprehension. Could he have been wrong about the way she felt?
“No, she wouldn’t tell me anything about your break-up, although it was obvious it wasn’t her decision. She very nearly burst into tears when I asked her about it on Monday morning,” Lynette said, fixing him with her eyes. “But this afternoon all she said about what happened was something about it being because she didn’t like lifts, that she’d gotten frightened coming up in it. Were you with her then?”
“Yes, but nothing happened - and quite some time had passed before she suddenly seemed strange.” He screwed up his eyes in thought, “It’s funny, I’ve always wondered why she prefers to use the stairs - I’ve teased her about it but she never mentioned anything about having a phobia about lifts. Do you think that might have been all it was?”
“No. I know she avoids the lift, but there’s been plenty of times she has used it without any kind of problem. I think she was just embarrassed by me being there,” she replied, then continued carefully. “Cam, I have no idea what the problem is between the two of you, but are you absolutely sure it’s not something you can overcome?”
“Yes, I am,” he replied with such finality that Lynette immediately got up to go.
“I appreciate your help, Lyn,” he added in much gentler tone, “I’ll give Claire a call tonight and see if I can persuade her to see her GP and then take the rest of the week off. If it was a panic attack, I’m sure a break would do her the world of good - quite often these episodes only happen the once.”
He watched Lynette leave, her accusation leaving him feeling very uncomfortable. She was obviously blaming him for Claire’s distress, but then Lynette was very much a romantic and he knew she’d do anything in her power to bring about her idea of a happy ending. It was only Lynette’s opinion that Claire had been at all upset by their break-up - surely if there was any truth to that he’d have been aware of it.
Cameron picked up the phone and dialled Justin’s number again - at least he could give him a little more information about what was going on at the hospital. Justin’s secretary answered and explained he was running behind and still seeing patients, but she asked him to hold and after a few minutes he was transferred to Justin’s office.
“Hello, Cam - it’s good to hear from you - when you wouldn’t return my calls I was beginning to think you’d cut me off dead.” Justin’s voice was unusually curt, though that was understandable since he’d caught him between patients.
“I’m sorry, Muxy - I haven’t been myself this week. But I know you’re busy and won’t hold you up now, I just wondered if you could tell me where things are at with Claire’s dad. She’s not exactly forthcoming about it - and I didn’t want to press her.”
He heard Justin sigh through the phone before answering.
“He’s not going to regain consciousness, Cam, there’s been far too much damage. There’s no telling exactly how long he’ll hold on, weeks or maybe months - but there is nothing more that can be done for him apart from palliative care.”
“Does Claire know?” he asked a little hoarsely.
“Yes, I rang her after I’d spoken to the specialist about the scans this morning. That’s why she was going in to the hospital this afternoon, to go through the options with him. Do you know if she saw him?”
“Yes . . . ” he replied vaguely, wishing that somehow he’d known more than the little she’d told him. When he’d seen her come in from the hospital that afternoon she’d looked so polished and together that he’d been sure there hadn’t been bad news - how on earth had she managed to appear so calm?
“Anyway I’d better go, can I call you later tonight? I’d really like to talk to you about whatever happened on Friday night, Cam, I don’t quite know what to make of it.”
Cameron sighed, “No, neither do I now. I behaved pretty badly, Mux - and I wouldn’t mind some advice on how to repair the damage.”
“Good. I’ll talk to you then.”
Cameron put down the phone feeling strangely empty. Usually he found a genuine warmth in talking to Justin, even over the phone, which had been completely lacking tonight. He pursed his lips, wondering if Justin was taking Claire’s part over the break up.
At least he’d put his mind at rest about what had happened with Claire that afternoon. Lynette had wanted to hold him responsible for it - but now he knew that if she’d just found out about the imminent death of her father, that more than explained her obvious distress. He still found it too hard to believe Lynette’s idea that Claire had been badly affected by their break up, surely he would have noticed that!
Cameron left his office and although he tried to interest himself in the conversation at his table at dinner, his thoughts kept returning to Claire and that terrible look of fear on her face when he’d joined her in his office that afternoon. He returned to his office straight after the meal, not in the least tempted by the movie being shown on their big screen that evening, his eyes on his watch instead.
It seemed to take for ever until 8 o’clock - the time he’d been in the habit of calling Claire at home when she was finally free after her family responsibilities. He’d never imagined he’d miss that hour of the day so much, but he had, and instead of enjoying that time of intimate conversation his evenings now stretched ahead of him empty and desolate. It seemed strange to be ringing at the same old time, just as though nothing had happened between them, but there would have been no point trying to talk to her any earlier while she was still in the middle of her duties at home.
His stomach tensed as he began dialling her number by heart, that is if she will talk to me. She’d certainly snubbed every attempt he’d made at friendly conversation that day . . . perhaps she would just hang up.
He didn’t breathe while the phone rang and when it answered was momentarily taken aback to hear the same mechanical voice that had startled him the day before.
“David? It’s Cameron Alexander here,” he began awkwardly, “Look, I’m sorry about when you rang yesterday afternoon - I wasn’t really thinking and had no idea it was you. I hope you didn’t take any offence.”
“Of course not. Don’t give it another thought,” the reply came eventually. “The speech synthesiser takes a lot of getting used to, and I know the inhuman quality is very eerie. Still, it is better than being unintelligible. I imagine you are after Claire - but she’s not here, I’m sorry.”
“Oh, are you on your own?” Cameron asked, finding it hard to believe Claire would have left her brother alone and had perhaps just told David she didn’t want to speak to him if he phoned.
“Not exactly. The hospital rang to ask Claire to go in and sign some consent forms so she arranged for the lady next door to pop over. She’s doing her ironing in front of our TV. I don’t know how late Claire’ll be, but would you like her to call you when she’s back?”
“No, there is no need - I was just a bit worried about her - she was not well this afternoon, but she must be feeling okay if she’s gone out.”
“What happened this afternoon?”
He hesitated, suddenly not sure whether he should be discussing Claire with her brother. It seemed wrong to load any more worries onto this poor, withered man.
While he was still deliberating David spoke again, “I am extremely concerned about my sister - I want to know exactly what happened today.”
Even though the synthesised voice lacked emotion there was no missing the sense of authority in his demand and Cameron instinctively responded to it.
“She seemed suddenly withdrawn and frightened and left the room.” He decided to be honest with the bare facts at least, “Lynette, my head nurse, followed her - she said Claire was hyperventilating and her pulse was racing.”
“Did Claire say anything about what happened?”
“No, afterwards she insisted she was fine although frankly, she looked far from it. She just said she’d been feeling a little unwell,” he paused, remembering Lynette’s comment. “Claire apparently said something about being frightened by using the lift - but I had been with her in the lift and everything was perfectly normal.”
“Then I imagine you’ve drawn your own conclusions about what happened?”
“Yes, I suppose I have. Although it wouldn’t hurt for Claire to double check with her GP, I’m quite sure that there is no cause for concern. That’s what I was ringing to talk to her about.”
The long silences while he waited for David’s replies were unnerving.
“I’m not sure that would be a wise move, Cameron. I’m loathe to discuss what’s happening with you - but I am terribly worried about Claire and at a total loss to know what to do for her. She refuses to acknowledge it, but as far as I can determine she’s suffering from some kind of anxiety disorder. Does that tally with your observations?”
“I - uh - I hadn’t thought that far.” David’s perceptive questions had caused Cameron to rapidly revise his assessment of him and he realised he was dealing with a man very much his equal.
“Lynette and I both thought it seemed to be a panic or anxiety attack, probably from being overwhelmed with everything that is going on with your father. I had assumed it was just a one-off thing, but after what you’ve said, I guess not. How long has it been happening?”
“This time? I don’t know, she won’t talk to me about it and she’s so close to the edge at the moment that I don’t dare press her. She certainly didn’t tell me that anything had happened today, and on Monday night she only admitted that it had started again because she was worried I’d think that something worse had happened to her.
"She blamed the elevator then too, but I know it’s not just that. Because she had the first attack after she got stuck in a lift when Mum was dying in hospital, she’s always made that association, but it’s certainly not limited to that.”
Cameron began to grow cold and he listened with a kind of horror as David’s account continued.
“I’m certain she had another attack very early this morning, I could hear her crying and gasping for breath and then she was up for hours afterwards - but she had put on her make-up and her brave front before she got me up, so she has obviously decided not to confide in me.”
“How was she before she had the news about your father?” Cameron asked urgently, longing desperately to hear she’d been fine up to that point.
“She’s been a mess since Friday night, Cameron. I’ve never seen her like this - not even when Mum died - though she’d had time to prepare herself for that. I have no idea what has happened between the two of you, Claire won’t talk to me about it, but she obviously didn’t see it coming and it has hit her very hard. She couldn’t stop crying all weekend and I really didn’t think she’d be able to manage to go into work on Monday morning. How has she been at work?”
Cameron found he could barely speak.
“She - she seemed fine.” He leant his elbows onto his desk, suddenly dizzy, and propped his head up with his hand, “I had - no idea - that it had upset her - at all. She seemed - unaffected.”
If only he’d known that their break-up had hurt her too - it was what he thought was her cold indifference that had led him to lash out at her on Monday, and to keep on trying to hurt her . . . she must have cared deeply for him after all.
Consumed with a deepening dread about what he had done, Cameron didn’t even notice the long pause before David’s “voice” began speaking again.
“She has excelled herself then - I really didn’t think she would be able to pull herself together long enough to fool anyone this time. The worst of it is that it’s not in her nature to internalise her feelings like this - have you ever noticed when she is relaxed and unguarded how every emotion she feels or everything she’s thinking seems to play across her face?”
Cameron didn’t answer, vividly recalling when he’d first met Claire and she’d seemed so open and transparent, so that he’d been able to read her reactions like a book. How had he come to forget that vulnerability he’d seen then and fooled himself into accepting that she was feeling nothing?
“Over the years she’s learnt to contain herself - she’s not prepared to admit to herself or to anyone else when she’s unhappy or can’t cope with things any more - and to force herself to carry on as though everything is fine,” David continued. “I knew things were bad when she couldn’t do that with me last weekend. I’m wondering if the anxiety attacks are occurring because she just doesn’t have the strength to keep up the facade any longer but won’t allow herself to ask for help.
"I’m worried sick about her, but I just don’t know what to do to help her. She’s not eating, and I hear her moving about so much through the night I’m sure she’s not sleeping much either - but all I achieved by letting her know I was worried about her was to push her into a frenzy of activity designed to convince me she’s perfectly fine.”
Cameron frowned, suddenly understanding Claire’s insistence on completing the file back-capturing project she’d started on Monday.
“Yes . . . she’s doing that at work too. She’s working through lunch to complete what’s in essence an unnecessary project. When I suggested she let it go she became very defensive about it and her capacity to complete the work.”
“That’s why I’m not sure it’s a good idea for you to confront her about the anxiety attacks, if she knows you’re aware of it I can only imagine the pressure she’d put herself under to prove herself to you. She’s lost so much confidence and she’s terrified of losing her job too - I honestly don’t believe there is any purpose to be served by letting her know you’re aware how much she is struggling.”
“Then what can I do to help? Surely there’s something?” Cameron waited for David’s reply, feeling physically ill with an almost unbearable weight of guilt.
“Why do you want to help? I understood that it was your choice to break up with Claire - that you didn’t want a relationship with her? It’s not really your concern any more.”
Cameron licked his dry lips, and tried to swallow, “Yes - it was my choice - it became obvious that we could not be - compatible - but I still care for her - very much - I’d do anything to help her.”
“I know, it’s the way we are made isn’t it? We naturally want to help the people we love. For me it’s agonising to be incapable of taking any of Claire’s burden from her and then having to watch her trying to hide it because she knows that’s how I’m feeling.
"She has been carrying a load far too great for her most of her life and I’ve been praying for years that the Lord would send someone she could trust enough to allow them to help where I can’t.”
Cameron gripped the phone as he listened to David, knowing with painful clarity that he still loved Claire and wanted nothing more than to help her, despite the way things had turned out.
“It’s always a two-way street. Having the right to care for someone we love is one of the privileges we earn when they love us enough to make themselves vulnerable to us. You’re hardly in a position to help Claire if you’ve rejected that kind of relationship with her. You just can’t demand that trust from another person if you’ve decided not to give it of yourself.”
David was right - he had rejected that relationship because he could not bear himself being made vulnerable to Claire in that way, thinking that she’d seen him as weak and needy - but it had never occurred to him that Claire could possibly have needed him so much. And now it was too late.
He breathed out shakily, not only had he caused Claire great harm by his own selfish and reckless behaviour, but David was suffering too by watching what was happening to his sister and being unable to do anything to help her.
He’d already understood the incredible depth of love Claire had for her brother, but until now had not appreciated the way in which each of them were trapped helplessly by that love. Neither were unable to share their struggles because they both wanted to protect the other from their own worries.
“What about the Muxlows? I know how much they care for Claire - can’t they help her?”
“I have no idea what has happened there, but since Friday night Claire won’t have anything to do with them beyond mere civilities. Jenny said she’s got no idea why . . . but Claire refuses to even talk to her on the phone. There is no-one else she trusts either, Justin and Jenny are the only close friends she has.”
Oh no! Cameron groaned inwardly, biting his lip so hard that he tasted blood as he realised the full impact of what he had done. Not only had he rejected and crushed Claire himself, he’d cut her off from the only other source of help she had.
Hadn’t Justin said, as he told Cameron about the situation with Claire’s father, that it would be more than their friendship was worth if she knew he’d spoken about it? And he’d betrayed Justin’s trust when he’d lashed out in anger at Claire - accusing her of capitalising on her father’s crime - and by revealing his knowledge he had destroyed Claire’s trust in the Muxlows as well.
What have I done? O God help me - what have I done? Cameron pushed his fingers into his hair, gripping it by the roots, feeling as though he could not possibly face the consequences of his actions.
“Cameron - are you still there?”
David’s question brought him back to his surroundings. Although he longed to back away from the phone and hide from his shame he knew he must do everything in his power to rectify the damage now.
“Yes . . . I’m here.” He took a deep breath and prayed silently before continuing, “David - I can’t tell you how sorry I am that all this has happened. I couldn’t accept what Claire wanted from our relationship and I have acted so wrongly . . . but I never meant to hurt her like this. . . I regret it all so much.
"I will find a way to help Claire, to put things right for her again. I know you’re worried about her too, David, and obviously can’t confide in her at the moment - how are you coping with that on your own? Is there anything I can do to help you? ”
“Thank you, Cameron - I appreciate that - but I’m not quite on my own. I know the Muxlow’s would do anything for me that I asked, and I have a very good Christian friend whom I speak with everyday via the internet. She’s a great listener, and I’ve been able to talk everything through with her which has helped me immeasurably.”
“That’s good - but are you sure there is nothing I can do for you?” Cameron waited, the silence seeming even longer than ever.
“Perhaps you wouldn’t mind giving me your opinion on something? It’s not a matter I can discuss with Claire and I don’t think Justin would really understand, but even though I’ve been thinking through the issue for months I can’t decide what to do and would really appreciate someone else’s point of view.”
“Sure . . . I’ll certainly do my best,” Cameron replied, although he was at a loss to imagine how David would seek his advice over someone as wise as Justin Muxlow.
“It’s got to do with my internet friend I just mentioned, Maxine. She is a very committed Christian who lectures in Quantum Physics at Washington University, and we’ve been communicating in quite some depth daily for several years. Apart from Claire, she is the closest friend I have - I’ve never met anyone else with whom I feel such a spiritual or intellectual oneness.
“I am perfectly content with the way things are - I find our relationship, such as it is - wonderfully stimulating and encouraging. Our discussions are one of the most important parts of my life. But now Max wants to change things, and while I’ve been praying about it I’m not completely sure what to do.”
“Why? Isn’t she happy to continue with the way things are?”
“She wants us to meet.”
“Oh,” Cameron replied in surprise. “And you don’t want to?”
“I don’t know. It’s something she’s been suggesting in principle for quite a while, and while I’ve always had my reservations it didn’t really matter while it was just an idea. However, Maxine applied for and won a contract for a position at the University here for two years starting next month - she sees the opportunity as a clear answer to prayer and wants to meet up with me as soon as she arrives. Although part of me would love to finally see her in the flesh the thought of her seeing me fills me with dread.”
“How much does she know about your circumstances?” Cameron asked carefully.
“If you mean does she know about the extent of my disability? Yes, she does. Max has a cousin with a similar condition whom she has actually cared for while his parents have been away a few times, and it is something we’ve discussed in depth over the years.
"In fact she’s the only person who I’ve ever really been able to share my frustrations and fears about it all with - and I know she understands - but that is completely different to confronting it in person.”
“You don’t think she could handle it?”
“It’s not that - I know she could - it’s that I don’t see any gain in her having to deal with me as a disabled person. The only thing I have to offer is my mind and I can give that to the fullest over the internet, why risk spoiling things by adding my body to the equation? Our friendship is incredibly important to me and I cannot see what meeting in person could add to it.”
Cameron thought deeply before replying. He could understand exactly what he was saying, yet there was something that David didn’t seem to be seeing.
“Just imagine Claire’s answer if you asked her if there was any gain in being with you physically? I know she often communicates with you via the computer, yet I hardly think she would be happy if she wasn’t actually with you.
"Your disability doesn’t stop her interacting with you as a total person - I’ve seen her start saying something and then catch your eye and stop abruptly because she’s caught your expression and knows you don’t approve. Because she loves you she wants to be close to you, she touches you when she talks to you and I’ll never forget seeing her asleep with her head on your shoulder that night you took us both to the movies.”
Cameron’s throat hurt as he saw her clearly before his eyes, realising that although he’d chosen to reject that closeness he longed for it desperately, “A real friendship or relationship means accepting the whole person, and it sounds to me like that’s what Max is wanting to do.
"It’s a natural progression in a close friendship to want to spend time together and sharing in the physical world as well as the intellectual. It sounds like Max is saying she’s prepared to accept your disability as part and parcel of the relationship - it’s you who doesn’t want to include it.”
“I’m more than thankful for what I’ve got with her already. I don’t want to risk losing that by changing the relationship.”
“No matter what you do the relationship will change. Either you take this next step and meet, or you reject Max by saying you don’t trust her to accept you as you are. Has she told you what her expectations of meeting are?”
“They are open - she says she would like to spend time together and share experiences rather than just discuss them. As for the future, she thinks we might enjoy each other's companionship - Max is five years older than me and very prosaic - I know she doesn’t have any romantic ideals but that she considers me the closest friend she has,” David replied. “So you definitely think we should meet?”
Cameron breathed out slowly, “It is only my opinion, but I think you may have more to lose if you don’t agree to meet her. What does Claire think?”
“I haven’t spoken to her about it. She’s known about my friend Max for years but she’s just assumed Max is male, and I haven’t disabused her of that,” David explained, “And she has no idea that Max had any plans of coming here.”
“You don’t think she’d like it?”
“I know she wouldn’t. Claire is incredibly protective of me and she’s not a risk-taker, she wouldn’t want me to take any chances of getting hurt no matter what the gain might be. I know her advice would be to leave things as they are. I couldn’t discuss it with her now anyway- she has more than enough to deal with at the moment.”
“Yes, I see that. I certainly won’t mention it to her,” Cameron said, “but if you want to talk to me about it again, please do. And if you decide to go ahead and meet Max, let me know if there is anything I can do to help you arrange it - even if you just want moral support so you don’t have to meet alone the first time.”
“Thank you. I hope that’s a genuine offer to help because I think I’ll take you up on it. I’m fairly sure I should agree to meet - I just needed to talk through my concerns with someone who knew where I was coming from. I’ve thought along much the same lines as you, that the real issue is me accepting my disability as part and parcel of the relationship with Max, but it was important to hear you say it.”
Cameron reassured him of his willingness to help and gave him his home and mobile phone numbers before hanging up. His mind was still reeling from everything that David had told him . . . especially his last comment.
Why was David so sure I would understand where he was coming from? Cameron wondered, and why did he say it was important for him to hear me say that the real issue was about him accepting his disability as part and parcel of the relationship?
As he repeated the words to himself, Cameron experienced so strong a shifting of perspective that it felt nearly physical. I could have been talking about me, about my relationship with Claire. I rejected her because I didn’t want my disability to be any part of our relationship . . . and destroyed our relationship because I wouldn’t allow her to accept me as I am.
He dropped his head into shaking hands, thinking through everything he and David had discussed. Not until David had revealed the extent of Claire’s suffering had he ever felt such a burning desire to help anyone, and he knew David was right in saying that longing to help her was there because he loved her . . . just like Claire wanted to help me because she loved me . . . and I hated her for it. I hated her for loving me as I am. Now look what I have done!
Cameron took a shuddering breath, horrified to admit the effect of his selfish actions on Claire and her brother. I have been blind, he realised and God used David to open my eyes - it was actually he that understood where I was coming from - even though I couldn’t see that at the time.
He remembered how Claire had told him that she didn’t think that he was anywhere near David’s equal intellectually, and he knew now without a doubt she was right. David hadn’t told Cameron anything about where he went wrong in his relationship with Claire. . . but he had led Cameron to say it for himself.
Shaking his head in wry appreciation, Cameron wondered if there even was a Maxine who was supposedly coming to Australia.
© R Brown 2005