It was already a quarter past seven before Claire finally had a chance to get into the shower. She was exhausted from the long day, and although the effects of the sleepless night were catching up with her, she was so excited about going out with Cameron and David that she was hardly aware of her tiredness and throbbing head.
She had not stopped from the moment she’d arrived home - while she and David were eating out - she’d still had to make dinner for her father before she could even start on David’s lengthy personal care routine. But tonight she hadn’t even been aware of the time passing while she bathed and dressed him and attended to the dozen other tasks that he relied on her to do for him.
Feeling like a school girl about to go on her first date, she chatted excitedly to David about everything that had happened that day - just as she always shared everything in her life with him - and he was as pleased as she was that Cameron was joining them for the evening.
Claire wished that there had been time to get David’s feedback about what she told him - he always seemed to understand other people’s actions so much better than she did - but she had to be content to wait until they got back home, when he’d be able to talk with the aid of the voice synthesiser on his computer.
As Claire turned off the shower and squeezed the water from her hair, she glanced at the clock and laughed at how accurate her earlier prediction had been. She would have exactly five minutes to get ready - as long as Cameron didn’t come early.
She pulled on a long knit dress that didn’t need ironing, and slipped her bare feet into a pair of black high heels - she had decided that it would be quicker to shave her legs in the shower than to try to find a pair of unladdered stockings. She sighed, for once she would have appreciated just a few minutes longer to do something special with her hair and make-up, but Cameron would just have to take her as she was.
She was still blow drying her hair with one hand, and putting lipstick on with the other when the doorbell rang only a couple of minutes later. Oh well, she thought, running her hand through her hair and taking one last glance in the mirror, at least he’s keen!
As she walked through to the front door her heart was thudding so hard against her ribs that it hurt, and she had to stop and take several deep breaths before she could summon up the courage to open the door.
Everything had happened so quickly today that it was still hard to take in her new knowledge of how Cameron felt about her - when he had reached out and taken her hand in his she had been so overwhelmed by the incredible way it made her feel that she hadn’t known what to do except leave.
While she desperately wanted to believe that it really was God’s will for things to work out with Cameron, the intensity of her feelings for him terrified her - and she was becoming more and more aware of just what it would cost her if she was making a mistake.
No, I can’t back out now - I’ve prayed about it and it’s all in God’s hands, I just have to trust Him, she told herself firmly, and Cameron knows all about David - everyone at Pelican Point does - so he’s obviously able to accept it. No, he won’t be like the others . . . she took one last deep breath, she opened the door.
Cameron was surprised that the doorbell was unusually low, and it was a nice change to for him to be able to ring it, rather than having to pound on the door like he often did when visiting people. While he waited for it to be answered, he noticed that his heart was racing and he felt just like he had as a teenager taking out a girl for the very first time.
He laughed to himself, there’s not even any reason to feel nervous like I did on that first date - I’m so much surer of myself now, and more to the point, I’m confident of the way Claire feels about me, too. There’s nothing at all to worry about.
Despite what he was telling himself, his pounding heart changed up another gear when Claire opened the door a few moments later. He’d never seen her wearing a dress - she always dressed in trousers and practical flat shoes for work - and the way she looked literally took his breath away.
Her long bronze dress was close fitting and emphasised the curves of her slender figure, and as she moved to open the security screen, the knee-length splits of her dress revealed shapely calves perfectly defined by her high heeled shoes.
“You look beautiful, Claire,” he quickly raised his eyes to her meet hers, his heart changing up yet another gear as he took in her sparkling eyes and flushed face. Her hair was damp, and framed her face with bouncy golden curls.
She looked so much softer and more feminine than she ever did at work, and he realised then that he was finally seeing the real young lady whom he only ever glimpsed through her opaque barrier of efficiency and sharp wits.
“Thank you, Cameron.” she smiled, and even her voice was more gentle than he had ever heard at work, “If you don’t mind, I won’t ask you in - David’s ready to go, so I’ll just go and get him. We’ll just be a minute.”
“Sure,” he nodded, and watched as she disappeared back into the house. Why did she have to go and get him? Surely David would have been expecting him, and would have heard the doorbell too? The same strange doubts that he’d had when she’d fled at five that afternoon to meet David came flooding back into his mind.
Something didn’t quite make sense to him, and as he turned away from the door he noticed for the first time the ugly white van in the carport. When Claire had mentioned buying the van from the rehab centre where she had worked before, he had never for a second imagined it would anything more than a conventional family van.
He went cold all through as he stared at it in disbelief - there was nothing conventional about it - it was huge, with conspicuous wheelchair symbols on the back door, and a notice explaining the clearance required at the back of the vehicle for the operation of the mechanical wheelchair lift.
If only he had known that she had expected him to travel with her in that! The mere thought of it repulsed him, and he could not fathom why on earth she had bought such a vehicle. If only he’d realised - he would have arranged to meet her at the restaurant, but he felt trapped now - suggesting he take his own car now would be clearly insulting.
He took an angry breath - hadn’t it even occurred to her how it would make him feel? The idea of travelling in such an obviously “disabled” vehicle was the very antithesis of the normality he’d always striven for in his own life and had underpinned the whole aim of the unconventional rehab centre he ran.
He’d taken immense pride in continuing to drive his sports car after his accident - only needing to modify it to hand controls - and the thought of now travelling in a wheelchair van, even for Claire, sickened him.
Even as he stewed on his predicament, he heard Claire’s voice behind him as she came out of the house.
“Cameron, I’d like you to meet my brother David.”
He turned and looked up at Claire, but there was no-one standing beside her. He dropped his eyes in disbelief until they rested at his own eye level, and he realised that she was referring to a young man in a wheelchair who was now sitting opposite him.
Although he knew he was doing the very thing he despised in others - so obviously lowering his gaze and staring openly as he realised the person he was meeting was seated in a wheelchair - he was powerless to do anything about it. Despite his medical training and experience in hospitals and rehab centres, Cameron had never been more shocked at the sight of anyone in his whole life.
Claire’s brother was hunched up in the seat of a large electric wheelchair, his withered limbs twisted and distorted with obvious palsy, his head drooping down toward his chest at an awkward angle.
“David, this is my boss - Dr Cameron Alexander.” Claire continued casually, Cameron barely registering the slight tremor in her voice. David lifted his head with an uncontrolled jerk, and made a groaning sound, twisting his mouth into what might have been a smile - but Cameron was frozen in his seat, and unable to respond.
So this is Claire’s brother David . . .he thought numbly, and suddenly so many things she’d said began to make some sense to him - her need to be home when her brother arrived, why she’d always had to work and been unable to study and why she was so pleased to be able to buy the special van.
But why didn’t she tell me about David . . .why didn’t she warn me?
He knew that he should be introducing himself to Claire’s brother, or at least saying something - but he was so unprepared for what was happening, that he was incapable of speech.
“Well, let’s get going guys.” Claire spoke a little too brightly, and reached down to the joystick at David’s right hand, “Are you ready, David?” she checked, before guiding his wheelchair toward the back of the van.
Cameron followed silently behind them, and as his initial shock began to wear off, he realised the full extent of his predicament. He guessed that her brother suffered from some very severe form of cerebral palsy, and knew from his limited clinical experience of that kind of condition that he was probably mentally retarded as well.
Travelling in the wheelchair van was the least of his problems - he would be going out with Claire and her brother to a very public local restaurant and then to the movies . . .and he had no idea how he was going to cope with that. He despised himself for being unable to deal any better with the situation - but he had never before had to interact socially with someone as obviously disabled as Claire’s brother .
Why on earth didn’t she tell me? he thought again, watching in a daze as Claire opened up the back of the van, and operated the electric controls of the metal platform that unfolded noisily from the back of the van. She guided her brother’s wheelchair onto the centre of the hoist, and as Cameron watched the platform lifting him into the back of the van it reminded him of a fork lift hauling cargo.
David’s total helplessness sickened him, and at that moment Cameron longed to be anywhere else in the world than there with Claire and her brother.
Claire turned to him, and as he met her eyes he saw there was no warmth in them - only coldness and hurt - and he knew that she had seen and understood his reaction to her brother.
“What would you prefer, Cameron - to come in the front seat, or stay in your chair and ride in the back with David?”
Her voice bore the calm and even tone of Claire Williams, the efficient receptionist - and Cameron realised then that the gentle and vulnerable young woman who’d greeted him at the door only moments earlier was gone, his obvious rejection of her brother sending her back behind that barrier he knew so well.
He hesitated before answering, knowing that both of the options Claire offered him were equally unpalatable. To endure the dehumanising wheelchair hoist was beyond him, yet the front seat of the van was too high to pull himself into without assistance - and in high heels and a long skirt Claire was hardly dressed to lift him into the van - although in any case he would never let her do that for him.
“The back will do,” he answered through gritted teeth, his anger beginning to burn within him as he wheeled himself towards the wheelchair hoist.
Had it been anyone but Claire who was forcing him to do this, he would have thought himself the victim of a cruel prank. He’d never felt more humiliated at any time since his accident, and the worst part was that he felt entirely powerless to do anything about it.
I can’t believe I’m letting anyone impose this on me! he thought bitterly, Why can’t I take control of the situation, and leave now? But even as he spoke those words to himself, and wheeled himself onto the hoist he knew exactly why he was going through with it.
Leaving now would hurt Claire far more greatly than he had already hurt her, and although he had no idea how he was going to endure the rest of the evening, he knew he had to go through with it for her sake. Despite his affection for her, his resentment towards her continued to grow as he wheeled himself into the back of the van behind David.
How could Claire do this to me? Surely she knew how unbearable this would be! If only she had warned me, prepared me in some way . . .but would I have come if I’d known?
He didn’t know the answer, but he was galled that Claire had tricked him into such an intolerable position, and denied him any real choice. Her hesitation and fearfulness when she had talked to him after the conference that afternoon made perfect sense now - no wonder she had thought he might find it uncomfortable going out with her and her brother!
Did she deliberately kept me in the dark because she suspected that I wouldn’t have agreed to join them if I’d known what would be involved?
The thought distressed him even further, because one of the qualities he admired most in Claire was her frankness and total honesty. It seemed out of character for her to be deceptive and manipulative like this - and he thought it was incredibly unfair of her to have thrust him into this situation without even preparing him - unfair to him, unfair to her, and most of all, unfair to her brother.
Cameron was vaguely aware that Claire was chatting breezily to him and David as she manoeuvred the van out of the driveway and onto the road, but he was too distracted by his own thoughts to hear anything she was saying. He sat back and tried to control the anger that was raging within him at her betrayal - silently pleading with God to help him overcome it and to somehow make sense of what was happening.
By the time they pulled up at the Steakhouse in the middle of the busy shopping centre, he’d come to an uneasy peace. God had helped him through every ordeal he had ever faced since becoming a Christian, and even though he could not understand why Claire had done this, he had faith that God would give him the strength to get through this evening too.
Cameron held his held high, and tried to ignore the curious stares as he came out of the van on the wheelchair hoist. Predictably Claire had chosen the disabled parking space right in front of the crowded Steakhouse. The restaurant was designed like a Texan ranch, and dozens of twenty-somethings were congregated on its verandah, all of them were watching with morbid fascination as the conspicuous white van disgorged its contents.
If he were alone, or just with Claire, Cameron would have had no hesitation in going inside the restaurant - but as the crowds parted to let their little procession pass he felt as though he were an unwilling participant in a freak show parade. He tried to put a positive slant on the experience - surely he could learn something from this - but there was nothing to be learned that he didn’t already know.
At Pelican Point they never arranged group social outings because it was obvious to anyone that even two or three people in wheelchairs made a public spectacle, and that kind of attention was the last thing anyone in a wheelchair wanted.
“We have a booking under David Williams - table for three.” he heard Claire stating confidently to a waiter who greeted them uncomfortably at the front door. The large restaurant was crowded with people, modern country music blared from speakers and neon lights flashed on and off above the bar. Buffalo heads and western murals decorated the walls, and the atmosphere was upbeat and lively.
As they were shown to their table in the middle of the busy restaurant Cameron was painfully aware of the unabashed attention of the other diners.
“Look at that poor girl with the two cripples,” he heard one woman remark to her companion as they passed her table, “I don’t know how she can do it!”
“They’re probably from one of those group homes you read about in the paper - where they try to give them a normal life.” her companion answered, “I couldn’t bear that kind of work - but at least she’d be getting paid for it.”
“I suppose so, but I can hardly that it’s worth the trouble of bringing them out - what difference can it really make to people like that?”
“Ah, well,” the second woman concluded as she took another mouthful of steak, “I’m just glad all of my kids were normal. I know I couldn’t face something like that.”
Cameron clenched his jaw tightly. If he had been on his own, he would have stopped without hesitation, and boldly challenged those thoughtless women about their ignorant words. But he felt the same helplessness as when he’d had to go into the van - he was there as Claire and David’s guest, and he had no option but to simply ignore the offensive remarks just as they seemed to be doing.
After they had been seated with great fuss by the waitress, in what Cameron was sure was the epicentre of the whole restaurant, Claire excused herself to buy their drinks from the bar. As Cameron sat alone with David he tried to speak to him, making a comment about the only thing they could possibly have in common - Claire - and how much he and everyone else at Pelican Point enjoyed working with her.
David responded immediately with loud guttural noises and a jerky motion of his head but Cameron was so embarrassed by the attention he was attracting that he could not even look him in the eye. David’s reply was completely unintelligible, and Cameron didn’t make any further attempt at conversation, and was relieved when Claire returned with their drinks, and placed a small bucket of peanuts on the table.
The teenage waitress returned to take their order a few minutes later, and Cameron was acutely aware that she focused her attention solely on Claire. Claire gave her order, and then David’s, patiently explaining twice to the waitress that she had rung earlier and arranged with the chef exactly how David’s meal was to be prepared.
“And what about the other one - have you made arrangements for him too?” the young girl asked, without even glancing in Cameron’s direction. Cameron’s blood was boiling, and he was just about to put her in her place when Claire calmly answered her.
“Oh, I don’t know what Dr Alexander’s having - you’d better ask him for his order.”
The girl’s eyes went wide as she turned to stare at him, and for Claire’s sake he swallowed his fiery words, and tersely gave his order. The pony-tailed waitress didn’t even acknowledge his order as she scribbled his selection on her note pad, but glanced over her shoulder at him twice on her way back to the kitchen.
Stupid girl’s amazed that I can speak! Some people obviously think that no-one who’s in a wheelchair could be completely independent! he thought in annoyance, but as Claire met his eyes with a conspiratorial smile he felt immediately ashamed as he remembered that her brother wasn’t even capable of even as much as speech.
As Claire lifted David’s straw to his lips, she began to explain to Cameron about some of the different things that David was involved in with computers. Watching her rather than listening, Cameron was more aware than ever of Claire’s natural and unaffected beauty, and had he been dining alone with her he would have been proud to be in the company of such an attractive young woman.
Instead he felt incredibly conspicuous sitting in the middle of the restaurant with Claire and her brother, and couldn’t get the stinging remarks out of his mind which he’d heard earlier. As far as anyone at the restaurant was concerned, he was just one of two cripples that some lovely young lady had taken pity on.
Cameron was glad of the diversion the bucket of peanuts gave him, and he crushed one shell open after another while they waited for their meal. He knew he was being churlish by making little more than a token contribution to the conversation, but he was too distracted by his own thoughts to even attempt to join in.
In her effort to cover Cameron’s silence Claire was speaking on behalf of all three of them in a determined attempt to keep conversation flowing. She told him more about David’s interest in the internet, and seemed unfazed by the painstaking effort of interpreting David’s strange grunts and gestures, often making several attempts before he gave the particular jerk of his head apparently which meant that she had understood what he was trying to communicate.
When Cameron glanced at the withered form of her brother, however, he found it impossible to reconcile what he saw in front of him with her account of the sophisticated research and worldwide communication that David apparently participated in over the internet.
As he emptied the last few peanuts out of the bucket, and added their broken shells to the mound in front of him, he wondered sceptically how much of David’s contribution to the conversation was genuinely his own, and not just Claire’s own words that she attributed to her brother.
“Prime rib-eye, medium rare?” The voice at Cameron’s shoulder startled him from his thoughts, and he turned to look straight into the face of the young waitress who was bending down to speak to him, as she placed his plate on the table in front of him. “Is that okay for you just like that?”
Why? Do you want to cut up my meat for me? he was about to snap, but just caught himself at the last moment.
“Yes - that will be fine, thank you,” he sighed instead, relieved when Claire asked him to say the grace, and they finally began eating. He was thankful that Claire was too busy helping David to continue with more than occasional attempts of conversation, leaving him free to retreat into his own turbulent thoughts.
Although his meal was very good, Cameron was so worked up that he was unable to enjoy it, and he’d unconsciously eaten so many peanuts while waiting that his appetite was completely dulled. As he forced himself to eat, he noticed that David’s steak had been minced and his vegetables pureed, and he watched with a mixture of repulsion and fascination as Claire spoon fed it to him, pausing only occasionally to take a few bites of her own meal.
Even eating and swallowing was clearly difficult for David, but Claire seemed to know exactly how much to give him, anticipating when he needed more to drink, and gently wiping his chin whenever food spilt out of his mouth.
Despite his smouldering resentment of Claire’s disregard for his own feelings, he could not help but admire her obvious devotion to David. It was clear that she took her role of caring for him in her stride, as though spoon feeding him was the most natural thing in the world, and she seemed entirely unembarrassed by the obvious glances and audible comments of the other diners concerning them.
He had never witnessed such a depth of unconscious humility and compassion, and the way Claire interacted with her brother was a revelation to him of the incredible beauty of her character. As he watched the way that she smiled at David, touching his arm often as she spoke to him, Cameron had no doubt of the genuine love and admiration which she had for her brother.
“How’s your meal, Cameron?” Claire asked, glancing up at him, and in that moment that their eyes met, he knew for the first time who Claire Williams truly was, and he felt the bottom falling out of his world.
“Fine thanks . . .” he managed to mumble, as the food in his dry mouth turned into sawdust. His heart was throbbing painfully in his chest, and he felt consumed by a sudden misery which sprang from that moment of intense realisation.
Understanding Claire’s relationship with her brother had revealed within her a greater capacity for selfless love and complete acceptance than he had ever thought possible in a person - and it forced Cameron to view her feelings towards himself in an entirely new and devastating light.
From the first day they had met he’d been thrilled by Claire’s obvious interest in him and as their friendship grew he’d appreciated the way she’d never seemed to notice that he was in a wheelchair - and he’d assumed that apart from his Christianity, it was his own attractiveness and strength of character which had made his paraplegia insignificant to her.
But now that he had witnessed first hand her obvious ability to love someone as entirely unattractive and helpless as her brother, he realised that the fact that Claire seemed to care for him was in itself no indication that she thought of him in the same light as an able bodied man. He reached out an unsteady hand for his glass, finding his throat was so constricted with emotion that even the cool liquid was nearly impossible to swallow.
The joy he’d experienced over the last few weeks in enjoying her attraction to him had evaporated - and after weeks of craving her admission of her feelings towards him he no longer knew if he even desired her love and affection. He’d wanted to know she loved him because he had earned her love and was worthy of it, and not just because she was capable, as now he knew, of such deep and selfless love.
If she can love someone like David so completely . . .what does it count that she could love me?
Cameron stared unseeingly at his half-finished meal, as a black darkness of misery descended on him. At no time in his life had he ever felt so humiliated and worthless - but he buried the penetrating pain beneath his anger against Claire.
How could she hurt me like this? Was this whole evening designed to put me in my place, and show me that I should be grateful for her pity?
© R Brown 2005