Friday, February 27, 2009

Dickens and Me

(copyright Anita Birt)
"Are you all right?" A woman ran towards Caroline.
"I'm not sure." Caroline rubbed her arm. "I think so." She unbuckled her bike helmet and dropped it on the grass. Her nose twitched. "What's that smell?"
"Burning oil. The engine's a mess. The car's a write-off."
"Take her over to the road." A man shouted. "We've got to get the kids out of the car."
The woman grasped Caroline's arm. "Come on.
The woman let go. `
"Are you hurt?"
"Not much. Grass burns from falling off my bike, I guess. Scrapes and bruises."
"That car almost hit you."
"All I remember is it coming at me. Where's my bike?"
"Over there beside the car."
"What about the people in the car? Is anyone hurt?" The mist fogging Caroline's head cleared.
"Forget them. You've had a bad fall. Come sit with me and wait for the ambulance."
"I'm a doctor. I've got to help." She limped back to the wreck where men gathered around the vehicle. It lay on the grass helpless as a turtle tipped upside down on its shell. The tires had stopped spinning.
"Let's right it." One of them yelled.
From the look of the damaged doors and shattered rear window Caroline feared the worst. "I'm a doctor. Let me through."
The men stood aside to let her pass. She knelt down and peered into the car through an open window.
The driver hung over the bent steering wheel. Blood oozed from a cut on the side of his head. A girl grabbed at the wheel and tried to climb over him.
"Get me out." She screamed. "Get me out of this fucking car."
"Don't move. Stay where you are." Caroline ordered. "We'll get you out."
A boy about eight edged around the back seat, clutching his jeans, a wet stain darkened the fabric. Tears trickled down his cheeks. "Am I gonna die?" His bleary eyes focused on Caroline. "That's my brother. Is he gonna die?"
"I don't think so. The men are going to fix the car so we can help you."
Caroline got out of the way as the men positioned themselves around the wreck.
"Be careful." She urged the men nearest her.
"Okay, let's do it. Easy now. Don't want to shake up the kids inside."
With men at the front, back and side, they heaved the car and set it down gently on its tires.
"Anyone got a fire extinguisher?" A man shouted. He crouched down by the engine and glanced under the car. "Don't like this. Hot oil dripping Grass is smoldering."
Caroline twisted the handle on the damaged driver side door. It was solidly stuck. Although the window was open she couldn't risk having the men drag the driver through. He could have serious internal injuries.
"Let me check on the driver."
"Out of the way, doctor." A giant of a man in a faded checked work shirt appeared with a sledge hammer. "I'll break the hinges."
Two heavy blows and the hinges snapped. The man dropped the hammer and grasped the door. "Beat up old rust bucket. This'll be easy."
He twisted the metal back and forth. With a wrenching crunch the door broke away. He tossed it aside. "What about the back?"
"Wait until I check on the driver."
"Get me out." The girl screamed scrambled over him.
Caroline pushed the girl out of the way. "Stay where you are. Don't move until I tell you to."
The girl crouched against the other door, angry eyes fixed on Caroline. "I'll report you. You hurt me," she snarled
Caroline ignored her and worked on the driver as best she could without moving him. His breathing seemed stable. She checked his pulse. Elevated but steady.
Relief coursed through her. Probably knocked out or drunk. The car reeked of alcohol. No seatbelts. The kids must've rolled around like tennis balls inside the clunker.
"Take out the other door." She nodded at the giant. He swung the hammer twice and the door popped off its hinges. The boy scrambled to freedom.
"I'm outa here." The girl grabbed a pink plastic purse off the seat and bolted out of the car.
"Let me have a look at you," Caroline tried to stop her.
"No!" She stumbled and fell on her knees.
"I'll look after her, doctor. You've done enough." The giant scooped the girl into his arms and walked to the roadside, followed by the boy.
Had she done enough? Even with help she couldn't get the driver out without injuring him further. As she leaned into the car, taking the driver's pulse a second time an ambulance, sirens wailing, pulled up. Two paramedics ran towards her.
Suddenly tired, her legs wobbled. "I'm Dr. Balfour. We got the doors off the car. I didn't want to move the driver."

Greg sauntered over to the booth to buy sodas for Jenna and John. Lights flashing, sirens howling, vehicles roared past on the highway. Ambulance and police, he thought.
A car drove in and parked behind the booth.
"What's going on?" Greg asked.
"Bad accident not a quarter mile from here. A woman on a bike hit by a car. Car's a wreck."
Greg's heart plummeted. "What about the woman?"
"Don't know. The cops are keeping the traffic moving."
"Where did it happen?"
"By the cut-off to Fisher's Corners."
Greg whistled for Kim. Must be Dr. Balfour on her way home. Had to be her. "Let's go." He seized Kim's leash and ran the short distance down the side road. A police car and an ambulance hurtled past on the highway. Seconds later a fire truck. Must be bad.
Greg slowed his pace slightly. He'd just spoken to her. She couldn't be...No.
He had to find out if she'd been badly hurt. He might have to identify her...nausea crawled in his stomach.
Not her body. Please God, not that. He had plans to get to know her better.
Plans. God laughs when people make plans. Some wit had coined the phrase. She had to be okay. Her patients needed her. He didn't need her. But might.
He jogged down the road with Kim on a running leash. He approached the accident scene. Cars lined both sides of the road.
A police officer stood in the middle of the highway waving cars past the scene. A third ambulance arrived. Three ambulances and a fire engine. Another police car.
"Keep back!" An officer shouted at the gawking crowd. "We've got injured people here. It's not a bloody circus."
Tall enough to see over the crowd Greg craned his neck. Firefighters sprayed foam under the wrecked car. A woman wrapped in a blanket sat on the grass a few feet from the edge of the ditch.
Greg blinked to clear his eyes. It was her. He recognized her hair. A firefighter spoke to her. She nodded. He walked past the car and returned with her bike. A police officer helped her up, slipped her arm around Caroline's waist and assisted her to a cruiser. The firefighter stowed her bike in the trunk.
Greg drew in a deep breath. She was alive and on her feet. He had to speak to her. He pushed through the crowd. Hackles raised Kim growled clearing the way.
"Get back." An officer pointed at Greg. "I mean you."
"I have to speak with Dr. Balfour."
"You know her?"
Greg nodded. "She just left the lake. She'd gone in for a soda."
He waved Greg to the cruiser. "Constable Evans is driving her home. Be quick."
The passenger side window was open. "Hi Caroline, it's me, Greg Fraser. Anything I can do?"
She hugged the blanket around her shoulders. "No. I'm okay. Shaken up a little. Grass burns. Bruises on my arms and legs. Medics cleared me to leave."
The constable slid in behind the wheel. "Got to go. I'm taking her home."
"Don't you think she should go to the clinic or the hospital?" Greg questioned the officer. "She looks exhausted."
"I'm all right." Caroline leaned back on the seat and closed her eyes.
The constable started the car.
"I'll come by later and see how you're doing." Greg said. "Do you have family in town?"
Caroline opened her eyes. "I'm okay."
The cruiser eased away from the side of the road and headed down the highway.
When had he started thinking about her as Caroline? About two minutes ago.
Concerned about her returning to an empty apartment he changed his mind about hanging out with two cheerful kids and their pretty mother.
The after effects of the accident might hit Caroline hard. She'd had a narrow escape from death.
She said she was okay. She didn't look okay. Didn't say whether she had family in town. He'd phone. Or drop by to check up on her.
It'd take him the best part of two hours to get home. Instead of backtracking to the park he walked down the highway to the path leading to a shortcut through the woods.

Caroline eased her aching body into a bath of soothing hot water. Grass burns on her arms and legs stung when they hit the water. She'd refused help from the paramedics after they'd cleared her to go home. Her bruises were minor. The rescue team had maneuvered the driver from the car and discovered his right leg fractured in two places.
The medics had more than enough to do with the hysterical girl and the boy who'd soiled his pants. Poor kid. His brother had taken him for a drive and nearly ended his short life.
Warmth seeped into Caroline's bones. She wasn't sure whether she'd heard Greg right. He said he'd drop by and see how she was feeling.
She vaguely remembered telling him she was okay. No way could she deal with him today. Reaching for the faucet she ran more hot water into the tub and sank up to her neck. Steam drifted over her face.
It wasn't like her to be so indecisive. Why hadn't she reminded him who she was when he'd called at the clinic?
Shock. Anger. Surprise.
He'd caught her off guard at the start of a busy day. The clinic wasn't the place and the time wasn't right to confront him.
Confront? She frowned at the thought.
Is that what she wanted to do?
Confront him. And then what?
Tell him exactly what she thought of him and his family.
Not smart. Too much had happened in thirteen years. They'd lived different lives. Become different people.
What did she want? To hurt him? Make him suffer for the pain he'd inflicted on her. What if he didn't care?
Why hadn't he cared? Or been minimally interested in how she'd dealt with the pregnancy.
Caroline sighed. If she stayed any longer in the bath she'd be like a wrinkled prune.
If he came by she wouldn't let him in. But sooner rather than later she had to decide where and when to remind him he'd known her in the past and make it very clear she wasn't interested in dating him. Or speaking civilly to him.
She stepped out of the tub, dried off with a thick towel, got clean underwear from her bureau, pulled on black tights, a T-shirt and slipped on her cozy robe.
Too tired to cook a decent dinner, she made a pot of tea, toasted two slices of bread, buttered them, slivered some cheese from a block of her favorite cheddar, placed a mug and teapot on the tray and carried her meal into the living room.
She'd phoned the clinic when she got home telling them what had happened. They'd wanted to send one of the nurses to see her but she refused. The clinic hummed with walk-in patients on summer Sundays. She had another two days to rest up before returning to work.
Not exactly how she'd planned to spend her three days off. The front wheel of her bike had to be realigned and one of the pedals straightened. She wasn't sure how she'd feel about getting back on and riding on the highway.
Caroline shivered and sipped some tea. She put the mug down on the table and slid her hands up the sleeves of her robe to warm them.
She'd missed death by inches.
By fractions of seconds.
If she'd skidded left instead of right the car would have slammed into her.
She hadn't consciously made the decision. It had been made for her.
By whom?
A higher power or good luck.
When her father was sober and attended AA meetings he firmly believed in a Higher Power. Trouble was the HP hadn't saved him from totaling his van and killing himself after he'd fallen off the wagon.
She picked up the woolen throw from the arm of her chair, wrapped it around her shoulders and huddled into it.
Keep warm. Drink hot tea.
Quietly she analyzed what was happening to her. Delayed shock.
Should she call someone?
She hugged her hands around the mug of tea.
Her feet were cold.
So put socks on.
She limped to the bedroom, found a pair of thick socks mixed in with her pantyhose and dragged them on.
Much better.
Caroline stopped midway through the hall as the doorbell rang. Not him. She could not cope with Greg.
She pressed the intercom. "Who is it?"
"Sergeant Masters and Constable Evans. May we come in?"
Breathing a sigh of relief, she pressed the door release. "Sure. Come on up." And wondered why the visit from the cops? She'd given a statement at the accident. Maybe she hadn't made sense.
She waited for them at the door to her apartment. Sergeant Masters stepped forward and shook her hand. "Thank you for seeing us. How are you feeling?"
"Not bad. A few sore spots, a bruised knee, grass burns. I'm lucky to be alive."
"So I understand from the accident report."
Caroline led them into the living room and curled up in a corner of the sofa. The sergeant sat in the wing chair.
The sergeant hadn't been at the accident scene. She'd have remembered him. He had the craggy good looks of old time actor, Spencer Tracy. Reliable. Trustworthy.
Constable Evans had driven her home. She was an attractive woman with short blonde hair and had the sharp eyes and no nonsense look of a cop.
"Would you like some tea?" Caroline asked.
"No thanks. We won't keep you long."
"I'll use one of your dining room chairs if that's okay."
"Be my guest." Caroline's small table and two chairs passed muster as a dining room and suited her perfectly.
Constable Evans placed the chair beside the sofa.
"We'd like to go over the statement you gave at the accident scene, Dr. Balfour." The sergeant opened a small notebook.
"Wasn't I clear?"
Constable Evans leaned forward. "You were very sure what happened. A few witnesses had other versions. Would you mind going through it again?"
Caroline hugged the throw tightly around her shoulders and waist. "Seconds before I lost control of my bike I heard a boom box. You know the noise they make. Deafening. Then I saw the car."
She sucked in a deep breath. Shivers chased up and down her back.
"Take your time, Doctor. Can I get you something?" The sergeant felt the teapot. "Still hot. I'll pour you a cup."
"Thanks." Caroline waited for him to fill it and wrapped her fingers around its warmth.
"I guess I reacted instinctively trying to get out of the way. The next I knew I was lying on the ground looking up at the sky. I stood up. A woman helped me."
"And then?" The sergeant asked.
"After that I had to see who was hurt and what I could do. I had no meds with me."
"The girl in the car says you refused to assist her."
Caroline shook her head. "She was out of control. Hysterical. Didn't appear to have any visible injuries and tried to crawl over the driver while I was taking his pulse and assessing the extent of his injuries without moving him. I ordered her to stay where she was. I was afraid she might harm him. We got her out as quickly as we could. She seemed in no immediate danger."
Sergeant Masters pursed his lips. "Her parents are creating a fuss. Threatening to sue."
Caroline put the cup on the tray. "To sue whom? The police or me or both? For what? Neglect? She'd been drinking. Reeked of alcohol. Looked about fourteen.
Caroline had a bitter taste in her mouth. "In my judgment the driver of the car required my attention. If the girl's parents think otherwise let them take me to court. I have malpractice insurance which they probably know about and hope to get their hands on some easy money."
No longer cold and shaky, Caroline stood. Anger whipped through her. "You know why doctors don't want to stop at accident scenes? Because of people like...I want the parent's names. They have mine and are threatening me."
"Sorry, Dr. Balfour. We can't do that." The sergeant closed the notebook.
"Let me see if I get this straight. You've come here under false pretences. You encouraged me to give you my version of the events without telling me at the beginning about the girl and her parents, that's dirty pool where I come from.
"You'd better leave. I'll contact my lawyer in the morning. I want to know whether I'm fighting the police or the girl's parents or both."
The sergeant shook his head. "Not guilty, Dr. Balfour. We don't work that way. We have the girl's version of what happened and yours. If, and I don't think it'll go that far, if the parents decide to sue, we'll present both versions to their lawyer and yours."
"What about the big guy who hammered the doors off the car. He saw what happened, must have heard me speaking to the girl."
"Can't find him. He slipped through the crowd and disappeared."
Caroline walked over to the window and rested her hands on the ledge. Everything that could go wrong had gone wrong. Murphy's Law had come full flower. Her beautiful new bike was a mess. Her legs were bruised. Her knees hurt and someone at the scene had stolen her bike helmet and water bottle.
The chilling aftershock morphed into pure hot anger.
The officers stood.
"Thanks for seeing us." The sergeant's weathered face creased in a troubled frown. "You're not to worry. Witnesses at the scene spoke glowingly about your courage and your care for the young people in the car."
Caroline walked them to the door. "I hope that's all down in writing and available to my lawyer. Keep in touch."
She heard them walk down the stairs and listened for the front door closing.
She didn't have a lawyer but assumed one of her colleagues could suggest someone reliable. She'd been practicing medicine for six years and never come close to being sued.
A wicked thought crossed her mind. Maybe she could sue the teenager behind the wheel for driving under the influence and trying to kill her. He and the girl had been drinking. Underage.
She finished eating her toast and carried the tray into the kitchen.
The visit from the police had a positive outcome anger had eased the aftershock.

My historical romance, A VERY DIFFICULT MAN, is now available in trade paperback. Order directly from the publisher, or place an order with

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Dickens and Me - Chapter Three

(copyright Anita Birt)

Caroline cowered under the tree as a peal of thunder crashed overhead. A haunting fear rooted her to the spot.
The smell of ozone. Her father in a drunken rage beating her because thunder and lightning scared her.
"No daughter of mine is going to be afraid of thunder and lightning. I'll teach you." He'd dragged her outside, tied her to a fence post and left her.
Seven years old. She had screamed and screamed for her mother but he wouldn't let her out of the house.
"Dr. Balfour. Get in. I'll drive you home."
Someone called her name. Caroline tried to shake off the old fear.
"Dr. Balfour. Come on. You're getting soaked."
Caroline darted to the car, opened the door, slid on to the seat, shoved her bags between her feet and slammed the door. Safe from the storm, relief flooded through her.
She removed her glasses and felt in her pocket for a tissue to wipe them.
"Where do you live, Doctor?"
Caroline's stomach clenched. Stay calm. Don't react. His voice had hardly changed since senior high. That sexy voice and his good looks had charmed every girl who'd crossed his path, including her.
She cleaned her glasses and settled them on her nose. Braving the storm might have been preferable to accepting a ride from Greg. The late afternoon had been fine when she set out from home to walk to the market. After being cooped up in the clinic most of the day she craved exercise but hadn't intended to buy so much stuff.
She tugged at her clinging wet shirt and gave it a good shake. Rain drops dripped down on her shorts and splattered on her wet legs.
"Where do you live, Doctor?"
Determined to remain cool and appreciative, she faked a smile "One forty-eight Elm Street. Turn right on the next block then left on Elm. Sorry to mess up the seat."
"Not to worry. I'll dry it later."
"Thanks for picking me up. I left my car at home." Had to be fate, she thought. Meant to be? Meant for him to recognize her?
"I couldn't leave you stranded under a tree in the storm. I thought your patients would lynch me if anything happened to you."
He flashed a smile at her. "I'm Greg Fraser. We met yesterday at the clinic. I'm sorry I upset you."
She hadn't expected to see him again. Never wanted to see him again after he'd abandoned her thirteen years ago. Was returning to Markbridge a mistake?
Like a mouse running in a maze her thoughts circled around Greg. Not ready to face the emotional fallout when she reminded him of the past, she let it go. For now.
"I was very busy and shouldn't have been rude." She reached for the door handle as he stopped in front of her house. "Thank you for the roses."
"You're welcome. I hoped they'd give you a boost." He rested his hands on the steering wheel and glanced at the house. "You live in the old Somerville place. Jack Somerville and I played football together in high school and university. He went on to coach a college team in Michigan."
Caroline opened the car door. "Thanks for the ride."
Thunder crashed overhead. Lightning zigzagged across the sky.
"Oh!" She shut her eyes, clapped her hands over her ears and slumped on the seat.
"Hey, are you okay?" He reached across, closed the door and rested his hand on her arm. "You're shaking."
Caroline breathed deeply and silently counted slowly from twenty back to one, a trick she'd learned from a medical colleague.
As you count, remember you are strong. Remember you are brave. "I am brave. I am strong."
The words seeped into her brain. Her heartbeat gradually returned to something like normal.
"Dr. Balfour, what's wrong? Can I help?"
Caroline shivered in her wet clothes. "I'm all right now, Mr. Fraser. The thunder startled me." If she ran she'd be safely in the house before the next lightning flash. She grabbed her bags and struggled out of the car. Before she'd taken a couple of steps, he was at her side.
"Let me help you."
She hung on to the bags. "I can manage." Thunder rumbled across the sky. Rain pelted down.
"Like hell you can."
He peeled the bags from her fingers, ran up the walk to the house, took the veranda steps two at a time and waited for her.
Caroline darted after him, shoved her key in the lock, opened the door and stepped inside. "Thanks." She reached for her groceries.
"I'll carry them in. Where do we go?"
"I appreciate the ride but I really don't need more help."
He ignored her and gazed around the foyer. "I've been out of the country for years. I didn't know the house had been converted into apartments."
Caroline unlocked the oak door. A polished staircase led to her apartment. She and swung around to face him. "It's been newly renovated. Thanks again for picking me up. I'm okay now."
"I'd really like to see what's been done. When I went to school the Somerville's threw lots of parties. The whole top floor was set aside for their three kids to entertain their friends."
Caroline's apartment occupied the third floor space. She didn't want to hear about the wonderful parties he'd attended, parties to which she'd never been invited. The Somerville twins, Anne and Andrea, ruled the in-group at Markbridge High. They decided who was in and who was not.
"Some other time. I'm rather tired. Thanks again for the ride."
He tilted his head. Amusement glinted in his dark eyes. "You are welcome, Doctor. Look after yourself." He handed her the bags. "I recommend you have a hot bath to warm you up." "Thanks." Caroline closed the outside door and heard him running down the veranda steps before she went upstairs. She had to avoid him. He might catch a glimpse of the girl she used to be, the girl he'd dropped like a hot coal when she desperately needed him.
Why did he have to return home? Why?
She loved her apartment and didn't want him to sully her space with his presence. She'd decorated her living room with bits and pieces of furniture from garage sales and thrift shops. Brightly colored cushions, snowy white lace curtains and flowering plants on the window ledges welcomed her.
Her one extravagance was the glass-topped coffee table she'd purchased when the clinic hired her three months ago. Yesterday she had shoved her medical journals under it to make room for Greg's roses.
Home. Her special place.
She had three whole wonderful days to catch up on her sleep and go for long rides on her new bike.
She stripped off her clothes in the bathroom, had a quick shower, rubbed herself dry with a thick towel, snuggled into a warm robe and stuck her feet into sheep skin lined slippers and put the groceries away in the kitchen cupboards. She filled the kettle with fresh water and plugged it in to make a pot of tea.
Forget Greg Fraser. He'd forgotten her.
Caroline sighed. Forgive and forget. A healthy choice. She couldn't change the past.

On the drive home Greg puzzled over prickly Dr. Balfour who had taken an instant dislike to him. That's what he couldn't fathom. He hadn't committed the crime of the century by imposing on her time at the clinic.
Mostly he got along well with people but not with her. He grinned as he parked in the garage. Might be interesting to find out what made her tick. Find out why thunderstorms scared her so badly she couldn't stop shaking.
The only way to get to know her was to get sick but he didn't want to be her patient. A doctor/patient relationship was not in the works, that would negate a social relationship.
Is that what he wanted? A social relationship? Or something more?
What if his nephew developed allergies and itched?
David would not get sick! Getting to know the doctor was a non-starter until he returned his nephew to Laura. Then he'd reconsider.
Greg left the stroller and car seat in the garage, unlocked the door into the house and stepped inside with his other purchases. Kim launched herself at him. She hated thunderstorms and still trembled.
"It's okay, I'm home." He sat cross-legged on the floor and put his arm around her. She leaned against him and rubbed her muzzle against his cheek.
"You and Dr. Balfour are a bright pair. You're supposed to be a guard dog and I'll bet you've been hiding your head under my bed."
Kim's tail thumped on the floor. "That's what I thought." He rubbed under her chin. "Okay? I've got things to do."
He gathered up his grocery and pharmacy bags, unpacked his human and animal food on the kitchen table and carried the two bags stuffed with diapers, baby soap, oil and cream for diaper rash upstairs.
Diapers on the bureau in the nursery. Oil and cream for possible diaper rash on the change table shelf. Soap and baby shampoo in the bathroom. Very orderly.
Orderly made him feel better. A positive attitude was the best way to handle an infant. It couldn't be that difficult to care for a baby. If Laura could do it so could he.
He baked a potato, barbecued a steak, tossed a salad and poured a glass of red wine. Tomorrow he'd rest up for the ordeal ahead. Take Kim for a long walk up to the lake. She could wade along the shore while he sat in the sun with his notebook to plan revisions to his novel. It had bogged down in the middle. He needed some creative ideas. Finding a medical source posed a challenge. Dr. Balfour might think kindly about him if he took the baby in for a check-up.
He'd use his nephew to wheedle into her good graces. A self-sacrificing uncle might win a lot of brownie points.
Pleased with his plan, he strolled outside sipping a glass of wine after dinner to contemplate the rain washed night sky. He gazed at the moon rising over the trees. It was almost full and he wished he had someone to share the moment with.
The moon always made him feel lonely. It conjured up the empty space in his heart he had never found the right someone to fill.
He raised his glass to the sky. "Here's to you moon. Wish me luck with my book and David and ..." He drained the glass and smiled. "And Dr. Balfour."
She was on his short list of someone to know better. In fact she was the only person on the list. Not just to pick her brains. There was something intriguing about her. An aloof holding back he found captivating. She presented a mystery. Her rudeness was out of character for a physician but she had apologized.
He'd figure out how to meet her away from the clinic. He knew where she lived. A few days after he'd been relieved of baby minding duties he'd knock on her door one evening and offer her a bouquet of white roses as an ice breaker.
A self-sacrificing uncle and white roses. A lethal combination.
The thought amused him as he returned to the house to clean up the mess in the kitchen. Dr. Balfour might wither him with a glance and he'd be back at square one.
He really needed to get out more and look up old friends rather than hit on the doctor.

Kim stuck her wet nose on Greg's face and licked him awake on Sunday morning. "Okay. Okay," he mumbled. "We'll go for a walk after breakfast."
A promise made to Kim was writ in stone as far as she was concerned. She waited until he finished his second mug of coffee then trotted to the back door, dragged her leash into the kitchen and dropped it at his feet.
"You'll have to wait for me to put on my boots."
She suffered in doggy silence while he pulled on his hiking boots over thin wool socks. Kim frolicked outside when he opened the door. Yesterday's rain had freshened the air. Greg looked up at the blue sky. A great day for a long hike to the lake. The mosquitoes shouldn't be too bad this early in the season. After the menacing bugs he'd dealt with in Africa, Canadian mosquitoes were a harmless annoyance. Even West Nile virus couldn't hold a candle to malaria but he shoved a small can of repellent in the back pocket of his shorts just in case.
He locked up and kept Kim on the leash for the mile walk at the side of the road until they reached the well-worn path through the woods then he let her run free.
Frisky as a pup she ran on ahead, doubled back every few minutes to check on him and took off again after a rabbit or a squirrel. For an old dog she brimmed with energy.
By the time they reached the lake she needed a rest. She ran across the narrow strip of sand and lapped up water. Greg called her back when a mother with two small children hustled them to safety.
"She's harmless," Greg snapped on her leash.
"Please keep him away from my kids. They're afraid of dogs."
"I don't blame them. There are some bad ones." Greg smiled. "Kim isn't one of them. Maybe they'd like to get to know her. We're going to sit in the shade over there." He pointed at a willow tree.
The woman eyed Greg suspiciously. "You won't let her loose."
"Of course not." He walked slowly past the children. "I'll bet Kim is older than you."
"How old is she? I'm six." The little girl grinned at Greg.
"Kim is eight. That's pretty old for a dog."
The boy puffed out his chest. "I'm nine and I'm not old."
"What's your name?"
The boy pointed at his sister. "She's Jenna and I'm John."
"I'm Greg. If you feel like it you're welcome to come and meet Kim." He sat in the shade. Kim flopped down beside him.
The children's mother walked over. "Thanks. A dog running loose bit Jenna last year, I've been nervous ever since." She held out her hand. "I'm Joan Freeman."
He stood. "Greg Fraser."
He'd been like a recluse while adjusting to life in Canada after years in Africa. He'd dodged bullets a few times in Liberia and escaped from a nasty crowd of desert tribesmen in the south Sahara who'd been hell bent on kidnapping him for ransom.
He'd almost forgotten how to socialize with an attractive woman, especially a woman in skimpy short shorts and a halter-top.
"Care to sit?" he asked.
"Sorry, the kids want to play in the water and I have to be close to watch." She slanted her eyes at him. "Maybe you can join us later. I've got a picnic lunch."
"Mom." John shouted. "Come on. We want to swim."
"Got to go." She waved at Greg and ran down to the water with the children.
Nice family, he thought. Healthy, well fed with all their body parts intact. Until the day he died he'd never forget the horror of seeing children maimed by exploding land mines or hacked by machetes.
Suffer little children to come unto me. A beautiful thought from the Bible. Didn't make sense in most of the world and right now he couldn't do a damn thing about it except support charities working there.
With his ability to focus his thoughts to create fresh ideas he pulled out his notebook, realized he was thirsty and had forgotten to bring bottled water. Ordering Kim to stay he hurried over to a small booth selling soda pop and ice cream bars.
He felt more like an ice cream than a soda, paid for an ice cream bar and bit into it. Pieces of chocolate broke off. Ice cream dribbled down his chin. He reached for a tissue in his pocket as a woman rode up on a bike. She wheeled up to the booth and ordered a ginger ale.
"Whew, it's a hot one." Dr. Balfour got off the bike, paid for the drink, removed her helmet and hung it on the handle bar. Tendrils of hair, damp with perspiration, coiled at her nape.
Greg thought she looked fabulous in tight black biking shorts, white T-shirt and safety vest.
"Dr. Balfour, may I buy you an ice cream bar? They are guaranteed to trickle down your chin and make a mess."
She removed her dark glasses and hooked them on the neck of her shirt. "Oh."
She seemed startled. Not pleasantly startled, more taken by surprise and caught off guard kind of startled, as if she'd seen a ghost. Her face paled.
"Greg Fraser." He said and quirked an eyebrow. "I dropped by the clinic on Friday and rescued you from a thunderstorm yesterday."
A slight smile tipped her lips. "I appreciated the rescue. I was foolish to shelter under a tree." She paused and held the cool can of ginger ale to her forehead. "Thanks again for the roses. It was kind of you to send them."
Caroline bit her lip. She sounded like a character in a play, like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Words hummed inside her head.
How kind of you to let me come. How kind of you to send me roses.
"Care to join me in an ice cream bar? I'm sitting over there with my dog." He pointed at a big German shepherd snoozing under a tree. "Maybe take your shoes off and paddle in the water."
His heart melting smile had lost none of its potency. Better able to resist him now Caroline sipped her soda to play for time. She couldn't jump back on her bike and take off like a scalded cat, but she didn't want to sit with him either.
She'd finish the drink and then go. "Okay. I can't stay long. I want to beat the Sunday traffic."
"Long enough to mess yourself up with an ice cream bar?"
"No thanks, Mr. Fraser."
"It's Greg, Dr. Balfour."
She walked her bike over to the dog. Greg followed her. "What's his name?" she asked.
"Kim's a she."
Caroline propped her bike against the tree and knelt beside the dog. "Hello, Kim."
Two children ran towards them and skidded to a stop about ten feet away. "Aren't you scared of the dog, Dr. Balfour?"
"Hi Jenna. Hi John. Mr. Fraser invited me to meet Kim." She glanced around. "Where's your mother, John?"
"Gone to get the picnic stuff from the car. She told us to stay close to Mr. Fraser. We want him to have a picnic with us."
"Can I pat the dog?" Jenna asked.
"Sure." Greg walked over and grasped her hand. "Let's go."
Caroline watched them. He bent down and whispered something to Jenna. He seemed to know exactly how to win her confidence. He'd have been a good father. He could have ... don't go there. Don't think it.
"What about me?" John demanded.
"Come on. Kim wants to meet you as well," Greg said.
He had a knack with children.
Caroline gave her head a shake. Stop visiting the past. Stop letting the pain surface. Stop letting Greg Fraser get to her.
She stood and finished the soda. If he was picnicking with Joan Freeman and the kids he wouldn't want her hanging around.
"Thanks for introducing me to Kim. I'm heading out."
"Just a sec, kids, until I have a word with Dr. Balfour."
The children stood at attention about a foot from the dog. "Is this okay?" John asked.
Anxious to leave, Caroline sat on the bike and snapped one foot on the pedal. Joan Freeman hurried towards them from the parking lot carrying a cooler.
Pretty, blonde and divorced, she'd had a rough couple of years and had just started dating. Caroline liked her. She and Greg would look good together.
"Dr. Balfour." Greg stood casually beside her bike, hands in his pockets. "I lucked in seeing you here. Do you do much biking?"
Caroline had a bad feeling coming on. He'd want to go biking with her. "Just started." Keep answers short and to the point and go.
"I know this is sudden but would you care to have dinner with me Saturday or Sunday evening? I'm new in town and would enjoy your company."
"Dinner?" His invitation caught her off guard.
"If not dinner, maybe we could meet at the Tennis Club for drinks."
Caroline's heart skipped a beat. If he was dating Joan already, what game was he playing?
"Sorry. I'm busy on the week-end. Another time, perhaps." A white lie was the best she could do on the spur of the moment. Anxious to leave she jabbed her right foot in the pedal and pushed off.
"Hi, Caroline," Joan waved at her. "Want to stay and eat soggy sandwiches? I've made lots."
Smiling broadly, Caroline shook her head. "Would love to but I have to get on home."
She quickly rode away from the park. Taking a right turn off the side road she ventured on to the highway. She'd traveled farther than planned when she left home. The ride to Markbridge would take an hour, maybe longer. Luckily the traffic was light and she could practice shifting gears on her new touring bike.
As she concentrated on the mechanics of shifting gears, her thoughts strayed to her emotional involvement with Greg. Had she changed so much he didn't connect her with Markbridge High School? Minutes ago he'd gazed deeply into her eyes. He'd asked her for a date. Was he so blind he couldn't see past who she was now? Successful doctor. Competent. A woman. Not an innocent girl.
Tires squealing, boom box booming, a car roared from behind a pick-up truck up ahead and tried to pass on the two-lane highway.
Caroline saw the car coming towards her. She skidded off the road, bounced across a shallow, weed-clogged ditch and tumbled off her bike.
A loud crash thundered in her ears.
She raised her head and knew she was going to die.
The boom box car spun off the road, rolled sideways over the ditch, slewed across the grass and landed on its side inches from where she'd fallen. Two wheels whirled around and around going nowhere. Smoke billowed from the crumpled engine.
In the sudden silence, time slowed. Caroline gazed intently up at the blue sky trying to make her world right itself. It was weird, like floating in space.
She breathed deeply, staggered to her feet and stood transfixed staring at the wrecked car, listening to screams. Who was screaming?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Dickens and Me

I am having trouble sending CHAPTER TWO to my blog from my documents. Please be patient while I try again.

(copyright Anita Birt)

Caroline thrust the card into her skirt pocket and struggled to catch her breath. For seconds her heart skipped into fluttery palpitations.
She would not have a panic attack because Greg Fraser had walked into her office. Seeing him had shattered her peaceful morning routine. With an effort she filled her lungs with air to steady her breathing.
Why had she let him get under her skin? He meant nothing to her now. Nothing. In a couple of hours the emotional firestorm he'd stirred up would burn itself out.
Her mouth dried. She'd heard he was working permanently in Africa and never expected their paths to cross. What had brought him home? Health problems? He hadn't mentioned any.
Upset at having him in her office she'd reacted badly, cut him off in mid sentence. Had not tried to listen. He deserved better than that. Sort of.
She had risked returning to her hometown after practicing in northern Ontario communities. The offer to join the clinic was too tempting to refuse. She needed the money to pay off her student loans. The Markbridge area with its rolling hills and quiet country roads was familiar and the climate agreeable. She would not let him spoil it.
He stepped aside for her to leave the office. As she hurried along the hall she felt his eyes burning into her back. He'd hardly changed since high school. Handsome as ever, with the same arrogant way of carrying himself, as if the world were his oyster and pearls his rightful due. He assumed all he had to do was ask an overworked physician pointless questions and she'd fall on her knees to accommodate him.
The way he had placed his hands on Betty's desk asking for water was mildly flirtatious. Betty would have loved it. At fifty-eight, a white-haired grandmother, she'd have soaked up the attention and gone for a pitcher of water to please him.
Not for a minute had he connected Dr. C. K. Balfour with Kate Southern. Had she changed that much?
She'd lost weight after graduating from high school and never gained it back. Her hair was different. Gone was the long braid. Gone the mousy brown color. She had a sleek short cut professionally streaked to bring out lurking auburn tints.
Even the memory of her disastrous foray into marriage during her lonely second year at university no longer troubled her. It had taught her a second bitter lesson about commitment. Andy Balfour wanted out of the marriage within six months. After the divorce she'd kept his name. Her family name had too much baggage attached to it.
Caroline sucked in more air to calm her jangled nerves. Greg's unexpected appearance had thrust her into the past. A past she'd tried hard to forget. But she hadn't. His return after thirteen years had thrown her off balance and she'd jumped on him for daring to enter her space. She could have been minimally polite.
Stopping abruptly at the entrance to the waiting room she swung around to face him. He bumped into her and Caroline lurched to the side. He grasped her arm to steady her.
"Sorry, Doctor, I hope I didn't hurt you." He released her immediately.
"I hope I didn't hurt you." The words echoed like a ghostly reminder of another time. Another place.
Caroline's knees wobbled. "My fault, you didn't expect me to stop so quickly." With an effort she made her mouth smile and glanced up at him. "I'm sorry I was rude to you."
Her eyes locked on his. A mistake. His gaze didn't waver. Pinned to a painful memory, she fought for composure and blinked away the past to concentrate on her patients. They expected a functioning doctor not a basket case.
On the far side of the waiting room Mr. and Mrs. Benson sat close together holding hands. Both in their eighties and frail, they raised hopeful eyes as Caroline walked towards them.
She wished she had better news. After discussing their situation with the clinic social worker, Caroline had no option but to gently insist he move into a nursing home. Mrs. Benson could no longer care for him. He'd taken to wandering the streets and disappearing for hours at a time, often found miles away with no idea where he was or how he got there.
Suddenly the clinic door burst open. "I'll hear no more about it, Cheryl. You can't keep the baby and that's the end of it. You're worse than useless, out all hours of the night, sleeping 'til noon, don't expect me to raise the brat. And look at you, dressed like a bag lady in that ridiculous skirt, rings in your nose and God knows where else. You'll have the abortion and that's that!"
Caroline flinched. Poor Cheryl, fifteen years old and pregnant. She could deal with the girl but didn’t look forward to another session with Mrs. Gallagher.
How could a fifteen year old cope with a baby? The question nagged at the back of Caroline's mind. Cheryl wasn't very bright and had no idea how to care for an infant.
Would she allow the baby to be adopted? She'd adamantly refused to name the father. Caroline had sent her to the lab for blood work. God help the innocent baby she carried if she were infected with HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases.
Sorrow tugged at Caroline's heart. No one said doctoring would be easy, and she had to guard against emotional involvement with young pregnant patients like Cheryl.
A brief sigh escaped her lips. Some days were better than others. This one had definitely got off to a bad start.
"Goodbye, Dr. Balfour." Greg paused by the open door. "I hope you have a good sleep tonight. You look tired."
Surprised he was still in the clinic Caroline resented his intrusion into her life. Resented his comment about her appearance. She'd apologized for being rude but that wasn't enough he had to tell her she looked tired.
"Goodbye, Mr. Fraser," and hoped she'd never see him again.
Forcing control on her wayward thoughts she vowed to forget him. She had better things to do than rake over the past.
"Come along." She spoke softly to the Bensons. "I'll see you now."
Greg glared at the wilting petunias in the window box. "She'll let you die," he muttered and stalked around the building to the parking lot. Smart ass doctor. She'd made him feel lower than a snake's belly for imposing on her time.
He slid into his car, stuck the key into the ignition, rolled down the windows and sat there.
And felt bad.
Why did he tell her she looked tired? Getting back at her? For seconds she'd stared intently at him, seemed to give her head a shake and dismissed him with a withering glance. She had dismissing down to a fine art.
Greg blew out the breath he'd been holding and suckedto in clear hot June air. The poor woman was overworked, tired and vulnerable and he'd hit her below the belt for bruising his macho pride. Dr. Balfour had a busy day ahead of her. Patients were streaming in demanding her attention. He'd held the door open for a woman carrying a tiny baby in a kind of padded basket thing with handles. A neat little rig.
He started the car and drove slowly up Maple Avenue, the town's business street. Not much had changed during his years abroad. A supermarket sprawled at the corner of Acorn and Moss. Next door to the market a sign caught his eye. Flowers for All Occasions by Alicia. That was new.
He parked at the curb. He'd send Dr. Balfour flowers. Women liked getting flowers.
Inside the cool interior of the shop Greg wondered what to send. Not flowers she had to arrange. She'd probably forget to water them.
He finally chose an arrangement of twelve perfect miniature red roses in a small glass bowl. Not too intrusive, the right size to fit on her desk.
"You'll want a card, will you not?" Alicia asked. A slight woman, extravagantly made up, her hair brightly blonde, she oozed charm. Plucking a card from a nearby rack she handed it to him. "Here's a pen."
"Thanks." Greg puzzled over the exact wording. Something simple. Nothing heartfelt. That wouldn't fit. She could have been polite even if she was tired.
Sorry if I disturbed you.
He signed his name, slipped the card into an envelope and ordered the roses delivered to Dr. Balfour at the clinic by five o'clock. He hoped they'd give her a lift.
Feeling he'd made amends he drove home. He'd have to browse the Internet for the information he wanted. Between Dr. Balfour and his sister, his day had gone straight to hell.
Not in the mood to sit at his computer, he poked around the house, stacked the dishwasher, walked the dog and sat on the garden swing nursing a cold beer. Would the doctor lady pitch his flowers into the trash or take them home?

Caroline stole a few minutes in her office before seeing the last patient. She'd had no time for lunch and had drunk too much coffee to keep her brain ticking over. Her empty stomach grumbled quietly.
Digging into one of her desk drawers she found a sealed packet of two crackers, broken but edible. She ate them, appeased the hunger pangs slightly and hurried to the waiting room.
"Dr. Balfour, there's flowers come for you. I told the fellow to put them on the desk." Will Turner quirked a bushy white eyebrow. "Got a sweetheart, have you? I thought I was the only man in your life."
Caroline grinned. Dear old Will, pushing ninety and bright as a silver dollar. "Not a hope. They're probably for Betty. I'll drop by her place on the way home."
"They're for you. The delivery man said so. Look inside the wrapping and see if there's a card. I'm a curious old cat and I'm not in a hurry. I want to know who sent them." His blue eyes twinkled. "Maybe you have a secret admirer."
"Or a grateful patient." Caroline removed the blue paper. "Miniature red roses. Aren't they pretty?"
"Don't keep me in suspense. Read the card."
Caroline slipped the card from the envelope. Greg was sorry he'd disturbed her! Sorry wouldn't cut it. Sending flowers was supposed to make everything all right. No problem.
She squeezed her eyes shut and concentrated on clearing the mist dulling her brain. She had tried hard to forget the past. It was over. Finished. Why let him get to her?
"Are you okay, Doctor?"
She opened her eyes. Will pushed himself up from the chair. "Nothing bad on that card was there?"
"Nothing bad. A surprise from someone I knew a long time ago." She ripped up the card, tossed it in the waste basket and put the flowers on Betty's desk. "Time for me to have a look at you, Will. It's been three months since your last visit. How are you feeling?"
"Like a sixty year old."
Caroline smiled as they walked to her office. Will was a favorite with the staff. She did her usual checks, heart, lungs, blood pressure and pronounced him as healthy as some fifty year olds. "You are not to drive."
This was an in-joke between them. He'd turned in his driver's license on his eightieth birthday long before Caroline joined the clinic.
He used her phone to order a taxi to take him home, pecked her on the cheek and told her she looked tired.
"Get some rest. Can't have my favorite doctor falling ill."
She accompanied him to the door. "Thanks. Day after tomorrow I'm off for three whole days. I'll catch up on my sleep then."
"See that you do." He peered through the glass. "There's my taxi."
Caroline locked the clinic door after him, returned to her office and finished making notes in her files. Smothering a yawn she hoped there'd be no emergencies in the middle of the night.
She stood, stretched and walked quickly into the waiting room. She hadn't been this tired since she interned. Her eyes burned from lack of sleep.
A scent of roses drifted on the air-conditioned air.
Greg's roses.
Tempted to pitch them in the garbage she changed her mind. No point in taking out her ill humor on the flowers. There'd be space on her coffee table at home after she cleared away the stacked medical journals.
Tears suddenly welled in her eyes.
Red roses for love.
A childish dream surfaced. A dream of receiving a bouquet of red roses from a prince charming who'd declare his devotion on bended knee and ask for her hand in marriage.
Unlike Cinderella her prince hadn't materialized. She was thirty-one years old and had never received roses, red or otherwise. Why did the first roses have to come from Greg?
Get over it. Damned if she'd shed tears because he had crossed her path.
She armed the security system, locked up and left by the back door. Black bag slung over her shoulder, beeper and cell phone clipped to her belt, she balanced the bowl of roses in her left hand and headed for her car.
Day after tomorrow. She could hardly wait.
She'd sleep twelve hours straight then go out on a long bike ride to the lake and not answer any phone calls.
She had to shop for groceries tomorrow or starve and wasn't in the mood to starve. She didn't intend to waste one of her precious three days shopping for food. Tomorrow after work, she'd shop. Then she'd be free.

After a restless night Greg wakened on Saturday morning with a headache. He never had headaches but the prospect of minding a baby for two days had lowered his immune system. He'd been awake for hours with a parade of jack-booted what if's marching inside his skull.
What if the kid missed Laura and wouldn't stop crying? What if he dropped the baby? What if David was allergic to cats? Or African violets? Or dogs? What if the kid got sick? What if incompetent Uncle Greg got sick?
Sick? He never got sick. If he did, would he put himself in Dr. Balfour's tender loving care? Sure she'd been tired but she didn't have to hit the roof because he'd made a simple request. She hadn't given him a chance to discuss infants.
Between thinking about her frosty manner and the soon-to-arrive baby, Greg had the distinct impression his life had taken a turn for the worse and was sliding rapidly down hill.
What was it with Dr. Balfour? She didn't wear a wedding band. Not married, he guessed. With her attitude she'd scare off interested men. Maybe she didn't like men. He swung his legs over the side of the bed.
Why did he care who or what she liked? Truth to tell he wanted to know what lay behind that frigid exterior. Maybe a frigid interior? Not likely. He'd studied her as she approached the old couple in the reception area. Her whole demeanor had softened. She was a different person from the severe character who'd rudely dismissed him.
But her behavior was no excuse for his childish retaliation. When she was vulnerable he'd told her she looked tired. Sarcasm is the last resort of scoundrels. He'd been sarcastic and she'd picked it up.
The shocked expression on her face returned to trouble him. For seconds her eyes had widened as if he'd touched a painful nerve.
He had sent roses and apologized. If he had to take his nephew to a doctor - don't even think it. David would remain in robust health while in his uncle's care, that was a given.
Greg thought brave thoughts about babies as he shaved and showered. His weakened immune system recovered slightly as he lingered over a second mug of coffee at breakfast. Munching on a toasted bagel slathered with cream cheese he ran through a mental list of supplies required for a small baby.
Fear dimmed his brave thoughts. He had to care for a six month old infant! Bravely he sucked in his stomach and breathed deeply. It can't be that hard, can it? Women do it all the time. He supposed they were born knowing how. Men's brains weren't hard wired to deal with babies. They had to learn. A wife had to teach them.
He didn't have a wife and he didn't trust Laura's motherly teaching skills.
Greg found a yellow legal pad in a kitchen drawer and began to construct a logical step-by-step program to prepare for David's arrival.
Logic. That he understood. Babies were little human creatures with, he hoped, logical little brains.
Be consistent.
He jotted that down.
Be respectful.
Smile a lot.
Speak in pleasant tones.
Do not let David sense my insecurity.
Greg frowned over his notes. His nephew would be reasonable. How else would a six month old baby behave? What did an infant know after half a year in the real world?
They ate and slept and were taken for walks. He'd read stories to his nephew, maybe the first chapter of his novel. The kid might like a good murder mystery.
Phone book in hand he searched the yellow pages for stores that sold baby equipment. A shop in the Markbridge Mall advertised EVERYTHING YOUR BABY REQUIRES and pictured were car seats, cribs, playpens and something called a Jolly Jumper.
Greg couldn't believe babies needed so much stuff to function. He locked the house and decided to take his parents' car. The Lexus had seatbelts in the back to anchor a baby seat and a big trunk to stow his purchases.
The drive through the sunlit countryside to the Mall soothed him and he lucked into a parking space close to the baby store. The place amazed him. Pleasing babies and their parents made for a thriving business. Pregnant women, arm in arm with happy men thronged the shop.
Taken in hand by a grandmotherly clerk Greg pointed at an array of car seats. "I want one of those. Top of the line." It'd be his gift to David.
"Your first child?" she asked.
"No, he's not mine. He belongs to my sister." Greg cleared his throat and tried to look proud and confident. "I'm going to look after him for a couple of days."
"How lovely for you? How old is he? Are you used to babies?"
"Used to them? Never looked after one before but what the heck, a baby can't be any more trouble than a puppy." He chuckled, a know-it-all chuckle. "At least babies don't have to be house broken. My nephew is six months old."
The woman peered at him over her glasses. "Have you ever changed a soiled diaper?"
Greg's stomach lurched. "A soiled diaper? Don't babies use disposable diapers?" What did he know about diapers? Nothing. He'd never thought deeply about diapers.
"They use disposable diapers but you have to wipe their little bottoms and make sure you keep the skin absolutely clean or the baby might develop diaper rash."
"Diaper rash?" Greg struggled to maintain his cover as a knowledgeable uncle. "How long does it take to break out?" he asked calmly.
"If your nephew hasn't got a rash you needn't worry."
"What should I do if does?"
"Take him to your physician and have him examine the baby."
"Thanks. I'm sure David will check in with a clean bill of health." If the kid needed medical attention he'd ask for someone other than unfeeling Dr. Balfour.
The clerk handed him a car seat to inspect. "You have to bathe babies every day. I suppose you know that."
"Of course." He lied in his teeth to cover his ignorance.
Anxious to escape from further questions Greg purchased a car seat and a stroller fit for a little prince.
Laura hadn't mentioned a stroller but he had to have something to put the kid in to go for walks.
He signed his credit card for a considerable sum. Babies didn't come cheap.
Burdened by problems looming in the future Greg sauntered out to the parking lot with the car seat stuck in the stroller. How do guys feel about taking babies out in public places? How would he feel pushing David in the stroller? What if old ladies beamed at him and the baby and stopped to chat about the joys of fatherhood?
Gloom descended. He stowed his purchases in the trunk and still had shopping to do for diapers and baby food and sundries. He'd had less trouble gearing up for climbing expeditions than preparing for David's arrival.
At the pharmacy in town he wheeled a cart to Aisle Three devoted to babies. He gazed at the shelves and hadn't a clue where to start. Diapers came in different sizes and different brands. He read labels, squeezed the packages and couldn't figure out what to buy.
He couldn't go wrong if he bought two packages of every size except those for newborns. He could always take back what he didn't need once he had the kid organized.
What do six month old babies eat? He picked up one jar of baby food after another. Completely at sea he read labels and studied pictures of smiling healthy infants. He decided on pureed fruits and some vegetables. Not carrots. He hated carrots. David probably hated carrots.
Loaded with diapers, jars, and a package of baby cereal, he wheeled past shelves of baby soap, baby oil, baby powder and an ointment for diaper rash, and dropped one of each into his cart.
After paying the bill he decided he'd purchased enough food and maintenance items for David to withstand a siege and still had to shop in the supermarket next door to buy food for himself and the animals at home.
A rumble of thunder greeted him as he stowed his purchases in the trunk. A few drops of rain splattered down. He raced into the market, grabbed steaks, a bag of salad, dog and cat food, baking potatoes and chocolate chip cookies. Enough to keep him going for the week-end.
The summer sky darkened with the onset of the storm. Lightning jagged across lowering clouds. Greg shoved his groceries into the trunk and escaped the drenching rain by seconds.
Wipers going at full speed, he drove slowly up the street, and peered through the rain at a woman sheltering under a huge maple tree. She carried four plastic shopping bags bulging with groceries.
Damn fool woman, he thought, if lightning strikes the tree she'll be toast. He took a second look. Dr. Balfour? What the hell was she doing out in the rain? Didn't she have a car? Or enough sense not to stand under a tree during an electrical storm?
He pulled up to the curb and rolled down the passenger side window.
"Dr. Balfour," he yelled. "Get in. I'll drive you home."

Friday, February 6, 2009

Dickens and Me

CHAPTER ONE (Dickens and Me. Copyright 2009, Anita Birt)

Greg paused at the open window and gazed at the changed landscape in front of his family home. The maple tree shading the old-fashioned wooden swing had grown tall. A manicured terraced lawn, once a favorite tobogganing hill for him and his sister, swept down to the duck pond he'd dug with his father. Mallards paddled in the water.

Turning away from the window he smiled at the dog drowsing in a patch of early morning sunshine. Kim had been a frisky German shepherd pup when he'd left Canada, now her muzzle was more white than brown.

He had the run of the house while his parents were abroad for a couple of months visiting relatives in Australia. Still in culture shock after eight years working in Africa, the present leisurely pace suited him. He'd concentrate on the crime novel he'd been plugging away at and never had time to whip into shape.

He'd finished the first draft of A Murderous Crown and had a slew of questions requiring answers.

The chiming telephone jolted Kim from her sleep. Greg grabbed the phone on the first ring hoping the call was from Joe Easterbrook, ex-cop, his Dad's fishing buddy who'd promised to clue him in on police procedures.

"Greg Fraser."

"Hi, Greg, how's it going?"

He sucked in a deep breath and slowly released it. A cheerful question from his kid sister usually spelled trouble, for him not for her.

He loved Laura but she seldom phoned unless a new problem loomed in her life. Her third phone call from England in two weeks did not bode well. Something was bugging her.

"No." Strike first. Force her on the defensive. He'd mastered the technique, didn't always work.

"What's wrong with you? You don't even know why I'm calling."

"That's right. Bye Laura, I'm working." He sat on the chair next to his computer.

Blubbering sobs quivered in his ear. "Please, please, help me just this once and I promise never to ask you to do another thing for me. This is an emergency."

"That's what you said last time when I had to fly to London and threaten to beat up the guy harassing you."

"That was two years ago and this is different."

He heard a loud sniffle and imagined the tears trickling down her pretty face.

"Different how?" Laura's tears always worked against him. Like Sir Galahad, he seemed destined to rescue her from the crises littering her life.

She cleared her throat. "It's about the baby."

"What's wrong? Is he sick? What have you done to him?" Laura had screwed up again. She was too scatterbrained to care for an infant and her boyfriend was in some God forsaken place in eastern Mongolia.

"I haven't done anything to him. David is fine. That's not the problem."

"Glad to hear he's okay." Greg relaxed. "So what's the panic? Won't Colin marry you? Should I dig out Dad's old shotgun and force him to make you an honest woman?"

"Don't be silly, of course Colin will marry me. All I want is a small favor."

The wheedling tone scraped along his brotherly nerves. He should have disconnected the phone or hidden out in the woods to escape falling into the quagmire of Laura's problems.

"What favor?"

"I want you to look after David for a few days."

"I'm not flying to London to baby-sit, can't spare the time. I'm at a critical point in my novel. Hire someone. I'll send you money."

"You don't have to come here. I'm bringing the baby to you."

Greg slammed his feet on the floor. Kim jumped up and barked. "Stop right there. What will you and its father do while I quit work? Don't answer. I don't want to know."

"David is not an it, he's a dear little boy." She sniffled again. "Colin's been injured. He's recovering in a Tokyo hospital."

"What happened?" Why couldn't Laura have taken up with an accountant or a simple tradesman, a peaceful man who stayed home at night? She attracted problems like ants hitting on a picnic.

"Thieves attacked their group and stole the camera equipment. Colin fell during the fight, slipped on sharp stones, cut his hand and elbow. His elbow got infected and blood poisoning set in. He was airlifted to the nearest town but insisted on going to Japan where he'd have better care."

Greg stared glumly at the screen saver dancing across his laptop. Dogs and cats holding umbrellas soared into cyberspace and returned. He'd like to knock some paternal sense into Colin Ferguson. "So why do you have to bring the baby here? I can't look after him."

"Of course you can. David is six month's old and not a bit of trouble." The sniffle switched to a cheerful chuckle. "All you have to do is look after David while I fly to Vancouver and meet Colin off the flight from Japan. His hand hasn't healed and his arm's in a sling. He's not in great shape. I'm worried about him. He's been away ten weeks and I'd like to spend a couple of days with him to make sure he's okay."

Greg refused to weaken. "Wait for him in London. Have a friend mind the baby."

"That's the problem. That's why I'm asking you for a favor. As part of his travel business he wants to check out places in Canada for tours, and I want David to meet his Uncle Greg."

With defeat staring him in the face Greg played a last desperate card. "I don't know diddly squat about babies. What if I drop him on his head or forget to feed him? I've got the dog, the two cats and Mom's African violets to look after, that's my limit."

"Greg, you are a sensible intelligent man. I'll make notes of everything you need to know. Mom and Dad told me they'd have a bedroom ready for David. You'll love him and it's only for a couple of days."

Their parents had been ecstatic when Laura told them she was pregnant. The fact she lived in England and wasn't enjoying wedded bliss hadn't stopped them from going all out to prepare for the promised visit from Laura and the baby as soon as they returned home.

"Can't do it. Wait until Mom and Dad get back."

"Please. This is important to me."

"I know it is but I'm not the fatherly type. Make other arrangements. Call a Nanny agency." He grasped at straws as the trap closed.

"It's too late. I've already made arrangements. Colin expects me in Vancouver next week. The baby and I are booked on an Air Canada flight arriving on Tuesday afternoon. Check the time of arrival and be sure to meet us. I've been borrowing a car seat from a friend so you'll have to buy one. Make sure your car has an anchor for the seat.

"See if Mom put supplies in the baby's room. We'll need baby soap, baby oil and baby powder. Please buy things like disposable diapers. Oh and you'd better stock up on baby food for a six month old. He's eating..."

She chuckled again. A self-satisfied chuckle. Probably enjoying the slow torture she was meting out to her brother.

"Sort of eating. I spoon it into his mouth and he spits it out so you'd better wear washable clothes."

"The answer is no. Get Colin to ask Air Canada for assistance or use a wheelchair. Meet him here."

Greg suspected Laura wanted a romantic reunion in Vancouver without the baby. Too bad. "Laura, I'm not the fatherly type. No way can I look after a baby."

"Of course, you can. It'll be so much fun. You'll love him and he'll adore his big, handsome uncle. See you Tuesday and thanks for everything."

"Laura! Where can I reach you?" He yelled into the phone.

"I'm staying with friends. They'll drive me to the airport. Now stop worrying. David is adorable. See you on Tuesday."


She'd cut him off. He dropped the phone and grabbed the arms of the chair to anchor him to the real world. Blind-sided by his unfeeling sister and without her phone number to call back he'd lost the battle to save his sanity.

He slumped in his chair and picked up a pen. One minute he was on top of the world, the next he was caught in Laura's carefully laid trap. He jotted down the list of baby things he was supposed to buy. His vintage Corvette, serviced and newly licensed, couldn't accommodate a baby. He'd use his parent's new car, a jazzy Lexus sedan, to chauffeur the kid around.

He breathed deeply to clear his head. All he wanted was peace and quiet to write and Laura had thrown him to the wolves.

Correct that. Wolves he could cope with. They seldom attacked people. He'd faced down a sow grizzly once and lived to tell the tale. She'd whacked him around a few times, ripped off his backpack and sauntered back to her cubs. His nephew didn't have sharp teeth or claws to tear him apart but caring for a helpless infant was way out of his league.

An icy shiver snaked down his spine. He had never held a baby in his arms. Had never missed holding babies. Had never thought about holding babies. Now his screwball sister wanted him to care for her infant.

Why was she doing this to him? He was a poor excuse for an uncle. What if he accidentally harmed the child?

Greg's gut knotted. That wouldn't happen. He'd get through the ordeal somehow. It'd be a learning experience, like walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls or wrestling sharks.

Heaving a resigned sigh he stood. His plan to write five pages today had crashed. Laura's ambush had knocked his creative muse on to the back burner.

With Kim at his heels Greg headed to the kitchen for a much needed cup of coffee, a caffeine jolt to kick-start his brain. He heated a mug of leftover coffee in the microwave, sipped it slowly and brooded on his fate.

Stew and Mew, the family cats, dozed on a braided rug. Kim flopped down beside them and smiled a contented doggy smile.

What a life, Greg thought. Nothing to do but eat and sleep while his whole world tipped on its axis. He glanced at the calendar hanging on the wall.

Friday. He'd planned to write most of the day and take Kim for a walk in the late afternoon. Tuesday loomed ahead. He found a pen stuck on the refrigerator and circled Tuesday in black.

Right. This is what he'd do. Tomorrow he'd shop for baby supplies. Today, the lull before the storm, he'd do some research for his book. He'd visit the walk-in clinic and with any luck, find a physician interested in answering his questions.

He'd considered going in with a trumped up ailment and decided against it. Better to be straight. Anyway he didn't have an ailment yet unless a gut-wrenching fear he might harm his nephew counted?

That was it! He'd ask for advice about caring for a six month old baby. He'd use a two-prong approach to mellow out the doctor, research for his book and information about baby sitting an infant.

Greg nudged Kim with is toe. "I'm going out." She wagged her tail. "I'm not taking you. We'll go out later. I won't be long."

Whistling, he picked up his wallet and keys from the hall table, locked the house and opened the door into the garage. He slid into his car and admired the immaculate interior of the Corvette. Not a car configured to suit a baby. He turned the key and the engine hummed into a finely tuned rumble as he buzzed the garage door open.

On the way into town he practiced his approach to the doctor. Something to pique his interest. How did he cope with the trauma of losing a patient? Had he ever thought about quitting? Had he ever testified at a murder trial? He'd play it by ear. Something would come to him.

He parked behind the Markbridge clinic and strolled around to the front of the building. In a window box petunias and trailing lobelias wilted in the June heat. Greg stuck his finger in the dirt. Dry. Not much of an advertisement for a clinic if their flowers died.

Pushing through the door he stepped into air-conditioned cool. On the far side of the waiting room a young woman sat behind a desk. She stopped making notes in a file, raised her eyes and waved Greg to a seat.

"I'll be with you in a minute," she said.

Greg sauntered over to her. A sign on her desk announced her name. Betty Harris, Reception.

"If you've got a pitcher of water handy I'll give the flowers in the window box a drink. They're nearly dead."

The receptionist straightened her glasses and gazed at him. A slight frown wrinkled her forehead. "Pardon?"

"Do you have a pitcher of water? The flowers in your window box are dying." He smiled pleasantly. No point antagonizing her. "I'll water them while I wait."

Her eyes widened behind steel rimmed glasses. Nice eyes. Unusualcolor. More violet than blue. He rested his hands on her desk.

"That won't be necessary," she said coolly and closed the file. "May I help you?"

Momentarily nonplussed Greg wondered what he'd done to warrant the frosty greeting. "I'd like to see a doctor."

"Have you an appointment, Mr...?" She flipped through an appointment book.

"Greg Fraser. I don't have an appointment. I thought this was a walk-in clinic so I walked in." He smiled even more pleasantly and hoped his light-hearted remark would make her stop frowning at him. It didn't. The frown stayed in place.

"Usually we handle some walk-ins but today we're booked solid until six. However, I can fit you in before the first patient." She stood. "Come this way."

Greg followed the chilly Miss Harris along a corridor and admired the view from behind. Navy and white checked shirt, a short navy skirt, navy stockings and navy flats. Tall and leggy she could model except for her face, not that it wasn't an attractive face, but she had a kind of stillness about her like someone not used to smiling. Maybe she smiled at others but sure as hell not at him.

She opened an office door. Dr. J. K. Balfour was printed in gold on it, snapped a printed form into it, selected a pen from a holder on the counter and sat on a wheeled stool.

"What can I do for you, Mr. Fraser?"

Somehow he'd got off on the wrong foot with the receptionist. "If you don't mind I'll wait for the doctor and don't bother filling in that form. I'm not a patient. I'm not sick. I'm a writer." He pulled up a chair and sat down.

"A writer?"

He felt like a damned fool but he'd come this far and soldiered on. "I hoped one of the doctors would be willing to discuss some aspects of medical practice, like the emotional fallout from losing a patient, and I'd also like information on how to care for..."

"If you are talking about research, Mr. Fraser this is a medical clinic not a public library." She put the clipboard aside.

Greg ignored the dismissive gesture. She had the uncanny ability of keeping her face expressionless. It was like being confronted by a blank page except for her eyes. Unless he was mistaken, anger glinted in them. Why?

"Ms Harris, I know this is a clinic. I'm willing to pay a consulting fee. If no one's available, I'd like an appointment for another day." Doggedly persistent he waited for her next move.

"I don't believe you understand, Mr. Fraser. I am Dr. Balfour. I have no spare time today. If I had I'd take a nap. Dr. Moreland is at a conference in England, Dr. Halliday is ill and our receptionist is dealing with a family emergency. I was up most of the night assisting at a difficult birth and I'll be seeing patients until late this afternoon."

She stood. "Please excuse me."

Put very impolitely in his place and stung by her rebuke, Greg got to his feet. "Sorry to have taken up your time, Doctor Balfour. Please bill me. Here's my address." He opened his wallet and handed her a card.