Friday, March 27, 2009

Dickens and Me

(copyright 2009 Anita Birt)
With time on her hands and not scheduled to return to work until tomorrow, Caroline volunteered to meet Dr. Moreland off the London flight.
She'd caught sight of Greg on the far side of the crowd in the arrivals area and started towards him to apologize for her temper tantrum yesterday at his home but stopped dead in her tracks as shock rippled through her.
A beautiful blonde woman carrying a baby hugged and kissed Greg before handing him the child. He cuddled the infant and edged out of the crowd while his wife followed behind dragging a monster suitcase, a heavy bag slung over her shoulder.
Caroline felt violated. He'd been coming on to her while his wife was in Britain and she had almost lowered her guard. His good-humored charm was hard to resist.
Angry with Greg and angry with herself for almost liking him, Caroline waved to her colleague and waited for him to make his way through the thinning crowd.
Greg had been too busy with his wife and baby to notice her. If he had recognized her he was cool enough to introduce her to his wife as his doctor and not the woman he'd been flirting with.
Dr. Moreland shook her hand. "Good of you to come, my dear. Airports can be a trial but seeing you has cheered me immensely." He wiped a white handkerchief across his forehead.
"Sorry to keep you waiting. My suitcase was the last one to appear. I had almost given up hope."
"I don't mind," Caroline said. "I had the day off and offered to meet you." His heart condition worried the clinic staff. The less stress he had to endure, the better. Mrs. Moreland had poor vision and seldom ventured on to busy highways.
Caroline tried to concentrate on what Dr. Moreland was saying. "Priority ticketing means nothing. My suitcase must have been buried in the hold." He tucked the handkerchief into his pocket. "Airport technology is still in the dark ages..."
Still shaken by seeing Greg, his wife and baby, Caroline nodded in what she hoped were the right places as he continued speaking.
"Now we can leave this wretched den of iniquity," he remarked.
Caroline hurried him to the exit and over to the parking garage. "I have an appointment late this afternoon so we'd better go." She decided not to mention the accident. She was due at the repair shop to discuss the cost of fixing her bike.
"Has the clinic been busy during my absence?"
Caroline nodded. "Very. How was the conference?"
"Excellent." As he talked she concentrated on negotiating through rush hour traffic converging on the northbound freeway.
Eventually he dropped off to sleep and Caroline's thoughts turned to Greg, his wife and baby.
Her hands clenched on the wheel. She should have been straight with him the minute he walked into the clinic.
Why hadn't she?
Because she didn't want him to remember.
Didn't want to hear his apologies.
It was too late for that. Way too late.
He hadn't been there when she needed him.
She stifled a sob. Their baby ... She missed her.
Get over it, Caroline. Don't go there.
"Don't go there," she muttered quietly.
"What's that? I didn't catch what you said." Dr. Moreland straightened up in his seat.
"I was talking to myself. I hope I didn't wake you."
"Not at all. My wife talks to herself. I find it very distracting. I never know whether she's speaking to me or the wall."
"It's something women do. My mother often talked to herself. She said it reminded her of things she had to do."
"Does she live nearby?"
Caroline cleared her throat. "My mother died the year I graduated from high school." She blinked away the tears misting her eyes.
"And your father?"
"He was killed in a car accident when I was sixteen." She wished he'd stop asking questions. When she applied to work at the clinic no one had probed into her family background.
"Do you have any brothers and sisters?"
"I'm an only child."
"I'm sorry I've had little time to have you over to the house. The past few months have been difficult for me to adjust to a healthier lifestyle. No more eighteen hour days. More exercise. You know the drill. Having you on staff has made a big difference."
"Thank you." How could she consider canceling her contract and leave the clinic short-staffed?
Dr. Moreland patted her arm. "You're a fine doctor. I'll tell my wife you are without kith or kin. We have six children, grown up now, but two live in Markbridge. I'll have Marjorie invite you to dinner to meet them. I'm sure you'll enjoy our daughter, Sarah. She married Peter Somerville after we moved to Markbridge."
Caroline's stomach knotted. She forced a smile. "That would be nice." What else could she say?
Pete Somerville had been one year behind her in high school. He'd never remember Kate Southern. Boys never gave her a second glance. Until she'd gone to Ottawa with Greg he'd never acknowledged her existence. To him she was invisible. Like wallpaper. Part of the school environment.
"Our son, Mark, isn't married."
"Really." She tried to sound interested.
"He's a communications specialist and works out of his home. Something to do with the internet, web sites and other mysterious marvels like viruses that attack computers."
"Sounds intriguing." She breathed a sigh of relief as they reached Park Lane Circle and stopped at the doctor's home.
"Thank you for meeting me, my dear. If you'll pop the trunk I'll get my bag." He opened the door then turned to her. "My wife will give you a call. I'm sure you'll enjoy meeting our family."
"Thank you." She waited until he retrieved his suitcase and closed the trunk. Her heart wasn't into meeting his family.
An old memory surfaced like a faded picture in a scrapbook.
Pete Somerville and Greg's sister, Laura, had gone steady for two years before breaking up.
She'd heard the gossip. Something about Laura cheating on him.
Caroline's decision not to level with Greg had returned to haunt her. Pete Somerville was in town. Greg was in town. Who else might turn up?
Caught in a web of her own making she tried to make light of the situation as she drove to the bike shop.
She hadn't committed a crime. She had kept her ex-husband's name, had her hair styled differently, wore contacts most of the time instead of her glasses and could afford good clothes.
She smiled. Her clothes closet wasn't filled with different outfits and shoes to match but what she had were excellent.
So what's the problem?
No problem.
Greg hadn't remembered her.
She'd chosen not to remind him.
Caroline parked at the shop. Before going in she puzzled again over her reluctance to level with him. It was like going around in circles.
Opening old wounds?
Is that what she was afraid of?
She disliked confrontations. Disliked arguments. Raised voices. Recriminations.
So what was to argue?
He was guilty of abandoning her.
End of story.
She got out of the car.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Dickens and Me

(copyright 2009 Anita Birt)

"Damned woman," Greg muttered and strode down to the swing. He thought he was getting to know her while she doctored his heel. Then all of sudden it was as if he'd said the wrong thing, pressed a hot button and she'd shot off the terrace like a bat out of hell.
He pushed harder on the swing until it teetered slightly threatening to topple. Easing back on the slats at his feet he let it glide slowly to a stop.
No point taking his frustration out on the old swing. It'd be useful to sit there with his nephew and tell him stories. Minding the baby would keep his mind off Caroline.
He propped his feet on the opposite seat and studied her handiwork. She'd taken care of him. Had laughed when he paraded out with the beer. It'd been good to see her lighten up. The accident had taken its toll. He'd get to know her better after he'd finished minding David.
Whistling the Markbridge High School marching song, he quick stepped around the house to the terrace, picked up the beer bottles and gazed longingly at the pool. Caroline had ordered him to keep his heel dry and cautioned him about the possibility of an infection.
He fished the prescription she'd written from his pocket. She'd referred him to Dr. Halliday.
Great, no doctor/patient conflict to get in the way of establishing a relationship with her.
He called the dog. "Come on, Kim. Chow time for you, me and the cats."
* * *
Tuesday, Baby Day. Greg had set the alarm for six o'clock. He shaved, almost stepped in the shower and didn't, ran water in the tub, eased into it with his bandaged foot propped on the side and had a half decent bath.
Hurrying over breakfast he checked his baby supplies one last time. In mid count of baby food on the cupboard shelves he realized Laura hadn't mentioned what David drank or how. From a bottle? A cup? Something to be mixed? Or milk straight from a cow?
Stay calm. Rely on Laura to spell out exactly what the baby required. He ran upstairs, examined his nephew's bedroom, opened a window to freshen the air and sat on the rocking chair. It had been in the family as far back as he could remember. Newly padded with brightly colored fabric it matched the nursery animals printed on the wallpaper.
Greg grinned at the blue giraffes, yellow elephants, candy striped tigers and green monkeys. His mother had an eye for the bizarre. The kid would either love the room or have nightmares.
Edgy as a newly minted father he set off for the airport hours before Laura's flight was due. The drive from Markbridge usually took an hour depending on traffic but anything could happen on the web of highways in and around the airport. A fender bender or worse would screw up his timing.
He lucked into a space on the first level of the parking garage. With time to spare he prowled the airport shops, bought a Blue Jay's baseball cap for David and a paperback edition of Bryce Courtney's latest novel.
As zero hour approached apprehension pinched Greg's stomach. What if he messed up?
How could he mess up in two days? Get real. David's an amenable baby. "He won't be a bit of trouble."
Greg remembered Laura's exact words and hoped she was telling the truth. Truthfulness was not an exact science where his sister was concerned. A little fiction added to the mix, a few tears to stir the pot and she had a winning combo that worked like a charm.
He'd been charmed, bent would be a better word, into doing his brotherly duty. She'd be tired after the flight from London with a baby. He pushed into the mob scene in the arrival's area and grabbed a trolley for her luggage.
Pacing up and down on the periphery of the crowd he watched the stream of people rushing like suicidal lemmings through the swing doors. Burdened with back packs, dragging huge suitcases, they shouted at the swarm of relatives waiting to greet them. Immediately overwhelmed by joyful, flower carrying family members, they hugged and kissed, picked up tired children and like a force of nature pushed their way through the crowd.
Suddenly Greg saw Laura and waved. She held the baby in one arm, had a large multi-zippered bag slung over her shoulder and towed a bulging black suitcase as big as a small car. His nephew had on a blue jacket and a blue hat. For seconds Greg panicked. From the back the baby looked too small and vulnerable for an amateur uncle to manage. How was he supposed to hold the little guy?
"Steady on," Greg told himself. He couldn't quit now. The die was cast, and come hell or high water he had to keep his promise to Laura.
He pushed the trolley through the thinning crowd. He hadn't seen Laura for over a year and she looked fabulous. No red, green and purple hair, simple ash blonde, her natural color.
"Greg!" Laden like a beast of burden, she dodged around the trolley and kissed him. "It's so good to be here." She let go of the suitcase handle, slid the bag from her shoulder, dropped it at her feet and shifted the baby from one arm to the other. "Greg, meet your nephew, David." She handed him the baby.
Momentarily struck dumb Greg stared at the infant. "He's black."
"Of course, he's black. Colin's black."
"Does that bother you?"
"Of course it doesn't. Do Mom and Dad know?"
"Sure. I sent them a picture. Anyway what does it matter? He's an adorable baby. I don't need the trolley. David's suitcase has wheels."
"Where's your luggage?"
"I've sent it on to Vancouver."
"Hold it a minute. You're supposed to stay and show me the ropes. I don't know diddly squat about babies. I'm not competent. I..." She cut him off.
"Not to worry. My flight is due out late tonight. We'll have a few hours for me to clue you in. Colin phoned from Vancouver just before I left my friend's flat. He's caught some kind of virus and is resting in a hotel. He's sick and wants me there."
The baby started to cry. Greg stiffened. "Here, you hold him."
Laura laughed. "Rock him a little bit and stop scowling. Poor David thinks you're mad at him. I'll hitch my bag on to the suitcase. I can manage both."
Greg smiled bravely and jiggled his nephew.
"That's the way to do it." She patted the baby's cheek. "David, smile at your Uncle Greg."
Greg jiggled and talked until the baby stopped crying. David studied Greg's face. Big uncle smiled and smiled until his face hurt. "Let's go," he said. "I'm in the parking garage." "Wait a minute. I can’t walk as fast as you."
Greg paused, glanced back and stopped jiggling the baby long enough to identify a woman greeting a distinguished looking man.
Caroline Balfour. He did a double take to make sure. Who was the man with her? He was tall and distinguished looking. His light gray suit hadn't a wrinkle. He must have changed before leaving the flight. No one could fly from London and emerge unwrinkled without a hair out of place.
Pompous ass probably.
Maybe he'd misjudged the guy. Maybe he was Caroline's father. Or maybe she preferred older men. She had never talked about her parents. She never talked about anything personal. Mostly she changed the subject when he tried to get to know her.
David started to cry again and Greg tried a different tactic. He held him over his shoulder and patted his back.
"There, there," he crooned in what he hoped was a pleasant fatherly voice. David hiccupped, coughed and puked. Baby vomit soaked through Greg's shirt.
Ready to hand the kid back to Laura and make a quick getaway, he was glued to the spot as Caroline and her perfectly groomed friend walked quickly in his direction.
A sour unpleasant odor drifted up from his stained shirt. He smelled like curdled milk. The mild scent from his aftershave had died under the onslaught of baby vomit.
David bounced happily on Greg's shoulder. Barely minutes into his forty-eight hours of baby minding and already he was the worse for wear. The kid jabbed his fingers through Greg's hair and yanked.
"Da. Da." David chanted.
Greg gently disengaged David's fingers and changed position. The kid hopped like a jumping jack now his stomach was empty.
"Come on, Laura." He didn't want to encounter Caroline and her friend in his present messy smelly state. He hustled across to the garage and ducked behind a large pillar as Caroline and her friend approached and hurried past.
"Greg, come and help me," Laura yelled. "You take the suitcase. A wheel just broke off."
Safe to emerge from his hiding place, he handed Laura the baby, slung her bag over his shoulder and grabbed the suitcase handle.
"Be careful. The handle's not very good. I couldn't afford a new suitcase."
Glancing around to make sure the coast was clear, Greg wrestled the unwieldy, muscle straining, wobbly monster over the concrete floor to the car, popped the trunk, heaved the bulging case in, sucked in a deep breath and closed the lid.
"What the hell have you got in there? River Rocks?"
"Baby clothes and tins of David's formula. I made sure you'd have plenty for him."
"Tins? You packed tins. Are you nuts? Can't we buy the stuff here?"
"It's a special brand made in England for colicky babies."
Greg's nerves twitched. Colicky. He'd never heard the word before. It didn't sound good. Fear of the future sank on his sodden shoulder. A sinister stormy cloud of uncertainty added to his gloom. Like the baby, he felt like heaving. Giving up. Throwing in the towel.
Swallowing hard, he opened the rear door for his untrustworthy sister. "I've secured the car seat. You can put David in."
A chilling thought struck him. "What do you mean lots of formula? I only have to mind him for two days. How much does he drink and eat? And what's a colicky baby?"
Laura buckled David in the car seat. "That's what we have to talk about. I might have to stay longer in Vancouver."

Friday, March 13, 2009

Dickens and Me

(copyright 2009 Anita Birt)

Still knee high in murky water, Greg braced the handle of his shovel under his arm to stay upright and avoid slipping on the treacherous muddy bottom. Falling face first didn't appeal. He sloshed to the stone steps at the edge of the pond, tossed the shovel aside and clambered out.
Safely on dry land he shuffled out of his sneakers, peeled off his sodden socks, wiped his bare feet on the grass and dragged off his shirt to clean off his face and hands. Mucky dead leaves dripped off his legs. Not exactly the picture of sartorial elegance. He tried not to think how bad he smelled.
But what the hell, she should have phoned to tell him she was coming.
Kim angled over to Caroline as Greg strode up the hill. He tossed his shirt by the hose reel next to the verandah.
"Kim's a sociable dog. Rub behind her ears and she'll be your friend for life."
Caroline didn't want to be its friend for life but, being a dog lover, she dutifully rubbed Kim gently behind her ears.
"If you've got a few minutes come and join me on the swing." He glanced at his mud caked hands and legs. "I'll wash off some of this muck before you come any closer. I've been cleaning the duck pond and didn't expect company.
He dragged the hose from the reel turned it on and sluiced water over his legs, arms and chest. As he twisted the nozzle the hose jerked spraying his belly and soaking the front of his shorts.
Caroline's fascinated gaze rested on his thighs and the contours of his male assets. She had never seen Greg naked except that one time in Ottawa. Today in raggedy jeans cut-offs, water dripping from his body, he looked terrific.
Sexy, she thought and quickly dismissed that dangerous notion. As she walked to the swing questions buzzed inside her head. Why had she driven out here? When he hadn't answered the phone, she'd left a message for him to call her. Why not wait for him to return it? That would have been sensible.
Sensible? She hadn't been thinking sensibly since he walked into the clinic. It was as if she had to connect with him, like an electrical circuit, like joining two wires together.
And then what? Jolt him into recognizing her? Make him suffer for something he'd done in the past?
What good would that do now? She had changed. So had he. But she disliked unfinished business. After she'd dealt with the threatened lawsuit she'd arrange to meet Greg somewhere quiet.
Her stomach tensed.
It was quiet in the garden. Why not now?
He joined her on the swing and sat directly opposite her. Now was not the time. Not in his space. It didn't feel right.
She didn't want to meet him in her apartment either. Neutral ground would be better. Not too public. Too many people would recognize her and tongues would wag.
Caroline twisted her fingers together. What had she got herself into? She should have stayed in the car.
He was too close and too handsome. Unless she shut her eyes she had to look at him or stare at the sky. He pushed on the slatted floor with bare feet. The swing creaked quietly as it moved gently backwards and forwards. Drawing in a deep breath she let the restful motion calm her.
"You've some important information for me," she glanced at her watch. "I have an appointment in town." A quick getaway was better than spending more time with him.
He rested his arms along the back of his seat. Caroline shifted her bemused gaze from his muscular arms to his face.
"Glad you came. I could've saved you the drive but your receptionist refused to give me your phone number."
"Sorry about that. Betty guards our private lives like a mother bear with cubs. I phoned you an hour ago, didn't get an answer and decided to come out here."
He had great looking legs with well-developed muscles. Water from his wet cut-offs dripped through the slats as the swing rocked quietly. He had strong feet. A dirty bandage covered his right heel.
She stopped doing an inventory of his physical features. "So what's the information? Something to do with the accident?"
He nodded. "I've got a near photographic memory, images stick like glue unless I make an effort to clear them. Even words stick. Yesterday evening I got thinking about what happened and how worried you were about a possible lawsuit. I pictured the accident scene. Played it over and over inside my head."
"Did you remember something?"
"It's about the big man you mentioned yesterday. You said he smashed off the car doors. I remembered a woman's voice. She said, as near as I can recall, "I'm damned sure that's Big Jack Weaver." Didn't mean a thing to me at the time but I'm wondering if this Weaver character is the man who helped you. What did he use to break the doors? That might be a clue."
"A sledge hammer."
Greg frowned. "Did he get it from a car or a truck?"
"I don't know. I was too busy. He suddenly appeared, got the doors off, and as quickly disappeared. In the noise and confusion and the girl screaming, it's a wonder I noticed anything."
"He could have been splitting logs in the woods, heard the crash and came to help."
Caroline relaxed enough to smile. "He was a really big man, black curly hair, big hands, looked strong enough to fell an ox."
She breathed deeply. "I really appreciate this. You've got a name. I can describe him. I even remember his blue and red checked shirt, long sleeves, and a rose tattoo on the back of his right hand. The police should be able to trace him."
She should go home. Greg had been working and probably wanted to get back at it but she felt glued to the swing. Waiting.
For what? For him to sort through his memory bank and remember Caroline Kate Southern from high school? Had she changed so much she'd disappeared from view?
Greg wiped flakes of dried mud off his arms. "How are you feeling? You looked strung out yesterday evening."
"Much better." Why was he such a nice guy? Taking time to help her. "I'd better go."
"How about a beer? It's hellishly hot."
"No thanks." She rocked forward on the swing. The bandage on his heel dropped off and fell through the slats. "What's wrong with your heel?"
"Blistered. I should've worn thicker socks with my boots yesterday."
"Have you had a recent tetanus shot?"
"Yes, Doctor. In Africa I made sure my shots were up-to-date."
His killer smile teased an answering smile from Caroline. "If it's all right with you I'll check on it before I leave." Her doctoring instincts over-ruled her desire to beat a hasty retreat. He'd been in the filthy pond with millions of nasty bacteria lurking in the water.
He stopped pushing the swing. "Suits me if you think it's necessary."
"I think it's necessary. I'll get my bag from the car."
He held her hand as they stepped off the swing. A tingle coursed up her arm. She couldn't snatch her hand away. He was being courteous and thoughtful. It had been years since a man had held her hand, or opened doors for her or made her feel like she was special.
Greg made her feel cared for.
Because he'd touched her? Get a grip.
She hadn't missed having a man around until Greg offered her his hand. For a few seconds she felt protected, and just as quickly knew she was way off base. Why did he make her feel that way? She slipped her hand from his.
Step by step she'd become tough and self-reliant. Her personal and professional lives suited her perfectly until fate had conspired to play games with her.
Greg had returned to Markbridge and her orderly little world had plunged into a morass of old memories.
He walked her to the car. "Come round back. I'll wash off again and get a towel from the laundry room. You can doctor me in the kitchen. Okay?"
"Okay." Greg wasn't her patient but she had to treat his blistered heel because the dirt in the duck pond posed a serious threat.
She got her bag from the car. After today, there'd be no reason for them to see each other. His recall of the conversation at the accident scene had relieved some of her worry about the threatened lawsuit. If only Big Jack Weaver remembered as well as Greg she'd be home free.
Bag in hand she hurried around to the back of the house. For seconds she stopped on the terrace steps overwhelmed by the beauty of the garden and pool.
She envied Greg. Growing up here must have been magical. Living here as an adult would be heavenly.
Imagine waking early on a sunny morning and diving naked into the pool. Floating. Letting cares slip away. Dreaming pleasant dreams of...
"What do you think? Am I clean enough?"
Jolted from her dreamy thoughts Caroline regarded him. He'd washed his legs and feet using the hose by the terrace. She hunkered down to examine the blister. Shading her eyes she gazed up at him.
"What were you doing in the pond with an inflamed blister? It's oozing bloody fluid." She straightened up.
He grabbed a towel hanging over the back of a lawn chair and dried his legs. "I didn't think about it."
"You'd better go inside and clean it with soap and water before I dress it."
"Where do you want to operate, Dr. Balfour? Kitchen or bathroom?"
Not the house. It would be too intimate in the bathroom or kitchen. Better to stay outside where she could enjoy the view and keep her distance.
"It's too nice to go indoors. Let's stay out here. You can stretch out on the chaise while I see how the blister looks close up."
She put her bag on a small table beside the chaise. "Sit on the edge of the bathtub and wash your leg under the tap. Be gentle washing your heel. Use lots of soap and water and pat the inflamed area until it's dry."
Greg grinned. "Whatever you say, Doctor. You're the boss." He disappeared into the house.
Under the hot sun the garden glowed like an artist's palette. A summery scent drifted on the air. Patio furniture padded in a rose and white striped fabric invited restful contemplation.
Happy to be alone Caroline sauntered down the stone steps to the pool. A light breeze ruffled the surface. Sunshine sparkled on the water. Kneeling down she swished her hand in it. Perfect for swimming. Or floating. Or being lazy.
Wistfully aware she'd never have a pool like this she stood, walked back to the terrace and sat on one of the padded chairs.
Her heart sank as she heard him whistling the Markbridge High School song yelled at every football and basketball game. Why was he whistling it? Had he figured out who she was?
He opened the screen door and marched out on the terrace holding two frosty bottles of beer like trophies. His dog padded at his side.
"That's my high school marching song. It came to me out of the blue while I washed my leg."
Momentarily relieved to be off the hook, Caroline smiled. "You and the dog look like a dog and pony act minus the pony."
A hurt look passed over his face as he popped the top off a beer and handed it to her. "Sadly, my talent has fallen on deaf ears."
"Afraid so." She put the beer on the table beside her bag. "Lie on the chaise, please."
He opened his bottle, tipped it up and swallowed. "If this is going to hurt I'll dull my brain with alcohol." He stretched out on the chaise and propped the bottle on his bare chest.
"You won't need alcohol. I never do surgery on Monday."
"Glad to hear that. I've always liked that heel."
Caroline bit back a smile. "Please lie on your stomach so I can work on your heel."
"How's this?" Lying face down he turned his head to the side and glanced over his shoulder.
"Perfect." Her fingertips tingled to touch his spine and trace it down his back to...
What was she thinking?
He's not my patient. She excused her professional lapse. Greg Fraser is not my patient. She was taking care of his heel as her way of thanking him for remembering Big Jack Weaver. She owed him something for that.
She pressed her wayward fingertips around the blister. "Does that hurt?"
"There's a lot of redness. That's to be expected considering you haven't taken care of it. Digging out the duck pond wasn't smart."
"Do your best, Doctor."
"Thank you." She studied the blister. "Considering the muck you've been in I'm surprised it's looking so healthy."
He propped up on his left elbow. "Do you think I'll live?"
She opened her bag. "Quite sure. I'll dress it with antibiotic cream and tape a sterile pad over it."
Working quickly she completed the bandaging. "Keep it covered for at least a day. No shower. No swimming."
She removed a prescription pad from her bag. "Have you any allergies?"
"Not that I know of."
"What about drugs?"
He grinned. "Legal or illegal?"
"Legal." She smiled. "Prescription drugs like penicillin."
"None that I know of."
"Okay, I'm writing a note for Dr. Halliday telling him I dressed your blister. Come to the clinic if there's any change, any throbbing pain, that kind of thing. Or if you feel ill or run a temperature." She wrote quickly and handed him the note."
"Have you finished?" He stuck the note in his pocket, rolled over and sat up.
"Yes." She packed her bag and snapped it shut.
"Then it's time to celebrate."
He paused and swung his legs over the side of the chaise.
"We'll celebrate our relationship. You're not my doctor and I'm not your patient."
"Mr. Fraser, we don't have a relationship. There's nothing to celebrate."
"There will be when I finish telling you about it so drink some beer and relax."
Caroline tensed. He'd known all along who she was and been playing cat and mouse with her. The way he whistled that song should have clued her in.
Deciding to brave it out, she coolly picked up the beer and knocked back a good mouthful. "Well?" She smothered a beery burp.
"I know I barged into your office with a flimsy excuse and I apologize but I get the feeling I've done something else that's offended you. It's as though I'm walking on eggs when we're together. I'm not perfect but parts of me are okay." He paused. "I read that last bit somewhere so why treat me as though I carry the bubonic plague?"
Caroline sucked in a deep breath. What was she going to say? Her brain scurried like a rat in a maze searching for an answer. Tell him the truth. Get it over with and get out.
Before she could speak he held up his hand. "I haven’t finished. I have another question.
"You do?" She clasped the cool bottle to steady her shaky hands.
"I'm not your patient, am I?"
"We don't have to stand on ceremony."
"Ceremony." She echoed, stalling for time to organize her thoughts.
"Exactly. We can act like two normal human beings. I think it's time you called me something other than Mr. Fraser? How about Greg?"
"Okay. Call me Caroline. Most of my patients do." What else could she say? Calling him Greg didn't feel right. Keeping him at arm's length as Mr. Fraser felt better. More controlled.
She put the bottle on the table, picked up her bag and got to her feet. "I'm sorry, I have to leave. I have an appointment to take my bike in to the repair shop."
He stood. "Okay, Caroline, what gives? I don't like walking on eggs."
Caroline made her lips smile. "I've been preoccupied lately. I'll be more pleasant in the future."
"Preoccupied? About what?"
She leaped at the first thought that came to her. "I'm considering a job offer in the States."
"You're leaving the clinic after a few months to jump ship and head south? That's not fair, is it? What's the attraction? He shook his head. "I don't understand why you want to leave Canada. Aren't they paying you enough here?"
The sarcastic tone grated on her. "It's my life and I'll decide where and how I choose to live it."
She raised her brows. "Good-bye, Mr. Fraser." She walked quickly across the terrace, stopped at the top of the stone steps and turned to face him. "Some of us haven't had your advantages. Some of us have had to scrimp and save and..."
Biting her tongue she fled down the steps with Greg in pursuit. She darted around the house, tossed her bag in the car, slid behind the wheel and rolled up the window. Tears stung her eyes.
"Wait!" Greg banged on the window.
She turned the key, slammed the car in gear and took off.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Dickens and Me

(copyright 2009 Anita Birt)
Greg reached home by late afternoon. Tired and foot weary, with a blister burning on his right heel, he eased off his boots and carefully removed his socks. Kim lapped up water from her bowl and stretched out on the kitchen mat beside the cats.
Hungry, and wanting something uncomplicated to eat, he made a toasted cheese sandwich and brewed a pot of coffee. A steaming mug in one hand and the sandwich in the other he wandered out to the verandah and sat on a wicker chair.
How was she?
He bit into the sandwich. Nectar of the gods, he thought, savoring the taste of melting cheese on rye bread.
Was anyone looking after her?
He drank some coffee.
Did she have family in town?
He ate half the sandwich and put the other half on a nearby table.
He'd phone and see if she needed anything. A pizza? Chinese take-out? No harm in that.
He'd never been so indecisive about approaching a woman. Around Caroline his attempts at friendly conversation dropped like stones in a pool never to be seen or heard of again.
So why bother?
Because he enjoyed solving puzzles and she presented an interesting puzzle. Like finishing a jigsaw, once he fitted in the last piece he'd lose interest. The picture complete.
Her phone number wasn't listed in the directory. He'd get it from the clinic and give her a call.
Before eating the rest of his sandwich he had a look at his blistered heel. A bloody mess. He'd bandage it after he showered.
Kim eyed him as he returned to the kitchen. The cats rubbed around his legs. "Okay guys, I get the message. You're hungry."
He opened tins of cat food and dog food. The cats were very particular. They each had a bowl and knew which bowl belonged to which cat.
Kim ambled over to Greg as he filled her dish. "You've earned a treat. I'll barbeque a steak tonight and share it with you." She pricked up her ears. Treat was a favorite word. Walk was a close second.
Still thirsty after the long hike he opened a cold beer, flipped through the phone book for the clinic number and dialed.
"Markbridge Medical Clinic."
"I'm Greg Fraser. I'd like to get in touch with Dr. Balfour. May I have her phone number?"
"Sorry, that information is private."
"She's been in an accident. I'd like to speak with her."
"We've already been in touch with Dr. Balfour. She's fine."
He pressed on. "Are you sure?"
"Quite sure."
"I'd like an appointment."
"With Dr. Balfour?"
Greg rolled his eyes. Touching base with Caroline Balfour was like hitting a wall topped by razor wire. "Yes, Dr. Balfour."
"She's not available until Tuesday."
Greg frowned. He had something important to do on Tuesday.
He pressed the cold bottle of beer against his forehead to help him think.
Tuesday? He'd circled the day on the calendar. In black.
He swallowed some beer.
Laura and the baby.
He'd promised to look after his nephew for a couple of days. In less than forty-eight hours he'd be Uncle Greg to an innocent babe.
He couldn't get his mind around it.
"Thanks. Forget I called."
Padding outside in bare feet he sat on the old swing. The sun shone. The earth turned. The ducks quacked on the pond. A chickadee called from the maple tree.
Nothing had changed.
Everything had changed.
Caroline wasn't available until Tuesday.
Black Tuesday. Baby day.
Greg rocked in the swing. Bees hummed in the flowers.
Might as well drive over and see her.
No harm in that.

As he approached the old Somerville house a police cruiser pulled away from the curb. What were the cops doing there? He parked across the street and gazed at her apartment windows. Late afternoon sunlight sparkled on the glass.
He got out of the car, decided to risk getting the cold shoulder and ran up the steps to the house. Grouped on the veranda were three white wicker chairs the seats padded with green and white cushions.
The Somervilles never sat on the porch like ordinary people. They had an enclosed patio and a pool at the back out of sight of prying eyes. Many a party he'd had with Jack and as many willing girls as they could accommodate. The old house held pleasant memories. He'd spent hours with Jack lounging on the steps talking about football and girls and football and girls. And football.
And girls. And who did what with whom. And who was an easy lay. He'd lost his virginity at fifteen to Tansy Thomas when she'd led him behind the barn at her house and undressed.
Greg remembered every single detail. He'd hopped on her like a damned jackrabbit.
He and Jack were swaggering testosterone loaded teens back then. They'd had a wild party one night with a couple of willing girls. He and Jack had taken turns with them. By morning he'd scored three times and Jack had faded at two.
The memory shamed him. If he ever had a daughter he'd keep her locked up until he'd assessed every predatory male asking for a date.
He pressed the doorbell marked CKB. The intercom clicked on.
"Who is it?"
"Greg Fraser. I came by to see how you're doing. You've had a rough day. May I come up and have a look at you? See if you needed anything." He felt foolish speaking through the intercom.
"Okay." She buzzed to release the lock.
Greg was sure he wouldn't be welcomed with open arms. It wasn't her style. He wasn't sure what her style was but meant to find out, if not now, then sometime in the near future. The puzzle of Caroline Balfour tantalized him just enough to keep his juices flowing.
For this first meeting on her territory he'd be cool. No invitation to dinner. Too soon for that. He'd hit on her at the lake without preparing the ground work. Not smart.
She wasn't the type to rush into things. Probably shy of committing herself. Reserved. Slow to make friends. Wary.
He smiled as he walked up the stairs. He had seen her twice, no three times, counting the accident, had already established a personality profile like the detective in his mystery novel and was probably way off base.
Caroline waited at the entrance to her apartment and knew precisely why he'd come. He'd remembered her. Fired up with anger about the threatened legal battle she was ready to chew nails and spit rust if he dared apologize.
She'd postponed leveling with him. If he told her to lighten up and forget the past she'd be tempted to hurl the teapot at him. Prepared to take action she led the way into the living room, wrapped the throw around her shoulders, sat on the sofa with her spine straight and her fists clenched.
"How are you feeling? I saw the police leave and wondered if you were all right." A slight smile tipped his lips. "I thought you looked very fragile after the accident. I contacted the clinic to get your phone number but the receptionist wouldn't give it to me. She said you were okay. Hope you don't mind me showing up."
Caroline's thoughts did a three hundred and sixty degree spin. She'd let him into her space spoiling for the chance to clear the air between them. His honest concern pulled the rug from under her feet. Her professional poise faltered. Her anger seeped away.
Threading her fingers together she tried to think straight. His ruggedly handsome presence stressed her out. A close encounter might trigger a flashback.
How could he not remember her? Did he wipe out what he didn't want to remember?
Why wasn't he married? Maybe he'd divorced. Maybe had children.
His eyes held hers in a steady unwavering gaze. "So how are you?" he asked.
"Recovering. A few bruises. A sore knee. Mostly delayed shock. The police were here to go over my statement then dropped a bomb."
"What kind of bomb?"
"The girl in the car insists I neglected her. Pushed her out of the way. Her parents are threatening to sue me." Caroline leaned forward. "Did the police ask you for a statement? I think the parents are setting me up. Damn them. I've better things to do than waste energy and money on a lawsuit."
She didn't have a fat bank account. Every spare penny went to pay off the last of her student loans.
"If only." She tightened her hands around the throw.
"If only what?" Greg asked.
"If only I could find the big man who hammered the doors off the car that would help. The police said he disappeared."
"The police didn't ask me for a statement. It was all over by the time I got there. Have you got a lawyer?" he asked.
"Not yet."
"Do you want me to see what I can do? I've got family connections."
The last thing Caroline wanted was ongoing contact with him and his family. She wanted him to leave. He had dropped by to see how she was doing. Time for him to go.
"Thanks. My colleagues at the clinic will know who to call." Hand over her mouth she faked a yawn. "Please excuse me. I'm rather tired."
He stood. "Have you lived here long, Doctor?"
"Three months." If he stuck around the light might dawn inside his head. A memory flood back. To the girl whose father could never keep a decent job, whose mother cleaned houses to keep food on the table and clothes on Caroline's back, hand-me-down outfits from the Thrift shop. At school she had kept her head down and concentrated on her studies not to attract attention.
Why had she returned to Markbridge where memories lay in wait? Memories of eighteen year old Greg Fraser who'd taken her virginity. Probably notched it up as a rite of passage.
Caroline walked him to the door. His return had changed everything. She couldn't stay in Markbridge. She'd work out her contract with the clinic and move to another province or go to the States. Canadian doctors were welcomed there, lured by high salaries and excellent hospital facilities.
She held the door open. "Thank you for coming, Mr. Fraser."
"Greg, to my friends." He held out his hand.
Not in my lifetime, she thought, and automatically shook his hand. "Goodnight."
He quirked a dark eyebrow. "I noticed you kept the roses I sent to the clinic."
"I didn't want to leave them since I was going to be away from work for a few days." She stepped away from the door and started to close it.
"Goodnight," she said.
"Give me a call if you need help finding a lawyer."
She closed the door and hurried through the living room to the window overlooking the street.
Her hands resting on the ledge she watched him get into his car. If he were any other man she'd be attracted to him.
Caroline turned away from the window. He wasn't any other man, he was Greg Fraser. She had to level with him sooner rather than later. He'd never be a friend. Never.

Greg drove into the garage, cut the engine and leaned back in the seat. Dropping in on Caroline hadn't furthered their relationship. Although pleasant she had remained oddly aloof as if she used her good manners to maintain a distance between them.
Kim barked from behind the door into the garage. "Okay, I'm coming."
Hunger gnawed at Greg's empty stomach. He changed his mind about the steak. A dinner of barbecued chicken and couple of glasses of wine would lighten his mood.
He unlocked the door. Kim rushed up to him with her tail swishing back and forth in a wild welcome. She rubbed against his knees
"As a potential Romeo, I'm a dead loss." He stroked behind her ears.
Kim cocked her head and gazed up at him. She looked so woebegone he knelt beside her. She licked his cheek. "It's okay. I'm not giving up yet. I'm making plans to woo her."
Greg grinned and hugged his dog. Wooing Caroline Balfour sounded like the title of a romance novel. He liked the airy feel of wooing on his tongue and the sound inside his head. It had a kind of soothing affect. He had to be careful not to spook her. A gentle approach would work best.
As he stood a looming crisis rooted him to the spot. Laura and the baby were arriving on Tuesday, thirty-six hours from now, give or take a couple.
How could he weasel out of looking after the kid? He strolled into the kitchen, found a bottle of red wine in the pantry, opened it and poured a glass.
A plan fell into place as he brushed barbecue sauce on a chicken breast. He'd meet them at the airport and plead ill health. The cause?
A deadly disease he'd picked up in Africa had morphed into an internal parasite wending its way through his blood ready to take him down when it reached his heart.
That would scare Laura into taking the kid with her or force Colin to catch a flight to Toronto.
Pleased with his master plan Greg fired up the barbecue. He
sliced potatoes, carrots and onions on to a sheet of heavy foil, dabbed butter over them, sprinkled tarragon and pepper on top, secured the foil and placed it at the back of the grill to cook.
He downed his glass of wine and poured a second. He felt better and slid the chicken on the grill. The day had been long and wearying. And worrisome.
Wearying. Not a word he used often, if ever. An old-fashioned word. Probably would fit in his novel. His detective hero had a hobby studying drugs used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Wearying. Wooing. Worrisome. Must be his day to play with W words. He turned the chicken. The sizzling smell of grilled meat stirred his taste buds. He wouldn't be weary after he'd eaten. He'd take a flask of coffee upstairs and work on his book. Disappearing into the fictional world he'd created would take his mind off Caroline and the accident that could have taken her life.
He should have paid more attention to the buzz of conversation at the accident scene and the witnesses eager to give their account of what had happened to everyone within earshot.
The threatened lawsuit was a clear miscarriage of justice.
From out of the blue a fragment of information jogged his memory. Something about Big Jack. A woman's voice.
Think! He paced up and down the patio, paused by the steps to the pool and concentrated on ripples disturbing the water.
He had observed Caroline getting into the cruiser, spoken to her, turned away and edged through the crowd.
"I'm damned sure that's Big Jack Weaver." A shabbily dressed woman had jostled past him. "Got to get home. Don't want nothin' to do with the cops." She had said.
Was Big Jack the man who'd smashed the doors off the car? Shouldn't be hard for the police to find him.
Greg returned to the barbeque. No point getting in touch with Caroline this evening. She'd hinted at wanting to rest. Tomorrow would be soon enough to pass on his information. There'd be no lawsuit if the police traced the man and hopefully he'd give his version of what had happened.
It might be the breakthrough he needed to move up a notch in her estimation. Starting at the bottom of the relationship ladder was tough going. He wasn't even closely acquainted with her. He didn't have a solid foundation to work on.
Not like he was a real friend or lover.
Nice thought. Friend and lover had a nice ring to it.
Using a fork he lifted the chicken on to a plate, added the vegetables and sat at the patio table to eat.
Ringing changes into his so-called relationship with Caroline required concentration and time, both of which would soon be in short supply.
Soon he'd be responsible for a six month old infant.
As the moment of truth crept inexorably closer he vowed to keep it in perspective. He was organized down to the last box of baby cereal, jars of food for a little person, soap, oil, shampoo, packages of diapers and ointment for the dreaded diaper rash.
He'd factored out fear. A grown man could cope with a baby. He flicked a piece of meat to Kim sitting patiently beside the table. It disappeared in one gulp.
"No point getting my gut in a knot tonight, is there? The kid's coming whether we like it or not." Kim seemed to approve.
He'd decided not to fake a deadly illness to avoid caring for the baby. What could possibly go wrong in forty-eight hours? The kid probably slept eight, nine or ten hours a night. Babies, as far as he knew, napped during the day.
Greg puzzled over the math. "Nine hours at night added to four hours napping during the day came to thirteen. That meant he had to actually mind David for eleven hours out of twenty-four. Dead easy. Why hadn't he thought of that before?"
By saying the words out loud the whole enterprise had a better feel and less like a he was heading into an uncharted minefield.
He stood and stretched. The last lingering rays of the sun cast long shadows across the pool. Gathering up his plate, wine glass and utensils he meandered into the house and stowed them in the dishwasher.
He'd hit the sack early after he examined the duck pond and planned how to approach the clean up. Hard physical labor would keep his mind off babies and a certain female physician.
Why couldn't he let her walk out of his life? What was it? An attraction. Something drawing them together?
Did she feel it? Or was he dreaming in primary colors?
His life was so out of whack right now it was like being adrift without a close friend to confide in. What he should do is track down some high school acquaintances. It was time to build a life in Canada and where better to start than Markbridge.
At the back of his mind his novel cried out for attention. Not exactly enthused about spending lonely days as a writer he postponed making plans for its immediate future.
Now was not the time to add other burdens to his already overburdened life. He'd put his novel on hold until he was free of baby minding chores.
Friends required attention and his attention was already fully engaged.

He wakened on Monday morning to the sound of a robin singing its heart out in the maple tree. Sunshine slanted through his bedroom window. Kim trotted over, put her front paws on the bed and woofed at him.
Her doggy breath jolted Greg out of any desire to linger. He swung his legs over the side and headed for the bathroom. As he shaved and showered he decided to make the most of his last day of freedom.
First he'd get in touch with Caroline and tell her about Big Jack Weaver. Then he'd start on the duck pond. A dirty job he'd liked as a kid, liked the feel of mud squishing through his toes. He'd replaced the bandage on his blistered heel, pulled on a pair of white socks and stuck his feet in ratty old sneakers.
Whistling he dressed and headed for the kitchen and breakfast. While the coffee brewed, he drank a large glass of orange juice and toasted a bagel. He fed Kim, Mew and Stew, checked the African violets, watered them and sat down to breakfast.
Everything in order.
Eager to start work on the duck pond, he ate quickly. Now to get in touch with Caroline. He phoned the clinic and met with the same unyielding answer from the receptionist.
"Sorry, Mr. Fraser. I appreciate your concern for Dr. Balfour but I can't bend the rules and give you her phone number."
"I have important information for her."
"I will tell her you called and are anxious to contact her. Does she have your phone number?"
"Yes. Thanks for your help."
He'd given Caroline his card at the clinic. Had she taken it home or torn it up? She'd kept the roses. Maybe she'd kept the card.
"Come on, Kim. Let's go."
The ducks quacked and scolded as he sloshed into the pond with a shovel over his shoulder. "Out of the way, guys or I'll throw mud on you." The birds retreated down the hill. Kim circled around them until they hunkered down and stopped fussing.
"Good dog," Greg shouted. "Keep them quiet."
The sun beat down as he shoveled wet mucky goop out of the pond. Sweat beaded his face and dripped down the back of his neck. Mud splattered his hair, T-shirt and shorts.
There was more muck in the bottom than he expected. It was a two or three day job. He'd have to postpone it until Laura returned to collect David.
Kim suddenly charged up the hill barking. Greg raised his head and swiped the back of his hand over his eyes to clear the sweat.
A car had stopped by the side of the garage. Greg mouthed a few silent oaths at the interruption. Unless he dived into the dirty water he had nowhere to hide.
"Mr. Fraser."
Her voice was unmistakable.
Dr. Balfour waved at him. "They phoned from the clinic. Said you had some important information for me."
"Come on over." Greg called out. "Kim won't bother you. She likes company."