Duffy hurried through the reception area and into the staff room, late by ten minutes. She would have made it with plenty of time if she’d driven straight from Max’s place to the hospital, but three streets from his door the tears had overwhelmed her and she’d had to pull over. She’d still not got it all out of her system by the time she’d glanced down at the little dashboard clock and realised she was going to be late.
Thankfully the staff room was empty and she pulled her uniform from her locker and slipped behind the curtain in the corner to change; back into Sensible Sister Duffin mode. She closed the last popper on her tunic and emerged from behind the curtain with her clothes in a bundle in her arms. She threw them into her open locker angrily.
She turned to see Charlie behind her, flicking on the light she’d deliberately left off. "Sorry".
"God, what happened?"
She frowned at the concerned look he sported, "What d’you mean?"
"You look terrible Duffy".
Turning back to face her locker, and more specifically the small mirror affixed to the inside of the door, she could see what he meant. Her hair had dried into a fairly tangled mess, her eyes were puffy from the crying, and to make matters worse she had a noticeable pink graze that covered quite a lot of her lower face, and parts of her neck.
"Thanks," she replied sarcastically. Duffy rather hoped that he’d leave it there, but of course this was Charlie, and he closed the staff room door behind him to give them some privacy.
"Is it the boys?" She shook her head. "Your Mum?" She shook it again. "I can’t help unless you tell me what the matter is…"
"And what makes you think I need your help?" Charlie looked taken aback, raising his hand to the back of his neck and turning slightly away from her. She immediately regretted snapping at him and sighed heavily. "I’m sorry. Sorry, Charlie. It’s just all wrong!"
Wary of her temper, he spoke more softly, "What is?"
"I saw Max earlier…"
He couldn’t hide the look or surprise from her, she knew his expressions too well, but he tried to hide it nonetheless by leaning nonchalantly back against the door. "I didn’t know you two were still in contact".
"We weren’t. We just bumped into each other, down at the shopping centre".
"Right. So, um, why…?"
"Am I so upset?" she paused long enough for him to nod, "He’s back with Amanda".
"That’s good isn’t it? Oh…" Realisation dawned slowly across his features, but even once he had figured it out he wasn’t completely sure what to do with the knowledge and simply stood, mouth clamped shut, hands thrust into the pockets of his scrubs.
"Yeah, ‘oh’. Only he didn’t tell me until aft…" She caught herself mid word, and lifted her eyes to the ceiling. She hadn’t meant to tell Charlie that much, and knew she hadn’t got away with it by the reddish tinge spreading across his cheeks and his flustered expression. "Look Charlie, the last thing I need right now is you disapproving of me".
"I didn’t say anything," Charlie protested.
"You were thinking it".
"What you do is up to do, and who you do it with. I don’t appreciate it interfering with your work though, you are ten minutes late".
"So maybe I should get out there and get on with it". Duffy stepped to move past him, but he didn’t budge; just touched her gently on the shoulder.
"If there’s anything I can do?"
She knew it was an offer born out of kindness and nothing more, and appreciated it. Duffy smiled, despite an overwhelming urge to break down once more into tears. It felt so nice to have someone to rely on to the point of practically mind reading each other, even if at times it could be an irritation never to have a secret. "A hug?"
He pulled her into his embrace, and she rested against him until their breathing seemed to synchronise, and a feeling of utter contentment seemed to invade her soul.
Her thoughts were interrupted by an impatient banging on the door, and she pulled away from Charlie, and let him move away from his position guarding the door.
"Resusc. Now, if you don’t mind," Harry barked.
Charlie and Duffy exchanged glances as Harry marched off down the corridor. "That’s your fault," Charlie quipped, pointing at Duffy, "Making me look unprofessional!"
He smiled, and she smiled tentatively back. "I’ll just finish getting ready".
"See you out there". He took an odd little step toward her, as though he was going to reach out for another hug but thought better of it at the last minute and restrained himself. Instead, he pulled the door open once more and stepped out of the room.
Max pulled an old pair of jeans and a faded rugby shirt from his chest of drawers, ignoring the rows of smart suits and designer shirts that hadn’t been off their hangers since he’d resigned. He squinted at himself in the bedroom mirror, trying to focus his reflection with his alcohol hazed eyes to no avail. Picking up the increasingly empty vodka bottle he’d found at the back of one of the kitchen cupboards he took a hefty swig of the potent liquid, feeling it catch in his throat on its way down his gullet and involuntarily shuddering at the sensation.
It had been a while since he’d drunk so much, since before Frank died even. It hadn’t been easy, but he’d stayed pretty much sober then, partaking only in offered whiskeys by well meaning friends. He managed it then because he had reason to stay on the straight and narrow. He had things to organise; Frank’s funeral, his possessions, the police inquiry. He’d had his job, and it was bad enough the way people thought he wouldn’t be able to cope, without giving them the satisfaction of actually not coping. And he’d had Tina. Not the love of his life, in fact a relationship only born form not being able to be with Duffy, but at least she was someone who cared. At least that’s what he had thought at the time.
Now it was all so different. Now he had nothing to hold on to. No job let alone a career, a lover who didn’t understand him and who always seemed to remind him of the most difficult times with Joan and Frank, and the one little chink of hope for the future, his relationship with Duffy, he had destroyed without giving it a chance.
Realising he had no good reason to be sober and desperate to forget his misery, he took another long gulp, and another still before lying back down on the bed. He clutched at the neck of the bottle, keeping it perpendicular to his body as it’s contents did their work and he fell into a dreamless state of unconsciousness.
All around her the staff of Holby A&E wear busy getting ready for the big hospital dance. The men fiddling with bow ties and unusually smart lace up shoes, and the girls surrounded by a haze of hairspray as they fussed with lip gloss and mascara.
Duffy watched it from the corner of the staff room, cut off from their excitement. She had managed to keep herself focused on her job nursing for the duration of the shift, but now she was officially off duty the events of the morning were all flooding back, and she didn’t feel at all inclined to join in the mass game of dressing up.
From the middle of the crowd she saw Charlie come toward her, smart in a simple black dinner suit, only a wonky bow tie ruining the image.
"You’d better hurry up Duffy. The minibus will be here to pick us all up any minute. You haven’t even got your frock on!"
She shook her head gently as he sat down next to her. "I’m not coming".
"But you were really looking forward to yesterday."
"That was yesterday. It’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind". Although, she thought bitterly, men seem quite adept at too.
Charlie leaned in closer so he‘d still be heard without having to shout over the bustle of the room "Is this about Max?"
"Look, I just don’t feel very sociable tonight!" In one swift movement she sprang from her seat and made it through the crowd to her locker, ignoring her the haphazard pile of clothes shoved in the bottom of it, and instead simply grabbing her shoulder bag and slamming the door once again. She could sense Charlie following as she left the noisy staff room where most people were so wrapped up in their own beautifications they hadn’t even noticed her, but it wasn’t until she had reached the reception area that he caught up with her and blocked her way.
"Talk to me Duffy". A simple and direct statement, years of friendship allowing him to dispense with the usual niceties with her even noticing.
"I should get home to the kids; it’s not fair on Mum to make her babysit all day and all night."
"And it’s not fair on yourself to miss out on a night out with friends, just because what Max has done. You never know, it might take your mind off things…"
"Well the last few hours here haven’t managed it" she said despondently.
He took hold of her hand from where it hung by her side and gave her fingers a reassuring squeeze. "I was looking forward to spending the evening with you. It seems like ages since we spent any real time together"
"I know I just feel so stupid. And so used" The tears began to well in her eyes for the hundredth time since Max’s revelation, and she sniffed in a shuddering breath to try to compose herself.
Charlie, meanwhile, took a few steps toward his office without releasing his grip of her hand. "Come on".
Once inside, and with the blinds drawn and door shut Duffy relaxed into the swivel chair, her elbows on the desk, her head in her hands, as Charlie pulled a box of tissues from the draw.
"Here" He handed her a fresh white square from the box and she sat up straight, taking it off him and wiping her eyes and nose with it. He sat on a bare patch of the desk and waited for her to look him in the eye before he spoke again. "What exactly happened today?"
She gulped and took a deep breath. "I met Max at the shopping centre, we flirted, we went back to his place - I don’t have to draw you a diagram of what happened there - then he told me he was still seeing Amanda, and I left. That’s it. I should have realised. I should have known. I was all far too easy, too good to be true. After all my relationships are never straightforward, are they?"
"Well they aren’t! Look at my track record: Peter, Paul, Andrew, Max" she glanced down at the floor by her feet, "All I want is to feel loved…"
"Don’t we all".
"But they’ve all let me down one way or another. You’re the only man in my life who hasn’t!"
Duffy paused, running the sentence back through her mind. She could understand the surprised look he now sported, she had surprised even herself . Not with the thought itself, she had long known that was true, but with the fact that she had said it aloud, and to his face. Her mind drifted back to the hug he’d given her when she’d arrived for the shift. It had been so different from Max’s passionate embrace, and yet no less loving. Max had made her feel wanted, alive, but Charlie made her feel safe, and in that moment she wondered if that had been where she had been going wrong? Always looking for someone who would be passionate about her, rather than someone who… truly loved her? Did Charlie feel that way?
"Why is that?" she asked, "Why are you always here for me?"
"You’re my friend. Besides, it’s not like I have a social life!"
"I don’t know what I’d do without you sometimes…"
"Get a promotion probably!"
Duffy frowned at his continued inappropriate levity. "I’m serious Charlie, I-"
"I know" he interrupted, cutting the conversation dead, "but if we’re going to catch this bus, you should really get changed. Yeah?"
She nodded, unsure exactly what had happened between them, but knowing she’d never find out if she went home as she had planned. "My dress is in the car".
"Right. You go get it, I’ll let them know to wait". And with that he vanished out of the door.
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