The Kindness of Strangers
Lara hung her stethoscope around her neck, took the packet of cigarettes from her locker, and strolled out of the department for a well-earned break. It had been a tough day, nothing on the scale of the war zone in Sierra Leone that she’d become accustomed to, but it never ceased to amaze her how ordinary people had such a capacity to make life difficult for themselves and others.
She sat on what was fast becoming her favourite bench just outside of the hospital entrance, pulled a cigarette and lighter from the already half empty packet, and lit it gratefully. She could feel half a dozen pairs of eyes watching her as she did so, and wondered why people were always surprised that she was a doctor who smoked. The job was certainly stressful enough to warrant it, and that old adage about doctors being the worst for taking their own advice was often proved to be true.
The hospital forecourt made a nice change of scenery from the eye wateringly bright colours of the newly decorated A&E. How anyone could bare to spend all day cooped up in there was a mystery to her. Though she would be first to admit that she’d always been one to appreciate open spaces, she figured that it came from growing up in the middle of the Australian outback.
As she relaxed on her bench, she found her eyes drifting back towards the casualty entrance. The automatic doors swished effortlessly open and shut for patients and staff alike, but there was only one face that she was specifically looking out for: Patrick Spiller’s.
She couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was that made her so attracted to him. He was handsome, but then so were a lot of men and none of them had had the same effect on her before. There was just something about him, something almost magnetic…
She took an extended drag on her cigarette; she was too old to go getting crushes on other staff members. Especially other staff members who were already seeing other women. That sort of thing was too much hassle and always ended in tears. Just as well Dillon had told her the truth about Patrick before things went too far.
It was a shame though. She liked him, even though he could be an arrogant twerp at times. At least he was a genuine arrogant twerp, not pretending to be impressed by her or using her to promote his own career. And there was something else, a funny faraway look he seemed to get sometimes that suggested that perhaps there was more to him than met the eye. Lara liked ‘deep’ men, the strong silent type had always been her variety of choice.
As she sat staring at the hospital she felt the presence of someone sit down beside her. She thought nothing of it until the presence started making sniffling noises. Looking round Lara saw that she was sitting with a pretty, young woman of approximately her own age; and the woman was crying. She fished in her pocket and pulled out a paper tissue.
"Here, it’s clean, it’s just a bit crumpled".
The woman turned and looked at her, then reached for the tissue, "Thanks".
"Erm, look, you can tell be to butt out if you want, but… are you alright?"
"Yeah. Really, I’m fine" She said as she blew her nose on the tissue. Lara looked at her quizzically. She certainly didn’t seem fine, anything but ‘fine’ actually. She wondered if she should say something, try to get her to open up, but then it wasn’t really her job to play counsellor to any old Tom, Dick or Harriet who wandered onto hospital property. She was a doctor, that’s all, and what’s more she was a doctor on her break. Still, she felt awkward just ignoring the poor woman.
"You wanna smoke?"
"No thanks". She sniffed again, "I could do with another tissue though if you’ve got one…"
"Sorry, but there’s a Ladies just through there". Lara pointed over to the A&E. The woman instinctively followed Lara’s gaze, but as she did so her brow furrowed and a fresh tear slipped unchecked down her cheek.
"I’ll make do". She said quietly.
"Don’t like hospital’s huh? Can’t say that I blame you, and I work here!"
"It’s not that exactly…"
"No?" Lara looked up at her expectantly but the woman’s face showed a hurt that made her feel guilty for asking. "Sorry. None of my business. Nosiness is my fatal flaw!"
She did her best ‘reassuring the patient’ smile and went back to her cigarette, thinking that she would be ignored and in all honesty not really caring if she was.
"I had a bad experience here, that’s all". The woman suddenly admitted. Lara dropped the remains of her cigarette onto the ground and squashed it flat beneath her trainer, then turned to the woman, wondering what it was that she was supposed to say next.
"I’m sorry to hear that".
"It was a while ago now, but being here again brings it all back".
"So why’d you come back?"
The woman let out a stiff laugh, "Because I thought I could handle it".
"And you can’t?"
"I want to. Anyway, there’s someone I have to see…"
"No. He works here".
"What’s stopping you from seeing him then?" Lara asked, becoming more intrigued by the strange woman next to her.
"It’s complicated. He told me to go, you see. Said I could clearly do with some time away from here, even set it up for me to go on holiday, and suggested that I visit an old friend of ours in Frankfurt."
"Yep. Paid for the airfare and everything".
Lara gave a low appreciative whistle, "Nice of him".
"I thought so". The woman answered glumly.
"But you don’t anymore?"
"I don’t know…" she sighed, "I did need the time away to help put things into perspective. The thing is, this man, he’s more than just a friend…" Lara nodded and tucked a stray strand of blonde hair behind her ear, "I guessed as much".
"We weren’t a couple per se, but I sort of…" the woman searched for the right turn of phrase.
"Hoped you would be?" suggested Lara.
"Assumed we would be. We’ve argued a lot in the time we’ve known each other, and I mean a lot, but we’d been getting on so much better. I thought that this trip was his way of showing he cared. The last thing he said before I got on the plane was that he loved me; and those aren’t words he says easily". She smiled as she remembered the occasion, and it managed to light up her tear stained face.
"It sounds like he’s a nice bloke…" Lara said, wondering why Patrick couldn’t be more like that.
"He is. Nicer than he likes to let on anyway. The problem is that I’ve been away for a while now and I don’t know how he’ll react to me coming back".
"From what you’ve said I’m sure he’ll be ecstatic".
"He’s known where I’ve been all this time, but he hasn’t called, or written".
Lara frowned, "Maybe he just wanted to give you some space?"
"But what if he’s moved on, found someone else? What if he only sent me abroad to get rid of me!?" Lara saw the woman’s eyes fill first with panic and then a new batch of tears. She dabbed the already sodden tissue at her eyes and tried with limited success to compose her self.
"Don’t you think that you’re working yourself up over a situation that most probably doesn’t exist? From what you’ve said it sounds like he loves you and you obviously love him; a few weeks apart won’t have changed that…"
"But what? What else is there?"
"I phoned him, this morning as soon as I got off the plane. It was only just gone five ‘o’clock. I was desperate to speak to him, you see, to tell him I was back". Her voice was barely above a whisper as she spoke, and Lara had a terrible feeling that knew what was coming next.
"It wasn’t him that answered?"
The woman nodded and sniffed nosily, "It was a woman. His mum’s dead, he doesn’t have a sister and nobody gets visitors at that time of the morning do they?"
"No one I know". Lara admitted, feeling an odd sympathy for the stranger beside her, and starting to wonder if all men were the same after all.
"I came here to confront him. I’m not sure that I can though".
Lara reached out and put her hand on the woman’s shoulder, "Forget everything I said before. Any man who’d pack you off to a foreign country and then screw around behind your back isn’t worth the effort of a confrontation. Trust me, I’ve known enough loser’s in my time!"
"You think so?"
"Definitely. Don’t pine over him, he’s clearly not pining over you. And you can’t spend the rest of your life sitting outside of a hospital crying now can you?"
"I s’pose not…"
"Look, I have to go, I’m due back at work" Lara said, suddenly realising how long she’d spent sitting and chatting to this stranger. She got up and the woman followed her lead.
"I think maybe you’re right… Anyway, it was nice talking to you. And thanks for the tissue".
Lara smiled, "That’s all right. I hope things work out for you".
"Me too!" The woman said trying to smile but giving up after a brief attempt and, after one last lingering look back at the hospital she turned and walked off.
Lara walked back into the department still thinking about everything that the poor woman outside had said to her. Compared to someone like that perhaps her own problems with Patrick weren’t so bad after all. At least she’d found out what he was like before she got involved with him and had her heart broken.
She entered the staff room and saw Patrick standing by his open locker. As soon as he saw her, he dropped whatever it was he was holding and slammed the door shut.
"You took your time out there. Maybe I should take up smoking, then I’d get a chance to skive off whenever I felt like it!"
"I wasn’t skiving Patrick, I just got talking to this woman who was a bit upset. Anyway I’m here now aren’t I?" Lara responded tossing the cigarette packet back into her locker. She smiled in mock innocence at him and turned to leave.
She stopped and turned to face him, "What is it Patrick? I have work to do".
"Last night, where did you go? I tried looking for you when you didn’t come back to the on-call room, but you’d gone".
"I did have a party to go to remember," she replied, "Besides I didn’t think you’d mind. If you’d wanted a bit of fun you could have called up your girlfriend".
Patrick’s jaw visibly dropped, but he tried to cover his surprise that Lara knew about Rachel by running his hand through his hair and avoiding eye contact with her.
"I don’t know what you mean".
"Don’t you? You know, playing the innocent doesn’t suit you Patrick".
"I don’t know what you think you know, but I don’t have a girlfriend at the moment".
He said the words with conviction. Whatever Rachel was to him, she wasn’t his girlfriend. She was married, and he was only with her because it was better than being alone. Even being with Rachel the way he had been last night when Lara hadn’t returned didn’t really help though, she stopped him from being alone, but he was still lonely.
Patrick tried to swallow the guilt he felt inside him to maintain his professional poker face. Lara wasn’t supposed to find out about Rachel, Lara was the first person he’d met since Holly left who he felt comfortable around.
"I know that you’re seeing someone Patrick, and it’s fine, really, you enjoy yourself. Just don’t expect me to be making any trips to the on-call room with you in future. Like I said to that poor cow outside; men like you aren’t worth it". With that she turned and walked swiftly out of the room.
Patrick sighed and opened his locker again, picking up the postcard he’d hastily dropped when Lara had come in and glanced across the familiar handwriting:
Enjoying the nightlife, moving onto Frankfurt next week. Love Holly.
He must have read it over a hundred times since it had arrived in his possession, but he felt like it was all he had to hold onto until the day when Holly decided to return, so kept it close by at all times.
Patrick looked at the stamp and the smudged black postmark, it had been sent months ago, and yet he’d still had no word from her. He wondered if he should try to call her, but every time it crossed his mind he told himself that she had left Holby to get some space and thinking time on her own. He didn’t want to interrupt that no matter how much he missed her.
He couldn’t help wondering though if he shouldn’t have suggested that she went away. It had seemed a logical enough piece of advice at the time, but he hadn’t expected her to agree so readily to leave him. She’d seemed so enthusiastic when he’d mentioned it first, and as he’d wanted to make her happy, he’d booked the ticket. He hadn’t expected her to be gone for so long though.
Waiting until he was absolutely positive that no one was going to walk into the staff room he lifted the postcard to his lips and kissed it softly. It was his one link to her, the thing that kept her near, and that ultimately prevented him from moving on. Any relationship would be meaningless unless it was with her. Even one with an attractive, intelligent woman like Lara. It was just as well that she’d called it off, it only would have ended up making them both feel miserable.
He was interrupted from his thoughts when Colette poked her head though the doorway, "Patrick, the paramedics are bringing in a DOA, could you go out and meet the ambulance?"
"Yeah" he grunted as she vanished again. He placed the postcard back in it’s regular position on the shelf in his locker, closed the door and made his way out to the ambulance bay as requested.
As he stood waiting for the arrival of the paramedics his eyes absently scanned the scene in front of him, but he found his gaze lingering on a figure in the distance. A woman, walking slowly away from the hospital, her eyes downcast, and her face obscured by a mane of light brown hair.
"Holly?" He whispered under his breath as he strained his eyes to get a better look. He took a step forward peering hard at the retreating figure.
It couldn’t be her, could it? He asked himself. Why would she arrive unannounced at the hospital and then leave again before speaking to me? Why would she come so close and then just walk away? I must be imagining things, I must have spent so long wishing I’d see her again that now I’m imagining every woman with brown hair is Holly.
He rubbed at his eyes viciously, they were starting to feel sore from all the straining, and he had to blink considerably before they started to feel better. When he looked again the woman was gone.