Happy Birthday, Mrs Wolfe
Barney stood as close to the wall mounted payphone as was physically possible, his head down, his back to the world. He still had ten minutes before he was officially on duty and the inquisitive stares of the other staff turned into demands for him to get to work.
He knew that everyone was watching him, why wouldn’t they? He was having to make a personal phone call in the middle of reception because his own phone line had been cut off; it was a choice between giving BT what they wanted or going without food. Well, British Telecom could stuff their extortionate line rental rate; he would make do with a phone card form the hospital gift shop.
It felt like the phone had been ringing for hours, the repetitive sound drumming through his thoughts, driving him slowly insane.
“Pick up! For God’s sake pick up!” He muttered under his breath, pressing himself a bit closer still to the wall.
Why did it always seem that the simplest of tasks, like calling his mother on her birthday, were always so difficult in his family? Why did the Wolfe’s have this innate ability to make life hard for themselves? He glanced down at his watch, nearly eight ‘o’ clock at night, why the hell wasn’t anyone picking up?
He felt an enthusiastic prod on his shoulder and whirled round to see who would dare interrupt him. Chloe smiled back.
“You all right Barn?” There was something in her cheerful concern that made it impossible to be angry at her, not to mention she was the only person in that hospital who he would count as a real friend. The last thing he wanted to do was take his frustration out on her. He took a deep breath to calm his temper.
“Fine Chlo. Just wish that people would answer the damn phone!”
“Who’re you ringing?”
“Mum. It’s her birthday today and I’ve been so distracted lately I forgot. I’ve got to catch her now, I might not get another chance when I’m on shift”
Under normal circumstances Chloe would have suggested calling tomorrow, but she remembered the way she’d avoided talking to her own mother only to be phoned at work just a few weeks before Christmas to be told that she’d died. She always regretted not speaking to her one final time, not telling her how much she loved her, regardless of their squabbles and petty disagreements.
She gently rubbed his upper arm in sympathy, “Well, you’ve got a few more minutes. I’m sure you’ll get through”.
Barney managed a smile. He knew Chloe well enough to understand where her concern came from, but he also knew she didn’t understand the importance of the call. He thought about it as Chloe wandered off into the staff room to prepare for the shift and he turned inward again, trying to block out the bustle of the Casualty department.
It was silly in a way, but being so far away from his home it was little things like birthday messages that made all the difference. It wasn’t as if Fiona Wolfe would be getting any from anyone else. Barney couldn’t remember the last time that his father had made an effort to do anything for anyone other than himself. And then his personal efforts only consisted of trips to the pub and/or the off licence.
No, if his Mother was going to get any joy from her fiftieth birthday it would have to come from him. He just wished he hadn’t left it so late. He thought about asking for the day off so that he could go up and visit her but in the end he’d decided not to. He told himself that it was because events had overtaken him; the whole Tom Harvey fiasco had left the department in disarray, but in reality he just didn’t want to have to face his father.
The phone continued to ring in an increasingly mocking manner and he stared intently at the little screen, willing it with all his might to show that he’d been connected. The rest of the room faded around him, until someone pushed heavily against him, crushing his chest into the cold metal of the phone, and temporarily winded him.
“I’m sshorry mate…” someone behind him slurred. Barney turned to face the ‘someone’, and smelt him before he came into view. Cheap lager, urine and the metallic stench of blood as it poured from a filthy wound in his arm.
“What the hell do ye think yer doing!” Barney yelled batting away the Drunk’s arm before he could touch him.
“I’m no yer son, matey!” Barney’s nose was wrinkled in disgust more from that last comment than from the putrid odour of the man. He pushed the Drunk further away from with a hefty shove that nearly knocked him off his feet.
The Drunk collected himself and staggered forward again, seemingly obvious of the fact that Barney’s face was flushed with colour and his hands were balling into fists.
“What wasss that for?” The Drunk asked plaintively.
“What’s this then?” Barney swung around to face the new voice; he wondered how long Charlie had been standing there.
Taking a deep breath he said through gritted teeth, “Nothing, Charlie”.
What was the point anyway? Alcoholics are all the same; they don’t understand anything that doesn’t come with a percentage proof stamped on it. Even if he got a good punch in the guy probably wouldn’t even feel it.
“Good, that’s what I like to hear… Spencer! Can you take this gentleman and seat him over there”. Spencer hurried over to them and gently lead the man away from Barney’s glare.
“That’s it, all friends together” The young nurse sneered under his breath, but just loud enough for Charlie to hear.
“Barney – a word”.
Reluctantly, but still full of righteous indignation, Barney followed his boss into the office. Once inside, and the door closed at Charlie’s request, Barney stood, avoiding eye contact in a manner that could only be described as insolent.
“I don’t understand you Barney. You’re a good nurse, you have a very promising career ahead of you but your attitude keeps letting you down…”
“There is nothing wrong with my attitude. I’m just trying to go about my business…”
“I’m speaking Barney, and I’m not finished. This is what I mean by your attitude. You’re argumentative, especially toward Spencer, and don’t think that I’ve forgotten that fight you got involved in last year…” Barney was about to jump in again but Charlie silenced him with an authoritative raising of his hands. “…Now, I know you had your reasons, and wanting to protect Chloe was very noble, but surely you must have learnt by now that a punch up is not the way of solving problems.”
“So what should I do, eh? Sit every prat I meet down and buy ‘em a drink?”
“If it’ll diffuse a situation…”
Barney laughed a hollow laugh, and shook his head. It was no use; Charlie would never understand what he was talking about. Charlie, with his good job, his middle income life, could never know what it was like to be faced with alcoholism. He could never understand what it was like to live with someone who cared more about where their next bottle of Scotch came from than anything else on Earth.
“Now what does that mean?”
“Never mind, I’ve got a phone call that needs making”. He motioned toward the door.
“Now hang on,” Charlie indicated his watch, “You’re on my time now, and I asked you what you meant”.
“You wouldnae understand”.
“Try me. You’re not leaving this office until I’ve got to the bottom of your attitude problem. Sit down”.
Barney slumped into a chair and Charlie followed suit.
“That bloke out there,” He nodded in the direction of reception, “how long d’you reckon we’ll take cleaning him up, stitching that hand? How long will we waste looking after him, knowing full well that the moment he’s out of here he’ll get tanked up again and slice the other hand open? How many other people, who have faced genuine accidents will have to wait because we’re dealing with an old alckie like him?”
“We’re in the business of helping people, we can’t sit around deciding whether they deserve it, we just do our jobs”.
“Aye, well maybe you feel like that but I don’t!”
“It’s not a matter of how I feel, it’s a matter of doing my job. And if you intend to keep yours you’d do well to remember that”.
“So if it was up to you, you wouldn’t treat him?”
“I didn’t say that Barney, don’t twist my words”.
“Why does he deserve it?”
“Why doesn’t he?”
“Because he’s an alcoholic!” Barney growled.
Charlie rubbed the back of his head, “So he should be written off automatically? Is that what you’re saying?”
Barney didn’t answer. His mind drifted off to his home back in Scotland, to the small terraced house he and his parents lived in. He thought about his mother, staggering back from her job at the supermarket, arms laden with the discounted goods that couldn’t be sold. Food arrived at it’s sell-by date, meat, bread and vegetables on the verge of going off. No matter how much there was, by tomorrow they’d have nothing again.
Dead on her feet she’d start cooking the evening meal. He’d offer to help, he’d always offer but she always said the same thing, “No dear, you sit there and do yer homework, you make something of yourself son, you make yer old mother proud!” They’d still both be in the kitchen, her at the oven or the sink, him at the table with his books spread all over when his father would come in.
In some respects he knew he was lucky, his father never turned violent, never laid a finger on him or his mother. Ian Wolfe didn’t have the energy. He came in each night after his money had run out and sat himself in the old armchair in front of the gas fire. He’d eat his tea, food slopping down his front as he heaved forkfuls uncoordinatedly toward his mouth, chewing and belching as a combined movement. It still made Barney feel sick. Then he’d stare blankly at the television. Sometimes he made it up to the bedroom; sometimes Barney would come downstairs in the morning and find him still slumped there.
But as he thought about what Charlie said he allowed himself to remember the happier times, from before his father lost his job at the factory, when they’d go to the football together on a Saturday, when they’d go camping in the summer, when Barney was little. When he had a proper father.
Those memories were more painful than the recent ones. They hurt him more deeply because they were all about loss, about what might have been. If his father hadn’t started drinking then Barney might have stayed in Scotland, instead of running to the other end of the country to London to train as a nurse at Bart’s. They might have been a proper family instead of a drunk, a worn out woman and a son who couldn’t cope with it all.
It was nice to believe that things could go back to the way they were, that his Dad might get off the booze one day, that all alcoholics should be given a chance…
“Well,” Charlie prompted, “Alcoholics aren’t allowed a second chance?”
… But it doesn’t work like that, Barney thought bitterly. There’s no such thing as a cured alcoholic.
“What would you know about it?” He shot back.
“More than I want to actually”.
“You’re not…?” Barney felt disgusted. Whatever his run ins with Charlie were in the past he’d always respected his boss. A male nurse like himself, who’d got to the top of his career, who was generally admired or at least acknowledged to be the best.
“Not exactly. My drinking was a symptom of a bigger problem, but it got pretty bad there for a while. I got help though. It wasn’t easy but looking back I can see just how close I got to losing everything. If it hadn’t been for my friends here I would have ended up on the street like Spencer did. I was lucky. He’s been lucky in a way, he’s pulled himself out of that world, he’s making a new life for himself”.
“No…” He shook his head softly, staring at the floor. He didn’t want to believe it, he didn’t want to admit that in that hospital right now there were two people who’d done what his father couldn’t. They’d beaten it. It wasn’t fair.
“You can ring Duffy if you don’t believe me. She was here, she helped me. I never realised just how many friends I had in this place until things got really bad. I couldn’t have done it on my own. They all stuck by me”.
Charlie’s words struck deep in Barney’s heart. Charlie’s friends had stuck by him; but he’d run away from his own father. He’d left his mother, who still cared for her husband but was too exhausted to help him, all by herself too. He hadn’t stuck by either of them.
“Charlie,” he ventured softly.
“I’m sorry. For shouting, for arguing, for everything”.
“Apology accepted. Now if the theatrics are over, finally, then maybe you should get back to work?” Charlie rose from his seat, but Barney remained where he was. “Problem?”
“Charlie, I know what with everything that’s happened lately this probably is’nae the best time, but I want to hand in my notice”.
“But I thought we’d sorted this out now?” Charlie sighed in response.
“We have, that’s the problem, but I haven’t sorted everything out back home”. He knew what he had to do now; for the first time, possibly in his life, he was acting, rather than reacting. If he wanted things to go back to the way they were then he'd have to help his father. Maybe there was still a chance that he'd get his family on track.
“I don’t follow…”
“I’ll explain it all in a minute Charlie, but can I just make a quick phone call first? Please?” Charlie’s brow furrowed as he tried to work out what had happened.
“OK, but don’t be long, yeah?”
“I won’t, thanks Charlie” He waited until Charlie had left the office before tapping in his familiar home number. This time it rang for only a few seconds before a woman with a warm Scots accent picked up.
“Hello, Fiona Wolfe speaking…”
“Mum,” He could almost feel the words catch in his throat they were so full of emotion, “Happy birthday Mum... I’m coming home…”