'We're in this together'
"Now hang on!" I called out after her. She stopped mid stride, and turned to face me, straightening her jacket and setting her jaw. Battle stance. Well, two can play at that game.
"I'm really very busy Charlie. Can it wait?"
"No it cannot!" She tilted her head slightly and I took it to mean she was listening. I almost wished she'd shout, scream, be blatantly unreasonable about it all; there was something so unnerving about her silence, and that passive look she sported.
I cleared my throat, rubbed the tense muscles at the back of my neck as I tried to wrangle my objections into coherent speech. I took a couple of steps toward her, trying to give the illusion of privacy among the bedlam of 'Car park ward'.
"I do not appreciate being blackmailed Jan".
"Charlie," she sighed melodramatically, clasping her hands across her stomach. "I don't have the faintest idea what you're talking about".
"Don't you!" The innocently blank expression on her face was seriously grating on my nerves, and I could feel the blood rushing to my face. I bit back the urge to shout, and lowered my voice again. "Just then, you said 'we're in this together', i.e., if you get found out you'll drag me along for the ride. That's blackmail Jan, and I won't be spoken to like that".
"It's not blackmail Charlie, it's fact. A subtle difference perhaps, but nevertheless an important one. You did send Dillon home; you didn't inform Infection Control of the situation. Any inquiry will find out these facts and judge the situation accordingly".
I felt like screaming. Screaming in pure frustration at the situation. Screaming because however underhandedly she'd dealt with it all she was right about this. I did play a part in it. A crucial part. No one else has the seniority to send a staff nurse off shift, and it is my duty to inform Infection Control about anything suspicious.
I remembered back to the previous year; the suspected outbreak of Legionnaire's Disease. There was no concrete proof that the hospital was the source but there was none that it wasn't either. I stood up to Dan Robinson over that, and even though it turned out to be the local college not the hospital that was responsible at least I'd done the right thing. What had changed?
"Look, Charlie, I don't see why we have to fight over this. We're on the same side, for goodness sake! We both want what's best for the patients, and keeping this department open and functioning is what's best for them".
"Even if they all catch the Norwalk virus and get carted out in bodybags tomorrow morning?"
She winced, probably at the crudity of my statement, but it might just have hammered something home. She took a step towards me, narrowing the gap between us to practically nothing and stared hard at me, her eyes exhibiting a confident power I couldn't match. I looked away.
"Dillon might not even have Norwalk. It's a notoriously difficult complaint to diagnose".
Her sheer arrogance caused me to reel back. I turned away from her to try to compose myself, looking around at the ambulances dotted about us haphazardly, waiting to unload their patients. There must have been at least six of them, and in the distance I could see another blue light coming closer. Seven ambulances off the road, fourteen paramedics and technicians twiddling their thumbs - my staff at breaking point and Jan, well, God only knew what she was playing at.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and spun round, breaking out of my thoughts. Her expression was softer, almost like the one she wears off duty.
"Charlie, I do understand your concern. Honestly I do, but I think you're blowing this out of all proportion. To listen to you anyone would think I'm trying to get you involved in a conspiracy the 'X-files' would be proud of". She laughed gently, her face relaxing into a genial smile though her eyes still retained the hard glare they'd had throughout the conversation. I was amazed how such a relatively small thing can make the difference between someone being attractive, or not. Suddenly I found her decidedly ugly.
"I don't want to be a part of this".
She rested her hand on my chest in what I could only assume was a display of affection, but it felt wholly inappropriate under the circumstances. I removed it, but she clasped my hand and wouldn't let it go. Aware of the attention we were receiving from those staff and patients relegated to the forecourt I didn't fight her, merely battled inwardly against the growing feeling of claustrophobia.
"You are a part of this - we all are, we're a team".
The inexplicable urge to laugh bubbled up inside me. "A team! Jan, you are kidding? I'm not even sure we're playing the same game, let alone on the same team. People could die, and all you're worried about is losing face. I can't believe I've gone along with this madness for so long…"
I let my words hang in the air for added drama, but deep down I couldn't think of a single practical thing to do. Things were so far out of control that simply closing the place temporarily until the infection team gave us the all clear would in some ways be a relief. We were at crisis point, and being so far out of control scared me. Even in the open air the burden of how to resolve the situation weighed so heavily on me that I felt as though I couldn't move. I was trapped. She'd made sure of that. How could I have let it get like this?
She rubbed her hand across her forehead. "Charlie, I really would love to stand here and go round in circles about this ad infinitum, but I have work to do. I'm sure you do too. We can discuss this later. Tomorrow maybe at dinner".
With that she departed, leaving me standing with my mouth wide open, staring after her.
I'm appalled to say that it was only then, only after her parting shot, that it dawned on me for the first time why I'd been so stupid. Well, they do say that love is blind. I wouldn't have stood for such behaviour from Dan Robinson, Gary Milton, Elliot Matthews; or any of a dozen bureaucratic managers and CEO's I've had to deal with in the past, but then I wasn't dating any of them either.
"You alright Charlie?" I glanced up from where my gaze had fallen on the doors Jan had vanished through and saw Josh next to me, looking mildly concerned.
"Not really" I mumbled.
"Well if you're ill you'll have to wait out here for eight hours before you can go in!" His joke fell flat. I wasn't in the mood. "You are alright, aren't you?"
"I'm disgusted with myself, that's what I am".
I don't know how he responded to that, knowing Josh he probably shrugged and walked off back to his patient who, odds on, was making a damn sight more sense than me. Instead of waiting for his reply you see, I strode once more into the breach, berating myself all the while for allowing my personal feelings to play such havoc with my professional duties.
'Corridor ward' was full, every spare inch of floor space was being used, if not for trolleys, then for the relatives of the patients and their belongings. Walking through it on my way to the reception area - 'reception ward?' - I felt like I was travelling through some third world refugee camp like you see on the news. The air was thick with grumbled complaints. Justified complaints, though I was helpless to do anything about them.
I made a dash for my office; the sign stuck to the door mocking me. The promotion should have given me more power to do what's right for my department. That's why I took it, despite the reduction in actual hours spent nursing and the increase in bloody paperwork. I was determined that the job wouldn't change me, that I would still stand for the same things as before.
Experience told me that I could handle the bullies who inhabited the upper echelons of the Trust hierarchy, and I had confidence that I would see through any plans that would be detrimental to A&E. Jan, however was something of an unknown quantity. So I judged her by my standards. That is to say that I intended to keep our private relationship very separate from out working one, and I expected her to do the same in return.
If anything I was arrogant enough to believe that if we found ourselves battling each other over policy or budget cuts that I would be able to win her around. I had been sure she was one of the 'good guys'. I had been wrong. She'd had me wrapped around her little finger, and if that wasn't bad enough, I hadn't even noticed it.
I tried to busy myself with paperwork, clear some of the backlog. In truth I felt as though I'd sold my soul to the devil. In return for sex and a nice little promotion I'd lost my principles.
A short time later I heard "Knock, knock. Are you busy?" and Max appeared in the doorway, frowning.
"Always. What are you after?"
He stepped right into the office, and shut the door behind him. "You're not going to like this…"
"I'm not liking a lot of what's going on around here".
He gave me a wry smile. "I know the feeling, but this is serious. One of the inmates in the corridor has been sick."
A finger of ice ran along my spine. "In what way 'sick'?" But I was certain I knew the answer already.
"Projectile vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach cramps, came on pretty quickly too. My money is on Norwalk".
I took a deep breath; that was exactly what I'd feared. "What've you done?"
"Moved him into the suture room, seemed the best place to keep him isolated. Colette's trying to seal the place off. We have to inform Infection Control now. We've no choice".
I let the words sink in. Dillon's illness was a moot point now that another, almost definite case had appeared. "You do that. I'll tell Jan."
"She won't like it…"
"Can I watch?" He grinned mischievously, but I found it hard to reciprocate his mirth. I was getting what I wanted, but not because I'd done the right thing. I was winning by default and I was ashamed of myself. I wanted to be able to hold my head high again, or at the very least I wanted to make it perfectly clear to Jan that I wasn't going to let her get away with using me as a co-conspirator, or worse still a scapegoat. I felt myself shudder at the thought.
"You can use the phone in here, and could you ask Roxanne to help with the barrier nursing? It'll be good practice for her."
"Sure. Don't be long though Charlie. It'll be all hands on deck any minute."
I nodded and left him to the phone call as I trudged up the stairs to Jan's office; dreading seeing her for the first time since we'd met. I could imagine just what would be said. I would tell her that we'd had to call in the infection team, she'd get angry, but wouldn't be able to do anything about it. She'd probably be most angry with me, but that didn't bother me, I was past the point when I wanted our relationship to survive. She and I are clearly not made for each other. At least she'd be happy that she wasn't implicated in any cover up; we were both safe on that score, though it was a bittersweet feeling.
"Is Ms Goddard in?"
"Er, yes Mr Fairhead, shall I buzz you through?" But, even as I was asked, I'd charged past the reception desk and had my hand on the doorknob ready to enter. I'd just turned it when I heard the first retching sound; my mind worked quickly and came to the obvious conclusion. I pushed my way into the room to see Jan vomiting into her waste paper bin.
She looked up as she saw me enter.
"Charlie. I'm glad you're here -" she paused, clearly fighting the urge to throw up again. I felt I should comfort her, help her like a good nurse would, but for some reason I held back and simply watched.
"Charlie… help me… please?"
She clutched at her stomach in pain.
It wasn't easy but I ignored her plea. "Jan, I think you should know that we've identified another case of the Norwalk virus in the hospital. The Infection Control team has been sent for. A&E is now officially closed".
She stared at me, bewildered, then took a sip of water from a tumbler on her desk.
"Aren't you going to help me? I think I might be infected too…"
It seemed fairly obvious that she was, and my brain was already wondering how to proceed. She'd need to be isolated, kept away from the other patients. I wondered if I could get away with just leaving her there. It might give her a bit of time to think about her earlier actions. I found myself fighting the desire to smile for the first time that day.
"I don't know about that" I replied, backing towards the door; knowing that I was being cruel and childish even, but not quite caring after the way she'd treated me. "Norwalk is a notoriously difficult complaint to diagnose, you know. You'd better stay here. It's very busy downstairs though, it might be a while until you are seen…"