Walk With Me - Part 1
The feeling of disconnection was overwhelming. Leaving the corridors of Holby City Hospital behind him for the last time and stepping out into the brilliance of a late August afternoon, the warmth, the sunlight, the saturated colours all seemed to mock him, jarring with the darkness of his mood.
He wasted no time crossing the car park, to the area designated for visitors, where hospital protocol had forced him to park that morning. The wheels of change can turn rapidly when they have a mind to and although less than twenty-four hours had elapsed since his 'official' departure, he was already regarded as an outsider, no longer part of the team. Persona non grata, all his privileges revoked in one of those displays of pique to which august bodies, such as Hospital Trusts, were apt to resort when they found themselves slighted by one of their own. It was a move intended to humiliate, to coerce the object of their disdain back under their control, or rid themselves of the problem once and for all.
Meyer, however, had chosen not to rise to the bait and had suffered this, and the other indignities thrust upon him, in his usual stoic and silent manner. Their pettiness was of no consequence to him now. Yesterday he had taken his leave of that small circle of colleagues who had remained constant during his recent troubles and for whom he retained a certain level of respect. That gesture had effectively closed the chapter on his time at Holby and he might never have set foot in the place again, had he not been required to tie up some loose ends with the Human Resources department.
But now even that had been dispensed with and he was finally free to leave, having managed to both arrive and depart unnoticed, a fact that relieved him greatly.
Reaching the car, he opened the boot to stow his briefcase and found there the little posy of flowers that Sandy Harper had shyly presented to him the day before. Forgotten overnight, his thoughts too bound up with the future, they had wilted in the confined space and he felt a stab of guilt at his omission. Nurse Harper was a sweet child, a little naive perhaps, but no less well meaning for all that. He also felt something of a kindred spirit in her, for her unswerving devotion to his surgical registrar, Alex Adams, and he had often felt angered by the reaction of some of her colleagues to her innocent adoration. Better that than the salivating lust often displayed by Dr Kennedy in the registrar's presence, yet it was to that Dr Adams had responded. The maxim no accounting for taste sprang to mind and had seldom seemed more appropriate.
Impulsively, his gaze lifted to the fifth floor of the building, sweeping across those windows that he could identify as belonging to Darwin Ward, and a sigh slipped from his lips. That part of it he would miss. They were a good team, for the most part. A pity that one bad apple had been allowed to ruin the barrel, but at least he could leave with the knowledge that, when the moment of truth had come, Alex had made the right choice. Sam Kennedy had gone and would not be coming back. To Meyer, that was a satisfactory legacy to bestow on them.
He turned away, in time to see a mini cab speed onto the forecourt and pull up at the main entrance. Seconds later, a familiar figure clambered out and hurried up the steps, into the building.
"Late again, Mr Adams?" he murmured softly, trying not to dwell to o closely on the possible causes of the young doctor's tardiness.
He took a step forward tempted, for one moment of weakness, to follow him unable, even now, to sever this last tenuous thread. In less than a week he would depart for America, a new job and a new life: was it asking so much to say a last goodbye to the one person who had made the past few months bearable? True, Alex had expressed interest in the vacant position of research assistant alongside Anton in Monarch Wood, but his insecurity where that young man was concerned would not allow him to read anything more into the statement other than misplaced loyalty. For all he knew, Alex had awakened that morning with his mind set on another path and this might well be the last time Meyer ever set eyes on him.
And if you choose to go after him, his conscience taunted, what would you do? Would you finally find the courage to admit to your feelings for him, or would you lose your nerve, as you have so many times in the past?
The argument played through his thoughts and the more he tried to reason with himself, the more reasons he found to leave things as they were. Ultimately, it came down to one simple fact: yesterday he had taken leave of Alex privately, after the others had gone. It had been an amicable parting that acknowledged the possibility that they might, one day, work together again. He had left feeling hopeful, the future not quite as bleak as it had appeared earlier in the day, but what if he now pursued the matter, only to discover that Alex had only been saying the things he thought Meyer wanted to hear, mouthing platitudes that had no foundation in reality?
What if he discovered that Alex had been lying to him all along and was, even now, planning his future with the Kennedy woman? All things considered, maybe it really was better to leave things as they were.
The air inside the car was hot and heavy, folding in around him and sucking the breath from his lungs. Almost immediately his head started to pound, the pressure building behind his eyes. He swore softly. A headache was the last thing he needed today. There were so many things left to do, he really did not have the time to be ill.
A security guard at the main gate raised his hand in acknowledgement and Anton nodded a response as he drove through, away from Holby City Hospital for the last time and without so much as a backwards glance. What was the point in prolonging the misery, when there was no longer anything to keep him there?
He had business to attend to on his way home and even though his heart was really not in it, certain things needed taking care of before his departure for Michigan on Monday, and so he called at the bank, at the leasing agent regarding his flat, at the offices of his solicitor, all with an uncharacteristic air of distraction. Then, with all but the final details completed, he was at last free to return home.
Guilt plucked at his conscience as he aimed the car back towards the vicinity of the hospital, and not out into the surrounding countryside. He had told his wife that he would call on her that evening, but his state of mind was such that he knew that any confrontation would only end in harsh words and recriminations on both sides. Better to leave it until tomorrow. He would telephone her from the flat and give her the good news. Give her time to call Oliver and tell him the coast was clear.
Poor Oliver, still living in blissful ignorance of the fact that Anton knew all about his little affair with Diana. It seemed so unfair, really. The man should know what he was up against. Not that any of it would matter once Anton was on board the plane and bound for Detroit. He had no doubt they would maintain their little love nest in the shadow of the university, but he was under no illusion that once he had removed himself, Diana would not encourage Oliver to take up a more permanent residence in her bed.
There was, he thought, a certain bitter irony to the fact that his transatlantic relocation, and the resulting separation from his family, would actually reinforce the farce that their marriage was a happy one. For the sake of appearances they would each make the right noises, about how terrible it was to be apart and what a strain, and how desperately they missed each other, and people would nod and look sympathetic, and tell them how lucky they were to still be in love after so many years.
If they only knew the truth.
At the flat, he gently lifted Sandy's flowers from the boot of his car and carried them inside. The best of his china and glassware had already been packed away, ready for transport, but he found an empty wine carafe that had been destined for the recycling bin at Sainsbury's and which, when properly washed, made a passable vase. He set it on the empty sideboard and, even with is very limited skills of flower arranging, it brought a touch of colour and cheerfulness to the almost empty room. More than that, for some strange reason it made him think of Alex Adams. Perhaps it was the simple association of flowers and sandy, and Sandy and Alex, or perhaps it was the fact that his former registrar was seldom from his thoughts these days.
He was still thinking of Alex when he telephoned his wife to cancel his visit. She was annoyed, as was to be expected, and ranted dutifully about his lack of consideration, and harangued him for missing the dinner she had spent all afternoon preparing. That last, he knew, was a lie. Diana Meyer could barely cope with making tea and toast for herself in the morning, before Mrs Grainger arrived to clean and cook, and generally ease the heavy burden of household management from his wife's delicate shoulders.
As he listened to her ravings, he allowed his gaze to drift around the room, charting the completed task and making a mental note of those things still needing to be done. He paused the bookcase. All the books had been removed for packing and all that remained was a small Victorian silver box and a single photograph in a simple wooden frame of the kind brought for a pound or two from Woolworths. It was this that captured his attention, drawing him across the room when his call had ended. His fingers were trembling as he picked it up and he swallowed quickly at the unaccustomed rush of emotion.
The details of date and place had long faded from his memory, but the faces smiling out at him were as familiar as his own: Tash Bandera, Janice Taylor, Mike Barratt and poor, tragic Victoria Merrick. He himself was placed standing just to the right of centre, next to Victoria, and behind him, at the end of the back row, stood - "Alex."
Was it his imagination, or maybe an optical illusion, or was Alex standing unnecessarily close to him? Close enough that Anton might have felt the warmth radiating from him and might, just for a moment, have leaned back into it, to find himself rewarded by the brush of Alex's hand, cautious of the all-seeing eye of the camera and yet at touch, nonetheless, intimate and reassuring. If only he could recall some such moment of intimacy between them - but those things were no more than figments of his imagination, created to bring him a fragment of comfort in the lonely darkness. Shadows of the impossible.
Setting the picture back on the shelf, he returned his attention to the room. There were still books to be packed, cupboards to be cleared, clothes to be sorted, and the days were running out. Not time to waste in idle speculation of the might-have-beens. In a week from now he would be on the other side of the Atlantic, ready to start his life over again. It was, he told himself, the right thing to do.
In the bedroom, he quickly changed into an old pair of jeans and a navy blue sweatshirt that had seen better days. The wardrobe was almost empty now and echoed to his movements. Some of the less fashionable suits had already been delivered to one of the charity shops in town, the rest would go with him, although from what he had seen of the Howard Benneman Institute a few weeks earlier it seemed the conservative suits, of the type he had worn at Holby, were not a requirement. Whether such informality was a good or a bad thing, he had yet to decide.
He made himself a cup of tea and tuned the radio to a classical music station, before resuming his packing. Books were sorted into neat stacks, according to whether they were to be shipped, stored or otherwise disposed of; journals were cannibalised for relevant articles and their remains stuffed into a box marked 'paper bank'. It was a laborious task but one that was necessary, given that he would no doubt be spending the first few weeks in a hotel while his cherished possessions languished in a 'lock'n'store'.
For the next hour or so he sorted and packed, cataloguing everything that he was taking with him to America, and all the time the music flowed in the background, a chiaroscuro of Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Massenet, and the sun began to move towards the western horizon.
Several things then happened at once. Firstly, he realised that he was struggling to read the print in one of the journals. Secondly, he noticed just how dark the room had become and, lastly, the ache in his lower back, from sitting on the floor at an awkward angle, had become too sharp to ignore any longer. Already it was bad enough that he had to roll onto his knees in order to stand up. Perhaps if he stopped for a cup of coffee...
Arching his back and reaching an arm behind himself to massage the ache away, he wandered over to the window and gazed out into the twilight. He would miss this. Over and above providing shelter, isolation and a place to lay his head, the flat had little to offer in the way of luxuries. This view, out across the city, past the spire of the cathedral and the grey slated roofs of the old university, was beautiful on even the greyest, wettest of days, but at a moment like this, with the setting sun painting the stone with tones of rose and amber and gold, turning the smooth plates of slate into mirrored glass, it was nothing short of magnificent. He could stand here for hours - and frequently had - lost in his thoughts as he watched another day draw to a close.
It was here, also, that he had first admitted privately that his feelings for Alex Adams could no longer be constrained by the boundaries of professionalism. It had been in the dark days following the murder of Victoria Merrick, when Alex had still featured prominently in the police list of suspects. Rumour had been rife throughout the hospital and the number of his supporters was finely balanced against his detractors. From the first whisper of scandal, however, Anton had refused to be drawn into the debate, not because of any desire to remain impartial but simply because the possibility that Alex might actually be guilty had never once entered Anton's head. There were one or two members of the Holby staff who could, given the right set of circumstances, be moved to murder, but he knew instinctively that Alex was not one of them. A wild card he may be, sometimes given to impetuous actions, but acts of violence, whether random or premeditated, simply were not in his character.
Movement in the street below drew his attention to a taxi that had pulled up outside the little florist's shop opposite the block of flats. There was nothing particularly out of the ordinary in that, except that it was past eight o'clock and the shop, together with those on either side, had been closed for three hours. His curiosity getting the better of him, he continued to watch as a single passenger climbed out, stepping back from the cab as it sped off to the next fare. Tall, male and alarmingly familiar, he glanced up at the building, his gaze moving along the rows of windows.
Caught off-guard by Alex's unexpected arrival, Anton quickly stepped back, out of sight, wondering what on earth could have brought Alex here, at this time of night. Of course, he knew that it was vaguely arrogant on his part to assume Alex was there to see him since there were, after all, a dozen or more other tenants in the block, but a part of him hoped. A part of him would always hope where Alex was concerned.
He risked a very quick look down into the street, dodging in and out of view like a spy in a 50's 'B' movie. Alex was standing on the pavement, looking up and down the street, then at his watch, and then - Anton shrank back again - up towards the window, as if he knew Anton was waiting there.
Why doesn't he come across? he wondered. What's he waiting for?
The telephone rang and Meyer cursed as he swept it to his ear, his manner barely civil as he responded to Ric Griffiths' greeting. The last thing he needed at that moment was an interruption. A moment later, however, he was giving Ric his full attention as he picked up on the words 'Alex' and 'resignation' in the same sentence. So, Alex had given up, had agreed to stay only as long as it took Campbell-Gore to find a replacement for him and, no, Ric had no idea why he would do such a thing.
Anton thanked him for the information and hung up. Alex had quit... Was that was why he had come here, to break the news and hope to persuade Anton to bring his influence to bear with the Board in Michigan?
Another glance into the street disclosed Alex now leaning against the shuttered florist's shop, head bowed and arms folded defensively across his chest. He had all the appearance of a man who had no idea what to do or where to go. A man who had chosen to throw aside stability and reach for - what?
Anton knew he had two options: either he could let it go, continue to pretend he was out and hope that Alex went away quickly and quietly, or he could confront him, find out once and for all what was going on and act accordingly. In the end, it was his curiosity that won.
Reaching for the telephone once again, he decided at last that it would be better to leave England knowing exactly where he stood, where Alex was concerned. No more secrets, no more lies.
From the window he watched as Alex scrabbled to find his mobile, fumbled to make the connection, and then the ringing tone was replaced by the words "Alex Adams," barked curtly in his ear. He smiled, wondering how the young surgeon would react to what was about to happen. If nothing else, the next few minutes were going to prove - interesting, to say the least.