Going for a DrinkbyYgraine©
"I'm really sorry, but I can't come to the meeting, there's just too much going on down here." Your voice is tinged with regret.
I bite back the lump in my throat. ""Don't worry, it can't be helped. I'll see you at the Assistant's Training Course next month, won't I?"
"Yes, Gavin roped me in to do a session."
"I saw you on the programme. How about I come down early, we could go for a drink after you finish. We haven't had time for a proper talk for ages. "
"That would be nice."
"Jenny's doing a session too, could you invite her to go with us?"
Silence. Confusion at your end of the phone. "Yes, I'll give her a ring. See you then, take care,"
Idiot! Why did I say that? I don't really want Jenny there, even though you both run neighbouring organisations. Yes, it would be nice to see her, but I don't want another sociable occasion between colleagues, I want some time for me!
Why do I do it? I'm always engineering a group so I can watch other people enjoy themselves. I want some time for me!
Weeks pass. People die. Their relatives grieve and sob, then come to me with their anger. They know I wasn't involved, but I'm the first person who has listened to their pain.
"Why did it have to happen? Don't they care for their patients at that hospital?" The bereaved family sit in an accusatory row of chairs in front of my desk.
Silence. What can I say? "I'm so sorry."
"She shouldn't have had to have spent all that time in pain!" The elegant Nigerian princess paces around my tiny office.
"Cancer of the pancreas is very hard to diagnose."
"She shouldn't have had to suffer. They should have known there was something wrong with her, she was down at the surgery every other day."
"The doctors will say they tried to find out what was wrong"
"But they didn't, did they! She had to beg them to send her to hospital! They told her to go away and come back another time! They told her that when she couldn't walk, two days before she died in agony!"
"I'm so sorry."
"You're sorry! I'm sorry, too! Sorry she never saw her first grandchild. I'm sorry she never had the chance to go home to Nigeria to die. She wanted to go to Nigeria to die, but she was too ill.
"They said that there was nothing wrong, that she was imagining the pain and we backed them up. We didn't believe her. In the end, she left home for a while, because we didn't believe her pain."
Tears course down her cheeks. "I thought I was over the crying."
"It's all right." I place an awkward arm on hers, knowing that nothing I can say or do can assuage her grief or deflect her anger from me, whom she sees as part of the system that let her mother die in agony.
There is no redress, but it's not my fault!
After she leaves, my calm, comforting facade crumbles. My two co-workers are supportive, proffering coffee, suggesting I go home, leaving me in solitude with my tears, then offering sandwiches after a decent interval. They have never seen me cry before. It scares them. If the Chief Officer cannot cope with her complainants, what hope do they have?
I dry my eyes. There is no time for the luxury of weeping, there is too much to do. Letters to draft, meetings to attend, hospital visits to plan and execute. Reports to write, meals to cook, work to attend.
Days pass. I keep wanting to cry, but there is too much to do!
Perhaps next week, perhaps I can drown my sorrows during that drink with you. It's a long shot, it probably won't happen, but the small spark of hope carries me through the remaining days.
"Are you going far?" asks the taxi driver taking me to the station, starting the engine against the driving rain.
"I'm teaching on a course. A friend is taking tonight's session, so I'm going down to heckle from the back! We're going for a drink afterwards. I haven't seen him for ages."
"That will be nice!"
I can't disguise the enthusiasm in my voice. We're going for a drink. The bright spark continues, sustaining me throughout the journey. Soon I'll be able to talk, it won't be long. My eyes grow hot against the carriage window; tears rush, unbidden, - not yet, not yet!
"What do you teach?" asks the second taxi driver at the final stage of my journey.
"Health Service Studies."
There isn't time to explain what I do, how I come to be training on a national course when I'm only a very lowly health service manager. "My friend is teaching tonight's session, so I've come down early. We're going for a drink afterwards."
"It's nice to meet up with friends."
There is no-one in the training suite when I arrive at the hotel. It's not going to happen. I unpack my case, wander purposefully around and finally run into the course organisers. They seem genuinely delighted to see me. I will forget my disappointment and enjoy being here amongst my colleagues. Goodness knows there a few enough of us doing the job we do. It's always good to meet up with those who face the same challenges. I put on my jolly voice and we exchange gossip.
Dinner is very pleasant. People talk to me. They are nice people. I don't feel an outsider, even though I've come from the other side of the country.
You arrive. They all greet you as a long-lost friend. Of course you are, since you're a shining light in their region.
It won't happen, I tell myself. I shall have to share you with everyone. It will be a pleasant evening in the bar. I'll watch them all collectively tease you.
You keep referring to the bar during your session. I assume you will join them. There is very little hope left when I ask, "Are we going to have that drink then?"
"Yes," you say firmly, rekindling the spark.
Do you know how much I need to let go? You made a profound remark in January after you facilitated my Review Day.
"It must be very difficult for you."
"It has been," I said, not daring to hope you meant it. It sounded too much like a counselling ploy. You left immediately afterwards, so I couldn't be sure.
Yet you extract yourself gracefully from the group, making it actually sound that time with me is important. When they try to draw you back into the group, you take us both away to another lounge, settling us on an overstuffed red and gold sofa. Do you suspect what I need to do?
When the tears come, your comforting arm is immediate, unforced, warm and strong, holding me up to let the sorrow drain away.
I never contemplated you might actually like me, that the harmony I felt between us could be reciprocated. I heard words of feeling for you in other voices. I knew of close working with neighbours, had let it go, savouring moments of chemistry, not colouring the future with frustrated desire.
When you speak of kinship, I can accept the reality. Your touch is not withdrawn once the tears subside. You don't seem to be afraid of that side of me as others have been. We talk and share, heavy burdens lifting as my tears fall.
You see my need and offer succour. You hold my hand to banish all my doubts. Hours pass. The bar closes. I don't want you to go, but I'm not afraid anymore.
"You can sleep the sleep of the righteous!" You tease me with a final, soft kiss of farewell as you leave.
I don't, but when I think of my African princess, the heavy weight on my heart has gone.