“You utter, utter, bastard!”
I threw the wine in my glass all over my boyfriend’s face, then watched it drip off his handsome features, onto the sparkling silver cutlery and then bleed into the pure white tablecloth.
His face above the impeccable designer-label jacket was a picture of astonishment, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a dicky-bowed waiter eyeing our table nervously.
“I’m sorry, Madeleine,” he mumbled, clearly embarrassed. “I realise this is a disappointment, but—”
“After all these months of listening to you moaning about never getting acting parts, your self obsession, your vanity, and you throw me away like a piece of old underwear!”
“I can see I’ve hurt you, but really. . .”
It had been a strange end to the date I’d been so excited about. Roger had invited me out to dinner as a ‘special occasion’ because he wanted to ‘ask me something important’. I had assumed that he’d invited me to the mega-expensive restaurant to pop the question.
Even though I had long ago accepted that Roger was a shallow chancer, an out-of-work actor who took himself far too seriously, I’d been flattered by his attention. And despite all his obvious faults, I was passionately, unreasonably, in love with him.
Marrying him? Why not? Men change after marriage, don’t they? And perhaps he would achieve success as an actor and I’d finally not have to always pay the bills. What’s more, the chemistry between us was something special.
And what woman wouldn’t be thrilled at the idea of being married to a man who was so incredibly handsome that women actually stopped in the street to stare at him?
“You see I thought that taking you here for a special meal would be something for you to remember me by. A way to soften the blow,” he patronised.
Even worse was the reason for this decision. All evening he’d been hyped up, excited, telling me that he’d landed a tiny part in Home and Loving, a popular TV soap, and his career was poised to explode. “You see at last everything is working out for me,” he went on, “so I can’t be tied down to anything or anyone. I have to be a free spirit for the sake of my art.”
“No. You have to be a free spirit to chase after your next tart!”
“Cheap humour was never your forte, Madeleine.” His beautiful mouth turned down.
“Well, cheap aftershave was certainly yours!”
I cried myself to sleep that night. Logic and love are incompatible, and I longed for Roger to ring and say that he’d changed his mind, and that, after all, he had reconsidered, and we were still an item. To say that he’d realised all along that he really did love me, just hadn’t told me so.
But he didn’t.
The following morning on the way to work it was raining so much there were huge puddles in the road. As I waited for the bus, a car sent up a tidal wave of water that soaked me through, necessitating a miserable walk back to my flat and a change of clothes.
After arriving late at work, my kindly boss asked to see me.
“I’m very sorry, Madeleine,” he apologised when I’d sat down opposite him. “But your probation ends in a week, and you haven’t made the grade in this job. We’re going to have to let you go.”
“But I thought you were happy with my work!” I protested, fighting back tears, stunned at this second blow to my confidence. “What have I done wrong?”
“Nothing. Honestly. You’re a lovely person. You try hard, you’ve got brains, and everyone likes you. It’s just that I don’t think you’re suited to clerical work,” he explained, then reached out across the desk and touched me kindly on the arm. “Look, Madeleine, between you and me, I think you’re too clever for this kind of monotonous dreary office work. You’ll thank me when you find out what you really want to do with your life.” He looked at me sympathetically, and I could see he really was sincere. “Madeleine, I can see this has been a horrible shock. Why don’t you take the rest of the day off?”
So I went to town and bought some new clothes to cheer myself up, then took myself to the pub to try and drown my sorrows. But it wasn’t much fun sitting there on my own, so after the third whisky I decided that after a visit to the loo I might as well go home. I mulled over what my nice boss had said. I realised that I was hopeless at the job because I found it so wretchedly boring, and to tell the truth I had secretly dreaded the thought of staying there for years and years.
I heard the woman’s cry as I entered the ladies. A girl was standing staring into an open-doored cubicle, clearly terrified. I ran up behind her and saw an ocean of blood covering the lap of the woman who was sitting on the toilet, her head down, weeping.
Instinct kicked in. I pushed past the screamer, told her to call an ambulance, then examined the seated girl, who had a Stanley knife in one hand and blood pulsing from the other wrist.
I dropped my shopping, ripped the blouse I’d just bought from its bag, and grabbed the woman’s hand and lifted her arm high up in the air, pressing my new blouse hard onto the wound and gripping it there, remembering the first-aid course I’d done years ago.
“Let’s get her out of there,” I suggested to the other woman, who had just completed the 999 call.
Together, we managed to help the suicidal lady to stagger into the main area and slide down the wall, so that she was sitting on the floor and leaning back against the basins, with me still pressing hard on the wound and holding her arm up in the air.
“My boyfriend dumped me,” whispered the injured woman, her eyes opening briefly as she told me her name was Marion. “I can’t go on.”
“Oh yes you can!” I said to her forcefully, my mouth an inch from her ear. “Your boyfriend has kicked you in the teeth, and you feel like shit. But let me tell you this: no man is worth doing this for. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about. My boyfriend just dumped me. I told him he’ll regret it. And he will!”
Lying made me feel better, but I wasn’t sure if she took it in, as her eyelids fluttered helplessly.
It was a huge relief when the paramedics arrived and took over. The girl who’d raised the alarm left us.
“Well done you!” said the man who was working on her. “Must’ve been a shock to come upon this little drama, but you did absolutely the right thing. If you hadn’t staunched the flow I reckon she’d have bled out by now.”
“Thanks. She said her name was Marion.”
“You can come in the ambulance with your mate if you want to,” he told me cheerfully, once they’d strapped her to the stretcher.
“I will,” I agreed, picking up my bag, which I’d dropped in all the panic. There seemed no point in explain that the patient wasn’t my mate. I decided I might as well give her a bit of moral support until some relative arrived to console her.
When we arrived at the hospital I followed them to A & E ward, but wasn’t allowed to go behind the scenes, so I waited in the public area.
Then the strangest thing happened. I don’t know why, but for some reason I’ve always liked hospitals, and in that moment I wondered why I had never pursued my childhood dream of becoming a nurse. Then I remembered the reason: I hate studying, and a friend had told me you had to get a degree, and there was an awful lot to learn.
“Did you come in with the attempted suicide?” a nurse asked as she came up to me. “The girl called Marion?” Her name-tag said Sue Jackson, and she looked to be about my mum’s age.
“Well, she’s stable and out of danger. Oh and by the way, the ambulance boys tell me that you saved the day.”
“I just used my common sense.”
I liked this motherly nurse with the friendly Aussie accent, and for some reason I felt an instant rapport with her. “Look,” I ventured. “Can I ask you something I’ve always wondered about? What’s it like, being a nurse?”
She smiled. “Most of the time it’s a crock of crap,” she told me. “Godawful shifts, bloody long hours, everyone gets ratty and shouts at you, people expect you to work miracles and blame you for making mistakes you haven’t even made. Patients bitch at you, sometimes they even attack you.”
“Yeah. But the good parts of the job? They’re the little gold nuggets that make it all worthwhile.” She leaned closer. “I’ve worked in war zones, wards full of poor buggers dying in agony, seen the rip-roaring awful things people can do to each other. But I’ve also seen the wonderful sides to humanity, the heroism, the kindness that’s so selfless it can make you cry. I tell you, if you become part of a close-knit medical team you’re part of something really special. You work so closely with each other you almost know what everyone’s thinking, you hardly need any words. More importantly, you know that you belong to something that really matters. And do you know something?” She looked me directly in the eyes. “There’s no other job in the world like this. I’ve never regretted a day of it, and I’d never want to do anything else.”
“Even though it can be crap?”
“Even though it can be worse than crap. You’re part of something more important than you are. Believe me, that’s quite a privilege.”
Later, as I was sitting and looking over the leaflet I’d picked up at reception entitled A Career in Nursing?, Roger and my flatmate Jane came through the door and ran across to me.
“Madeleine, I’m so so sorry,” he said, pulling me to my feet and into his arms dramatically. “The police came to your flat and told Jane what happened and she phoned me. I knew you were desperately in love with me, but I never thought you’d do something like this.”
I realised that in the confusion, the other paramedic must have picked up my handbag and got my address from my driving licence, thinking it belonged to the girl who’d cut her wrist. His colleague had told him her name was Marion, which is near enough to Madeleine when you’re scrambling through someone’s handbag looking for their identity.
“I blame myself. I should have broken it to you gently,” Roger went on. “I realise that I’m a sort of homme fatale and that I have this devastating effect on women, and I led you on without realising it. I know it’s hard for you, but in a week, or a month, you’ll realise that there can be a way forward in your life without me. One day you might even find someone who’s almost as good as me!”
I was so bemused I could hardly speak.
Then he frowned. “But Madeleine, I don’t like to say this, but please, I beg you, don’t tell anyone about this bit of foolishness. The producers of Home and Loving wouldn’t want any controversy, they might retract their offer of the job if they thought I was a love rat. . . .”
I realised that he hadn’t even once looked at me properly, or bothered to notice that I wasn’t bandaged up, or injured in any way. He was too busy talking about himself.
Suddenly I noticed that his hair was receding from his forehead, and I could see some of the un-dyed grey colour growing out at the roots. And that his lips were very red and rather flabby and his voice was a bit over the top, a bit effeminate if I’m honest. I remembered catching sight of him at a showbiz party recently, hanging onto the words of an elderly gay producer, prepared to flirt with him in the forlorn hope of landing a part.
“Kill myself because of you?” I asked him incredulously. “Don’t flatter yourself!”
Then, without thinking, I punched him in the face, so hard that he fell backwards.
“Just who the fuck do you think you are?”
A few laughing onlookers broke into impromptu clapping and I felt myself blushing. I turned away from him, disgusted to see him pull out the mirror he always carries in his top pocket, checking on the damage. I thanked my flatmate Jane and explained what had happened.
Then I walked over to the nurse at the reception desk to find out if there was any news about Marion. Sue Jackson passed by and smiled at me.
“’Scuse me saying, but that was a bonzer performance just now, cracked me up!” she told me. “I reckon you’ve made the right decision, getting shot of the pretty bloke. Pretty blokes tend to look in the mirror too much, know what I mean? You’re a sight better off with an ugly bugger like the old basket I married.”
I laughed, noticing that she was looking at the leaflet A Career in Nursing? that was still in my left hand.
“Thanks a million for talking to me,” I told Sue. “I just thought I’d—”
“Told you, love.” She silenced me with a conspiratorial grin. “When you’re on the same wavelength as someone you don’t need words. I warn you, the work doesn’t suit everybody,” she continued, then looked me up and down and gave me a matey nod. “But I reckon it would suit you all right.”
(Picture courtesy of muratkalenderoglu from Pixabay)