“Merry Xmas, Dr. Berriman!”
Tom paused to stare at the perky receptionist. Did people actually say “Xmas” rather than “Christmas” these days? Well, Cheryl obviously did. In her flashing LED Rudolph earrings and Santa hat, she was a walking advert for all that was both tacky and cheerful about the season. She’d been wearing them for the past week, but at least on Christmas Eve they were somewhat more appropriate. If only he could get into the spirit of things by the simple expedient of donning tinsel and festive jewelry. Instead, he had the depressing prospect of spending tomorrow with a microwaveable turkey dinner for one and a rerun of The Great Escape.
“Ooh, Dr. B., what d’you think of the decorations now? That electrician fella got the lights working again. Don’t they look smashing?”
Tom glanced around the waiting area of High Wycombe’s Accident and Emergency department. There was the usual assortment of mismatched gilt streamers and clusters of gaudy plastic baubles he’d come to expect in NHS buildings around this time of year, now joined by a lonely string of flashing lights pinned to the polystyrene ceiling tiles. A spectacular light show it most surely was not.
But then, there in the center, perched on a stepladder like an angel on a tree, was the most attractive pair of legs he’d seen in a long time.
“Mmm, yes, very nice. Gorgeous.” And they were. Clad in blue overalls, the fabric baggy around the calves but growing ever closer-fitting up the thighs before stretching taut over the well-formed buttocks that crowned them. Yep, Tom was a man who knew how he liked his gluteus maximus, and these were just about perfect. It was a good thing the electrician had his top half stuck through the ceiling panel next to the strobing light fixture, because it’d almost certainly be a let-down compared to the long, muscular legs.
Tom blinked hard and forced his feet to move toward the staff room, wondering if Cheryl had followed his gaze. It wouldn’t do to out himself so quickly, would it? He’d only been here a fortnight, and anyhow, he preferred to keep his private life just that: private.
He thought of the all the out and proud nurses, and occasional doctors, he’d met over the years. There seemed to be so many of them these days. He envied their freedom. Coming to terms with his sexuality at the time when the media was full of headlines about the “gay plague” hadn’t been easy. He’d had nightmares about that AIDS gravestone in the TV public health warnings for years. It would tower over him from the end of his bed, and he’d lie there, frozen, waiting for it to come crashing down.
The staff room was mercifully empty of chattering nurses, and as he stirred three spoons of sugar into the dishwater coffee, he found himself wondering if moving back down here had been a mistake. Sure, the job was much more pleasant: he didn’t find himself having to battle to save the lives of youngsters who’d somehow managed to get themselves caught in the middle of a gang war like he did back in Manchester; but on the other hand, in a small town like this, he’d lost a certain anonymity. Besides the fact that he’d been to school here and could potentially be recognized by anyone at any time, there was only the one gay bar in town. He’d noticed the rainbow flag now adorning the window of the Dog and Sixpence—which when he’d left town had been a notorious biker’s pub—but hadn’t yet plucked up the courage to walk in there, despite not having had a shag in months.
His reverie about burly, leather-clad bikers was broken by a loud pop and flickering lights, followed by a muffled crashing sound and Cheryl’s shrill call for help.
Tom rushed out into the waiting area. A small crowd of onlookers had already formed. He saw the workman’s ladder lying across the main aisle in front of the reception desk. From the hole in the ceiling tiles, there hung a wire. It wasn’t doing anything as sinister as sparking, but he ordered the rubberneckers back to their seats for their own safety. A young nurse bent over the supine man in blue.
“What do we have?” Tom asked her, kneeling down on the other side of the man’s head.
“Electrical burns to his left hand, front, and back. He’s unconscious but breathing normally. I was about to check for spinal injury before moving him.”
“I’ll do that.” He was on the best side, with the man’s back to him. As his dispassionate fingers felt along the vertebrae and around the occipital and parietal bones, a less clinical part of his mind observed that the top half of the electrician was rather more impressive than he’d been expecting. Broad shoulders filled out the white T-shirt under the overalls, and his closely cropped hair revealed a finely shaped skull. The hair was soft under his fingers, salt and pepper with a white patch the size of a fifty pence coin behind his right ear. Funny, that. He remembered the overweight kid with the vitiligo at school. It had been in a similar spot, but it couldn’t be him. He’d be long gone from here, and anyway, despite his bulk, there was nothing overweight about this man.
“He’ll have a nasty contusion, no doubt, but he’s safe to move to a cubicle. I’ll be back to have a proper examination when he’s settled.”
After checking in on one of his earlier patients, the redoubtable Mrs. Brown, who today claimed to have swallowed half a bottle of Toilet Duck—last week it was allegedly Persil Color laundry liquid—Tom swung by the cubicle containing his unlucky electrician. He shooed out the nurse and took a closer look at the patient. Even unconscious he was an attractive man, with strong bone structure, full lips, and silvery stubble thick on his cheeks. Tom distracted himself by examining the paperwork. Pulse, blood pressure, heart rate, breathing: all stable. Burn to left hand, second degree: washed and dressed. Patient’s name… no, surely not. But then again, he had that patch of white hair too.
A soft huff drew Tom’s focus from the name spelled out in bold, black ink. He looked up to meet a pair of blinking, gray-blue eyes.
“Vincent Draper.” It should have been a question, followed by a brief rundown of his current condition. Instead, it came out as an awed whisper. Last time he’d seen Vincent, he’d been a ball of blubber squeezed into a school uniform. Plastic-rimmed glasses—the cheap, NHS issue ones—had obscured his eyes, and a melancholic aura had set him even further apart from the rest of the grammar school lads. They’d picked on him mercilessly. Called him VD and made filthy jibes about his mum. They’d shoved him around, safe in the knowledge that VD didn’t have the guts to fight them off.
And then that last time… that last time things had gone too far.