Doctors in the Block

  • 15 Apr - 21 Apr, 2023
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

The incident that started all this was completely ludicrous. It couldn’t have lasted more than fifteen seconds, twenty at the most, but I’d better describe it carefully – so much seems to hinge on it.

It was one of those really glorious early summer days. The first time we had felt like sitting outside at lunchtime. Rita and I never used the canteen, we always brought our own sandwiches and found somewhere quiet to eat our lunch together if we possibly could. It was our normal routine, the only time we could meet in the working day, because of course she was in the Special Care Baby Unit and I was a junior registrar on one of the surgical wards, so we were in completely different buildings. In some ways that made it easier to avoid gossip – I’m sure you know what it’s like on the wards.

Anyway, that particular day – early May – we were sitting together on the grass in the park beyond the main gates, just eating and chatting, loads of people all around us sitting in couples like us, or in little groups, or lying back and enjoying the bit of sun. We were chatting very quietly when we heard some kind of angry shout from a young blonde woman about a hundred yards in front of us, near the fountain. She had an outdoor coat over her nurse’s uniform and she was with a man. They had been sitting down, but as she shouted she stood up and tried to move away from him. He grabbed her forearm and shouted something back at her and she pulled her arm free. Then she said something else to him and stormed off towards the hospital gates, which of course meant towards us. I hadn’t been able to make out anything that either of them said, all I was able to catch was the intonation, the venom of the little exchange.

I’m sure I wouldn’t have given the incident another thought, they were both young and it looked like a minor lovers’ tiff, but as she came close I realised that she was crying, and Rita surprised me by speaking to her. ‘Meg! What did he do to you? What’s wrong, pet?’

She shook her head to indicate that she didn’t want to talk about it and hurried past us.

I looked over at Rita.

‘You know her?’

‘Of course I know her. It’s Meg. She’s part of the Neonatal Unit. I’ve told you about her.’ Rita started to gather the wrappers back into her empty sandwich box and stood up. ‘I have to talk to her. Make sure she’s all right.’

I stood up too, out of a deeply-conditioned compulsion to act the role of the gentleman, but doing so ensured that she was gone before I had time to collect my own litter and match her pace. Feeling a bit foolish I tried to remember what she had told me about Meg. Then I put it all out of my mind and made my way back to the scrubbing-up room. I had a very busy afternoon ahead of me.

And that was it. Absolutely all there was to it – the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, as they say in court. A brief exchange of harsh words, an upset girl. An everyday storm in a perfectly standard teacup.

Or so it seemed.

Living with Rita was a novelty and I loved it. Her shifts usually ended a couple of hours later than mine and I used to get quite excited waiting for her to get home. I tried to be romantic. I used to buy her flowers, or little trinkets that I thought she would like, or cook an evening meal for her. She made jokes about my surgical dissection of a chicken, or how I would use a stopwatch to time my boiled eggs to the exact second. It’s always been in my nature; I was always a precise sort of person. It was probably fortunate for my patients that I was.

We certainly weren’t similar, but we complemented one another. In medicine as in life, I liked to know exactly what I was doing, why I was doing it and what outcome it was likely to produce. She preferred to live in a world of emotions, empathy, nurturing – the kind of loving care that tiny premature babies need to get them through those vital first few hours, days and weeks. We each admired the other for the qualities that we lacked ourselves.

That evening, the day we had seen the incident in the park, Rita came home looking flushed and agitated. She paid no attention to the salad meal I had laid out for the two of us on the table, with the tall candle in its holder in the exact centre and the bottle of South African Merlot that I had opened to ‘breathe’ thirty minutes prior to her arrival. Instead she flopped down into the settee and started to talk. Meg was still very much on her mind. ‘She’s putting in a formal complaint this time. You’re going to help us, aren’t you?’

‘A formal complaint? I think you’ll have to explain.’

‘Sexual harassment. You saw it. You know what I’m talking about.’ I think I must have stared blankly. ‘In the park. The assault we witnessed.’

I understood then, even dimly saw what was coming, and felt very uncomfortable. ‘Rita, we didn’t witness any assault.’

There was momentary silence. ‘Are you mad? What do you call that then?’ Something sinister had entered her voice.

‘They shouted at one another. Your friend Meg walked away. I don’t know what they said to one another but nobody got assaulted.’

Her expression became calm, as though she were speaking to a child. ‘Larry, this thing has a history. I told you about it weeks ago but I don’t think you remember. He’s her boss and he hasn’t left her alone since she arrived in the Unit. Every second that she’s on her own, there he is, tormenting her. But he’s clever. He doesn’t do it when anybody’s watching. This is the first time she’s had witnesses. And the first time he’s actually molested her.’

‘Molested her? When we were watching? You mean when he grabbed her arm?’

‘She was bruised. He left an actual bruise on her left arm. She showed it to us. He could hardly tear her clothes off in a public park, now, could he? Why are you being so… unfeeling? So cold. Would you be the same if it was me he’d groped?’

At that point I decided I needed a glass of the Merlot. Rita wouldn’t have one. ‘You’ve lost me, sweetheart. Honestly. They had some sort of argument and he grabbed her arm for a fraction of a second when she tried to leave. He didn’t grope her. It wasn’t an assault, sexual or otherwise. As far as I could see she gave as good as she got.’ Rita switched on the silent treatment. ‘I’m sorry, but I think you’re over-reacting. What we saw wasn’t an assault.’ Silence. ‘What has he been doing to her then? When he gets her alone? You said that was the first time he molested her. So what is it that he’s been doing to her?’

Her chin trembled. ‘Giving her unwanted attention. Hassling her. Embarrassing her.’

‘But only verbally. And you only have her word for it. Is that right?’

‘What do you mean, I only have her word? Do you think she’s lying? Do you think she’s making it up? She’s exaggerating because she’s a silly woman, is that it?’

I thought I would try the path of least resistance. ‘Okay. Sorry. You’re right. If she wants me to come forward I’m willing to describe what I saw. But not what I didn’t see. Is that all right?’

‘I never thought you were like that.’ Her voice had become quiet and menacing. “All men together, aren’t you? Sticking up for one another. It’s the kind of thing you laugh about in the pub, isn’t it? God, I’m disappointed…’

‘And what do you think you’re doing? Because she’s a woman she must be telling the truth? How is that any different?’ I could see that I was straying into much deeper water than I had intended. I paused and thought very carefully about what I would say next. ‘Look, sweetheart, relationships between the sexes are a minefield. Men almost always get it wrong. I understand that. And there are rules. There’s a game to be played. And it’s all full of hurt and embarrassment. It isn’t easy for either men or women to accept when they’re not wanted.’


‘No, hear me out, please. The first couple of times I asked you out, you refused, didn’t you? And I very nearly gave up. It takes a hell of a lot of courage to tell a beautiful woman that you want her – that you find her attractive. And it almost always gets you a rejection. Sometimes a civilised rejection, sometimes a nasty one. I don’t think you understand that. I doubt if anybody has ever rejected you in your whole life. Your side holds all the cards, but it's never acknowledged. Darwin understood it. Sexual selection is exercised by the woman, not the man. Men ask all the time and women say no all the time. How many times did I have to ask you before you said yes? Before you would have anything to do with me? Was I hassling you? Was that some kind of assault? Should I have given up and gone away?’

She looked at me more coldly than she ever had before. ‘Maybe you should.’

The conversation rolled on. I don’t think I need to tell you all the details. We managed to keep things civilised, but only just. That night I slept on the settee. In the morning we barely spoke. We'd never had a row before so I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, how I was supposed to make up. I think what was required of me was to agree to tell the disciplinary committee whatever she wanted me to. Swear that black was white. I wasn’t willing to do that. It was stalemate.

Then, in the middle of the morning, when I’d just finished assisting at a simple operation and had a bit of free time, I suddenly thought of something that I'd overlooked before. Only a small detail but a very important one. I couldn’t wait. I needed to tell Rita straight away, to show her that she had been taken in, that Meg was just as capable of lying as anybody else. I pulled on a lab coat to cover my surgical greens and hurried over to the maternity block. If only I had been a bit more patient, but I needed to make my point straight away, and I did.

I had never approached Rita in her work base before. I found her in the little day room with three others, where the ward sister was just completing a briefing. Neither Meg nor her alleged tormenter were present. I excused myself and said that I needed to talk to her for a moment, being careful to refer to her as ‘the staff nurse’. I took her to one side and spoke as quietly as possible so that the others wouldn’t hear: ‘Rita, you told me last night that Meg showed you a bruise on her left forearm. Correct?’ She nodded, looking very uncomfortable. ‘Okay, think about what we saw. Meg was sitting to his left. When she stood up, which arm was it that he grabbed?’ I could tell from her change of expression that she understood. But I was certain that she wasn’t going to acknowledge it. She turned to go, and that was when I did something very foolish. I put my hand on her shoulder to stop her going, but somehow the gesture caught her off balance and there was an almighty crash as she went tumbling down, taking the laden trolley by her side with her.

Three faces turned and three pairs of eyes fixed themselves on me like wolves in a forest clearing who had cornered their prey.

A career in surgery is pretty well out of the question for someone with a conviction for common assault. A waste of training and talent, but that’s the way things are. I don’t mind working in medical research though. I chose neuropsychology. My field of interest is the structural dimorphism between the brains of men and women and its implications for gender differences in emotional responses and other behaviour.-Anonymous