Claire had ended up in Glasgow through an emergency national recruitment of doctors, an unprecedented snowy winter hitting the Scottish National Health Service’s staff and resources hard. She had accepted the job offer willingly, pushed towards Scotland with the promise of hillwalking and a slower pace of life, driven out of London by exorbitant rents and fast-paced city living. That was what she told her new colleagues. She did not mention that man and their so-called relationship that had soured her love of red buses and the peculiar, unique smell of the Tube.
She had fallen in love with Glasgow easily. She adored her red sandstone tenement flat, with its broad bay windows and elegantly tiled hallway. She loved the way the sun set slowly at night (so much earlier than it had done in London), turning the broad expanse of sky from grey to tones of pinks and yellows. She had even developed a soft spot for Glaswegians, whose razor sharp wit, nosiness and impenetrable accent had initially baffled her.
She worked with a rotation of doctors and nurses who prized hard work, home-made soup, putting out their washing to air dry and charming the elderly patients in their care. They endlessly took the piss out of her English accent, teased her for being posh and easily included her in nights out and morning breakfasts, teaching her tidbits of Scots as they went.
One morning, Rupert’s description of a returning colleague intrigued her. ‘T-yoo-tch-er?’ she repeated after him, baffled.
‘He means anyone who lives more than ten miles away from Glasgow,’ explained Hamish, who had the misfortune of coming from Edinburgh and was thus subjected to the same teasing as Claire, only with slightly less friendliness.
‘Aye, ye ken, a big teuchter,’ put in Angus, adopting the most ridiculously over-the-top Scottish accent. ‘From away up in the Highlands, with the haggis and the sheep.’
‘You’re just jealous,’ said Geilis, lifting her eyebrows over the top of her dark-rimmed glasses to make a face at Claire.
‘Why would I be jealous of a teuchter?’ he said innocently. ‘He’s no very braw, is he?’
Dr Graham gave a most unladylike snort. ‘I don’t think there’s a nurse in here not in love with him.’
‘And more than a few doctors,’ added Geilis. ‘Beautiful,’ she mouthed at Claire, waving her hands for emphasis.
‘Oh aye. He’s just a six foot tall ginger,’ Rupert said dismissively. ‘Nothing to look at all.’
Geilis laughed as she grabbed a file and left the staffroom with a beeping pager.
‘D’ye think that’s squinty?’ asked Angus, standing back from his handiwork with his hands on his hips.
‘Is it what?’ Claire replied, mystified.
He gestured at his ‘GET THE FLU JAB’ poster, which had been prominently pinned up in the staffroom. ‘Is it squinty?’
She gawped at him, totally lost by his choice of adjective.
‘Adding decorator to your list of talents, are ye Angus?’ asked a friendly voice from behind them. Claire registered a change in accent, remembering the Highland doctor they had spoken about yesterday as she turned to face the newcomer.
She had forgotten to close her mouth and felt it drop open wider as she looked up at him. Easily over six foot tall, with striking blue eyes and a mass of reddy curls, he was simply the most beautiful man she had ever seen.
‘Och aye,’ said Angus dryly, ‘we can’t all ski, can we?’
The newcomer blushed slightly, the tips of his ears turning red. ‘Jamie Fraser,’ he said to Claire, extending a huge hand for her to shake. ‘I had a ski-ing accident two months ago.’
‘I’m glad you’re feeling better,’ she said, equally glad to hear her voice come out of her mouth in a relatively dignified manner.
‘Oh, you’re English?’
‘I’d tell you that he banged his head when he fell, but he’s always that dim. Gets by on his looks,’ winked Angus.
She laughed. ‘Yes. I’m from London.’
He begun to reply when their conversation was cut short by their pagers simultaneously blaring into life.
Over the next few hours, Dr Fraser proved to be more than a pretty face, dealing with several complex cases at once. Claire found him easy to work with, noting with pleasure that he spoke to the nurses and porters with respect.
As the chaos of the early evening subsided and the dark of the night fell, she found herself alone at the doctors’ station with him. ‘You’ve settled in well, Sassenach,’ he said quietly, pushing away from the computer and lifting his arms above his head.
She smiled and pushed her own chair back. ‘Yes, I like it here… what did you say?’
‘Sassenach. Outlander,’ he translated, smiling at her.
‘I thought you were the teuchter,’ she replied, surprising herself with the quick reply.
‘Those Weegies have got to you, I see.’ He elbowed her playfully. ‘What I really mean, is that you forgot to introduce yourself.’
She blushed. ‘Oh. Claire. Claire Beauchamp.’
He repeated it after her with the French pronunciation. ‘Beauchamp, no?’
‘Anglicized, I’m afraid.’
He tutted. ‘It’s not your fault, I suppose.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘How’s your leg?’
‘Bit stiff,’ he admitted. ‘I couldn’t have any longer off though. I broke it right before the big snow came in October, couldn’t have been a worse time. McKenzie threatened to- well, I can’t repeat it in front of a lady- if anyone else is off this winter.’
‘It is good to have another doctor here. It’s been so busy.’
‘I think we’ll be good together,’ he said.
As she walked home the following morning, the sky a beautiful red, she couldn’t help herself coming back to that comment, and whether or not she had imagined his eyes twinkling as he said it.
Claire had willingly accepted the Christmas Day shift. Although she had been deeply touched by her colleagues, who had each pulled her aside and told her that she would be more than welcome in their homes, she didn’t want to be the stray at the table and she certainly didn’t want any more inquests into her personal life.
Jamie had swapped shifts with a colleague with young children, casually mentioning that he was single again. This tidbit of gossip had spread through the hospital like wildfire, resulting in a steady stream of female medical staff finding excuses to visit Ward 75. The team found this an endless source of entertainment, although Geilis personally championed Claire’s chances.
‘He likes you,’ was her constant refrain. ‘We’re just friends,’ she would reply, although she looked forward to quiet night shifts with the giant Highlander more than she cared to admit.
The NHS’ December promise was to get as many of its patients home for the holidays, although it was proving difficult. The biting cold and icy conditions were beginning to have an effect. The wards were also populated by those who had caught the flu. ‘Bad strain this year,’ became as commonplace a greeting between colleagues as ‘Looking forward to the holidays?’ and ‘All set for the big day?’.
Claire was called to cover another ward as well as her usual number 75, spending her day running between the two and averting, it seemed, calamity after calamity. Jamie had been drafted in to Accident and Emergency, ruefully blaming his height. ‘McKenzie says I’ll frighten off the roasters,’ he complained.
They didn’t cross paths until Claire opened the door to the staffroom two hours after her planned finish time. Jamie was pulling his scrubs over his head, revealing a broad, muscled chest and sculpted arms. He beamed as he saw her. ‘I was looking for you earlier! I wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas.’
‘Does it still count?’ she asked, lifting her eyes up to the clock above his head, which pointed to well into the night.
‘It does if you’ve been working,’ he answered agreeably, pulling a sweater over his hair and ruffling a hand through his curls. ‘Are you ready?’
They started off home together, marvelling at the lack of traffic and the peace in the city centre. The conversation drifted along easily, their breath turning white against the freezing night sky.
‘This is me,’ interrupted Claire suddenly, as they came to a stop outside her building. ‘Jamie, I’m sorry, I didn’t realise I was talking so much.’
‘Nah, it was lovely. I like chatting to ye.’ She turned to look up at him, only to find he was looking down at her as if she had hung the moon and sprinkled the snow on the trees.
‘Merry Christmas Jamie,’ she said softly. ‘Merry Christmas, darling,’ he whispered back.
It was the soft rolled rs of darling which made her reach onto her tiptoes. It was the way her curls peeked out from under her sensible hat which made him wrap his arms around her and gently brush her lips with his own.
Neither of them could quite explain how the gentle kiss turned into one where tongues sought and gained permission, where hands and arms pulled the other in closer and where two sets of feet eventually turned to come in the front door.
In years to come, that Christmas in Glasgow would become an example. Medical students were lectured on it, those with a ladder to climb wrote theses on it, governments made contingency plans which used it as an example of the ‘worst case scenario’.
Glaswegians had unwittingly spread the deadliest flu strain in one hundred years as they sat together, prayed, opened gifts and toasted another year. They had infected their loved ones, the colleagues they had drunkenly kissed under the mistletoe, the strangers they had sat beside on the bus home.
As survivors, Claire and Jamie Fraser would give evidence in Holyrood and in Westminister. They would be interviewed by prominent scientists and would write their own papers on their experience of the Christmas flu epidemic which had claimed so many lives.
They would not add
that it was the night I took my clothes off in front of a man I barely knew, who looked at me as if I was the only woman in the world
that it was the night I kissed the love of my life and she took me to bed
that it was the night I thought that my heart might burst
They would recount, separately, how they received news that this was no longer a bad strain, but a full blown epidemic. ‘Legally, I’m not calling you,’ barked McKenzie down the phone to Jamie. ‘But we need hauners,’ he continued. ‘This is bad, and I’m using the CHARLIE protocol. You know what it means. You’ve got an hour.’
Jamie nudged Claire’s shoulder gently. She had heard his phone ring and rolled onto her side, burrowing into her blankets. ‘Jamie, we can’t go in. We’ve exceeded the legal hours.’
He put his hand on her shoulder. The touch made her turn to look at him. His expression banished any doubt that this was a one-off, that he would disappear the following morning and they would be making awkward eye contact at the water cooler from now on.
‘I think it’s an emergency, Sassenach.’
On cue, Claire’s phone rang. Chief McKenzie began the same message, using his ultra polite telephone voice this time. Jamie snorted and rolled his eyes.
‘I think this is bad,’ she said, putting her phone back on her bedside locker. He took her hand, gently stroking it with his thumb. ‘This is good, though,’ he said simply. She couldn’t help but blush. ‘Yes.’
‘It’s not… usual, there’s something there,’ he added, a bashful blush tipping his ears.
‘I think there is,’ she said openly. ‘I was hoping… it wasn’t a one-off?’
His easy charm and confidence returned. ‘Good. Mine tonight?’
She had laughed and pulled him back on top of her.
They would have described it as a moment of madness, but as the madness of the next twelve hours unfolded, the actions of two people in love could only be described as harmonious.
hauners is a particularly charming piece of Glaswegian vocabulary used to ask for help (yer hauns are your hands).
They knew three things: it was infectious, it was fast and it was deadly. Chief McKenzie had summed up the situation with characteristic abruptness as ‘fuckin chronic’ and taken matters into his own hands, activating the protocols which had initially been devised in the face of the Ebola virus. In the following hours, the government would declare a state of emergency, containing all citizens to their homes and bringing in the army to deliver rations, transport necessary workers and install decontamination units.
It was a horrific virus, its symptoms exacerbated by its victims. The elderly, infirm and children seemed immune; this was a disease which targeted healthy young men and women, killing them within hours.
Claire lost count of the numbers of young lawyers, teachers and engineers who perished as she walked the wards in her haz-mat suit. It seemed like there would be no-one left to run the city; she recognised the happy-go-lucky charmer who had plumbed in her new bathroom, the serious young woman who processed her bills and payslips at the bank, and the student who lived in the flat below hers. All died within hours of each other.
The great universities of the city had been placed in quarantine as their medical and chemistry teams worked around the clock to find a solution. The hospital’s medical staff were installed in dormitories which could be deep-cleaned by army grade supplies. They were rigorously checked for any sign of illness by terrifying army medics, completely anonymous in their camouflaged hazmat suits.
Jamie’s dormitory was one floor above Claire’s in the old nurses’ quarters. A country child at heart, he craved fresh air and had taken to stealing off into dark corners at night, desperate to escape the tension. A few thumps through a shoogly board had led to what he optimistically described as a balcony and what Claire sarcastically christened ‘Fraser’s Ridge’.
They rarely interacted in their shifts now. There could be no stolen glances or smiles through the mesh which covered their faces. There could be no innocent touches of the hand on the small of a back or forearm in the hazmat space-suits, which dwarfed Claire and transformed Jamie into a ferocious looking bulk.
But when their shifts were over, and they passed through their decontamination unit, had their vital signs re-assessed and were deemed fit to return to their bunk, they could escape through the drafty corridors and climb onto the Ridge.
The narrowness of the ledge made proximity a necessity. As the sun set on a perishingly cold New Year’s Eve, they sat side by side, holding hands and dangling their legs like teenagers at the beach. An ornate stone screen rose in front of them, dimming the city lights.
‘It’s New Year,’ Jamie said suddenly. ‘What time is it?’
‘Nearly midnight,’ Claire answered softly.
He didn’t speak again, but lifted his thumb up to brush her lips. She obligingly leaned into him, running her hands up his bare arms and resting on his shoulders. He pressed her backwards, cupping her head until she rested flat on the ledge.
‘I can’t fall, can I?’ she gasped, disorientated by the change in view.
His answer came just as the bells heralding the New Year began to ring, sorrowful and joyful and hopeful all at once. ‘I’m holding you,’ he promised. ‘We can’t fall.’
The week from Christmas to New Year was a blur of illness and death. After the dawning of the New Year, the spread of the flu seemed to slow. Gradually, the targets were met; fewer people were admitted to hospital, fewer people died. Finally a cocktail of medications was found to be effective and the pandemic was officially downgraded.
Claire found it a privilege to return to medicine again, to hold answers in her brain and cures in her hands. The hospital felt like home again, although the thought of her own home sat in her heart like a stone. The single medics with no dependents had been asked to volunteer to remain in their hospital accommodation in case of a recurrence; she had gladly signed the form and even more gladly fell into her bunk at the end of each day with only the usual bone-tiredness.
The medical staff were lectured by shouty army-types about maintaining strict infection controls, but the mood had noticeably lightened. A demonstration of the correct method of removing scrubs was accompanied by a wolf whistle from the back of the lecture hall and an impromptu phonetic rendition of the introductory chords of ‘Hot Stuff’. The resulting hilarity drowned out the officer as he vainly tried to maintain some semblance of professionalism.
Jamie wiped tears from his eyes and emitted a sound which could only be described as a giggle. ‘I thought he was going to hurl the board duster at me,’ he whispered to Claire. ‘My maths teacher fired one at me once and hit me square on the nose.’
‘Talkin,’ he grinned. ‘I was trying to flirt with the pretty girl sitting next to me.’
‘Did it work?’
He grimaced and made what she could only describe as a Scottish noise. ‘Nah. And the duster gave off a cloud of dust and I had to sit there like Caspar the Friendly Ghost until the bell rang’.
Choking back giggles of her own, Claire jumped when Geilis poked her squarely in the back and dropped a folded note down. In keeping with the theme of teenage behaviour, Geilis had drawn two heart bubbles with a J and a C, annotated with ‘kissing in a tree’. She had also added ‘empty in ward 75 tonight?’
The officer had resorted to full parade volume by this point, preventing a reply. Claire nudged Jamie and pointed to the message. He snickered before catching her confusion. ‘Tell ye later’.
An empty, Geilis explained to Claire, was when one’s parents went away on holiday and foolishly entrusted their teenage offspring with an empty house. The initial mood of the Ward 75 reunion was more sombre, as one by one the team reassembled in the dusk and performed a silent roll call.
Glasses were raised and toasts made to honour the memories of Angus’ girlfriend and Rupert’s two siblings. Colleagues were commemorated through tales of hazings, miracles and long-forgotten nights out. Friends and lovers were introduced in spirit, their souls commended into the hands of someone or something more than them, reminded that they’d meet again.
In the haze of Geilis’ home-poured measures, Jamie and Claire had long abandoned the pretence of just sitting next to each other. She was lying on his lap, his arms wrapped around her. At some point, as the sing-song was getting started, they wandered off to the Ridge hand-in-hand to sober up under the stars.
‘I can’t go home alone, Jamie,’ she whispered eventually.
‘Good. I can’t either.’
Glasgow had been deeply wounded by the pandemic. ‘Ah, well, ye jist get on wi’ it, don’t ye?’ was the stock reply from its citizens, despite the lines on their faces and the bags under their eyes which spoke of their unspeakable grief. It seemed that no family had escaped the clutches of the virus.
The stick-thin, jaundiced survivors were equally stoic. Murmurings of ‘it was the Russians, I heard,’ ‘definitely terrorists’ were given short thrift. Small victories, like the re-opening of public transport, the lifting of the curfew and the establishment of a fund to help survivors, were instead championed as a sign the city was beginning to flourish again.
The day that the schools and play-parks were opened again caused many a tear, as the children poured out of their doors and lit up the silent streets with their relief to be outdoors again. The resulting flurry of bumped heads and broken arms in Accident and Emergency was gratefully welcomed, especially by Dr Fraser.
Despite his size, which meant he was usually deployed in A&E to intimidate drunks, Jamie was much more effective at dealing with the children. Not even the crankiest wean with a fever could resist his charms. He was rather less charmed by what he considered as idleness or fecklessness in adults, and his tolerance of whingers had been greatly affected by the loss of so many promising young lives on the flu wards.
He watched Claire working with renewed vigour with admiration. He loved to watch her, pale and solemn, her white hands fluttering as she spoke. She was not the type of woman that men generally looked at and lusted over. She didn’t wear dresses cut down to here and cut up to there. She used her words wisely, neither flirting nor fighting. She was a watcher, with eyes that made Jamie feel as though he was under a spell, cast by a soul that could exist at any point in history.
He would not deny that he had thought he loved many a lass, getting caught up in a blaze of fireworks that would soon fizzle out to darkness. Claire’s light was utterly different, somehow able to dazzle him, scare him and soothe him all at once.
Her vocation was part of her, as much as her curls and her soft accent. He ached to have the same sort of passion, to be worthy of someone so clear of her purpose in the world. Moreover, he knew there would be a choice to make in the future, when the words colleagues and together were raised as a question.
And so Jamie took a deep breath and signed his name on his new contract for the paediatric ward.
‘The cat pure dinghied me. Wouldn’t even look at me,’ said Rupert in disgust. ‘And then I opened the fridge, oh my God…’ The assembled doctors groaned in sympathy; half of them had already undergone the same ordeal. The other half would be returning home to dusty apartments, disgruntled pets and rancid refrigerators that evening.
Claire was too preoccupied to even begin to wonder what on earth Rupert’s cat was doing with a dinghy. Her stomach was churning unpleasantly at the thought of going home. Jamie had promised her they would go together, but the thread of conversation had never been picked up again.
In many ways, he was still a stranger to her. She didn’t know what he kept in his fridge, or what his flat smelled like. She didn’t know if he had photographs in the hallway or on his bedside locker. She had almost had herself convinced that the whole episode was a strange manifestation of Stockholm Syndrome.
But after she had become absorbed in a difficult bone break, he had waited, taking on an extra patient to make sure he could walk home with her, and as they walked through the quiet streets, her small, cold hand was safely entwined in his larger, warm one.
‘I think I should have borrowed my hazmat suit to open my fridge,’ he said with trepidation. ‘It’ll be mingin.’
She laughed quietly, her breath making frost clouds. ‘Thankfully, I had nothing in mine.’
‘I drank the last of your milk,’ he said apologetically.
They paced on in silence until they reached the crossroads. Left for Jamie’s apartment, right for Claire’s. He took her other hand, gently turning her until they were toe to toe, nose to nose, heart to heart.
‘Are you … going home?’ she ventured, staring at the vein that ran along his left hand.
‘I was hoping that you were coming too,’ he said, tilting his head to look down at her. ‘I… I don’t want to pressure you, if you want more space.’
She lifted her eyes to look straight at him. ‘I don’t.’
His smile crinkled the corners of his eyes. ‘It’s always been forever for me, Sassenach.’ She stretched on her tiptoes to press her lips against his. ‘What a line.’ She could feel his smile. ‘It’s true.’
‘I love you.’
‘I love you too.’
pure- very, completely, totally
dingied me- ignored me
hame- home <3
The chief’s my uncle,’ said Jamie, his tone laced with shame.
‘No he’s not!’ she yelped. ‘You’re nothing like him.’
‘Thank God,’ he retorted. ‘And I don’t just mean the baldiness’.
They were sitting on his sofa, facing each other with their legs entwined, the remnants of their ready-meal dinner on the table in front of them. ‘On what side?’
‘He’s my mother’s brother. My full name is James Alexander Malcom McKenzie Fraser.’ Looking her square in the eye, he pronounced each name slowly, carefully and with deliberately rolled ‘r’s . She sighed with pleasure and leaned in to kiss him.
‘Your turn,’ he grinned, topping up her wine glass.
She leaned forward to kiss his nose, tracing his calves through his jeans.
‘I used to be engaged,’ she confessed in a rush. She saw his face fall as she said it and felt the regret wash over her. Damn.
‘To who?’ he asked curiously.
‘He was a history professor. He slept with his secretary,’ she recited robotically, turning her eyes towards the ceiling and trying to keep the tears from wobbling down her cheeks.
He traced the path of a tear with the tip of his finger. ‘He was an arsehole.’
She pulled her lips together, annoyed with herself for ruining the atmosphere. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t be. I’m glad you told me.’
She tilted her head. ‘Are you? Really?’
He shrugged, absentmindedly rubbing her ankle with his thumb. ‘I don’t want there to be any secrets between us. You’ve had your life and I’ve had mine. It’s not as if I’m a virgin, is it?’
She chuckled. ‘Someone taught you how to kiss.’
‘Practised on my elbow,’ he answered cheekily, causing her to choke on her wine and begin to laugh. He laughed alongside her, tilting backwards until she was lying on top of him. He pushed a curl away from her eyes, moving his palms down her shoulders and arms. ‘I think I need some more practice.’
'Ye dancin?’ asked a gentleman in the Accident and Emergency department of the Glasgow Infirmary, leaning on the doctors’ station in what was evidently meant to be a charming, debonnaire manner.
‘Ye askin?’ said Geilis, immediately looking up from her computer. Claire frowned at her, wondering why she was acting so coy with a patient. Geilis generally had no tolerance for the Saturday night clientele.
‘I’m askin,’ he said, with a confidence that belied his rather alarming looking head wound.
‘I’m no dancin and neither are you. Sit down.’ she retorted sharply, to the laughter of the staff and patients around them.
‘One singer, one song,’ she said smugly, pointing to herself. Claire chuckled at the turn of phrase and signed her last form with a flourish. ‘That’s me, Geilis. I’ll see you on Monday.’
‘See you, pet. Jamie was looking for you a while ago.’
Claire made her way through the hospital, ducking quickly up the service stairs to reach the Ridge. Although the upcoming refurbishment of the hospital threatened to close off the entire wing, the small space still belonged only to them.
Jamie sat now in his scrubs, curls ruffling gently in the breeze. ‘Hi love,’ he murmured, wrapping his arms around her. She curled into him, feeling his body heat warm her through his scrubs.
‘I’ve been thinking,’ he began.
She gave him a few seconds. ‘Mmmm?’
‘It’s just…. I….,’ he took a breath and straightened his back. ‘I love you. This thing, between us…. it’s not normal. It’s more than that, Claire.’
‘Jamie,’ she whispered, drawing back slightly to look up at him.
He had thought his voice might wobble as he said the words. She had wondered if she would cry, if he had ever asked. They had both read of pounding hearts, shaking knees and flowing tears.
As it happened, there was calm, for quite simply, he loved her and she loved him.
Legend has it that ‘ye dancin?’ ‘ye askin’ ‘i’m askin’, ‘i’m dancing’ was the chat up line of its day in Glasgow’s famous ‘dancing’ (nightclub).