Puff Piece

money plate 5

Picture is: Money, plate five from Intimacies by Félix Edouard Vallotton (public domain).

Written for NYC Midnight’s short story challenge 2020 round 2.

My brief was as follows:

Genre: A drama
Subject: An injury
Character: A migrant
Time limit: 3 days
Word Count: 2,000 words

“I thought you were writing an article about how valuable migrant doctors are to this country,” said Caroline, looking suspiciously over the table at Ruslana.
It was 2pm. They had met in the coffee shop across the road from the General Doctors’ Union on Euston Road. Ruslana had asked for the meeting to be there, off the record. But the conversation with Caroline, the senior medical officer, was not allaying her fears in the way she wanted it to. She felt her hand reaching to her forehead to push a stray hair under her hijab, a nervous tick she had picked up in Iran. Get a grip, she thought. This is a health bureaucrat, not the Revolutionary Guards. You’re interrogating her.
“I just stumbled across the matter.” said Ruslana, “I’m still writing the pro-migrant piece,” she paused, “it was just an odd statement by your new chief exec about the data.”
“What data?”
“You know the data.”
“Humour me,” said Caroline, getting more defensive. Ruslana had seen this tactic before. If you don’t think someone is ready to stand behind their argument, call their bluff early and corner them into agreeing with your narrative.
“The statistic that 60% of accusations of sexual assaults on patients are against foreign trained doctors.”
“It’s 60% of a tiny number of accusations.”
“I know,” said Ruslana earnestly, “it’s a tiny fraction of a tiny fraction. That’s not the issue. The problem is that your new chief exec said she is trying to ensure less of these cases get to hearings.”
“She’s trying to ensure that foreign trained doctors don’t disproportionately have their careers injured by these accusations.” Caroline’s voice was rising. Ruslana looked around the cafe, nobody was paying them any attention, then she felt her hand against her forehead, moving another invisible hair.
“But if the accusations are real?” she whispered.
“Look, I thought you of all people would understand. We can’t have 60% of charges landing against foreign trained doctors. Not in the ‘current climate’.”
“Current climate?” Ruslana raised an eyebrow.
“Brexit, xenophobia, the rise in hate crimes. Anti-immigrant sentiment is out of control right now.”
Ruslana averted her eyes. This was supposed to be a puff piece about how important migrants were to the healthcare system. Instead, one suspicion has led to another and she had found herself secretly interviewing an alleged victim of a doctor’s assault in Mansfield. A young, working-class, single-mother. Barely working, living mostly off welfare, who said she had been suspicious of her doctor’s style and he had eventually forced himself on her. She had had a mild injury to prove it. But the investigating body had told her not to go to the police, then they didn’t interview her for weeks, by which time her injury had healed. The case was dropped.
Of course she knew this could be a one off case. Which was why she was talking to Caroline now. “Have you spoken to any of the victims personally?”
This time Caroline looked around, “I’ve heard about some of the alleged victims.” She raised an eyebrow as if that was supposed to mean something to Ruslana.
“And,” said Caroline, mumbling through her teeth, “a lot of them are… chavs.”
“You know, white trash,” whispered Caroline, “the type who have nothing to do all day except claim benefits. Going to the doctors is a thing to do for most of them. Frankly, most are racist and looking for something to start a fight about.” Ruslana looked away, pretending to be lost in thought, but actually trying to control her shock. Caroline spoke again, “It’s strange how there are hardly any complaints from middle class patients?”
“If I was playing devil’s advocate I’d say potential predators normally target the most vulnerable.”
Caroline shook her head in a disappointing way, “No. It’s just old fashioned racism.” There was a long silence between them. Caroline took a long breath in, as if she was preparing to reveal her hand earlier than she wanted, “Think about the way it would play in the media, Ruslana. The injury it would cause to migrants… like yourself.”
Ruslana nodded looking out of the cafe window, trying to give the impression she was being convinced. They were quiet for a while, there was nothing else to say.
Ruslana walked slowly to the tube station at Great Portland Street, her mind distracted. The conversation was entirely unsatisfactory. She was hoping Caroline would shine a light on her suspicions and reveal them as an obvious error. She was hoping her interview with an alleged victim in Mansfield would be explained as a one-off. Now she was convinced there was a cover-up. But it seemed surreal. Had she really discovered something sinister. She felt that this was something that happened to investigative journalists, not to hacks for hire like her. Something that happened in Iran, not the UK. She was still sure she would find something that would show it was all a misunderstanding.
She would go home and speak to her partner Rachael. Rachael would put everything into perspective, let her know she wasn’t going mad.
The announcement for the Crouch Hill stop shook her out of her daze. At her flat she instinctively put on the kettle, then changed her mind and made herself a gin and tonic. She took a few gulps then topped it up again. In front of her computer she reviewed all the information she had gathered, hoping she’d got something wrong, but there was no other way to look at it. Everything was pointing towards a scandal.
The front door unlocked and she looked at her phone. 6pm already. She turned and saw Rachael bundling into the flat. She was smiling, positive. Already Ruslana felt slightly reassured. Rachael took off her boots and dropped the grocery bags onto the kitchen unit.
“How’s the piece going?” asked Rachel slowly, “Not that well I guess if you already have the gin out.” She looked over to Ruslana, who was sitting with her back to the computer, touching the hair poking out of her hijab. “What’s going on, babe?” Rachael asked.
“I found something horrible,” Ruslana said. With her eyes fixed on the wall she explained as carefully and coolly as she could, the facts of what she had found. “So, I have a choice. Write the benign pro-immigration story I was hired to write, or write up a potential scandal.”
When she finished she looked at Rachael, whose face was ashen, “You write the benign piece, Ruslana.”
“Really?” Ruslana was shocked. She was sure Rachael would be outraged at even the suggestion of a cover-up.
“Jesus, Ruslana. Imagine the backlash if you wrote about the perceived cover-up.”
“There should be a backlash!” said Ruslana, but she was concerned about Rachael’s use of the word ‘perceived’. She touched her forehead, again. “If this is true, this is a huge scandal with voiceless victims.”
“But it’s obviously not true.”
Ruslana looked confused, “What do you mean it’s not true? I have it on the record, it’s a policy to massage the complaint numbers against certain groups.”
“Yes, they should be doing that.”
“Come on Ruslana, the accusations are obviously false. How can such a high percentage of legitimate accusations come from such a small percentage of doctors?”
“Maybe because there’s a cultural problem in some groups of men?” said Ruslana uneasily. For the first time she could remember, Rachael wasn’t on her side. Suddenly she felt alone. Ruslana knew, from cold experience, that different cultures treated women very differently. Now she saw Rachael as naive, sheltered and a danger, not a protector, to women. She’d never thought of her this way. The tinder of panic had been lit inside her stomach.
“Ruslana, you sound like you’re saying all foreign doctors are criminals?”
Ruslana’s grip on her own memories, on her own belief that her thoughts were credible, was crumbling as she tried to explain the nuance of her position to someone she just expected to understand her, “Only a tiny fraction of doctors are accused of these crimes. But the fact is 60% of them are trained abroad. Trained abroad, not born abroad. Foreign doctors trained in the UK aren’t being disproportionately accused in this way. So it can’t be just patient racism. It is something systemic. Maybe it’s something as innocent as the background checks with foreign doctors aren’t as thorough. But the data is real. And they’re trying to cover it up.”
“If you write an article saying that the healthcare system is covering up crimes by foreign trained doctors, nobody is going to see the nuance. The narrative is going to be that immigrant doctors are touching up their patients. The far-right is going to have a field day.”
“What far-right? A few YouTubers and the 150 people who turn up to English Defence League marches? There is no real far right in this country. Let me take you to Iran if you want to see the far-right. Oh wait, I can’t because I won’t even get off the plane before I’m arrested.”
“Ruslana, you know there has already been a rise in hate crime since, Brexit…”
“So I’m supposed to ignore the women who are being assaulted by their doctors,” Ruslana interrupted, raising her voice, “and ignore a cover up because it might increase the chances of me getting called a towel-head by some drunk yob?”
“I can’t believe you of all people are saying this,” said Rachael.
Ruslana felt a nauseating sense of deja-vu, “I can’t believe you’re saying this, Rachael. Who are you? You’re supposed to be a feminist. There are vulnerable women being silenced here.”
“If you blow this up, it isn’t going to injure the white, patriarchal power structures. This is going to feed their narrative and hurt people like you, Ruslana.”
Ruslana looked at Rachel shaking her head until she said quietly, “It’s these criminal doctors who are importing a patriarchal culture, I’ve seen…”
“You can’t other-ise another culture like that!” interrupted Rachael, snapping in a way Ruslana had never experienced before. She sat up, shocked.
“What are you talking about?” said Ruslana, trying to sound cool, but struggling to keep her trembling voice in check, “Who are you trying to protect here?”
“Our side, Ruslana! The side of LGBTQ people, religious minorities, people of colour…”
“And what about white, working-class single mums with no education? Are they just cannon fodder?”
“They’ve had their time, they’ve had every privilege, you cannot put this ammunition in the public domain.”
Ruslana looked at Rachael earnestly, trying to give the impression that she was understanding her point of view. Rachael started to put away the groceries and asked Alexa to play a feminist podcast.
Ruslana turned back to her computer. She had two email windows open in her browser. One contained the written-up of the puff piece. The other contained all the evidence of the cover-up and her interview with the alleged victim. In the ‘bcc’ bar were sub-editors from every news organisation in the UK. She deleted the first email and sent the second, took a deep breath in and shut down the computer. She looked at Rachael putting away the food and felt a sudden instinct to run, like she hadn’t felt since she lived in Iran.
“Rach, I’ve had too much to drink. I’m going to go out for a walk.”
“Ok,” said Rachael cheerily, as if the intensity of their conversation hadn’t just happened. “Dinner will be ready in 45 minutes.” It reminded her of the way that the police in Iran could turn on and off their terror. From rottweiler to puppy dog in the space of a sentence. She went to her bedroom and opened the shoe box at the bottom of her wardrobe that contained the £10,000 panic fund she kept ready and picked up five pairs of underwear and socks. Then she left the flat under the cover of the feminist podcast.

The end.

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