Healing the Single Dad’s Heart


Healing the Single Dad’s Heart

He never meant to love again… …until he goes to Vietnam! In this The Good Luck Hospital story, widower Scottish GP Joe and his young son are in Vietnam for a fresh start. Volunteering at a humanitarian hospital, Joe is surprised by how quickly he feels at home—which could have something to do with beautiful, intriguing Dr. Lien, his colleague and unofficial tour guide. With her, Joe glimpses a tantalizing future…if he can let go of the past.

CHAPTER ONE

On paper, the journey had seemed so long. But for Joe it had been a blink-and-you’ve-missed-it kind of day. ‘Go and show your little boy a part of the world where you can make some new memories.’ That was what his mother had said to him as she’d handed him the plane tickets to Vietnam.

She had been right. He’d known she was right. And that she was finally giving him the push he needed.

After that, everything had passed in a blur. Getting all their vaccinations, finishing up at work, packing, handing over his house keys to a letting agency and making sure all his mail was redirected to his mother’s house.

By the time he’d sat down on the plane he had been well and truly ready for a rest. But his stomach had had other ideas. It had fluttered in a weird kind of way. It had been so long since he’d felt excitement about something he almost hadn’t recognised the sensation.

Regan had loved the journey. Between watching movies, eating snacks, sleeping and asking questions he’d been a great travelling companion. And now, as they came in to land at Hanoi airport Regan stared in wonder at the green landscape. ‘It’s just like home!’ he said with a smile.

Joe couldn’t stop the ache in his heart. This whole trip was about moving on. He got that. Inside he was ready—up until now he just hadn’t quite managed to take the steps. But every now and then Regan did something—it could be a wave of his hand or a look in his eye—that reminded him of Esther. He’d never push away the ache that came from knowing she couldn’t see this—couldn’t share this moment and be proud of their son and the bright, brave little boy he was becoming.

Joe leaned over and stared out of the window too. He’d half expected to see a city landscape but it seemed Hanoi landing strips were just as green as Glasgow’s. [RJ1] Maybe this place would be more familiar than he expected.

The airport was filled with a melee of people. Joe held tightly to Regan’s hand as they navigated through passport control and collected their luggage. A guy dressed in a white shirt and casual trousers was leaning against a pillar, holding a piece of paper with their names hastily scrawled in black on it.

Dr Joe Lennox and son

He juggled pulling the cases while still keeping hold of Regan as he gave the guy a nod. Around him a dozen languages were being spoken. He just prayed this guy spoke a little English.

‘Dr Joe?’ the guy asked.

He nodded again. The guy held out his hand. ‘Rudi. I’m your ride to the May Mắn Hospital.’ He grabbed hold of the two cases and started walking quickly to the exit. ‘From Scotland?’ he said over his shoulder.

Joe nodded again and bent to pick up Regan, lengthening his strides to keep up.

‘I know all the football teams. Which is your favourite?’

Joe laughed. It didn’t matter where he went on the planet, Scotland was known for its football and most conversations started off this way.

It didn’t take them long to hit hectic traffic. It seemed the whole world travelled by scooter or motorbike in Hanoi. Regan was tired and tucked in under Joe’s arm, snuggling against his chest.

For the briefest of seconds Joe had a moment of doubt. What if Regan didn’t like it here? He didn’t have his grandparents for reassurance. This was completely different from anything Regan had experienced before. As he brushed his hand over his son’s soft hair, he had a flashback to Esther. Regan shared his mother’s adventurous spirit. No matter what they tried, Regan tended to jump in with both feet. Like most young boys he was fearless. And that made Joe’s heart swell. He didn’t ever want his son to lose that element.

After half an hour Joe couldn’t resist winding down the window in the car to let the sounds and smells of the city surround them. The first thing that struck him was how busy the place was, how packed in everything looked, from people to shops to transport to homes.

Colour was everywhere. They drove by a row of shops with red, blue and yellow awnings, while packed above, almost squashed together, were flats.

One was in pink brick, with a balcony on each level, next door was white, with plants trailing down towards the awning beneath, next was the thinnest block of flats he’d ever seen, its first balcony entirely taken up with a dining table and chairs. Next came a pale blue block, littered with children’s toys, then a flat of unknown colour because green foliage completely covered the roof and the outside walls.

It was like a higgledy-piggledy town constructed from a kid’s set of building blocks, and it was utterly charming. The area in front of the shops was packed with street vendors, food carts, a variety of tourist souvenirs, and brightly coloured long-sleeved shirts. A tiny part of the chaos of the stalls reminded him of the Barrowlands back home in Glasgow. He smiled as he wondered if the street vendors here used as colourful language as the guys back home.

The driver pointed out places as they drove into the Ba Dinh district—then into the French quarter. The French Colonial architecture was evident all around them, but as they passed through, it was clear they were moving further away from the more tourist-oriented areas and out towards the suburbs. It was denser here, street vendors everywhere, but poverty was evident at every turn. A little prickle ran down his spine. Again, it reminded him of home. His GP surgery served one of the most deprived areas of Glasgow.

Children were running happily through the streets, and even though they were still in the city, strips of green occasionally showed. The taxi turned down a slightly wider street. The houses were different here, not as packed in as before. These looked like private residences, each with a little more ground around them.

The taxi driver pulled up in front of a large, pale yellow two-storey French colonial-style house that was a little shabby around the edges. There was a sign just above the door: ‘May Mắn Hospital’. The driver turned and smiled, gesturing at the sign and getting out to open the door for them. Joe lifted Regan into his arms and stepped out, letting the close, warm air surround him. ‘Bit of a temperature change from Scotland,’ he said quietly to himself, turning his head from side to side to take in his surroundings.

There were several similar-style buildings. What once must have been residences seemed to have been converted. Two appeared to be restaurants, another a hotel. It was clear that once the houses had been very grand, though now they all looked a bit rundown. Paintwork was a little faded, some shutters on the windows slightly crooked, and most of the houses gave a general air of tiredness. The only thing that seemed bright was the sign above the door: ‘May Mắn Hospital’.

The driver collected their cases from the boot and followed him up the steps to the hospital entrance. He walked through the wide double doors and stopped.

A wave of familiarity swept over him. The smell, the buzz—something he hadn’t felt in six months, maybe even longer. Working as a GP wasn’t the same as working in a hospital, and the crazy thing about hospitals the world over was that, in some respects, they were all the same.

It didn’t matter about the facilities, the climate, or the time. The smell of disinfectant, the quiet hum of voices and brisk footsteps made him take a deep breath and let the edges of his mouth turn upwards.

He had missed this. No matter how much he tried to pretend he hadn’t. Joe had wanted to be a doctor since he was a kid, and for the last six months…

He swallowed. He’d been working. But he hadn’t been enjoying it. He hadn’t loved the job the way he’d once done.

And even though he knew nothing about this place or these people, this felt right.

There was a noise to his right. ‘Can I help you?’

He turned to see a woman at his side. She’d spoken English to him. She could obviously tell he wasn’t from around here. ‘I’m supposed to meet Nguyen Van Khiem, or Nguyen Van Hoa,’ he said, trying to say the names in the right order. ‘The two doctors that run this place.’

As he spun around to face her, she caught sight of the bundle in his arms. ‘Oh,’ she said, taking a step back in surprise. She blinked then took a breath.

For a second the air was still between them. He could see the surprise on her pretty face. He obviously wasn’t quite what she’d expected. But as his eyes took in her dark hair and eyes, the barest hint of make-up and straight white teeth, he realised that this wasn’t quite what he’d expected either. His mother had told him the hospital was run by an older couple with fifty years of experience between them.

The woman spoke. ‘You must be the new doctor. Khiem and Hoa told me you should arrive today.’ She tilted her head as she tried to catch a look at Regan, who was snuggled into his father’s shoulder. ‘This must be…Regan, isn’t it?’

Now he was intrigued. Who was this woman who’d obviously paid attention to the new arrival?

She was a little shorter than him, with shiny dark brown hair tied back with a clip at her neck. She was wearing a pink shirt and black trousers that showed off her neat waist.

She held out her hand towards him. ‘I’m Lien—one of the other doctors that works here.’ Her smile was broad and reached her dark eyes. He must have been looking at her curiously because she filled in the blanks. ‘Dang Van Lien,’ she said, giving her name in full. ‘But the people around here just call me Dr Lien.’

He gave a nod, trying to familiarise himself with saying the family name first. Her handshake was warm and firm. He liked that. She was still holding his hand while she spoke.

‘Khiem and Hoa have been called away. They’re sorry they couldn’t be here to meet you. Come with me. I guess you’ll want to put the little guy down.’ She reached over and grabbed the handle of both suitcases before he had a chance to stop her and tugged them along behind her.

‘Is everything okay?’ he asked as he followed her down the corridor, wondering if everything was going to stop before it even started. He was surprised the doctors who had employed him weren’t here. ‘Where did they have to go?’

She nodded her head. ‘They’ve had to go to one of the other hospitals. It’s a few hundred kilometres away, and some of the staff have taken ill. They’ll probably be away for the next few weeks.’ For a small woman, she had surprisingly long strides. He didn’t even get a chance to really see the facilities before she’d led him out the back of the building and pointed to one of three smaller houses set in the grounds at the back. She shot him a smile. ‘We’re lucky. Good staff facilities here.’

It seemed that the slightly shabby colonial-style house had been hiding some secrets. The grounds at the back were bigger than he would have expected. He hid a smile, likening it to walking into the Tardis in Dr Who. There were green bushes, some trees and the three individual white houses set just far enough away from each other to give some privacy. Each of the houses had a different coloured front door, one yellow, one blue and one lilac.

She led him over to the house with the blue door, swinging it open and flicking a switch. She picked up the key that was hanging on a hook behind the door. ‘Here you go,’ she said as she handed it over.

A warm glow filled the small space. It was cosy. Nowhere near as big as his house back home. There was a small red sofa in the main room and a table with two chairs, then a neat kitchen set in the back. With a smile Lien showed him the two compact bedrooms, both beds covered with mosquito nets, and bathroom.

It didn’t matter that the space was small. There was something about the furnishings and décor that made it welcoming. He laid Regan carefully down on the white bedspread, ensured the mosquito net was in place, then paused for a second and pulled something from Regan’s small backpack. He didn’t want Regan to wake up with nothing familiar around him.

The picture frame held two pictures of Esther. In one, shortly after delivery, she was pale, holding Regan wrapped in a white blanket, and in the other Esther was much brighter—it was taken a year before her diagnosis with acute myeloid leukaemia and Regan said it was his favourite picture of his mum. In it she was laughing on a beach as her blonde hair blew in her eyes. Joe’s fingers hovered over the photo as he placed it on the bed next to Regan’s head and backed out of the room, leaving the door open.

‘I need a story,’ Regan whispered with his eyes still closed.

Joe looked at the stuffed-full cases and Lien caught his gaze. She gave a little shrug. ‘I have a never-ending stack of stories. Why don’t you let me tell him one while you try to get yourself settled?’

Something inside him twinged. Telling Regan a bedtime story had been part of their bedtime routine for the last four years. He was tired himself, though, his brain not really computing what time of day it was. Fatigue told him that it might be nice for Regan to hear a story that wasn’t one of those he’d repeated time and time again over the years. New stories were in short supply. ‘That’s really kind of you,’ he said. ‘Thank you.’

‘No problem,’ said Lien as she sat at the edge of Regan’s bed and launched into a story about dragons.

Joe was actually sad that Regan was so sleepy. He would relish a story like this. Still, it gave him time to open their cases and find their toiletries and some clothes for the next day, along with their mosquito repellent. Everything else could wait.

Lien appeared next to him just as he was trying to shake the creases out of a shirt. ‘He’s gone,’ she said quietly. ‘I think he was halfway there when I started.’

Lien moved over to the kitchen. ‘Tea?’ she asked, holding up a pair of cups. She opened the fridge and a few cupboards. ‘Don’t worry, Hoa has filled the fridge and cupboards with some staples for you.’

‘She has? That was kind of her.’

Lien gestured to the red sofa. ‘Sit down. You must be tired.’ She gave him a curious look. ‘Scotland? Isn’t it? You’ve come along way.’

Joe relaxed down onto the sofa. It was just as comfortable as it looked. He watched as Lien moved easily around the kitchen, boiling water and preparing the tea. The smell drifting towards him was distinctly floral. This wasn’t the strong black tea he was used to in Scotland.

A few minutes later Lien handed him the steaming cup of pale yellow liquid. He tried to give an unobtrusive sniff. ‘What kind of tea is this?’

She settled next to him, her leg brushing against his jeans. ‘The best kind, jasmine. Haven’t you tried it before?’

It smelled like perfume, but he wasn’t going to say that out loud, so he balanced the cup on his lap and turned a little to face her. ‘Thanks for this. You didn’t need to.’

‘I did.’ She grinned, eyes glinting as she sipped her own tea. ‘It’s bribery. I’m just trying to make sure you’ll be fit to work tomorrow. The jasmine tea should relax you a little, and hopefully you’ll get some sleep and your body clock will adjust.’

He nodded. ‘Ah, bribery. Now I understand.’

She gestured with her hand to the window in front of them. It looked back over to the main building. ‘Tomorrow will be busy, a baptism of fire.’ She pulled a face and gave a shrug. ‘There’s some kind of norovirus bug out there right now. We’re getting lots of dehydrated kids and adults.’

Joe shuddered. ‘Norovirus. Perfect.’

He waited a second then gave her another curious look. ‘How long have you been here?’

‘All my life,’ she replied simply. ‘Born and brought up in Hanoi. Trained here, then spent a year in Washington and another in Dublin.’ She gave him a smile. ‘I wanted to see the world.’

‘But you came back?’

She hesitated for a second. ‘Of course. I trained with Duc. He’s Khiem and Hoa’s son. This local hospital has been here since I was kid. They opened it with some money they inherited, and have kept it running ever since.’

‘The government doesn’t pay?’

She pulled a face. ‘They make a contribution. Hanoi has a population of over six million…’ she let out a laugh ‘…with nearly as many motorbikes. The government is trying to get a handle on our health system, but it’s nowhere near as robust as the system in the UK. In most circumstances, you still have to pay to see a doctor in Vietnam.’

‘And can the people around here pay?’

She shook her head and held out both hands. ‘That’s why we’re here. We offer free healthcare to anyone who attends. Immunisations for kids. Prenatal health care for mothers. And anything else too.’

Now he’d sat down he realised his bones were actually aching, along with every muscle in his shoulders. Travelling did that to you. The aroma from the tea was strong, vibrant. He took a sip of the hot liquid and tried to let his taste buds acclimatise. He was conscious of the fact that Lien’s dark eyes were watching him carefully.

He held up the cup. ‘Not too bad.’

She shot him a suspicious glance. ‘Well, get used to it. Jasmine tea and iced coffee are the norm around here.’

He lifted one hand to give his tired eyes a rub. ‘Your English is great. I’m a bit worried about tomorrow. Let’s just say I’m not entirely fluent in Vietnamese. I’ve learned a few words, but I couldn’t hold a proper conversation.’

She shook her head and waved a hand. ‘Don’t worry. We have a full-time interpreter in the hospital. She’ll normally be around to help you. A number of our nurses are bilingual too. You should manage fine.’

She nodded towards the bedroom. ‘Have you made arrangements for your son?’

He glanced to the little sleeping figure on the bed. ‘Yes, I’ve registered him at the international school just a few streets over. Khiem had sent me details about it. I’ve to take him there tomorrow—just before eight.’

‘Perfect, it has a good reputation. I’m sure he’ll like it.’

She paused once more. ‘Khiem said you’re here for six months.’

It was a statement, but she said the words like a question. He tried not to let his doubt show on his face. ‘That’s how long I’ve taken time off work back home. We needed…’ he hesitated, trying to find the right words ‘…a change of scene. Regan is due to start school back home in six months, so I plan on taking him back for that.’ He looked around, realising he hadn’t set eyes on any other staff members. ‘Does Khiem and Hoa’s son work here too?’

Lien laughed. ‘Not if he can help it. No, Duc has been lured to the dark side.’ She said the words with good humour.

‘What do you mean?’

She gave a small shrug. ‘He’s still doing his round-the-world tour. Getting experience wherever he can. He’s a surgeon. This place wouldn’t be for him.’

Now Joe was curious at the first part of her answer. ‘You said you did the same.’

She put her hand to her chest. ‘I just went to two places. That was enough. Got the experience I needed then brought it back here.’

There was something about the way she said those words. He got the impression she was either slightly exasperated by her friend’s continued travels, or that she didn’t quite approve, but was far too polite to say those words out loud.

‘You always wanted to work back here?’

She met his gaze, her brown eyes sincere. ‘This is home. I trained to be a doctor to take care of the people that I love.’ She held out her hands and gave a soft smile. ‘And the people I love are here.’

Something twisted inside his chest. She was talking about herself. He knew that. He understood it. Though he couldn’t help but feel the imaginary punch to the guts. He hadn’t been able to help the one he loved. There wasn’t anything he could have done to save Esther. He’d picked apart every element of her diagnosis and treatment a million times in the long sleepless nights after her death.

As his stomach twisted, Lien gave him a look. She glanced between him and the sleeping form of Regan. ‘Why Vietnam?’

Two words. But he knew she was asking so much more.

He swallowed, wishing the tea wasn’t quite so scalding so he could gulp it down.

He took a deep breath. He hated it that he’d got used to telling people that Esther had died, seeing their pitying glances or slight discomfort.

‘My mother chose it for us,’ he said with a rueful smile.

Her brow wrinkled. ‘What?’

He lifted one hand and ran it through his hair. A wave of tiredness had just hit him, and he really hoped that bathroom had a shower that he could hit soon. He relaxed back against the sofa. He was too tired for anything but honesty. He didn’t have the energy to dress things up.

‘My wife died three years ago. It had always been our intention to travel, to show Regan the world, and my mother…’ he gave a slow nod of his head ‘…decided we both needed a change of scene.’ He held up one hand. ‘Vietnam was one of the places on the wish list.’

‘Your wish list, or your wife’s?’ She hadn’t rushed in with an immediate offer of condolence, instead she’d asked an unexpected question.

He shifted a little on the sofa and gave her an interested look. ‘It was mine actually. I always wanted to come and work here at some point, it just kind of…fell off my radar.’ He paused for a second. ‘A lot of things did,’ he added quietly.

Lien fixed her eyes back towards the bedroom. ‘That’s understandable. You had to change your priorities. Becoming mum and dad to a little boy can’t have been easy.’

He turned to face her again. He liked this woman. She was direct. They’d only just met but she seemed to read him well. For the last few years people had tiptoed around him instead of having actual conversations with him, just giving him sympathetic glances or a squeeze of an arm.

He closed his eyes for a second and breathed in the warm air of Vietnam. He’d had doubts the whole way here, but now, for the first time, this actually felt like the right move. He smiled.

‘Regan makes it easy,’ he said. ‘I’m lucky.’ He shot her a sideways glance. ‘I know what happened wasn’t lucky, but I still have a part of her. I can see her every day in our son. From a gesture, a look, even his laugh. And I know she would be proud of the little guy.’ He let out a deep breath. ‘I just hope that this was the right move, at the right time, and Regan will love it here.’

Lien gave an understanding nod as she took a final sip of her tea. ‘There’s lots to love here, it’s a great hospital, and great staff. If you need a hand from any of your colleagues, all you have to do is ask.’

He gave a nod of thanks. The words were reassuring. This was the first time he and Regan had been away from their extended family, and the added complication of Khiem and Hoa not being here when they’d arrived had given him a moment of concern.

He looked back at Lien. ‘At the entrance…’ he gave a little smile ‘…you were expecting someone…different?’

Her smile was gentle in return. She knew she’d been caught out. She gave a nod. ‘From the description Khiem gave me I was expecting someone…older.’ He could see the compassion and warmth in her eyes. ‘But you’ll do, Dr Joe. You’ll do.’ She patted him on the shoulder as she stood up and pointed to the fridge.

There was something about the way she said those words that sent a little buzz through his body. The nod of approval meant everything to him and he couldn’t quite work out why. Maybe it was the journey, the distance, the unknown. Whatever it was, he could already tell that Lien was someone he could work with. She’d asked a lot of questions tonight and he hadn’t really had the opportunity to ask much in return. He was intrigued. He already wanted to know more about his colleague but Lien was talking again.

‘There are noodles, vegetables and pork in there. The wok is in the cupboard to the side of the cooker. If you’re hungry, you should be able to rustle something up.’ She lifted her cup and walked over with it to the sink. ‘I can show you where the market is tomorrow if you need to get some other things. It’s not too far.’

He stood up quickly, remembering his manners.

‘If you need anything, I’m just in the house next door.’

‘You are? Which one is yours?’

‘Khiem and Hoa stay in the one with the yellow door, and I’m in the lilac one.’

He gave a nod as she opened the door, then realised something. ‘Darn it, I haven’t even looked around the hospital properly yet.’

Lien waved her hand as she strolled away. ‘Plenty of time for that tomorrow. I’ll see you in the morning.’ She gave him a bright smile as she headed towards the house with the lilac door, her hair bouncing as she walked.

He gave a little shake of his head. He’d been worried. Maybe even a tiny bit scared. But Lien seemed like she could be a good colleague. He looked around the house. It was compact but had everything they needed. Six months.

Six months of something completely and utterly different. And for the second time since his mother had handed him the tickets, he felt a wave of emotion that this time he could recognise. Excitement.

*

Lien closed the door behind her. Maybe she’d been too direct—too forward. Truth was, she was a little on edge. Khiem and Hoa had expected to be here, but the phone call from the other hospital had meant they’d had to leave at short notice. Joe didn’t realise it yet, but it actually meant that they’d be two doctors down for the next few weeks. Lien hadn’t been joking about the bribery.

She pulled the clip from her hair and gave her head a shake. She couldn’t pretend she wasn’t a bit intrigued by the new Scottish doctor. She’d had to concentrate hard at some points when he’d been speaking. Did he realise just how quickly he sometimes spoke, and how the words just seemed to all run into one?

She’d noticed his fingers hovering near the picture he’d placed next to Regan. It was clear it was pictures of his wife. Was he really ready to be here?

She sighed. They’d had doctors here for six months at a time before. The last doctor from Germany had been suffering from mental health problems that had come to a head while he’d been here. A female doctor had come to Vietnam without declaring her drug addiction—something that had quickly become evident. Another colleague had appeared from the US, romanced his way around the staff in the hospital, then left abruptly after three months. Turned out he’d left a wife back home he’d forgotten to tell anyone about.

All three of those doctors had been escaping something, running away from something. It sounded very much like Joe Lennox was doing something similar. Would he really last six months? Because she needed him too. The hospital needed some stability. Sad as his story was, the last thing they needed was another doctor with problems of his own who would leave because he discovered the experience in Vietnam wasn’t what he wanted.

She started stripping off her clothes as she headed to the shower. She’d have to help him out as much as she could—particularly until his little boy was settled in the international school. If Joe got cold feet he might decide to get on the first plane home to Scotland. She believed him when he said he’d needed a change. But the fact he’d been honest enough to say his mother had pushed him in this direction bothered her. Was he really ready for this? She hadn’t seen his CV. She had no idea what his previous experience was. Khiem and Hoa did all the recruitment and she trusted their judgement. If they thought he’d fit in, then she had to believe that.

But the truth was, it wasn’t his skills she was worried about. It was more his heart and his head. If his head was somewhere else he could make mistakes, and if his heart wasn’t in it, he wouldn’t want to stay.

Something twisted in her chest.

This place meant everything to her.

For lots of the residents in Hanoi, this was their only accessible healthcare. Yes, services were pushed. Yes, they didn’t always have all the supplies that they needed. But she was determined that this place would always serve the population that needed it.

People like her, and her family.

This was her city, her people.

And no matter how much empathy she had for the new doctor’s circumstances, he had better be prepared to pull his weight around here.

Healing the Single Dad’s Heart

He never meant to love again… …until he goes to Vietnam! In this The Good Luck Hospital story, widower Scottish GP Joe and his young son are in Vietnam for a fresh start. Volunteering at a humanitarian hospital, Joe is surprised by how quickly he feels at home—which could have something to do with beautiful, intriguing Dr. Lien, his colleague and unofficial tour guide. With her, Joe glimpses a tantalizing future…if he can let go of the past.

Susan Wilson

w/a Scarlet Wilson

www.scarlet-wilson.com

www.susan-wilson.com


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