Title: Ashes to Ashes
The lawn and flowerbeds were trampled from the firecrew, and the mud from the water covered most of the drive. I got out of the car slowly, looking up at the windows. They were all intact, just the top ones had been opened by the fire crew to dry out some of the water. I braced myself, fumbling for the keys. What wasn't damaged by fire or smoke would be water damaged, this was not going to be pretty.
The front door lock clicked open and I pushed the door open on the hall.
The reek of smoke and water hit me in the face. The hall carpet was ruined. Anything that had been in the hall was no longer recognisable. My throat closed and I swallowed on the wash of grief and shock. I'd known what to expect. It was exactly the reason I'd flatly refused to allow Nick to come with me this morning. I fully intended to have the place looking better before he saw it; and when I did bring him, I'd be far enough past the initial shock to help him deal with the distress of seeing the destruction of what used to be our home. My refusal this morning had caused arguments and eventually tears, but looking around now, I knew beyond doubt I'd made the right decision. I did NOT want him seeing this. All the more so because I was very much afraid that somewhere in the house I'd find Anastasia.
The living room was not actually too bad. The carpet again was ruined, the suite would have to be thrown out and the walls were marked from smoke, but nothing was actually damaged. The tv and video would have to be disposed of, and I didn't hold out many hopes for our video collection, but the rest of the furniture would survive. The kitchen and dining room miraculously seemed fairly untouched. The stair carpet squelched when I walked upstairs, moving slower now. Somewhere, I was sure, I was going to find the pathetic remains of our little cat. She had been all Nick had thought about, all night. The computer on the landing was past hope, and everything was blackened up here where the smoke had drawn up the stairs as if up a chimney. I looked in our room, steeling myself.
It wasn't actually as bad as I feared. The bedding and curtains were ruined, but we might just save the books. I hoped so, Nick was desperately attached to his personal library, and some of them might well be irreplaceable. We'd need the floor checked for soundness, but I didn't think it was too bad. Taking a deep breath, I knelt on the sodden carpet, lifted the duvet and peered under the bed. To my relief there was nothing there. Nor was there any smoke stained ball of fur on the top of the wardrobe, Anastasia's other hiding place. Barely daring to hope, I went back to the top of the stairs and called her. Nick had put a bell on her collar in a futile attempt to protect the garden wildlife, a tinkle could usually be heard when you called her, but there was nothing to be heard. Except the depressing drip of water. I went down to the kitchen, found tea towels still dry inside their drawer and mopped off a kitchen chair before I sat down and began the long ring around to insurers.
Nick had been discharged about midmorning. Not exactly grudgingly, but I was aware that the hospital staff were somewhat doubtful about how long we'd remain discharged. It did give me ground for hesitation. Usually I could know with absolute confidence that I was taking Nick straight from the ward to the safety and comfort of his own home which was as asthma proof as we could make it, and where he was calmer, happier, better cared for and directly under my eye. This morning, we were dependent on Allen and Robin's offer of a room and I knew there were many things I needed to do that Nick was in no fit state to contend with. It was only Allen's reassurances and the knowledge that Nick was already terribly upset and was not going to cope well with me leaving him alone on a ward for several hours that made me agree to it. We separated in the hospital car park, Allen taking Nick home with him which we both hoped would keep Nick's mind occupied. He had desperately wanted to come with me to see the house. It was going to worry him sick until he did see it, but frankly I thought he'd find the worrying less upsetting than the reality.
Only Allen's car was on the drive when I reached their home on the other side of the village. Allen answered the door, looking tired, but apparently Nick had left him in one piece. I could imagine he hadn't been easy.
"He's fine." Allen said before I could ask. "Very quiet and very tired, but he's fine. What's it like?"
I slipped my coat off, glancing warily towards the lounge. Allen shook his head.
"He's upstairs. I bribed him into lying down and he's got the tv on up there, he won't hear anything. Come and have a coffee, you look like you need it."
I hesitated, looking upstairs for a moment. Nick would be waiting for me, and would have been waiting for several hours. Allen tapped my arm.
"He's allright. Come on, coffee first. Get your bearings."
He was right. Nick did not need anything more to worry about from me, I needed to go up there calm and together.
"Where's Robin?" I asked, sitting down at the kitchen table. Allen brought two mugs over.
"We had a talk this morning. He's gone over to see his parents and he'll sleep there for a couple of nights. It was his idea. He thought you and Nick might find it easier- and I think to be honest he knew he'd find it easier. "
"I'm sorry." I said wearily. Bad enough that we were here, descending on them, but we'd also driven Robin out of his home. I hoped- sincerely hoped- we'd only be here a few days.
"It's fine." Allen said easily. "He knew- and we talked about it- that he'd find it hard, he doesn't like sharing my attention and he and Nick do wind each other up. He thought he'd prefer to be away, and he thought you and Nick would be better with more space and less people. He did worry you'd feel he'd abandoned you, but I said I was sure you'd understand."
"That's kind of him."
"That is genuinely how he meant it. I think too, he was more than a little worried about not being able to be as - well behaved? As he'd like you to see him as if you're here twenty four hours a day." Allen added, giving me a quick smile as he sat down. "Don't worry about him. He'll have a great time at home, he'll be spoiled rotten, and he said once the repairs start, he'll do anything he can to help."
I managed a smile in response. Allen sipped coffee, watching me.
"So how was it?"
I sighed and bolted my own drink, needing it too much to care about scalding my mouth.
"Technically- not as bad as I thought. I had a quick look around and there's no structural damage, except possibly the floor in our room. The fire went straight up from the front hall. It's going to be a case of gutting the place- curtains, carpets, repainting. Soft furnishings. The kitchen was barely touched apart from smoke damage, upstairs isn't too dreadful apart from our room. Basically once the insurers have okayed it, we're going to have to ditch virtually everything and start again."
Allen put a hand on my shoulders, rubbing gently. I realised my hands were trembling a little and swallowed more coffee.
"I didn't find Anastasia."
"I am sorry." Allen said quietly.
"I just wish we knew. I searched the house and the garden and asked the neighbours- no one's seen her." I put the cup down and sat back, working on pulling myself together. "Poor Nick, at least if we knew one way or the other he'd stop fretting so much about it."
"What do you think Nick will eat?" Allen asked, refilling my mug. I wrenched my mind from the grim and horrible to the common place with some difficulty.
"Honestly, not much. While his chest's this tight, it doesn't take much to make him sick."
And I was going to have to prepare for that, as much as is possible in someone else's house when you're already trespassing heavily on their goodwill and friendship. I gave Allen an apologetic glance.
"It's allright, I'll go out and shop in a while if you wouldn't mind keeping an eye on him- yoghurt, that kind of thing, he'll pick more than eat for a few days."
"Give me a list, I'll see to it. You two could do with some peace and quiet, you hardly got any sleep last night and he's still drugged to the eyes." Allen leaned over for a notepad and pen and pushed them towards me. "Did you speak to the police?"
"Yes." I picked up the pen, grateful and too tired to express it gracefully in any other way than co operating. "They said the fire started in the hall. They don't know how yet. The insurers are part of the investigation, they arrive tomorrow."
"I just want the place stripped, now." I said, scrawling down items as I dredged them out of memory. Milk. Nick would usually drink that when he turned down everything else and at least then I felt he'd had something nutritious. Bread. White bread, which was easier to digest. Yoghurt. Fruit juice. Those peculiar sponge/biscuit finger things that often tempted him into eating. Peanut butter. One more of the many and multiple ways of bribing calories into him. "I'd go and do it myself if they'd let me. I just want to tear everything out and make the damn place clean again."
"I can understand." Allen said gently. "At least then you could DO something about it."
He was so right. Until I could do something active I wouldn't feel like any of this situation was under control.
"Damien?" Nick called from upstairs.
He sounded tired and fractious, not at all surprising considering how he must be feeling and what he'd been through in the last twenty four hours. I got up at once.
"I'm here darling. Just coming."
"Damien get yourself something to eat- and him if it'll help," Allen said, pocketing the list, "And get yourself to bed. You must be exhausted. I'll shop now and I need to spend an hour or so at the library to use their catalogue, so I probably won't be back until late. Make yourselves comfortable."
I paused as he reached the doorway and gave him a quick and very sincere hug, since at the moment I had no idea what else to say.
Allen had obviously managed to talk Nick into pyjamas- which was no mean feat in itself. He was sitting on the top stairs, arms around his knees, and breathing a lot better than he usually did fresh out of hospital. This admission had been mostly precautionary: no one could really be sure if the smoke and shock would trigger a serious attack, but so far, apart from the fairly minor one at the fire itself, he'd done very well. They had however sent him home with the cannula still in his hand.
I understood their reasoning- a well meaning nurse had botched the cannula insertion in his left hand and they'd then had to put it in his right- which meant, should they remove it and we needed one inserted again in the next few days, they'd be struggling for an accessible, undamaged vein to put it into. Having been through the nightmare before of them trying to find usable veins in my waif sized partner, I'd seen their point when they'd asked us to keep the current one in for a day or so until we were all certain Nick wouldn't need readmission.
Nick had taken about as kindly to that as he took the news that we were staying with Robin. At least that was one torture he was spared; I couldn't help but be glad for both his and Robin's sake as well as mine.
Large, brown eyes in a very white little face followed me all the way upstairs. They made me pull myself together as nothing else could. I knew my Nick, what he was feeling now and what would work, quickly and surely to calm him down. I held out a hand with the rush of warmth that always comes with seeing him, finally finding the calm in myself I'd been looking for all afternoon.
"Get up from there Christopher Robin, you'll get cold."
"Did you find Anastasia?" Nick demanded, not moving. I clicked my fingers. He grabbed my hand but didn't get up.
I pulled him to his feet. "Where's Allen put us?"
He towed me into a room at the end of the landing and watched me shut the door.
"No, not in the house." I said as gently as I could. From Nick's face as I watched him take that in, he wasn't at all sure whether that made things worse or better. I straightened the covers on the bed, remaking it quickly until it looked comfortable, and drew him down to sit on the side of it, sounding far more convinced than I was. And thanking God for him. Without him, without having him to share this with, without knowing what he desperately needed from me to cope with this, I knew I'd be lying here, fully dressed, without the strength of mind to do anything other than brood. For him I could move. I could even talk calmly and gently about the things that were haunting me, because I understood my perceptions and his perceptions, and the difference between them. I COULD put my feelings aside and deal with most things if I had to- I might not like it, but I could do it. Through no fault of his own, Nick genuinely could not. What saddened and upset me would be torturing him, and he has none of my coping mechanisms.
"I looked everywhere I could, and I put food and water for her outside. If she's somewhere in the garden she'll be allright for tonight.
Nick looked at me in disbelief. "We can't LEAVE it like that! We're responsible for her!"
"That IS responsible." I said as simply as possible, starting to straighten the room out. From the looks of it, he had spent a very restless couple of hours waiting for me. I folded his clothes, putting things back into uncluttered order which, whatever he thought, he would find calming and easier to sleep in.
"If she's anywhere near, she's got everything she needs including peace and quiet, she's much better off in her own her own garden and she can get into the house. That's safe and secure."
"If we WAIT she might come out!" Nick said vehemently.
And we were talking about her as if she was definitely alive- which was probably not a good idea. I opened the window and drew the curtains before I sat down with him, unpacking the nebuliser the hospital had lent us. We did still have his portable one which he kept in his car mostly, but we were going to have to invest in a new one PDQ. As well as get repeat prescriptions on all his medications first thing on Monday morning.
"Did you manage with this one this morning?"
"If we go when it's dark, and it's quiet-" Nick said in the same tone. I put his hand down, accepting he wasn't going to let this go. I really hadn't expected him to, but I knew well that I was going to have to be very firm. He was perfectly capable of worrying himself sick and in the next few weeks he was going to have plenty to worry about.
"We CAN'T leave her! If you won't go, I will!"
"Hey." I caught his still cannulated hand and held it up where he could see. "Remember what I said to you this morning? If you chose to leave hospital, you stayed with Allen and you stayed in the house. You promised me."
And it was a thoroughly unfair promise, since I'd known he would accept any terms to get off that ward.
"We NEED to go and look again." Nick said miserably. I put an arm around him and gave him a hug, deliberately keeping my voice quiet and easy. Fireblanket techniques. If I debated this with him, not only would he think it over and in deepening detail, but sooner or later I'd give in and agree. I just had to keep smothering every line of resistance until we got to the heart of his frustration and then he'd surrender.
"No. We're not going back tonight."
"You have to."
"Not tonight. Lie down darling."
"I don't believe you won't do anything about it!" Nick said bitterly, "Damien please? Once more?"
"Not tonight." I said again in the same tone, pulling him down on the bed with his head in my lap. He cried then, quietly and hopelessly enough for me to know he was grieving more than sustaining any real belief Anastasia was there to be found. One phenomenally tired and still mostly drugged little boy, overstressed, overwraught and fretting badly. I sat stroking his hair and holding the mask while the machine fed him the drugs, saying nothing and making my hand rhythmic and hypnotic enough that I hoped he'd fall asleep. His arm slipped around my waist but when I turned the machine off and lay it down, red eyes looked up at me with a lot more appeal than I can withstand at the best of times and he mutely held up the cannulaed hand.
I picked it up and kissed it but determinedly ignored the plea, getting up to get myself undressed.
"How bad was it?" Nick asked unsteadily, watching me. I folded my clothes and got under the covers, pulling him over to me.
"Not nearly as bad as I thought."
"What's damaged?" he said against my chest. I shut my eyes, wanting to feel him against me, the full length of him, mine, whole, reassuringly warm.
"I didn't really look that closely. All the soft furnishings are smoke and water damaged but there's very little actual fire damage except in the hall. The insurers are coming to survey tomorrow, we'll start making lists then. Nothing that isn't replaceable, easily replaceable."
He was silent for a moment. Then pulled himself back far enough to lean on my chest, tearstained, pathetic and appealing.
"Take this thing out of my hand…..?"
"Forget it." I tugged him down by the collar of his pyjamas and kissed him. He fought me off with an effort, wailing in protest.
"Damieeeeeeeeeeeen it hurts-"
"DOES it?" I said, catching the hand in question to look at it. Nick looked at me more or less under his eyelashes, but did eventually and unwillingly shake his head.
"No, but I hate it and I don't NEED it-"
"Go to sleep." I rolled over and pinned him against me, folding the hand in question across his chest and holding it. He subsided back against me and we didn't talk any more. Just lay there, awake and cuddling.
I woke when he woke, mostly through him pulling out of my arms and climbing over me to reach the window. I rolled over, blinking on the street light shining through the window as he opened the curtains.
"Police car." Nick stood for a moment, holding the curtain out of the way and shivering. Whoever's pyjamas he was wearing, they were too big for him: they made him look still slighter in the half light. An immediate priority for us both was going to be buying clothes: all we had was what we'd stood up in on the afternoon of the fire.
"The house is secure." I promised, propping myself up on one elbow. The sound of the siren was already fading away into the distance. "The doors are secure, I checked it myself. It's allright. Come back to bed darling."
"I feel sick." Nick let the curtain fall and came back, but perched on the side of the bed, folding his arms against his own trembling. I leaned over and hugged him, rubbing his arms briskly. For all this was supposed to be summer, the nights were still crisp.
"How about I make some tea?"
"How about we go and see the house?" Nick said softly. "Please," he added quickly when I drew back to see his face, "Please?"
I didn't want to. I really didn't. And yet, he was right: he was going to have to see it some time. I'd gone through it yesterday, cleared the worst of the mess, and I was calm- and this was something we needed to do together, without an audience.
We dressed and slipped out of the house, leaving a note for Allen. It was almost five am and getting light when I pulled onto the drive and Nick sat where he was for a moment, looking up at the windows with dread. I put a hand across and held his, thanking God again that I'd come here alone first and I could promise him without hesitation,
"It's a mess, but that's all. It's ok, come on."
The electricity was still off. There was just enough light to see as we went into the front hall and Nick wandered slowly through the downstairs. This was probably going to send him straight back into shock I reflected, watching him stand in the lounge, arms tightly folded as he looked at the wreckage of books and chairs. He got attached to things, my Nick- not objects, but fabrics, the feel of things, the details, the memories wrapped up in them.
"At least the dining room ceiling's still up." He said with a ghostly attempt at a smile when he saw me. I put my hands on his shoulders, rubbing over them.
"There's no REAL damage to the house itself. It's all sound- the floorboards in our room need replacing, but everything else is fine."
"Those were the chairs from my flat."
"This time what we choose will be ours." I said gently. "We're well insured. It's allright Nicky. This is sad- horribly sad, but nothing we can't replace, quickly and easily."
We neither of us said it.
He went very slowly upstairs and I took his hand once we reached the top, following where he led me and letting him take his time. Our room was far the worst. I'd stripped the bed of what was left of the bedclothes and the mattress yesterday: the bed was stood end up against the wall and what was left of the carpet I'd pulled up and rolled against the wall. I held him back from getting too near the window.
"Careful. Won't help anything if you fall through the floorboards."
"Is it that bad?" Nick asked very quietly.
"About six are."
And the books- if I was honest, they were unsalvageable. We were going to have to get a skip or three and ditch virtually the entire house contents. I carefully opened the wardrobe, lifting the badly scorched door back. The clothes inside were mostly scorched and all drenched. And reeked of smoke. I sighed and mentally wrote them off. Nick smothered an unsteady laugh and reached past me to lift something down off the shelf. The cane.
"Of all the bloody things to be undamaged-"
I put an arm around him, pulled him against me and hugged him hard. "I suppose we'd better move that and anything else incriminating before the builders and insurers start in here."
He buried his face in my neck. I twisted as far as I could to reach his face and kissed him, holding him tight.
"Baby it's okay. We can sort this out, it's going to be fine. Come on. Come downstairs, let's make a list of what needs doing. I called the insurers yesterday, the surveyors and the insurance assessor are coming on Monday, then we can start sorting this mess out."
"Will they know what caused it?"
He'd asked me that in hospital, once, as if it had taken all his courage to ask. I knew what was on his mind.
"That's what they're working out. I told you the fire service thought from the position of the fire it's almost bound to be to do with the wiring. We were together all Saturday, neither of us did anything that would have caused a fire."
He nodded, without looking at me. I took his chin and pushed it up, looking at large, very unhappy brown eyes. Eyes you can drown in. I've never understood the people who tell me he's withdrawn or hard to read- those eyes don't keep any secrets whatsoever.
"It WASN'T us."
We sat in the back garden, since the smell of the smoke was making him cough and I had no intention of him making his chest any tighter. The gas was still working. I found matches dry enough to be useful, lit the hob and boiled water, digging a carton of longlife milk out of the store cupboard. Nick was sitting on the bench, feet tucked under him and his fingers fiddling with the jasmine which overhangs from the fence there when I carried the two mugs out and the biscuit tin which had also survived. I dropped the biscuit tin into his lap, giving him a warning look.
"Keep that hand clean and don't knock it for heaven's sake."
Nick didn't take the mug; just looked up at me with eyes that Bambi would have envied.
"Take it out?"
Arg. I looked down at the cannula, hesitating for a moment. Then put the mugs down on the patio rail, collected the first aid kit from the kitchen and sat down on the bench beside him. It was past 24 hours since his last attack and I thought myself that the attack had been the result of shock, not smoke. The first aid kit was water tight and it wasn't hard to find cotton and antiseptic. Nick hugged his knees, waiting, hand outstretched. I poured antiseptic over cotton, then took his hand and eased the needle out, pressing the cotton over the well of blood that followed it.
"Is that sore?"
Nick shook his head, leaning against me. It took some time for the bleeding to stop, and we sat while we waited, watching the sunlight come right up over the roof of the house and cast the last of the shadows out of the garden. Out here, with all the familiar tranquil sounds and sights it was easy to forget anything had ever happened. Only when I turned my head could I see the grey and blackened wasteland of the house through the open kitchen doorway. I turned my back on it and dug a plaster one handed out of the first aid kit, covering the puncture mark and bruise.
"How about we take a deep breath and put hard floors down instead of carpet this time? We've talked about it for years."
Nick looked around at me, startled. I shut the first aid kit, handed him his mug and opened the biscuit tin. Stocked as usual in a way that would gladden a four year old's heart.
"What do you think?"
He still looked shell shocked: I could see what he was thinking. It was too soon to start thinking about rebuilding, too soon to put this behind us. On the other hand, the sooner I could get both our minds on the future and on concrete plans, the better off we would be. I dug in my jacket pocket for a pen and paper, spreading the paper out on my lap.
"Which rooms? How about the lounge, all the bedrooms- the downstairs hall too?"
We spent an hour making lists, and I could see the life gradually coming back to him, the dazed look of shock he gets when he's ill or upset gradually wearing off. Being here and being alone together, that was always what he needed. That was always why I took him out of hospital the minute he was fit enough: he's more than shy my boy- sometimes I think the real Nick only exists within the shelter of familiar people, places and routines. At times, that's been only at home. In the months since he started working for Beth, he's extended that to work too; it's the first time I've known him to be happy at work. I hope it lasts, because Beth understands him and is idiosyncratic enough herself to give him the freedom and the relationship he needs to be able to cope. Without that, I can see a time coming when I might have to get him to accept that not everyone is meant to live a working life. He needs to be allowed to be Nick- and he is when he's within those safe walls. The person he becomes when pushed outside them isn't him; the stress and distress and shock take over until he's pure anxiety, permanently braced for the next attack. That isn't worth any wages. I could see the stress dropping off him now, the anxious shell lifting away, and everything in me rebelled at the idea of taking him back to Allen and Robin's house. Yes he loved Allen, we both did, but a strange room and company was not what we needed right now.
Thinking it over, I stalled for time and dragged him over to the retail park on the way into our nearest big town, and into the nearest chain store where we found jeans, shirts, sweaters and underwear. Nick came to a silent halt in front of a rack of pyjamas, picked a pair and added them to the pile. It's a habit I've never yet got him out of, but if it makes him happy, so be it: I didn't argue. On the way past the towels and ubiquitous linen section inspiration suddenly hit. I steered Nick over, picked up a duvet, several pillows and nodded at the rack of lurid coloured duvet covers.
"Which do you hate least?"
"Damien-" Nick began patiently in his 'you've gone around the bend, come back' voice. I shook my head.
"It's temporary, just pick one."
He pulled a face, but pulled something blue with yellow triangles on it off the shelf.
"Why temporary? We're not going to be sleeping at home for weeks yet-"
"I've just had an idea."
"A caravan?" Allen said doubtfully. "Damien you can stay here- as long you want to, you know that."
"Robin can't stay away forever. And we can't stay under your feet forever."
I sat down on the sofa and Nick promptly shifted over into reach. Usually with anyone watching us he's discreet to the point of reticence, but we'd been hanging onto each other all day.
"Are you going to be okay in a caravan?" Allen looked from one to the other of us. "It's not exactly comfortable-"
"The kitchen and bathroom are both useable, the water's on and fine, the electricity can go back on in a few days, the gas is on- all we need is somewhere to sleep." I said calmly. "I spoke to Jeff- we've got two site caravans in storage and I can collect one tomorrow."
"I suppose it'll mean you can supervise the building work easily." Allen gave up and sat back, shaking his head at me. "What else did you get sorted out?"
"Floors." Nick said with a faint smile up at me. I ran a hand over his hair, well aware he was tired out and that in the usual way I would have kept him at home, if not in bed so soon after a hospital discharge. We'd just badly needed to spend today alone together.
He went up to bed shortly after seven, more or less voluntarily, and I went up half an hour later to find him face down on the bed, still dressed and crying silently and hard.
I shut the door, my throat tightening painfully. He'd been so calm all day. I sat down and pulled him over into my arms, hugging him with the rush of protectiveness and love that always flooded me when I held him- slight and slender like a deer. And with the same beauty in everything about him, the way he stood and moved, even in the way he lay against me now when he was limp with distress. Grace with total artlessness.
"Anastasia." He choked when he could talk. "I'm okay, really, just thinking."
We still hadn't found her. I'd hoped this morning, if she'd been anywhere near by that she'd have heard our voices and come back, but there had been no sign. I'd searched the house once more, but without a sign of our little cat. And the food I'd put out hadn't been touched.
We put the caravan on our drive the morning the insurers came to survey. I spent the morning scrubbing it out until I was sure that it was dust free and tidy enough for him to cope with it. Nick spent the day with Allen, very unwillingly, but I refused point blank to let him get involved in the cleaning. It was asking for trouble. By the end of that day the house had been surveyed, the surveyor had passed the house sound and builders had quoted for the floor and were starting work at the end of the week. Shortly after six I drove over to collect Nick and the rest of our few belongings and found him sitting on Allen's doorstep with his lip out in the way that told me he'd been there some time despite all opposition. Allen gave me a look approaching pure relief as I got out of the car.
"The survey. Just those floorboards, and only five of them. It'll be a two hour job." I put an arm around Nick to kiss him as he got up. "What have you been doing?"
"Nothing." Nick said pointedly. "Did the insurers finish?"
"Yes. We'll hear from them by the end of the week, then we can start work properly. Have you got everything?"
"Go on then."
"You know you can stay if you want?" Allen said gently as Nick headed upstairs. "And come back any time, day or night."
"Thankyou." I said with all my heart, knowing he meant it. "I don't know what we'd have done without you these last few days. Has he been giving you hell today?"
"He's been frustrated." Allen said tactfully. "Doesn't like leaving you to do all the work."
"I'm sorry he's given you a hard time."
Allen shrugged, digging his hands into his pockets with a faint smile that suggested he didn't really mind. He loves Nick. He can't handle him, but he loves him. "God knows he's got every reason to. If I can help at all, just let me know."
Nick appeared with the few things we'd brought with us and paused in the doorway to give Allen a quick hug and what sounded to me like a muttered apology. I hugged him when Nick had finished and followed Nick down to the car.
It was a relief to pull up on our own drive again, even obscured with the caravan. I'd stripped all the carpets out of the house: we were left with bare and still damp floorboards and I'd cleaned enough to send Nick up for a bath without worrying too much about what he'd inhale. Humans are amazing adapters. It was bizarre: this grey, semi derelict place was by no means our familiar home but we were both at home in it, comfortable in it. I was sitting in the garden when he came down, a plate of sandwiches waiting for him and the radio playing the day's match at Edgebaston. He picked up the sandwiches but hovered in the doorway, giving me something of a doubtful look.
I caught it but waited. It took him two disintegrated sandwiches before he got it out, casting me one or two more glances under his eyelashes.
"I wasn't too nice to Allen."
It never failed to touch me that he seriously thought I didn't notice these things.
"No?" I said mildly. Nick grimaced and put the sandwiches down.
"You took hours."
"What did you do?" I asked when nothing else was forthcoming. The question raised another of those grimaces that said he was somewhat ashamed of it, but still wanted to tell me.
"Nothing exactly. Just -" He trailed off again.
"Stroppy?" I suggested.
He nodded. I held out a hand to him, waiting until he got up and came to me.
"I heard you apologise."
"He was really nice." Nick said ruefully. "He always is."
"Well we're home now brat." I pulled him down into my lap and hugged him. "And I'm not Allen."
"You'd better not be." Nick wriggled against me and then sat up to dig in my pocket, removing my keys and the fire service and insurance report. "What's this?"
I took a deep breath. This wasn't going to be easy.
"I brought it out to show you. It's the official report on the cause of the fire."
The look of panic on his face was horrible. I put an arm around him and turned to the back page of the report, keeping my voice calm. It wasn't easy seeing it broken down into each brutal fact of event and damage, the report in itself made upsetting reading since the building in question was our home.
"It WAS an electrical fault and apparently there was all kinds of junk in the wall cavity with it being an old house. No one did anything wrong, it was just something waiting to happen. One wire went wrong and everything in the cavity went up like tinder. The insurers are quite happy, the fire investigation chap suggested we get all the wiring checked and think about getting the walls checked and the cavities cleared if possible."
He was listening, white faced, eyes on the paper. I rubbed his back, saying it again, clearly and more firmly.
"It wasn't anyone's fault. Just an accident."
Silence. He didn't say much for a while. I kept hold of him and took him with me to wash up the few dishes we'd used, then we locked up the house and went to the caravan. Plugged into the mains, at least that had electricity. The bed took up half the floor space: effectively it was a bedroom on wheels parked on the drive, with a minute hob and sink beside it. I pulled two mugs out of the over head locker, put the kettle on the hob and was about to lock the door when Nick pushed past me. I grabbed him and steadied him down the steps to the drive, realising what was wrong from the colour of his face before he began to retch.
It took some fast talking and a lot of deep breaths, but he wasn't actually sick. He was so nauseous and dizzy he was clutching me and the caravan to keep his feet, but once he managed to relax a little and give in to the fit of the shakes, he started to recover fairly quickly. I coaxed him back inside and helped him undress, snapping the radio on to give him something to listen to. Once he was in bed I fed him two aspirin and got undressed, snapping the light off before I crawled across the lurid duvet to lie down beside him. He was cold under the covers, still trembling a little. I pulled the flimsy curtains back a little way, letting the street light into the little caravan: enough to be a night light and chase away any shadows. And we lay together, listening to someone on the radio discussing the difficulties of pruning shrub roses. Thank God for radio four. It was oddly surreal; this little room, this ridiculous lecture and my poor boy against me, chilled and shivering so hard his teeth were chattering. Trying not to worry, I pulled the quilt closer around him and rubbed his back, waiting for the shivers to die down. It wasn't unusual for him to react like this under serious stress.
"I'm sorry." He said eventually, very unsteadily.
"Don't be silly." I said mildly. "You've done incredibly well considering."
He didn't answer for a moment. Then turned over and buried his face in my chest, pressing even closer.
"I thought it was me."
"I know you did." I told him regretfully, stroking his hair. "I don't know why, I told you over and over, we were together that day and neither of us did anything that might have caused a fire."
"I really thought it was me."
"These things happen darling. They just happen. It's no one's fault, no one has to do anything wrong-"
Nick pulled back, trying to see my face. He was still horribly white and his eyes were huge and red rimmed.
"Don't you think about luck? We've had the most horrendous luck this year, that HAS to be for a reason-"
"Like what?" I said calmly, trying to urge him to lie back down. He came, but not willingly.
"I don't know. Maybe me messing around with those crystals-"
He trailed off, sounding so agonisingly casual I knew he'd decided in his own mind that it was definitely the cause. It made me want to laugh. My poor Nicky and his several pieces of cut glass- ex cut glass. I'd made him bin everything he could possibly relate to occult activity with his ever over active imagination, including every candle we owned. Heaven alone knew what we'd do now if there was a powercut.
"Rubbish. Neither of us has seen, heard or experienced anything suggesting there's any kind of paranormal force in the house, never mind one capable of melting the casing on an electric wire."
"It's me, I know it is."
It came out muffled, Nick had his face buried in my chest again. I kissed the top of his head severely, crispening my tone.
"That's purely silly. Children believe that they're to blame for anything that goes wrong because they're not mature enough to realise they're not the centre of the universe and the only moving force on events- you're not a child and you're quite capable of thinking about this maturely. You can do the most awful things you can think of, but unless they include playing with matches, they won't result in the house burning down. And I'm quite capable of coming up with appropriate consequences thankyou, we haven't yet needed divine intervention."
He didn't answer that, but he didn't argue it further either, and Nick, when something is bothering him, doesn't let it rest until he has an answer that works. We lay quietly for a while, listening to the radio. The lecture had moved on to miniature roses when he suddenly yanked away from me and sat bolt upright.
Wondering if he was about to be sick again, I was about to advocate further deep breathing: but he was gone, fumbling with the door lock and vanishing onto the drive. I followed him, alarmed, and found him pyjamaed, barefoot and still shaking, sitting on the house doorstep with a bedraggled and extremely happy cat in his arms.
I stared for a moment, filled with relief and a growing stinging in my eyes. Then I sat down on the doorstep beside him and hugged them both, demanding:
"Now WHAT were you telling me about bad luck?"
Anastasia was so thrilled to see us she didn't stop talking for almost an hour. We sat on the doorstep for several minutes while she scrambled from one to the other of us, chattering, butting us with her head and purring like a steam engine. And Nick sat there with tears streaming. When I coaxed, he carried her into the caravan and I unlocked the house, found food and her dishes and we fed her, during which she still kept managing muffled mews. She was clearly starving. I dragged Nick with me back into bed, and he cuddled up, still shaking with sobs. Anastasia's head kept bobbing up over the end of the bed to check where we were, we'd hear another muffled chirrup and then she went back to slurping down tuna as fast as she could. She was totally unphased by the caravan. When she'd eaten all she wanted she leapt up onto the bed and we had another ten minutes of head butting and shouting before she settled down on Nick's hip. I petted him while he petted her. He was quiet, but still crying. Mostly I thought with release; I wasn't sorry. Hanging onto emotion is never good with him, it needs to be kept free flowing or it literally starts to choke him.
The chap on the radio was still pruning his roses.
We never did find out where Anastasia was for those few days. She didn't appear to be hiding out of nervousness of what was going on in the house: over the next few weeks she supervised builders, painters, carpenters and electricians with confidence, charm and authority. I suspect she found a bolthole in someone's garage or shed on the night of the fire and then got herself accidentally shut in.
The next two weeks were packed, and not easy. The workmen took a great deal of organising, since they invariably undid each other's work and timing never works according to plan with builders and decorators. It started at eight am every morning and sometimes they were still at it at eight pm with the lights blazing when Nick and I were trying to eat and settle down in the caravan on the front drive. It seemed like we spent hours lying on the bed which was the one place in the caravan to sit or rest, watching a portable black and white tv set that Nick's parents lent us, trying to ignore the comings and goings of the four or five different companies. And we were all too aware of them having an eye on us, sat as we were in the middle of all this. Most of them I suspected had never encountered two men openly living together and frankly stared whenever they saw us together as though they expected that at any moment we'd rip off our clothes and disport ourselves amongst the debris. Nick loathed it and avoided them as much as he possibly could.
We'd stripped the house. Allen had come over, along with Nick's parents and Beth, and between us we managed to clear out everything that was unsalvageable. The hardest thing for Nick had been the books. We made a list between us of all the titles, authors and publishers, but many are ones he's collected from book fairs, antique shops, second hand shops- we both knew we'd be lucky to replace them all. There was no point in trying to replace anything much anyway while we were trying to live in the caravan and the house was being gutted, but I did make him come with me to replace some clothes, and to visit the one big book store the town offers, where we stocked up on enough books to keep us both occupied for the duration. After that, whenever the workmen were around, Nick was sitting on the floor of the caravan or at the end of the garden, buried in a book.
He was working hard on not being 'real':
I saw it, but while we were daily invaded, it was very difficult to do anything about it except establish as much of a routine as I could and demand his full attention when I was with him. Which wasn't easy. He was vague, quiet, sweet and thoroughly elusive. Partly it's self defence. Nick must have worked out early in life that a sweet smile and a dreamy look made most people give up on expecting him to pay attention or to do anything else he didn't like, and leave him in peace. At times it can be quite deliberate: a quick way to get out of anything he doesn't feel like doing. And at other times, I've seen it be an escape route from pressure he can't handle. That's when it worries me. Pushed far enough, he slips gently into a world where time moves at Nick pace and everything reaches him through a filter, blocking out people and events that he can't cope with. Allowed to go on long enough, he can actually begin to lose track of what's real and what's his more comfortable version of events. It's a very bad habit and one I worked hard on breaking him of very early on in our relationship, but under enough pressure it's the only recourse he has. Which is why I don't allow him to get himself under that much pressure. Unfortunately there wasn't much I could do about this.
Once we were alone for the evening, I coaxed, bullied and harassed him out of the vagueness, but even when we were alone together, it wasn't as if we were in our home, in our usual routine, in the kind of security we have at home. And in the morning, we were invaded yet again, and we were back to facing this horrible, muddled, unsettling situation.
"Are they gone?" Nick asked at some point late one Friday night when I came up into the caravan. I shut and locked the door behind me. He had the curtains drawn and was as far as he could get into the corner of the bed, Anastasia on her back with all four feet in the air beside him.
"Just leaving now."
I kicked my shoes off and left them at the door- with the floors up the house was a sea of dust, Nick and I came back filthy every time we entered it and it was an ongoing battle to keep the muck out of the caravan- and crawled up the bed to him, pulling the book out of his hands.
"The electrician's finished and they've done the re plastering. The painters can start tomorrow."
And they'd quoted us a week to do the entire house. The floor was nearly finished upstairs, the ceiling was back up in the hall and the wall cavities were cleared. I estimated about three weeks until life would be back to normal and we'd be the sole occupants of a fully decorated and furnished house. Which reminded me. I ruffled Nick's soft hair, once more pulling the book away as his hand inched towards it and dropping it out of his reach over the end of the bed.
"Did you look at those catalogues?"
"Floors. NICK." I added more crisply when he continued to give me that vague look. "The catalogues on the hard wood flooring."
"Yes, I….." Nick looked around, clearly wondering where on earth the catalogues were.
"I liked the - uh- light coloured-"
"Rubbish, you didn't even find them, did you?" I pulled the catalogues out from underneath the stack of books and swatted him with them as I lay down again, pulling him onto his stomach beside me. I'd tried a few times to interest him in this- the colours, the changes. His consultant had suggested some time ago that we considered getting rid of all the soft furnishings in the house- the carpets and curtains as being better for his asthma- and while I'd reduced all the extraneous stuff, he'd pleaded against the other changes. As it didn't seem to affect him too radically, I'd let it go, but this was an ideal opportunity to refurnish with more asthma friendly surroundings.
And it had given his parents something else to focus on. My family had been concerned and sympathetic, and my brother and sister had added to the offers of help. Nick's parents- awful as it sounded, I would have preferred them to know nothing about the fire if there was any way we could have kept it from them. It wasn't depriving Nick of any support- he doesn't look to them for support, he has them too well trained to listen to them for advice or anything else. They adore him, they worry about him, they're incapable of saying no to him and they are the last people I'd want him near when I want him to keep calm. As it was, we went over and told them about the fire as soon as Nick was fit enough, breaking it to them one evening and taking them to look at the house. Caroline embarked on enough worry to keep me and Nick fully occupied in reassuring her and David alternated between Nick's look of vague bewilderment and panic that the dust would provoke some awful asthma attack. We didn't tell him Nick had already been hospitalised. I felt bad about it: usually they're the first people I call when he's really unwell, but that night I had not felt up to handling the entire Hayes family. Caroline did corner me on the landing when Nick and his father went downstairs. Nick is very like her in face and build, and he has the same fierce look when he's very upset.
"He's wheezing horribly." She informed me. "WHY didn't you call us? You should have come to us the night it happened, you KNOW how he gets when he's upset-"
Yes. And she knew I knew: when we first met, and she realised I intended to glue myself to her son for the remainder of eternity, she sat me down and told me all she knew from her twenty three years experience of Nick's temperamental lungs. When I'd been racing around the playground at my brother's heels in my first year of school, she'd been pacing the floor hour after hour trying to calm her wheezing, blue lipped baby, fending off a never ending line of colds and sleepless nights.
"A friend was with us that night and we went straight to his house." I said gently, committing perjury for the umpteenth time. "He's been allright. He's bound to be upset, it's been a very hard three days."
She'd told me all she knew when we met partly as an acknowledgement of how I felt about Nick, and partly because she knew Nick no longer told her anything about his asthma. She recognised quickly an ally. He'd ruled her and his father with a rod of iron in his teens, the perfect image of a steel hand in a sweet, vague silk glove. I wondered sometimes if she realised I saw the full blown tantrums she and David had only ever seen flickers of, since they'd always given in at the first sign of fury on Nick's part. I thought sometimes it wouldn't do them any harm to see my boy furiously angry and realise it wouldn't kill him. I'd been provoking him without impunity for seven years now, and he'd never yet had an asthma attack born of temper or outrage.
"It's allright." I said again when she didn't answer. "I know he looks awful. As soon as we've got the complicated bit of the house done, I'm going to take him away for a week or so. I've got some leave due. By the time we get back, the floors will be down, the painting will be finished and we can move straight back in."
Caroline nodded, arms folded, lips still more tightly folded. Then without looking at me, she put a hand on my arm.
"You've taken a lot of time off work this year to look after him. Are you sure you don't need any help? You mustn't get yourself into trouble, especially now Nick's only working part time."
"It's fine." I said gently. "It's one of the perks of being a partner, I can juggle my schedule as I need to. And I take a lot of the admin responsibilities of the company which I can do from home when I need to, I've got all the office equipment there that I need. It works out well."
"We can take the keys and see to letting in painters, furniture delivery, anything like that." Caroline took a deep breath and managed to look at me. "You poor things, this is horrible. I'm so sorry for snapping at you. To see it all like this and to see Nicky-"
And I was the resilient one who could take her frustrations, I understood, and in a way it was a compliment. I put my arms around her and kissed her cheek.
"He'll be allright, he's a lot tougher than he looks."
He was. I knew he was.
Just right now, watching him flick through flooring catalogues with eyes that were several light years away from here and now, it was hard to believe it.
The carpenters woke us when they arrived at eight am on Saturday morning. It was one of the most exhausting things about this whole business- that every morning we had to be up and ready to go when they arrived, and we couldn't eat or relax until they left in the evening. I pulled a t shirt over my head, ran a hand through my hair to straighten it and went to unlock the front door, leaving Nick still dressing. And thinking, as I shut the caravan door behind me and I caught a last glimpse of him, shirtless and barefoot, that he was losing weight again. I knew he wasn't sleeping well. This unsettled routine and late, busy evenings, strangers always in and around the house, it wasn't good for him. As soon as the carpentry work was done, I intended us to go away and stay away until Allen or Nick's parents told us that the house was painted, floored and ready for us to move into. It was going to be a hot day, the sun was already strong.
It continued to be a horrible day. The carpenters entered into an argument with the painters when they arrived, as the painters insisted they couldn't use the paint they had on the surfaces the carpenters were creating. I refereed it as best I could, finally getting them to start on opposite floors which hopefully would leave us alone long enough to have breakfast. When I found Nick, he had made the bed in the caravan and was sitting on the caravan steps, white, quiet and barely responding when I called him. He came unwillingly through the house to the kitchen, wincing at the bangs from upstairs as though the hammering hurt his ears. Or more likely his nerves. I shut the kitchen door, pulled him close and hugged him tight.
"Why don't you find a book and lie down in the garden for a while once we've eaten? Or go over to your parents for the day? I can deal with this lot."
"It's my problem too."
"Only if I say so." I pointed out. Nick didn't argue, tucking his head more tightly into my shoulder. We ate toast in the garden- or rather I ate. Nick fed bits to Anastasia, ducking his head the once or twice I told him to eat. We were half way through when one of the carpenters appeared with yet more horror stories about skirting boards, and Nick hurriedly took his plate and his cat to the edge of the patio, out of earshot if not out of sight.
He looked awful. I watched him feed the last crust to Anastasia, then stand, arms tightly folded, face turned up to the sun while the carpenter bickered on at me. It took some serious effort to pay attention to the man and hear what he had to say.
I was arguing a course of action on skirting boards that the carpenters insisted were too badly joined to work around, when I heard a soft sound from Nick- almost inaudible, but it made my head snap around and my stomach lurch as though I knew what it meant. He hadn't moved- or even spoken. Nothing about him appeared to have changed, and yet even from this distance, I saw the colour wash out of his face, from white to grey like a tv set being colour tuned. I started towards him, ignoring the carpenter, and broke into a run as his eyes fixed and I realised what was going to happen.
Whenever you see people faint on tv they either go down in a graceful sideways slide or like a felled tree- they don't just drop in a boneless little heap as though they're puppets whose strings have been cut. I managed to reach him just in time to catch his head. He was cold, sweat was visibly beading over his forehead and his eyes weren't completely shut, just rolled up. His lips were a truly awful purple colour. I yanked his collar open, picked him up and took no notice of the now swearing carpenter. Most of the curses were to do with that he'd never seen anyone do that before and what would I like him to do now? I left him chuntering to himself and carried Nick around the side of the house. Even in sleep when I picked him up he always instinctively curled closer; an arm would slide around my neck, his face would turn deeper into my shoulder. Now he hung limply against my chest, a rag doll of bones and skin and soft hair. I elbowed the caravan door open and edged him carefully around the doorway, laying him down on the bed. We had no running water in here and I didn't want to leave him to get any. I compromised by opening the windows, turning Nick into the recovery position with a mechanical kind of know-how, and waited. Again in films, people come around within thirty seconds or so. Nick, who specialises in terrifying me, held out for five minutes and forty three seconds. His colour improved quite quickly: fast enough for me to stop panicking, but my mouth was dry and my heart was still thudding when he finally stirred.
"Not even brandy anywhere in reach." I ranted at Allen when I phoned him the following morning. "ALL I had in the house was tea and water, not even a fridge for milk, and he looked like a corpse for the rest of the day."
"What did you do?" Allen inquired in the tone that means he's enjoying the floorshow. I growled, without will or energy to sound more civilised.
"Threw out the workmen on the spot and took him to the nearest air conditioned hotel. And kept him lying down the rest of the day."
Actually once he started to be able to stand up without looking green around the gills, we found a shaded area of the hotel garden and a couple of sun loungers and I settled him down with a book, ice and water, and dire threats as to what I intended to do to him if he moved without my express permission. Having scared me out of my wits, I didn't intend on letting him out of my sight any time soon.
"Damien," Allen said mildly, "You're making jungle noises. How is he today?"
"I can hear you beating your chest from here. How is he?"
"He looks like a piece of chewed string." I glared at Nick who was lying on the grass beside me, his nose in yet another book. He looked up at me and one hand wandered out, his fingers tangling soothingly around mine.
"No temperature, he's just worn out and thoroughly run down. I should have seen it coming."
"You did, you've both just been doing what you had to do." Allen comforted me. "You've done all the hard work now. Are you still planning to go away for a few days?"
"Tomorrow if he's fit enough." I said shortly. "A fortnight. What's left to be done can wait."
"Rubbish. Give me the details, the phone numbers and the keys and I'll see to it. Nick's parents are around if I need approval for anything, it's not as if there is anything left to go wrong now. It's only painting and the last of the flooring. Where are you headed?"
I shook my head at Nick who smiled at me and returned, without any curiosity, to his book, leaning his head against my knee.
"I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you."
In the event we left the house in the hands of a coalition: Allen, Margaret and Nick's parents between them told us to go and to leave the remainder of the work for them to oversee.
Nick and I thankfully dumped the entire mess and Anastasia in their hands and further, disgracefully, refused to divulge destination or phone numbers beyond my cell phone. I had thought about the boat- but while we loved it, it was always a working holiday, hard physical work and responsibility which we were in no mood for and Nick was in no state to cope with. Instead, early on Sunday morning, I drove north-west, skirted Coventry and took the M5 towards Monmouth. Through Ross and past the semi ruins of Raglan castle and then steadily further south, to where the roads became winding and we passed nothing more than farmland, the mountains and the occasional market town. The roads became narrower and narrower as we came further south, and steadily steeper. We stopped for lunch in Llandovery, a pretty little town where we found a quiet pub, sandwiches and tea. Nick by then was white, travel sick and getting quieter by the hour. He choked down a sandwich as I asked without a word of argument, and we walked around for a while, in the hope it would settle his stomach, but he was clearly very tired. Paradoxically, instead of worrying, I was aware of a weight lifting off me. The green and rugged hillsides overlooking the town were magnificent, they filled me with a growing sense of peace and the air up here was fresh. Looking at Nick as we rounded the corner towards the carpark I was aware not of anxiety, not of anything negative. In a way it was like seeing him with fresh eyes. Beautiful. With his large, soft eyes, his mobile mouth and his chestnut hair windblown- the slenderness of his legs under the jeans that were a little baggy- the tight and mobile hips swinging as he walked. He was gorgeous. That was something I lived with every day, something I knew, and something that I'd let escape to the back of my mind recently. When we got back into the car, I turned the engine on, hooked an arm around his neck and pulled him over to me to kiss him. Very firmly. When we separated, he looked up at me, rather surprised. I ran a finger down one white cheek and smiled at him. We were on the right track. There WAS nothing here I couldn't solve, easily. For him, always easily.
It was another hour to our destination, and Nick was dozing as I turned into the little village, taking the car very slowly down the steep, unmarked road. So narrow here that only one vehicle could pass at a time; further down a jeep had to back up to let us by. Little stone cottages looked out onto the road, hung with bright window baskets. Several cats were sprawled out in the sunshine on the low roofs.
To find out where the winds die
And where the stories go
I paused again to let a bike pass, humming along with the stereo.
You cannot change what's over
But only where you go.
One road leads to diamonds, one road leads to gold-
The cottage was tucked a little way back from the side of the winding, pavementless road. I tucked the car in close to the wall, turned the engine off and leaned over to shake Nick.
"We're here darling."
Nick staggered out of the car, blinking, while I went over the road to collect the keys from a neighbour. One of my clients ran a business of holiday cottages, I'd remodelled several of them in our area for him- he'd been happy to recommend and rent us this one. The cottage itself was small, just one room downstairs and a bedroom and bathroom upstairs, with a tiny, walled garden at the back- ancient, a fisherman's cottage in a village where all the active men would at one time have fished for their livelihood. When we'd carried our two small bags in and had a quick look around the cottage, I went to lock the car and towed Nick with me a little way further down the steep street.
The sun was hot and it was bright outside. We passed a rough stone wall not far from the cottage and leaned against it to look down twenty or more feet into a deep ravine in the side of the cliff. A spring ran down the hill underneath the houses and poured from under the street at our foot level out and down the ravine in a noisy waterfall. I steered Nick around the next corner and there below us was the blue flash of the sea. A tiny harbour lay at the end of the street, just a single, small jetty and a narrow, sandy cove framed by the cliff. Only two boats moored there at this hour. We stood for a while, hand in hand, looking down at the harbour and the sea, then Nick leaned against me and I put an arm around him, steering him with me back towards the cottage. There was plenty of time for the beach.
Tea that night was only canned soup and fruit, stores we'd brought with us. Nick made no protest whatever at being sent to bed still in broad daylight and we lay together while the light outside turned from bright afternoon to soft evening, Nick listening to the radio while I read, one hand free and tangling gently in his hair. When the light grew too dim to read any more I folded my book and he leaned over me to snap the radio off, then settled down in my arms, his head against my chest while we listened to the wash of the outgoing tide in the distance. The windows were open, the curtains were back, the evening breeze came in to us with the faint tang of the sea. We could see the midnight blue of the sky and we both lay in silence for a long time, drinking in the sound and sensation of peace.
We spent most of the first week on the beach.
Nick didn't emerge from his shell for some time, remaining quiet, dreamy, slow to respond and avoiding conversation where he could. He wanted to read, he wanted quiet and when encouraged, he wanted to cuddle and that pretty much summed up his awareness of life. It took concentrated hassling to get him up, dressed and out of the house, like it used to when we first met. Not that he didn't want to do any of those things, he was placidly willing to do whatever- but in this mood it could easily take him forty minutes to get dressed. In between drifting to look out of the window, running across a book he wanted, pausing to think about whatever was crossing his mind at that point- it took constant and gentle prodding to keep him and his mind on task. I got up braced for it, spent ten minutes organising breakfast and my own clothes so I had my mind free for him, and then spent the next hour in dedicated harassment. It didn't really penetrate but at least we got out of the house by ten am. Every morning we walked around the harbour to a small, secluded sandy beach beyond, and settled down in the shade of the cliff. The kids were still at school and this was such a small village it was unused by anyone but the locals- we had the beach to ourselves except for the occasional walker with a dog. And there we wandered the beach, lay and watched the sea, and dozed in the sunshine for the first few days. The afternoons we spent in the garden of the cottage and in the evening we walked down to the harbour and the small pub beside it, and sat on the harbour wall in the last of the evening sun drinking local beer and watching the few boats sail past towards Aberaeron.
For a couple of days I left Nick in peace to read, encouraged him to sleep as much as he could and we took life extremely gently. We ate whatever looked good from the single village shop and lived in sand stained jeans and not much else. From the first night there, he slept better. It was cooler here than at home and the breeze was stronger- we both were sleeping nine or ten hours a night and enjoying waking up gradually with nowhere to be and nothing needing doing. His colour improved too. The weight would come back gradually but he no longer looked strained. Once I was sure of that, I moved into the next stage of the campaign and went for active aggravation.
Once we were down on the shore in the morning I made him walk the beach with me, to talk, nagging cheerfully until I got answers; to wade out into the water and to swim as often as we could; to play with a quoit or a make shift cricket set of drift wood and a tennis ball we found in the garden- anything that kept him moving, thinking, away from his book and the solitude of his own head. It was just the two of us, he was secure alone with me and combined with the re establishment of a routine and the alleviation of stress, he actually improved quite quickly. At first he trailed where I pulled him, evading if he could but not actively protesting.
Finally at the end of the first week, I walked up the beach from the water, grabbed his book out of his hand and reached to pull him up, and got a hiss and spit like an angry cat. Bright brown eyes glared at me from under long lashes and Nick gave me a hearty shove out of the way and grabbed his book back.
"Damien GET OFF! I don't CARE what the tide's doing, if you want to play with it then go and play but I'm READING!"
That was it. That was what I'd been waiting for. I grabbed the book again, laughing with the sheer delight of it, and we wrestled for a moment, then he surrendered and let me have it, hissing in exasperation.
"Damien Guy Mitchell you are a PEST!"
"But we knew that." I pulled him to his feet and kissed him. "Come for a walk."
"I don't WANT to come for a walk, I want to read!"
Nick squirmed out of my way as I goosed him, fending my hands off, and ended by jogging down the beach to get away from me. I chased him around the corner to the next cove and we walked the best part of a mile over the sand, following the shoreline around. The tide was out and the sand was just barely covered with water, the kind of time when a mark vanishes instantly without trace and each step into the sand sinks you a little, a soft and mobile surface to walk on. We wandered, pausing to peer at the rock pools left amongst the black rocks, and to walk through the few ice cold streams running from inland down the beach and out to sea. I walked up to the shop around lunchtime, leaving Nick in peace for ten minutes with his book, and bought fruit, rolls and cheese for lunch, and pausing over a rolled and brightly coloured packet on one shelf before I added it to the pile.
When I walked back down the beach, Nick was standing knee deep in the water, staring out to sea. He'd rolled his jeans up above his knees and had chosen a spot by the rocks where the incoming waves hit the rocks first then the surf rebounded against him, slapping up against his jeans and bare chest. He didn't seem to care. I left the shopping on the sand, kicked my trainers off and waded out to him. Every strike of the waves rocked him back on his feet, icy at first when what was left of the surf reached me, and then curiously warm as I got used to it. Nick glanced around at me and went back to watching the waves roll in. I wrapped my arms securely around him, steadying him against each breaking wave, and waited. It was a long time before he turned around, his jeans soaked, and folded his arms around my neck. I ran my hands down his back, palmed both firm buttocks and picked him up, looking up into his face as his legs wound around my waist. I expected him to look miles away. Instead his eyes were very focused. He bent his head and I returned his kiss, bracing his weight and mine to steady us against the rolling waves. Eventually I walked us both back up the beach to the couple of rugs we'd laid out on the sand with our few belongings, laid him down and peeled him out of his wet jeans. We were both drenched, salty and sandy, but at the time, neither of us noticed much of anything except each other.
"It took twenty minutes to get all the sand out. You wouldn't believe where I found it." I informed Nick when I came out of the ancient bathroom. He grinned at me from the edge of the bed where he was taking his evening pills: a sleepy, sated grin that made me want to purr in response. I sat down on the edge of the bed and ran my hands over his shoulders, dropping a kiss on his smooth back before I got on with drying myself off. I heard the click of his inhaler as he set it, the familiar exhale and then sharp inhalation as he fired the drug through the pump. Then a horrible grating, retching sound that I never want to hear again. I spun around, dropping the towel, and saw Nick, his eyes staring, clutching the inhaler and choking. My heart just about went through the roof of my mouth. For one horrible moment I thought something was wrong with the inhaler- that the drug was wrong, had corrupted- then I reacted on pure instinct, grabbed him and thumped him between the shoulder blades, hard. From the change in the choking, I knew then it was an object. I thumped again, harder, and this time he gave one last, horrible cough and I saw something fly out of his mouth. Nick grabbed at it and collapsed onto the edge of the bed, gasping. I crouched, rubbing his back for a moment, then got up and went to get a glass of water. He was lying flat when I came back, breathing more quietly but obviously badly scared. I sat down beside him, pushing his hair off his forehead, then opened his hand and took out the object.
It was the brightly coloured corner of a wrapper- what looked like a chocolate bar wrapper. Just a little piece of paper.
I pried his inhaler out of his hand, detached the drug bottle from the pump chamber and tipped out another piece of plastic and several small fragments of miscellaneous junk such as accumulates in the pockets of people like Nicholas Hayes when you take your eyes off them for ten minutes.
Then I glared at him.
"I THOUGHT you checked this before you used it? AND disconnected and rinsed it out daily so you DON'T inhale dust, foreign objects and Heaven alone knows what else when you use it?"
"I forgot…" Nick said somewhat wheezily. I put the water in his hand and he sat up to drink it, wincing a little as he swallowed. "My throat hurts."
I pried his mouth open and peered. The back of his throat was as red as you'd expect after having a foreign object lodged there, but I could see no scratches or blood.
"I'm not surprised." I said acidly, letting him go. "I'm just thankful you didn't inhale it far enough down to cause real harm, instead of just being incredibly dangerous."
He winced, evading my eye. I let him take his time with the water, listening to his breathing: sudden frights like that often provoke his asthma- but thankfully, although still swallowing carefully, he looked and sounded fine when he surrendered the glass.
"Where do you carry that inhaler?" I demanded, flipping the object in question over in my hand. The inside was visibly dusty.
"In my pocket?" Nick offered, "Then it's on me all day-"
"Which is as it's supposed to be." I agreed, putting down the inhaler and holding out a hand. "Turn out those pockets."
I clicked my fingers, waiting. Sighing, he dug in his pockets and somewhat red faced, piled onto my hand several disintegrated tissues, the remains of the chocolate wrapper, a tescos receipt, several small coins and a few sandy shells.
"You were letting an inhaler- something you put in your mouth and breathe through- sit in all this junk?" I inquired when both pockets were empty.
Nick gave me a look that suggested I was being wilfully difficult.
"It had the cap on!"
"The cap on the mouthpiece, yes. And the other end of the chamber is OPEN. Any piece of junk can slide in there and you just breathe it right in, as you just demonstrated!" I reminded him. "And the mouthpiece is hardly likely to be clean when it's kicking around with bits of tissue and sand, is it? When did you last rinse this out?"
He got that blank look which means less he's trying to remember than that he knows exactly and has no intention of willingly divulging. I let that go, turning the chamber for him to see the dust.
"Clearly not recently, never mind daily. It's hardly taking the medication or your dependence on it very seriously, is it?"
"We're on holiday." Nick pleaded.
That has to be one of the top ten worst excuses. Somewhere between, "The cat wouldn't let me" and "It LOOKED allright".
"So you're immune to asthma until we get home? You're not immune from choking, I've noticed that."
"No." Nick admitted without enthusiasm.
"You are so lucky you weren't alone when that happened." I told him, watching it sink in. "You cannot be careless or thoughtless with your inhalers. That was SO dangerous I don't want to think about what might have happened."
"I'm sorry." Nick mumbled, going still redder. I put a hand under his chin and made him look at me.
"If you carry them in your pocket, you keep them WRAPPED." I said sternly. "In a clean handkerchief or CLEAN tissues, and you check the chamber is clear before you use them. I don't EVER want to see any dust or anything else inside one of your inhalers again, and I'm going to check on them a lot. Go and wash this out properly."
Nick slid off the bed, accepted the pieces of the inhaler and took them into the bathroom. I glanced after him, hit by a sudden, nasty suspicion.
"Do NOT use anyone's toothbrush to do it with either."
He didn't answer. I got up, pulled on the t shirt and shorts I slept in and went down to the kitchen, checking through the cupboard where I'd filed most of our supplies and taking out the bottle of dettol. Nick eyed it and me with deep suspicion when I took it into the bathroom: a look that didn't ease when I poured a small amount into the tooth mug and added water.
"Swish that around your mouth. Don't swallow it."
"I am NOT putting that in my mouth!" Nick said plaintively, reassembling the inhaler. I took the pieces from him and handed him the tooth mug.
"Call it natural consequences. NICHOLAS." I added when he still didn't move. That growl usually gets him moving. After one or two false starts and pulling the most appalling faces he took a minute sip and hastily spat it into the sink.
It took manhandling and several firm instructions before he took a decent mouthful and I made him gargle with it, which hopefully would kill some of the soreness and disinfect any scratches he had sustained. When he spat it out, I removed the tooth mug from reach before he could fill it with water, and steered him ahead of me towards the bedroom, ignoring the wails of protest.
"No, you need the dettol there, not washed away."
"If I'm sick it'll be your fault."
"I can live with that." I promised him, taking a seat on the bed and keeping firm hold of his hands. "This NEVER happens again, are we clear?"
Nick shook his head fervently. No doubt in hope of evading what he knew perfectly well was coming. I made it clear anyway, pulling him in between my knees and looking up into his face, always filled with little boy indecision at this point, appeal and protest combined.
"Yes I am going to spank you. Apart from the fact this was pure carelessness and how dangerous it was, I want to make absolutely sure you remember and you're very sure why you're not going to let this happen again."
"I AM sure." Nick pleaded, fidgeting. I unbuttoned his jeans and tugged them and his shorts down, stiff with salt and sand, and Nick kicked them off, letting me draw him forward over my lap with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.
"You're going to be surer." I said firmly, pulling until he settled where I wanted him rather than where he wanted to be, letting his weight go and folding his arms tightly under his head. His skin was cold and faintly gritty with the salt. I rested one arm across the small of his back and ran the other over his upturned bottom, brushing off a few traces of sand. "Remind me what you're going to be sure about?"
He was tense over my lap, braced with certainly unwanted anticipation, and his voice was muffled.
"Keep my inhalers wrapped if they're in my pocket and rinse them out every day."
Near enough. I raised my hand and slapped down vigorously, concentrating on one white buttock and one spot until it glowed scarlet and Nick was beginning to squirm as well as jump at each smack, then changed sides and went on, a short and sharp hail that would very quickly take effect. The repetition on the two single spots swiftly built up enough for Nick to start the breath holding and choked protests that is the warning signal that he's close to tears. Heartlessly I just moved down and chose two new spots, the lower curves of both cheeks, and concentrated a series of quick, hard smacks there, not many but accurately enough that the tears truly did start. The evidence was patchy and hardly impressive, and the smart would fade almost immediately, but for the moment it was intense and when I lifted him to his feet his eyes were blurry and his breathing came in hitches.
"Go and wash the rest of that sand off brat, and then we'll have another try at your medication. Properly this time."
Nick didn't respond at once to that, just stood where he was, rubbing at his face and still gulping. I put an arm around his waist and he promptly leaned against me, one fist clenching on my shirt, his face hidden in my shoulder. I pulled him down into my lap and hugged him, long and hard, feeling the last of his shakes ease away.
"Go on." I said eventually, swatting him a lot more gently. "Get a wiggle on."
He didn't argue. I got ready for bed and stretched out on top of the covers, enjoying the evening cool coming through the old and latticed window. Nick re emerged, damp haired and pyjamaed, and crawled straight up the bed to burrow under my nearest arm. I ruffled his hair and began to comb through it with my fingers, gently and repeatedly, feeling him gradually unwind and relax against me. It was the first time I'd needed to discipline him in any way, shape or form since the fire. He'd been so quiet since, so introverted, and we'd been so closely together I'd almost forgotten that difficult, painful discussion we'd had the day before the fire, and the battle we'd been fighting together when we came home to a very different problem that needed our full, shared energy and attention.
We'd lost that ground: Nick's memory is nothing if selective on the surface- and it takes time and manoeuvering to get him to open up and to realise in the way I had that day. If that issue came up again- and it might well- we'd have to begin all over again to re reach that point.
On the other hand, I didn't regret it.
If nothing else these few weeks, we'd clung together to the point where, as occasionally happens, we seem to blur into one unit. One person. NickandDamien. Not that he hides behind or sinks himself into me either. I might be the front man, the noise and the voice, but he's the certainty. Unquestioning, uncritical, constant and immeasurable loyalty. Without the confidence and strength he kept inside me I knew I wouldn't have been able to keep us moving and our feet on the ground these last few weeks. We'd survived them and we'd overcome them, and in a way that turned what should have been a defeat into a standing victory. When I thought back on the fire now, it was forever blended with love for Nick and a pride in us that was greater than any memories of loss and destruction.
"Damien?" Nick's voice said softly under my chin.
"What was that red and white thing you bought at lunchtime? I saw the packet."
I smiled, ducking my head enough to kiss the top of his.
"It's a kite. I haven't flown one since I was a kid."
We spent the next four evenings trying to get the wretched thing to fly, a process Nick found hysterically funny.
We'd been there a week in some of the best weather of the year, our luck finally seemed to be changing. I woke up around eight on Sunday morning and slipped out of bed without disturbing Nick who was still fast asleep in the early morning sunshine. Our bedroom overlooked the narrow little street: I leaned out of the open window for a while, watching the sea just visible at the end of the street, and the movement of a few locals, up and about early. The village shop would be selling milk and the Sunday papers and it looked like the start of a beautiful day. I picked up clean clothes and dressed downstairs, leaving the front door on the latch when I left. It was only a five minute walk down to the shop, but I stood for a while at the harbour, enjoying the view and the quiet. The house was still in silence twenty minutes later when I closed the door softly behind me, seriously contemplating taking the papers and a tray of tea back up to bed. The idea of a long, lazy lie in with Nick and the Sunday Times sounded very inviting. I made the tea and a plate of toast and marmalade, dropping the hot slices on the plate with scorched fingers.
I was gathering up the tray when I saw Nick from the kitchen window. Sitting in pyjamas in the garden, perched on the wall with his arms tightly folded, tears streaming down his face.
He didn't look up when I came out, shutting the back door behind me, and sat on the wall beside him to gather him gently and very anxiously into my arms. He came without protest, but without seeking comfort either. His head was cool, he didn't seem to be hurt, he wasn't shaking as he had been after other bad dreams- we'd both had a few nightmares about the fire and he'd suffered more than I had.
"Nicky what's the matter?" I said several times into his hair, trying to smooth his fringe back out of his eyes and get them to meet mine. "It's allright baby, what's wrong? Why didn't you call me?"
He couldn't talk to me. I tried a few questions and he managed a nod or shake of the head once or twice, then the tears overwhelmed again and I stopped, accepting he wasn't able to explain yet. I urged him gently up off the wall, took him back inside and collected the papers on our way back to bed. Under the covers, he began to relax a little and gradually I felt him settle down until he dozed, his dark head against my shoulder, and I read what I could of the broad sheets without disturbing him. When he woke, I hustled him quietly through dressing and took him, still red eyed and quiet, out to the car, not trying to talk about anything more than commonplaces. And we drove across the border into Herefordshire and under the black mountains of Hay on Wye, an hour and a half drive through the dappled sunlight between the green trees and the open farmland. It was nearly eleven when we reached Hay, and the carpark at the edge of the town was nearly full. Hand in hand, we drifted through the little craftshops, dark little rooms full of scented candles, and twisted silver celtic jewellry, wood carvings which Nick stood stroking, tracing the line of the grain with his finger, and glass blowing where we stood and felt the heat of the furnaces as the two men worked at the end of the shop. Across the road and down the steep hill by the castle, the town opened out into two big streets and there Nick looked at me confused. He hadn't been here before as I had- I'd spent three years at University in Bristol and I knew this area well. Ahead of us, in a line, every shop front, every doorway, was labelled 'books'. There were sixty three bookshops currently in this town, mostly second hand and rare books. And at the back of my wallet I had a list of the books we'd lost and wanted to replace.
Somewhere that afternoon I found Nick sitting cross legged on dusty floorboards in one of the old shop attics in front of bookshelves overflowing with old books, a pile beside him and one heavy hard back open in his lap.
"Nothing obscene." I warned him. He looked at me and pulled a face, with the dreamy look to his face that meant his mind was still in his book.
"All the obscene ones we've ever owned were yours."
"What have you got?" I crouched beside him to flick through his stack. Four carrier bags stuffed full were in the car: I'd just taken them back there myself on the grounds of us slipping a disc if we carried them much further. "Did you find the Dorothy Sayers you wanted?"
"Some of them. And the Simon Bretts."
"Let's pay for this lot then and get some lunch. And then we'll head home. Yes." I added before he could open his mouth. "We've got a whole seven days of holiday left, we can come back here again. We don't need to overdo it today."
He didn't argue. We paid for the books downstairs and walked back up the sloping cobblestoned street, past a little bistro where I towed Nick inside and found a table by the window. We ate thick, steaming soup and rough, home made bread, watching the tourists and the locals walk through the little market in the middle of the main road and I surveyed my boy discreetly across the wooden table. Calm faced now, his shoulders down and relaxed, some of his vivacity back. Whatever had upset him had passed now, but I still wanted to know what it was.
"I'm sorry about this morning." Nick said without looking up.
I leaned my elbows on the table in direct contravention of my mother and waited. Nick sat back, stirring his soup.
"I just woke up and found you were gone."
I hesitated, not sure where this was going. "The car was there darling, I'd only walked down to get the papers."
"I knew where you'd gone, it wasn't that." Nick said, flushing a little. "It was just being there alone."
I waited, not sure I understood. Nick went redder still and threw the last crumbs of bread into his soup, pushing it away.
"I just started thinking about the fire and if anything happened- you weren't there, I couldn't stay in the house on my own."
I got hold of his hand and he squeezed back but the look he gave me was somewhere between frustrated and self mocking.
"I know it's stupid, it just seemed rational at the time…."
And he'd been seriously upset. I should have seen this one coming: it was going to be still worse at home where he'd seen what a fire could actually do and the wreckage it could make of our lives. It had been made very real to the both of us, this was going to worry him for a long time. And if I knew my Nick, the knowledge of the worry was going to both him as much as the worry itself: that was part of what had caused us so much trouble these last few months. The asthma he can talk himself around: there's no way he can blame himself for that vulnerability. The emotional vulnerabilities he can't justify to himself.
I was still thinking about that some hours later on the beach. Nick was sprawled out with a book, surrounded by books, radiating contentment in a way that reminded me of Anastasia. Sensitive, imaginative, easily frightened- they're things that make him who he is, unique and Nick, but they can make even little things unbearably real and alarming to him. And very angry with himself for what he perceives as cowardice and failure. It was going to take time to get his confidence back in the house and being alone- and probably longer still for him to accept that he had these feelings and needed the support I was going to have to impose for a while if he wouldn't accept it willingly. For a start that he wouldn't be alone at home. A lot more smoke alarms also might help him feel a little safer, we could think about that when we got back. What ever it took to give him that security back, we could do it. I'd realised not long after we met that this was the other thing his dreaminess covered up- that I'd fallen in love with someone who was only just able to cope with the abrasiveness of real life. Sometimes in your life you meet these people- the mockingbirds- the butterfly people, with their soft eyes and an innate gentleness that is as rare as they are, who seem to see the world more acutely and brightly than the rest of us, and who are as incapable of self defence as they are of doing harm. Their very vulnerability draws protection to them: those of us who can fight our way alone through life, very capable of causing harm in word and deed- to use that strength to shield one of these natural butterflies, it's not a bad way to earn your own place in the universe.
We came home a week later, arriving in early evening when the street was quiet and everyone was home from work, the shops were closed and everyone was settling down to dinner in the village. The house was immaculate.
We left our things in the car and wandered, taking in the changes of our home. The caravan was gone from the drive, and inside the floors were laid, the blinds were fitted at every window, the freshly painted walls were clean and reflected back the last of the day's sunshine. Some of the new furniture had arrived. The kitchen looked much as usual, and a new suite stood in the lounge around a tv newly unwrapped and plugged in. We still needed to replace the bookcases- for now only a small table and a vase of flowers filled their gap on the wood floor. Upstairs, Anastasia got up, stretched graciously and came to greet us, jumping down off the new and immaculately made bed. I could see Allen and Nick's mother's touch here: the house had been cleaned by someone who understood asthmatics as well as someone who loved us: a lot of thought had been given to how we'd feel when we walked in the door today. Nick hovered close to me, keeping hold of my hand as we took it in. From the fresh towels in the bathroom to the note on the kitchen table which I picked up and read.
"There's food in the freezer, salad and champagne in the fridge. Welcome home. With love, Allen, Robin, Caroline, David, Margaret, Miles and Beth."
I locked the car and the front door, left the unpacking until tomorrow and Nick and I between us plated up the cold meal laid out and he took that out into the garden while I set the stereo in the kitchen. The music crept quietly out onto the patio with me when I brought out the bottle of champagne and the glasses. Nick leaned as far away as he could get, wincing as I popped the bottle open, and Anastasia shot down the garden in pursuit of the cork. I poured two foaming glasses and handed one to Nick, clinking mine against it.
"Here's to being extremely lucky in friends and parents at least."
Nick smiled and leaned over to kiss me. We ate peaceably in the garden, enjoying the last of the twilight until the patio light sensor was activated by the growing dark. It was going to take a few days before the house really felt like home again- so much had to be replaced, so many familiar things gone- but we would survive. It was over now, the house was ours again. We had so many people to call and thank- but not tonight. Tonight was for us.
Nick looked up at me apprehensively as I got up, about to take the plates in, and instinctively I changed intention, holding out my hands to him instead. He let me pull him up without protest, fitting into my arms and leaning there as we moved slowly across the dark patio to the sound of the stereo.
…Without saying a word, you can light up the dark
Try as I may I can never explain what I hear when you don't say a thing
The smile on your face lets me know that you need me
There's a truth in your eyes saying you'll never leave me
The touch of your hand says you'll catch me whenever I fall
You say it best when you say nothing at allAnastasia paused to watch us dancing, then got up on the table to lap at spilt champagne. I had no idea what you did with an inebriated cat, but I had Nick in my arms, warm, alive and moving with me, the suppleness of his hips against mine, his head against my shoulder, and nothing much seemed to me to be a problem right now.