Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Bells of Hell

This story is written to the memory 
of Charlotte Coleman, a very
talented actress 
whom I loved from her first appearance as a 
multitalented brat in 
'Educating Marmalade' in the 80s 
upto her role
as 'Scarlett' in 'Four weddings and a funeral'.
She died alone in her
from an asthma attack late last year.

Title: The Bells of Hell

Author: Ranger 
The bells of hell go tingalingaling 
for you but not for me

For me the angels singalingaling 
they've got good news for me

Oh death where is thy stingalingaling, 
where grave thy victory?

The bells of hell go tingalingaling 
for you but not for me.
Part 1
There are few places less conducive to calm than a hospital corridor.
I paced a few more times, lacing my fingers behind my neck. Several drunks were staggering down the hallway, propping each other up and singing. I glanced at my watch, reminded.
Five am.
We'd walked in on the dot of four. Or I'd walked in. Nick by that point had been past noticing anything, never mind being upright, and the paramedics were moving at a pace suspiciously close to a run.
I paced a few more times up and down the hall.
Sometimes these middle of the night crises were gradual and it was hard to make the decision to call an ambulance- especially when Nicky was in tears and begging me not to. At other times- like tonight- it was very quickly obvious it was an emergency. He'd gone from absolutely fine to pale blue in about ten minutes.
If someone didn't come and tell me something in a minute, I was going to go mad.
NOTHING awful was going to happen. He'd been on a nebuliser from within the first minute of the attack, the paramedics had given him the steroid shot he needed, we'd never lost control of it.
Except half an hour was a long time to struggle for breath. Exhaustion was-
NOT a killer in the hands of experts.
I took a few deep breaths and looked for a drinks machine. Something to do. Find small change. Sort small change.
I could almost hear Nick laughing at me for being able to dress in the middle of the night, dealing with a petrified, asphyxiating partner with one hand, an ambulance crew with the other, and still remembering my wallet, keys and small change.
What the HELL caused this attack?
I let the change drop back in my pocket and paced some more. We were so careful. We ate carefully. We kept the house as dust free as possible. He wasn't stressed, he wasn't overtired; we guarded against that every day. I had clear, vivid memories of watching him sitting on the end of the bed this morning, dutifully taking the medications he was supposed to. There was no REASON. It was so unfair. So unfair. All the attacks we evaded, all the ones we managed and controlled. All the ones we thought about and planned for and prepared for and warded off. And no matter what we did, without reason, without cause, they still slipped in under the net and caught us unawares. It made me think, selfishly and unreasonably, as I always did, Why Nick? He did nothing wrong, he didn't deserve this, why of all the people in the world did it have to be Nick?
Please God let us stay off the ventilators.
"Mr Mitchell?"
I vaguely remembered the nurse from earlier, before they told me I was much better off waiting outside. The beautiful civility of modern medicine that likes people to die considerately out of sight of their loved ones.
Mitchell STOP it.
  Thank God this hospital knew us. They at least accepted me as next of kin: I never forgot that their keeping me informed was an act of courtesy on their part. A gesture of kindness. By English law I was no relative of Nick's, I was not recognised as his partner, I had no right to know anything. The nurse moved towards me, and relief washed over me in a cold, prickling rush, making my fingers tingle with the adrenaline. She gave me eye contact, her smile was uncomplicated. Her news wasn't going to kill me.
There is something about the squareness and functionality of hospital beds that makes people look vulnerable. Nick was no exception, and the result turned my heart over. Asleep, he was small and thin and alarmingly fragile, when at home he seems so full of life. He'd shifted himself from the hospital position of flat on his back and settled into his usual semi foetal sleeping position on his right side, which made him look even smaller. ECG lines were taped to his chest and oxygen tubes in his nose, and his face was grey with weariness and concentration, as though he needed the sleep so badly it was taking all his energy. A drip ran into the back of one of his hands, the bulky cannula sticking out like a tap. He'd be extremely unhappy about that when he was awake enough to notice it.  The nurse supervising the machinery around him moved out of my way and kindly pretended not to be there. I leaned on the bed rail beside Nick and brushed his hair back from his forehead. Soft, damp, light chestnut hair. He calls it brown. I see red and blond and all the colours of early autumn. The strands sparkled and flowed over my fingers like they always do. He breathed like he always does. Quietly and evenly, with that familiar wheeze. The sheet and blanket over him were askew. I automatically reached to straighten and draw them closer around his shoulders, noticing that he'd been stripped completely. Which told me how many veins they'd been in search of and how close he'd come to a bed in Intensive Care. A few hours ago, he'd been fast asleep in our bed, against me, everything fine. That was the one place in the universe I would have thought I could keep him safe.
"Damien?" Caroline's frightened voice said from the doorway. Arg, as Nicky would say. I straightened up, deliberately gathering myself together. I'd called his parents an hour ago, trying to be as calm and reassuring as I could, given the fact that at that point I didn't know how- or if-  Nick was going to respond to treatment.
Nick's eyes looked at me out of Caroline's face, one of the many reasons I was so fond of her. Behind her, Nick's father looked pale and terrified. I put a hand out to him and hugged Caroline tight. Nick was their only child and they'd lived through far more nightmares in hospitals with him than I had.
We spent a fun twelve hours on the high dependency unit, which was as hot as a sauna and filled with equipment. And under constant supervision. Nicky woke around mid morning, confused and sore from the various tubes and needles he'd been stuck with in the course of the morning, and took instant exception to the heat, the cannula and the nurse. None of which I could do anything about. His parents hovered, upset and panicky as they always are about anything to do with his asthma, which never helps when he's stressed. Caroline can be firm with him when she has to, but David frequently gets more upset than Nick does. Too many chiefs never make for a calm indian. I tried discreetly to settle him down without success until he started to wheeze and the nurse showed signs of throwing all of us out. At that point I got hold of Nick's hands and told him in no uncertain terms to be quiet. Nothing embarrasses the English more than a scene. The one other patient in the unit retired behind his oxygen mask. Caroline took David's arm and towed him outside. Nick gave the nurse a baleful stare through bloodshot eyes and she retreated too. I pulled Nick's hands away from the oxygen tubes in his nose and the cannula and kissed them, fixing him with a glare. He recognised it. I got a face pulled at me, his eyes shied away from mine and he slid a little deeper under the single sheet he was covered with.
"How do you feel?" I asked quietly. Nick shut his eyes, letting me push his hair off his forehead.
His voice was croaky, his throat sore and dry from the tube that had been down his throat. I could see his lower lip was swollen. I pulled him over on his side where he could get his head into my shoulder and went on stroking his hair.
"Go back to sleep darling. Yes you can. We've just got to wait for this to wear off, you're okay."
"I HATE this."
"I know. So do I." I said with feeling. "Go back to sleep. It's fine."
He didn't have a lot of choice, he was utterly exhausted. This kind of attack, where he has seriously had to use up every reserve he has to find the strength to drag air into his lungs and keep breathing, leaves him with absolutely nothing left for days at a time. For the next few hours he dozed, only waking up to growl at the nurse who was making twenty minute checks on him. Caroline and David brought lunch and sat with us, David noticeably white and shaky. About three pm Nick had another attack, which set the alarms on all the various monitors flashing and bleeping and brought several medics on the run. After a major attack he is admittedly at high risk of another one, and he was in no state to stand up to it. As it was, within a few minutes of starting the nebuliser he was a lot better and they got out of the way and let us deal with it ourselves, leaving me irritable with them for having scared him when he was already stressed. At eight pm that evening they moved us out of high dependency into a ward, got rid of a lot of the equipment surrounding him and took down the drip. In a cooler room with less harassment I knew he would actually get some sleep, but that made it no easier to leave him. I fended off Caroline and David's attempt to get me to go home with them, drove home and fed Nick's cat. It took a real effort to go upstairs, undress, shower, do all the normal, every day things when all I really wanted was to sit downstairs, with coat and keys, waiting for the phone to ring. The cat was parked squarely on the bedroom windowsill, watching the drive. She knew as well as I did how many people were supposed to be in this house at night. I always sleep like hell when he isn't there.
He was awake, heavy eyed and wearing a determined look of being ready to Get Dressed, Get Up and Leave at any moment when I walked onto the ward in the morning. He was even drinking tea in a manner that suggested he was only marking time as an extreme favour to the hospital. He felt limp and hot and shaky when I kissed him, a combination that flooded me with a deep rush of protection, and the brown eyes he turned up to mine were heavily shadowed in a very white little face. It was going to take him days to recover from this one.
"Mmn." Nick shut his eyes, tucking his head under my chin. "I'm only waiting for the doctor to come up here and sign the papers, then we can go."
"Did you sleep?" I said softly. Nick's head moved against my chest.
"Sort of. It's noisy in here."
"How do you feel?"
I got the incomprehensible sound which Nick seems to feel is a perfectly adequate answer to any question he doesn't like. He was wheezing a little, but that's normal enough after a bad attack. I rubbed his back and supported the hand holding the tea, as it was somewhat shaky. I had a few words for whoever had decided it was a good idea to hand him a hot cup of anything when he was this unsteady.
"Did you eat anything this morning?"
"I just wanted tea."
"And they let you get away with that?"
"They're normal people." Nick said conspiratorially. "They don't care about the petty, minor details."
It was a spark of his usual self and I was grateful for it. I growled quietly against his ear in the way that usually raises a smile and kissed his hair. "You wait until I get you home."
He hates hospitals so much. It always takes hours to get anything done, its time permanently spent waiting in an atmosphere of coming and going. I made him lie down, settle down and he did actually go back to sleep once he accepted he wasn't going to get dressed and pace until the doctor showed up. About eleven am the consultant wandered in, checked his chart, smiled at him and told him he could go home. Considering we'd been waiting for that for several hours, and the whole process took about two minutes, it was more than slightly anticlimactic. Nick had been itching to get dressed for hours, but once we started on it he was shivery and quickly out of all energy and enthusiasm. By the time we reached the lift I was taking most of his weight and he was leaning heavily against me. One of the nurses caught us there, a sheet of paper in her hand which she extended to me.
"The referral to the physio department? The asthmatic swimmers group. Dr Robertson said he'd mentioned it."
I raised my eyebrows at Nick who grimaced. Clearly something he felt I didn't need to know about. I glanced at the sheet before I pocketed it and thanked the nurse. Tuesday and Thursday nights, 6-7 pm, a swimming group at the local leisure centre pool, under physiotherapist supervision. I'd think about it. Through the winter- always a bad time for Nick- it wouldn't do him any harm to have that exercise or that supervision.
He pretty much slept through the first two days, without the slightest interest in getting out of bed. By the third day, I was apparently fussing, being ridiculously over protective and he was fine, perfectly able to get up and go back to work tomorrow. On the fourth morning, when I went down to make tea about seven am and came back to find him stuck, sitting half way down the stairs, white faced, out of breath and looking about ready to disolve into tears, I knew reality was sinking in. This kind of attack drains him to the bone. He was going to have nothing left for days yet. I put the two mugs down at the foot of the stairs and held out my arms to him.
"Come on. I'll get the duvet and your pillow, lets get you settled on the sofa."
No cries of enthusiasm greeted that suggestion. I clapped my hands, waiting.
"I'm going to work down here, you've got the tv and video to hand- come on baby, its allright."
"It's not FAIR." Nick looked at me over the edge of his arms, red eyed. "There's nothing wrong with me. I'm FINE."
I headed up the stairs to him and pulled him to his feet, hugging him as tightly as is safe to on a staircase. Bare foot, pyjamaed, tousle haired, he looked sleepily adorable as he always is fresh out of bed, except for the expression of heartfelt misery.
"Exhaustion. And a lot of drugs. This happens darling, you know it does. You've just got to be patient for a few days."
"It's BEEN a few days. I don't WANT to be patient."
I deposited him on the sofa in the lounge, went back upstairs and retrieved socks, a sweatshirt, the duvet from the spare room and a pillow. Nick was curled up in the armchair at the far end of the room and his expression implied that this was all my fault and I was doing it deliberately. I made a bed up on the sofa, taking no notice.
"Put those socks on, it's cooler down here."
"I'm hot."
"Put them on anyway."
It was a token gesture, born of misery rather than mutiny and I didn't react to it. Just picked up one foot at a time and put the socks on him before I picked him up off the armchair and carried him across to the sofa. He wound both arms around my neck, refusing to be put down, so I sat down on the make shift bed and hugged him.
"What do you want to watch?"
"I'm FED UP with lying here doing nothing." Nick said fractiously.
"I know you are." I said with sympathy. Every sympathy. This truly wasn't fair.
I presented breakfast as a fate accompli, putting a plate of toast and marmite directly into his hands.  He still broke one piece in half, brushed the crumbs off his hands and put the plate down on the floor. I picked it up and handed it back.
"Try again and put it nearer your teeth this time."
"Ha bloody ha." Nick said sourly, leaning back against me. I cuddled him and watched the news on tv over his head, smoothing his fringe back out of his eyes. The world rolled along, the media handing out its usual impression of doom, gloom and massed trauma. Once we'd seen the headlines I reached for the remote and snapped the sound off.
"What video do you feel like? Sharpe? Sherlock Holmes?"
"I want to get up and do something."
I kissed the top of his head and slid out from behind him. "How about Miss Marple?"
A good old standby of his and always comforting.
I picked 'Sleeping Murder' out of the bookcase and slid it into the video. Nick handed his plate back to me with all of two quarters of toast eaten and looked at me, daring me to make something of it. In this mood he needed no encouragement. I pulled the duvet over his legs and left him in peace. He was in no fit state to be alone: I'd taken the week off and was working from home with Jerry faxing me the relevant stuff on a daily basis. I settled at the table at the far end of the lounge, pushed Anastasia off my drawings and got on with it, keeping more than half an eye on my poor, disconsolate boy. To do him credit, it was nearly twenty minutes before I heard the tv snap off and he moved from the sofa to the floor. Anastasia promptly ran across to him and he rolled over to fuss her, his eyes on me. A minute later he crawled across to me and climbed up to get into my lap. I put my pencil down and hugged him.
"Hi beautiful."
"What are you doing?"
"Nothing interesting." I pushed accounts out of the way. "Want a book?"
"Come on then. I'll put the tv back on."
"I don't want to watch that." Nick said plaintively into my neck. Bored enough to be fretful and without the energy to want to do anything. Not a good combination. And he was uncomfortable too- his chest and back would hurt for days after the kind of coughing he'd been doing. I could feel his breath against my neck: still noisy, still laboured. It was better than it had been- his peak flow was better, although still not good- but breathing for him was still hard work and would be for some time yet. All in all, he wasn't fit for anything. I put him on his feet and steered him back towards the sofa. He didn't even have the energy to keep himself warm. I had the central heating on full blast and he was still shivering. I settled him back under the duvet and sat down beside him, picking up the remote control to put the tv back on. Nick shut his eyes, turning over to bury his face in my lap in mute protest. I stroked his hair, making my voice as firm as I could.
"I know, you're tired and you feel awful. But you're not going to concentrate on being miserable all day, that isn't going to help. You settle down and watch for another twenty minutes and then I'll help you have a bath. Hmm?"
Being up to his neck in warm water for hours on end is one of his favourite ways to unwind and it was a bribe that worked. I felt him relax marginally. I flicked through the channels until I found the cartoon network, something that might appeal to a fragmented and very short attention span. And then sat, tolerating Tom and Jerry with an eye on the time. Unless I watched it carefully and spun it out, today was going to last for several eternities for both of us.
I managed to make the bath take the best part of forty minutes. Like everything else, much as he wanted to do it, within a few minutes he was ready to lie down again. It took some serious coaxing to get him to stay in the water, never mind relax, and by the time I got him into clean pyjamas and dried his hair he was nearly in tears. Temporarily glad to be lying down on the sofa again, he did settle under the duvet in front of another film and he did nap for all of half an hour around mid afternoon, but the whole of the rest of the day was a tango around those tears, which upset and embarrassed him as much as it worried me. I lost the battle around seven pm by which time even the gentlest of distractions were too much for him.
"There's nothing WRONG." He kept saying in between sobs. "I don't even know what I'm upset about."
By that point there was nothing left I could do but make comforting sounds and hold him until he managed to fall asleep. There was no point in worrying and I knew it; this wasn't illness, this was just the natural result of such a Godawful attack. He'd got through this in that flat of his alone in the days before we met and I hated the thought of it. There was nothing I could do but try to make it easier, or at least be here and go through it with him. I tried never to think of the asthma as something separate from him, strong as the temptation was right now to loathe it and what it did to him.
He felt dreadful for most of the rest of the week. Within a day or two he was up to occupying himself with tv or books and just became very quiet, curling up on the sofa for most of the day while I worked at the table, interrupting him at three hourly intervals for the nebulisers. I went into the office for a couple of hours on Friday and came back to find him huddled up in the armchair in the kitchen, book in hand, feet tucked under him. He tipped his head back to find me and I leaned down to kiss him, lounging on the back of his chair.
"What are you reading?"
He tipped the book for me to see. Mercedes Lackey. A little sweet for my tastes, but they were one of Nick's main comfort reads. I ran a hand gently along the side of his face and got up to take my jacket off.
"What do you want for tea?"
"I'm not hungry."
"You're going to have to work on that." I warned him. Nick put the book down and got up to come to me, watching over my shoulder as I found bacon in the freezer.
"I'm going into the office tomorrow."
"Oh you are, are you?" I said, amused. Nick smiled against my back.
"Yes. I'm as okay as I'm going to get and I'm days behind. It's a Saturday, I can do a couple of hours in peace and catch up a bit."
"Tomorrow. Just a couple of hours. Please?"
I hesitated, not at all sure, but I defy anyone to stand up to those eyes for long. Large and brown and with a quiet, matter of fact insight I don't like but I understand. It's a condition he's lived with all his life and he does have to live around it. I felt him stretch to reach and kiss what he could reach of my cheek.
"I'm okay, don't worry."
"Two hours max. And I warn you, I'll be here with a stopwatch."
"Its okay." Nick repeated gently in my ear.
Part 2
"Is everyone allright?" the group leader asked when the ambulance left.
She was trying hard not to cry, I could see the tears at the back of her eyes and her voice was only just about level. We were all still standing around the foyer in swimming trunks and towels, long past the stage of dripping. Just shivering as the leisure centre doors were closed and the management team hustled us gently back, promising coffee.
Several of the group were wheezing. There was half an hour left of our session and none of us felt like getting back into the pool. The physio wrapped a towel around one of the older members of the group- she'd long since shepherded the few children away and got them dressed. Two others who had joined with me in the resuscitation attempts, looked as pale and shaken as I felt. The physio tapped my arm and reached past me for the group leader.
"Come on. Come into the changing rooms, get warm."
She was right. I went back to the changing room, fumbled with my locker key for a while and finally got the wretched thing open. Then I found my hated cell phone and dialled home. Damien's voice answered, calm and cheerful.
"Its me."
That was about as far as I got. Damien's voice cut into my silence at once, softening into quick concern.
"Nicky? What's wrong? Are you okay?"
I sat down on one of the benches, feeling very numb. "The session ended early."
"Nicky what's wrong?"
"Can you come and get me?"
Silence. I could feel Damien trying to read my mind across six miles of distance and a telephone line. His voice was quick and soothing.
"Of course I will, I'll be five minutes."
I shut the phone down, still numbed. The group dispersed slowly, none of us talking much. The group leader was standing in the foyer when I went out, dressed and carrying my swimming kit. She was openly crying now. I gave her a quick hug as I passed, seeing a man striding across the carpark with a little girl by the hand- her husband and daughter, I recognised the child. It was cold outside but right now I didn’t care. I didn't want to watch this reunion. I headed out of the carpark and up to the main road, ducking my head against the wind. The trees were finally bare after this week's gales- piles of them lay against the roadsides, deep golds and reds and browns. Frost was already starting to shine on the grass verges in the lamplight. I saw Damien's Laguna at the end of the street and waited, knowing he'd see me.
He was still driving me to and from the swimming sessions he'd insisted I attended- he said because the driving was his exercise. Mostly it was because I was still so tired from the attack a few weeks ago. I couldn't seem to shake the effects of this one off.
Damien turned neatly in the leisure centre driveway and pulled up beside me, leaning over to open the door.
"Hey sweetheart."
Wide, warm hazel eyes looked up at me, visibly anxious. I slid into the passenger seat and leaned over to drop my bag in the back.
"I'm sorry. The session ended early, I didn't know until-"
I trailed off. Damien put a hand out to tousle my wet hair, then put the heating on full blast.
"What happened? Nicky? Are you okay?"
"One of the kids had an attack."
That was putting it mildly. Damien didn't move, still watching me with those soft eyes.
"Which one?"
"Bad one?"
My voice wasn't mine. I honestly felt nothing at all. "She was blue. Not breathing."
We'd been there. Done that. More than once.
Damien put a hand gently against my face, running a thumb over my lips. "You've never seen someone else having an attack."
"It was bad." I said shortly.
I'd been swimming with the asthmatic group for three or four weeks. About twelve of us, several kids, a couple of elderly men, two mothers of young children who loved the chance to get away from them for a few hours a week- I was the only man in adulthood and not yet drawing a pension who attended. Pointing out yet again to me and anyone else who happened to be paying attention that men my age were NOT supposed to be semi crippled with respiratory disorders.
The child had deteriorated so fast. She was a nice little thing, about seven, long brown hair and a pink swimsuit who spent most of her time in the water trying to swim underwater with much kicking and giggling. Once minute she was pale and starting to be tearful. A few minutes later people were running for ambulances and her small mouth was blue around the lips. I'd known when she lost consciousness; her wheezing finally went quiet.
"What IS silent chest?" I asked Damien, wrapping my arms around my knees. He glanced over and pushed my feet off the seat.
"Don't do that, the seatbelt can't hold you in that position."
"It's to do with getting too tired isn't it?"
"Yes. It means there's no air going in and out." Damien said gently. "Did it get that bad?"
I nodded. It had happened to me once. I spent the next twenty four hours on a ventilator and I knew there had been a good risk that I wouldn't come off again. Except I'd had a chest infection at the time- I'd been ill, there had been a reason. Harriet had been fine. Absolutely fine.
The phone rang about nine pm that evening. The group leader, her voice steady although very soft.
"Hello Nick? I'm sorry to ring you at home, I thought you might want know-"
"How's Harriet?"
I didn't exactly mean to interrupt, I just didn't want to hear the warm-up to this. Sandra hesitated for a second, then said still more calmly,
"I'm afraid she died about an hour ago. Her parents just rang me. They wanted me to thank you and everyone else who helped this afternoon."
"Oh God. I'm so sorry."
"She was a brittle asthmatic- a very severe asthmatic Nick, she was a very fragile child and there's always that danger there- she was just so young and such a lovely little girl." Sandra's voice cracked slightly and I heard her swallow. "There won't be any group on Thursday, I think we all could do with a few days off."
Damien was standing in the doorway to the lounge, watching with his eyes very anxious. He'd already got the gist of the conversation. I thanked Sandra and put the phone down, knowing his arms were going to be open and ready the second I wanted comfort. I hadn't expected good news. To be honest, I'd known when I saw that little face turn blue. Harriet and I had had something in common. We were the two only brittle asthmatics in the group.
I stirred at the feel of the mask settling over my face and tried to turn over. Damien was in my way. The clock radio just past him stood at two am. He hadn't bothered to turn the light on; we could both follow this routine through blindfolded.
"Hi sweetheart."
He didn't lie down again, he never does; he deliberately keeps himself awake so I don't have to. Which I told him often enough he didn't have to do, but he only said he slept properly in between nebulisers and I didn't. We were only doing the one during the night, mostly as a precaution, but anything that kept me from a repeat of the last attack sounded like a great idea.
It brought it home to me though - it was four weeks since I'd been hospitalised. I was still - tired. Permanently tired. Breathing was still an effort. I was still taking the full dosage of the medications that controlled all this. I shut my eyes and tried not to think of Harriet, sitting against the physio's chest as we waited for the ambulance, her eyes bulging, her little chest showing the clear lines of her ribs and collar bones, straining with the effort to breathe. Fighting against lungs like ours, sometimes you were onto a losing battle. She and I both knew that.
I was using the portable nebuliser at work over lunchtimes at the moment, mostly because I'd promised Damien. And he checked a lot. I was putting it away when Beth came back into the office, tossing the wrapping from her sandwiches into the bin.
"You needn't look so smug," she said before I could comment. "If I had a hunk in my life who packed ME a lunch every day, I'd get to sit here and relax over lunchtime too."
"You should have told me, Damien packs enough for three."
And most of it had ended up in the bin. I just wasn't hungry.
I filed the nebuliser under the desk, out of sight, and opened the file I was working on. Beth leaned on the desk, propping her chin on her hands.
"Are you okay honey?"
"Why?" I glanced up over the file, surprised. Beth sat up and flicked tuna sandwich off her scarf.
"Because I can hear you breathing all the way over here? And you're even quieter than usual which is starting to make the paperclips look gossipy."
I coughed and winced as my ribs protested. "I'm okay. I probably shouldn't have been so stubborn about coming back to work so soon, but it's a bit late for that now."
"That reminds me." Beth pulled a post-it note off her telephone. "Your hunk called while you were with the rep this morning. Nothing urgent, just to say he'd made the follow up appointment and could I write it in on your calendar."
I made a rude noise, which made Beth laugh, even as she wrote it in large, red letters on the office calendar. Only she and I ever used it and Damien had NO qualms about enlisting her help about aiding my memory. I coughed again and went back to my drawings. Beth peered over my shoulder at the drawing I was working on, her earrings chinking noisily above me.
"Why don't you go home early today sweetie? No one's in a rush for those designs."
I irritably flicked the page around and continued, concentrating on the job at hand and not the ache in my chest. I had a job, I took a wage for it, I was quite capable of doing it.
"I'm okay, I can get these finished."
It was one of those consultant visits where I wonder why I bother coming. Damien and the consultant were the ones doing the talking and in possession of the information. After twenty minutes of listening to them jabber about steroids and peak flow patterns, I'd lost all interest, knew how many ceiling tiles were present and in what order, and was working hard on staying awake. My consultant had been thrilled when Damien started coming to these appointments; I suppose he found it refreshing to talk to someone who understood. It was only when Damien handed me a small plastic case for my inspection that I pulled myself together. I glanced at him without getting a clue, then concentrated on the plastic thing and tried to work out what it was. Small, light blue, cylindrical. I opened it and looked at the contents without feeling any the wiser. What it was and what I was supposed to do with it was a mystery to me. Damien took what looked like a pen out of the case, turned it over for a minute, then put the end against his finger and clicked the end. Then handed it to me.
"That looks easy enough."
For what exactly? Since he appeared to expect some kind of reaction from me I did what he had done- clicked it against my finger. And yelped as something sharp darted in and out of my fingertip.
"It's not that bad. And you can use it yourself." Damien said mildly.
"What's THAT for?" I demanded, startled. Damien's look informed me he'd had a fair idea that I hadn't been listening and we'd be talking about it later.
"It's an autoinjector darling. For adrenaline. It means I can give you an adrenaline shot if you have a bad attack, we don't need to wait for paramedics."
Oh. My. God.
I looked blankly at the thing as he and the consultant carried on talking.
I knew what this meant. One MORE thing I'd be expected to keep set, cleaned, ready and available. The time was going to come where I was going to need a suitcase to carry around with me full of all the stuff I was supposed to Keep On Me At All Times. An injection of adrenaline. This wasn't even funny.
I did not need something this serious. I wasn't THAT bad.
"Nick?" Damien said meaningfully. I looked up. The consultant gave me a patient smile.
"I asked how work was going at the moment?"
I put the injector pen down on his desk. "Fine. Really good, I enjoy it."
"It's hard through the winter." Damien said unhelpfully. "He's had a bad month or so recently."
"But I'm fine now." I said easily, making it sound as cheerful as possible. "And I've got a very understanding boss. Its fine."
"Do you need any help with that?" Damien called for the third time. I shut the cupboard door a little harder than necessary.
"No. You cooked, I can clear up."
In between breathing. I leaned on the counter for a moment to get my breath, and swore quietly. I was SO fed up with this. Another few deep breaths and I put the rest of the plates away, turned the kitchen light out and went into the lounge, grimly satisfied I was leaving the kitchen behind me in a state even Damien would approve of. Damien grabbed my belt as I passed him and yanked me down into his lap.
"Do you need your inhaler?"
He'd heard. Of course. I shifted against him and shut my eyes.
"I'll do a nebuliser in a bit."
"Now. I think it's bedtime for you anyway." Damien nudged my head up before I got too comfortable. "Go on."
"It's not even eight pm yet!" I objected. Damien put me on my feet.
"Get yourself ready for bed. And I'm not at all sure we shouldn't then have a discussion about paying attention to important things. Like medical appointments."
I pulled a face at him, fairly sure he was kidding, but shut my mouth just in case.
I got the lecture allright, once he had me in bed with the nebuliser running, but once he'd talked himself out he did nothing more than kiss me goodnight. And then lean there, looking at me. Large, warm hazel eyes with their laser look.
"Do you want to tell me what's on your mind?"
I looked blank at him. Damien shook his head.
"I heard the pink mist and vagueness act you were doing for the consultant when he asked about work."
"Its fine." I would have turned over, except he had his hands firmly planted on either side of me, pinning me under the duvet. "I like it, it just worries me you'll all decide it's too much or I can't do it or something-"
"It was stress that meant I wanted you to change your job last year." Damien said mildly. "Not asthma. The asthma's a side effect of stress for you."
"So I'm not stressed."
"Or at least not about work." Damien amended. I looked at him, half wishing he would just read my mind and put this into words. The hazel eyes gazed back for a long time.
"My crystal ball's at the cleaners." He said eventually. "You're going to have to try and tell me darling."
"I don't like the adrenaline thing." I pulled at his sleeve, twisting the material between my fingers. "I don't need it."
"I can think of maybe two times it would have meant we got to hospital with you in much better condition, and possibly we would have been able to come home a couple of hours later." Damien said calmly. "Its to do with having the right help to hand when it's needed instead of having to hang on fifteen minutes for the paramedics, and avoiding you getting so exhausted. It's the after effects of the attack that make you so miserable, the attack itself was over and done with in about two hours."
"I thought it was just about not dying." I said sourly. Damien's eyebrows raised.
"Nick. You're not going to die."
"You don't know that." I pointed out. "That's been a possibility before now. It was a possibility this time."
"The worst it's EVER got, you needed help to breathe for a few hours. That was all." Damien said firmly. "You were by no means at the end of the hospital's resources. And that was once, in thirty years of having asthma."
"And that little girl had brittle asthma, just like me, and died. Fifteen hundred people die from asthma every year just in the UK."
"You've been reading The Guardian again."
"I watched it happen." I snapped back. Damien shook his head
"I know that must have been very frightening. But you didn't. She died in hospital because they couldn't stop the attack. That's never happened to you."
"It's only got to happen once." I muttered. Damien swatted me once, hard. It was through the duvet and it still stung.
"Stop it. There are millions of people with asthma in this country, the massive majority of them handle it just the way that you do without it having any major effect on their lives."
"It doesn’t." Damien said firmly. "I'm going to make an appointment with your consultant and we'll go and talk all this over with him, and this time you need to listen and pay attention. He's the one you need to ask about this."
Part 3  
I was shaving at the bathroom sink with half an eye on Nick who was bare foot and shirtless, hunting through the airing cupboard for socks, when it occurred to me just how many ribs I could see. Definitely more than I remembered being that obvious. I shook the razor off and put it down.
I held out a hand to him. "Come here a minute."
He came, took my hand- and then had a good go at retreating as I heeled the bathroom scales out into the middle of the floor.
"Humour me."
I pulled him over and lifted him onto the scales. I was expecting a drop but the reading was a little lower than I'd expected.
"That's not bad." Nick said hopefully.
"It's not good either." I told him. "No more snack meals my lad."
"I DO eat."
Yes. I kept an eye on what he ate and what he evaded eating: obviously I was missing something along the line. I turned him around and linked my hands in the small of his back.
"What did you eat yesterday?"
"I had breakfast with you-"
"Not strictly speaking, you finished on your own while I had a shower."
"Toast. And a sandwich for lunch-"
"How much of a sandwich?"
"Half?" Nick looked at me, with the puppy expression that means he's fairly sure I'm not going to be pleased but is willing to be optimistic.
"What else?" I said unpromisingly. He fiddled with my shirt buttons, not looking at me.
Uh huh.
 "And you turned down most of dinner on the grounds that you ate plenty at lunchtime?" I inquired, more than mildly annoyed at the thought that he'd had about half a bowl of soup and some salad before he informed me he was full. This habit stopped right here.
"I wasn't hungry." Nick said plaintively. I Looked at him, watching his eyes react as he got the message.
"Would I call half a sandwich 'plenty' Nicholas?"
"No, but-"
"Would I have let you off dinner last night if I'd known?"
Nick flushed slightly. "No…"
"Heard of lying by omission?"
I waited. Finally he looked up, not happy but understanding me perfectly well.
"I'm sorry."
I steered him ahead of me into the bedroom, taking no notice of dragging feet. If we were going to do something about this as promptly as I intended then this was going to be a clear message. I was not about to put up with any messing about where eating was concerned. He looked quite fragile enough.
"You didn't KNOW my weight was down, I didn't know-" Nick appealed as I sat on the side of the bed and drew him in between my knees to undo his jeans.
"You knew perfectly well that I thought you'd eaten enough yesterday not to need dinner and it's messing me about like this that means your weight drops without me realising." I pointed out, turning him over my lap and pushing all obstructive clothing out of the way. He looked thinner still from this angle. "You do NOT mislead me about what you eat and you eat what you are told to eat. Especially at this time of year it's too important that you stay healthy for you to lose weight unnecessarily."
Nick wriggled at the first few smacks, I'd guess somewhat startled at how seriously I was taking this, but I had every intention of seeing he took it seriously too. He wasn't doing well this winter already, he didn't need any more health issues to deal with. I spanked him soundly, not stopping until I was absolutely sure I'd made enough of an impression on him and he was sobbing. He buried his face in my stomach when I pulled him upright, sliding to his knees on the carpet. I threaded my fingers through his hair and kissed the crown of his head.
"No more messing about. Clear?"
Christmas decorations were starting to go up on the shop fronts in the village by the beginning of December. I passed a particularly lurid reindeer being put up over the bank as I headed down our road and pulled into the drive at lunchtime. No sign of Nick's car. Anastasia met me in the hallway and followed me into the kitchen, watching me scramble eggs. Mr Hayes had five more minutes before I phoned him, and he'd better have left the office. I'd been insisting for two weeks now that he came home for lunch and he hadn't taken kindly to it, but he had put a couple of pounds back on and he looked marginally less washed out. I was actually getting quite worried about him. He insisted nothing was wrong at work or anywhere else, but he was quiet and jumpy and we were still ticking between nebulisers and courses of steroids. He'd had no major attacks but we'd handled any number of low level ones. I was chasing him to bed early, but he was coughing so much in the evenings that he wasn't actually getting much sleep, and his consultant just kept telling prescribing yet another course of steroids and telling me that I knew Nick, and not to worry. The front door slammed and I heard Nick's keys crash down on the table.
"I'm late, I'm sorry."
"You're just in front of the deadline. Hello." I kissed him and pulled his chair out, putting a plate down in front of him. "How was your morning?"
"Not bad. Beth did get the order from the Westbridge firm. They're being sold off, she thinks we'll pick up quite a few of their contracts."
He didn't sound too thrilled about it. I sat down beside him, starting on the sandwich I'd made for myself.
"All sign writing?"
"Some logos, insignias, that kind of thing." Nick picked at scrambled eggs with a distinct lack of interest but started to eat. We'd established last week that I wouldn't let him leave until he was finished and Nick was nothing if not conscientious about work. I could wish he was a little less committed sometimes; he needed more time to rest at the moment and less in the office. I glanced at my watch when he was finished and picked the plates up.
"You've got half an hour. Sofa. I'll bring your nebuliser down."
"I'll fall asleep." Nick said half heartedly. I jerked my head at the door.
"Then I'll wake you. Go on."
He went. I washed the few dishes we'd used, ignored the cat who was informing me that she was entitled to eat lunch if we did, and ran upstairs to unplug the nebuliser from it's usual place beside the bed. I was in the process of setting it when I realised it WAS set.
That was odd.
The only person who ever set it was me. Nick was incapable of resetting it when he finished using it. Usually it was something I nagged, harassed and hassled him about, but the last few weeks when he needed it a lot, I'd been setting it myself. And the last time I'd set it was this morning while he was in the shower.
Nick was fast asleep on the sofa and unavailable for comment. I checked the time once more, plugged the nebuliser in and sat down to wait. Aware he looked awful. Still thin, still white, heavily asleep despite the fact it was only lunchtime.
At one o clock when he was still fast asleep I rang Beth and had a brief chat with her, then sat down beside Nick and eased the mask over his face. He didn't stir through the ten minutes it took for the machine to feed him the medication, and he was still asleep ten minutes later when I shook a blanket out over him, left a note beside the sofa and quietly let myself out of the front door.
He wasn't anywhere downstairs when I got home at five thirty. Neither was Anastasia, which suggested some how she'd found her way upstairs with him. She officially wasn't supposed to go up there, but since she didn't relate well to corners it wasn't easy to enforce. I headed upstairs and turned the computer on as I passed it.
The hoarse voice chilled me instantly. I put the mug down on the bookcase and headed for our room, fast. Nick was sitting on the end of the bed, gripping the duvet with both hands. I could hear his breathing from the doorway. Anastasia was sitting on the quilt behind him, watching him with wide eyes. Not good. His inhaler was on the floor. I collected the peak flow kit from the dresser, kneeling on the carpet in front of him.
"When did this start?"
"Don't know. Half hour ago?"
He was talking in short bursts and in phrases which he does when very breathless, and he had the set look to his face that means he's scared and trying not to give in to it. I ran a hand over his hair, pushing it out of his face as I gave him the monitor. The reading wasn't good, but it wasn't dire. I opened the window and collected his spacer, deliberately keeping my voice as light.
"Try this again."
"Taken as much as I ought to."
"Probably didn't get anywhere near you if you're this tight."
His fingers were clenched with panic. I held on to the mask and put my free arm around him, watching him breathe the chemicals in. His back was stiff under my hand and I could feel his ribs lifting with the effort of forcing air in and out. I had to pry the spacer out of his hand when he was finished, he was clutching it and me. I pulled him to his feet and steered him towards the stairs.
"Come on, it's cooler downstairs."
He hesitated, not wanting to let go of me but not sure. "Might need the nebuliser."
"That's already downstairs, you had one at lunchtime. Remember?"
He didn't answer that. He clung to me all the way downstairs. I flicked on the tv on the way past and we settled on the sofa, listening to the early evening news. Nick slid down within a minute and knelt on the floor, his head against my chest at the angle that makes his breathing a little easier. I rubbed his back gently, doing my best to radiate anything but concern. Within a few minutes I felt him start to relax, although he was still wheezing badly.
"What brought that on?" I asked lightly when he had enough breath to talk. He'd relaxed against me now, he was no longer angling himself to try and easy his breathing. Still I kept my arms loosely around him, not wanting to give him any sensation of restriction.
"Don't know. I was asleep. I woke up when it started to get bad."
Nick sat back on his heels and pushed his hair out of his eyes, pulling away. He looked tired, shaken and miserable, and I leaned towards him automatically, intending to pull him into my lap. He warded me off and got to his feet.
"I think I want to lie down."
"That's not a good idea, not yet." I glanced at my watch and got up with him. "Come and help me cook-"
He shrugged, lips tight and headed for the kitchen. I sighed and followed him, bracing myself. He was still upright. He was standing at the far end of the lounge and his arms were tightly folded in a way that told me before I heard him gulping. Anxiety ate me whole. I turned him around and pulled him into my arms, trying to assess his breathing, looking for the danger signals.
"Baby what's the matter? What is it?"
He twisted away from me. I grabbed him and pulled him back, this time holding him too tight to let him escape.
"Nicky- I'm not going to let you go when you're so upset- no, talk to me."
He twisted, hard, hands bracing painfully against my collar bones. I held on, refusing to release my arms. In a minute his arms slipped around my neck and clung in a stranglehold. I rocked him, stroking his hair, his neck, feeling him cry quietly and hard.
"What? What are you thinking about?"
"Why the hell do you have to be so damn perfect?"
It was so incoherent it took me a minute to work out what he'd said. When I did, I pulled a face. I didn't feel very perfect at all at this moment in time. What I really wanted was a crash course in ESP.
"You can handle this. You always CAN handle it."
I waited, still rocking him slowly and soothingly, hoping it would calm him enough to be coherent. Nick turned his head on my shoulder, not trying to get away now.
"If you're not here, I panic. If you hadn't come home I'd have worked myself up into a full blown attack. I've been handling this for years, I handled attacks before I knew you."
Ah. We'd gone over this with the consultant the last time this boiled up- or rather I had. Nick had sat there looking as though he was in a different time stream, and kept his mouth firmly closed. Obviously, far from helping, it was all still bubbling round in his corkscrew cortex, getting steadily more tangled up.
"I know you did, you CAN do it." I said firmly.
"I CAN'T." Nick would have yanked free if I'd let him, I heard his voice change again, sounding almost amused if he hadn't been in tears. "You walk in the door and I drop it straight in your hands to deal with, I can't even take the right medications without you there to remind me."
And that reminded me… no, we'd get to that later. Right now I wanted to see where he'd take this. The more he'd actually tell me, the better.
"You were frightened." I said calmly. "If you can't get the right help from me who can you ask?"
"And what do I do if you're not there?" Nick said bitterly. "Suffocate quietly?"
"That's rubbish. You've had attacks on your own and you've handled them yourself. If it gets bad enough you call for help. I know you do, you're very sensible about it."
I heard his splutter of amusement.  I steered him to the nearest chair, sat down and pulled him into my lap. This time he settled down against me without argument. I held him for a few minutes, playing idly with his hair where it curled over his collar. He felt fragile to me. Thin and stressed and still tired. None of which he handled well, physically or mentally, at the best of times.
"Did you do a nebuliser this morning?" I asked him eventually, quietly. Nick didn't even try to evade the question.
I waited for the logic to follow that statement. It took a long time. Finally Nick turned his head against my shoulder and took a deep breath. It was a reassuring sound.
"I'm so tired of feeling like this."
"Like what sweetheart?"
"Bored with it? First thing in the morning, lunchtime, tea time, bedtime, in the middle of the night- they're not doing any good anyway."
"We don't know that."
"Oh we do."  Nick said wearily. "It's going to be bad anyway, whatever we do."
I didn't like at all how depressed that sounded. Nick was limp against me, his breathing noisy and slowing down in a way that told me he'd fall asleep without very much encouragement. If he'd missed a nebuliser at any other time, I would have spanked him without question. At this moment, while he was this upset about it, I was more than inclined to let this go and just make sure that I was around at every medication time so he couldn't skip any more. And I was going to make an appointment at the clinic as soon as they could fit us in.
Part 4 
Damien dragged me to the doctor at the end of that week. I didn't get a lot of choice about going. The GP just told us we were already doing all the right things, that he didn't want to mess with the medications I was on, and if I was concerned, to go back to my consultant. He did suggest I thought about rejoining the swimming group. Something to do with stress management. Damien was not impressed and muttered most of the way home. He did however take me to the Tuesday night session when I asked him.
It was actually a relief to be somewhere else other than at home or work. The group swam in the leisure centre pool for an hour, and I joined in with most of it and clung to the side to breathe in between activities.
"Should you be doing this?" Sandra asked me discreetly half way through the session, kneeling down on the poolside. I looked up and nodded. The water put surprising pressure on my chest, it made me feel even tighter than usual.
"I can do it."
"If you're sure. If you want to come out, that's fine too."
No. I wasn't going to be controlled by this.
The general public were allowed to swim from seven pm onwards. The other asthmatics went towards the changing rooms. I stayed where I was, relaxed and let myself float. Damien would be sitting in the carpark. I'd be going home to medication, more attempts to sleep, more medication, more attempts to last through work, to go home, to eat, to go back to work- I shut my eyes and carried on floating.
I recognised the way I was splashed past before I recognised the face and righted myself.
"Hi." Robin looked more than slightly surprised. "What are you doing here?"
"Just having a swim."
"I usually do this session in the evenings, I haven't seen you before." Robin waded deeper, still watching me. "How are you? Damien said you weren't very well at all- he's been ranting to Allen about your consultant."
"I'm okay."
"You look terrible." Robin drifted backwards and took one or two strong strokes towards the deep end. Then stood up again.
"Are you sure you should be here?"
If anyone else asked me that, I was going to go mad. I turned over and headed for the deep end, making my body do the full stretch, reach and pull with enough strength to keep up a decent pace. I could feel my heart thudding by the time I reached the far wall and I had virtually no breath left. Robin, now I had assured him I was fine, was happily chatting about something else. I leaned on the bar and concentrated on getting air in and out. It wasn't a problem. I could do it. There was another voice, another man, somewhere above us on the side. The conversation gradually sank into me, something about a tv show and a contest. Somewhere along the line it made sense. With all the time Damien had been making me spend lying on the sofa recently I'd seen a lot more TV than usual. Something about a competition where contestants were lowered into a tank of water for as long as they could stand. I lifted my head and looked at Robin.
"I think it was the pressure of having to hold out in front of the other contestants." Robin said cheerfully, pulling himself up to sit on the side. "Only one minute something. In normal circumstances anyone could do that."
"How long could you stay down here?" his friend asked. Robin shrugged.
"I don't know. It's not easy to stay down in shallow water."
I nodded at the far wall where some of the toys and swimming aids were kept for the kids groups that swam here.
"Those bricks are heavy enough to hold you down. If you held them with both hands, you'd stay on the bottom."
Robin grinned and went to collect a brick. His friend went with him, setting his watch.
"I'll time you. What'll you go for? One minute?"
"To start with." Robin glanced at me. "Want to try? Are the lungs up to it?"
That, for Robin, passed as genuine concern. I held out a hand, not feeling anything at all in the way of concern. Not even healthy anxiety. It was a risk. My life was full of stupid risks. Why not?
"Go on then. I'll race you."
Robin handed me a brick and slid over the side to lean beside me.
"After three. Straight down, and stay down as long as you can."
And it would NOT be me who gave up first. Robin's friend sat on the side, crosslegged and looking at his watch. The life guard gave us a brief glance but looked straight back to the bunch of teenagers by the diving boards. Two grown men, quietly competing, weren't going to hold his attention. I took a few deep breaths, trying to make my stupid lungs stretch a little. I was going to do this by sheer willpower if nothing else.
"One. Two."
I let go of the side and the brick dragged me straight down. I never have been able to open my eyes under water. I held tightly onto the brick, my arms stretching over my head with the weight of it as my body rotated over. After a few seconds the brick hit the smooth tiles of the bottom and I felt myself stabilise, balanced above the weight of the brick. I shut my teeth, blocked out all thought and STAYED.
I gave up sitting in the carpark after ten minutes, strolled into the leisure centre and glanced through the glass to the pool. I could see Nick floating, oblivious to anyone or anything. Well he needed the relaxation time, there was no need to rush him. I leaned on the rail and waited. I recognised Robin when I saw him: he was a keen swimmer, he attended a lot of the late evening sessions here, sometimes with Allen and sometimes alone. He ought to drive Nick out of the pool within a few minutes. I left Nick in Robin's hands and went to get a coffee from the machine.
I go back just in time to see them lift the bricks over the side and go in. God alone knows how I missed them getting ready, but I saw them both dive and I recognised the look on Nick's face. It scared the hell out of me. I put the coffee down on the nearest table and headed for the poolside at a fast stride. By the time I reached the doorway to the pool I was moving at a run. From inside the door I could see them both; two bodies suspended deep under the water. I tore off my jacket, heading for the side. One was moving- I saw Robin burst to the surface, coughing, water streaming from his face and hair. The guy on the side clicked his watch, crowing something about forty seconds. The other figure down there was moving too, but not upwards. My heart more or less stopped. I could see the hands fanning out, fingers releasing their grip. Drifting. I flung the jacket out of the way and dived.
He was a dead weight. He didn't move at all to help himself when I grabbed him, and when I surfaced, I had to manhandle him to drag his head out of the water. The lifeguard was on the side, pale and waiting, hands outstretched. I handed Nick to him, dragged myself over the side and watched the lifeguard check for breathing. I did on instinct what I've done before when we're reaching panic stations: a trick his mother taught me. I leaned over and blew sharply into his face. The reflex is very old, but still there. Nick gasped and then coughed, rolling onto his side. Thanking God, I held his head, pushing his wet hair out of his eyes until I saw them open. Blurry but coherent. I caught my breath for the first time in several minutes. The lifeguard was shouting something, it took all my strength to pull myself together.
"He's severely asthmatic, we need an ambulance carrying oxygen and a nebuliser.  Repeat that back to me, oxygen and a nebuliser."
I was barking, I realised at the expression on the lifeguard's face, but he said it promptly.
"Oxygen and a nebuliser."
"Right. Come back and tell me when you've done it."
Nick was still coughing. I fumbled for my jacket, hunted through it until I found the spare inhaler I always carry and held it for him, trying to find the voice I needed. It came. With an effort, but once I found it, it stayed steady.
"Allright Nicky. It's okay. Take a few deep breaths. Can someone find me a paper or polystyrene cup?" I added, glancing up at the other lifeguard. Several people in the crowd watching us moved away to look. I spread my jacket over Nick, picked him up and headed for the foyer. We were down to a basic choice- freezing or breathing. I went for breathing and stood him on his feet just outside the front door, holding him upright and tipping him automatically against my chest. Someone brought a paper cup to me and I forced the opening of the inhaler through the paper bottom, lifted Nick's chin and held the cup over his mouth, firing the inhaler. It wasn't enough, not nearly enough, but it was the best emergency measure I could take right now.
"Breathe that in. Take it gently."
He wasn't coughing as much. I held him, trying to distinguish between asthma and the results of semi drowning, but it seemed to me he was taking his weight better, balancing, and his eyes were clearing. The improvised spacer helped. We were both standing there dripping wet and shivering but he was breathing fairly quietly. I caught sight of Robin, roughly dressed and near tears in the doorway, but right now Nick was all I could think about. His eyes were turned up to mine, wide and bewildered as they always are when he finds himself in trouble. I could easily have put both hands around that slender throat and squeezed.
"What the HELL were you doing?" I said softly. Nick's eyes got still more bewildered.
"I'm really sorry. I'm really…" his voice cracked and he leaned hard against me. I pulled his head into my shoulder and kissed him, not at all sure what I was feeling but more than ready to deck anyone - or anything- that got him this upset. The ambulance turned into the carpark, lights flashing. Nick's hands tightened on me painfully, the break in his voice getting worse.
"I don't want to go to hospital."
Well it was a bit late for that now. I hugged him, trying to contain his shivering, not sure whether I was amused or exasperated. "Maybe you should have thought about that ten minutes ago?"
His eyes were scared now. Plainly and simply frightened. The ambulance halted, two paramedics advanced on us. I made myself let go and pushed him gently towards them, hoping this happened too fast for him to have time to panic.
"We haven't got much choice love. No one's going to do anything dreadful to you, I won't let them."
Part 5 
Someone in casualty made a remark about severe asthmatics ought to know better than to try serious diving. Damien froze them with a look. They'd wrapped us both in silver thermal blankets, I imagined we both looked as bedraggled as each other. We'd waited about half an hour for a chest xray before they told me my lungs were clear and handed Damien a prescription for antibiotics as a precaution. I clung to Damien through the whole thing.
Allen was in the hallway when we finally were released, just Allen on his own. He took one look at both of us and pulled his keys out of his pocket.
"I thought you might want a lift home."
Damien freed an arm and gave Allen a hug, but thankfully kept hold of me. I suppose I should have been worried he would shout, be angry, be upset. Actually I wasn't at all. I knew him too well and knew he would understand. Right now I just wanted to hide in him and give careful consideration to never coming out again.
I held on until we got home, wary of Allen's presence. Allen pulled in on the driveway and turned around, holding out a hand.
"Damien, give me your keys. We'll drop your car off."
Damien handed them over and opened the car door, holding out his hands to me. Allen gave me a slight, comforting smile but I didn't want to see it. I slid out and leaned hard against Damien, hiding my face in a way not at all appropriate for a grown man of 32. Damien said something to Allen and steered me into the house. That was about all I took in. At the foot of the stairs Damien peeled his jacket off my shoulders and locked the door behind us.
"Go and get in the bath Nicky-"
I folded up and sat at the foot of the stairs and let the tears come. Damien sat down beside me, put an arm around my shoulders and pulled my head into his lap.
"I know. I know, it's all over with. You're safe and I've got you, nothing awful is going to happen."
I couldn't answer that. Damien shook me gently.
"Is it?"
At that point in time I didn't care what happened ever again.
I couldn't stop crying. I couldn't explain why or what about either. Damien tried patiently for a while to get me to talk, then helped me out of the swimming trunks I'd been wearing now for hours and made me have a bath. I was still in tears when we finished, by which time I had a temperature and was about ready to throw up. He put me to bed, drew the curtains on the last of the daylight and I remember him bringing a mug of milk and brandy up which he bullied until I drank. The last thing I remember is lying wrapped around him like a quilt, arms and legs, feeling his hand moving slowly and steadily over my spine, from my neck to my hips, tracing each bone individually as though he was taking some kind of inventory.
This had to be the ultimate get out of jail free card. Do something appalling and make yourself so ill doing it that avenging boyfriends can't justify laying a hand on you. I felt so bad about it I wanted a rock to crawl under to die quietly. I wasn't exactly ILL ill either. Just in what Damien referred to as 'a state'. I didn't want to talk or move or do anything, just be left alone. Damien of course paid perfect attention to that. He dragged our GP out of his morning surgery and fought off Allen and Robin whose voices I heard downstairs briefly. The GP is used to Damien and didn't get excited. I caught a couple of comments about people with nerves like piano wires before he starting chuntering away to Damien about anxiety and the chemical effects of exhaustion. I didn’t care in the least. Thankfully Damien shut the bedroom door on me and took him downstairs to talk, and the house slowly regained some tranquillity. I lay there and stopped shaking quite so hard. Some time later Damien appeared with a mug of tea and sat on the edge of the bed, pulling enough blanket out of the way to see my face.
"Are you still in there?"
Mmm. It was the closest to a rock I was going to get to hide under today. Damien pulled me up and put the tea into my hands.
"Any warmer?"
I nodded, looking doubtfully at the tea.
"Yes please." Damien said, putting a hand over mine before I could push the mug back at him. "If you're going to throw up again you're better off having something inside you."
No comment.
"Nick, come on."
His voice crispened only very slightly, but my eyes involuntarily flooded in response. I gulped tea, trying to swallow around what felt like a cricket ball in my throat. Damien ran a hand gently through my hair and pulled me down against him.
"Its allright baby."
I'd spent half the night trying to tell him how sorry I was. About the swimming, about the last few weeks, about having asthma, about both world wars, the political influences of Julius Caesar and anything else he cared to mention. I was prepared to believe I had a bad influence on most things. Now I felt like my mouth was numbed and nothing could move- not teeth, not lips, not tongue. There was some trick I had forgotten that made them produce words and sound. When I gave it too much thought it scared the living hell out of me- like the shaking or the tension I could feel all over my body that I kept discovering I was doing subconsciously- hunched like I was under attack. Or the fact I had a temperature for no better reason than I was- upset. Not that I couldn't work myself up into a state like this when sufficiently nervous, I had many times, but not quite this excessively. This appeared to qualify as moving from 'nervous' to 'cracking up'.
"You're allright." Damien said again in his amused, matter of fact voice that usually annoys me. Right now I found it deeply reassuring. Damien pushed my hair back and kissed my forehead, a firm and comforting gesture.
"There's nothing whatever wrong with you that we can't sort out by getting you calmed down. You're going to stay right here, keep warm and get some sleep, and let me do the worrying. This is my problem now, not yours."
That was rubbish.
Damien looked at me calmly as I twisted around to see his face.
"Want a bet?"
He repainted the landing and stairs and I watched him through the open doorway for the rest of that week, listening to endless repetitions of his Clannad CDs. He wouldn't let me put the tv or radio on, or read, or get out of bed. I slept most of the time out of sheer boredom. At first that was a relief. By the end of the week the novelty was wearing very thin indeed. Since Damien, in between coats of paint, was obsessing over food and sleep, and after days that revolved around nothing more complicated than day time, night time and meal times, I was starting to feel better than I had in weeks. In some ways it was getting to be actively nice to wake up with nowhere to go and nothing to worry about and Damien in view and earshot all day. In other ways, it was getting to be distinctly tedious.
"I'm not sure I don't prefer this colour for the skirting boards rather than the white." He commented at some point during his painting on Saturday morning. "Which is a pain as I'll have to sand them all down before I can paint them."
"My dad has that hand powered sander." I pointed out.
"If it'll do something as low and precise as skirting boards." Damien put down the roller and wiped his hands, stepping back to look critically at the stretch of wall he was working on. "You were right about this colour. It does look lighter than I thought it would."
"It's very bright up here in the mornings. South facing windows."
I leaned against the doorframe. Damien looked around, eyebrows raising.
"And what do you think you're doing?"
"I thought I'd make some tea," I offered, heading for the stairs. "You're covered in paint and-"
"Nice try. Back to bed my boy." Damien caught my wrist, turned me around and swatted me back towards our room. He did it very gently, but it was enough to make me scuttle. Hurriedly.
"I can make a cup of tea, that isn't going to kill me."
"You can do as I say, and I say you stay in bed." Damien said with kindly unreasonability. I clambered back under the covers with bad grace and turned over to watch him straighten the duvet over me.
"Can I have a book then?"
"Because you don't need to stuff your head with anything more to worry about."
"There are non worrying books." I pointed out. "Some are very unworrying."
Damien smiled but the tone in his voice was very slightly stern.
"If you're bored you can think of this as something of a punishment for getting yourself into such a state. You didn't have to."
"I didn't mean to." I said very quietly, sliding deeper under the quilt. That was the first word of reproach I'd heard from him so far.
"I know you didn't mean to, but you didn't HAVE to." Damien said mildly. "You could have talked to me a long time before things got this bad."
My eyes stung. Goodness knows I was enough of a wimp at the moment. I lay down, working hard on keeping my face straight and swallowing hard enough to look as though I didn't wither at a glance. A song I remembered my mother singing when I was a child drifted through my head, mocking unpleasantly.
Oh do you remember sweet Alice, Ben Bolt?
Sweet Alice with eyes so brown
Who wept with delight when you gave her a smile
And trembled with fear at your frown?
I definitely qualified for membership of Wimps Anonymous.
"Hello, my name is Nick and I'm a Total Wimp."
Damien sighed and sat down, holding out his arms.
"Come here."
"I'm okay."
"Come here anyway."
I crawled across to him and buried myself in his arms. Damien hugged me, pulling me into his lap.
"I love you. Do you know that?"
This was not a good way to keep me from dissolving into tears.
"It wasn't Robin's fault." I said unsteadily. "It was my idea. I wanted to do it."
Damien took my head gently between his hands to see my face.
He looked far from angry about it. Gentle and worried and focused on my eyes which were overflowing yet again.
"Darling we don't have to talk about this now. I'm not angry with you, you don't need to worry about it."
"What do you MEAN you're not angry!" I tried to pull away from him, infuriated by the implications of that. "I'm not going to break! You don't have to tiptoe around me like I'm going to fracture if someone LOOKS at me wrong-"
"Shh." Damien pulled my head further into his neck, stifling the rest of that comment in the very battered and now paint stained sweater he was wearing. It was probably just as well. Given the facts that I currently dissolved into tears if he frowned at me, I didn't have a lot of justification for that line of argument. Which didn't mean I had to like it.
"I'm NOT angry with you." Damien said in my ear. "Yes it was a bloody silly thing to do and it was incredibly dangerous-"
My heart started to thump at the sound of that word. This conversation I knew was inevitably going to lead to a spanking which right now I wasn't at all sure I could handle- in fact I rather suspected I'd be in hysterics before he laid a hand on me. If he got that wretched cane out of the cupboard I knew I was going to die.
"But you had reasons for doing it. I know that. Shhhh." Damien said again, more firmly. "Nicky it's allright. Right now I'LL decide what you can handle and I'm far more conservative about it than you are, so you've got nothing whatever to panic about. I'm not going to be angry about this when we DO talk about it and we are NOT getting into it now."
"I WANT to talk about it now." I said furiously. If he thought I couldn't handle this, I had no choice. If he thought I couldn't face up to the kind of spanking I knew to expect for doing something this stupid, I was going to prove him wrong. I was going to have to face it sooner or later, better now than lying here waiting for the axe to fall. He moved so fast that I found myself lying on my back, pinned and out of breath before I had time to realise what had happened. His arm was across my chest, holding me still, and his eyes were very steady and very clear.
"Do NOT try strong arming me, Nicholas. You will not win. I will tell you exactly what you can and can't do, and I will let you know when you have a vote. Things happen around here on MY schedule, not on yours."
I was aware of my perspective shifting. Fast. I knew that voice and that look. Damien didn't move, still speaking very quietly.
"I will decide what we talk about and when. And I'll have no hesitation whatsoever about keeping you in bed with nothing to do but think that through until you get the hang of it if you make it necessary. Clear?"
In fact it told me a few things. He knew exactly why I'd made that dive and it was extremely clear he was not having any repetition of it. Or any foot put in that direction. There was the warning, there was the line, I didn't need to cross it. There was only once possible answer here to get those hazel eyes off me.
"Yes sir."
Damien bent his head and kissed me, briefly and severely, before he let me go. I turned over to watch him, curling up safely under the quilt with a growing sense of calm. He was going to fix this. It wasn't my problem now.
Part 6 
"You're a great designer Nick." Beth leaned to put her glass back on the table and appropriated the pencil off the crossword I'd been playing with earlier. "Can I write on this? I'd hate to lose you unless it's absolutely necessary- if reducing your hours is going to make you stay then I'm sure I can work out a way. What would you be willing to consider?"
I was entirely the wrong person to be asking. Damien answered, elbows propped on his knees, one of his knees against mine in discreet moral support.
"No more than three and a half days a week. Preferably organised into shorter days too."
"Mm." Beth scribbled for a moment on the back of the crossword box, frowning, then tapped the pencil on the book. "One option that comes straight to mind is that we think about getting a secretary. Which means you and I ditch the admin and I can take over some of your workload."
"I don't want you to-"
"Yes you do." Damien said, not unkindly. "Less hours, less commitments."
"Honey, if it'll help you can work from home." Beth gave me a faintly anxious look. "I know things are hard at the moment, I'd rather you took the time you needed and stayed with us than struggle on until you break. From a business sense, that's far better economy- your designs sell, I don't want to lose that because you're not fit enough to keep up with the office hours."
Damien said it was less fitness than not getting myself more tired than I could cope with.
He'd also told me again and again Beth would be sympathetic- I'd vaguely expected the resignation speech. Except I'd come to work for Beth to get away from the corporate atmosphere. With just two of us plus the four guys who ran the workshop, the office was a lot more relaxed and she hadn't made any difficulties about the amount of sick leave I needed.
"I don't think Nick is going to be fit to work anyway until after Christmas," Damien said, picking up his glass. We were all drinking sherry in a suitably early evening way. "After that it might well help if he can work from home on the less good days. Does that sound something you'd want to do Nicky?"
I nodded, still a little surprised. I hadn't bothered to argue with this edict- Damien at the moment wasn't arguable. At all. About anything. And it had been issued more or less in stone- not up for debate or questions. Just a flat statement that I worked part time from here on and had a nervous breakdown at my peril. At the moment I didn't really care enough to argue about anything much. The thought of working at all was so unreal it didn't matter. Beth smiled at me and picked up her sherry.
"Then I'll have a think about it- maybe talk to a few secretarial agencies and see what emerges. It's a step we've talked about making before, and it would free you up to think about nothing but the design packages."
Which was the part I loved, admittedly.
"That wasn't painful at all." Damien commented when he came back from showing Beth out.
"She's lovely." I said thinking of all the mornings I'd rung her and told her I wasn't coming in. Never any clicking or sighing, and that wasn't easy when I let her down so often.
"You DON'T let her down." Damien said firmly. "You make up your time, you always have. That's part of why you need to drop the amount you do."
I slowly drank the last of the sherry, watching the fire. The amber liquid sparkled in the firelight, the light refracted by the crystal of the glass. Damien sat behind me, sliding an arm around my neck and over my chest, pulling until I lounged against him, propping an elbow on the nearest of his long legs. After a minute I felt the firm pressure of his lips against my hair and I lifted my chin to return the kiss.
"Can we manage if my income's dropped-"
"Yes, with no problem at all, and you let me do any worrying that needs to be done." Damien growled against my ear, then leaned his chin on the top of my head. "Why don't you get ready for bed, then come down and we'll watch a video for a while?"
"That is NOT romantic." I accused. Damien grinned.
"I find you in pyjamas very romantic. Go on."
"It's six pm."
"I know." Damien kissed my nose and pushed me gently off the sofa.
"Normal people don't get sent to put pyjamas on at six pm in the evening." I complained, heading upstairs. I heard his snort and the click of the video, along with the opening music to Shrek. Admittedly one of my current obsessions.
"Darling, you have never been anything less than exceptional."
~The End~
Copyright Ranger 2010

1 comment:

Dark said...

The actress story broke my heart :(
I can't believe this was written 12years ago
Of course I loved all of the stories about Nick and damion ,.But the onces told by Damion , are extra special . It really shows how much love these two have for each other.
These stories aren't about spanking or discipline ...Its about pure love ..the kind of love I wish to have some day :)
Honestly these stories are one of the best things I ever read ...It really brought me great joy

Thank you for allowing us to read your stories .Please please consider writhing new stories for these two ... Please :)

All the best and take care

Most of the artwork on the blog is by Canadian artist Steve Walker.

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