Title: You Belong to Me
Author's Note: This is the second version posted of this story- the first version had what I thought was a happier ending, then I re read it and decided it wasn't finished after all. Apologies, angst is still abounding….
Damien hung around the frame of the bedroom door and pulled a face at me. The phone was clamped to his ear. The cordless phone had been a Christmas gift from my parents who felt it was ridiculous for us to still be dependent on an anchored landline. I did not approve of it. For a start Damien could now cover the entire house while on the phone, instead of being limited to the range of the downstairs hall. That was quite unnecessary. Secondly, I kept getting dragged into the conversation.
I could tell by the expression on his face that he was talking to his mother.
I rolled over on the bed and stretched, holding out my hands to him in mute sympathy. He came and sat down on the bed, absently taking the nearest of my hands.
"I can't possibly on Friday, Mum. It's nearly 300 miles and the earliest I'd get off is-"
I kissed his palm and took it with me to continue reading my book. Damien lay down beside me to accommodate, his voice picking up a tone which in me he would have called whining.
"- ……I can't just drop everything and- ………yes I know, and I want to, but what's wrong with Easter when -……"
His mother has him sussed. She never lets him finish a sentence. Damien sighed, barely stifling the sound.
"Allright. No, I told you I need to talk to Nick about it, I'll tell you for sure tomorrow. Allright, I'll ring you at work. Allright. YES Mum. Give my love to Dad."
Who was probably hiding in the shed.
The phone bleeped as Damien turned it off, dropped it over the side of the bed and buried his head under a pillow. I marked the place in my book and crawled up the bed to him, digging determinedly.
I burrowed after him. Damien relinquished the pillow to me with a sigh and hugged me as I dropped on his chest.
"The clan's gathering next weekend. Laura's driving my grandmother up from York, Mum, bless her, is making the point that she isn't going to go on for ever, I haven't seen her in three months, OR Mum and Dad in five months, and she wants me to come."
"Are you going to?" I twisted to see his face, propping my chin on his chest. Damien pushed his fingers through my hair, mechanically straightening it.
"I don't know. I can go up at Easter, it's not that long away."
"You should go." I told him. "You haven't seen her in a while. And you want to."
"I don't think it's a good idea at the moment to drag you up there and back in a weekend. Or face you with a house full of people." Damien said mildly.
"I'm fine now."
"You're a lot better than you were." Damien conceded. "But I don't want you getting tired and stressed out- it's a hell of a drive, we'd be up until all hours and it'll be noisy because of the kids. And you hate this kind of thing anyway. Don't you?"
He was right. Damien's family are sweet, but when they're fully assembled there are a LOT of them, and they all seem to feel anyone who would rather stand and listen than talk is someone who needs drawing out and involving in every conversation in sight.
"I'll call Laura." Damien said easily. "And Miles. Between us we should convince her she's got enough family there to keep her busy."
"Miles is going too?"
"Yes. Coming down from Edinburgh on Friday night."
That settled it. Damien and his sister are pretty close, but his brother comes south once in a blue moon.
"You HAVE got to go then." I said matter of factly, sitting up. "You should anyway."
"I'm not taking you all that way."
"I'll stay here, its not like you're going for the duration. I'll be fine."
Damien's hand closed on mine before I made it off the bed and pulled me back down beside him.
"I'm not sure that's a good idea either. Are you sure you'd be happy about that?"
Actually, the idea of him being gone-
- made me fractionally nerrvous when I really thought about it. But he loved Miles, and he saw him so rarely.
"Yes." I said with charm and certainty.
"Fibber." Damien said without heat. "Don't worry about it. They'll survive without us for once-"
"Damien you're going. Either I come too or I stay here, but you're going." I struggled free of his arms to see his face. "I mean it. You're not missing this because of me."
"It's not like that." Damien said calmly, trying to pull me back down. I resisted, bracing my hands on his chest.
"It IS like that. I'm fine, I've been fine for weeks, you'll go on Friday evening and you'll be home Sunday night. What's going to happen in two days? Do NOT mention spiders!" I added grimly. Damien grinned, eyes twinkling.
"I didn't say a word."
"I could SEE you thinking it!"
Damien grabbed my collar, pulled me down and kissed me. I subsided back onto his chest, grumbling.
"That was ONCE. STOP laughing."
"It got the dining room redecorated darling, don't worry about it. Anyway, I don't think I'll go."
"You ARE going." I told him in no uncertain terms.
I kept him reminded at frequent intervals all week that he was going. I got the suitcase down from the top of the wardrobe and left it out in plain view. I deliberately collected sufficient shirts and got them ironed to the point where his mother would know I did at least try looking after him. My ironing was always easily distinguishable from Damien's anyway: there have been mornings where he's confiscated the shirt off my back and reironed it before he'll let me go to work. Damien kept just as firmly putting it all away again and by the end of the week was beginning to make various grim threats as to what he'd do if I didn't put a sock in it soon. As it happened, fate took a hand before he carried out any of his threats or I succeeded in harrassing him into agreeing. The phone's shrilling jerked us both awake in the early hours of Thursday morning.
I jumped, blinking stupidly into the darkness for a minute, then Damien's arm reached over me and he picked up the receiver, voice calm if somewhat sleepy.
I rolled over, too sleepy to keep my eyes open, but nervous. Who rings in the middle of the night? The clock radio, when I squinted at it, stood at two am.
"Hello?" Damien said again. "Who's- Mum?"
His voice changed instantly. I pulled myself up on one elbow, trying to see his face. He sat up, very still.
"When? Oh God- how is she now? Are YOU okay?"
I fumbled for the light switch and turned it on. We both winced on the light, but Damien gripped my hand when I reached for him, holding it tight.
"Yes. Okay, as soon as I can. Yes. Keep me posted."
He leaned to put the phone down, face very still.
"Laura?" I demanded. "Your grandmother?" My heart was thumping. He looked frozen, white, somewhere deep inside himself.
"Gran- It looks like she might have had a stroke."
I pulled him to me and hugged him tight, and he held on, ducking his head down on my shoulder. I felt the shudder go through him and the choke in his breathing. I kissed what I could reach of his face, over and over, trying to comfort him in any way I could. He adores his family.
"It's allright," I said softly and stupidly into his ear, "It's allright, you know how strong she is, she's like your mum. A will of iron. She'll be fine."
"Mum said she was stable." Damien took a few deep breaths and drew back, rubbing his hands over his face. I put my hands over his, unable not to touch him, still less able to stand the pain in his face.
"Do you want to go up there?"
"I've got to."
"It's okay." I kissed him again and got out of bed. "Get yourself dressed darling, I'll pack. What about Laura and Miles?"
"Miles is already there, Dad's calling Laura now."
"At least he and your Dad have Miles with them then." I said gently. And that was no small reassurance- Damien's elder brother is as level headed as he is, he'd be taking good care of his parents. I pulled a case down off the top of the wardrobe and opened the doors, pulling out shirts, a couple of sweaters and several pairs of jeans for both of us. Damien got to his feet, took my hips and turned me around, giving me a silent and crushing hug before he headed for the bathroom.
He looked a lot more together when he came back, hair brushed, dressed although unshaven. He sat down on the end of the bed to lace his shoes, then yanked the duvet straight on the bed and took the case from me.
"I'll finish this. Set your nebuliser up and take your morning meds now. Yes please." He added before I had time to comment. "It's cold and you're stressed."
"I can take them on the way."
Damien sat down on the edge of the bed, steepling his hands and rubbing his knuckles absently.
"I AM coming." I said sharply, "You're not driving up alone in this state."
"It’s a long drive, we're going to be standing around in hospitals a lot when we get there which you hate and it's going to stress the hell out of you-"
"YOU didn't want me here alone!"
"I'd rather know you were here and comfortable and -" Damien sighed, got up and pulled me against him, holding tight. "I really don't want to fight with you now."
I hugged him back, that tone getting to me like nothing else could. He was right, this was no time to go making things harder for him. He patted my backside gently and absently, letting me go.
"Nebuliser. Come on darling."
I dragged clothes on and set up the nebuliser. The darkness outside the window was disconcerting, and when I trailed Damien out onto the drive, the world was still, silent and cold as well as moonless.
Damien threw the case into the back of the car and kissed me briefly and hard.
"I'll phone you as soon as I know anything. Call Allen when it gets light, tell him you're on your own-"
"I'll be fine."
"Call him anyway. I love you."
"I love you too." I grabbed one last hug and stood back, swallowing hard as he shut the car door and turned the engine over. He waved as he turned off the drive, leaving me still with the faint scent of the last of his cologne and the faint burn of the scratch of his jaw against mine.
Anastasia sat on the kitchen table when I got back, watching suspiciously while I filled her food and water bowls full. I kissed her head in passing, grabbed a packet of biscuits out of the cupboard and shut the front door. The finality of that made my eyes sting.
I didn't want to go back to bed. Trying not to think of Damien, driving north in the dark with a headful of worries, I curled up on the sofa with Anastasia and waited for daylight.
I didn't call Allen. If Damien had forgotten, I hadn't: Allen had a deadline due on Tuesday and he'd have a hard enough time getting the work done this weekend that he needed to with Robin in his hair. He didn't need me too. Besides, it wasn't like he could actually do anything. Instead, I went to work. And without Mr Mitchell's 1pm Are you home yet call, stayed until five when Beth left. She at least was good company.
Damien's cell phone was off each time I rang- I knew if he called me at the office and I was there then he'd catch on at the speed of light and I was in major trouble, but there's a limit to how MUCH trouble he can cause when he's three hundred miles away in Northumberland. And I was lucky. It was nearly seven pm when he called, sounding tired and low.
"Hey darling, it's me."
"Hi, how is she?"
I'd only met his grandmother twice: she was approaching her ninetieth birthday but she had the family hazel eyes, the same as Damien, his mother and his brother.
"She's not too good." Damien said quietly. "They're letting us spend as much time with her as we want which I don't think can be a very good sign considering how ill she is. She hasn't really come round yet."
"I'm so sorry." I said softly, wishing I could touch him. "How are your mum and dad doing?"
"Mum's very upset. Laura arrived this morning, with the kids, so she's pretty much distracted with them and they're keeping mum busy when she's out of the hospital. Miles and I are here at the moment. Are you allright? Eaten?"
"Yes. I shopped on the way home."
"Do a nebuliser before you go to bed."
"I don't need to."
"Do it anyway. It's not like I'll hear if you do start wheezing in the night. What did Allen say? Is he going to check on you?"
I was about to come up with a non committal answer to that when for once, I was saved by circumstance. I heard Damien's brother's voice in the background and Damien's tone changed.
"Mum and Dad are here, I need to go sweetheart. I love you, take care of yourself. I'll call you tomorrow."
I put the phone down, wondering if I should call Allen. But then he was so busy- I'd spoken to him on Wednesday and he'd been going round the twist then with the deadline approaching- he didn't need any more distractions. I ended up watching marathons of Miss Marple on tv- hours of it. The customary twinges of guilt hit me at ten pm, which is when I knew Damien would start making bedtime noises, but without him here, I didn't really feel like lying up there alone. Eventually I wandered upstairs with Anastasia around midnight and she curled up with me. Which was nice, but didn't really fill the gap.
In the end I turned over and hit the button on the stereo, wanting to hear something of his. Damien mostly used the one up here: he tended to like music on in the morning while he dressed and shaved, and I knew this song vaguely as one of his old old ones.
See the pyramids along the Nile
Watch the sunrise on a Tropic Isle
Just remember darling all the while
You belong to me...******************************
Our GP, Paul Wilkes, is a thoroughly nice man who circumvents a lot of the NHS rules about night call outs. Officially you're supposed to ring the surgery who will find the poor so and so somewhere in the area who's on overnight duty. Actually, I think Paul has a list of a few people he will always turn out to and see at whatever hour, and Damien long since charmed our way onto that list. At four am, Paul's voice was sleepy, but patient, and he recognised my voice from the wheeze within seconds.
"Nick? Ok, I'm on my way. Stay on the nebuliser."
It took a LOT of effort to get downstairs and unlock the door for him, since I'm Damien trained and make everything except the catflap secure at night. Once that was done, I left the front door open where the cold air would reach me, sat on the foot of the stairs and concentrated on not passing out, wishing to God that Damien was anywhere but in Northumberland.
Actually it could have been worse. I suppose being alone, I was a lot more wary than I would be if Damien was here to wake me, and I woke in the very early stages of an attack. And it wasn't one of the fast, sudden, panic ones. Just a slow, mid level one that wouldn't stop, until something prompted me to pick up the phone and call. I was still wheezing, not near panic but uncomfortable and fed up when Paul pulled up on the drive. I could still just about talk too, so we sat in the kitchen, he made tea and held a somewhat rusty conversation about his oldest son who worked on the same industrial estate as Damien. In a village this size, everyone knows everyone. And I did another nebuliser. At half past five, he did another peak flow test and got up, putting a hand on my shoulder.
"Ok Nick, I'm going to call for an ambulance, this has gone far enough."
"This isn't BAD-"
He'd already picked up the phone in the hall. "It's gone on now for over two hours and it isn't getting much better. I think you need to be in hospital. At least under observation. Hello, I'd like an ambulance please. Brittle asthmatic, mid level attack, I'll ring the hospital and make arrangements for admittance in a moment, he's one of their chronic patients-"
Oh my God. I sat, blankly listening to this.
"I don't NEED to go anywhere!"
"Thanks, I'll wait with him." Paul put the phone down and came back into the kitchen. "Yes you do Nick. They'll admit you straight onto the ward, you won't have to muck about in casualty, but I think you need to be under proper observation. There's clearly something not right."
I stared at him, somewhere between outraged and horrified. He sat down beside me and put his hand over the nearest of mine, gripping it kindly.
"Any chance Damien could get back here today? Would you like me to call him?"
Oh my God.
I shook my head, hard, trying to find the breath to argue.
"He's with his family- his grandmother's very ill-"
"I'm sorry. What about your parents?"
Which left Allen.
Who's deadline was today.
That was it. I got up, storming upstairs.
"I'm not going you know. You can call who you like, I'm not going anywhere."
It didn't come out quite as assertively as that, being punctuated by the dead boiler type sounds my chest was making and the thud of the stairs. Paul followed me upstairs, where I got dressed, made the bed, stormed downstairs again and fed the cat, the wheezing getting steadily louder.
"Nick, you must have known this wasn't good or you wouldn't have called me. There's obviously a reason for this attack, we need to know what it is-"
I remember telling him, a lot, that I had work to go to this morning, and a client due at eleven. And the lawn needed mowing. And Damien was in Northumberland. Which was a ridiculously long way away. I couldn't possibly go anywhere if he was in Northumberland. Paul didn't argue, just moved with me around the house until I heard the heavy engine of an ambulance on the drive, and saw the flashing light through the opaque glass. My stomach froze over at that point; I can't describe the fear that hit me when I saw it. This was real, it WAS going to happen and there wasn't much at all that I could do about it. And I knew it. If I could have found somewhere to lock myself where they would have left me alone, I'd have done it. I started to shake and went the rest of the way upstairs, leaving Paul to go down and let them in. Suddenly the house was filled with two large young men in green spacesuits, who came straight upstairs and followed me into the bedroom when I walked away from them.
There was a lot of talking. There would have been shouting, but by that point I didn't have enough breath. Paul talked. The bigger of the two young men talked. I argued. Fiercely. For some time. I knew they were going to win, I just had no intention of going down easily.
I was sitting with my back to the radiator, under the windowsill when an oxygen cylinder got involved, and someone talked me into accepting that which did actually help a little. That was the first foothold they got and after that they quickly took over. At ten past seven I found myself being steered between the two ambulance crew down the drive and into the back of the ambulance, my heart thumping so hard it hurt. Margaret, our neighbour, appeared on the drive in her dressing gown, looking white and anxious, and Paul found and gave her my front door key. Everything else- my wallet, my phone, everything- was left in the house and I watched her locking up as the ambulance crew shut the doors.
The next few hours were horrible and exhausting. Eventually I ended up on the familiar ward on the third floor of the general hospital, with the growing feeling that if I could hand this body over to them and walk away, I would do it. I was already doing my best- I was as far away from the whole situation as I could get, despite the fact I couldn't actually get away from their hands.
When I finally was left in peace- or what passes in hospital for peace, with the traffic and voices thumping up and down in all directions on the ward- I shut my eyes, turned my back on it all and concentrated on blocking out the mental scream I'd been stifling for hours.
I couldn't use the hospital payphones: I'd been admitted in pyjamas without so much as a ten pence piece on me. Eventually I calmed down enough to talk to one of the nurses who brought me a phone, but I couldn't begin to remember Damien's cell phone number or his parents' home number. And there was no response from Allen's house when I called them.
By the time I'd discovered that, I'd begun to think a little. Then I called Margaret. She was nice and she reassured me she would see Anastasia was fed for as long as I needed. Once I was sure the cat was allright- rationally, there was nothing anyone else could do. Allen could wander in during visiting hours and make sympathetic noises, but really, there was nothing he could do about this situation.
Theoretically too I could call the hospital where Damien's grandmother would be- I knew which one- and leave a message there for him. It would get to him in the next few hours. But what would that do? Drag him south in a panic, make him leave his family when they needed him, and when he wanted to be there- to hold my hand when I was fine. I was in no danger, I wasn't even really ill. Just uncomfortable. I'd been held under observation often enough before: in 24 hours they'd discharge me, I could go home and I'd be fine. It took a lot of will, but I knew- I was a grown up, I had to act like one here. There was no need for Damien to know about this. No need to add to his problems.
Thinking a lot more clearly now, I called Margaret again. She found Damien's cellphone number for me, and I took a few deep breaths, making myself calm right down before I phoned him.
His phone was off. I left a message, saying I had a meeting that morning and I'd call him when I was free. Then I rang Beth.
Then I handed the phone back to the nurse, settled down, and tried to sleep for sheer lack of anything else to do.
It wasn't actually hard: attacks always leave me shattered, I can sleep for days. I pulled myself together in the early afternoon, begged for the phone again and called Damien. He sounded distracted and hassled, and we didn't talk long. The entire Mitchell clan appeared to have gathered, and he, Miles and Laura were doing their best to transport, organise, feed and provide childcare for them. It was an odd conversation. One of Laura's younger kids kept trying to tell him something and wherever he was there was an echo which made talking difficult. And in some ways I suppose part of me was hoping, desperately, that he would hear it in my voice, know something was wrong and demand to know what was happening. He didn't. After six hours or so having various chemicals pumped into me, my chest was clearing and I was talking normally. I wasn't even coughing to give him a clue. I think in the end he thought I was feeling neglected, and I could hear the effort he made to give me his full attention and to sound interested. Sympathetic. That was more than I could stand. I think when we hung up we both felt a lot worse than we had done before we called. I did however make various excuses about meetings and going out- he probably presumed I was going with Allen and Robin somewhere- and he suggested himself that he didn't ring me, but waited for me to ring him. My soul perjured yet again, but I'd sort that one out later: right now this was the best thing for everyone. This was only 24 hours, he didn't need to know about it.
"And there's no one at home?"
My consultant knew enough about me and my family now to be well aware who the useful people were. He was more than surprised to find Damien uninvolved.
I shook my head. "No. My parents are away, Damien's dealing with a family crisis- I can call some friends if I need help-"
"That's not really the same thing." The consultant got up and folded the notes he'd been looking through. "If there's no one at home to look after you, you're much better off staying here."
"Until when?" I demanded. The consultant gave me an all too easy smile.
"We can take it on a day to day basis. See how you go."
"That's ridiculous, I can go home, I'm fine."
The consultant, who is probably used to me after the past ten years, and who tends to address most of his remarks to Damien anyway, took off his glasses and gave me a resigned look.
"You can discharge yourself. But I really wouldn't advise it and I'd imagine you'd be back here within twelve hours as an emergency admission. It's entirely your decision."
If I DID discharge myself, we'd no doubt end up talking about it at the next appointment I had with him- which Damien always attended too. There was no hope of keeping this from Damien's ears and I could all too easily see the look on his face when he found out. It was NOT one I wanted to see.
"No." I said, subsiding miserably. The consultant gave me the kind of smile you reserve for small children and furry animals who are annoying you.
"I think that's a wise decision. I'll see how you are tomorrow"
I spent the morning wandering around the ward, too depressed to call Damien. If I rang him like this, the chances were strong I'd just burst into tears anyway which defeated all the need for discretion. I HATE hospitals. From the days I spent hanging around the children's ward with my mother, to the days spent hanging around this ward over the last few years with Damien, it's hot, boring, stressful and thoroughly upsetting. There is no privacy. No quiet. Hours and hours are spent in waiting. And having come in alone, I'd brought none of the things with me that Damien thinks of, like books or sketchpads, things that make the passage of time vaguely bearable.
Actually, in the last couple of years, Damien had got himself so firmly entrenched in the knowledge and understanding of my asthma, it's signs and effects, that I was used to being discharged as soon as I no longer needed hospital equipment- everyone knew, so long as Damien was at home with me, I would be fine. I'd always taken that as just being part of him- Damien involves himself fully in whatever goes on around him, he can't help it, and he can't help finding solutions and taking the lead in it- the man is a natural organiser. His creativity is intense, but it's all rooted in people and ideas, the doing- the drawing is only a very small part of it for him. But I was starting to wonder now if he'd got himself so deeply a part of the medical team here on purpose. It certainly gave us a lot more choices and control- I hadn't realised how much until those choices were taken away.
I curled up on the end of my bed, and picked up the biro and the crossword puzzle one of the nurses had brought me out of sheer pity for seeing me with nothing else to do. I draw things, not people- like Damien draws buildings and gardens, doorways and structures- but thinking about it, the biro started to trace eyebrows, the Mitchell jawline, the look of enthusiastic interest like a perpetual sixth former being introduced to some new form of cricket.
He must have been a delightful teenager. Interested in everything, interested in everyone. Except I could never imagine him at that age without reference to the few school photographs I'd seen of him at his parents' house- always in the middle of a crowd, usually with a football or a cricket bat, always with his tie pulled loose.
I turned a page and started another picture. Hands holding a cricket bat, alert and ready.
The radio was playing somewhere in the distance, probably at the nurses' station- some remake of an old song.
I'll be so alone without you
Maybe you'll be lonesome too
Fly the ocean in a silver plane
See the jungle when it's wet with rain
Just remember til you're home again
You belong to me.**********************************
His cell phone was off when I called him that evening. I sincerely hoped that was a good sign- the news from the hospital didn't sound too hopeful. I tried his parents' house without any more success, but did leave a message on their machine, saying I'd had a good day and hoped they had too. When I called again in the morning, they were just on their way out of the door, and he and I only had two minutes to swap hurried endearments before the Mitchell clan towed him back to the hospital. He sounded slightly less stressed.
I always lose all track of time in hospitals. You can't sleep properly, you're constantly waiting for people and events and tests. Everything moves hour by hour, there's no real turn to a day and a night. Things dragged along in their pattern, punctuated by brief telephone calls to Northumberland, and by Margaret who visited on Tuesday night bringing me my cell phone which she'd found in the kitchen. For the first time in my life I was glad to see it. Now at least I could send text messages which were less disruptive to Damien who was spending most of his time in hospital corridors- at least too I went to sleep able to tell him goodnight. And if he rang, I was there- which allayed suspicion. Although currently he was too busy to ring me or to notice which phones were being answered. The news on his grandmother was starting to sound better. She was beginning to recognise some of her family, she'd shown a strong response to Laura who was something of a favourite of hers, and her speech was starting to return slowly.
My consultant continued to be an intractable bastard.
I woke up on Friday morning at the usual unGodly hour, hot, wheezing and fumbling for my inhaler which resided on the nightstand. The nurses were currently supervising nebulisers as if they were some new experience I'd never tried before: it was driving me mad. It wasn't until the hand came past my face to take the inhaler, expertly clicking it into action, that I realised who I was lying against. The sensation was so familiar it hadn't even registered. I struggled over onto my back and looked at him, still clutching the inhaler. He was still wearing his jacket, his collar was open, and from the look of him he hadn't seen a razor in a few hours, and he was wearing jeans which looked - wrong- on him in the middle of the week. He was half sitting, half lying, sprawled against the bedhead with me, and he pulled me back down against him, holding the inhaler steady.
"Come on. Take this and go back to sleep."
Who DID he think he was kidding? I dragged on the inhaler as a quick way to shut him up, pushed it away and pulled his head down, which had the effect of making his arms tighten around me in a crushing hug and of getting a brief response to my kissing him. But he held me where I was and I felt him slide further down on the pillows, still relaxed in the way that told me he'd been dozing too.
"It's five am, go back to sleep you muppet."
"I am NOT a muppet." I said indignantly, subsiding back against him. He kissed the top of my head, roughly and warmly.
"Oh you are SUCH a muppet. Other people are sleeping, quieten down."
I quietened down. It didn't seem worth while asking him where he'd materialised from- at this hour it was so fantastic he was here at all, I could believe he'd just stepped out of midair. I wrapped my arms around the arms over my chest and listened to him breathing.
The sun was well and truly up when I woke again. The blinds were up, people were thundering up and down the hallway outside as usual, and there was no sign of Damien. For several minutes I lay there wondering whether I'd dreamed the entire thing- then I saw the jacket hanging over the chair at the end of the bed and there was no doubting it. I'd put the paintstain on the left elbow of it: that was Damien's. I slid out of bed and padded into the hallway, glancing up and down the corridor, then turned left and followed the corridor down to the ward door.
He was twenty yards down from the ward in the main corridor, leaning against the drinks machine and watching it slowly pour him a cup of tea in to a polystyrene cup. Which meant he seriously needed it: he'd almost rather die of thirst than drink out of plastic. He looked round before I reached him, straightened up and the look I got was somewhere between a smile and a threat to wring my neck. He picked the tea up and headed up the corridor to me, the smile getting more distinct as he got closer. I couldn't help grinning like a lunatic myself, it was just so great to see him. Large, real, still desperately in need of a shave.
"What DO you think you're doing?"
I buried myself under the arm that wrapped around me and hugged him back, rubbing my face against the familiar fabric of his shirt and the plane of his chest.
"I wondered where you'd gone."
"So did they." Damien said, nodding at the two nurses who had just shot out of the ward door, looking panicky. "It's allright, I've got him." he added louder. I glanced down at myself, somewhat annoyed.
"It's not like I'm not dressed or something."
I was wearing perfectly decent pyjamas. Keeping an arm around me, Damien steered me back up the corridor and into the ward, swatting me discreetly and just a little too firmly when we reached the bay my bed was in.
"Get back into bed horror."
"How's your Gran?"
"Doing a lot better." Damien took a seat on the end of the bed, straightening the covers with one efficient and mildly irritated tug. "What on earth possessed you to go wandering out there? It's only March you know."
"I wondered where you'd gone." I explained again, pulling the blanket up to stop the shivering. The corridor hadn't been warm.
"It seems to be a common problem." Damien said pointedly.
"When did you get back?"
"About midnight last night. I phoned home twice and couldn't get a response. Then I got home, it was all locked up and your cell was turned off."
"I was trying not to flatten the battery-" I said, starting to lose the euphoria for a growing sense of apprehension. Mostly for him, I could guess that hadn't been a pleasant welcome home for him. "Didn't Margaret see you?"
"At that time of night?" Damien took another mouthful of tea and sat back to survey me, hazel eyes somewhat ironic. "I rang Allen. Who was mildly surprised as he hadn't heard anything of you all week and didn't even know I'd been gone."
"He had a deadline." I said firmly, in a tone to end all discussion.
Damien's eyebrows rose. "So I tried your parents. And then remembered they were away. And by then I was nervous enough to try Beth, who when she woke up, explained that you'd been admitted to hospital last Saturday morning, and as far as she knew, you were still there. Which came as something of a shock."
"I'm so sorry," I said, meaning it and hating how scared he must have been. "You didn't tell me you were on the way home-"
"You would have mentioned that you were in hospital if I had?" Damien demanded. I winced. He was obviously boiling nicely under the surface.
"I would if I'd known you were going to come home and find me gone."
"You didn't think I'd be at all interested anyway? Are you worried about boring me or something?"
"You had a lot of other things on your mind!" I lay back, pulling at a loose thread on the blanket, trying not to sound too pathetic. "I didn't want you to have to come rushing south when you were busy and I knew it wasn't serious."
"Hmmm." Damien said bodingly. I risked a glance at him. He was drinking tea, eyes still on me, somewhere between amused and exasperated, but he didn't press the subject.
"What have they been telling you caused this?"
"Something about a low grade chest infection? I nodded at a patch still covering my wrist. "They gave me a couple of days of antibiotics, I never actually got to the point of feeling ill with it- just with the asthma."
He was quiet a minute. He knows how I feel about drips and cannulas.
"You don't sound too bad."
"I'm not, the consultant just wouldn't let me go home unless someone was there to look after me-"
I broke off, realising possibly that I'd made a tactical error.
"- I mean to keep track of the meds while I was sleeping so much-"
This wasn't getting any better.
Damien sat down on the edge of the bed, giving me one of his more searching looks.
"Do you feel well enough to be at home?"
"I'm fine, just tired."
The usual post-attack hangover. He put a hand on my knee and shook gently.
"Ok. So I'm going to head home, get the place warm and dust free. I should be back by the time your consultant makes his rounds at twelve and we can get you discharged. You've got nothing whatever to do, have you?" he added, nodding at the immaculately tidy bedside table. "Who's been giving you crosswords?"
"The nurses-" I put out a hand to stop him picking one up, but not in time. He flicked through, finding no words in the boxes, just a lot of pictures. Rather a lot of which were of him. Then he looked up, hazel eyes gentle and - almost- teasing.
"Missing me by any chance?"
"A bit…" I said, blushing. Damien leaned over and gave me a quick but thorough kiss.
"I'm not going to be long. Be good."
I watched him head down the corridor at his usual purposeful stride, wondering what it was he thought I could do in here NOT to be good. I'd been downright saintly since the day he left.
Allen came around eleven am. I was half asleep, listening to the radio in the distance, and it wasn't until he tapped on the door frame that I saw him. My immediate response was delight, but he barely smiled in response and while the hug he gave me was more than warm, he looked upset and anxious. I realised fairly quickly this was not going to be a nice experience. The Allen I knew was a friend- we had a lot in common, we liked each other's company, we had shared tastes that our partners suffered only under protest. Although Damien had him tagged as Someone Responsible and he took that role for us when we needed it, those particular dynamics weren't ones we used very much when we were together. In the next few minutes, I understood, clearly, that Allen was a Top by nature and soul, that he really wasn't happy with me, and I also understood fully for the first time how someone so quiet and easy going managed a firecracker like Robin. The lecture I got was very gentle, but I was squirming within the first two minutes and wishing I was dead by the end of five.
"I thought we were friends?" was one of the worst things he said. "You're in here, alone, without Damien or your family, and you didn't think you needed to let me know?"
"I was allright…" I tried to explain several times, "It was fine-"
"No Nick, it wasn't fine." Allen said quietly, making me stop dead. "You knew that I'd want to know, whatever the circumstances. You also knew that most certainly Damien would want me to know what was happening and to be here with you if he couldn't be here himself."
"You had a deadline!"
"Are you worried that I can't responsibly set my own priorities?"
That was very politely said, but my face was absolutely scarlet. I shook my head, mumbling something incoherent and self effacing. Allen's eyes didn't waver off mine: I was beginning to feel pinned to the wall by them.
"Let's have it clear then. I want to be kept updated on where you are and what's happening to you; that's something that comes with the friendship. Damien would have let me know within a few hours if he'd been with you when you were hospitalised. And if Damien is away and you don't have access to him when things go wrong- no matter how small- I expect you to come to me. Immediately. Is that straightforward enough?"
I muttered affirmation, positively enough to make absolutely sure he didn't ask me to repeat myself. Allen, thank God, accepted it.
"Did Damien ask you to let me know when he was called up north?" he asked instead. I could feel my whole face and neck burning.
"What does he make of all this?"
"He hasn't said much…"
The 'yet' hung between us.
"Not very nice for him, is it?" Allen asked me. "A second shock, right on top of the first one about his grandmother."
"I wanted to SAVE him having to get worried about me too!" I protested.
"Did it work?" Allen said simply.
Ok, spontaneous combustion started here. Completely miserable, I curled up under the covers and managed monosyllabic answers when Allen changed the subject. He reverted then back to his usual self and chattered, quietly and about the subjects that invariably cheer me up, persisting until we heard Damien's voice in the corridor at the nurse's station, giving my name and asking to be buzzed through the gate. He got up then, leaned over and kissed my cheek.
"I'm sure you'll feel a lot better at home. Take care of yourself, I'll ring tomorrow and see how you're doing."
I saw him pause in the corridor and say something to Damien, the two of them exchanging a quick but sincere hug, then he waved to me and headed back towards the main carpark. Damien leaned over the bed to kiss me and dropped into the chair beside the bed.
"Your cat misses you. She didn't stop shouting the entire time I was home. Did you do ANY washing up from the moment I left?"
"I was having an asthma attack." I said in self defence.
"But you still managed to get dishes dirty? I saw Margaret." Damien sobered, leaning on the edge of the bed. "She said she saw you leave in an ambulance. Who called for help?"
"I did." I pulled myself up and hugged my knees, watching him. "Or I called Paul. He called the ambulance when the attack went on."
"You must have been really scared to want to ring Paul."
I shrugged a little.
"Poor Nicky." Damien said compassionately. "I'm sorry I wasn't there, it must have been horrible."
I wasn't about to tell him about the 45 minutes spent battling the paramedics… not right now, anyway. Except looking at his face, I had a fair idea he already knew. I turned over, curling up to get closer to him, and he put a hand on my head, his fingers sliding through my hair.
"Why don't you nap for a while?"
"I was horrible to Paul." I admitted.
In his voice it didn't sound a problem at all.
"Yes. And the ambulance crew."
"I wouldn't go. They all came upstairs and I sat under the windowsill and wouldn't move. And I swore at Paul."
"He must have known how frightened you were." Damien said calmly. "What did he do?"
"They just went on and on and on, and one of them brought oxygen upstairs and nagged until I put the mask on. Once I did that, they sort of acted like I'd given in and-"
Manhandled. They'd been very gentle, but it had been force of a kind. Damien's lips folded for a moment. I swallowed, well aware I wasn't doing anything to make him feel better about this.
"Darling, you were in the middle of a long attack, you were oxygen starved, very scared and very tired: no one could expect you to be completely calm too. Your body chemicals must have been haywire, I'm surprised you could be rational at all."
That actually helped. I'd been expecting him to be less than pleased about it.
"You must have been wishing you'd called Allen by then." He said gently, still smoothing my hair. I nodded very slightly. His mouth went awry again, a much softer expression.
"I'm so sorry I wasn't there."
"It wasn't your fault, you needed to be with your family. And its not like anyone knows when I'm going to have an attack."
Damien sighed, not looking much happier. "I know. But I'm still sorry."
I got steered straight upstairs to bed when we got home, shortly after three pm. I would have been fine on the sofa, but Damien wasn't listening. Actually, after a week of hospital mattresses, our bed felt like heaven. Clean sheets, clean pyjamas, and the peace of our room- once it was truly quiet I realised how braced I'd been against the constant noise, comings and goings and invasions of the hospital ward. Damien brought a mug of tea up, stood over me why I drank it and that was about the last thing I remembered until Monday: I more or less slept through the whole weekend.
He went into work for an hour on Monday, and brought work back with him, settling at the computer which lives in an impromptu office area in an alcove of the landing. More or less dressed, I wandered for a while, fiddling with the books on the shelves around him until I found a readable one- and then settled with it, sitting at the top of the stairs, watching him. Damien put up with it patiently for a while, but eventually he put his pencil down and turned the chair around to look at me.
Here went nothing.
"Can we do the me not talking to you about being in hospital issue?" I said awkwardly. Damien raised his eyebrows.
I nodded. He sat back in his chair, looking faintly concerned.
"Are you up to it?"
"I'm fine. If you'd been at home, I would have been discharged last Monday. I'm not even coughing."
That was undeniably true, but he still didn't look convinced. I hugged my knees where I was on the stairs, feeling myself flush as I tried to look him in the eyes.
"I should have told you, it was a horrible thing to do."
"And you're worrying about it."
It wasn't a question. Damien sighed.
"Yes, you should have told me," He began gently, "But it wasn't horrible."
I shrugged that straight off: he was always much too nice to me.
"I was, you were really upset about it when you had to come home and have no idea where I was-"
"Nicky." Damien's voice gathered enough authority to cut straight through mine.
"For a start I will tell you when you've over stepped the line, and secondly, you do not just shrug me off when I'm talking to you. What you chose to do might have been thoughtless, but it certainly wasn't horrible and most certainly doesn't make you horrible. And upsetting me isn't actually a criminal offence-"
"It is to me!"
"Are you going to listen to me?".
"I AM listening."
"No, you're not." Damien got up, holding out his hand for my book. "Go and find yourself a corner on the landing, I want you to-"
"NO!" I interrupted, temper slipping rapidly. This was silly, he ought to understand better. "YOU know and I know what happened, it was wrong, I KNOW it was wrong, can we please just cut to the chase?"
"Are you dictating to me Nicholas?"
His eyes had grown very direct all of a sudden and that chasm had opened right at my feet without my noticing. I swallowed, hurriedly regrouping.
"No, I just-"
"DO you say no to me?"
There's one right answer to that and one only.
"So what part of 'find a corner' didn't you understand?"
Ok, arguing at this point was useless and I knew it, but I couldn't help the angrily assertive voice that was bursting of it's own accord out of my mouth.
"WHY? Why have we got to drag this out any further? Its pointless!"
Damien clicked his fingers, pointing at the door and waiting. I folded my arms and glared back at him, upset and furious. He could wait until the end of the century if he chose to, he was being pig headed and unreasonable here, and he ought to see it.
Damien turned me around, and despite my attempt to twist out of his way, landed a heavy swat to the seat of my jeans.
"You're not going to push me into anything Nicholas, things happen on my terms, not on yours. Move."
"NO." I said still more distinctly, trying to shake him off.
It didn't actually achieve what I expected- a short end to the Spanish Inquisition and a swift route to the action I wanted over and done with. Damien just steered me ahead of him onto the landing and into a corner, holding me there when I tried pulling out of his hands.
"Pack it in. You're not going anywhere until you calm down and we talk this through together, you do NOT dictate to me."
"I'm NOT!" I twisted, trying to slip his hands and turn around. One hand on each of my upper arms held me exactly where I was.
"That's exactly what you're trying to do- and if you kick me my lad, you're going to regret it."
Ok, that was a little excessive. I stopped, livid. Damien's tone didn't change in the slightest.
"The big issue here isn't anyone's feelings. It's that you need to learn that the setting of priorities is my job, not yours."
I wasn't getting anywhere. Out of breath and too angry to find the words, I stared at the wall and stood still. Damien's hands didn't move on my arms for a moment, then he let go and from the corner of my eyes I saw them resting on either side of me on the walls: an implaccable human fence.
He did eventually move away and leave me in peace.
My temper gradually went off the boil without a target- the paint began to turn fury into irritation, and then to boredom and an increasing sense of plaintive neglect. I was half glad when his voice finally said from the office area,
I turned, but didn't go anywhere, folding my arms defensively. I was suddenly in a lot deeper than I'd expected, and it was a lot more complex- and more frightening- than I'd prepared for. Damien held out a hand to me, face gentle.
"Nicky. Come here."
I went. Slowly. Mostly because I knew the next step was that he'd come and get me. Damien caught my wrist and pulled me down into his lap.
"Ready to talk about this?"
He was nuts, I'd been ready from the start- it was HIM who had the problem.
"I'm sorry, I wanted to stop you having to run back down here when you were worried and I already knew it wasn't going to be serious- I CAN cope, I'm not going to fall apart because you're not there- I've been in hospital plenty of times before-"
"There's two separate issues here. Settle down, you're not going anywhere."
Sighing, I leaned back against him, accepting the steel bands of arms folded over me.
"One is deciding on my behalf what I need to know." Damien went on quietly. "The other is deciding on your own what you can and can't deal with. Either of those two ring a bell?"
Put like that it rang-
- all too many bells.
Starting to wish seriously I'd never started this, I nodded, not trusting my voice. I didn't seriously expect to get away with it and I was right.
"Why don't you make decisions for me, Nick?"
"Not up to me." I mumbled.
Damien pulled me closer, turning my legs across his lap so he could see my face, although there was no way I was looking at him.
"I know you were thinking about making things easier for me, you wanted to protect me- and I know it isn't easy to think straight in mid attack. But this ought to be so clear you know exactly what to do, no matter what happens. You TELL me. You do NOT censor information that you give to me."
"I didn't want you to have to come home!"
"If I'd known what was going on, I could have talked to the doctor, I could have seen to it that Allen was there with you- as he very willingly would have been- and if need be we could have decided together that I'd stay with my parents for the time being. Or more likely, I'd have left Miles and Laura to do what was necessary and come straight back here. You're my first priority, always. Just as I'd expect Laura, or Miles, or mum and dad for that matter, to drop everything and go if their partner needed them. This was a serious event for us- I needed to be with you and involved in dealing with it. Other people in the family could have handled the situation at home."
I shut my mouth, swallowing on that.
"Don't you think I had the right to be involved in a decision like that? Damien asked quietly. "We might have found a number of ways to deal with it if you'd given us a chance to. But above and beyond that, you're quite right, it's not up to you to make those kind of decisions."
I'd like to be dead now please. Damien's arms stayed tight around me, his voice stirring my hair as he talked.
"The other issue is that you don't just subject yourself to what you feel like without checking with me first."
"I was FINE."
"You're a very capable person. But just because you found you could cross the Atlantic on a bread board, it wouldn't mean I'd be happy about my partner subjecting himself to the physical and emotional strains of actually doing it. Given any say in the matter I would NOT have wanted you to be alone, of being in hospital for that long when you could have been at home, or of handling doctors and drugs and those kind of choices without support. What you CAN do is not necessarily what I'd want you to do or even what you MAY do- and that's very much my decision to make."
Silence. Damien tapped the knee that was under his hand.
"And you know it. Or you wouldn't be trying to rush this through on your terms to try and clear your conscience."
That was it, the tears started there.
He held me quietly for a long time.
"I don't know if it's the asthma- or whether it's been having such a lousy year so far." He said eventually in my ear. "But something about it is making you want to control a lot of things at the moment."
"I'm not-" I began incoherently, pleading that it wasn't deliberate. Damien kissed me, lifting the gibberish off my lips and putting mute comfort in its place.
"No darling of course you're not doing it on purpose and you're doing nothing wrong- people try to control their environment when they're nervous. It minimises anything unexpected or anything hurting or frightening when you haven't braced yourself to take it. After this year I know exactly why you'd be nervous. It's understandable, it's downright sensible. But that isn't how we work and isn't how we make it any better. You've just got take a deep breath and trust me to get it right for you."
"I know. But this is something we need to work on at the moment. You don't have anything you need to keep control over, it's my problem. You leave it to me to worry about. Only room for one control freak in the house and that's me."
I managed something vaguely approximating a laugh. Damien pulled my head up in his hands, making me look at him.
"I mean it. Your only job is to trust me and leave it to me. That's all you need to think about."
I nodded, exhausted and more than ready to cuddle back up and cry myself out. Damien kissed my forehead, then slid me off his lap.
"Allright. Then lets get this finished with."
Ok, fifteen minutes ago this had been exactly what I'd wanted and been pushing him towards. Now my heart lurched and the tears started to flood even faster. He'd already taken me so far apart, I wasn't at all sure I could handle going any deeper. Damien took my hands and squeezed them, making me look at him.
"Nick. Trust me."
Trust him enough to let him do this, to take away whatever vestiges of selfcontrol I had left, and to be able to put me back together again afterwards- I wasn't at all sure. I didn't move, not looking at him, hoping against hope that once- just this once- he'd take pity on me and let it go. I understood for God's sake, I got the idea, I couldn't be any sorrier if I tried, why did we need to do this at all? But he was shaking his head, his eyes determined and very kind.
"We do need to do it."
"Damien no- please-" I said incoherently, still going where his hand drew me, to his right hand side. "Just this once. ONCE. Please."
"It's not your decision baby."
I was already crying, too ashamed and too upset to look at him, but his voice was gentle. His hands rested on my hips for a moment, rubbing, then unbuttoned my jeans and pulled them down to my knees. I started to talk involuntarily at that point, the sort of fast and self distracting kind of chatter that bubbles up in a rush when people start approaching with cannulas and intravenous drips to be set up. I was sorry. I was seriously sorry, I knew why he was upset, I didn't want to upset him, I never wanted to upset him- somewhere during it he pulled me down over his lap and my underwear followed my jeans, and he waited, his hand rubbing my bottom gently and comfortingly. Gradually I heard my own voice and the pitch of it, and made it stop, swallowing hard.
"What's this about?" Damien said quietly, above me.
"Controlling." I said on a throat already thick with tears.
"No. That's not something you choose to do, it's just something we can understand and work on. What's this about?"
"Not trusting you. Acting like I was on my own."
"Are you on your own?"
I shook my head, starting to lose it. Damien wrapped an arm tighter around my waist and the inevitability of that gesture made me brace myself against his knee, trying to push up, to twist around: I wasn't ready, I couldn't do this- except he didn't let me move an inch and the message was very clear. Whether or not I thought I was ready was irrelevant. I shut my eyes, trying to breathe as his familiar and still inconveniently powerful hand slapped down, hard, landing across the entire breadth of one cheek and making it blaze. The second swat fell to the other cheek and without giving me time to get my breath the pattern repeated and repeated and repeated until the smart was out of control and my hips were jerking involuntarily, trying to move out of the danger zone. It did no good whatever. I couldn't move an inch and he didn't hesitate, moving unhurriedly downwards to the most tender area at the base of each buttock, his hand gradually gathering force rather than softening. The rhythm was relentless and the pain built up in geometric patterns, stealing the last of my breath. I wasn't going to last through this, he wasn't going to stop while I could still handle it- I knew it and once I knew it I stopped trying, stopped holding my breath, stopped bracing myself against him, and let go.
And that didn't make him stop either.
He came back to the sofa with a mug in each hand and I moved over, adhering myself to him again as soon as he sat down. He put a mug into my hands and lifted his arm over my head to wrap it around my back, pulling me closer against him. Head against his stomach, eyes stiff and uncomfortable even now, hours later, I shifted, aware of the soreness under my jeans and the faint rub of the material. The soreness related directly back to him, to the memory, to the objective.
Still ashamed, I turned my face deeper into his sweater, not remotely interested in the tv. He'd only put it on as an excuse for us to be sitting here, cuddling in silence for hour on hour. Or an excuse for me: I was the one who would eventually get embarrassed about it and go away if I couldn't tell myself we were doing something productive and socially appropriate.
Happily oblivious to us, Shrek marched up over the mountains, donkey in tow, towards his stroppy princess: his voice reached me even in the depth of Damien's sweater.
"I don't want to watch this." I said softly, still not looking. Damien paused in smoothing my hair, shaking the strands straight under his fingers.
"For about five minutes."
"It's still sad."
"Stick with it." Damien pulled me close enough to kiss the top of my head as the only part within reach. "It gets better."
Misunderstandings, rejection, confusion, anger- I wrapped myself more tightly around Damien, shutting my eyes and listening to the music instead. I knew the tune.
See the market down in old Angier
Send me photographs and souvenirs
Just remember when the dream appears
You belong to me.