2. Invisible Illness
The sense of dread and impotence had followed Lara around for her entire shift. Neil had showed no signs of improvement when she left him at home in bed, earlier that morning, to leave for work. She felt sure that he would still be in bed when she got home. He had turned his mobile phone off and she knew that he would let the landline ring until the answerphone picked up. There was no way of knowing how he was doing, but she had the sinking feeling that he wasn't improving. This was the fourth day in a row that he hadn't gone to work, and now she was starting to worry on his behalf about his job.
Lara had made a career switch to nursing, having previously worked as an office administrator. She was naturally caring and liked helping people. The office politics and limited scope to make a tangible difference in anybody's life had ground her down in the medium-sized company she used to work for, with its bloated management structure, endless bureaucracy and red tape. The National Health Service was no picnic, but working directly with patients and other front-line staff made the job far more rewarding than her previous career, where she had never met any of the company's actual customers.
Neil was a well respected and valued employee at the company he had worked for since leaving college. He was a CCTV and intruder alarm engineer, who travelled throughout the country, installing new systems, doing maintenance and repairs. Over the years, he had built up a lot of technical expertise and was now considered one of the most senior members of the team. He'd had the option to move into staff training or management, but he'd always preferred to remain "on the tools".
Most of Neil and Lara's circle of friends had originated from Neil's job, with Lara befriending the 'significant others' of Neil's male-dominated engineering friends. There had been a spate of weddings recently amongst the couples they knew and on Valentine's Day, Neil had proposed to Lara. They were engaged to be married some time the following year, although they had not yet started to plan the wedding.
Lara had received text messages from her female friends asking if Neil was OK, because their other halves hadn't seen him at work for a couple of days. What could she say? She knew it was unusual for Neil to be sick, but it wasn't at all clear what was wrong with him. He just seemed very fatigued and hadn't been able to face getting up or even phoning in sick. Lara had phoned his boss for him, while he buried his head under the duvet and pretended to be asleep.
It was easy to be sympathetic with Neil, because he was evidently going through a hard time due to something but the frustrating thing was that it was neither identifiable, nor would Neil go to the doctor to ask for a diagnosis. Through her own medical training, Lara knew there was nothing obviously wrong with Neil: no fever, no pain or discomfort, no nausea. In fact, no symptoms beyond the fact he looked tired, drained, stressed and somewhat afraid, in his facial expressions. She knew that he wasn't the type to complain about a bout of man flu.
The first couple of days that Neil was off work, she had attributed to the kind of duvet days when she herself would phone in sick, if she really couldn't face another boring day in the office. By the third day, she could hear her parents' derisory words about "yuppie flu" ringing in her ears, from her childhood in the 1980's.
The burden of having to phone Neil's boss each day had now escalated. He had politely but firmly reminded Lara that Neil now needed to go to the doctor and get a sick note, because he'd been away from work for more than three days. Neil knew this too, but hadn't acknowledged it. In fact, he'd made it subtly clear to her that he just wanted to be left alone. He didn't want her to open the curtains for him; he didn't want her to bring him food; he didn't want her to arrange for anybody to visit to make sure he was OK during the day. Little changed in his withdrawn demeanour from when she left in the morning for her 12 hour shift, to the moment he barely acknowledged her when she returned from work, except to say he was OK and he didn't need anything. The most animated that she'd seen him in four days was when she offered to phone in sick for him, which he said he'd be really grateful for if she did. She didn't seem to be able to do anything else to help. It was frustrating.
The drive home from work was very unpleasant for her. She knew the house would seem lifeless: no lights on. She knew that she would go upstairs to the bedroom in order to get out of her work clothes and see the motionless shape of Neil's body under the duvet, in much the same position as she'd left him in the morning. She'd know from the rhythm of his breathing that he was awake, but she would have to speak first. He would be polite, pleasant even, but somehow clipped and formal. The subtle cue was for her to leave the bedroom, turn off the light, and leave him with whatever he was struggling with. It cut her up to feel shut out, unable to help.
All of their normal rhythm and routine had suddenly disappeared, leaving a gaping hole in Lara's life. Their usual discussions about evening meals, cooking and eating together, watching videotaped television programmes or films, exchanging stories about their working day, planning the next social event, or talking about an upcoming holiday: all of this was suddenly gone, and Lara found herself eating on the sofa, alone, watching whatever was on TV at the time, but not really paying any attention to it.
The hardest thing was having nobody to talk to. Her parents had made their views about "work shy" people vociferously known and she didn't want to get into an argument, where she felt defensive about Neil having to take some time off sick. Most of their group of friends all knew each other, and she knew that by talking to even one friend, word would soon get around that something was wrong with Neil that was out of the ordinary. She dreaded to think what would be concluded in the speculative gossip at the dinner parties at each others' houses.
Lara started mentally preparing herself for friends dropping by the house to see if they were OK and if there was anything they could do. If there was nothing she could do, what could they possibly do? It would be easiest just to make excuses and try to shoo them away from the doorstep without even inviting them in. What would she say? How could she be polite and maintain the impression that their usual relaxed open house policy was in full swing, but at the same time swiftly get rid of any would-be visitors?
Despite a salary drop for Lara, the couple had still managed to get a large enough mortgage to purchase a modestly sized terraced house near the town centre that had plenty of space for entertaining guests. Under normal circumstances, Lara and Neil had a gregarious and welcoming nature and were given to spur-of-the-moment gatherings in their home with their friends. Several couples lived within walking distance, and impromptu cheese and wine, cards or board game nights were a common occurence.
The house had an attractive Victorian façade with a modern interior. The brick archway above the front door stated that the house was built in the 1870s. The previous owners had extensively renovated, building a bright open-plan kitchen diner extension at the back, and preserving a cosy but surprisingly spacious snug at the front of the house, with a cast iron fireplace and wooden fire surround. Furnished with carefully chosen second hand furniture that mixed shabby chic with pieces that could be mistaken for iconic vintage design, the house was punching above its weight for the meagre budget of Lara and Neil's income.
Decorating and furnishing their home had been a labour of love for Lara and Neil, and they were extremely house-proud and meticulous in how they had planned each room to accentuate the available space, light and few remaining period features. This hiccup in Neil's health was certainly no part of a master plan which had seemed to be going perfectly for the couple, up to that point.
Entertaining guests held a certain amount of desire for their friends to see their home improvements, and to show off their excellent taste in interior design and home-making. It was showy without being unpleasantly in-your-face. It was hard to dislike Lara and Neil as they weren't a couple obsessed with status symbols and oneupmanship.
Behind closed doors, the relationship was far from perfect. Neil's reluctance to turn down overtime and work fewer hours had led to Lara's desire to find a more rewarding career of her own. Financial pressures and resentment over each other's strong desire to satisfy their own needs and find fulfilment at work, had overspilled into many unpleasant arguments. Most of their friends chose to accept the happy, smiling, front that Lara and Neil presented at face value. Those who were closest to the couple could see the mask occasionally slip. The occasional unpleasant jibe; the twist of the knife; the obvious hints at an unresolved argument. There were issues that were festering, unresolved.
Nobody could say that they weren't a fully committed couple. They had been together a long time and had managed to come through a rather tempestuous and fiery initial period, before reaching a kind of uneasy truce. When in the company of friends, they were in fine spirits - and this was no act - but too much time spent alone with each other and trouble would inevitably erupt.
Neil was not self-indulgent in his convalescence, but he was completely unaware how isolated this left Lara, given the interconnected web of friends and connections to Neil's work that existed. Neil had no idea how burdened Lara felt, defending Neil's spotless record as a dependable hard worker, and as a sunny upbeat happy-go-lucky likeable social character. The man under the duvet in the dark bedroom upstairs would not want anybody to see him like that, and Lara knew it.
Whatever regrettable words had been spoken before, it was water under the bridge. Lara would not betray Neil in his hour of need.