The second time I awoke that night, I knew something wasn't right. I'd woken up briefly maybe fifteen minutes before, around 5AM, and had woozily considered going for a piss, but instead had simply nodded off again. This time, however, I knew I would have to make the trip round the corner to the bathroom. I can't recall now if Rachel, lying beside me, asleep, stirred or not as I pushed back the duvet and swivelled out of the bed, a nagging sense of unease at the back of my mind. Most nights one or the other of us has to get up and go to the loo, but it's rare the other person will remain completely undisturbed, so I think she at least came partly awake.
I padded barefoot across the wooden floorboards in the dark, round to the bathroom, and through the doorway onto the cool tiles, closing the door behind me. As usual I didn't bother to flick the light switch just outside the door: the small halogen light Rachel fixed to the cistern for nighttime toilet trips like this would be enough, and anyway I'd be sitting down; less chance of a stray splash that way.
As I sat there in the dim glow of the halogen, letting my bladder relax, letting the piss flow out, a wave of nausea suddenly washed over me – brief, but noticeable. That was followed in short order by a rush of heat to my head. The feeling of not-rightness intensified, but I stayed where I was, partly because I was still peeing, but also reasoning that it was probably just one of those things, a momentary aberration. Nothing to worry about. Just a headrush is all. Then a second wave of nausea swept over me, and perspiration broke out on my forehead, and all at once, more swiftly than seemed possible or credible, that vague not-rightness became a concrete, definite wrongness.
I stood up and immediately felt dizzy. A realization was dawning in my head: nausea, hot flushes, dizziness – and we'd had paella for dinner last night. Bollocks. It had to be food poisoning. Having experienced that before, I knew what was in store, and it wasn't going to be pleasant. I stood there in the gloom, overcome by dread, swaying now, and I think I may have uttered an "oh shit" as I turned towards the basin...
...And then I was rising up out of an unknown nothingness, and at the same time sitting up, somehow on the bathroom floor now (how did I get down here?), and I felt terrible, shaking and sweating, and I could hear Rachel's voice talking to someone, urgently, frantically, and also calling my name ("Nick?! Nick!"), and the ceiling light was on (had I turned it on? Had Rachel?), and I was sitting in something wet, and my hand was slipping in the wetness as my palm connected with the black tiles, and it was blood. There was blood on the bathroom floor. And there was blood on me. There was blood all down my grey T-shirt, and blood all down my bare legs. And as more of the bathroom came into focus I could see there was blood on the toilet and blood down the sides of the bath and blood on the bath mat and blood on the hand-washing hanging over the bath and blood on the towels and blood up the walls, blood and these awful, wet, red clumps of matter. There was blood, impossible amounts of blood, everywhere.
I sat on the bathroom floor, propping myself up on one arm, shuddering, sweat flooding down my face and neck and soaking my T-shirt, gagging and coughing, spitting more blood onto the tiles, with no comprehension of what had happened. By now I could tell that Rachel was on the telephone, telling the person on the other end that I was sitting up now, whilst also crouching down and leaning in close to me, talking to me too. I could barely respond; all I could do was sit there, shivering and sweating in a mess of my own blood like some grotesque overgrown newborn. Then Rachel had the front door to our flat open, and was running down the hall to the building's main entrance, looking out for the ambulance that would arrive within minutes.
Later, she helped fill in some of the blanks. When I'd left the bed she'd come slightly awake, and even at that point she too thought she might have sensed something was amiss or awry. In any case, there were soon sounds coming from the bathroom that pulled her completely from slumber. There was a kind of extended groan, akin to the noise some epileptics make immediately prior to an episode. Then there was a thump, as if I'd fallen or stumbled. And then came a repetitive banging, most likely the washing rail over the bath being hit by something again and again.
All of that was enough to drive her from bed and go and stand outside the closed bathroom door, calling my name and asking if I were all right. When no response came she tried the door. It wasn't locked (it rarely is), and when it swung open (and when she'd switched on the light? Again, which of us turned on the main light is unclear), Rachel was met by a vision of gore that we've since compared – lightheartedly, but not inaccurately – to the chest-burster scene in Alien. I was sprawled on my back on the floor (having most likely passed out from a standing position; there's a bruise/scratch on my side from where I must have hit something on the way down), my head wedged between the toilet and the bath, at the centre of an explosion of blood and bits covering most of me and most of the bathroom. My eyes were open but staring blankly at nothing, and blood and vomit gurgled in my open mouth and throat.
How Rachel kept from fainting herself on being confronted by this nightmare is of some astonishment to her and to others, although not really to me. At root, and despite the odd psychological quirk, she's possessed of a strength of character much greater than my own and a practicality I can only dream of. If there's a job needs doing round the flat you can guarantee she'll be the one to do it, and before she met me she'd accomplished more in the ongoing trial of grown-up life than I, in my relatively coddled existence, had even begun to contemplate, despite being five years older than her.
So of course she didn't faint, or panic, even though she was frightened beyond belief. If she'd needed to I'm sure she would've rolled me over into the recovery position, but I negated that necessity myself by sitting up fairly soon after she found me and, well: see above for the rest. Ahead lay a feverish ride in an ambulance with more vomiting of blood (despite appearances in the bathroom, the blood was only coming out of one orifice), and a dreadful few hours in Accident & Emergency, sickness washing over me, sweat falling off of me, hooked up to a chest monitor and a drip, poor Rachel sitting at the end of the bed, helpless and worried and scared.
Later still came the ignominy and deep uncomfortability of a catheter, and blood transfusions, and endless rounds of blood tests and blood pressure tests and heart rate tests, and the shock on my parents' faces when they arrived and saw the state of me. And then once I'd been moved to the gastric ward (it looks likely the culprit was a burst ulcer somewhere inside me, the blood building up in my stomach until my body rebelled and vomited it out) there were days and nights of memorable people and scenes: the quiet efficiency and kindness of the nurses; the young guy in the far corner bed, completely immobile, blinking his only method of communication; the way patients vanished when your head was turned, wheeled off to surgery or to another ward; the man talking to his wife on the phone from his bed, planning their separate Sunday night television viewing, a comforting BBC1 role call of Countryfile, Antiques Roadshow and Secret Britain; the man who, his mind altered with Parkinson's and infected piss, spent one entire night hallucinating that he was in a church, reciting the Lord's Prayer over and over, singing hymns, sermonising about God and Love, convinced that the high ceilinged room was a church hall and the coloured monitors above each bed were stained-glass windows.
But it's that opening scene that Rachel and I keep returning to, that horrific birth in the bathroom. We turn it over in our minds and in our conversation, ferreting out new details or reasoning out un-witnessed elements. Despite Rachel's best efforts at cleaning the bathroom there are still, over a week later, reminders of that night in there: faded spatters of blood on the white walls; a sudden release of red liquid from inside a join in the side of the bath.
We'll re-paint the walls, of course, and eventually there'll be no physical traces at all. But it's those late night/early morning trips to the toilet that I think are going to be a continuing, although hopefully not permanent, reminder. I've had to go to the loo a couple of times since around the same sort of time, and each time as I sit there I can't help but run through it all in my head again, all the while hoping, praying that I won't start to feel queasy or hot. Meanwhile, next door in bed, Rachel is that little bit more awake than she previously would have been, that little bit more aware. I think that's just the way it's going to be for the two of us. For a while, anyway.