One for Ranger and Elizabeth, both of whom courteously looked the other way and pretended not to notice as my feet were surgically removed from my mouth.
I took my cup of coffee, twisted my scarf round my neck, and went outside. Half past one in the morning. The first lot fed, the main meal served and cleared and washed up. Now all there was to do was serve drinks and nibbles for another hour, and clear it all up again and go home. I’d be lucky to get to my bed before four. Coffee, strong, and fresh air. I knew how to do this, I’d done it often enough before. A change of air and a ten minute break. I’d covered while half the serving staff took their break at midnight, and I’d covered again while the other half went off at a quarter to one, and now it was my turn. At least I knew this place; there was somewhere I could get out of sight. Out through the kitchen door, round the back of the piles of empty bottles and barrels and there was a fire escape. Up the steps to the flat roof of the storeroom. I knew from bitter experience that the instant I stepped outside some minor disaster would occur in the kitchen; I also knew that if Jamie could see me, he would come running for me to fix it, but that if I were out of view he would sort it himself. He’s perfectly competent; he’s just bone bloody idle.
I had drunk half my coffee when I heard the door. Not the kitchen door, the one on the other side, which opened from the end of the corridor past the cleaners’ cupboards. I glanced over the barrier, eight feet down into another tiny outside space. This one had the bins in it, and currently two men. I froze. I had no hope of getting off the roof unheard. I’ve been caught this way before.
Note that I think of it as me being caught. Not that I’m doing anything I shouldn’t. I’m the caterer, and I’m taking my break and drinking my coffee. And people who come outside at that time of night, and not out through the main doors into the public spaces, but out the service doors into the back spaces, are not usually just looking for somewhere for a change of air and a cigarette. No, they’re looking for somewhere to fit in a little extra-curricular activity. It’s a bloody pain for people like me. I get most of my work by personal recommendation: which caterers did you use for Melissa’s wedding, or Jonathan’s twenty-first, or Granny and Grandad’s golden wedding party? Were they any good? Morgan’s? What did they cost? Were they reliable? So I go from your party to your friends’ and relations’ parties, and at every event I recognise about half the people from the last one. Some of them even with their clothes on. Honestly, I lost three contracts before I learned that when people come outside with the intention of – well – coming outside, they get all overwrought to discover that there is already somebody else outside. Somehow, when two other people are behaving badly and I’m minding my own business and troubling nobody, it’s my fault. It’s as if I’ve done something I shouldn’t, when all I actually did was let them know, before they started the fornication foxtrot, that they were not alone. It’s the fact that I know their intentions, and they know that I know. So nowadays I sneak away if I possibly can, and otherwise I freeze and wait for them to go away. No, I do not watch. Fortunately, one thing about outdoor sex is its speed – particularly when you consider that we’re usually talking about the kitchen space complete with the bins, the bar empties, and the air con vents.
I’m very, very discreet. My God, I have to be: I’ve done the catering for a wedding at which my first break revealed to me the bridegroom with his best grey trousers round his ankles, giving his all to one of the bridesmaids. I would have worried more about the marriage had my second break not given me the bride with a man I later identified as the choirmaster.
Where was I? Oh yes, the two men. I backed round the staircase, turned my head away, and waited for them to go. I was dressed in a penguin suit, and my scarf hid my collar and bow tie, so there was nothing but my face and hands that might give me away. As long as I kept still and quiet they should be done and gone before I’d get my coffee finished. Except that they had apparently not come outside for sex, but for a quarrel: I couldn’t hear the words, only the underlying tone, but that was unmistakable. Somebody was getting a real tongue-lashing, and was apologising frantically. And suddenly there was more. Suddenly there was the equally inimitable kiss of leather against flesh, and despite myself I turned and looked over the handrail. Underneath me, but facing the opposite way, one of the two was braced against the wall; his companion was applying a doubled belt hard to his bare backside.
It wasn't excessive – oh sure, I’ve been there too, both sides – but it was fairly sharp, and the accusing commentary didn’t stop throughout, nor did the whimpering apologies. What turned my stomach was the aftermath: the lack of reconciliation, the absence of any phrase to demonstrate completion, and the sharp blow to the face. The oppressor – I wouldn’t dignify him with the name ‘Top’, a real Top doesn’t behave like that – stalked away through the fire doors, and his victim took an audible shuddering breath, and began to set his clothes in order. I don’t think I made any sound but he stiffened suddenly, like an animal scenting a predator, swung round and looked straight up into my face. His own face was tearstained, and his lips parted, but no words came out. I didn’t even try to pretend that I hadn’t seen them. I came down the steps.
“He’s split your lip. Put your hand under it or you’ll get blood on your collar. Now come inside and I’ll find you some ice for it. Have you got a handkerchief? Wipe your eyes. Yes, that’s better.”
I led him into the kitchen and called one of the waitresses. “Tracey? Can you get me some ice in a plastic bag, and some tissues? I opened the door into the gentleman’s face, and he’s cut his lip against his teeth.” It was a perfectly good lie: ten minutes with ice and the swelling was minimal, the bruise would be faint, and the look of shock was receding. I walked with him back to the main part of the building; I hadn’t offered him my name and I didn’t ask his, but I said, quite gently, “You know, a proper Top will never strike you in anger, and I would have said that he should never hit you in the face.”
The look I got was a mixture of resentment and gratitude. “It was a punishment for flirting.”
“The first part might have been; that’s not my business. But a smack in the mouth is a straightforward assault. Be careful that you don’t go further than you want to, just because you’ve already gone so far. You may consent to domestic discipline but domestic violence is something quite different. Now tell me that’s not my business either.”
“It’s not your business. Thank you for the ice. Goodbye.”
And that was the last I saw of him. What, you were expecting me to sweep him up onto my white horse and rescue him from a life of degradation? Think again. That isn’t the way it works. He went back to his partner, I went back to my job, and it was six months before I saw him again.
Actually, I didn’t recognise him. He came in response to an ad I’d put in the local paper, for occasional waiting staff. He wasn’t exactly silver service, and his notions of time-keeping were a little eccentric, but he was as good as any of the others I took on. I didn’t place the faint niggle that I should know who he was until the night that he turned up with a black eye, and a story about having run into someone – literally – in the car park at college. Then suddenly I knew where I had seen him before, but it still wasn’t any of my business. I had my doubts about the car park story, though, and it seemed I was right. The eye faded, but although the warmer weather came, he never wore anything that didn’t have long sleeves, and occasionally as he reached for things, the cuffs would slide, revealing blue bruises gripping his wrists.
Don’t give me that air of disapproval! What would you have had me do? He was compos mentis (apparently), he was of full age, and he was involved in a relationship which was doing him harm. The first two were unarguable and the third was his own concern. It was not my business. I did worry about him, yes. I thought it a damaging relationship. Harmful. But he talked about his family, so he had somewhere else to go; I could hardly grab his hands and pull him from the other man to me, however much I wanted to.
Yes. I wanted to. And a couple of times, there had been a look, a shared joke, something that let me think that in other circumstances he would have been willing enough.
But it took another six months. He came to live with me before he came to ‘live’ with me, so to speak. I bought a house entirely for the sake of the kitchen when I started my own business, and as a result it’s really much larger than I need. So I borrowed a lot of money and put in extra plumbing and a tiny kitchenette, and started letting part of the ground floor to students. When Sharon moved out to live with her boyfriend, the flat came free, and I put my usual ads up in the Students’ Union and on the supermarket board. Aidan came to look at it.
He was completely gobsmacked to see it was me when I opened the door. He was also in plaster.
I brought him in, explained about the flat – well, it isn’t really a flat because it can’t be completely closed off, but it’s like a suite. Showed him around it, offered him coffee, and asked, as one always does, “So what have you done to your arm?”
I wasn’t a hundred percent surprised when he burst into tears. He had been teetering on the edge of it all the time he was in the house. With someone I knew better I would have offered a hug, but I had no idea if it would be welcome, so I just found a box of tissues and made some more coffee while he collected himself.
“Sorry, Morgan, that was stupid, it’s just. . . I don’t know, shock or something. Reaction. I’ve broken my wrist. And I’ve got to find somewhere to live. I can’t afford your flat, sorry, but I can’t. Do you know of anywhere else up for let?”
“I can’t say I do, no. But I thought you were sharing a house on Whiteside? And if you’re a student, don’t they have lists of suitable places?”
He sniffed, and blew his nose. “I’m not eligible. The house in Whiteside is a student let and I took it, but. . . it’s complicated. I’m going to have to go on paying for it, but I can’t live there. And I can’t afford much more. I knew I couldn’t afford yours, but I thought if it would do for two I could see if someone would share it with me. But it isn’t big enough for that.”
“And I wouldn’t be pleased about sub-letting anyway. Do you want to tell me about the other house?”
He hesitated. He did, I could see that.
“Has it got something to do with the broken wrist?”
His head came up with shock. “How did you know?”
“As they say in spy films, I didn’t know. You just told me.”
“Oh. Well. It’s. . .”
“Complicated, yes, you said. You don’t have to tell me, I just thought you might like to talk it through. I might be able to think of a way to help if I knew what I was trying to do. But it’s your choice.”
He hesitated again. I thought it worth a push.
“Has it got something to do with the man with the belt?”
A slow flush washed up his neck. “You did remember. I wasn’t sure if you would. You never said anything.”
“I told you, it wasn’t my business. It still isn’t unless you want to make it so.”
“I. . . Can I tell you? I can’t see what to do, and maybe even if I just talk it through. . .”
“Go on. You don’t need to tell me names or anything.”
“Well, I can give you his first name. He’s Josh. It’s a common enough name that it doesn’t tell you much.”
“Josh. And he’s your Top?”
“Yes.” The blush came again, but he met my eyes steadily enough. “Only – well, you said, that time, that he wasn’t a proper Top.”
I made a face. “I can’t judge him on one incident, but I thought he wasn’t behaving as a responsible Top should.”
“No. He wasn’t. He didn’t. Only I didn’t know how to stop him. He’s been. . .”
He was scarlet with humiliation, so I helped. “I’ve seen that your arms were bruised. Was that part of it?”
“He’s into bondage. I’m not. I did it to please – no, that’s wrong. Not to please, exactly, not to start with, but like. . . like, O.K., that was his thing and I could do it, and the d-discipline was my thing and he could do it.” He gulped some more coffee, and looked up to see if I understood. I did. “Yes, all relationships are a bit that way. It’s just normal negotiation and compromise. Something for you, something for me.”
“Yes, only he wanted to do it more and more, the bondage, and then he started using it to punish me, and it wasn’t what I wanted, but that’s the point, isn’t it? Punishment has to be what I don’t want.”
I smiled. “Yes, I see. Difficult. But either way, I still think that hitting you in the face was out of order. And – is that what happened to your wrist? Are you telling me he broke your wrist?”
A nod. “And we went to Casualty together, and I thought, yes, it was an accident – it really was, Morgan, he was unfastening everything and letting me go, and I had cramp, and I jerked and fell off the bed, and I couldn’t get my hands free, it wasn’t his fault – only, on the way home, he was saying in my ear: that’ll teach you, we’ll have a bit of obedience now, won’t we; and he kept tapping the cast, hard enough to jar it, and it really hurt.” The tears were coming again, and this time I went with my instincts, opened my arms and pulled him onto the sofa with me, against my chest. “And I suddenly thought: he means that, he’s not playing, and he’s not doing it to make me behave better, he’s doing it to hurt me when I haven’t done anything, and all the time it’s in plaster he’s going to use it to hurt me, and I don’t want to do it any more.” It was getting harder to make out – you know the way your voice goes when you’re trying hard not to cry, all high and tight. “Only I had taken the Whiteside let with him through the college: I pay them and they pay the landlord, and they make it clear when you sign up that you’re committed for the year so I can’t get out of it. And when I told Josh that I was leaving, he said he wasn’t going to look for someone else to share. That’s how people usually do it, they swap rooms or whatever and work out who needs to pay what to keep it right. But if I just go, I’ll lose the rent I’ve paid to the end of the year. And I can’t stay.”
“No, you can’t. Calm down, now. Let me have a think. You know, pet, you may say the accident wasn’t his fault, and I’ll take your word for it that he didn’t do it deliberately, but if he was topping, he was accountable. If you’re going to play bondage games, it’s his responsibility to keep you safe. Still, that’s done, and it does sound as if it was a bit of a freak accident. The plaster cast thing, I agree, sounds sick, and I think whatever instinct said: run! was a good one. The rent is difficult. Have you been to talk to the people at college?”
“They said I had contracted for my share of the house so it was up to me to live in it or to find someone else to live in it.”
I made a face. “Did you let them know why you wanted to go?”
“How could I?”
True. O.K. Think of something else, Morgan.
“Look, I appreciate that you probably don’t want to go home with your tail between your legs, but I think you might have to ask your family for help.”
His turn to make a face. “It’s not just not wanting to look stupid. And I would, because they aren’t happy that I’m out, for a start, and they didn’t like Josh. But my dad’s on long term sick leave. He needs a hip replacement, and basically they’re just keeping him on long term sick until he’s old enough to be offered early retirement without losing his pension, or until he comes up on the list for the op. So, yes, they’ll help if I really can’t get through – I won’t end up on the street or anything – but it’s a bit of a last resort. And my grandmother’s ill, so they don’t need another worry unless I absolutely can’t manage.”
We were interrupted by his mobile phone. He made an apologetic face at me and answered it. I turned slightly away to appear not to be listening, specially since it was obvious at once that it was Josh.
“No. No, I’m not going to come back, except for my stuff. I’m not telling you where I’m going. I told you last night, I don’t want to live with you any more. I don’t trust you any more. No, it’s over. It isn’t your business where I’m going! And it isn’t your business whether I’m going to live with someone else, either!”
He made an exasperated noise and cut off the call. That was a much better gesture when we weren’t all using mobiles. It was more satisfying to slam down the receiver on the cradle with a proper ‘thunk’.
“I’m managing better when I stay mad,” he said apologetically. I nodded. Knew it well. He sighed. “I’m going to have to ask my parents for money, aren’t I?”
I thought so. He pushed his coffee cup away. “Thanks for listening. I’ll go and pick up my stuff. I’ve got a friend who’ll let me stay over the weekend because her flatmate’s away until Monday, but after that it’ll be a week or so round my mates until my parents can come through. I’ll be at work as usual,” he glanced up and I nodded.
“I wish I could let you have the flat, but my mortgage is crippling. I have to have that flat paid for or I can’t keep up, and the business isn’t doing well enough yet to let me take liberties. But look, take my phone number and give me yours. If anything comes to me, I’ll call you.”
What came to me was a yell for help; four days later he called me in a total panic. “I’m at Whiteside at the house, only Josh won’t let me have half my stuff, and he’s been drinking, he’s frightening me. He won’t let me go. I’m in the bathroom. I don’t know what to do.”
I was there in eight minutes, finger on the doorbell and trying to look big. Well, I am big. Josh opened the door; Aidan was right, he had been drinking.
“I’ve come for Aidan and Aidan’s gear. We’re going now. Where is he?”
He hurtled down the stairs at the sound of my voice.
“Come on, Aidan, what’s to go?”
I was too slow, and the blow lifted Aidan off his feet and into the newel post. The second punch was aimed at me, and I didn’t hang around for it, ducking far enough that it grazed my forehead, rattling my brains a bit. Then I got a grip on Josh, who was swearing hoarsely, and shook him until he was limp.
“We’re going. Aidan, get your stuff outside. The van’s there, just get it all inside and get in. Go!”
I loomed a bit over Josh as I dropped him. “Remember, I know who you are and I know where you live. And Aidan’s leaving you and you are leaving him alone. And those facts are related.” O.K., it wasn’t much of a threat, but it was the best I could manage at short notice. Threats aren’t my sort of thing. I backed out carefully; Josh was curling up on the floor, and from the look of him, whatever he had been drinking was making itself felt. I shut the door and walked smartly to the van.
“Seat belt, please. Now, where are we going?”
He was trembling again. “Back to the college. One of my friends has said he’ll store some of my stuff. And then I don’t know.”
I set off towards the college. I didn’t know either. There were a lot of things I didn’t know, like why I felt obliged to do something about this, or what I could do, although a vague idea was beginning to cross my mind. At a traffic light, I pushed my hair off my forehead. The graze where Josh had hit me was showing and it throbbed. Aidan looked rather second-hand too, with a bruise on his jaw as well as his plaster.
“Where’s the accommodation office?”
“In the main block. But there’s nothing they can do, Morgan.”
“I’m not sure I believe that. Let me try.”
The accommodation officer was a woman in her thirties, and she was supremely unhelpful. Aidan had signed for the house, and if he wanted to leave it, it was his responsibility to find another tenant.
“Mrs Atkinson, the other tenant in the house is violent. When I went there with Aidan today, the other tenant attacked both him and me.”
“I sympathise, but there is nothing I can do.”
Emotional blackmail time.
“If Aidan were a woman you would do something fast enough.”
“Are you seriously telling me that a female student who came in here and told you that her housemate beat her up would be palmed off with a ‘nothing we can do’?”
“Yes, but it’s not at all the same thing.”
“It’s precisely the same thing. Now if you won’t do something to help, I shall start by taking Aidan to the battered women’s refuge, and then I shall call the newspapers. The women at the refuge will be glad of the publicity. The college will not.”
That concentrated her mind remarkably. Suddenly it was possible for Aidan to get his deposit and rent back. It would take three or four days, but it could be arranged. He had to fill in a small rainforest worth of forms, including a waiver of responsibility to confirm that the college was not liable for any harm Josh had done him, but he had in exchange a notification of the sums he was due.
I took him home with me. “You can have the suite. I didn’t think we should tell Boadicea there that I had a place to let; she would have thought it a put-up job. What you’re getting back won’t quite cover the rent, but if you’ll give me Sunday mornings to help clear up after a Saturday night contract, we’ll call it quits.”
Satisfied now? Is that white knight enough for you, sweeping him up in a Ford Transit van? Carrying him away from the villain of the piece, wicked Sir Joshua? And naturally he would fall into my bed and we would screw happily ever after.
He was willing. He let me see that he was willing. I wasn’t. I don’t need a mercy fuck, thank you. If there’s nothing in it but gratitude, I’ll go clubbing and find someone to scratch an itch without obligation. Well, actually, I won’t because I don’t care for that hello, hooray, goodbye stuff either. All right, if there’s nothing in it but gratitude, I’ll buy another bottle of Vaseline Intensive Care and build up the muscles in my wrist some more. Don’t have to take my hand out to dinner, don’t have to tell it I love it. And it’s always willing.
Shit but I sound bitter. Well, and I was. I simply couldn’t understand how I could have fallen for this hero crap again. I had been here before, when I was twenty-five, with a lover of twenty-one who was needy. High-maintenance, they call it nowadays. A brat. And I had been St George, who had slain the dragon of alcohol and soft drugs. I had got him dried out and I had got him clean. He worshipped me, and we had two years together, and then he left me, rather finally. He was killed in a motor accident.
And the really bad bit? When they came to tell me, I was sitting at home waiting for him, having worked out my speech to tell him that I was leaving him. I couldn’t stand any more of being his strength. Oh, God, I didn’t begrudge it to him, not really. When another human being is in such need, I don’t think you can turn him away, not if you’re any sort of proper human being yourself. But he took from me, took my strength. I had to be strong enough always for two, and I was too young and there was too little coming back. After a while, however much I loved him, he was a lamprey, a parasite, a vampire. He was a user, and if he didn’t use alcohol or drugs, he used me. He was always going to be dependent on something or somebody. I hadn’t the stamina to keep us both going and if I didn’t leave him I was going to drown in his bottomless need.
I thought for a long time that I had killed him. Oh, not seriously. Not in actual fact. But that perhaps if I had done something different, been less distracted that morning, kept him with me, done something differently, he wouldn’t have died. Eventually I had to bring myself to accept that it wasn’t me. It wasn’t even an accident in which someone could be blamed: a driver had a heart attack and put his car onto the pavement, and Russell died.
And here I was, thirty-three and looking at another brat of twenty-one or two, and damn sure that I wasn’t doing the rock and foundation thing again.
And by the time I was thirty-four, the brat was twenty-three, and he was sleeping in my bed. I had held him off for several months: well, until he left full-time college. He went for a job in the town where they instantly signed him up for some sort of day-release course. We celebrated together by going out on the town and we had just enough to drink that when he made a pass at me I forgot that high-maintenance was a bad idea and we ended up in bed. By then the business was doing better, but Aidan went on renting the suite, because after a week it was obvious that sharing a bed every night simply wasn’t going to work. About two nights a week I’m working until midnight or later, and sometimes until three or four in the morning. If I need the markets I get up at five: if I don’t I may stay in bed until nine. Aidan had to be out by ten to eight, and if I worked an evening and he wasn’t waiting tables for me, he would go out with his friends, so I might come home at ten and he would roll in at one. We very rapidly discovered that we liked to share a bed all night if we were both home for the evening, but that it was the exception rather than the rule. He had the sitting room of the suite as a study, and came to eat in my kitchen. We ate together as often as we could. He was funny and clever and affectionate, and – well, I tend to be too serious, and he put a stop to that. He made fun of me when I was inclined to be pompous, and made me see that the world was occasionally ridiculous, and I was allowed to have a good time. Almost at once, I was sleeping better, more relaxed, less up-tight when things went wrong at work. He was good for me: he teased me that it was just the regular sex I had needed, but it wasn’t. It was human interaction. It was love.
And yes, I was Top. I wasn’t very sure how that had come about, except that he made it plain early on that he wanted me to spank him, and I didn’t have any problem with that. I did it twice, and the third time, I said firmly, “Enough. We’re going to do this properly. What’s your safe word?”
“I don’t need one with you. Time enough if it turns into anything serious.”
“Wrong answer. By the time it gets to something serious, I’ll know what you can stand. I need you to have the get-out now while there’s a risk I’ll do something you don’t like, because I don’t know you don’t like it. Choose a word.”
“Choose for me.”
“Right. Your word is ‘Arthur’.”
“‘Arthur’? What sort of safe word is that?”
“It’s my real name. Didn’t you know?”
“Arthur? Is it really? I mean, obviously I knew you were A Morgan, and I knew that everybody called you Morgan, and I deduced that whatever your name was, you didn’t like it, so I didn’t ask. But Arthur?”
“Yes. Don’t go on about it. I hate it, and it makes me jump when anybody calls me by it, so it will do very well as a safe word. And I expect you to use it if you need to, O.K.?”
So there it was. I was Top in the bedroom. He liked it; I liked it. Fluffy bunny time all round. Hell, I still sound bitter, don’t I?
It began to slide. It began to get away from me. This far after the event I can see how the trick was done. I’ll be fair: I don’t think Aidan knew what he was doing. I don’t believe he planned it all out, deliberately manipulating me to the place he wanted me to be. He has a sweet temper normally, he’s generous and good-natured, and the trouble he finds himself in is almost always through lack of forethought rather than wilful malice. I think it just came naturally, without thinking, until we were doing it all the time.
It was all small stuff to begin with, none of it serious. His college day was Friday, and for once I wasn’t working Friday night. Work was being done, but not by me – it was a regular contract and I had decided that Jamie could run the show without me having to be present. I had cooked all day and sent him off with a packed van and three experienced staff to look after him, and then I dished up the leftovers for Aidan and me. He came in at seven, having had a pint with his friends, and after we ate I asked him how his day had been.
“I’ve been running all day. I was late this morning and I never caught up with myself.”
He was stretched out on the couch with his head on my lap, and my fingers in his hair. “You’ve got a real problem with punctuality, haven’t you, Aidan? Perhaps I should spank you for it.”
He grinned at me. “Perhaps you should.”
So I did. Just for fun, and it was fun. I mean, it wasn’t my problem if he was late for college, was it? Only the next week, he was late for work, and he confessed it to me, and when I spanked him for it, it was still for fun. Somehow, though, by the time he was late again, it seemed to be in the Rules which I hadn’t been aware that we had, that I should spank him for it.
You see? It was the same with the kitchen. My kitchen is my workplace and I had never shared it before. As far as I was concerned, I would cook for both of us, and if Aidan wanted to cook for himself when I was out, he could use the kitchen in his flat. If he wanted biscuits and junk food, that was where he should keep them. I had put basic equipment in it and that was available for him to use. My kitchen equipment is my livelihood and I am very particular about it, and specifically, I am very particular about my knives. My kitchen knives cost – well, slightly more than Aidan’s car. I don’t care who you are, you don’t use my knives. No chef I know is willing to share someone else’s knives. So the first time I found Aidan had been using my knives and had left them dirty by the sink, I was exasperated enough to spank him for it. The second time, he put them in the dishwasher, which is worse, and I spanked him hard. And by the third time, it was in the Rules that he was not to interfere with my kitchen.
Do we see a pattern emerging here? Within three months we had Rules. Punctuality. Getting his college work submitted on time. Keeping the suite clean. Paying his credit card bill by the due date. When he missed the MOT date for his car (which, incidentally, invalidated his motor insurance) I took the strap to him. Aidan was happy. I was exhausted, more emotionally than physically. I was also very uncomfortable about our relationship, although I had very little idea why.
What broke it all up for us was, of all things, strep throat. You know how, every winter, there’s some ghastly bug going round, and everybody you know gets it one after the other? This year it was a particularly virulent throat infection. I caught it from Tracey, who had caught it from her boyfriend. On the fourth day of being unable to swallow, I managed to get an appointment, and Dr Metcalfe peered at my tonsils and offered the professional opinion of ‘ooh yuck’, followed by an antibiotic. That sorted it out. For me at least: by that point I had given it to Aidan. We knew by then that it wasn’t something that went away in a day or two, so in my capacity as the one who could still speak, I rang the surgery again and made an appointment for Aidan. Same diagnosis, same prescription.
Only Aidan’s bad throat came back, and on the third day of watching him swallow uncomfortably, I said sympathetically, “Ring first thing and ask for another appointment. Maybe it’s mutated, or whatever these strains do, and you need a different antibiotic.” He nodded, silently, and I got up and went to the bathroom with half an idea that there were still some of those anaesthetic pastilles left over from. . .
“Aidan? What’s this?”
Silly question, really. I could see what it was. It was a small bottle with about four tablets in it – the remains of his prescribed antibiotics.
“I didn’t need the last ones,” he husked at me. “I thought my throat was better.”
“Idiot boy. You know you should always finish antibiotics. That’s how they get the resistant strains, people like you not quite getting rid of a bug. If Metcalfe gives you some more, take them properly!”
And Metcalfe did give him some more, apparently making some apologetic remark about seven days’ pills being enough for most people but some needing ten.
He took six. I didn’t pick up on it until his third go-round with the same damn strep throat, when I demanded to know if he had taken the full course. He never lies, I’ll say that for him. Even when he knew that after he had swallowed the paracetamol to make his throat feel better, I was going to make his bottom feel much worse.
I didn’t trust him with the third prescription: I tipped all the pills into my hand every night and counted them. Twice the numbers were right, and on the third day he had taken two and not three. And I spanked him. On the fourth day, he took three, and on the fifth he took two and I spanked him. On the sixth day, he remembered all three, and on the seventh day he took one at breakfast time and forgot both the others, and I ignored his increasingly desperate protests, turned him across my lap, and reduced him to hiccupping tears.
That wasn’t the problem, you know. I still think it wasn’t. He’d had ample warning, he knew what to expect, and although I was severe, I wasn’t cruel. Not physically. The problem was that I had talked throughout, vicious, biting comments about his immaturity, about how he would learn to do as he was told, about how if he couldn’t or wouldn’t organise his life properly I would do it for him, about how if he wouldn’t behave sensibly for the sake of it he would do it out of the desire to be able to sit down occasionally. We didn’t sleep together that night. I held him on my lap until he stopped crying, and then I sent him off in disgrace to sleep in the suite, and I went to bed and wondered why I felt so bad.
Day eight? He took all three pills. And on day nine he took two, and I held out my hand wearily, and saw his lip quiver even as he peeled his jeans down and settled himself across my lap. I looked down at him, pale and curved, and I felt horrible. I ran my palm lightly over the warmth of his thigh and hip and he quivered again, and grabbed a cushion to pull against his face, and made a tiny sound of apprehension, and I felt like a total bastard. I was just so confused: this was our deal, we both agreed to it, we both knew how it worked. I couldn’t get a grip on it at all; Aidan had behaved foolishly and irresponsibly and in a manner he knew would get him punished, so why did I feel so bad about punishing him?
Because, said my subconscious, you sound like Josh. Nonsense, I had only ever had that one conversation with Josh, which certainly wasn’t enough to allow me to extrapolate. I wasn’t anything like Josh. Josh was an abuser, taking advantage of Aidan’s immaturity and need. And you’re not? asked the voice in my head. No! I wasn’t! I was taking control of his life, the way he wanted. If he behaved like a stupid brat, I was well within my rights, the rights he had expressly given me, to spank him, and spank him hard. He knew quite well how to behave, he wasn’t a child. That thought sat up and waved at me from the back of my head. Pay attention, it said, this is important.
No, that was definitely my voice saying it, not his, and he was completely thrown by that. So, I have to admit, was I. Absolutely nonplussed. I mean, the Top isn’t supposed to need a safe word. He rolled off my lap to the floor in a bind of denim, and gazed at me with his mouth open; I felt a bit that way myself. I reached a hand down to haul him up, and refastened his jeans for him.
“Listen, Aidan, we need to talk.”
He frowned. “About what?” he asked suspiciously. I couldn’t blame him. This, after all, was not how it went.
“I want to remember all the things I’ve spanked you for lately. You might remember some more. No, don’t look at me like that. We aren’t going to re-fight old battles, but I’m beginning to think this is important. There was putting my good knives in the dishwasher. There was the episode with the bleach and the bathroom carpet. You were late for college, and you were late for work. There was the night you came in at two and were too hung-over to go to work in the morning. There were twelve overdue library books. There was your failure to get your car serviced. What else can you remember?”
He looked sulky and defensive, but he humoured me. “My overdraft. And not paying the credit card. And not having any credit on my mobile when I went out.” I had forgotten that. “And running out of money so that I had to wake you up to pay the taxi when I came home. So what?”
“Sweetheart, can you not hear how – how stupid, how immature it all sounds?”
He couldn’t. Obviously he couldn’t. He looked at me blankly.
“I can’t do this any more. I can’t spank you for that sort of thing.”
All right, that might have been better worded. Less abruptly. He stared at me in blank shock, and I could see how bewildered he was; I was fairly confused myself. I held out my arms.
“Look, I don’t mean we have to give it all up. You like it, don’t you?”
“Yes. And so do you.”
That sounded a bit accusatory. I smiled, and hugged him tighter. “I do indeed. And we can do whatever we like that way just because we like it. No other reason. See, that’s the only way I’ve ever done it before, Aidan. I’ve never done the twenty-four/seven thing. I didn’t spank Russell, although I’ve done it with other people, but it wasn’t his thing. He wanted me to make all the decisions, but he didn’t do the physical brat stuff. It’s the way we do it that bothers me.”
“When I screw up.”
“Yes. Aidan, I can’t go on being responsible for running your life. I can’t, and I won’t. In fact, I shouldn’t have done it this far, it isn’t healthy. You aren’t my child or my possession or my pet. I don’t want to live” that sentence was about to go on ‘with you on these terms’, but I suddenly realised that he would hear the ‘with you’ and filter out the rest. “I don’t want to live having to make all your decisions as well as my own. I don’t want to live with an inadequate adult, and I know you aren’t one. I know you can run your own life. You don’t need me to do it for you.”
He frowned. “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
I struggled a bit. “Look, suppose we weren’t lovers. Suppose you still just rented the flat. Would I get pissed off because you didn’t take your library books back?”
“No, of course not!”
“So why do I now? How is it my business? You’re an adult. Organise your own life. It’s wrong for me to interfere with the stuff that doesn’t affect me and I think either you’ll come to resent my interference, or I’ll come to resent the way you palm it all off on me.”
He made a face. “Yes, but. . . Morgan, the trouble is that I don’t run my own life well. I can do the big stuff, but I don’t handle the small things well. I need there to be consequences. Otherwise the DVD from the library sits on top of the TV for a fortnight. I just don’t get round to dealing with it. I suppose I’m lazy.”
I nodded. “Lazy is exactly what you are. And you’ve got lazy on such a huge scale that you’re expecting me to deal with it, and I can’t do it any more. You’re using me and a consequence you don’t mind to get out of the consequences you do. As an excuse to avoid changing the way you behave. Think about the reasons I’ve punished you lately. Some of them, yes, I reckon you had it coming, but lots of them weren’t really my concern. The knife thing would be trivial to a lot of people, but it affects me and my livelihood, so it’s serious to me and I’m entitled to be annoyed about it. I don’t have a particular problem with punishing you for that. Your lack of punctuality isn’t my problem. It will have consequences, sure. If you’re late too often at college, you’ll drop a grade. If you’re late at work, you’ll lose your promotion or your job, and probably your college place too. That’s your problem, not mine. The bleach was sheer carelessness, and it’s my house and my carpet. Mine. Being too hung-over to go to work goes with punctuality. It’s not my responsibility to keep you fit to work. The library books aren’t my problem, you pay the fines, and the fines on DVDs are heavy, too. Yours. If you don’t service your car it will break down on you and that isn’t my problem. Yours. That is, unless you get me out of bed after a long shift to rescue you, and in that case I will tan your backside harder than you would believe possible, probably in front of the man from the recovery service. Your credit card and your overdraft – well, as long as you can go on paying your rent and your share, they aren’t my concern. But I’ll keep a watching brief on that one, because I’m happy to support you, but I won’t fund you completely, O.K.?
“The antibiotic one was just stupid, Aidan, and it really scares me. Your attitude to it scares me. I am absolutely not being made responsible for looking after your health. You’re a big boy now. You can’t expect me to decide whether or not you’re well. I’ll nurse you if you’re sick, yes, but I’m not going to chase you round the garden the way I have to chase the cat to give her a worming tablet.”
That got a rather shaky grin, but at least he was still listening. “I’ve forgotten whether there was anything else.”
“The mobile phone and the taxi.”
“Oh yes. I’ll reserve judgement on those two. The phone, I’m inclined to think, is your own concern. The taxi, I suppose, is partly mine since I don’t take kindly to being woken just because you wanted a last round at the Cat. I suppose what I’m saying is that, yes, you screw up my life and I’ll spank you for it. But you have the right to screw up your own life without my interference, and I won’t save you from the reasonable consequences of your own actions.”
“That sounds horrible.”
“It sounds adult. Aidan, I want a partner, not. . . hell, I’ve never been attracted to children!”
“Nobody ever suggested you were!”
“No? You may be physically and legally adult, but can you seriously say that we’ve been running an adult relationship for the last three months? When I’ve been effectively nagging you to get ready for school on time and to finish your homework? We had a row because I found you eating chocolate biscuits for breakfast, for pity’s sake. If you were thirteen, that would be right, but you’re twenty-three. You already know that’s not a proper breakfast. You know that if you eat a lot of processed food it isn’t good for you. You know that there will always be something better available – that’s my job. But if you want to eat junk food until your stomach’s upset and your system’s out of order, you can do it. If the E numbers make you hyper and you’re rude to me, I’ll spank you for it, but the rest of it? Deal with it yourself. I know you want me to look after everything: it’s the easy option for you. But someone who insists on having all the power over all the decisions isn’t a Top: he’s a bully. Just like anyone who abrogates all the decisions isn’t a Bottom: he’s a loser. I’ve got rights in this relationship too and one of them is to have an adult partner. What you’re doing now is assuming that you can do as you please, go on accepting no responsibility for your own life, and that I won’t allow there to be any penalty worse than a sore bottom. The world isn’t like that. Screw up, and something bad may happen to you – and that’s your fault, not mine.”
His mouth twisted, briefly. “I – yes, I see.” He relapsed onto my chest again, frowning, and I looked down affectionately at him.
“Go on, then. You’ve let me say my bit. Now it’s your turn.”
It took him ten minutes to get to the point at which he could say his bit, and he had his eyes shut throughout.
“I know you’re right, really. I’ve got lazy about sorting stuff out and making decisions. It’s easy enough to leave it when I know you won’t let me get to the point where anything really bad will happen. I didn’t think about it being, well, childish. Only. . .”
I combed my fingers through the fine hair at the back of his neck and waited, patiently.
“Only, do I have to go cold turkey?”
His look of patent dismay was killing and I laughed.
“You want me to help? Methadone you off domestic discipline?”
I got a cheeky, if slightly shaky, grin back. “Something like that. And. . . well, there is a problem. Like you said, I’ve been choosing the consequence I don’t mind over the one I do. If we’re going to be all truthful and honest about it, we really ought to give up the whole thing and just say that it’s a sex thing and we do it because we both like it. And then where are we?”
“Don’t bite your nails like that. Let’s think.”
We thought. We thought until our heads hurt, and we came up with something – well, something that works for us. And you’ll probably think it’s really stupid, but like I said, it works for us. I’m not recommending it to anybody else.
Take Friday night, a month ago. We opened a couple of cans of beer and I said, “Well, go on, bring me your diary.” He’s got a big hard-backed diary, and he writes in it every day everything he thinks relevant to our agreement. He opened it up and we looked through the week. First of all there was his ‘Things To Do Marked Urgent’ stuff. He writes those in red. College assignment due on Wednesday. Pay credit card by Thursday latest. Make dental appointment. I don’t ask about them; I have no idea if he has done them or not (although they were all ticked off, so my guess is that he did). Then there were the things in blue and black. Late when he had agreed to work a shift for me. Late to his own work is his own problem, late for me is serious. Took a message from someone phoning me to ask for a selection of possible menus and a quotation, and forgot to pass it on. Very serious. Borrowed a shirt from me without asking (not serious) and then forgot to run the washing machine the next day (serious). I get to add to the list anything I’m peeved about which he hasn’t written down. Finished the coffee again and neither wrote it on the list nor bought any more.
“O.K. Black mark time. Two each for the lateness and the forgotten message. One each for the shirt and the coffee. Six. Much better than last week.”
“Help me wash the van tomorrow. Fair?”
He made a face, but nodded. The van is refrigerated, and washing it involves cleaning out the inside too. It’s a dull job.
“Do I get a spanking?”
“Yes. A short one. After the van’s clean.”
And Friday this week? “Diary, Aidan?”
Red writing. Birthday card for Dad. Phone Chris and David. Get new wiper blades for car. Renew gym membership. Haircut. The usual stuff; I didn’t ask about any of it.
And in black? Nothing.
“What about you, Morgan? Have I missed anything?”
“I don’t think so.”
“So. . .?”
“Awwwww, Morgan, don’t tease! Bloody Top!”
“Come on, you promised!”
“I did, and I’ll deliver.”
“Can we go and get it tomorrow?”
“Better than that. I looked in your diary yesterday and I went today. I thought you weren’t likely to get a rush of blood to the head in one day, and I could risk it. But trust me, if you had screwed up today, I’d have kept it back another week.”
He had eyes like Bambi, and he fell on me, halfway between laughter and exasperation. “You got it? Which one?”
“The expensive one. Nothing but the best for my Brat.”
“You won’t let me call myself that. You always say Brat-hood is a state of mind, not a lifestyle choice.”
“Yes, and I’m Top, so I can call you my Brat if I want. And my Brat is about to get six of the very, very best from twenty pounds worth of prime curved rattan. None of your cheap rubbish here. Enjoy sitting down while you can, because you won’t do it again tonight.”
See? I told you it was peculiar. My Brat – and no, he’s quite right, I won’t let him call himself that, but he likes the word – my Brat gets a hot bottom not when he’s bad, but when he’s good. A spanking when I think he’s tried, but he hasn’t really behaved all week like a sensible, mature adult. The strap when he’s there or thereabouts. He’s been begging for a cane for ages and I wouldn’t get him one, but tonight? He’s been a good Brat, and he’s entitled to a reward. So if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just take his trousers down, and give him one. But I’ve promised to cane him first
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© , 2005