My characters. Our friend Chris’s plot. His fault. All plaudits to me, all complaints to him. That’s fair, isn’t it? No? Never mind, we’ll do it that way anyway. Because I said so, that’s why.
Oh, and A. superciliaris is a Lowland Swamp Viper, of course. But you knew that.
Don’t run away with the idea that it was all squalor and misery. It wasn’t. Mum was a good mother and a good provider for me and my little brother, and her family, despite having disapproved madly when she married my dad, didn’t cast her off or anything. But it was a bit hand to mouth, a bit making-do, a bit unsettled. I can work out the psychology as well as anybody else. I’m looking for stability because I didn’t get it early on – but I don’t know how to handle it when I’ve got it. All my boyfriends have been the steady reliable type and I’ve driven them all away. I don’t mean to but it’s like… it’s like I think: ‘can I get away with this?’ and when I do, ‘can I get with this?’ and then ‘can I get away with that?’ And then, no, I don’t get away with that. Another man gone, saying ‘I can’t cope with your wildness.’
Grant? The same again. Steady and reliable. And exasperated. He had a different technique to any of the others. A couple of times when I had infuriated him more than usual, he’d had my jeans down and turned me over his knee. Sounds kinky, doesn’t it, and we did that too: a little spanking, enough for a giggle and a wriggle and a rapid retreat to bed. But when I had really wound him up, it was the slipper and it was applied to my bare behind hard enough and for long enough that I would be yelling for him to stop. Not sexy. Not even a little bit. The surprising thing is that I let him do it: he’s not that much bigger than me. I didn’t like it when he did it – so why did I let him? You tell me. He didn’t do it very often. Just as well, I thought. Not an experience I felt any urge to repeat, although Grant seemed to feel slightly differently about it, and revisited it – well, not often, but like I say, two or three times. I hated it, but I reckoned if that was the price of keeping Grant, it was worth paying. If it made him feel better to leather my backside – and it was a leather soled slipper, and it stung like fury – then I wasn’t going to die of it.
O.K. Enough explanation. On to the story, and when I’m done with that, maybe you can tell me exactly what happened, because I’m damned if I know.
Grant is the assistant manager at the Calver Hotel. It’s the biggest hotel locally and it does a lot of business, conferences and dinners specially. I’ve worked for him on and off, covering when they’ve been short of staff to clear tables or wash glasses. He had the shift to cover this fancy dinner, and he was supposed to be knocking off at ten, so I went to the pub with my mates and afterwards I walked up to the hotel to look for him. It was a quarter past ten and he wasn’t ready to come home. There were still people at some of the tables in the dining room, and I could see Grant coming and going, giving orders to the waiting staff. I hovered in the lobby avoiding the doorman’s eye, until Grant came out.
“Joey, I’ll be another half an hour, I should think. Do you want to go on home or do you want to wait for me?”
God, I hate this. He says he’ll be off at six, or eight, or ten, and then he isn’t. And I end up waiting for him. I’ve told him how much I hate it but he says it’s just something that comes with the territory of having his sort of job. I admit I do push him about it. It ends up with a row most times, and him going on about responsibility, and how one of the things about being a manager is that you have to manage and how that means being willing to put in some extra hours here and there. And the rest, I always think. Can’t anybody else do it? What about me? Why do I have to hang about waiting for you? All right, it doesn’t happen that often. Once or twice a month? And he gets overtime paid, or time off in lieu. But I hate it. Hate it, hate it, hate it.
Anyway, I said I would wait. There are tables and chairs in the lobby, with a selection of newspapers and magazines, and Grant waved me towards them and went back to work. Two minutes later one of the waitresses coming past winked at me and put a cup of coffee on the table. I could see into the dining room, and the dinner had come to an end. People were on their feet, shaking hands, saying goodbye. Why couldn’t Grant leave somebody else in charge and just come home? I drank the coffee, although I didn’t want it, and I waited for hours. Twenty minutes, Grant said later. And then I went looking for something to do.
I carefully emptied the sugar bowl into the ashtray, a spoonful at a time, and Grant came past and caught me at it, and whipped both of them away, and hissed at me to behave. Then I got up and wandered about a bit, and sang under my breath, the songs we used to sing on school trips until some teacher got a strop on and threatened double detentions all round if we didn’t stop. Well, all right, it wasn’t that under my breath, and Grant shot past me on his way from the dining room to the office, and smacked me once hard on the backside (I hope nobody saw that), and hissed at me again to behave.
There’s a pond in the middle of the lobby. Goldfish. Not the little ones, the big multi-coloured things. Are they koi? Or is that the green leafy thing from Tesco? Fish, anyway. And a pond inside a two foot high wall. A hollow wall, with plants inside it, and each side one brick wide. Wide enough to walk on. So I did: twice round the outside.
It was the doorman’s fault I lost my balance. He hadn’t noticed when I got up on the wall first, but he spotted me coming round and yelled, and I lost my footing, and my weight carried me over and it was like I was going down in slow motion. But just before my foot touched the water, a hand closed around my upper arm and yanked, and I swivelled on the foot still on the brickwork, and fell off it, not noisily into the water, but with a huge anticlimax, onto the carpet.
I would have gone down onto the floor if he had let go of my arm; as it was, I hung in his grip for a moment before I caught my balance and got both feet underneath me. When I stood up, my nose came in the middle of his chest and the breadth of him blocked out the light. I leaned back and looked up – the face was no more reassuring than the body. There was no spare flesh over the prominent bones. Sharp, high cheekbones; a great beak of a nose; and very odd eyes, a strange light brown, and with, I thought with a shudder, the ability to see all the thoughts I hardly allowed myself to think. I just stared up into his face for a moment, and then self-preservation kicked in, and I gave him my most charming smile, and my best sideways look – for once I admit I couldn’t read the signals: I had absolutely no idea if he was gay or not – and said, demurely, “Thank you so much, I was nearly in that time.” And I batted my eyelashes a little, just in case. But I don’t think he could have been gay, because I didn’t get a flicker of a response from him. Not that it mattered. Absolutely not my type. Too old. Too ugly. Well… no, not ugly. He wasn’t a good-looking man by any means, but there was definitely something there. Edgy. Dangerous. Scary. And currently giving me a cold, hard stare which rather made me lose track of what I was saying.
“You will come over here and sit down. And you will behave properly. Miss? Could we have another cup of coffee here? Thank you. Now, you sit. You are how old?”
I couldn’t place the accent. I’m not good with accents. Not American. Oh, definitely not English, but that’s as far as I can go. I can’t tell Australian from… well, from New Zealand, or Zimbabwe, or whatever. Clipped words, and odd vowels: not British of any sort, certainly. I was thinking about that, which was apparently wrong. He tapped me on the shoulder to get my attention again.
“How old are you?”
“Twenty-four, if it’s any of your business.”
That was wrong. The moment I said it, I knew it was wrong. The temperature fell sharply, I think.
“I beg your pardon?”
It wasn’t that he hadn’t heard me; I had given the wrong answer. Try again, Joey.
“Twenty-four. Old enough to have some sense, fersure. And your name?”
“Joey Talbot. Sir.” The ‘sir’ came a little quicker that time.
“Good. Sit down there, Joey Talbot, and drink your coffee, and look at the newspaper, and I will speak with your Top. I do not expect to have to speak to you again, is that clear?”
That last sentence? I got that one loud and clear. Sit down, Joey, shut up. Make the scary man go away. The line before? I didn’t get that one at all. Speak to my what?
Oh hell, I hate it when Joey comes to meet me at work. He goes bloody mental when I don’t get away on time. They threw him out of the leisure complex once because he’d been doing Tarzan impressions, climbing on the roof beams. He’s been escorted out of the bar twice. He was being a total pain again and I was frantic to get finished at work and take him home before he did anything else awful.
Look, don’t get me wrong: there’s no harm in him. He just doesn’t do waiting very well, doesn’t do responsibility at all. Sometimes he’s twenty-four going on fourteen. But when he wants me, he wants me now.
The sugar bowl thing, I ought to have foreseen but I didn’t get it until I began to feel somebody looking at me. You know how you can tell if somebody is staring? You can feel it up the back of your neck. And I’ve done bar work and waiting tables, and you can tell when a customer is trying to catch your eye. That’s not to say that you always pay any attention, mind you. Anyway, I looked up and caught the eye of the man on table four. A huge man, all bones and brawn, and he met my glance and then looked deliberately out into the lobby, and I followed his gaze to where Joey was equally deliberately refilling the sugar bowl with a mixture of sugar and ashtray contents.
Well, I swore. Shot out, snatched sugar and ashtray from him, told him off in an undertone and went back to what I was doing. Ten minutes later as I passed the table, the big man said in an undertone, “Your young friend has just begun the song about the amorous proclivities of the camel. I would stop him, if I were you.”
The song about… oh, SHIT! I belted back out to silence Joey, and threatened him in an whisper with fearful tortures if he didn’t shut up. I think I might have swatted him, too. I was losing it with him – I wished he had just gone home.
I missed the walking on the pond thing. That was over before I got back out of the office. I emerged to find Joey sitting quietly at a table, like a civilised human being, wearing an expression of stunned disbelief, and the big man from table four standing over him and apparently waiting for me. He had swept me to a table out of Joey’s earshot before I quite sorted out what was going on. I had opened my mouth to offer an objection when the bright gaze focused on me, and my words panicked and bolted back down my throat looking for something large and heavy to hide under.
“So. You will sit down here and talk to me for half an hour. You are Joey Talbot’s Top, but I do not know your name.”
Uhhhhh. That was apparently a question. “Grant Wood, sir.” Look, I work in a service industry; I call all my male customers ‘sir’, and in his case it seemed like a particularly good idea.
“Yes. And Joey is your brat.”
No. That wasn’t what he said. He said ‘Brat’. I heard the capital letter, I don’t know how. Not that it helped me; I hadn’t the least idea of what he meant.
“Your Brat. Your Sub. Your Bottom.” Those had capital letters too. I still hadn’t the least clue what was going on and it must have been showing, because he gave an odd sideways shake of his head, and iterated slowly and carefully, “He is your lover, yes?”
I nodded. No point in denying it, although I did have a slight feeling of: and this is your business how, precisely? Not, mind you, that I felt any urge to say it out loud. “And you are… what shall we say? You are top dog at home.”
“I’m older than he is, if that’s what you mean,” I said stiffly.
“Fersure. And you are head of the household.”
And the picture suddenly came into focus. “You think… he said… it’s not like… No!”
“No? You are not trying to stop him behaving badly in a public place? You do not express a judgement when he shows off?”
I struggled for words, and he watched me for a moment and then nodded once, sharply. “You understand me now, I think. You have punished him in the past.”
God, I must have coloured from my collar to my hair. “What’s he been telling you?”
That sideways headshake again. “Nothing but his name. But see, Grant Wood, I know a great deal about young men. I know how to read them. And I know how to recognise one who brats because he does not know how else to get the attention he needs. I missed that, once before, and I will not let it pass me again. You have punished him in the past.”
“Yes,” I whispered, shame-faced. “I’ve done it three times. I know it’s wrong.”
The thin eyebrows climbed. “Wrong? How so?”
“Well, it’s…” I was looking for a better word, one that didn’t sound so self-accusatory. I didn’t find it. “It’s domestic violence, isn’t it?”
“Is it? You hit him in the face? Punch him? He fears your temper?”
“Of course I didn’t – and I don’t think he does. But…”
The craggy face broke into a smile of surprising sweetness. “But you are right to be concerned. The line between topping and bullying, between discipline and violence, is both fine and unclear. But see, your young man is a little afraid of me. You, he does not fear, so whatever you have done to him, he does not think it very bad. Perhaps not bad enough?”
“Not bad… you think I should do something worse?”
“I think that is what he is asking you for, yes.”
I was frantically shaking my head. “No. I can’t. Not serious S&M stuff. I absolutely can’t.”
He was amused. “You do not understand. That is not what we are talking about. Consider: that young man acts sometimes to irritate you deliberately, yes?”
“Oh, yes. He’ll just push and push and push.”
“And you? What do you do?”
“Try to keep my temper. I don’t always manage it.”
“Do you push back?”
“I… is that what he wants?”
The nod again. “Fersure. He is asking you to set him limits. And then he is asking you to enforce them.”
That took some chewing before I could make it digestible. “Enforce them how?”
A shrug. “However seems good to you. A physical punishment. An educational one, to write a paper, or learn poetry. A removal of privileges – take his car keys or deny him some pastime. Anything to express your disapproval. You will know yourself what will work. Some Brats can be calmed and settled by paperwork. Others will fret themselves half to death over forty minutes with a pencil. They are better with an immediate physical punishment. This is for you to judge.”
It was going to require some major industrial lifting gear to get my jaw off the floor, and I could feel my brain sliding out of focus. “Let me see if I’ve got this right. You think that when Joey… well, when he behaves the way he did tonight, I should… I don’t know, spank him and stand him in the corner?”
He was having some trouble disguising the amusement. “Well, that is very traditional. You could start there and see how it works for him.”
Technically I was still working and I make a point of never drinking in the Calver – otherwise I would have been asking for the sort of gin and tonic made by pouring Sapphire gin over a quarter of a lemon and a couple of ice cubes until the glass is full, and then rapidly opening and closing a tonic bottle in a different room.
“You’re not serious!”
“Mr Wood, I am perfectly serious. That young man is out of control, and it is plain to me that he knows it, and he is afraid. He is asking you, as best he knows how, to help. Will you help him?”
I looked at my hands. The whole of this conversation was fairy-tale nonsense, except… Except that this man was inherently truthful, and I had no idea of why I was so certain about that. I didn’t even know who he was, and I had no doubt that that was deliberate. He had asked for my name, but he hadn’t offered his own, and I didn’t feel inclined to follow it up.
“If I can’t? If I can’t do it?”
He shrugged. “At best? You go on the way you are now, from one near-disaster to another. Will your relationship survive it? For how long? Nobody but you can say. Most likely? Your relationship will tear itself to pieces. At worst? That boy will be miserable all his life and will never be very sure why. He will achieve nothing of any note. And you know the harm that a bored and unhappy young man may do himself. I am not saying, Mr Wood, that you are the only person who can help him. I am most certainly not saying that this is the only way in which he can be helped. I merely wish to open your eyes to what it is he wants. Have no doubt, it is you he wants to help him. The choice is absolutely your own.”
I counted my fingers again.
“But how do you do it?”
And he told me. It took him ten minutes, and I had the distinct impression that this was only the overview. I wonder if there’s a manual anywhere? On the internet, perhaps? And if there isn’t, would somebody who knows about this sort of stuff like to write one?
“Do you do this?”
He didn’t answer me for a moment, and my nerve deserted me. “Sorry. It’s an impertinent question.”
He looked up again. “No. It is no more impertinent that me telling you how to deal with Mr Talbot. I do not do it. I have done it once, many years ago, in South Africa. I was more fortunate than you in that my Brat was an experienced Brat. He taught me to recognise and deal with Brat behaviour. I did it for nearly two years, and afterwards I thought: no, this is not for me. I am Top in my relationships, yes, and I do not fear the high maintenance lover, but the constant – constant! – demands of the Brat do not appeal to me. I do not wish to carry the responsibility for another’s life and happiness and well-being, unless he also accepts some responsibility for mine. I require of my lover that he grow with me and in general, Mr Wood, this is what a Brat does not do. I punish my partner, by his consent, when he acts wrongly, but it is rare for him to need to be punished twice for the same failing. A Brat will commit the same offence over and over and over, because he seeks the reassuring limit, and the constant proof that you will set and enforce the limit. My lover, in years, is much of an age with yours (yes, much younger than me) but in terms of maturity, he is much older. He is a man, not a boy. He might walk on the pond surround for a bet or a dare, or because he had drunk too much, or to celebrate a successful… day at work,” (I thought he had intended to say something else there) “but he would not do it simply to have my attention when I was otherwise engaged at work, with no thought to whether it would damage my standing with my employer.” He fixed me with the amber gaze again. “And now you may tell me to mind my own business. There are always choices, Mr Wood. You will choose to do this, or not to do it. If you choose to do it, you will offer it to Mr Talbot, for you cannot – you must not! – do it without his freely given consent. He may refuse you, and if he does, you may seek to persuade him, but you must not seek to coerce him. You would be well within your rights to ask what concern it is of mine, and all I would answer is that once, there was a young man who came to me, who could not articulate what he wanted, and I did him harm because I knew no better. I would not have you and Mr Talbot repeat the mistakes we made.” His phone yipped, and he glanced at the text screen and rose to his feet.
“Here is my lift. I wish you well, Mr Wood, whatever your decision. Mr Talbot” (we had reached a rather wild-eyed Joey on the way to the door), “I congratulate you. That was thirty-five minutes. I did not expect you to last so long. That was well done. Good night to you both.”
We watched him down the steps and into the car at the bottom. The driver was stunningly good-looking and faintly familiar, but I couldn’t place him.
“Who was Count Dracula, then?” asked Joey, flippantly.
“No idea,” I said absently. He had given me a lot to think about. Of course, I could have chased up the seating plan, looked to see who was on table four, but if he had wanted me to know who he was, he would have told me.
“What was he saying to you? You looked gob-smacked. Actually, you still do.”
“Let’s go home. I’ll tell you about it later.”
O.K. We were going home at last. Good option, I thought. I had been wanting to go home for an hour. I admit I bounced my way across the car park and I talked pretty well non-stop. It was only when we arrived at the house that it occurred to me that Grant was very quiet.
He went on being quiet until we had our coats off and were heading for the living room. Then he sat down and gave me a rather odd look.
“What was that about tonight, Joey?”
“The sugar and the singing and the pond.”
“I wanted you to come home.”
“So you put yourself at risk of being banned, and me at risk of losing my promotion, because you couldn’t wait half an hour for me? I didn’t even ask you to wait. I suggested that you could go home without me.”
“I wanted you to come now,” I sulked. “Your shift was over.”
“My shift is over when anything I’m organising is over,” he scolded. “You know that.”
I wouldn’t meet his eye and I didn’t answer him, and presently he said, quite gently, “I don’t think that was proper behaviour, Joey.”
I didn’t see the problem myself, but I couldn’t quite work out the phrase to say so. He got up, crossed the room to me and held out his hand. After a moment I put my own in it and he pulled me to my feet, but he didn’t head for the door. Instead he led me across the room to the corner and put one hand in the middle of my back. “Nose in there, Joey. I’ve got something to do before we talk about it. I want you to stand there and face the wall and think about the way you behaved tonight and how silly and selfish it was. And you can think about what the consequences of silly and selfish behaviour are likely to be and whether you’re likely to enjoy them.”
I was turning away, shaking my head, before he finished the sentence. I wasn’t going to stand in the corner like a stroppy nine-year-old! “Come on, Grant, don’t be daft. I’m not standing in the corner.”
He caught my wrists and turned me gently. “Yes, you are, Joey. You’re going where I can see you, and where you’ll know you’re in disgrace. Corner, now.” And he gave me a push towards the wall again. Again, I turned back.
“But Grant, I…”
The slap made me jump, and even through denim, it smarted. It silenced me long enough for Grant to take my chin in his hand, and to turn my face until I couldn’t help but meet his gaze.
“Corner, Joseph. I won’t tell you again.”
Fascinating emulsion in that corner. Not. I stood there like a total lemon, skin crawling because Grant was doing something behind me and I didn’t know what, and because I… um… because although he hadn’t mentioned the slipper, I rather suspected that it was in the offing. Presently, though, he called me out again. “Come here, love. I want you to see this.”
He had started up the computer and when I went to him, he pulled a second chair up and made room for me. “This is what I’ve ordered. I haven’t clicked the final ‘confirm’ yet. You need to see this.”
I was very confused. Fifteen minutes ago he was making ‘what shall I do with you’ noises; now he was apparently on a spending spree. What was I to see? I looked at the screen and gave a squawk of horror. “A strap? No! I don’t want a strap, Grant! We don’t need one of those!”
“No?” he asked calmly. “What about this?” It was a cane. A senior cane, it said, although how that differs from any other sort I don’t know. Frankly, I couldn’t imagine that we wanted one of those either, and I said so with enormous conviction, and with my voice pitched just a tad higher than usual. Grant got up, encouraged me up too, and led me to the sofa, where he pulled me against him and wrapped his arms round me. Then he told me what Count Dracula had said. I was jumping and squeaking at almost every sentence – this was just so far from anything I recognised that I was barely coherent. I was all but speechless. Grant was sympathetic. “I know, love. I know. I didn’t believe him either, not at first. But the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. So here it is, Joey. You saw what I ordered. One last click will process the order: your choice. Your click. But if you press the button, then from this moment on, I’m in charge. And if you mess me about, I’ll use that cane, or the strap or the slipper. My decision, not yours. You get to make the one big decision, Joey. This one. This time, you decide, and I don’t judge. But if you choose yes, then you’re going to have to be prepared to justify the rest of your decisions, because of you go on behaving like a Brat,” (what was it with that word? I could hear the capital letter too) “you’ll be treated like a Brat. And a Brat can expect a sore bottom. So you choose, Joey, and choose carefully.”
Yeah, right. I’m going to sign up for this? I don’t think so. I would have to be quite, quite mad to go for it. And Grant would have to be quite, quite mad to think that I would go to that computer and press the button. Neither of us is actually certifiably insane, you know.
So this is the bit I want you to explain to me. How come I’m standing up here in the bedroom, facing the corner again, with my jeans and briefs on the chair behind me, and a large leather soled slipper in my hands? How come I’ve got my backside bare, ready to be spanked (and spanked hard, Grant says)? How come I’m waiting for Grant to come up, while he is putting his credit card details onto an order for a tawse and a cane? How come I am apparently now a Brat, and that’s official? How come I’ve given him the right to tell me that my behaviour isn’t acceptable, and to use a cane on me – and that will be done on the bare behind too? How come that I’m shivering with nervous apprehension because I don’t like the slipper and that’s what’s coming tonight?
How come I feel safer and more in control of my life than I’ve done in months? Years?
 See and don’t say I didn’t warn you. It could have been worse. It could have been the song about the springbok and the sheep.
Click on Idris the Dragon to go back
© , 2005