By the time Ross came home I had stopped even pretending that I wasn’t in a bad temper, or indeed that I had everything under control. Everything was very far from being under control, and I was in an advanced sulk, and ready to fight with anybody who said the wrong thing. I had already given a mouthful of particularly profane abuse to the man on Radio 4 who read the weather report. I was damp, and cold, and angry and frustrated. And also rather afraid.
I heard the garage door and the thrum of Ross’s bike as it came inside, and then he came in through the kitchen. Normally I would go to meet him, and when I didn’t he called to me, in a tone of some surprise.
“Jerry? Are you there? Something’s happened here, the path’s all muddy.”
Thank you, I already knew that. I got up. No point in prolonging this, it was going to be horrible.
“I know, Ross. It’s the washing machine. And I’ve had a disaster. And you’re going to spank me for it.”
He dipped his head, and pinched the bridge of his nose: he always does that when he’s tired, or stressed. “Do I have to? I’ve had a long day.”
Later, I would be able to admit that he was only trying to lighten what was already a fraught scene. At the time I heard a dreadful combination of rejection (not logical, I know: I didn’t want him to spank me, so why should I object if he didn’t want to either?) and derision (what had I to complain about? He had been out at work while I had been lazing around at home). Nobody said it was sensible, and I confess I didn’t react like an adult at all. I glared at Ross, and then I snatched up my fleece and stormed out. I might have stamped my foot; I certainly slammed the door.
It was a perfectly good exit, of its kind. Where it went wrong was, in my opinion, the fault of the weather man from Radio Four. He had said ‘scattered showers’, not ‘torrential downpours lasting all day’. I ought to have known – after all, I had spent a great deal of the day outside in the aforementioned downpours, and my clothes were still damp. Yes, a heavier coat would have been a good idea. Yes, mastering my temper would have been a better one. But I set off into the rain and the dark at a fair clip muttering under my breath and maintaining my balance by a chip on both shoulders. Plain, old-fashioned tantrum. Not impressive.
I walked for an hour before my brain managed to shout down my temper and make its opinions heard. Jerry, you’re soaked to the skin. It’s cold, it’s dark, you haven’t had anything to eat, that wasn’t really Ross’s fault and it wasn’t fair to throw a big one at him. What about going home, and taking whatever’s coming, and grovelling a bit? Even if you are in the doghouse, it’s got to be dryer than this. I was just coming to the end of Osborne Drive, with a good half hour still to walk home, when I heard the engine, and Ross pulled up beside me.
He looked terrifying. Threatening. He’s a big man – he’s no taller than me, but he’s broader and stronger, and of course the leathers bulk him up. And he had been out for some time, from the look of him – his leathers were wet, and shiny, and I couldn’t see his face inside the helmet. But he flicked up the visor and held out his arms, and I walked straight inside. It wasn’t a very comfortable hug – I couldn’t get close because of the helmet – but it made me feel such a lot better at once.
“I’ve brought your helmet and jacket. Please can we go home now?”
Sounded good. I was so wet that the jacket didn’t want to go on, and the helmet slicked the water off my hair and down my neck, but it was such a relief not to have to walk home that I didn’t care.
He stopped at the garage door. “I’ll put the bike away. You go in, I won’t be a minute.”
He wasn’t, but I was still standing in the hall. I had managed to take off my helmet, but I couldn’t get my jacket undone because my hands were so cold. Ross saw that, and started on the Velcro and the earful all at once. He doesn’t scold often – it’s not his style – but this time I heard all about the stupidity of going out in winter with no coat, when it was raining, and leaving my partner to cruise the streets searching for me. I just stood still and took it while he peeled the jacket off and unzipped my sodden fleece, dropping them both on the floor.
“Upstairs. Right now.”
“Ross, I – ”
He turned me by main force, and sent me up the stairs with a wallop on my backside which made me yelp. I had jeans on and normally he would have felt such a slap more than I did, but everything was so wet that I got the full effect for once. He followed me up, struggling with his own jacket, and pushed me into the bathroom, turning on the shower and then starting on my shirt buttons.
“Can you get your shoes off?”
I managed that, and enough feeling was returning to my fingers that I got my jeans unfastened without help.
“Get under that shower, go on. Honestly, Jerry, I don’t know what you were thinking of. Go on, get in.”
He vanished into the bedroom and came back without his leathers, and carrying a change of clothes for me. Then he sat on the floor with his back to the radiator and waited for me to thaw. When I was sure that all my extremities were intact I turned off the water, and Ross heaved himself to his feet and held out a towel for me.
I flinched. That was a bad one.
“Trousers. Now, bed.”
“Go on, get into bed. You still look frozen. I’ll make some tea and then you can tell me what on earth that was about.”
He brought up tea for both of us, and rather to my surprise, slid under the duvet beside me. “Come here, idiot. Take your tea. Your feet are still cold; tuck them up against my legs. Now, drink that, and calm down a bit.”
I did as I was told, passively. It’s rather nice to be fussed over. We drank our tea in a fairly companionable silence, and then Ross took the mug from me and set it on the bedside table, and wriggled further under the covers.
“Come on, come down here and give me a hug. That’s better. So what happened today?”
I sighed. I knew it was too good to last. Still, once he had finished with me I wouldn’t be cold any more, I was reasonably certain of that. I wouldn’t be able to sit down, but I wouldn’t be cold.
“You’re going to be furious.”
“Should I just throttle you now and claim off the insurance?”
“It might be easier.”
“Well, tell me what you did. I’ll need to know if I’m going to come up with any sort of decent story to tell the murder squad.”
I sighed again and cast my mind back to the very beginning.
“I’d got a load of work in. I’ve got three separate lots, and they all need to go back by the end of next week. So after lunch, I thought: fill the washing machine, make coffee, get started again.”
The washing machine bit is my job. In general, Ross cooks and shops and gardens, I do laundry and bills and paperwork, we share housework. It’s not fixed – we both do a bit of everything, but with laundry in particular, it makes more sense for me to do it, because I’m home during the day. I start the machine, do a session of work, stop, make coffee, empty the machine, and so on. Keep it all moving. It’s more Ross’s stuff than mine, because of all the sport he does.
“And at my next break, I went into the kitchen and the floor was ankle deep in soapy water.”
“Oh, wonderful. Block in the machine?”
“Well, I thought so. And Ross, I really didn’t have time to deal with it. I’m going to be pushing it to finish what I’ve got by the deadlines. But you can’t leave it, can you? So I mopped it up, and I had a look, and the machine said it had finished but it was still half full of water.”
“So what did you do?”
“Well, I unplugged everything, and then I unfastened the hoses and siphoned the water off, and emptied it, and spent three-quarters of an hour establishing that there wasn’t anything wrong with the damn machine at all except that it couldn’t vent. So then I spent another hour making sure that the pipe was clear as far as outside.” Ross was watching me with an air of rapt fascination.
“And was it?”
“Perfectly. But the pipe goes through the kitchen wall and into the drain outside. And that was blocked completely. And it was raining. Hard. I don’t remember how long it took me to clear that. I had to go up to that place on the industrial estate for the tools.”
“Why was it blocked?”
“Because of that damned leylandii hedge, which has put down roots into the drains. It took me ages to lift all the manhole covers and clear the blockage as far as the road. Anyway, then I washed the kitchen floor and put the machine on again to rinse and spin, and thought about doing some work.”
I stopped, and curled a little closer to Ross.
“I haven’t heard anything yet that would make me either spank you or strangle you for the insurance. What am I missing?”
“Well, the next time I stopped, I emptied the machine and refilled it. Only - ” Yes, well, this was the bit he wasn’t going to like.
“I missed something.”
Ross shifted a little and pushed an arm underneath me, pulling me to him. “I have to admit, Jerry, that I am frequently – frequently! – tempted to spank you just to make you get to the bloody point. What did you miss?”
“Those ridiculous purple boxers which your sister sent you for your birthday. Which had got folded inside your white shirt. In fact, Ross, every white polo shirt you possess, except the one you’re wearing now, was in that wash, and every single one of them is now purple.” That last sentence was rather hurried.
“Um – yes. I ran the machine twice more, but the colour isn’t coming out. We both have rather a lot of mauve underwear, two of your work shirts are lavender, the pure cotton ones are violet and we’ve got lilac sports socks.”
“Purple. It’s not a good colour for me, Jerry, it makes me look as if I’m sickening for something.”
Ross always has the ability to catch me out. I wasn’t expecting that by way of a response.
“Yes, well, I’m sorry. But you haven’t got a shirt for work tomorrow. I didn’t mean to do it! Oh, God, I’m such an idiot. I can’t even do the laundry right.”
He pulled me closer. “Now tell me what’s really wrong, love.”
“Jerry, none of this is serious. I’ve got an emergency white shirt in my locker at work. You know that – you know I keep a complete change of clothes there in case I end up in the pool when I’m on lifesaving duty. Even if I didn’t, they wouldn’t fire me for having the wrong shirt on once. I wouldn’t actually die of wearing a purple shirt to work, although some of the guys might have a bit to say about it. Tomorrow, you can go to Tesco and get some of that colour run remover stuff, and if that doesn’t work, call me and I’ll go round by Matalan on my way home and get a couple of packs of white polo shirts. It’s not a big deal. We’ve all done it. Of course you didn’t do it on purpose – that what an accident means! And I do understand that the thing with the drain was irritating and put you behind, but it isn’t worth such major breast-beating. So what is it really?”
“It’s just that I feel so – so incompetent!”
He laughed out loud. “Incompetent! Jerry, when the washing machine blocks up, I call the engineer, at £85 per hour plus parts. I haven’t the faintest idea how the thing works. I can’t even get the top off. And you open it up and find out what’s wrong with it and drain it and the rest. I can’t do that. And for a blocked drain I call Dyno-rod. And you trace the blockage and identify what it is and fix it. I wouldn’t have the first clue of how to go about that. Oh, sure, my partner’s incompetent. He just deals with a domestic disaster that would have cost me two hundred quid.”
“All right, but all that purple stuff is damned irritating.”
“It has its redeeming features. I needn’t worry about you playing away: you won’t want to reveal lilac underpants to anybody except me. I’ll fancy you even if your underwear is a Barbie colour, I promise.”
I giggled, despite myself. Ross wriggled out of bed. “Come on, I want to show you something. And I’m starving. Let’s find something in the freezer, and eat. No disaster is ever quite as bad on a full stomach.”
We found a curry which I set to defrost as Ross put on rice and then he went and scuffled in the living room, coming back with a photo album.
“This was taken the first year after I left college, the first year I was living up here.”
It was a cricket club photograph. I glanced at it, found Ross in the back row, and did a hefty double-take.
“What on earth are you wearing?”
“What the gay cricketer wants. A full set of cricketing pinks.”
“Not traditional, I admit. Not even in New Zealand. We’re much more particular about our cricket than we are about our orientation.”
“How did you do it? Red socks and a boil wash?”
“Oh, no. Much sillier than that. You think you did something stupid today? You’re not in my league. I brought home all my kit and the next day I hauled out my boots and my bat and then I just dragged everything else out of the bag and shoved it straight into the machine. And yes, it’s a boil wash. Has to be to get the grass stains out.”
“Oh, God. What was in it?”
“A ball. You know how the bowlers polish the ball on their trousers to get spin? And you get that big red stain? The dye comes off like nobody’s business. And if you put the ball in the machine, it’s much worse. It doesn’t do the machine any good either, and that was a Laundromat – I wasn’t popular. And I was in my first job, and I couldn’t afford another set of whites, and – well, there it was. I was batting four and fielding at first slip, and they couldn’t replace me, and I hadn’t any other gear, so I wore it. All bloody season I wore it. You can have no idea how much stick I took. Mind you, there were a couple of times. . . We played against a police team, and their strike bowler was laughing so hard that I took twenty-two off his first over, and seventeen off his second. Honestly, darling, after you’ve faced down a police sergeant who’s never admitted even to the possibility of a gay cricketer, never mind one dressed in baby pink, having to wear a purple shirt to work holds no fears.”
I went silently to hug him, and stayed in his arms until the rice boiled over. He looked back over his shoulder as he rescued it, and said, severely, “Don’t think you’ve distracted me. I know damn well there’s something else going on, and I intend to find out what it is.”
Well, of course he was right. He’s usually right about that sort of thing. He let me finish eating, and then he pulled me down beside him and said, “Tell me all.”
“It’s this work. I don’t know what to do about it. Most of the stuff in at the moment is from Calloways, and the time they’re giving me to turn it round is getting shorter and shorter. They pay a lot better than Warwick or Graves, and I’ve been contracting to them for years now, but since Alan Lever retired it’s just been getting ridiculous. I deal with a guy called Daniels, and I rang him this morning to talk about the deadlines. Ross, I just can’t turn round that quantity of stuff in that time. I thought that if I explained how much work there was in it we could sort out something a bit more sensible. But basically he didn’t want to hear that. I argued with him for about fifteen minutes, and what it came down to was: deal on his terms or not at all. I can’t afford ‘not at all’. We can’t afford it. But I can’t do it either. I’m rushing it, and I’m going to miss something important presently. And I don’t know what to do. I can’t afford to lose the contract.”
Ross was frowning. “Let me get this straight. Are they sending any less work than they used to?”
“No. More, if anything.”
“But all to be done in less time.”
“Yes. And I just can’t!”
He hooked an arm round my shoulders, and I eased down until I had my head in his lap and he was drumming his fingers on my chest as he thought.
“Tell them to get knotted,” he said, crisply.
“I can’t do that! I’ll lose the contract!”
“Will you? They’ve got so much work on that they can’t spare the time to have it done properly? They’ve got so few people to do it that they’re pushing you into cutting corners? Sounds to me like they need you more than you need them. Call their bluff. Tell them it can’t be done in that time and when they say they’ll take it away, let them. I don’t believe they’ve got anybody else to do it, or they wouldn’t be messing you about like that. I think if you say no, they’ll back down. How long have you been working for them?”
“About five years, I suppose.”
“And have they ever complained about the turn round time before?”
“No. But I’ve never been so close to the deadlines before. I always got in with a week to spare until about three months ago. Now I’m lucky to get in the day before.”
“Then dig your heels in. Tell them to go and play in the traffic, and wait for them to come back grovelling and then put your rates up. And if I’m wrong, we’ll go and do evening shifts behind the bar in the Four Feathers to pay the mortgage.”
I wasn’t convinced. I don’t do confrontations very well, and the very thought of this one brought me up in a rash. But Ross left it alone – he even apologised. “It’s your decision, love. That’s what I think, but you’ve dealt with these people and I haven’t. You know what it’s all about. Do whatever you think best, and we’ll manage somehow. But don’t get your knickers in a twist about it; it’s not worth it.”
“My purple knickers?”
He laughed. “Your purple knickers.”
“I don’t know, Ross. Maybe you’re right, but. . . I don’t think I could ring them up and just lay it all out like that. I haven’t got the nerve.”
We let it be, and didn’t talk about it again that day, but I was conscious all evening of the weight of work undone. In the morning, I got up early because Ross was on the first shift, six till three. I went to the door with him, and he turned back to hug me.
“Don’t worry. Have a think about Calloways and we can talk about it some more this afternoon if you want. Don’t work yourself into a lather.”
“I’ll think about it, but I don’t think I could do it.”
“Excuse me? My partner can do anything. He can fix the plumbing. He can do anything he puts his mind to.”
“Oh, go to work. Go on. Shoo. See you later.”
I did quite a lot before I stopped for a break at nine, and went to make coffee. While I was waiting for the kettle to boil, I noticed the photo album, still sitting on the worktop, and I flicked through it to the cricket picture. And I looked at it while I made my coffee, and then I said, aloud, “If Ross can go out to bat against the police dressed in shell pink, I can ring Calloways and tell them that I won’t be buggered about any more.”
Only, of course, Daniels wasn’t there. Not in the office today. Could anybody else help? And I was about to say: no, I’ll call another time, but the receptionist said helpfully, “Mr Green is his line manager”, and I looked at the cricket photo again and thought: Green? That’s an omen.
“Mr Hollis? David Green. How can I help you?”
And I took a deep breath, and told him who I was. And I thought: take twenty-two off the first over, Jerry, and I said, very firmly, “Mr Green, I have been contracting with Calloways for five years now, and in all that time I have never missed a deadline and I have never received a complaint about my work. I find the way Calloways is treating me now to be entirely unacceptable. I have explained to Mr Daniels that his new deadlines are unrealistic, and he won’t take my concerns on board, and so I have decided that I will not take on any more work from you under these conditions. I have three contracts in my possession at present, so I am giving you warning that once I return those to you – and I will complete them, and within the time you want – I will not take on any more. Unless, of course, you want me to return the two I haven’t started yet.”
He seemed a little taken aback.
“Mr Hollis, I’m sorry you feel that way. Can you just let me get a grip on this situation? We haven’t made any changes to our policies on deadlines. Let me have a look and see what we’re at here. Can you give me the contract numbers?”
I did that, and added, “They’re all due for completion by Friday week.”
He grunted, and after a moment said, “Friday fortnight.”
“No, Mr Green, Friday week. The fourteenth.”
“I’m getting them coming up on the system as the twenty-first. I’m sure that’s where the problem has arisen. It’s just been a misunderstanding.”
I hardened my heart. Take seventeen off the second over. “No, I don’t think so. I queried the dates because the turn round time was so short, and Mr Daniels faxed me confirmation of the fourteenth in every case.”
“Mr Hollis, I’ve got a copy of the fax on the screen here, and it says the twenty-first. That is a fax from Ian Daniels dated the third, and the reference is ID/SI 423667.”
“That’s the right reference, but my copy says the fourteenth. I have it in front of me.”
“Well, now, I don’t quite see – oh. I wonder if. . . Oh, no. Mr Hollis, I’m going to need to have a look at this. Please, don’t make any irrevocable decision just yet. Give me a little time to see what I can find here. Can I ask you to do something for me? Fax that document back to me, not to the main office but on my direct line. And could you also – when did this problem begin? When did you start to find the deadlines unreasonable?”
I thought about that. “Three months ago? About that.”
“Right. Could you send with the fax a list of all the contract numbers for the work you’ve done for us in the last three months? I need to have a look at. . . things. And I’ll call you back. Before lunchtime. One o’clock at the latest.”
So I did that, and I went on with the piece of work I had, and I can’t say it was the best I’ve ever done, because I couldn’t give my whole mind to it. But he did call me back, at a quarter to one. I had just made another cup of coffee, and the phone made me jump.
“Mr Hollis? David Green. I’ve sorted everything out. There had been a – a misunderstanding at this end. I’ve made some changes, and I hope that you will consider staying with us.”
“Oh yes? Tell me about these changes.”
“Well, to begin with, the work you’ve currently got. All of it is for the twenty-first. Is that achievable?”
“Good. Now, I’ve reviewed your file, and I’ve spoken to the senior partner, and we feel that given the time you’ve been with us and the reliability of your work and so on, we need to make a gesture to recognise. . . well, he suggested that we increase your rate to” and he named a figure which was in excess – well in excess! – of what I had already decided to ask for. I made a faint squeaking noise, and he added hastily, “And in the light of the trouble you’ve had recently, we mean to backdate that to the start of the last quarter. It will show on your next remittance.” I knocked over my coffee.
“Now, there is something we would like in exchange.” Isn’t there always?
“What’s that?” I managed, at the second attempt.
“We’ve had some staffing changes, and we’ve reallocated some of the contracts accordingly. I would like to move you, if you don’t mind, from Ian Daniels to Shoshanna Grey. She’s new to us and I need to make sure that she has some experienced people on her list. Is that a problem?”
With a name like Grey? “Not at all.”
“Then I hope that’s everything settled?”
“I think so, yes. I’ll call Ms Grey towards the end of next week about those three contracts, shall I?”
“Please. And of course, if there’s any problem in the mean time, call either Shoshanna or me. I’m really sorry you had this trouble, Mr Hollis, and I’m glad we’ve resolved it.”
I thanked him, rather shakily, and put the phone down, and went to fetch a cloth to mop up the coffee. More coffee and some deep thought, and then I rang the company again, but this time I asked to be transferred to the typing pool.
“Is Siobhan Ingliss there, please? It’s Jerry.”
“Vaunie? How are you?”
“Fine, darling. I wondered if I would be hearing from you. I gather you’ve been through the top brass like salts through a sick goose.”
“Now tell me what the hell was going on. I didn’t understand a word of it.”
“Politics, Jerry. What happened was that three months ago we had a reshuffle when Alan left, and Ian Daniels – it’s all right, I’ve taken this into one of the conference rooms, but for heaven’s sake don’t let on it was me told you – Ian Daniels was suddenly sharing the work with Shanna Grey. And basically when he was told to split up the contact list, he kept all the good ones and gave her the crap, and then he started putting pressure on his people to beat the deadlines, so that he looked really good and she looked as if she couldn’t cope. He was falsifying the documentation, too – the dates on the copies filed here weren’t the same as the dates on the copies going out. Old Green-For-Go had him out so fast this morning I don’t suppose he’s touched down yet. That’ll teach the bloody little misogynist.”
“Was that what it was about? I admit, I did wonder if it was me. You know, if he knew. . .”
“If he had known, it would have been, but I don’t think he knew you’re gay. I presume that’s what you mean? No, he just hated having to share an office on equal terms with a woman. You’ll get on better with Shanna, she’s sweet. And efficient, too. Listen, Jerry, I must run before I’m missed. Next time you’re up, let’s go out somewhere, O.K.?”
“I’ll buy you lunch, Vaunie. And don’t worry, I haven’t heard any of this from you.”
Well, well, well! That was an effective Christmas bonus. What should we do with it? I got up from the table, yawned and stretched and looked down at the pile of papers. Then I piled them all up, and went into the kitchen, emptied the washing machine and looked at the contents. The colour run remover had partly worked. Some of the purple things were white again. Some weren’t. Never mind; I could afford now to buy Ross some new white shirts. And of course, he was right: it didn’t really matter. I put the whole lot in the tumble drier. An hour later, I took them out again, and folded them, and started to put them away. Most of them.
I heard the front door, and Ross called to me from the bottom of the stairs.
“I’m up here.”
He came up. “I thought you would have been working.”
“Sod work. I don’t want to do any more. I don’t have to do any more. I’ve extended my deadlines, and I’ve had a backdated pay rise.”
His eyes widened. “Why are you wearing a purple shirt?”
“Because I can, Ross. I discovered this morning that I can. I can face the bowling in a purple shirt.”
“You look dreadful. It’s even worse on you than it is on me.”
I shrugged. “I didn’t say I wanted to, just that I can.”
“You faced them down, then.”
“Mm-hm. But we’ve – you and me – we’ve got unfinished business.”
His eyebrows went up.
“You were intending to throttle me and claim off the insurance.”
He tipped his head to one side.
“Remind me why.”
“Because I turned your shirts purple?”
“I don’t care if you don’t.”
“Then, because I behaved like a brat, stamping out in a tantrum and having to be fetched home.”
He thought about it, and nodded. “I’ll grant you that one. But throttling seems rather extreme.”
I reached over to the dressing table, and offered him the hairbrush.
“That’s a bit extreme too. Come here and negotiate.”
He sat down on the edge of the bed, and I stood between his legs. His hands ran up the outside of my thighs, round and over my bum, back and up to my waist, where he flicked my belt undone, and unfastened my trousers very slowly and carefully. I shivered under his touch. The fabric slipped off my hips and pooled around my feet. He stared.
“I think I take it back. Can we go shopping later? I’m not sure I can live with lilac underpants.”
“You don’t like them?”
“No. They’re coming off.”
And I ended up over his thigh, giggling into the duvet. I’ve got better about it. A proper spanking from Ross makes me very, very unhappy (except inasmuch as it makes up a quarrel, when the short term misery is outweighed by the longer term reconciliation), but I’ve learned to accept a minor one with a good grace. Ross likes to do it, more than I like to get it, but I like to make him happy, and he doesn’t abuse the privilege. He took quite a long time about this one, rendering me hot and smarting, but I wriggled deliberately and provocatively – I think probably half of what I got was for that – and I’ll admit that I do get a charge when he pins me down and gets all commanding. He makes me shiver when he does that. He warmed my bottom very thoroughly, and I was able to put aside any feelings of guilt about having thrown a tantrum. And afterwards? Oh, work it out for yourself. The whole story seems to have been about colours. Pink and purple. Green and Grey. Scarlet. Lots of scarlet on me. And when, afterwards, Ross made tea and brought it back to bed, I turned on the radio and it was Dire Straits.
‘Just when this world seems mean and cold,
Our love comes shining red and gold,
And all the rest is by the way.
Click on Idris the Dragon to go back
© , 2005