I spent ages trying to work out the best way to tell him, and honestly, there isn’t one. Remember what it’s like trying to work out the best time and place to tell the new lover what you want him to do? When what you want him to do is to spank you?
Remember, specifically, what it was like the very first time you said it to the very first lover, when he might laugh, or be shocked, or disgusted, or any of the other reactions that would end in ‘no’? Or perhaps even worse, in ‘you want what?’ And then multiply that by a factor of lots. I dithered for days and days and days, until even Neil noticed.
“Stuart, what’s the matter? You’ve been all ends up for a week. When I speak to you, you don’t answer me, you stare into space, tonight you washed the dishes, piled them up on the wrong side and washed them all again, and I want to know what it’s about.”
I half turned away. You know, that silly, full-body gesture which tells anybody ‘he thinks he doesn’t want to talk about this but actually he does’. He read it fairly well, caught my hand and led me firmly to the sofa, pushed me into it.
Yes, well, it was things like that that made me think that he could do it and that I wanted him to do it.
“It’s a bit. . . difficult. I don’t know where to start.”
“At the beginning?”
“Well, yes, only I don’t know where the beginning is.”
“Is it something I’ve done?”
“Oh no! You didn’t think that, did you? That I was upset?”
“Well, yes, I did wonder.”
Short pause for kissing and hugging and ‘no, not that, not ever that’ burbling. Followed by more encouraging ‘tell me’ noises.
“Neil, you know what I said before that I wanted you to do?”
“What, specifically, are we talking about here?”
Oh God, but this was embarrassing. “When I asked you to spank me.”
“Yes. What about it? Have you changed your mind? I know I’m not very good at it, but if it’s what you want I’ll try to get better. . .”
“No, I haven’t changed my mind, and I think you do it really well. That’s the point.”
Further pause for more kissing and hugging, and very nearly abandonment of entire conversation for something more entertaining upstairs.
“What about it then?”
He’s better than I am at keeping to the point. It’s one of the reasons I thought he would be good at this.
“Have you ever heard of discipline relationships?”
Shake of the head. Look, he came out much later than I did (I think he was sure of himself much later than I was) and even after a couple of relationships he had hardly heard of anything. We had spent the last year making up for lost time, and our bill for the internet proved that he had now heard of lots and lots of things, some of which I had never heard of.
So I told him, as best I could. I was scarlet and stammering by the time I was done, and frankly I’m amazed that he made any sense of it at all. There were long sections with no nouns at all, but lots of ‘you knows’, and he didn’t know, poor lamb, and had to keep stopping me and making me go back to the beginning.
“So let me see if I’ve got this right. I run the show. I do the major decisions, not necessarily without reference to you, but with the casting vote in my hands. You submit to my judgment, and if you don’t, you go over my knee. And you don’t get a safe word.”
“That’s about the size of it, yes.”
“And you want to do this.”
“Yes. Not if you really hate the idea! Not if it completely gives you the creeps, or yucks you out.”
“Well. . . no. It doesn’t do that. It seems a bit odd, I’ll admit. I couldn’t possibly tell you now whether I could do it or not. Leave it with me and I’ll think about it. But you say other people do this?”
I smiled, rather shakily. “To tell the truth, I don’t know. There’s loads of stuff on the internet, but how much of it is real I couldn’t say.”
“Ah, the internet. . .” he said, thoughtfully. He just loves the internet. Does loads of his research there. It’s his job. He works from home: he’s a researcher by profession. You want to know the history of the road atlas, or the use of kaolin in ceramics in the eighteenth century? He’ll send you a twenty page report full of concise information, with a list of the best books on the subject and the name of the woman at an obscure university in the Mid-West who can explain it to you. Me? I’m an accountant. Sorry. Boring. But more profitable than being a researcher. I’m a manager at a firm you won’t have heard of, and they would probably prefer you to go on not having heard of them. It’s not exactly a modern profession. The partner in charge of my department was considered very forward thinking because he employed both a gay man, and (worse) a woman as managers. The fact that all my clients love me because I can explain what’s going on in words they recognise, and that Rebecca has more technical nous than anybody else in the firm has apparently escaped the other partners. They just wonder why it is that our clients stay while theirs go elsewhere, and why our monthly billing is so often better than theirs.
I’m rambling. Neil’s always getting at me for rambling. I don’t do it at work: I can get the guts of a set of accounts onto a page and a half with no long words, but civilisations rise and fall while I explain why we have no macaroni.
He thought about it for a week, and apparently our internet time over those seven days was nothing ordinary, because that’s what a researcher does. He researches. He hopped from website to website, and some of them he let me see and some of them he didn’t. And then he came to me with eight A4 pages of questions. How did I feel about this? What would we do about that? How far would his authority stretch over the other thing? This is what happens when you combine a researcher with an accountant: he wants to know everything about everything and I want to do it right the first time. And we talked and we talked and we talked, and I can truthfully say that I have never in my whole life been so embarrassed, and if I could have taken back the suggestion I would have done. But Neil’s a terrier for information. There isn’t anything that he doesn’t find interesting. Except accountancy – I can put him to sleep in minutes by explaining the finer points of stock valuation, and he has never grasped why, when I balance the household bank account, my sheet is the opposite way round from the bank statement and shows a different number.
And at the end of a week, we took a couple of deep breaths apiece, and said, “Let’s do this.”
And then we sat in the living room and looked at each other blankly and Neil said, cautiously, “It feels as if we should do something. Mark the occasion.”
“Um,” I agreed, trying not to laugh.
“I’ll tell you what. Let’s open a bottle of wine and I’ll show you what I’ve bought.”
“When I decided this morning that I could do this, I went shopping. I bought some stuff. And it was bloody expensive too.”
“What sort of stuff? And where’s the corkscrew? Will this do, or do you want white?”
“The white isn’t cold. Open that one. I’ll get some glasses.”
We took our wine upstairs, and Neil, rather than taking me into our bedroom, led me into the spare room.
“We’ll have to remember to move all this stuff before my mother comes. Or yours.”
“What stuff, Neil? Oh, dear God. . .”
Expensive? I should have bloody thought it was expensive. The leather paddle alone cost twenty quid. He wouldn’t tell me what he had paid for the wooden one. The strap was leather too. And the. . .
“A cane ? You bought a CANE?”
“Naturally. What did you expect?”
That was a question. What had I expected? I suppose I had expected that we would go on as we had been going, with nothing more serious than Neil’s slipper (which stings quite a lot, actually) or the hairbrush from Boots. Only he doesn’t like the hairbrush, he says the handle is too short for a man with large hands, and he can’t get any snap into his wrist with it. Me, I don’t like it either, although my dislike is differently rooted. I hadn’t thought this through, had I?
Well, but the two paddles surely would just be variations on slipper and hairbrush. He had used his belt once, and the strap wouldn’t be very different, would it? It was the cane that worried me.
“Neil, do you know how to use that thing?”
“How difficult can it be?”
“Have you ever been caned?”
“No, of course not! How old do you think I am?”
“I know perfectly well that you’re twenty-eight, same as me. And my school had given up the cane twenty years before I got there. What about yours?”
“About the same.”
“So you’ve never been caned. Ever seen anybody caned?”
“Ever known anybody who’s been caned?”
“No. But it’s all right, Stuart. I did some research.”
“Of course you did. I can’t think why I would have doubted it. What research did you do?”
“I asked the man in the shop.”
I began to get a slow sinking feeling in my stomach. “Which shop was this, love?”
“The one in town, of course. The one we always use.”
I tipped gently over onto the bed, and hid my head under the pillow. “Tell me you didn’t. Please tell me you went to Knutsford and didn’t use the local shop.”
“Don’t be silly, Stu. It’s bloody miles to Knutsford. We’ve always used the shop in town, why wouldn’t I use it now?”
Because we’ve never bought anything out of the ordinary in it. Well, within the meaning of the act. We’ve bought some interesting types of gel, and we experimented with the glow-in-the-dark condoms, except that they made us laugh so much that we couldn’t do anything practical with them, and the occasional magazine or book. But we’ve been in often enough that the staff remember us, and say ‘Some new stuff up on the right, gentlemen’, or ‘New FeLine photographs in this month’s magazine’.
“Which man did you ask?”
“I think he’s the owner, actually. Very tall, black man with a pierced eyebrow. I think the woman who looks after the clothes is his wife. Duncan, he said his name was.”
I whined, and hid under the pillow again.
“Stu? What’s the matter? Why shouldn’t I have asked Duncan?”
“Because he’s my client. I know him. He always pretends that he doesn’t know me when we go in, because his customers don’t actually want to be recognised by name, but I’ve been doing his accounts for the last five years. And we’ve been in together so often that he knows who you are too.”
There was a lengthy silence while Neil thought about this. Eventually he shrugged. “He was very helpful,” he offered. “And he couldn’t have kept that shop running as long as he has if he weren’t discreet. He won’t tell anybody; why would he?”
“No, but he’ll know!”
“Is he likely to care?”
For somebody who came out so late, Neil is about as far out as it’s possible to be without meeting yourself coming back in again. I let it drop; the damage was done. I wondered if Rebecca would swap Duncan’s accounts for the garden centre’s.
“What did he say?”
“He found me a book” – yes, that’s typical too. Whatever has happened, Neil will track down a book about it. “And he gave me several web addresses. And he showed me.”
“He did WHAT?”
“We went into the stock room and caned a large pile of leopard print bedding. I don’t think it’s going to be that difficult, Stu, honestly.”
Not for him, maybe, but I was the one who would be bending over!
“What do you intend using it for?”
Notice, as I didn’t until later, that I automatically assumed that he was going to use it, and that he hadn’t bought it just for show.
“Only serious stuff. I’ll know when it happens.”
“That’s not comforting, Neil, do you know that?”
“Well, I think I’m probably going to give you a week’s grace, and work up to things gently. No need to dive straight in. But don’t go setting me up, Stu. I’ll know if you do, and then you’ll get spanked for whatever you’ve done, and spanked for manipulation as well.”
Well, that was just begging to be turned into a nod-and-wink situation, so I did that. Most of the rest of the evening is a blur, and I’m still short one sock. It’s in the spare room somewhere, I just can’t find it.
The weekend passed fairly quietly, actually. We sort of walked around each other, almost as if we had quarrelled, with me being careful not to provoke trouble, and Neil being careful not to look for it. That couldn’t possibly last – on Monday I was terribly late home.
“Where have you been? What time do you call this?”
I looked wearily at my watch. “I call it ten past nine. Feed me, for God’s sake. Shout at me afterwards. The system went down at five past ten this morning, and all the bid and offer documentation for the stock market floatation went down with it, and it had to go out tonight. I had half a cup of coffee before the shit hit the fan and I’ve had nothing since. I want something to eat and a bath and to be lying down. And have we any aspirin?”
“We have aspirin. We have coffee, although it’s probably a bit stronger than you’ll like. We have. . . I can’t remember what this is. I took it from the freezer. It wasn’t awfully nice at seven, and it’s probably worse now.”
I ate it. I would have eaten anything. Neil sat beside me and heard about my day, and the rank stupidity of the people in IT, and the way the spotty youth on work experience recovered all the documents for us when Martin, who is paid some huge salary to look after the system, said nothing was recoverable. And by then the aspirin had kicked in, and I was beginning to think I might live.
“I understand, darling, that your day has been less than productive. But was there really no point at which you could have phoned me to say that you weren’t coming home? Ninety seconds?”
“I know. I’m sorry. I did try a couple of times early on, but you were on the phone yourself, and then later it was so hectic that I just didn’t think of it.”
“Well, then, you can think of it now. If you couldn’t get through on the landline, you could have left a message on my mobile. You have a secretary. You could have asked her to call me with a message. Clear your plate into the kitchen, please, and I’ve moved the bureau to give you access to that corner, and you can face the wall and think for fifteen minutes.”
I opened my mouth to say, “Oh please, not now, Neil, I’m too tired,” and he lifted one eyebrow at me. And I thought: the first time, the very first time, and I’m balking. This is what I wanted, and I wanted not to be allowed to choose, so I can’t. And I put my plate in the kitchen, and retired to the corner as I’d been told.
I heard Neil go upstairs and move about, and I looked at the wallpaper, and thought vaguely that I had never liked that pattern, and I couldn’t remember why I had agreed to put it up, and I wondered how much time in future I would have to consider it a bad buy. And then I heard Neil scream, and I was out of the corner and taking the stairs two at a time before I had finished the train of thought.
I burst into the bedroom yelling “It’s all right, darling, the cavalry’s here; where is it?” because there’s only one thing I’ve ever found to get that sort of reaction from Neil. He was up on the bed, quivering and backing into the wall.
“Under the chest of drawers.”
“I don’t know why I ask, honestly I don’t. I think there’s only ever been once when the damn thing didn’t run under the chest of drawers. Was it a big one?”
“Huge. Six inches at least.”
I sat back from working the bottom drawer out, and stared at him.
“Four. Are we talking tropical here? Should we be ringing the council? Is this something that’s arrived with the bananas? Or can I safely put my hand under here?”
“Well, it looked like four to me. I opened the cupboard and it ran over the back of my hand. That’s why I screamed.”
“I’m not surprised. I think I’d have screamed. But seriously, love, how big are we talking?”
He looked at his hand, which was shaking, and considered comparative anatomy and scale. Then he looked up at me again. “Maybe an inch and a half including legs?”
“Right. So we’re talking harvest spider here, not furry imported News of the World story.”
I went back to removing the drawer. We used to have cherry-wood veneer furniture with drawers that didn’t come all the way out, but after I had to take one of them to pieces with a screwdriver to rescue an admittedly large house spider, we put that in the spare room and got some old fashioned stuff that could, in an emergency, be stripped to the frame. “I can’t see. . . ooh, O.K., I see him. You’re right, he is a big bugger, isn’t he? I don’t think I want to pick him up, he’s a bit big even for me.”
“Stuuuu. . .”
“Now don’t panic. Come down from there and fetch me the glass from the bathroom.”
“Stuuuu. . .”
“Honey, either you have to go and get me the tools to deal with this, or you have to watch to make sure he doesn’t make a break for it while I go. The glass. And the piece of cardboard.” We keep a piece of cardboard for precisely this eventuality. “Thank you. Now, go back up onto the bed, while I get him. Come on, spider. Not that way. . . good spider. Neil, can you open the bathroom window for me? No, I’ll stay here with the spider. Lovely. Right, back onto the bed with you; spider and I are going elsewhere.”
I brought the glass back, rinsed it, and put away the cardboard. Then I went to look for my Top. He was quivering on the bed, so I crawled up beside him and gathered him into my arms. His shirt was sodden with perspiration, and when I put my arms round him I could feel his heart thudding in his chest.
“Arachnid has left the building. I even flicked him off the window sill. All gone, darling.”
“Oh, God, Stuart, it makes me feel such an idiot. It’s a spider. A quarter ounce, probably. An inch and a half.”
“Oh, I don’t know, I reckon that one was nearer two inches. But he’s gone.”
“But I’m such a wimp! Scared of spiders!”
I hauled him onto my lap. “Everybody’s scared of something, lover. I’m not scared of spiders so I’ll rescue you. Always.”
“You’re not scared of things.”
“Me? I’m scared that inflation will get above ten per cent. Or base rate above fifteen per cent. I’m scared of that man Murchison at the Inland Revenue. I’m scared of VAT inspections. I’m really scared of Alison next door, she wants me to be treasurer for the community association, and I don’t know how long I can resist. I’m scared that I’ll be in deep trouble once you notice that I’m up here cuddling you instead of considering my sins in a corner downstairs.”
“I think we can safely say that you may always leave the corner in the event of fire, flood, or me finding a spider in the bedroom. I’ll write it into the rules.”
We sat for another five minutes until he was calmer. We’ve never got to the bottom of why he’s so scared of spiders, but it’s a real crippling terror to him. I had to come home from work in the middle of the day once because there was a spider in the living room which had got in among his research papers – he phoned me from the garden. We’ve got as far as signing him up for the phobia course, but there’s a huge waiting list and it’s likely to be another eighteen months, because he’s not considered a serious case – apparently because he neither faints nor throws up.
“Neil? Are you all right now? Do I have to go back to my corner, or can I go and have my bath? I really want to go to bed. . .”
“No, you needn’t go back downstairs. I’ll let you off. You’ve redeemed yourself by spider removal above and beyond the call of duty. Go and run your bath and I’ll lock up. But next time you come in at that sort of time and you haven’t told me, you’ll be sleeping on your face, O.K.?”
I nodded, solemnly. And kissed him, and went to have my bath.
I managed a week before it all went belly up again. This time the client changed his mind about some aspect of the documentation and wanted it all altered. Naturally, it was page one of the document which had to be changed; equally naturally it threw the formatting of two hundred subsequent pages. And equally naturally again it was my responsibility.
I did remember to ring. I rang twice, and he wasn’t there. I rang his mobile and I left a message. It just wasn’t a very good message – I said I didn’t know when I would be home but I would ring again. And of course I forgot. At the time I would have told you that I simply forgot; with hindsight, I wonder about my subconscious giving a push to see where Neil was setting the limits. This time it was twenty to eleven when I got in, and I had my own mobile turned off and it had occurred to me about fifteen minutes earlier that I was just dead. My meal, which looked as if it had also been dead for a long time, was placed in front of me in silence, and then I was ordered upstairs. Neil had the strap laid out on the bed, ready for me.
“Over the end of the bed, please. Knees straight. Head down. Keep still.”
I waited. If I looked into the corner, I could see us both reflected in the cheval mirror. I could see Neil draw the strap back, and with a horrible slow inevitability, I could see the end of the strap tangle itself around the strut under the bookshelf. And as soon as he exerted any downward force, which was certainly before I could say anything, the whole lot came to pieces, and the bookshelf, followed by sixteen hardback books, came solidly down onto the back of his head.
It took fifteen minutes to stop the cut on his scalp bleeding, and another fifteen for me to put the bookshelf back in place, because he had pulled all the rawlplugs out and I had to find some bigger ones. By then Neil had already taken his headache to bed, and I thought it best just to put the strap away and say nothing. In particular, not to say, “I think you’re trying too hard. Just relax and let it happen.”
It was probably unfortunate that the aftermath of the stock market floatation came precisely when it did. At another time I might have handled it better, but the last two days’ work came at a time when nobody in the office was feeling quite well. One of the secretaries had introduced a tummy bug, caught from her child’s school, and one after another we succumbed. After the third person went down with it, we learned that if you went home to bed the minute you felt sick, the whole thing was over in twenty-four hours, but if you tried to work through it, it just worked through you. Unfortunately, the point at which I began to go green was also the point at which I absolutely couldn’t be spared. So I went to the chemist and bought a variety of medications which probably aren’t supposed to be taken together, and I kept myself on my feet for forty-eight hours, and we got all the floatation stuff where it should be, when it should be, and then the partner-in-charge called for one of the juniors to drive me home in my own car because by then I wasn’t fit. And Neil ordered me to bed, and drove the junior back, and came home to find me leaning on the bathroom wall.
“I thought I said bed?”
“I’m going to be sick again.”
“How many times have you been sick so far?”
He went away, and came back with the basin, and hauled me off to bed and tucked me in. Then he bullied me into drinking a glass of water, held my head while it came up again, made me drink another one, and started to look through the bathroom cabinet.
“I’m sure we’ve got something here that will help.”
“I think I’ve already had all I’m allowed. There’s a couple of packets in my briefcase.”
He glared at me, and went to look. When he came back, he was exasperated. “Have you been taking both of these?”
“Blithering idiot. Didn’t you read the packets? These are short term ‘hold off the evil hour’ solutions. There wasn’t anything you could do except come home and go to bed.”
“Well, I couldn’t do that, could I? Rebecca’s been working fourteen hour days for a month, and there wasn’t anybody else to deal with the floatation. And the deadline was today, and if I didn’t do the work, the company would lose millions and we would lose the company.”
He thought about this. “Difficult. I’m inclined to be cross that you were messing about with your health, but I see the problem. Is there really nobody else who could have done it?”
“Mike’s in Thailand and Sian’s doing my ordinary work as well as her own. Pass the basin.”
He held my head again, making little sympathetic noises.
I shook my head, and he pushed me back onto the pillow. “Let me tidy up here, and then we’ll see about getting you settled.”
‘Getting me settled’ turned out to mean reading to me. I couldn’t imagine why: it isn’t something we’ve ever done. But I couldn’t read by myself; I had spots before the eyes and a pounding headache as well as feeling sick, and I shivered every time I sat up. I wasn’t really listening when he started, although I did have a vague idea that something was odd about the story. He hadn’t picked up the book I had expected, the latest Phil Rickman which I had fought someone for at the library. He was reading. . .
“Neil? Why are you reading Beatrix Potter?”
“Because you aren’t well. It’ll be soothing.”
Oh. Oh well, he was Top, after all, and it was his job to know things like that. Soothing, eh?
It bloody isn’t. Those pretentious and aggravating little tales of the totally predictable? I dozed through The Tailor of Gloucester, which isn’t too bad, but Jeremy Fisher is dull, and Jemima Puddleduck is plain irritating.
“Neil? That’s enough, honestly. I know you mean well, but I don’t really care for Beatrix Potter. And I’m starting to feel sick again.”
“Sweetheart, I found some more stuff on the internet. This was recommended.”
What sort of militant sadist recommends reading children’s stories to a man of twenty-eight? Who isn’t well?
“It said the Bottom found it comforting when he wasn’t feeling well.”
What sort of mental inadequate needs to have children’s stories read to him in bed? What on earth sort of relationship were they in?
“Let’s have a go at Peter Rabbit, shall we?”
I lasted five minutes before I rose up from under the duvet and explained to the partner of my heart where I was going to put Mr McGregor’s onions if he didn’t shut up, and that as far as I knew BUPA wouldn’t cover the expense of their removal. Then I threw up again. When all was once again calm, he asked me, in slightly offended tones, if I wanted anything before he went back to work.
“Just the radio, please. ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ should be on shortly, and I think they’re going to talk about the Budget in ‘Moneybox’.”
Yes, of course I felt bad about it. Later I felt bad about it. But at the time it was just such a relief when he went away. He was trying so hard, and I wanted to be grateful, but honestly, reading Beatrix Potter aloud is a cruel and unusual punishment, or contrary to the Geneva Convention, or something. Not even the most submissive Bottom should have to put up with that.
I had the rest of the week off, and went back to work on Monday. I called at lunchtime:
“Darling? I’ve got an audit review to do. Sian’s caught the bug, so I’m doing all her closure stuff this week. It’ll be the whole week, so I don’t think I’ll be home before half seven. I’ve got to go to Newcastle.”
“No, Stuart, I don’t think we can have that. You’re not that long out of bed yourself. I want you home by six, hear me?”
“But Neil, I. . .”
“Stuart, six o’clock. Or trouble.”
“May I say something?”
“I have to stay here until five thirty. It’s in my contract, remember. If I leave Newcastle at five thirty, it will take me forty minutes to get to the M6, and I will be on the M6 in the rush hour traffic. I will be home at seven fifteen. If I stay until six thirty, I will avoid the rush hour, I will be home at seven thirty, and I will generate enough overtime that I will leave on Friday at two and be home with you by three. I thought that would be preferable.”
Silence. “Yes, all right. But if you aren’t leaving at six thirty, you call me, O.K.?”
“O.K. We’ve already had that conversation. Stuart? What have you been reading?”
“This stuff about being home early, and me not being well yet. You’ve never cared before when I came in provided I let you know, and you know that I won’t push my health except in a crisis. What have you been reading?”
“Oh, some stuff off the internet, that’s all. Research.”
“Mmm. Do remember that there’s no quality control on the internet. Not everything you find there is a good idea.”
“Stuart David McIvery, which of us is Top?”
“Neil Brooke Newall, you are. But I don’t want you to become Neil Brooke Knowall.”
“Cheeky bugger. Go and do some work. I’ll see you at half seven.”
Twenty eight minutes past seven and I walked through the door. The same every night, and we went on swimmingly until Friday. I was indeed home by three, as I had promised, and Himself had finished a piece of work too, so that we could think about having some time together. We had coffee and curled up together on the sofa, thinking about what we should do.
“Let me change out of my suit, and we could go to that bookshop you mentioned. I’ve had a dull day, and I could just do with going out. I haven’t seen a soul all day. The audit team packed up last night, and I stayed today to sign off the last few things, but there was nobody there but me.”
Neil made some comfortable noise behind me, and tightened his grip on me. “Sounds good. In a minute.”
I snuggled back against him, and was just enjoying the hug when I felt him shift slightly.
“Did you mean that literally? That you’ve been on your own all day?”
“Pretty well. I signed off the last of the schedules, and I had a twenty minute meeting with the MD, and he’s the only soul I’ve spoken to since I left you this morning.”
“Did you go to the canteen?”
“The canteen? No, why?”
“Does the MD smoke?”
“No, I don’t. . . think. . . so. . .”
“So why, Stuart, can I smell cigarettes on your skin and in your hair?”
I cast frantically about for a good reason, before Neil wriggled out from behind me and stood up. He looked down at me.
“How long have you been smoking again?”
“I had two today.”
“And before that?”
My wits scattered. He looked very angry and unbelievably. . . well, toppish. I had never seen him look like that before.
“I’ve noticed all week that you smelled of smoke, but I just assumed that somebody at the client’s smoked. But it’s a chemical plant, isn’t it? They probably have quite strict rules about smoking. It tends to be a sacking offence to smoke on site. When did you buy a packet of cigarettes?”
“Was that your first packet?”
“Honestly. I haven’t even finished it yet.”
“I suppose that makes it marginally better. You know how I feel about it, don’t you?”
I did. His father and his grandfather both died of lung cancer and his uncle had to have a foot amputated as a result of what the surgeon said was tobacco induced circulatory disorders. When we got together we had three months and then he said he was sorry, but he couldn’t live with a smoker, he couldn’t go through that again. And I thought about what I really wanted, and I decided that Neil was more important than cigarettes, and I gave them up. I had always said that I could do it any time I wanted, and it wasn’t true. It took me ages to get to a point at which I could say “I don’t smoke” and believe it, but Neil had helped, and I couldn’t deny that I had felt better once I had done it.
“Give me the packet.”
I trailed out to the hall and recovered the packet from my briefcase. He flipped it open. “You’ve smoked fourteen in three and a half days.”
“Yes. Sir.” I don’t know where the ‘sir’ came from.
“Are you taking up smoking again?”
“No! It wasn’t like that! It was just. . . we were so busy and I was stressed, and it got me through the day.”
I fidgeted. “I’ll throw the rest away. I won’t smoke them.”
“I won’t live with a smoker.”
I knew that. It sounds like emotional blackmail, but it wasn’t really. He had always made it plain that he wouldn’t, couldn’t live with a smoker. I had gone into a serious relationship knowing that. That wasn’t a rule imposed later, not a condition sprung on me. That was Neil telling it like it was, like it had always been.
“Are you going to smoke any more?”
The crumpled packet went carefully onto the coffee table. “Did you know how upset I would be if you took up smoking again?”
I had known. Why else would I have hidden it from him? I nodded.
“Answer me, please.”
“Yes, sir, I knew.”
“So you deceived me.”
No good answer to that.
“You asked the other day what I would use the cane for. Go and fetch it.”
My knees didn’t work; they felt strange on the stairs. The cane was light in my hand.
I walked ahead of him into the dining room, trembling slightly. For the first time I was afraid.
“You asked if I was sure I knew what I was doing. I’m not sure, so I’m going to make it easy for myself. I need to see what I’m doing, what the effect of this cane will be. It will be harder for you. Take your trousers down and bend over the table.”
I complied, in silence. Then I panicked a little and grabbed the far edge of the table. The cigarette packet was insinuated under my face.
“Just so that you don’t forget what got you here. Keep an eye on that. The smoking isn’t the problem. You have the right to smoke if you want to. But you know that I will not live with you if you do, so you have to choose. And to smoke without telling me is deliberate deception, and that is not the sort of relationship that we have. Is it?”
“I don’t expect you to tell me everything; you have the right to your own privacy, your own secrets. You do not have the right to hide from me aspects of your behaviour which you know will affect me.”
I felt his hands on me. My shirt tail came up over my back; my briefs descended to mid-thigh. By now, I was trembling more than slightly. The cane tapped lightly across the centre of my bottom and I flinched.
I heard it before I felt it. It hissed in the air and cracked across my backside. That’s no description at all – it felt as if there was a white-hot bar running squarely across my bottom, and I automatically started to stand up, before remembering what I was doing and crashing my weight back down onto the table with a hiss.
The second one crossed the line of the first and I let out a loud yip of pain and shock. “Neil!”
“Keep still, Stuart. We’re nowhere near finished.”
Unfortunately true. The third one was placed lower than the first two. It hurt more. I already knew that a spank hurt more low down than high up; the stripe of a cane was just the same. The fourth and fifth both drew loud squeals from me, and with the sixth I shot upright, clutching my poor abused behind and hopping from foot to foot.
“I didn’t say you could get up. Bend over.”
“Oh, please, Neil, that’s enough!”
Silence behind me. Something in the quality of it had me bending very slowly back onto the table, gripping the edge, and waiting.
“Last one. One stripe for two cigarettes. This is for today’s. . .”
It sounded like a gunshot, and there was a second before the pain kicked in, and then I yelled. Tears were streaming down my face, and I pushed myself slowly upright and felt carefully behind me.
“Pull up your trousers.”
I did, moving very slowly and carefully, and scrubbed the back of my hand over my face. I was panting like a runner, profoundly shocked.
“Pick up that packet and put it in the bin.”
I complied. It hurt to walk.
“Do you smoke, Stuart?”
Snappy answer, produced apparently by nervous system without reference to brain, but believed absolutely and implicitly.
“Take the cane and put it away.”
The stairs were bloody murder, and I fell on the bed, still gasping. Neil came down beside me. After a minute I felt his hand tentatively on my back and I pushed against him for comfort.
“I bet you are. And I reckon you will be all day.”
I reckoned so too.
“Come on. Get your kit off and go and have a shower. You’ll feel better and I won’t be able to smell that damned cigarette.”
He had to haul me up off the bed, and help me undress, but I did feel better in the shower, specially once I had washed my hair. And specially when the door slid open and Neil came in to join me.
“Have you changed your mind?”
“About smoking? I don’t smoke, Neil.”
“No, idiot, about discipline relationships.”
I thought about it. “Are we going to argue about me smoking?”
“If you do it again, you mean?”
“No, I mean about this time.”
“I thought the point of the whole thing was that we got to skip the argument?”
“Does that mean you’ve forgiven me?”
“That’s the idea, isn’t it?”
“Then I haven’t changed my mind. I screw up, you punish me, you forgive me, I don’t do it again. That was my understanding.”
“Good, because this is your last chance to change your mind. Otherwise, this is what we do. Any change in the conditions, speak now.”
“No Beatrix Potter. Absolutely not.”
“A A Milne?”
“No. I’m prepared to compromise on Postman Pat. No ‘Wind in the Willows’. ‘Swallows and Amazons’ if you must. No talking animals of any sort.”
“Thomas the Tank Engine?”
“Well. . .”
“Paddington’s different. Yes, all right, Paddington. . .”
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© , 2005