Pooky Verde is to be blamed for the Incident with the Handkerchief. She dared me.

She should have known better, frankly.

That boy!

I knew, the first time I saw him, that he was the one for me. Funny, isn’t it, the way it can come upon you? How you see someone and you know – you know that he’s the one. That he will always be the one. That there will never be another. That all the chattering and negotiating and getting to know each other, all the complicated dance of attraction and connection, is merely the slick covering on a relationship which has existed since the foundation of the world, and has merely to be acknowledged by you both. He’s the only one for me, now and always, and I love him beyond anything.

Which will not prevent me tanning his backside when I get hold of him. He is so careless! After all that last night, the idiot boy has gone out without the key I gave him, his mobile phone is switched off, he didn’t tell me he was going and he hasn’t left me a note. He isn’t at his flat – the answer-phone is switched on there, and although I’ve left a message he hasn’t answered me – and I can’t think where else he would be. That’s just plain bad manners, and dangerous to boot; going off without telling anybody? After what happened last night? Believe me, I’m going to break him of that little habit. I expect it’s just that he’s never had a relationship before as serious as this one, and he hasn’t thought about the fact that living with somebody isn’t like the casual liaisons he’s been used to. I’m prepared to accept that maybe he didn’t think that I would worry about him when I didn’t know where he was; on the other hand, leaving the key was plain dim and the phone turned off? No, I really think he should have known I wouldn’t stand for that.

But we won’t need to row about it. That’s the big plus about our sort of relationship, isn’t it? He’ll get a spanking and we’ll talk about what he did and what he should have done, and that will be the end of it and we can move on. I’m looking out for him now; I won’t let any harm come to him. He’s mine; I’ll take care of him. Always.

I know what he’s doing, of course. He’s never come face to face with boundaries before, not in a relationship like ours. It’s only natural that he’ll kick against them, that he’ll feel the need to push. It’s really just a matter of finding out where the boundaries are, isn’t it? He’s young and impulsive and a bit foolish; he makes choices which aren’t sensible. Most of that is simply inexperience and being in too much of a hurry. He’ll learn. All he needs is someone to steady him for a while, to anchor him – and that’s me. I’ll be there for him, always. Because he’s the One.

Oh shit, I am in so much trouble now. I don’t know how to begin to think about how much trouble I’m in; I can’t imagine how I’m going to get out of this one.

I didn’t realise, when I saw him first – I know the attraction was instant, but the rest of it? I had no experience of that. Oh sure, I’d been in love – once every two months on average. It didn’t bother me. I had no problem with that. If something better came along, well, it came and if it didn’t? Only he came, and I’ve never encountered anything like it.

I’ve left his key on the dressing table; I’ve got my phone turned off until I can decide what I’m going to do.

Oh, I know, just ignoring him and the whole situation isn’t going to help. Sooner or later I’ll have to face him and just get through the unpleasant bit as best I can.

Just not right this minute, O.K.?

Where did it begin? In a night club, of all places. I don’t go to clubs much but it was Colin’s birthday, and we’d all been in a variety of pubs and we ended up in Styles, because they have a live band and Helen’s going out with the drummer. Well, and a bit because Styles, although it’s not a gay club, has frequent gay nights and there won’t be any trouble for Mark, who screams a bit, or me, although I’m a lot more discreet. Anyway, there was this boy working the sound desk. A little bit of a thing, round faced and with an endearing flop of hair which fell in his eyes every time he leaned forward. I found myself watching him rather than anything else; and after a while he noticed, and smiled at me. After that it wasn't particularly difficult; when the band took a break and the noise level dropped from intolerable to merely deafening I went to talk to him; he let me buy him a drink and then he bought me one, I hung around the desk while the band played their second set, and then we had another drink, and then I took him home.

And I kissed him a bit, and bang, something went off like fireworks and he felt it too, he pulled back, gasping, and looked at me with stars in his eyes, and threw himself back into my arms and ten minutes later we were in bed. I’ve never made it so fast from ‘hello’ to ‘harder!’. It was just fabulous. And afterwards, we lay tangled up with his head on my shoulder and it just felt so right, you know? And I knew he was the One.

So after that, there was the filling in, the stuff that had to be gone through before we could get to the important bit about living happily ever after. I found myself wanting to do soppy things: bringing him flowers, buying him chocolates. Yes, well, I’m a romantic at heart. He was funny about it: sweetly shy, a little confused, touchingly anxious about me. “Malcolm, you don’t need to do that. Honestly, I’ll be pleased to see you even if you don’t bring me a bottle of wine every time.’

“Sweetheart, I want to. I like giving you things.”

He shrugged at that, almost embarrassed. “You don’t need to, is all I’m saying. I mean. . . well, I don’t. . .”

I cut him off. I could guess what was coming: he was at the university during the day and everybody knows students live off fresh air and overdrafts; he was working in a nightclub, presumably to make ends meet. “Darling, I do it because I like it. I’m not expecting you to reciprocate.” I wouldn’t say out loud ‘you can’t afford it’, that would be tactless. But I was pulling in a good wage, I could afford to give him things, little treats and so on. When he knew me better, I would suggest something more. I had no doubt he was paying through the nose for his flat: this is a university town and the cost of housing reflects that; students end up in expensive flats because all the cheap ones are gone. His was in a prime location and must have been costing him a bomb. His car was a wretched runabout, elderly and rusting; his clothes were all student issue, as far as I could see. I wanted to give him things, to see him blossom the way he deserved.

I wanted to have him with me, sharing my home, sharing my life.

I had to go carefully: sometimes he was like a wild animal, shy, timid, half wanting to come to my hand, half inclined to bolt. I’d call him and there would be a day or two when he didn’t return any of my calls, and then he’d turn up, vague and apologetic, muttering about a heavy workload, about something having come up, about tight deadlines. I noted that he was obviously not good at managing his time – oh, it’s common enough among students, isn’t it? Do no work for a week and then run a 48 hour essay crisis? Hit the deadline, go to bed for 12 hours, go clubbing, do nothing about the next deadline. . . Common enough and it never was a really good idea, and these days, what with student loans and more people going to college, getting a degree is easier than it was but getting a good degree is harder – specially if you’re not structuring the work. This wasn’t his first degree, obviously: he was too old for it, and he’d said something about having been at Durham, but it’s not uncommon in the medical faculty for someone still to be a student in their mid twenties. It doesn’t make for financial security, though. I could help him, I knew I could, it was just a matter of getting him to admit the problem and that he needed somebody to – well, to do the things he couldn’t do himself.

I don’t see it as a weakness in men like him, you know. I see it as a symbiotic relationship between us; he needs something a bit more than ordinary support and I can provide it, and we’ll both be happier for it. I’m not stupid, though; he was nervy, he needed to be led to an understanding of how this could work for us. He needed to see it, not just to be told. Needed to be shown.

I showed him.

He called me, one evening, when he’d said he couldn’t come over; he’d told me he was working. But when he called me, it wasn’t from his flat or from the faculty building, it was from somewhere out on the Casterhill Road.

“Malcolm? Listen, could you. . . are you busy? Could you come and fetch me? I’ve had an accident.”

My heart failed me. “Are you O.K.? What sort of accident?”

“I’m all right, I suppose. It was stupid, there was a deer and I’ve put my car in a ditch. I reckon it’s going to take a jeep with a winch to get it out and there’s no point in trying to do it in the dark. I’ll find somebody tomorrow, but if you could come and get me. . .”

“Where are you?”

“You know Bevis House? The National Trust place? I can just see the start of the park wall; I reckon I could be at the gatehouse turn if you came for me now.”

I didn’t turn the car when I picked him up, to his obvious surprise; instead I drove on until the headlights picked up his car, one side right down in the ditch. “How the hell did you do that?”

“I told you, a deer. It’s a damn nuisance, it’s going to cost a bomb. . . Can’t be helped, I suppose.” He was tense and irritable, and. . . well, a prime example of what I had been thinking about.

“You’re sure you’re not hurt? I mean, whiplash injuries. . .”

He gave a snort of annoyance. “I didn’t hit anything, I didn’t even stop suddenly. It was just that once it went over the verge, I could get the brakes on and make it stop but then I couldn’t get any traction to get out again, it’s too wet. I’m not hurt.”

No, well. . . But we would talk about that at home. I turned at the Canon Street junction and heard him shift beside me.

“Malcolm? Can you just drop me at home? I’ve got a load of stuff to do still and. . .”

I cut him off. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Donny. You’ve had an accident, I wouldn’t be sure you’re not in shock, it’s past eleven now. You really can’t have anything to do which won’t wait until the morning, can you? I’d rather you came back to mine where I can look after you, and I’ll run you home in the morning. Come on, wouldn’t it be better to sleep this off and come fresh tomorrow to whatever you’ve got to do?” And I wouldn’t – yet – say anything about the general desirability of getting one’s work done in the hours of daylight rather than leaving it all to the last minute and scrabbling through it in a rush, nor about why, if he had a work crisis happening, he was out in the back of beyond at eleven at night.

He hesitated. “Well. . . yes, I suppose so. . . O.K. But I’ll need to be home early.”

I patted his knee. “Early as you like.”

“And don’t call me Donny. I’ve told you before, I don’t like it. My name’s Donal.”

I smiled to myself but I didn’t say anything. He was so adorable when he was indignant.

I made him a hot drink when we got in; for all he insisted he was fine, he was shivering and I sent him off to the shower while I made tea. He came back in just his shirt and jeans, no socks or shoes, and his hair endearingly tousled, and looking about 16.

“Is that my tea? Ta. I really will have to be out of here early, Malcolm, I’ve got a bugger of a lot to get through tomorrow. It’s bloody typical, isn’t it, as soon as you’ve got a deadline, the universe bowls you a googly.”

“Well, now, young man, I think maybe we should have a little talk about that. And you can tell me just how you contrived to put your car in a ditch, and why you were out so late anyway when you’ve got your college work to get through.” It was my most toppish voice, and my most toppish look, and he stared at me for a moment, his mouth a little open, before his glance dropped to his mug, and he slid a fingertip round the rim nervously.

“It was an accident,” he offered uncertainly.

“Obviously,” I said dryly. “And what sort of speed were you doing to have an accident?”

The long lashes shadowed his cheekbone. “Maybe. . .” he faltered, “it was a little too fast.”

“A little?”

No reply. “And if you’ve got all this work to get through, why were you not at home doing it?”

He shrugged sullenly. “Didn’t feel like it.”

“You didn’t feel like it. Donny, how are you ever going to get yourself a proper job, a well paid job, if you’ve got a poor degree, or even no degree at all?” I crossed the kitchen to him and held out my hand. He put his own in it, but he turned his head away, his eyes down. He knew I was right, I could see, but he just didn’t want to admit it.

“Was that a sensible thing to do tonight, Donny?”

“No, sir.” It was scarcely a whisper, but my heart rejoiced. He would say aloud that he didn’t need what I was giving him, but we both knew that he did. It was time to take him all the way.

“I think you need a lesson, young man. I think you need a short, sharp lesson in the consequences of this sort of silliness. Don’t you?”

That shy look again, and the head turned away from me. I pressed him.

“Donny? I want an answer. You haven’t been behaving right, have you?”

“No, sir.” A whisper.

“And we’re going to deal with that, Donny. We’ll deal with it, and then we won’t have to bother about it again, O.K.?”

“What. . . what are you going to do?” There was a decided tremble in the voice; I pulled gently on his hand to bring him close.

“I’m going to give you a spanking, Donny. It’ll be a hard one, and you won’t like it, but afterwards, it’ll all be over. You’ve been very foolish but I’ll punish you for it and that’ll be all. O.K.?”

He hesitated, looking even younger than before; I waited and then prompted him. “Yes, Donny?”

“Just. . . just a spanking?”

“That’s all. Promise. But a hard spanking.”

The nod was so tiny I almost missed it, but it was there. I kept hold of his hand as I sat down on one of the kitchen chairs. His glance at the dark window was panicked and he dragged his fingers free and retreated to the door.

“Not here!”

I got up and pulled down the blind. The back of the house isn’t overlooked and he knew that; this was nerves and the last panicky attempt to avoid the inevitable. “Here, Donny. Now. Come here!” There was some snap in that last; enough to bring him to me with a jolt, wide eyed. I sat down on the kitchen chair and reached for him, hooking a finger in the waistband of his jeans and drawing him to me. The button and zip undid easily, the material slithered off his slender hips and one good tug had his briefs following. He was awkward when I pulled him down over my lap, with the clumsiness of inexperience; I had no doubt that he would continue graceless even with more experience. And the experience – I smiled a little to myself, since he couldn’t see – would come, unfortunately for him. The bad habits of years aren’t broken with one spanking. I rested my hand lightly on the slender cheeks.

“Now, Donny. Why am I going to spank you?”

He gave an impatient wriggle; “Ma-alcolm. . .”

I cracked my palm down hard and he jumped and yelped. “Why am I going to spank you?”

“Because I crashed my car.” That was sulky.

“And why did you crash your car?”

“There was a deer. . .” imploringly. I cracked my palm down twice more.

“And you couldn’t avoid the deer because you were driving too fast, weren’t you, Donny?”

The answer didn’t come until after I’d spanked him twice more, when I got a yelped “Yes!”

“So why am I going to spank you?”

“For driving too fast!”

“Good boy.” And I proceeded to turn his bottom a shade of deep rose, with him squirming and squeaking and letting out breathy little cries of “No! Malcolm! Please! That’s enough, Malcolm, I won’t do it again!” No, he wouldn’t. I said as much when I stopped, by which time he was wriggling uncontrollably. “You won’t do it again, because if you do, I’ll take a slipper to your backside, do you understand me?”

“Ow, Maaaalcolm,” he whined and I spanked him sharply again, extracting another yelp.

“I said, do you understand me?”

“Yes,” he muttered sulkily. I whacked him again.

“Yes, what?”

“Yes, I understand you.” Another whack, another yelp.

“Yes, what?”

A pause, while he thought about it. And then, in an even sulkier voice, “Yes, sir.”

Whack. “In a proper tone, please.”

“Aw, for God’s sake. . .”

Whack. Twice. Hard enough to get loud yelps. “And without the attitude. Yes, what, Donny?”

His shoulders flexed hard. “Yes, sir,” he said in a deliberately mild voice. Then he pushed his weight to one side and started to get up. I grabbed the far wrist and pulled it into his back.

“Oh no, my lad, we’re not finished yet.”

“No, that’s enough, Malcolm, that’s as far as I can. . . ow!” he bucked, and dragged his wrist away from me, twisting to get away. He’s slight, though, and not tall, so it was no particular difficulty to muscle him back into position, although this time I threw my leg over the backs of his.

“Malcolm, that’s enough, I don’t li-ow!”

“That was the car. Now, about you not structuring your work.”

“No, that’s enough! I said no, Malcolm, I’m not doing this any more!”

“You agreed to it, Donny. I told you it would be a hard spanking, I told you that you wouldn’t like it. Now we’re going to deal with your work.”

You have to know as a Top how to improvise and when to draw the rein tight – and when to slacken it off. There was no point in going through the ‘what’s this spanking for’ routine. He was fighting me hard enough that despite being a good five or six inches taller than him, and probably the same round the chest, I actually had some trouble keeping my grip on him, and it was only when I managed to get his wrist high up his back so that his head went down that I could hold him still enough to sort him out. I didn’t hang about asking for answers, I just walloped him roundly, his bottom bouncing and wiggling as I did so. He did nothing to make it easy for himself, fighting and squirming, yelling – no yelps now, this was a steady flow of shouted profanity and vicious temper. That I was absolutely not putting up with, so even when I would normally have stopped, I waited for him to draw breath, and said evenly, “Donny, that’s a plain tantrum and I’m not standing for it. We’ll keep going until you control yourself and quieten down.” The flurry of language which came from knee level was quite shocking, but I needed him to understand that I meant what I said. It matters the first time – you need to get it understood that you’re Top and that you expect to be heeded. He was tough, though; by the time the language abated, his bottom was shading towards purple, and he was snatching for breath, in hiccupping sobs. When he went limp and submissive, I stopped.

“Are you going to behave now?”

There was no answer, but nor was there any argument. It would do. I let go of his wrist and worked an arm under his body, pulling him up. He tried to twist away from me, but another sharp smack brought him obediently against my chest as I turned him; he was so light that it was no hardship to pick him up, trusting in my arms, and carry him through to the bedroom where I could lay him down and then lie beside him and gather him to me. He was still gasping and choking; I pulled his head onto my shoulder – he tried to resist, but I lifted my hand again, and he subsided against me.

“All right, pet, that’s enough, we’re done now. Good boy, you’re a good boy.” I went on crooning into his hair until he was calmer, and the wrenching sobs reduced to the occasional jerky breath. Then I tipped his head back; he stayed obediently still while I dried his eyes, although somehow he had contrived to get his face dirty.

“I’ve got something for you.”

Poor lamb, he was the way of most well-spanked Brats, absolutely exhausted with the intensity and emotion of it: there was no response other than a look. I pulled my arm from under him and went to my jacket which hung over the back of my chair.

“I got you a key to this house cut this morning.” He made no attempt to take it from me, so I put it down on the dressing table for the morning. “Tomorrow when we go out, we can get me a key to your flat, and maybe we can start bringing some of your things over here too. When is your rent paid up to?”

He turned his face towards the pillow and muttered something I didn’t catch, and I gave in. He was too tired, too overwhelmed to talk about this now. Tomorrow would do. I went back to the bed.

“Come on, baby, let’s get you undressed and into bed. You’ve had it, haven’t you? That’s it, in you go. I’ll just brush my teeth and I’ll come too, it’s all right, I’ll be there in a minute.”

I pulled him to me in the bed, knowing he would need the reassurance; he felt clumsy again, and when I ran a hand over the hot bottom, he flinched. Still, he opened his mouth when I kissed him, and when I coaxed him onto his knees, he turned easily enough, bracing himself on his elbows and gasping when I entered him. I was gentle with him, and careful not to hurt him, although when I reached round, he was only half hard, so when I’d caught my breath, I kissed him again, tenderly, and started to ease down the bed. He grabbed at me. “Don’t, please. . . there’s no need. I’m too tired.”

I dropped a light kiss on each slender thigh. “Sure? I don’t mind.”

He shook his head, and I gave way gracefully. “Tomorrow, then. Come on, baby, snuggle up, and go to sleep. I know, you’ve had a hard day. It’ll all be better in the morning.”

But despite me setting the alarm early to get him home in good time, in the morning he had gone. I wasn’t pleased – in fact, to tell the truth, I was a long way from pleased, because I could see he hadn’t eaten anything before he went, and like I say, he’d left the key on the dressing table, but a little thought convinced me to let him run. I’ve got him on a long leash now; he’ll come back. I showed him what he needed; he’ll balk and twist and argue for a bit but he’ll come back, I know he will. I can leave him. I can wait.

I’ve calmed down a bit now. To start with, I panicked. I’m not denying it. I did not cope well with it. Well, the whole thing was just way too far out of my experience.

To all intents and purposes, I hid for two full days. I didn’t have to go up to the faculty, there were no lectures or anything – although I hadn’t been lying when I said I had a load of work to get through. It wasn’t a big deal, though, to call Rachel, tell her I wasn’t feeling well and ask her to swap lab sessions with me. In exchange I offered to do the statistical analysis for both of us if she would email over the data blocks. By the third day, my nerves were more or less recovered, and I went back up to the Pemberton, and shoved the results paperwork in Professor Porter’s pigeon-hole.

I thought I saw him at the supermarket, but I wasn’t sure; on the other hand, he had left one message on my landline and another on my mobile, and when I turned on the laptop, his name came up in my email. Very ordinary messages, all of them, not at all threatening. He was sorry not to have seen me since the other night; he would like to have a chance to talk to me; would I please get in touch?

I deleted them all. 

He behaved exactly the way I predicted – bolted for home, locked himself in and pretended the whole thing hadn’t happened. Don’t they all? Poor baby, he must have been so confused. I saw him when he came out, but I didn’t go over to speak to him. Better to wait until he was ready to come to me, but I wanted to keep an eye on him, make sure everything was O.K. so I hung around when I could. I think he saw me in the supermarket, but I kept out of sight otherwise. He would come back in due course, I knew he would, and for the moment, I wouldn’t interfere unless I thought it was really justified. I’d be there to protect him if he needed me, but while he was so jumpy, it would be better if he didn’t know that. Still, he didn’t go back to college for a couple of days and I was beginning to worry about that – skipping lectures is really not a good idea, after all. I was relieved when I spotted him in the street with a couple of folders under his arm. He turned into a building off Austen Street, and I went close enough to read the sign: Pemberton Laboratories, and the university logo. That was reassuring.

And then it was just a matter of patience, staying out of his way but keeping an eye on him. I went by the labs at lunchtime, not really expecting to see him, but by chance he was coming out just as I arrived at the corner. I hung back and watched him, and a couple of skinny girls, go down to the Square. I lost him among the shops; presumably they had gone to get a sandwich or something, because I saw one of the girls coming back with a take-away coffee. Later on I waited and watched for him for about half an hour, but I didn’t see him. Still, it wasn’t likely that he would spend all day at the labs; presumably he had lectures somewhere else.

I just kept an eye on things for the rest of the week, enough to know that he didn’t seem to be in any sort of trouble, and that he was going to college. I spotted him at the labs at least once every day, and I usually managed to get a glimpse of him somewhere near his flat too.

But we needed to talk. And he must have thought so too, because on Friday, I was watching from the bus stop opposite the labs, hoping that he hadn’t already left, when the door opened and one of the girls I had seen before came out, crossed the road straight towards me and, rather to my surprise, addressed me by name.

“Mr Wells?”

I was sufficiently taken aback that I didn’t answer her; she repeated herself in a tone of faint impatience.

“You are Malcolm Wells?”

“Yes,” I said, recovering myself.

“Professor Porter says that if you would like to come in and wait for him, Donal Vincent will spare you half an hour this afternoon.”

At least, that must have been what she said, although for a moment I thought I had heard not ‘Donal Vincent’ but ‘Doctor Vincent’. And who was Professor Porter? I opened my mouth to ask, and she cut me off. “Ring the bell on the right of the door; the receptionist will buzz you in,”  and she scampered away down the street.

I’d known I’d have to deal with it – I just. . . well, I hadn’t expected to have my boss tell me that I’d have to deal with it. And I’d thought I would have had longer to work out what to do. Natalie had obviously passed on the message, because he was sitting in Reception when we came through the security door; Evelyn stopped, glared hard at him, and then turned to glare equally hard at me.

“Put a stop to it, Donal. I don’t care how you do it, but if it happens once more, I’ll have to take formal notice.” Then she turned and stared at Malcolm. “That means you, mister. I don’t know what you think you’re doing here – Dr Vincent says he knows you – but next time, I’ll get the police involved.”

She stumped off towards her office, and I took a deep breath and turned to face Malcolm who looked faintly stunned.

“Who’s the scary woman? Your tutor? And what was that about?”

I bristled a bit on her account. “Didn’t you recognise her? Professor Porter? Lady Evelyn Porter? From the TV? From the history programmes?”

Still blank.

“‘The Face of History’?”

“That archaeology programme where they rebuild the face on a skull? Good grief, was that her? She’s certainly no oil-painting but she doesn’t come over on TV as so snappy.”

I winced a bit. Nobody would call Evelyn Porter good-looking: even she admits, with sly good-humour, that she looks like a horse, and sounds like the worst excesses of the English upper classes. On the other hand, she has an infectious enthusiasm for her subject, and an ability to put over complex ideas in simple language; the camera doesn’t love her, but the television audiences do. And if she doesn’t come over as snappy it was because in general she isn’t.

“She’s not well pleased that you’ve been hanging about here.”

“Well, you invited me in. . .”

“I don’t mean today. I mean all the other times.”

He raised his eyebrows enquiringly and I felt my temper fray. “Don’t try to deny it: security here picked you up on camera five times in seven days. I’m serious, Malcolm. I knew you’d been round the flat, I saw you a couple of times, and so did some of the neighbours. Mr Hughes nearly rang the police when he saw you the third time. I had a hell of a job persuading Evelyn – Professor Porter – not to have you arrested. If you show up here again, the shit will hit the fan. I told her I knew you and I’d talk to you, but you mustn’t come here again.”

“But why on earth not, sweetheart?”

I winced and headed for one of the side offices: Izzy on Reception wasn’t even pretending not to listen. “Come through here, and we can talk without being overheard.” I was nervous enough to pull the blinds back so that Izzy could still see us; just in time too, because Malcolm was coming close, obviously intending to kiss me until he caught her eye. For all I’d tried to keep things quiet, half the staff knew something was going on.

“Now look, Donny, I think we need to get some things sorted out.”

I bristled and lost my grip on the speech I had so carefully prepared in advance. “So do I. Starting with: if you call me ‘Donny’ one more time, I’ll buzz Security to see you out. It’s not my name, I’ve told you I hate it, and I won’t answer to it. My name is Donal. The last person to call me Donny was my mother and she stopped doing it when I went to school.”

He smiled gently. “Pet, if it bothers you that much. . .”

“It does,” I said flatly. “I don’t like baby names, and I think it’s rude to go on using it when I’ve told you I dislike it.”

His smile faltered a little and he met my eye seriously. “Now I don’t think I like your attitude.”

“My attitude is none of your business. If you don’t like it, you know what you can do.” I needed to get a grip; he wasn’t going to pay attention if I lost my temper and stopped being civil. 

“Don. . . Donal, I think you should calm down. I know you’re confused about the other night, I understand that it was a shock to you. We need to talk about it, to work out the detail, the fine print. These sorts of relationships aren’t easy, I know that. But I’m ready to listen as well as to talk.”

“That’s nice,” I said cautiously.

“But you have to accept, Don. . .al, that I’m Top.”

“You’re what?”

He stared. And then laughed. “Oh, I suppose you don’t even know the words, do you? I mean, darling, I’m in charge. That’s how this relationship is going to work.”

I looked down. I was beginning to grasp that this would be harder than I had thought, and I had been expecting it to be hard.

“Malcolm, we don’t have a relationship.”

“Oh, come, sweetheart, you know I adore you. That’s how we’ll make the rest of it work. I love you and you love me and all the rest – well, you know you’re the only one for me, ever, you know that. You needn’t be afraid of it. We’re in love and we want to be together and it’s going to be just fine, darling, just fine.”

Oh merciful God, it was going to be sooooo much worse than I had thought. I stared at him, feeling faintly sick. But I couldn’t. . . I had to say it.

“We don’t have a relationship. After. . . after the other night, we don’t have anything.”

He looked like I’d hit him. He looked like I felt. Then he rallied. “Maybe I went at that too fast. It doesn’t have to be that way, you know, not physical punishment. We can do other things, corner time or lines or. . .”

I exploded. “Will you shut the fuck up? I am not, not playing your pervy games! I am so not into this infantilism stuff! I was prepared to go along with you some of the way – I mean, for Chrissakes, I did the ‘naughty little boy’ stuff for you, didn’t I? And if you’d stopped when I said, that was O.K., that was quite fun, I enjoyed it that far. But you had to take it way too far, you had to go on and fucking on! Now will you in the name of God give over about it!”

He looked – well, frankly he looked smug. “And that’s exactly why you need it, darling. That sort of bratty outburst, that sort of tantrum. You know you need somebody to help you sort it out. Come on, we both know that however much you pretend it’s. . .”

I interrupted. “Oh, will you in the name of Christ give it up? I’ve told you, I’m not into that, I’m not interested in fucking doing it!”

“Mind your language,” he said, but I thought it was automatic.

“Mind yours. You’re not my father, Malcolm, or my boss. I’ll swear as much as I like. It’s not your business.”

“It’s going to be my business, my lad. It’s going to be my business because. . .”

“No!” I howled; even through the glass, Izzy must have got something because she looked up for a moment. “It’s not going to be your business because after you go out of here tonight, you won’t be seeing me again! Are you not getting this? N-O. No.”

“But our relationship. . .”

“We haven’t got a fucking relationship! Or. . . well, no, that’s what we did have. A fucking relationship. A relationship based on fucking. When it was plain sex, I enjoyed it. I could have enjoyed a little bit of your rôle play type stuff. But the rest of it I’m not doing; the daddy stuff? I’ve seen people in the clubs who do it and it does nothing for me. I didn’t realise it was such a big thing for you.”

Now he looked absolutely gobsmacked. “Rôle play? D-daddy? What in heaven’s name are you talking about?”

“This stupid. . .” I glanced hastily over my shoulder to make sure that Izzy actually couldn’t hear. “This stupid ‘you’re the big boss and I’m the naughty boy’ thing. This telling me off for swearing, and saying you don’t like my attitude and talking about standing me in the corner. I know a lot of people like it, I know they do special nights for it in the clubs and so on, and I don’t –it doesn’t turn me on, and I can’t do it. I told you, I didn’t mind meeting you half way, but you wouldn’t fucking stop. Some of that was my fault, I suppose, I didn’t insist on a safe word. I didn’t know enough about it to know how to bring the subject up, so I just assumed it would be O.K., and I should have known better. I didn’t like what you did – well, I didn’t like the extent to which you did it. It’s obviously a big deal for you and I can’t do it. And I won’t.”

He smiled at me, that sweet, slightly patronising smile. Odd that I hadn’t noticed before just how patronising it was. “Sweetheart, darling boy, you’ve got me all wrong. Oh, Donny – Donal – I’m so sorry, I didn’t realise. . . Oh lord, I’ve taken this way too fast for you, haven’t I? Honey, you’re not understanding me at all.”

“Explain, then,” I said wearily.

“Darling, I’m not playing. I’m not talking about rôle play or. . . or anything to do with sex. I’m talking about real life. I’m talking about me helping you to get your act together, to be – to be stronger, to be a better man than you are now. I’m talking about helping to get you coping properly with the world. I know it will be difficult to begin with, but honestly, sweetie, I can do so much to help you. I can look after you. I want to look after you.”

I stared, my mouth dropping open in a manner that must have made me look like a complete half-wit. “You? You can do. . . Like what? What on earth can you do to help me?”

“Well, honey, for a start, there’s your college work. Let’s face it, you’re not managing that efficiently, are you? You’re doing the work in rushes and then doing nothing for a bit. I can help you get that structured, and then once you get a job, a proper job, not a stopgap like that sound desk job in the club, I can mentor you a bit, help you keep yourself organised. Then. . . well, babe, what about the thing that got us here in the first place? You taking unnecessary risks. You were speeding, Donny – Donal – weren’t you? Taking chances. I can do so much for you, darling; when you come to live with me, we’ll get you a better car than that old rustbucket, and, well, you mustn’t be offended, but your clothes are. . . they’re very student-issue. I’d like to see you better dressed. I know you can’t afford much better, but I can, Don, you see; I’m working and I can afford to pay for both of us, and then once you’re working too. . .”

I had to stop him. Had to. “Malcolm! Malcolm, whoa. I don’t think. . . You don’t understand.”

“Darling, I do. I know your pride will make you want to say no to me, but please, just think about it. Just think, calmly, about where you want to be in a year, or five years – and then think about whether or not it’s really going to happen if you carry on the way you’re going.”

“I know where I want to be in a year,” I said steadily. “I want to be working here, same as I am now. I didn’t realise you didn’t know. I’m not a student, Malcolm. When I said I was going to lectures, I meant that I’m Professor Porter’s assistant. She’s doing a course for the uni on the effects of soil type on human decomposition and I look after all her samples and slides.”

“You work for her? Why did you never say?”

“I’ve worked here for over a year. The work is. . . well, there’s the TV stuff, that’s fairly straightforward; she does all the front of house stuff but I do a lot of the technical bits. I didn’t say because. . . because some of the rest of the work’s fairly hush-hush. You mustn’t go telling people, Malcolm.”

“Sweetie, I couldn’t tell anybody anything because you’re not making any sense. What’s so secret about being an archaeologist? Although I do think you might have said, and not left me thinking you were something to do with the medical faculty.”

I shrugged. “I am something to do with it. At least, I did a medical degree but I didn’t want to go into practice. My second degree was Arch and Anth. Then I came sideways into the skull rebuilding thing just as Evelyn put up the money for this lab and the company. The lab doesn’t belong to the university, it belongs to the company, and we lease out part of it to the medical faculty here. And then there’s the hush-hush bit. . . that’s the stuff we do for the police. Well, technically, it’s for the Home Office. The TV stuff is jam, but the bread and butter work is forensic anthropology, and most of it’s covered by the Official Secrets Act. You can’t help with it.”

He looked a bit startled, but he rallied. “Of course I can. Not with the technical stuff, all right, but with the way you approach it, with the way you go about working, I can – ”

“Malcolm! What was on your desk this morning? What did you have to deal with?”

He frowned, for a moment, obviously not pleased at being interrupted, but he humoured me. “Well, I had all of yesterday’s job sheets to be approved, and sent for invoicing, I had nine or ten sales enquiries, a couple of cost queries. . . something from the union rep about changing working practices. I had nearly a hundred emails.”

“I don’t think I could do your job; I wouldn’t know how.”

He smiled at me, obviously thinking I was getting the point. I went on. “This morning I had a hundred or so emails too. And a severed head.”

That shut him up.

“Literally. There was an insulated box on my desk containing the head of a Caucasian female, age about 25, tentative identification Ellen Mowbray, and a request for a report. So, come on then, Malcolm. How should I approach that? What tests shall I run? Who should I report it to? What forms shall I complete? Can I ask one of the students to run the lab work or do I need to do it myself? Do I need to call the police? How urgent is it? Are we looking at a murder enquiry? Because if we are, I can’t deal with it the same way as I would if it’s an archaeological dig. I need to know that first and then I need to make decisions on the spot about whether it can wait until Monday or I need to start tonight. What you see as being disorganised, working in fits and starts, I see as being the way my workload just is. Even the police stuff, it’s not like forensics on the cop shows on TV, where somebody in latex gloves puts a sample in a microwave and then tells you in ten seconds everything you need to know about a murder victim; it’s a long slow job with way too much paperwork and waiting for other people to get off their backsides and answer their emails.”

I stopped for breath. “And actually, I can only tell you as much as that about Ellen Mowbray because she’s not a Home Office case. She’s come from Norfolk where there’s a cemetery on the cliff which is sliding into the sea and the local church is doing what it can to recover the graves and rebury the bodies decently further inland. But the soil there is peculiar and the bodies don’t decompose quite the way they do in other places and this came to me for confirmation that it really is Ellen Mowbray who died a long time ago of natural causes and not somebody else who had been hidden in Ellen’s grave. If I hadn’t finished all the tests, I couldn’t tell you anything about her, and if I had finished them and I wasn’t satisfied with the identification, I still couldn’t talk about her. You can’t help me, Malcolm. You know nothing about my work and if I discussed it with you, I’d lose my job anyway. You can’t do my job any more than I could do yours.”

He rallied again. “Well, maybe not with the detail, but I can help you keep your life on track, be a mentor for you. . .”

All of a sudden I was unutterably weary. “How? You don’t know anything about my life. You don’t really know anything about me. You thought I was a student: actually, I went to Durham early because I’d been in an accelerated learning programme at school. I did my first two A levels when I was 14, and three more when I was 16. I’d finished my second degree by my 24th birthday, and I got Firsts both times. I don’t need a mentor, Malcolm. I’ve got Evelyn for that. That car, the one you say is a rustbucket, only has to last me another two months. Once we get into the next budget period, Evelyn’s going to change it, get me a jeep, actually, so that we can use it on digs and to get to crime scenes. Maybe you do think my clothes are shabby, but they’re mine, not yours. I don’t care much about clothes, I don’t want to dress up much. Evelyn pays me a good salary, I could afford it if I wanted, but I don’t want to. And. . . I don’t want to live with you. I mean, even if we leave out the question of ‘living’ with you, I don’t want to sell my flat.”

He blinked. “Sell?”

“My flat,” I emphasized.

“You own it?”

“Of course I own it. Well, the bank owns a sizeable whack of it still, but technically I own it, that’s how mortgages work.”

“Yes,” he said, distractedly. “I suppose. . . of course, I didn’t realise you worked here, I was assuming you worked in that club.”

“Styles? Only about once a month. I cover when the regular sound guy can’t do it; it’s quite fun.” And a good place to pull, too, but I thought better of saying that aloud.

“And the car. . .”

“Is a company car, not mine. And I’m sorry, I didn’t realise you were taking that about me speeding seriously. I made it up.”

His face. . . I really did feel rather guilty. “Made it up? Why?”

“Well, because you wanted to play at disciplining me. I thought you did.”

“But your car was in the ditch!”

“Yes, but I told you why: when I was coming back – I’d been dropping a report off at Evelyn’s, she lives out in the back of beyond, no mobile phone signal, and her landline and email only work about half the time – there was a deer came bounding across the road dead in front of me. I slammed on the brakes and it skidded past and just as I took my foot off the brake, another one came after it. Well, they’re big, aren’t they, and apart from the fact that you never want to hit anything, if you hit something that big, the car’s not going to be good for much afterwards, so I spun the wheel and hit the verge and slid down into the ditch. After that it was like I said, the grass was so wet and muddy that there was no traction, and I couldn’t get the car out again.”

“But when I took you home. . .”

“I thought you were offering me sex,” I said half apologetically, half aggressively. “Well, it never occurred to me that it would be anything else. I’ve got no problem with a degree of kink, I’ve got my own things I like, you know? I can play at yours. But not to that degree, sorry, and if you’re serious about them,” and I bit down a shudder – I really didn’t get the intensity of what he wanted – “no, sorry, not interested. I don’t do baby play.”

“But you must have realised that I was serious!”

I shook my head. “I’m not sure I was thinking very clearly about it; you said yourself, I might have been in shock.” And if I had been, what the hell had he been doing? What sort of thing was that to dump on a man who had just been involved in an accident?

“I just want to take care of you, I’m not talking about babying!”

I gave a snort of laughter. “Malcolm, you spat on your handkerchief and scrubbed my face! What else would you call it?”

“I want to look after you!”

“I don’t need you to and I don’t want you to. So far you’ve come damn close to putting me out of a job.”

“Oh now, that’s an exaggeration.”

“Is it? It’s not going to go down well with the Home Office if one of their contractors has a stalker.”

“A what? Oh come on Donny, you really are exaggerating. A stalker? You can’t have thought I was a stalker.”

I thought I could afford to let the ‘Donny’ pass. “What would you call somebody who follows somebody else and spies on his home and his place of work?” Yes, it was harsh, but it wouldn’t kill Malcolm to get a glimpse of how other people saw him.

He looked stricken. “But I only wanted. . .”

“So you keep saying. You only wanted. You wanted. You. What about what I wanted?”

“Oh come on, Donny. . . Donal. You wanted the same as I did.”

I shook my head. “I don’t think I did. Maybe that’s my fault as much as yours: I didn’t ask what you wanted any more than you asked what I did.”

“But you felt it too, I know you did!”

“Felt what?”

 He smiled at me, rather shakily. “You felt that we were meant to be. I mean, even that first night, you felt that we had something special. You know we did; there was a connection, a rightness about it, we would never have gone on so fast otherwise.”

“Why not?” I asked, failing to comprehend.

“Come on, darling, falling into bed on a first date? That’s not a safe thing to do, is it? I mean, I would never do that.”

“Wouldn’t you?” I asked, temporarily distracted.

“Of course not, and I don’t believe you would either. I mean, with somebody you don’t know? Not at all safe.”

“I know,” I agreed, “but most of us do it, don’t we?”

From the way his mouth dropped open, that was the wrong answer. I hurried on. “I did all the usual things, of course. I’d asked a couple of people about you before we ever left the club, so my friends knew who I was going with. And if I hadn’t sent Rachel a text by 9 the next morning, the cavalry would have been banging on your door to ask what you’d done with the body.”

His expression was turning to a mixture of dismay and incomprehension – and distaste. “You. . . you told somebody that you were. . . you’d done this before?”

“Well, you needn’t make it sound as if I’m a complete tart,” I said, rather insulted. “I don’t go to bed with somebody different every week. But yes, I’ve gone home with somebody from a club or a bar before. Not usually on a first date, I’ll grant you, but eventually you have to take a chance, don’t you? And it’s only common sense to take some precautions, but Steve knew somebody who knew you, and Rachel’s my text-buddy. I’m hers, come to that, since she and Simon split up. It’s just – well, like I said, just common sense to take care.”

He stared at me sickly for a couple of seconds and I made the inevitable connection.

“Oh God, you didn’t, did you? You didn’t take any precautions at all. You just took me home with you without giving any thought to whether or not I was a – a nutcase or a rapist or a blackmailer or anything!”

His lips moved but no sound came out – and I found, God knows why, I actually found myself nearly as enraged by this as I had been when I had stopped being terrified of what he had done and might do. “Fucking hell, Malcolm, have you no wits at all? What were you thinking? And,” because I was half sick with reaction to what he had been saying, “you have the nerve to tell me that I need a minder? You dare to talk to me about unnecessary risks? Jesus, you’re not fit to be let out on your own!”

“But I. . . I thought. . .”

“What? You thought what?”

“That we were. . . that it was something special. I knew,” and his voice strengthened again, back into that ‘I’m right and I know everything’ tone, slightly hectoring, slightly patronising – oh, I can’t describe it. “I knew that you were the one for me and you must have felt that too.”

“I didn’t,” I said flatly. “I thought it was worth trying to get to know you better. I didn’t realise that you thought. . . I don’t feel that way about you. Sorry, but I just don’t. I thought you were attractive when I saw you first and I enjoyed myself when we spent time together. I found it mildly annoying when you kept trying to give me stuff, or do things for me, but I just went with it because I thought that it was only that we didn’t know each other that well yet and you’d relax a bit and stop thinking you had to humour me all the time.”

He was recovering himself, and he reached across the table to me, giving me a familiar smile. “No, honey, I just wanted to look after you. I know that we’re meant to be together. It doesn’t matter, all this, it doesn’t matter that you’ve been misunderstanding me. We can start again.”

“We can’t.” I said it as harshly as I could. Obviously he wasn’t hearing what I was saying: he was turning it into his own narrative, some sparkly pink romance in which we would ride off into the sunset together. He was at twenty degrees to reality, or at least to any reality I knew. He was looking for a Great Love Story and I’d been cast as the second lead, despite not even recognising the audition.

“Donny. . . Donal, we can. We can go home and sort out what we’re going to do.”

I sighed. I was so afraid that polite refusal wasn’t going to make it, but I tried again. “We aren’t going to ‘do’ anything. No, Malcolm. No. I’m sorry if you think that you’re in love with me, but I’m not in love with you. I can’t make it any plainer, can I? Maybe, if things had – happened differently, we might have managed something, but it’s no use you saying that ‘we’re meant to be together’. I don’t feel that. Even before you. . . even before, I didn’t feel that.”

“But darling. . .”

NO! It’s not that hard to understand, is it?”

“Don, we can be so good together. Never mind the other stuff, I understand now, you didn’t get it. But you said yourself, you enjoyed it what we did together. Why would you throw that away?”

I exploded. “Because you assaulted me, that’s why! Because I was really scared of you! Because I’ve never – never! – had sex with anybody before, simply because I was afraid of what might happen to me if I refused! That was. . .” I was losing it, desperately choking back the word ‘rape’ because it hadn’t been that, not quite, not quite, although it had certainly been the worst experience of sex which I had ever had.

He heard it anyway, I think. The chair went over backwards as he got up, and he didn’t stop for it; by the time I had picked it up to go after him, he was at the main door and Izzy, her eyes like saucers, was buzzing him out. He didn’t look back.

Neither did I. I walked up the stairs rather than take the lift, to give myself time to calm down, but it still took me three goes to scan my ID card at the lab door because my hands were shaking so much, and once inside, I just stopped stupidly, trembling and nauseous.

“Hey, Donal?” Rachel was pinned to the big microscope, and she didn’t lift her head from the eyepiece; I wasn’t fooled. Izzy’s the worst gossip in town and what she doesn’t know, she’ll make up. I was prepared to bet that the moment I’d been out of sight, she’d had her hand on the phone. The whole department would know already that Evelyn had told me to get rid of that guy who had been hanging around and that we’d had a row in the interview room. “Fancy going out tonight?”

I shook my head, although she wasn’t looking. “I think I. . .”

“Pizza? I’m buying.”

“Rach. . .”

“And then if you liked, you could tell Auntie Rachel all about it, or not if you preferred, and we could go to the Ship and Star and swear off men for ever because there aren’t any good ones left, and drink ourselves maudlin and share a taxi home and then tomorrow night we could go clubbing and see if we’re wrong.”

I grinned despite myself. We’d done that after Simon left her. I sat down opposite her, and leaned my head on my arms, suddenly exhausted. And guilty, too, which I hadn’t expected. Not for what I’d said to Malcolm – he’d had it coming, for making assumptions about me, for trying to force me into the mould of some ideal partner without ever wondering if I would fit. No, not for what I’d said.

But maybe a little for what I’d done? I hadn’t at all liked the way he had looked when he realised that I’d seen him, at least at first, as a casual fuck. I’d made assumptions too. It wasn’t, I thought, my fault that he’d fallen for me harder than I had for him. You can’t make somebody be in love with you – if they’re not, they’re not. And he wasn’t really in love with me, after all; he was in love with some fantasy which just happened to have my name attached to it. But maybe I should have, I don’t know, been a little less inclined to take what was on offer without looking to see if there were costs? Maybe we were just reflections of each other, each of us taking what we wanted without wondering what was in the deal for the other?

Pizza? Why not, after all? And maybe I would actually tell Rachel all about it – there were things about Simon which Rachel had told me over the fourth gin, and which I’ll never, ever tell anybody else. Maybe Rachel would help me get a grip on it. I could afford to be a little sorry for Malcolm and a little guilty about my share of the whole thing. I’ll admit, I did wonder if some time, Malcolm might feel a little sorry for me, and a little bad about himself.

Little tart! Little slut! Oh God, how could I have made such a mistake? How could I have thought that it could be him, that he could be the one, that I wanted to share the rest of my life with that. . . with a cheap little. . . Oh God. Lying little shit! And I fell for it! I fell for the innocent eyes and all the time he was lying. I offered him everything, I would have given him everything, I’d have looked after him, and he was lying! And how dare he, how dare he say that I. . . I was only looking after him, I was giving him what he needed! Oh yes, he needs that, does he ever! I gave him exactly what he needed, and then he flounced off and pretended he hadn’t been asking for it all along. Pretending he hadn’t understood, that he thought it was to do with. . . Little slut. God, I should have known, I should have known when he was so keen to go home with me that first night. I don’t know what I was thinking to let him talk me into it like that, I never do anything like that. I’ve got a bit more self-respect, even if he hasn’t. I don’t go picking up easy tricks in a cheap nightclub. I don’t suppose half of that was true anyway. Assistant to the Porter woman? Junior lab tech, I bet. Gets the secretaries to call him ‘doctor’ because it makes him feel important. I could have sorted out his life for him, I’d have stopped him telling lies, for a start. Oh yes, I’d have put a stop to that!

But I’m well out of it. It’s a good thing I spotted what he was before I committed myself to anything. He nearly managed it, nearly convinced me that he was the one. But I saw through him, I saw him for what he was: a piece of cheap arse, no morals, no manners.

No, he can say what he likes, I won’t have him back. I won’t.


Idris the Dragon

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