That time again. Start of the cricket season – but not for me, I didn’t play any more. The only whites in the wardrobe belonged to Gray, not to me. I went with him, yes, watched him play, occasionally borrowed a bat and went into the nets and blocked balls back to one of his bowlers who needed to get his eye in. Sometimes, I would score for them when Sam couldn’t get there. I didn’t play; I don’t know what Graeme had told them but nobody ever asked me to play, even when they were really struggling to put together a full team.
Gray was vice-captain. It was a local team, reasonably good, playing in a local league. They usually came out in the top three at the end of the season; well, actually, there were three teams who waltzed around the top three places, without much to choose between them.
April was good. I can remember April, and being happy. That’s – well, that sounds like a sentimental novel, but I can remember it quite clearly: I was happy. I was living with Gray, and it was spring, and I’d had a promotion at work, and it was one of those times that comes in your life when everything just slots together and it’s right.
Not that I would have necessarily told you so at the time. I can remember the first match of the season. Gray had been out to nets several evenings; sometimes I went with him and sometimes I didn’t but I hadn’t been this season, largely because I’d been putting in some extra time at work. Not a lot, and I wasn’t being asked for it, but I’d said to Gray, I needed a couple of hours three or four times, just to get myself up to speed with the ISO paperwork. Once I knew what was going on, I’d be fine but there were lots of forms and an inspection coming and I thought I would like to be right on top, so he could go to nets and since he wasn’t going to be at home, I would stay late and turn the night service for the phone on and sort out the files. It wasn’t an issue. Gray had something to do; I had something to do. I would see him later at home. Nothing to make a production about, and we didn’t. We never had.
I went to the first match. I had done the previous season too, gone to as many matches as I could. They were usually weekends so it wasn’t a problem, but I’d missed one or two, once when my dad took ill and I had to go home, once when some disaster overcame us at work and I needed to put in the hours. Gray liked to have me there; I wasn’t the only non-player hanger-on: there were a couple of wives and girlfriends, and several younger brothers and junior team members who were hoping that someone would sprain his ankle and allow them to save the day in approved Boys’ Own Paper style.
Do you know what I remember most clearly about that day? Going in the car. I had been spanked before we set out – I can’t remember why now. Sharply enough that sitting in the car was less than comfortable, but not so hard that I resented it. I know that because I can remember us laughing about something on the way to the ground. I didn’t resent it when Gray spanked me. We had established rules at the very start of our relationship, and breaking rules had a consequence and that was it. Gray had always made sure that I knew what I had done to earn myself a trip across his knee and I’m sure he did it that time too.
There was somebody I hadn't seen before, though at the cricket ground: a tall thin man in a polo shirt who had come with Declan. Dec introduced him to people and Gray came out of the pavilion – pavilion? It’s a Portacabin, and a scubby one at that – looked at this guy, and said, “Good God, Toby, what are you doing here?”
“Graeme! I was wondering if I would run into you. Might have known it would be on a cricket pitch somewhere. I live here now. Moved in about two months ago, I’ve left the London office and got made partner out here. Declan found out I played and suggested I should come and have a look here.”
Just then, Bill came trotting out to announce that he had won the toss and chosen to bat and would Gray stop chatting and get his pads on, and Gray grimaced and went in to bat. I didn’t exactly like to pick up the conversation with Toby: Gray hadn't introduced me, and I wasn’t sure if that was deliberate or not. He had quite a lot of business contacts who didn’t know that the partner of his heart was another man. Several people only knew of me as Gray’s landlord and friend, nothing more.
Gray played well, except that he got out the way he always does. No matter what I did, no matter what I told him, he would not keep his bat down. He’s not a good enough player for that and he doesn’t read the yorker; when a bowler thinks to use it he’s skittled out round his ankles every time. I’d told him, and shown it to him in the stats and shown him in the nets but there, every player has some vulnerability. Well, except Sachin Tendulkar.
He came back, and Declan touched gloves with him as he went out, and Gray dropped onto the grass between me and Toby.
“So, Toby, are you going to come and play for us?”
“Think so, yes, if there’s room for me. Seems a good way to meet people round here.”
“And have you started with Gareth? No? Gareth, Toby and I go way back, we knew each other at school, and he looked after me when I went to London first. Toby, Gareth’s my Brat.”
“Gray!” Thank you very much! I was bloody mortified. It wasn't even true! I had never thought of myself as a Brat. Sure, Gray was Top, but we didn’t buy into the lifestyle. Not all the other stuff. And we never told anybody about it. Never. Not even the closest of our friends, the ones who knew that we were together, knew anything about that, and here was Gray telling some absolute stranger. I didn’t know where to put myself. But Toby eyed me up and down rather coldly, and said hello, and I leaned back against the wall of the pavilion and waited for the blood to stop pounding in my head, and the temperature to drop.
Not a good start, O.K.? It could only get better, surely?
It could only get better. It would have to get better. And that. . . Toby. . .
No. From the top. . . oh God, that’s not a good choice of phrase either.
We saw quite a lot of Toby. We saw more than I at least felt quite necessary. Gray said, with some justification, that it was only kind: the man had arrived from London, knew nobody, and the least we could do was entertain him a little and introduce him to some people. And somehow he was spending every Saturday night with us, and at least one other evening every week, and. . .
And I was jealous, I suppose, ugly though that is. He and Gray went back years together, literally. Nearly fifteen years. They were still, a month on, having the conversations that go: whatever happened to him? Did he go into the army in the end? No, he married that blonde from Oxford, the one who used to hang about with the Boat Club, what was her name? It’s so much fun, catching up that way with your school friends or your college friends, I know it is. I do it myself when I meet the guys who trained with me. Do you remember the night after the exams and trying to get Craig sobered up enough to put him on the Tube? But that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s such fun when you do it yourself. It is deadly dull when you listen to other people do it and you can’t join in.
They did it for their school friends. They did it for college friends. They did it for the people they used to know in London. God but it was boring! I tried a couple of times to get a word in, to turn the conversation to something in which I could join in, even if was the dread triad of sex, religion and politics, but Toby wasn’t having it. He didn’t want to talk to me, he wanted to talk to Gray, and Gray went all peculiar and accommodating, and wouldn’t back me up when I tried to bring the talk round to something new. I always ended up in the kitchen – we might be cooking together when the doorbell rang, but Gray would go off to make Toby a drink and somehow he wouldn’t come back; I would be able to hear them laughing in the living room as I finished making whatever it was, and dished it up, and later as I cleared the table. And then I would go in to join them, and Gray would smile up at me and say, “Oh, darling, make some coffee, will you?” and I would be back in the kitchen again.
One night I didn’t go in to them. I’d had a gutful at work – we’d had the factory inspector in doing a snap inspection, and I knew we had a limited period to prove that we were making all the improvements she wanted. So since they seemed to be getting on O.K. without me – whatever happened to Marcus? Oh, he went into the City. Who CARED what happened to Marcus? – I wiped the table and fetched my briefcase and spread out the paperwork and started to go through it. No, it wasn’t polite, but Toby hadn't said three words to me since he arrived and obviously he didn’t care whether I was there or not. Well, I thought it was obvious.
Gray didn’t. He arrived fifteen minutes later, saying, “Darling, are you making coffee? Oh! What are you doing?”
“I’m looking at the factory inspector’s report. I’ve got to get quotes for putting this right by the end of next week, because some of them will need board approval. I need to sort out which ones we can do in-house and which ones will need a contractor, and it will be a great deal easier if I can give Steve the proposals to go to the board this week because there isn’t another meeting until July. If you’re making coffee, can you bring me one?”
That, apparently, was wrong. I got a hard stare, and Gray said, in an equally hard tone, “Gareth, go and put the kettle on, make some coffee and come and sit down. You can’t just go off and hide when we’ve a visitor.”
I stared. “Gray, I didn’t invite him. He invited himself, and this is not a good day for me. I want to look at this. I need to do it: my work is more important than listening to you and him talking about people I don’t know so I can’t even add anything to the conversation. Besides, he’s here often enough that he doesn’t really count as a visitor any more, does he?”
He came abruptly across the room. “Toby’s right, I’ve been giving you much too long a leash. Pack that stuff up this minute, Gareth. Put it away. If you can’t cover your work in the office, in office time, then you need to talk to your boss about getting more cover. Coffee, and come and be civil.”
Do you know, I think I missed a trick? I think that might have been the point at which, if I had challenged Gray, he might have seen what was happening and everything might have turned out differently. But there, hindsight is always twenty-twenty, isn’t it? I didn’t pick up that ‘Toby’s right’; I didn’t really follow what he said about a long leash. I didn’t dig my heels in and say: if I’m coming in, you have to include me in the talk. I didn’t establish my position as an equal party in the house. I did as Gray wanted when I really should have stuck it out and made it plain that I wasn’t always going to do as he said. I should have insisted, if for no other reason than to have it understood that judgements about what I needed to do with respect to my job were mine to make, not his.
And the other thing that month? The other thing is really, really stupid. The other argument was about shoes, of all things. And the wearing of shoes in the house. When I came to live in this part of the world first, I was completely taken aback by the local habit of everyone taking their shoes off in the house. Where I come from, we don’t do that. You may do as you please about it in your own house, obviously, but taking your shoes off in somebody else’s house is plain bad manners. It implies that you are totally at home in their house. It’s something you do with your immediate family and with the people with whom you grew up, but not with casual acquaintances and never, never on any sort of formal visit, not even within the family. And as a result, I hate doing it, and I don’t ask anybody else to do it. Gray, on the other hand, was brought up to it, and so apparently was Toby, and all of a sudden, Gray came over all bossy about it. Bought a rack to go inside the porch and insisted that we were both going to leave our shoes there as we came in. Nagged at me until I couldn’t stand it any more, and suddenly it was one of the rules.
It was a bloody annoying rule, in my opinion, although it’s only this far past it that I can see why I found it so irritating. The rule itself wasn’t the significant point. Every couple, whether they have our sort of relationship or not, sort out the way they run their own household by negotiation and compromise. No, the roots of my annoyance were deeper. One reason was that Gray fell upon it at every opportunity; I was trying to break 26 years worth of habit, and his way of helping was to give me three warnings, and then to spank me, with some severity, every time I forgot – which was about twice a week. The other reason. . . the other reason was that for the first time I had agreed verbally to a rule to which I didn’t agree in my head. I didn’t see the need for it, I didn’t want to do it, and I gave in because Gray insisted. And like I say, suddenly I was being spanked twice a week rather than the once a month which had been the average before.
Before Toby. I had a very definite feeling that the world divided into Before Toby and Since Toby. And that I didn’t like it.
I went to almost all the cricket matches – well, there was one each weekend and it wasn’t as if I had a hugely complicated social life. My own friends I tended to see after work, or mid-week, and at weekends there was Gray’s cricket, and most Saturdays there was also Toby. I enjoyed watching the cricket and particularly I enjoyed watching Gray play. Toby had joined the club and was batting at three, so quite often he and Gray were in together, but more often Toby would sit on the pavilion steps, padded up, while Gray and Bill batted, and make remarks about the play. He knew quite a lot – but not as much as he thought he did. He tended to lay down the law to me, and after a couple of times when I’d contradicted him and been snubbed, I stopped saying very much.
And then the last Sunday in June, Gray made a decent score – and failed to convert it to a good one. Bill had run himself out for about 18, and Toby managed 30 or so, and then the opposition produced a demon bowler who picked both Gray and Toby off in successive overs. Gray had got his pads off and come back outside as Toby came in, and for once I forgot my resolution of not saying anything.
“Gray, you did it again. I know that bowler’s good, but he signals his yorker from half way into his run. You’ve got your bat up round your ears somewhere and then you haven’t the least chance of digging the ball out; any halfway competent seamer will get you out that way.”
Toby looked outraged. “That’s a very definite opinion from someone who doesn’t play, young man. Perhaps you’d like to tell me what I was doing wrong too?”
Yes, I know, I should have recognised that it wasn’t really an invitation. “You don’t know where your off stump is, and pretty well all the bowlers know that now. The word has got round that you can be tempted into stretching for something, and that you don’t move your feet enough. That guy had been tempting you into it for the last eight balls, and I reckon he thought those two wides he bowled were worth it to make you work right across. You need to look into that, work at it in the nets.”
All right, it wasn’t tactful. Not diplomatic. But he had asked, and so had Gray, and in fact Gray and I had been having the same conversation on this subject for the better part of a year.
Fortunately, there wasn’t anybody else in earshot – and that was just luck, normally there would have been half a dozen people to hear it – when Toby said furiously to Gray, “I told you that Brat was getting above himself, but you wouldn’t have it, would you? Now do you see what I mean? Personal remarks! If he were mine, I’d have him kept closer and kept a damn sight sorer, too!”
Well, I lost my temper, too. “There’s no need to talk about me as if I wasn’t there. If you didn’t want my opinion, you shouldn’t have asked for it, and I don’t think you’ve got any right to complain about me making personal remarks when you. . .”
But Gray’s hand closed on my wrist and he yanked me round and said, “Gareth? Shut up. Now.” And when I opened my mouth again, he glared at me and said very coldly, “I think you’ve said quite enough. Now apologise to Toby.”
“What for?” That wasn’t awkwardness, that was blind incomprehension. And he hauled on my wrist, pulled me off balance, and smacked my backside, hard – and somebody coming out of the pavilion did see, and gave a whoop of encouragement, obviously taking it as horseplay. “Gareth, you have been unbelievably rude to Toby. Apologise at once.”
I froze, swallowed, and opened my mouth. And thought: bugger that. “No.”
They both went pop-eyed at that: apparently it was on a par with a unilateral declaration of God only knows what. It would have been funny if the whole thing hadn't been so upsetting. I hadn't the least idea what Gray was so cross about, I hadn’t the least idea of what was going on, but I was working up a slow burn of rage myself, because it was beginning to be plain to me that Toby knew more about my private life that I thought he had any right to know, and that Gray was going to side with him against me.
The row went on for two days. At the end of the second, I couldn’t bear any longer to be quarrelling with Gray – I was in love with him, and he was my Top, just not quite the way Toby thought, and he was so disappointed with me and the way I was behaving – that I gave in. I telephoned Toby, in Gray’s hearing.
“Toby? This is Gareth. I want to apologise for what I said at the weekend. It was rude and I’m sorry.”
“It was indeed rude. I was amazed that Graeme’s Brat would let him down so badly in a public place; he was thoroughly embarrassed and ashamed of you. Very well, I will accept your apology” oh, graciously done! “And now I will speak to Graeme, please.”
I passed over the phone without a word, and went to sit down, and rather to my surprise Gray raised an eyebrow and waited with the unmistakeable air of somebody waiting for privacy before taking a call. I didn’t quite know what to make of it, except that my presence was not required. Well, I can take a hint as well as the next man so I pushed off upstairs and was curled on the bed watching TV when Gray came up. He clicked the set off as he passed it, and beckoned to me to get up.
“Come here, please, and we’ll get this finished.”
“Get what finished?”
“You’ve a spanking due, and you know it.”
He glared at me. “You don’t say ‘no’ to me, mister, and you know that too.”
I opened my mouth to say, “Since when?” and shut it again. I was tired of quarrelling, tired of being in the wrong, tired of the whole damn situation. If a spanking would finish it, I would have it finished. I know. Wrong choice again. That’s what the whole topping thing is about, isn’t it? Punishment for wrong choices, and I was punished for a whole series of them. What I got was a savage spanking – at least I thought so. Gray went on much longer than I thought necessary or desirable and by the time he let me up, I was howling – but I didn’t go to him. Yet another significant event, I suppose. I locked myself in the bathroom until I could control myself, despite Gray banging on the door and calling to me, and then I washed my face several times in cold water and went to bed.
That wasn’t a success either. I didn’t dare do what I really wanted, which was to go and sleep in the spare room, but I retired as far as I could towards the edge of the bed, and turned my back. He came after me, of course, trying to pull me round and into his arms, but I wouldn’t go. Even when I got another wallop on the behind, I wouldn’t go. He stopped trying after five minutes or so.
“I think I’ve had about enough of you and this bratty attitude, Gareth. I shall expect to see something quite different tomorrow.” And with that, thank God, he rolled over to his own side of the bed and left me alone.
We didn’t mention it the next day, or any of the subsequent days, and slowly we went back to normal. Normal-ish. We weren’t right – there had never before been anything we couldn’t talk about, and we couldn’t talk about this. I tried, a couple of times. I tried to tell him that I didn’t like Toby and I wished he wouldn’t invite him so often, but he just told me not to be silly. I tried to tell him that I really wasn’t happy about Toby knowing so much about our relationship, and Gray gave me a hard stare and told me coldly that if I behaved better the question wouldn’t arise.
I didn’t go to any more cricket matches. I found reasons not to – changed shift with Andrew, volunteered to cover for Mark when his wife went into premature labour and they spent all of the next fortnight at the special care baby unit.
I missed it; I was surprised by how much I missed it.
I didn’t go to any of the cricket in July either. By the end of the month I didn’t need to force excuses not to go; it was understood that Gray went with Toby and I stayed at home. It was also understood that Toby came back with Gray after the match, and that I was expected to have made some sort of meal for them.
I believe he thanked me once. That is, I believe he noticed my appearance with approval once. And he got me spanked for something – insolence, ‘bad attitude’, that sort of bullshit, three times. The last time was when he tried to kiss me, of all things. I had learned, the hard way, that when he left, I was expected to go to the door with Gray and say goodnight, not just nod from the sitting room. And he kissed Gray – I hated that, but I had more sense than to say so – and then he leaned over and tried to kiss me, and I ducked back and wouldn’t offer him my cheek.
His eyebrows went up again – honestly, the man had a sneer that would shatter glass – and he said icily to Gray, “the sooner you bring him to a proper sense of his own position, the better,” and Gray whacked me smartly, and said something like, “Gareth, watch your manners,” and Toby leaned over again, touched his lips to my cheek, patted me on the backside and said, patronisingly, “oh, there, I dare say he’ll learn. Goodnight, see you next week.”
So I was spanked again. That night, when we went to bed, Gray reached for me, and when I turned a shoulder on him, he spoke my name in a warning tone, and I was so sore – he had used the paddle – that I did let him pull me across to his side of the bed. But I lay like a corpse, letting him do what he would but not helping him, and not reciprocating, all elbows and closed eyes and mouth, and after half an hour without a flicker of a response, either voluntary or involuntary, he recognised that this time he wasn’t going to make it better that way.
Go on, ask me why I put up with it. I haven’t the least idea. Not a bloody clue. And no, I didn’t work out what was at the back of it, so maybe I am stupid, as stupid as Toby always implied. No, I didn’t go to college – I didn’t do A levels either. I’ve done some now: I did some by way of night classes when it became obvious that I needed paper qualifications. So I’m not a complete idiot, you know? But I didn’t work out what was happening between Gray and Toby. What had happened before.
And looking back at what I’ve written, it sounds a bit as if we had a fight every day and we didn’t. When Toby wasn’t there we were fine, mostly, and we went on the way people do, cooking, laundry, shopping, seeing friends. We saw other people, some as a couple; some were our particular friends and each of us went out alone. We went to work, and on a day to day basis I at least was reasonable happy – not unhappy – most of the time.
Middle of August and it went belly up again. Bloody Toby again. Gray wanted to take him on holiday with us, and this time I dug my heels in.
“No. N-O no. I am not going on holiday with him. You know quite well I dislike him, and he dislikes me, and I can think of very little worse than going away with him. I can’t imagine why you’re even considering it.”
The sky fell on my head. The quarrel went on and on and on, and Gray, who is very good with words when he wants to be (so why on earth did he not explain to me what was going on?) insisted that we were going on holiday with Toby.
“I said no, Gray. I’m not.”
“You don’t say no to me, Gareth.”
He’d said that before, and I had been so heated about something else that I had let it pass – this time I didn’t.
“I say no to you if you’re being a prat; yes, I do.”
He shook his head. “We have rules, and an agreement, and you don’t say no to me.”
“Our agreement never had anything in it about saying no. I’ll say no if you want me to do something illegal, or immoral, or grossly embarrassing, or plain stupid. I’ll say no if what you’re ordering is going to make me ill or damage my job prospects or make me unhappy in the long term. You just watch me say no!”
“You know quite well what I mean. We have an agreement, and part of that agreement was that you can’t change it when you’re in trouble – so you’ll do as you’re told now.”
I shook my head stubbornly. “I’m not going on holiday with him. I’m right this time, and you’re wrong and I’m not going to give in on this one.”
He threatened to spank me and at last – at last – I refused. I don’t know where that came from. But I know what happened after that: he grabbed at me, and heaved on my wrist and turned me round his hip. He caught me off balance, and he’d landed three or four good hard slaps before I knocked him down.
I think it was more shock than anything else which drove us the way we went then. I had never hit anybody like that before. Never. I wasn’t even a particularly argumentative child, I didn’t fight in the playground or anything, so the sight of Gray staggering back against the kitchen worktop with his nose bleeding was instantly sobering and sickening. Literally sickening: I thought for a moment that I was going to lose my lunch into the sink. That might have been the absolute end of our relationship on the spot except that I was there at once, babbling about “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” and trying to stop the blood.
It’s a genuinely shocking thing to do that to somebody, you know? To realise what you can do, what you have the strength to do, and the violent capability to do. I didn’t like myself much afterwards. It seemed only fair that Gray, when the blood had stopped, should send me upstairs to wait for him in the certain knowledge that I wouldn’t sit down in any comfort for some considerable time. He caned me: I hadn't known he possessed a cane. Three strokes in I wished he didn’t, but I took twelve in repentant silence. That wasn’t the end of it, though.
“You’re grounded. Until I tell you to the contrary, you don’t leave the house except to go to work, or with my express permission. I’m going to keep you close at hand and properly occupied until I see a change in your attitude, and then we’ll talk about this again.”
I clutched my throbbing backside and said, rather thickly, “I’m sorry I hit you, but . . .” And then I stopped. I wasn’t going to give way about the holiday, I knew that, cane or no cane, but I couldn’t think what to say about the grounding. We had never done that. I was abominably confused, you know. And I made another bad choice: I shut up. I didn’t argue. I listened in silence to the announcement that I could damn well go and clean the bathroom, and that Gray would listen when I was prepared to talk sense, and I didn’t kick up a massive fuss. I cleaned the bathroom. Still in total bewilderment, but I cleaned it. Gray came in after half an hour and told me to wash the window and the paintwork as well as everything else, and mutely I did as I was told.
And the next day after work, I washed the paintwork in the kitchen, and emptied the cupboards and cleaned them too. The day after, I defrosted the freezer and washed the floor and the windows and. . . well, you get the gist. The thing is, I had agreed to a certain amount of submission early on, and that certain amount had grown and grown and how could I say ‘no’ at this point when I had said ‘yes’ before? How could I object to being told to strip the bed and remake it unaided, when I had bent without complaint over the end of the same bed, trousers round my calves, and allowed Gray to stripe my backside with the cane?
But it went on and bloody on. Every day, Gray asked me if I were ready to be ‘reasonable’ about holiday plans. Every day I said I was not, and was sent to clean something else. After a fortnight, I was well nigh hysterical with boredom – he wouldn’t allow me the radio or the CD player or anything; I had to work alone, or more or less so (he looked in every twenty minutes to see that I was still doing whatever he had told me) and I was supposed to be ‘thinking’. I was thinking. Particularly when I cleared out the filing cabinet, and shredded the old utility bills: I thought a great deal, and I didn’t like what I was thinking.
“Well, Gareth? Have you come to your senses yet?”
“I rather think I have, yes.”
“I want to know what there is, or what there has been, between you and Toby. I want to know why you are so insistent on taking him on holiday. I want to know what the hold is that he has over you. I want to know why what he says is so much more important than what I do. And I want to know now.”
Dear God, it sounds like something from a bad spy film! And he responded like something from a bad spy film too – he stammered and hesitated and tried to deny it. Then I knew it was true: if it hadn't been, he would have been angry, not defensive.
“He’s my friend. He’s been my friend for years and he hardly knows anybody here, and I want to make things easy for him, that’s all.”
“Bullshit. Prime, unadulterated bullshit. He’s been here almost half a year. He’s got friends at the cricket club. He’s got colleagues at work. He’s got friends other than you, or if he hasn’t he bloody ought to have. So why is he here all the fucking time?”
He didn’t answer me; I waited no more than ten seconds. “Is it an affair?”
“But there was a relationship in the past.”
“Well, yes. But it was years ago, Gareth. It’s no threat to you. It was when I lived in London.”
I looked at my hands: I could see my fingers trembling. “And what does he want from you now? Does he want you back?”
He hesitated too long. I nodded. “He does. And what did you tell him?”
He sat down heavily. “I told him no.”
“But you didn’t send him away. Why didn’t you send him away?”
The heady feeling of power was almost enough to drown out the heavy panic and anger roiling in my stomach. Almost.
“I couldn’t. . . you have to see I couldn’t.”
“I don’t see it at all. You had to choose, him or me.”
“BUT HE WAS MY TOP!”
Well, all right, I hadn't seen that one coming. I had worked out that Toby had been his lover, but this?
“Your Top. Toby was your Top. And then you came here and you were my Top. And you didn’t tell me. He came here and you didn’t tell me. You introduced your previous lover into my house and you DIDN’T TELL ME? You didn’t tell me about him, but you told him all about me, didn’t you? You told him I was your Brat and suddenly he was allowed to give opinions on everything I did, everything I said. Suddenly I wasn’t an equal partner any more, and he was allowed to say that I had no manners, he was allowed to send me to cook and wash up and make coffee. He was allowed to be rude to me, and you, you didn’t defend me. He was right and I was wrong every time, wasn’t I? And that was just because he had been your Top. You. . . you prick!”
“It wasn’t! Toby’s been a Top for years, he knows what he’s doing! He picked up where we were going wrong and he advised me, he told me what I. . .”
“He did WHAT?”
He stopped and looked at me, and I could see him replay what he had been saying, phrase by phrase; he coloured slowly to a deep crimson. “It wasn’t working for us, Gareth. I wasn’t doing it right.”
“And ain’t that the truth!”
“See, I knew about getting you to write lines and stand in the corner and do housework and so on, but I’d just never worked out a way to make it go for us, and then Toby explained it to me, and I started to use it, to use them, to do it properly, and. . .”
“Properly. Properly means without discussing it with me. Without asking how I felt about it. Without asking if I were willing. Without, as far as I can see, thinking about it at all. Toby said you were doing it wrong and of course Toby would be expected to know. The fact that it had worked for us as it was, that I wouldn’t willingly have agreed in cold blood to all that other stuff, that we had been happy together and after Toby interfered we weren’t, counted as nothing because Toby – Toby! – said we weren’t doing it right? You told me I couldn’t change the rules when I was in trouble – but you did. It was O.K. for you to make decisions affecting me without discussing them with me, provided you discussed them with somebody else.”
He shrank from me; hardly surprising – I was shouting. I leaned over him, almost spitting with rage. “If I had deceived you that way, you would have half killed me with that bloody cane. You’ve been asking me to live by rules that you wouldn’t follow yourself? How DARE you?”
“I told him I wouldn’t leave you. . .”
“Thanks for fucking nothing! You had no right to discuss it with him at all without me knowing! You were still behaving as if he was your Top when your loyalty ought to have been to me. That’s how monogamy works, Gray. Him or me. Not both. You have to choose.”
He sat, silently, refusing to meet my eye, and I felt, physically, his failure to choose. Later, I worked out that he had simply fallen back into the habit of obedience to Toby: at the time, all I felt was his rejection.
“I see. You won’t choose me. Well, you can’t have both of us. That’s it, Gray. This is my house. You shouldn’t have made me sort out all that paperwork; it reminded me that this house belongs to me. You’ve paid rent to the end of the month; I want you gone by then. If you go before that, I’ll refund the rent. You can move into the spare room until then, but I want you gone.”
So final. He didn’t even argue with me. Didn’t even try. I don’t know if he went to Toby or not; I expect he did. He had gone within a week, leaving me a note on the kitchen table asking me to forward his post to his office. The last I saw was his picture in the local paper, him and Toby and Bill and the rest of them. They had taken the cricket cup.
The back stretch of the year was very long, it seemed. Autumn was very cold but that wasn’t the only reason I shivered so much: misery took me physically. I was cold all the time, no matter how warm the house or the office. The wet grey weather was depressing and it felt as if nothing good had ever happened before or would again. I moved out of the bedroom I had shared with Gray, just shut the door on it and slept in the spare room. Gradually my clothes and belongings migrated after me. It was the middle of November before I could bring myself to strip the double bed. I turned into a complete sloven, and the house, which had been clean and tidy after my period of grounding, filled with paper and dust. I did almost nothing – I washed enough clothes to keep me right at the office and washed enough dishes to avoid salmonella.
I didn’t eat properly – takeaways and sandwiches – or sleep properly. I functioned efficiently at work and after a while I started spending more and more time there, finding nowhere else I felt even partially alive. My finances didn’t suffer for the loss of Gray’s rent, because I made up the difference in overtime and shift premium. And because I spent almost nothing. No new clothes, no CDs, no DVDs, no exotic meals for two at expensive restaurants.
Christmas approached. For some reason, I took that seriously. Presents for my parents, for my brother Hywel and his wife Deborah, for my nephew and niece. Maybe it was just time. We all went to my parents for Christmas. I tried not to think about the previous Christmas, about making Christmas dinner with Gray and spending all of Boxing Day in bed. I wouldn’t allow myself to dwell on it.
On the 27th, Mam and Dad disappeared mid-morning to visit friends and Deborah took Davey and Charlotte into town to look for new coats in the sales. Hywel – my big brother, tact and diplomacy of an air raid – attacked.
“What happened to you and Graeme, then?”
I told him to mind his own business, but Hywel has always thought I was his business. He put brandy in my coffee and loosened my tongue that way: I told him. Oh, not all of it. Not the stuff about the spanking. Just about an ex of Gray’s turning up and Gray not being able to choose between us. Hywel listened and nodded.
“Bad business then, bachgen. Shame. But maybe better now than later? And you know he never really hit it off with the family; we’d take him for your sake, but – well.”
“That was Dad,” I said automatically. “Hasn’t ever come to terms with me coming out.”
“Don’t think it’s that, Gareth, no. He didn’t like Graeme. That other boy you brought home once, forgotten his name, the one from Bwlch, Dad liked him well enough.” He swallowed some more coffee and added mischievously, “might just have been that he wasn’t an Englishman, of course. Well, but no good going there. Time to move on, Gareth. Find someone else who’ll not put you down so much.”
It was quite a throwaway remark, but it surprised me. “Put me down? He didn’t do that particularly. Gray was always very supportive, that was one of the reasons it surprised me when he. . . the way he went.”
Hywel gave a snort of amusement and poured more coffee. And more brandy. “Are you trying to get me drunk? In the middle of the morning?”
“Damn, you noticed. Drink it up, bachgen. Do you good.”
I drank another half cup before a mixture of curiosity, brandy and the desire to pick the scab off the wound brought me back to what he had been saying about Gray. “Anyway, why did you think he wasn’t supportive?”
He made a face. “He was very encouraging provided what you wanted to do was what he wanted. And what he wanted was to be top dog with you trotting along in the rear. He didn’t like anything where you were better at it than him. Bad loser.”
I opened my mouth to deny it, and Hywel raised his eyebrows. I subsided. It wasn’t really true, but it wasn’t worth an argument. Presently he went on. “Dad always blamed him for you never taking up your cricket again.”
I spluttered a bit in my coffee. “Come on, Hywel, that was nothing to do with Gray. You know why I gave it up: I wasn’t good enough. I couldn’t make a living at it. I had to get a job which would pay the mortgage.”
He nodded. “And we all knew how disappointed you were. I could understand a season or two when it would be too raw, when you wouldn’t want to play, but we all thought you would go back to it.”
I stared. “How could I go back? You know what they said, Hywel. I didn’t have it. I was never going to be good enough.”
“Oh, get over yourself! Not good enough for the national squad, I know. We all knew. You were good enough for a winter in Australia at the Academy, weren’t you? Good enough for the under 19’s. O.K., not good enough to go on. So you threw a hissy fit and wouldn’t play at all. I’m your brother, remember? I know what you did. You had an offer of a groundstaff place at Glamorgan and you wouldn’t take it because you weren’t good enough for the nationals.”
Well, yes, put like that, it did sound a bit spoilt princess. A bit ‘I won’t be in the chorus because I wanted to play the hero’.
“And we all expected Graeme to give you a season to get over it and then to push you back in. You might have had to grovel a bit, and it might not have been Glamorgan again, but you would have got in somewhere, even after a year out. But he didn’t, did he?”
“Be fair, Hywel, he couldn’t. I said I didn’t want to play and he respected that.”
He snorted again. “He seemed quick enough to tell you when you were wrong about anything else: why not that? He wanted to play himself, Gareth, and he didn’t like the fact that you were better than him. He didn’t like it that you had the chance of a career in cricket – even if it was only a chance, and even if it never came to anything – and he was never going to be better than a competent club cricketer. He never said it to you, did he? That you were throwing away something you loved? He never said you were cutting off your nose to spite your face?”
“Cliché,” I said mechanically, and drank some more coffee, not dignifying it with a more reasoned response, although a small and disloyal (disloyal? Don’t follow that line either) voice at the back of my mind was saying ‘he’s right, you know, Gray never asked for your help coaching or anything, and you do know more about it than any of his team’.
“Gareth?” said Hywel softly. “Where’s your cricket kit?”
“Gone,” I said automatically. “I got rid of everything when I gave up.”
I thought about it. “Actually, I think it might be here, in the loft. I know it’s not at my house.”
“Loud applause. I know it’s in the loft here: I had to move it to get to the Christmas decorations when we got here. Why do you think it’s here?”
“For God’s sake, Hywel, less of the meaningful leading questions. It’s here because I didn’t take it with me when I bought the house. Because I didn’t want it.”
“Right. So why didn’t you get rid of it? Or tell Dad to, or me? What were you saving it up for, your children?”
Beneath the belt, that was. Both Mam and Dad were devoted to their grandchildren; I knew they regretted that I wouldn’t give them any.
Not like Hywel to drop a subject when he’s winning – he was winning – but we heard the car, and Deborah and the children coming back, and he said no more. Still, I was the first to leave next day – I had offered to work New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, skip the parties and take the money – and when I came downstairs after the final search of the bedroom for forgotten books and lost shoes, Hywel was just closing the boot of my car. I didn’t say anything. I could throw out my cricket kit as easily at my house as at Dad’s.
I got a cleaner, and lied to her, something about having been ill, back trouble, unable to do housework. I don’t think she believed me but she pretended to, allowed me to save face. I was sufficiently embarrassed by the state of the house that I spent a weekend frantically cleaning up before she came so that the house wasn’t actually insanitary. That’s Mam’s influence, cleaning up for the cleaner.
All right. I joined the cricket club. Satisfied? No, not Gray and Toby’s club, I thought that would be a sweeping gesture too far. I joined the one which had come second last year. I hadn't realised I was so unfit, mind, but the actual play came back to me easily enough.
It was time for me to take control of my life again and I did. I stopped working all the overtime available, and made more of an effort to see my friends. I went religiously to nets, and stopped thinking I was going to die every time I had to run round the boundary, and began to offer tentative opinions to some of the other players. I made new friends. It wasn’t enough; I knew that. I could feel the hole in my life the way you can feel a hole in a tooth – far bigger than it actually is.
I was rescued by somebody from the cricket club, Robert something – I wasn’t getting the surnames. Not a chatty man, particularly, but pleasant. He asked about my accent once, and said his partner was from Cardiff. I didn’t think anything of it until I met him one day in town with another man, who spoke to me in my own accent, close enough.
It was Robert who mentioned the club. Sure, I used to go round the clubs: I had met Gray in one after all, but I hadn't been to one in years. There wasn’t, I supposed, any reason why I couldn’t go again. In fact, Robert mentioned three clubs which, he said, almost apologetically, I might like. Two of them I had heard of – well, been to, if not recently. The third I didn’t know. Robert said it was a bit specialised, and when I pressed him, gave me a flier listing their events. Some of them did look a bit outré, I admit. Nonetheless, for some reason, that was the one I went to.
Who am I trying to kid? Not ‘for some reason’. For ‘Tops and Bottoms’ night. And it took me a big Scotch at home to muster the courage to go into town and I was heading for the bar for another as soon as I got there. It was just bad luck that I turned away from the bar straight into Toby.
“Oh. Gareth,” he said, in the tone in which someone else would say, “Oh, a cowpat.”
“Toby,” I acknowledged coolly.
“Are you here with someone?”
“No,” I said, still coldly. The ‘if it’s any concern of yours’ was audible, if unspoken.
“Still unattached? What a shame. I shall have to think if I know any Tops who are currently looking for a Brat. I’m sure I can find you somebody if I put my mind to it. I’ve met quite a lot of people here: put yourself into my hands and I’ll get you somebody suitable. A good firm Top, that’s what you need, you know.”
“I know nothing of the sort,” I said, with glacial hauteur. “Don’t put yourself out, Toby. It was plain to me a year ago that you hadn't the first idea of what I needed, nor the first idea of allowing me to have it, either. I can’t imagine that I would be prepared ever to countenance any Top recommended by you.”
His face darkened with anger. “Well, I can see your manners haven’t improved while you’ve been out of circulation. I used to tell Graeme to come down a lot harder on you and I can see no reason to change my opinion now.”
He flounced off and I gulped at my Scotch, finding myself more shaken by the encounter than I cared to admit.
“Who,” asked a curious voice beside me, “is that wanker?”
I turned, startled, and the young man beside me tipped his glass in greeting. “Gareth, isn’t it? Robert introduced us.”
“I remember. You’re Gavin.”
“That’s me. And I ask again: who is that wanker? He’s been here three or four times, and every time he opens his mouth I think: what a pillock.”
I smiled, rather grimly. “I suspect that he is my ex’s current partner.”
Gavin’s eyes widened. “Is he a Brat, then? He doesn’t talk like one but he was implying that your ex was a Top.” I hesitated, and he added, hastily, “Sorry, it’s no business of mine. Robert will tell you that my curiosity has been getting me into trouble for as long as he’s known me. I’ll get my neb out.”
“Oh, it’s not a secret,” I said bitterly. “Toby was Gray’s Top and then Gray was mine, and then our relationship went bloody and he went back to Toby. I expect Gray is Brat again.”
Gavin nodded sympathetically. “Sounds bloody indeed. I have every sympathy: I’ve been in a relationship with the wrong Top too, and it’s vile.”
“Oh,” I said, rather blankly. “Um. . . so Robert. . . you and he. . . Sorry. That’s none of my business.”
“That’s not a secret either. Rob’s only a part-time Top and I’m not a real Brat. We do some of it for fun, but neither of us can be arsed with the whole ‘Top making all the decisions’ crap. But was he – Toby? Was that his name? – was he right? Are you looking for another Top?”
I took a strengthening gulp at my drink. “I don’t think I know what I’m looking for – except not a Top like Toby. He wants to boss everything, I think, and I’m just not prepared to give up that degree of control. I just. . . I don’t know. I suppose I’ve never met anyone whose judgement I would trust to be that much better than my own.”
He nodded, thoughtfully. Then he grinned at me. “I know what you need. Walk this way, no jokes about not being in this mess if you could walk that way, and mind your manners. I will introduce you to the fount of all knowledge and the source of all good introductions.”
Which same was a woman considerably older than me, dressed in leather the colour of bitter chocolate and accompanied by a man wearing some artfully placed straps and patches, and a ball gag. Scary.
“Mistress Barbara? This is Gareth. His Top has run off to brat for that pillock in the blue shirt, and he doesn’t know what he’s looking for now. I told him you would know.”
Jeeeee-zussss! Was my whole life to be composed of people telling other people about my private life? I must have looked seriously gob-smacked because he said, reassuringly, “Mistress Barbara is the main Top here. She knows all the Tops and Bottoms. She’ll sort you out; she got Rob for me.”
The woman reached out and tapped him on the chest. “And you, Gavin, talk too much.” He wasn’t in the least abashed, grinning at her. “But you’ll fix it for him, won’t you, Ma’am? The jerk in the blue shirt was offering to do it. Said he knew suitable people. Implied that if he couldn’t, nobody could.”
No, I didn’t think he had implied that, but Barbara plainly knew how much credence to give Gavin. “I’ll hear about it, then, but you, young man, will go back to Robert and present my compliments to him, and tell him that I think you need to be spanked for impudence and for being a manipulative puppy.”
He made eyes at her. “You do say the nicest things.”
“Tell him I said to spank you hard,” she said dryly.
He shivered theatrically, but in obvious pleasure, and then glanced at me, suddenly serious.
“Listen, trust Barbara. Tell her everything. I’ll see you later.” He slid off into the crowd; Barbara smiled affectionately after him and then turned to me. I took an involuntary step backwards: whatever sort of Top she might be, she was certainly not what I was looking for. I can do without scary women.
“So what precisely is it you want me to do?”
My voice was perilously close to a squeak. “I don’t want anybody to do anything. Gavin heard my ex-partner’s new Top threatening – offering – to introduce me to people and me telling him not to. That’s all.”
She frowned. “So – I’m not getting this. Which of you was Top?”
Toby and Gray appeared like nightmares on the edge of the crowd behind her. I pointed. “Him. And now he’s gone back to the man who was his Top. I threw him out.”
She watched them for a moment and then shook her head. “I’m still not getting this. We’ll have a drink and you can explain it to me.”
I just went with it, although I can’t say I enjoyed the experience, and I sweated pints. I offered to buy her a drink, because it seemed polite, but she sent ball-gag man, whose name seemed to be Nigel, to the bar. Given that he could neither order her a drink nor, as far as I could see, pay for one, I was vaguely surprised to get a good single malt, in considerable quantity, and then I told Mistress Barbara everything, while she absent-mindedly picked solidified wax off ball-gag man’s chest, and rearranged his clamps into artistic patterns. I’m not sure that I expected her to laugh and I was inclined to be faintly offended when she did. She saw that and patted my hand across the table. “Don’t worry. Gavin was quite right to bring you to me: I’ll ask around. You’ve had a torrid time, and you’re entitled to something better. I’ll introduce you to some people, not because I think you would necessarily suit each other but because it will put you in the way of other likely people. Just relax and don’t try too hard.”
She was as good as her word. I heard later that she had taken Gray away from Toby like a predator separating the calf from the herd, and had questioned him for twenty minutes, before telling him that he had the brains of a banana and the moral integrity of a woodlouse. She had ten minutes with Toby, too, although nobody ever heard what she said, but the subsequent quarrel between Toby and Gray was carried out in full public view and included a good deal of ‘how dare you tell her that!’ on both sides. I’ll admit to being a slightly smug spectator.
A week after that, Barbara introduced me to Jonathan. Not a big deal introduction, but as she had promised, I now knew quite a lot of new people; Jonathan and I were made known to each other at the bar as an afterthought, or so it seemed to me. I should have worked out that nothing Mistress Barbara did was ever accidental.
Jonathan Galliard, his name was, and he worked for a TV company. He explained to me twice what he did, and I didn’t understand it either time. We did the delicate exchange of information which means so much in these circumstances, and it was plain at once that we weren’t compatible – he was Bottom too. Once we’d got that out of the way, it was surprising how well we got on: he was about ten or twelve years older than me, pleasant looking, and extremely intelligent, with a wicked sense of humour. We met several times at the club, and once by chance at the cinema, and then a couple more times by design, and we were comfortable together. I thought we could be good friends. I think the night it slipped over into more than friendship, we were both taken aback. He had asked, tentatively about Gray, and I told him, finding myself surprised by the way I made it into a funny story. I was getting over it, I supposed. In exchange he told me about his Top who had left him abruptly for a younger man. “He couldn’t get over me going grey,” he said despondently. “Couldn’t manage the idea of an old Brat.”
“You’re hardly old,” I objected. “And I wouldn’t call grey temples ‘gone grey’, either. Actually, I think it’s rather. . .”
“Say ‘distinguished’ and I shall scream and throw things,” he threatened. “‘Distinguished’ means ‘old’, everybody knows that.”
“I was going to say ‘sexy’,” I objected, laughing – and then there was one of those silences – and the rest. Afterwards, though, he was apologetic. “I shouldn’t have done that, Gareth. I don’t – I don’t do one night stands, but when it comes to a long term relationship, I really do want – I need – a Top. And I don’t want us to stop being friends, so we mustn’t do this again.”
I made some non-committal noise. I was beginning to get the first faint glimmering of understanding what had amused Barbara so much.
We met again in the club on Saturday night. When I spotted Barbara, I caught Jonathan by the hand and began to force a path towards her, leaving a bobbing wake of ‘excuse me’s’ behind us. The flotsam included Gray, who raised an eyebrow at our joined hands and said, waspishly, “Two Brats together? Won’t work, Gareth darling, never does.”
I smiled maliciously at him. “Mistress Barbara said you were an idiot, Gray, and I reckon she was over-estimating you.”
Barbara was at the bar. I was in time to buy her a drink and she smiled past me at Jonathan.
“How are you two getting on?”
“Yes, about that,” I said firmly. “Did you think that Jonathan and I would get together?”
“Well, I wondered,” she admitted. “But you didn’t need to buy me a drink to ask me that.”
Jonathan looked puzzled. I barrelled on. “Gray says we won’t do together. He says two Brats never do.”
Barbara smiled faintly. “And what do you say, Gareth?”
I took a deep breath. “I think Gray didn’t know what he was talking about. He thought he was a Top – and he’s a Brat. And he thought I was a Brat.” I glanced at Jonathan. “And I’m beginning to think I’m a Top.”
Jonathan’s hand jerked in mine, and Barbara laughed aloud. “I was going to give you another month to work it out for yourself, and then I was going to take you aside and explain it slowly and in words of one syllable. But I’m glad you got there for yourself; that’s much better. Can you do it?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I don’t really know how to set about it.”
“But I do,” said Jonathan, with a look of growing interest. “I’ve been a Brat for twenty years: I know what I want my Top to do.”
“Can you cope with a Top who’s younger than you?” I asked, tentatively. He thought seriously about it.
“I don’t know,” he confessed. “It sounds odd, doesn’t it?”
“No, you’ll be fine, I’ve topped a man older than me,” Barbara reassured us. “if the rest of your relationship is sound, it’s not difficult.”
I looked at Jonathan. “I’m willing to try, if you are.”
He nodded, firmly, and then he grinned mischievously at me. “May I do my first act of brat-hood now?”
“What,” I asked suspiciously, “is it? Tell me first.”
“Please, Gareth, I want to be the one to tell Toby and Gray.”
“Say yes, Gareth,” instructed Barbara. “We’ll sell tickets.”
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