I blame my parents.
Firstly of course, I blame my mother for falling in love with Jim Dover.
All right, he’s a pretty decent guy, who was a real rock after my biological father sodded off and left her to cope on her own with a 3-year-old and another on the way. He helped her, supported her emotionally and financially, and never pressed her to go any further or faster than she was ready to do. He was there to hold her hand when my brother Simon was born, there to repair the many bodged DIY jobs my so-called father had left half finished, there to take me to the park and push me on the swings, there to help her sell the old house, and there when she decided that some men were really worth the effort and he was one of them. So he’s a saint, so they adore each other – was that any reason to marry him?
And then to rub salt into the wound, not only did he ask to adopt me but I was persuaded, in my innocence, to go along with it. When the family court asked me ‘Do you want Jim to be your daddy?’ my big-mouthed 4-year-old self insisted stoutly: ‘He is my daddy’, and so sealed my own fate.
Surely my mother should have stepped in and prevented it? Surely the man himself should have seen that it was cruel and unusual? Surely the courts exist to protect children from this sort of thing?
But no. No-one did anything. And so began the long hell of my childhood as Benjamin Nicholas Dover.
Believe me, I’ve heard it. Whatever oh-so-funny remark you have building up behind that smirk, I’ve heard it before. All the knock-knock jokes, all the humorous book titles, and needless to say, all the excuses to get me in the position that my name implies. I couldn’t even seek solace in using my initials: B.N.Dover reads practically the same as Ben Dover, after all.
You wouldn’t believe how many people think just because I’m called Ben Dover that they have the right to lay violent hands on my backside. I got it from fellow pupils. I got it from teachers. I got it from bullies from St Nicks, the comprehensive at the other end of town. I’m convinced that on at least 2 occasions the headmaster caned me just so that he could have the pleasure of saying ‘bend over, Ben Dover’, when a good talking-to and a few hundred lines would have done.
In fact, practically the only person who didn’t seek every excuse to smack the arse off me was my dad. Mum had a wicked way with a wooden spoon if you pushed her too far and got her Irish up, but Dad preferred reason, and cutting off your pocket money, which hurt for far longer! The only time I can ever recall him hitting me was when I was 12 and was rude about my mother to him – he chased me round the garden till he caught me and administered about 10 extremely healthy whacks to my posterior. Scared tears out of me at the time, more because I’d never seen him get that riled than because of the pain, and I wasn’t sure it was something I wanted to see again. He apologised afterwards for losing his temper. That’s the sort of man he was.
Anyway, I don’t know why I’m defending him. Although, on balance, I think my mother is probably more culpable. If this was America I could sue them both for mental distress. A lifetime with a name that made everyone want to spank me – well, is it any wonder I grew up to be a pervert?
I think I knew that I was attracted to boys quite early on, but it took me a while to realise that the poofs and gays everyone joked about in the playground were me. Orwell’s 1984 has nothing on the playground in a boys school. No police state monitors its citizens for any suspected deviation from permitted behaviour with such unrelenting ferocity. Nor is so unforgiving, for so long, once such deviations are identified. Added to which, ours was a Catholic school so I knew that I was going to hell – which I envisaged as very like the playground, only with compulsory sports, and no reading allowed, and going on for ever.
So of course I had to keep quiet about my feelings (especially in confession), pretend that I fancied some of the girls from Mater Redemptoris, dream up excuses to avoid the purgatory of school discos as much as possible, and steal a copy of Hustler magazine from Mr Singh in the corner shop to pass around surreptitiously at break (I felt so bad about that afterwards that the next time I went in I left a fiver on one of the shelves in the hope that they would find it and put it in the till – probably got taken by the next schoolkid to come in). I also developed a fairly acerbic tongue, coupled with a nice line in self-deprecation, on the grounds that if I got in first maybe no-one else would bother with me.
All of which saw me through with a relatively unstained reputation, until the 5th form, and Andy Gabler.
Andy’s family had moved into town – something to do with his dad’s job – and he got a place in our school and very rapidly became something of a school hero. He was quite bright academically, but what counted for far more, he was brilliant at sport. A good footballer and swimmer, a talented all-rounder at cricket, and a demon at hockey. He was also a tall, lean, sunkissed blond with a devastating smile, and the first time I saw him I thought I just wanted to spend the rest of my life looking at him. You can’t of course: men aren’t allowed to look at one another, or not that way. A quick sideways glance, that’s all you’re allowed, to drink in the gold and rose skin, the little scatter of not-quite freckles on either side of the nose, the thick, wavy, heaviness of hair bleached almost white by a summer spent outdoors. The eyes the grey-green of an English sea.
I think I managed not to drool, but coherent speech totally deserted me for the rest of the day, so thank God we weren’t introduced at the time. I was happy to worship from afar.
Of course, it didn’t take long to find out one other thing about Andy. He was a joker – practical and otherwise. And sooner or later, that meant . . .
“You’re Ben, aren’t you?” he said, coming up to me one break, trailing clouds of glory and hangers-on in equal proportions.
“Yes,” I managed. Please, please, don’t know the rest of my name.
“Is it really true? Ben Dover?” Amusement fizzed in the grey-green eyes, but was there also a hint of – sympathy?
I flushed. “Yes,” I mumbled, looking away.
“Your mum and dad must have hated you,” he said.
“It wasn’t like that. I was Ben Horton until Mum remarried.”
“Bad break,” he said. “Ben Dover.”
“Go on then,” said one of the hangers-on. “Do what the man asked you.”
“God you’re such a wit, Sanderson. If you were as attractive as you’re clever, you’d be twice the man you are now.”
It took Sanderson a while, and a bit of lip-moving, to work that one out, at which time he moved to do violence on my person, but much to my surprise Andy put out a hand and stopped him.
“Come on,” he said, “leave the kid alone.”
I didn’t know whether to be pleased by the support – Andy Gabler protecting me – or annoyed by that ‘kid’. I was only 7 months younger than him, even if I was a foot shorter. Sanderson declined to make an issue of it, though he did punch me in the arm as we went into Physics, so I suppose he thought honour was satisfied.
But after that I seemed to bump into Andy quite often, even though we weren’t in the same classes. We actually managed a conversation, and I found that he was, well – nice. Surprisingly gentle for a 16-year old boy. Everyone else I knew was always trying to score points off one another, but Andy didn’t seem too bothered. Perhaps he didn’t need to. Even his practical jokes turned out to be fairly good natured ones. We sort of slid into friendship without my realising it. Just as well, really, because although I’d got over the initial shock of how beautiful he was, I would have been paralysed with shyness and all those tightly-repressed emotions if I had set out to become friends with him.
I even took to watching the school sports matches occasionally, when he was playing. It was the only place you saw a more ruthless, competitive streak in him, though he usually got angry with himself rather than others. Of course, I couldn’t do it too often, because I was known as a swot, and not interested in sport, and it would have been disastrous for both of our reputations if people realised I was only watching to see Andy.
But friends, that we definitely became; in fact, he became my best friend. I wasn’t entirely sure if I was his, because he had so many, but he certainly seemed to like spending time in my company, and he sat with me in those lessons we shared. This had its disadvantages too, since on at least one memorable occasion he spent half of a biology lesson pulling faces to try and make me laugh, when Mr Cridland, who had a lot of trouble controlling classes, and was I realise in hindsight, probably on the verge of a nervous breakdown, had specifically warned us that anyone who gave him any more trouble was going straight to the headmaster.
Needless to say, Andy’s increasingly loopy gurning eventually succeeded in making me collapse in snorts of laughter, and that little stunt ended with both of us getting four from the Old Man. Separately, I was both glad and disappointed to find out, although a mental image of Andy bending over naked for the cane did haunt my dreams for more than a few nights. Not that we were of course. Caned naked I mean. But we did get to rub our bums in the corridor and exchange rueful glances, and he did apologise for getting me into trouble.
But he might have become just another adolescent crush, if it hadn’t been for study leave. Built into the timetable, in the period leading up to exams, were what were basically mornings or afternoons off. You were supposed to spend them either at home or in the school library studying for your exams, although most of us treated them, in greater or lesser degree, as extra holiday. But we did do some swotting, especially as exams got nearer and concentrated the mind, and quite often two or three of us would get together in one of our houses and go over stuff together, with the aid of loud music, sweets, biscuits, and tea or coke according to preference and what people’s mothers were willing to provide. To this day certain tunes bring me out into a cold sweat worrying about how to solve complex quadratic equations.
Anyway, one of these afternoons we’d agreed that Andy would come round to my house and study with me. I told him to come for lunch – my mother, who approved of him (‘he’s such a nice lad, and he’s brought you out of yourself’) had made sandwiches, cold chicken, and cake. Mum and dad were both out at work, of course, and the Brat was at school, so we would have the house to ourselves until at least 5.
Well, we even got about 2 hours studying done. And then something, I can’t remember what, I think probably one of his dreadful puns, led to me throwing a screwed up ball of paper at Andy, who batted it aside with some throwaway remark about how I really would have to bend over if I didn’t stop mucking about.
“Don’t,” I said. “I’ve had to put up with those jokes all my life.”
And Andy, a little pinker than usual, replied:
“Maybe the reason that people want to spank you isn’t because of your name. Maybe it’s because you’ve got a spankable bum.”
I went scarlet and swallowed my glass of Coke the wrong way. By the time I stopped choking, and had been thumped on the back a few times, we seemed to have come to a silent agreement to ignore the remark. But it worked in my head like yeast in bread, setting up a sort of fermenting chain reaction of questions.
What had he meant? Did that mean he looked at my bum? Was he – like me? Surely that wasn’t possible? How could I find out? Throwing myself at him and yelling ‘take me’ obviously wasn’t an option. I wanted him to stay my friend. Oh, I was dying for more – I was 16 after all, and full of hormones – but I would rather sacrifice any chance of that than have Andy look at me with disgust. Than have him call me a ‘queer’, punch me, and walk out of the house, never to have anything to do with me again.
“What’s up with you, Ben? I’ve been talking to you for the last minute and you haven’t heard a word I’ve said, just stared into space looking as if someone had run over your dog.”
“Sorry, mate, just thinking about something. It’s nothing.”
“It didn’t look like nothing.”
I tried my best to smile. “Thinking about the exams. I expect I should just go straight to the dole queue and save everyone the expense.”
“Why do you do that?” Unexpectedly, he sounded rather cross, something I wasn’t expecting. After all he was so laid back about everything - sport excepted.
“Put yourself down. You know perfectly well you’re one of the brightest guys in the year.”
“I . . .” didn’t know what to say to that. “Not really, I just sound as if I know stuff. It’s all a bluff.”
“If you don’t stop it I really will spank you,” he threatened. “You’re my friend, and I don’t let anyone slag off my friends.”
“Andy, I’m a sour-tongued midget with a stupid name. There’s nothing about me to be proud of. If you had any idea what sort of person I am you wouldn’t come within a million miles of me.” Oops, that was just a bit more of the truth than I had intended, and I couldn’t quite disguise the bitterness in my voice.
“That is it!” If I sounded bitter, Andy’s voice was unmistakably angry. He made a grab for my arm.
“Oh no!” I dodged but he caught me, and wrestled me down onto my bed. “You are going to get your arse smacked until you admit that you’re a great person.”
“Andy, don’t.” He pulled me relentlessly down over his lap. He was much stronger than me, and being taller had much better leverage.
Smack! And longer arms, which meant that his hand was travelling with considerable speed and force when it impacted my backside.
“Ow, that hurt!”
“It was meant to,” he said ruthlessly. “You know what you have to say to make it stop.” He began to spank me, hard and rhythmically. I wriggled, looking for an escape, but he had my other arm in a lock, and I couldn’t get away.
“Andy – ow – don’t. Look, you’re my –ow – best friend, but I’m – ow, don’t! This is – ah – crazy.”
“I’m still not hearing anything like what I want to hear,” he warned. “Mustn’t be getting through to you.” He reached down, awkardly, crushing me against him, to pull off his trainer. I could smell his sweat, his aftershave, the pong of the trainer. I could feel his body heat like an oven. Suddenly, horrifyingly, I thought I was going to get an erection.
WHOP. Oh, thank you, God. The thud of the trainer distracted my body from its incipient arousal. A round dozen more set my arse ablaze.
“Andy, you don’t understand.”
“No, you don’t understand. I like you, Ben. I don’t want to hear you do yourself down.”
“But I’m . . .” I bit my lip in panic. I nearly said it!
There was a pause in the torrent of slaps.
“Useless. Fucking useless,” I said. “I can’t even play football.”
“For God’s sake, who cares? Do you think that’s the only thing that makes a person worth while? Are all your friends good at football?”
He hit me again. “So fucking what? I’m good at sport, you’re good at science. I can play hockey, you can draw really well. Ben, will you just give in and say it?”
I was sullenly silent, determined not to give in.
“Right.” As soon as I heard the way he said it, I knew I’d made a mistake. This was now a contest, and Andy Gabler didn’t like to lose contests. He pulled me up, twisting my arm right up behind my back with his left until I squawked, unable to move and inch. His right hand descended to my waist.
“What are you doing?” I hardly recognised my own voice, shrill with alarm.
“What does it look like? I’m obviously not getting through to you like this, so I’m going to have to smack your bare bum.”
“Andy! You can’t!”
“No?” He unbuttoned my trousers, yanked them down, then my pants, leaving them bunched around my upper thighs. Then I was back down across his lap.
“Please – I’ll say anything you want.”
“Better, but I want to hear conviction in your voice.” He began to slap my bare buttocks. It hurt. It stung like fury.
“Ow! Ow, gettoff, stoppittttt!” Andy ignored me, methodically working his way around the top and sides, and then the lower part of the cheeks. My bum was really sore now. I was gasping and yelling at the more enthusiastic strokes.
“Fuck off you bastard and leave me alone!” I screeched at last to his lower leg. “I don’t deserve this.”
“At last. Why not?”
“Because I haven’t done anything. And I’m all right, OK, not that it’s for you to make the judgement.” My face, unseen, was red not only from the position I was in, and the combination of discomfort and shame, but from anger.
“Ben, you are not all right. You are a great guy.”
“I’m a fucking queer!” I shouted. I struggled out convulsively out of his grasp and got to my feet, oblivious to everything but a flash of consuming rage. And stood there, half naked, trousers round my ankles, bum stinging, shaking with anger. “A lousy poof. All right? Now go away, and tell the rest of them so you can all have a good laugh and work out how and where you’re going to beat me up.” And to my horror I started to cry, slow tearing sobs forcing their way painfully out of my chest as if something inside was trying to rip me open like the alien in that film.
He grabbed my hand. “Ben. Ben, look at me.” But I turned away, quite oblivious of the state I was in, unable to bear the hate I knew must be there in his face.
Gently but inexorably he turned me round and put his arms around me, and I sobbed my heart out on his chest as he held me.
“I – I’m sorry,” I wailed.
“Shh, for what? For being yourself? For being honest?”
“But I’m . . .”
“Gay, you said. So what?”
Stunned I turned a tear-stained face to look at him.
“What do you . . . are you?”
“I – don’t think so. I mean, I like girls. Fancy them. But I fancy some boys as well. And I love you, you chump.”
“Yes, love you. Care about you. Want you to be happy. Is that clear enough?”
“Yes.” A rather watery smile.
“Good. Because if you don’t try to make yourself happy I shall put you over my knee again.”
“You’re a sadist,” I complained, reaching round to rub my throbbing bottom. I went to pull my pants up but he stopped me, pulled me against him.
“Don’t” he said. “I’d much rather take them off.” And he leaned into me and kissed me. Suddenly all the heat in my bottom flowed into quite other parts of my anatomy, and my hands were frantically scrabbling for his shirt buttons, his belt, his flies.
“I’ve never . . .” I whispered as we came up briefly for air.
“Shh, we’ll work it out together,” he soothed. And we did, not without a few clumsinesses. Twice, actually. And I learned something else about my name.
Getting spanked isn’t the only thing that can happen when you bend over.
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© , 2005