“I don’t want to go,” I said sulkily. I knew I was being unreasonable and I knew I wasn’t going to get away with it. Sure enough, I didn’t.
“Hansie, we are going to Piet and Phil’s for lunch. That is not open to negotiation. We agreed to it last week when they invited us; we can’t call them with half an hour to go and tell them that you’ve bottled meeting Nick again.”
Ja wel, that stung a little. The implication that I was afraid of him. I am afraid of no one. Well, except Piet sometimes. Ja, O.K., and Jim sometimes. I was most certainly not afraid of Nick. What is there to fear, hey? I said so. Tim sighed a little.
“I’m damned if I know, Hansie. He’s a perfectly nice, quiet man. He and Fran are happy together, he worships her, he’s been unbelievably kind to you and as tactful as all get out, and you’ve turned down three chances to go out with them, and made my life an absolute hell of embarrassment the last two times we did go.”
“I did not!” I objected, stung.
“You did. The first time you tried to pick a quarrel with him, and the second time you wouldn’t talk to him at all. I don’t understand you. I can see that things might have been awkward for you both – you revealed an awful lot of yourself to him, and I do understand that it made you uncomfortable. But for God’s sake, Hansie, you were horrible to him, and he just sat there and took it. I was thoroughly ashamed of you.”
I sulked a little more. “He despises me. He despises me because I am gay.”
“You’re not even bloody cheerful! Hansie, he doesn’t. He has less trouble with gay friends than just about any straight man I know. I like him; I’ve never seen any sign of him treating me any differently to the way he treats anybody else. Phil says he’s pleasant. Piet thinks he’s intelligent and likes him. If there was anything wrong that way, those two would know about it. You’ve just got in a state about him. What has he done to you? He knows too much, I can see that. And I know you didn’t want to tell him. Are you afraid he’ll talk?”
I considered, unwillingly. “Nee. He does not talk about his cases, or only in very general terms. He is discreet enough in terms of other people. But the way he looks at me, always considering, always judging. . . he despises me. Maybe it is not that I am gay. Maybe it is that I am weak. That I am still compromised by the ghosts of my past. That I am. . . needy. He despises me because I rely so much on you, on Phil and Piet, on Fran. And he wishes that I did not turn to Fran.”
“Imagination,” said Tim, flatly. “And let me tell you something else, Hansie van den Broek.” His eyes were very grey, very cold. He can have a will of absolute iron, Tim, and there are times when he simply says how things are going to be; this, apparently, was going to be one of them. “I’m not saying you have to like Nick; if you can’t, you can’t. But you will be civil to him, and you will do nothing to embarrass me in front of my friends, and you will do nothing to make Fran uncomfortable between her lover and her brother. Because otherwise we will come home, and you will have an encounter with the paddle, is that clear?”
“Perfectly,” I said, just as coldly. He softened a little, held out his arms to me.
“Hansie, I don’t want to. I do see that there’s a problem, but I can see as well that Nick is trying to resolve it and you aren’t. It’s plain bloody stubbornness on your part: you’ve decided you don’t like him and you’re damned if you’ll change your mind, and you’ve decided he doesn’t like you, and I think he does. Fran said he was very angry after he had talked to you; he’s on your side. Make an effort, sweetheart, please?”
When he looks at me so, I can deny him nothing. He has given me so much, and he asks me for so little. I began to be ashamed of myself. He was right: I was a grown man, I could be polite at least to Nick for a couple of hours. I smiled at him, rather shakily. “And you have threatened the stick if I am not good, so where is the carrot?”
He snorted and made a disapproving face at me, but his fingers were ghosting up my thigh. “I don’t do food play, you know that. Makes a mess in the bed. Carrot juice stains dreadfully. But I’m sure I can think of something you would like just as well. . .”
It was not as bad as I had anticipated. It was Saturday lunch at Piet’s with Nick and Fran, and Phil had made a good meal for us, nothing complex but everything fresh and enjoyable. And I was polite to Nick, and said nothing untoward, and refused to think too deeply about the way he looked at me, as if he at all times wanted to know what sort of animal inhabited my skin. We were on as far as coffee when his mobile phone rang.
He excused himself and went into the hall, and came back holding his coat. “I’m sorry, everybody, I must go. That was my Superintendent: I’m needed. There’s a search party being put together here for a lost child, and they think it may tie in with a case of mine from my own manor, so the Super wants me to go. Apparently they want to search the whole stretch across the fields to Milwell, so they’re calling in everybody in three forces who isn’t on duty.”
Piet looked over the table at him. “Is this purely a police operation, this search, or do they take civilians too?”
“I believe they’ll take all the volunteers they can get.”
“Then we’ll all come,” said Tim, firmly. “Have we time to go home and put on more suitable clothes?”
“I think so. I always keep other clothes in the car, so if I can borrow somewhere to change. . .”
And no more than half an hour later, we were at the police station. There was a vast crowd of people: Phil had called up as many of his team mates as he could reach, and I had done the same with the rugby club staff, all those old enough. Mike was there, from work, and Damian, and Janice the company nurse, and one or two more I knew. There was a group of police officers putting together teams of three and four people and giving out maps and instructions, and presently one of them said, “We need the towpath covered from Hales Henley downriver. Does anybody know that stretch?”
“Ja,” I said. “I run there often, from the big car park at the bridge.”
“Excellent. If you go with Inspector Maitland, then, he doesn’t know the area. And Mr Singh and Miss Milton can drop you in the car park and then they can go to Hales Eaton and start working back.”
Fuck. I did not want to be paired with Nick. I did not want to be paired with Nick. We went to the waiting car and I said, tentatively, “Nick, you would not rather go with Fran? And I can go with Mr Singh?”
“Won’t do. For one thing they’ve recorded how they’re splitting up the teams, and for another neither Fran nor Mr Singh knows the towpath and you do, and that’s the patch I want to work.”
So I shut up again. This isn’t about you, Hansie, this is a missing child. A child. For a child you can get on with Nick, ja nee?
But Here God, that was a vile afternoon. Horrible. Nick showed me how to search, and where to search, in places I would have thought too small for a girl of eight. We called and shouted and that in itself is strange, shouting aloud where there is no one. Nick had stopped looking at me, and was – actually he reminded me of Piet. He was absolutely focused on what he was doing; he must, I think, be damn good at his job. We were, I suppose, about half way back into town, when he stopped at a broken down wall and sat on the bricks.
“Ten minute break, Hansie. You can’t keep your concentration up otherwise.”
I was not unwilling. He had a rucksack, and he produced chocolate out of it, and shared it with me, and he looked out across the water and frowned.
“Why did you want the river rather than anywhere else? And how are you involved with this anyway?”
He did not answer me for a moment, and I thought better of the question. “If it is police business I will not ask.”
“No, it’s public knowledge. You’ll have seen it in the paper, I expect. There have been five dead girls in six months, all found in or near rivers, all younger than ten. I’m getting called to pretty well every missing child in five counties. It’s my case. And I’ve got fucking nothing!”
I jumped. Nick is so quiet normally that when he shouts, it is a surprise. He crumpled up the paper in his hand and hurled it into the grass. “Nothing! They just vanish. Two off the street, one out of her garden, one from her school playground, for Chrissakes, one from a supermarket car park. Nobody sees them go, there’s no evidence they didn’t go willingly, we can’t find where they’re held and they turn up dead a week later. I can’t find anything even to link them together. And they’re bloody children, Hansie, if I can’t protect them – if the police can’t protect them – who can?” He was despairing now, reaching into the grass to recover the silver foil.
“You cannot make the whole world safe for everybody,” I offered clumsily. He wants to be the knight in armour, that one, slay all the dragons, keep the children safe. All the children. Even the child Johannes, said a small unhelpful voice in my head.
“I can’t do fucking anything. It’s my job and I can’t do it. I haven’t the least idea where to go next. And if this is another one. . . Come on, we’d better get on.”
We did not talk to each other. We walked on down the path, searching the ditch and the bank, looking over gates, calling, calling, in case Elaine Wrigley could hear us. There was no answer. I began to break up the job. We will walk as far as the tree and we will find her. We will go to the stile and we will find her. We will go to the bridge and. . .
“Nick? The water is not right at the bridge.” He climbed out of the hollow of the ditch, and came to my side.
“Not right how?”
“I do not know, it is. . . it looks. . .”
He put his hands on my shoulders, turned me away from the bridge. “Don’t look at it. Shut your eyes. You run here, you said. When did you run last?”
“Tuesday night. It was not dark, I came straight after work.”
“Picture it. How did it look? Have you got it?”
I nodded, eyes still shut.
“Turn and look. How is it different?”
“The water itself was moving faster. And it has rained since then, it was raining most of yesterday. The water goes through here quite fast. The bridge is. . . when I was a little boy, I used to drop in twigs, you know, race one against the other in the streams at home? And there are sometimes children here when I pass, but the bridge is not good for that game, the water goes too fast. It should be going fast now, faster than Tuesday and it is not.”
We ran. I am strong and fit, but he had the legs of me, he is a natural runner, although he is an older man than me. We ran to the bridge and we peered under it, and there was a black plastic bag with something there. I felt sick. Nick dropped his coat and started to kick off his shoes. “We can’t reach it from the bank or the bridge, I’ll have to go in.”
“Let me. I am bigger than you. If she is. . .”
He shook his head. “Hansie, we’ve been in sight of the bridge for forty minutes, all down the straight. There hasn’t been anybody else in sight. If she’s in there, she’s dead, and the fewer people in the evidence chain the better. I ought to call for backup and have the scene of crime boys do it, but that bag’s pulling free already, and if we lose it downriver it could be gone days.”
“But I am. . .”
“No. This is my job, Hansie. I know how to do it.”
This was not the despairing man of half an hour ago. This was the focused professional again, the man I could. . . ach, I can admit to admiring his dedication to his work. I stepped back, turned politely away as he stripped, heard him gasp as he went into the water. It must have been icy: it has been a cold spring generally. He went under the bridge, and I heard him curse with a fluency any rugby player would have envied. His voice echoed amid the stone supports of the bridge. “Hansie?”
“I can’t get this out on that side. I’ll have to come back the same way. If you lie on the bank, how far under can you reach without going in?”
Far enough; I have a long reach. I got a hand to the plastic although my skin crawled at what I feared was inside, and I refused to think of that while Nick struggled back against the current. I tried to reach a hand to him too and he snarled, “Hold the fucking thing!”, so I did as I was told, and he wriggled back up the bank and lay for a moment, panting. Then he rolled over, and sat up, and carefully went through the pockets of his trousers, not stopping to put them on, for a knife, and cut the plastic. There was a moment’s silence while we considered the contents, and then Nick said, quite calmly, “When I am Prime Minister, fly tipping will be a capital offence, and I will bring back the old traditions of public executions.”
“That seems very reasonable,” I agreed. The bag contained nothing but household rubbish, messy and less than fragrant. The mobile phone made us both jump.
“Yes! Maitland. What? Where? Hurt? Sure? Good. No, we’re at a bridge. Hansie, where the hell are we? Where’s the nearest place we can get to the road to be picked up? Bendick’s Corner. How long? O.K.”
“She is found, then?” I asked, hopefully.
“Safe and sound. Naturally, five minutes after I went into the bloody river rather than before. Somebody will come for us in half an hour.” He was pulling his trousers on again as he spoke, and reaching for his shoes, and I turned away again, and went to pick up his coat from where he had dropped it, and his shirt on top, and he rose and came after me, so I held out his shirt, still with my eyes averted, and his explosion of anger took me by surprise.
“Don’t DO that! For God’s sake, look at me! You won’t actually need to scrub your eyeballs just because you’ve seen a straight man with his shirt off!”
It was so unexpected, so surprising, that I did swing round and look at him. He was scarlet with rage, but whether it was with me or with relief, reaction over the child, or what, I could not tell. Nor did I care. The unexpectedness of the attack dragged my own accusation out of me. He was quite plainly looking for a fight, and I would willingly give him one.
“Why should I stare? You stare enough for both of us. You watch and watch me – what are you afraid I will do? It is because I am gay that you dislike me so, is it not? Prejudice on your part. Well, I am not afraid of you. I have met prejudice before, I will again.”
He eyed me, oddly. “You are,” he said flatly. “You are afraid of me. You’re afraid I’ll take Fran from you. I don’t care that you’re gay; why should I? The prejudiced one is you. You’re a bloody dog in the manger: you don’t want Fran that way but you can’t bear that she should have chosen me and you’re trying to make it my fault. And I know too much, don’t I? You told me about yourself and it makes you vulnerable and you hate that because it’s me. Because I’m straight and you think I can’t possibly understand. . . ”
And I hit him. I hit him hard in the ribs, and he went back a step or two, and twisted and came in and punched me in my turn, and suddenly we were wrestling and snarling and punching and swearing, and he tripped me, and hit me twice more as I fell, but I dragged him down with me and rolled with him trapped beneath me. He was a quick, and a very dirty fighter, but I overtop him by about three inches and probably twenty pounds, and I thought that, and that he was older than me and I could beat him and. . . and suddenly it was like all those things came into a line like a slot machine, ching, ching, ching, and Hansie wins, only the winnings are not worth having. There is nothing for me in being able to win a fist fight against a man smaller and lighter and older than me, when I have taken him by surprise and hit him without warning. I rolled clear of him and held up my hands in surrender when he would have come after me, and he backed off, panting and hot-eyed. After a second or two, he retrieved his shirt and began to put it on; I could see bruises rising on his chest where I had hit him. I was ashamed. He reached for his coat too, and a sudden thought came to me, and before I had considered, I had spoken it aloud.
“Oh God, Tim is going to kill me. He said he would paddle me if I were not polite to you. When he hears that I hit you, he will cane me fersure.”
“What, after I arrest you for assaulting a police officer?”
I had forgotten that. It was Nick the man I had been fighting, not Nick the policeman. “Are you going to?”
He let me sweat for a few seconds before he said, “No.” And he fastened his coat, and added, “Don’t tell Tim.”
I stared. And stared again with a sudden change of emphasis. “There is blood on your collar. Was that me?” And I examined my hands and arms, and ran a hand over my face, and he stared, and took the point, and examined his own skin. “No, I’ve skinned my wrist when I fell, look.” Then he gave me a hard look. “Do I need to be afraid of your blood?”
I shook my head, not expecting him to believe me, but he turned a little away, and sat down on the parapet of the bridge, still breathing hard, and looked up at me, and said, wearily, “I’ve got enough to worry about that’s real without making up risks that you tell me aren’t risks at all.”
I sat beside him. I could not think of anything to say to him at all. Every time I met this man, I showed myself to be such a. . . a loser! Tim was right, I was rude to him, and then there was the event with the thread and I just fell apart, and now I was violent, and he must despise me so much, he must do! Why could I not ever show myself to advantage to him? I had no idea of what we had been fighting about, and I suspected that he had not either. And when he told Fran what I had done. . . I must have said that last aloud too, because he snapped at me, “What’s this obsession with telling people? I’m not telling anybody anything.” And he got up and started to stalk along the path again, and I followed him like a scolded puppy.
We came out onto the road at the junction, and I asked, “Which way will they come, to fetch us?”
“Don’t know,” he said, shortly. “We’d better just wait here. I hope to God somebody’s quick, I’m frozen.” He was fidgeting and pacing, and his breathing was rapid and uneven. I suddenly realised that he had put his clothes on while he was still wet – they were clinging to him and he did look miserably cold, and God knows what possessed me, I think it was picking the scab off the wound again, my conviction that he must scorn me for being gay and weak, that whatever he said, he was prejudiced. I opened my arms, and said, provocatively, “So huddle, then, like they recommend in the army.”
Ja wel, the joke was on me. He walked straight into my arms, no hesitation at all.
It felt odd. He is much of a size with Tim, and the same sort of build, but not Tim, and I did not have time to think that I was hugging Fran’s man, for I was aware at once that he was indeed cold, desperately cold, and I pulled a little back without letting go of him to unfasten my coat and bring him closer to my chest, to my own body heat. He gave a little grunt and shifted to get comfortable, and I smiled a little at myself, surprised that I could, and said, “O.K., I take it back, you are not afraid of a gay man.”
He snorted. “Hansie, I did one of those Outward Bound bonding course things on Salisbury Plain. I had to pair up with Sergeant Mallinson, and I was a hell of a lot more scared of him. He’s been married three times, four affairs that I know of, seven children, and can’t keep it in his trousers. I was definitely afraid that if I turned my back, I’d be knocked up in no time and he wouldn’t marry me afterwards.”
Ach, it wasn’t as funny as all that but it made me laugh, and then there was a car coming, and somebody to pick us up. We went back to the police station, and the others were there, and there was a sort of muted celebration air about the place. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to go home, I wanted Tim. Or Piet. And if I told either of them what I had done to Nick, I knew damn well what would follow. I wanted Phil, who would hold me and tell me why I felt this way. And I wanted, just for once, to fix it all myself. Maybe that was because it was him, it was Nick, and I was tired of this, of not knowing if he disliked me, of not being able to decide if I disliked him. In front of the others I will let my weakness show, but in front of him I wanted to be able to say: ja, I screwed up, and I have fixed it. And then to go back to Tim and say: now punish me for what was done badly, but there is nothing left that needs to be put right.
Well, but could I do it? I would never know unless I tried.
“Nick? I think that. . . I think that perhaps you and I need to talk.”
He looked at me for a moment, without speaking, and then nodded. “Without the others.”
My turn to nod. He looked at Fran. “Can we have the flat for an hour or so?”
Fran exchanged a glance with Piet, and smiled a little. “Yes, darling. If somebody else will take me in as a refugee.”
“Us,” said Phil, briskly. “I’m going home for a cup of tea, I’m tired. Then I’m going to watch TV and not think for a while. Anybody else who fancies that is welcome to come with me. There’s chocolate cake.”
That apparently did it. It’s not a usual skill for a man, but Phil makes a remarkable chocolate cake. I was almost tempted to abandon Nick and go with the others, because Tim went too, but I climbed into the car with Nick and we went to Fran’s place. Inside the door, Nick headed for the kitchen. “I’ll put the kettle on and get a sweater and we can talk.”
“Ah, can I make a suggestion? I will make the coffee, and you go and shower. That river is not the cleanest, and. . . well, as cologne goes, it leaves something to be desired.”
He raised the back of his hand to his nose, and grimaced. “You could be right. The coffee is in that cupboard and. . .”
“Ja, I know. I lived here a while, remember, and. . . What? Why do you look at me like that?”
“You lived here?”
“Ja, when I left Tim. Fran did not tell you that?”
“No,” he said grimly, “she did not.”
I considered it. “Ach, look, that is because she will not tell you my business. This does not work, I see that. I will tell her that she should tell you whatever she wishes.”
He nodded. “Yes. Thank you. And today, I think perhaps we should agree that we say what we mean. I am not trying to get at you, you are not trying to get at me. Don’t extrapolate what I might mean about gay men in general from what I say to you. Accept that – that if I say the coffee is hot, I mean it’s hot, not that it’s too hot or not hot enough or that I wanted tea or anything.”
“Ja, O.K., I will make coffee. You go and shower. We will talk.”
The shower was welcome; I was still cold. And confused. Hansie had been bloody odd all day, first of all at lunch when he was coolly civil as if he had never met me before and wasn’t bothered if he never did again, and then out on the search when he was passionate with the need to help, and then arctic when I undressed, turning away with Victorian shocked modesty, and then the fight, and the ‘huddle’ suggestion – oh, yes, I knew that had been deliberate provocation – and yet when he realised how cold I actually was, he was passionate to help again. And now suddenly he wanted to talk to me, and I had wanted to talk to him for weeks, but I hadn’t been able to work out if he would be willing, or how to approach him, or even if he was the best one to talk to, or if, combined with the knowledge I had about his life history, he would see questions as vulgarly intrusive. He’s such a survivor, I could tell that from what he had told me, and. . . well, I liked him. I wanted him to like me, and I didn’t think he did much, and it wasn’t going to help that I had provoked him into a fight. I wasn’t terrifically comfortable, mind you. He’s a big strong man, bigger than me, and he hits bloody hard. There were several puce patches on my ribs where he had hit me, and a tender place on my jaw, too.
But I showered and I dressed and I went back out to the sitting room where Hansie was pouring coffee, and I sat down opposite him.
“I’m stuck, Hansie,” I said bluntly. “I don’t know what’s going on, and I’ve come to all this too late, so I’ve gone in at the deep end. I don’t know any more than the basic vocabulary, and I don’t know how to use that properly. Fran’s wonderful, she’s babying me in so that I don’t panic, but I could do with some help.”
He looked at me in total, unfeignable bewilderment. The man hadn’t the faintest idea what I was asking him.
“Some help with what?”
“With. . . with all this Tops and Bottoms stuff. I don’t know what I’m doing. I talk to Fran, and she tells me I can effectively do as much or as little as I like, and I’m scared of that because every time I think about it I want to do more. And then. . .” this was embarrassing, oh God, it was embarrassing! “Then I can see that what you and Tim do is different, and I don’t know what the rules of that are either and I don’t know where to find out. I need to ask somebody, but who can I ask without. . . This isn’t something I can discuss with the guys at work!”
He was still giving me the blank look. “So talk to Fran. She is your Top, talk to her.”
I shook my head. “I do, but I want to talk to another man. I need to know stuff and. . . I’ve been trying to work out for weeks if I could ask you, and look, if it really bothers you, don’t, but tell me where I can go for some help. I know you and Tim do it, I know you and de Vries do something, I can guess that Phil and de Vries do it, and you’re the only people I know who do. I didn’t want you thinking that I would abuse your confidence, I know you told me. . . what you told me because you needed to rather than because you wanted to, but I can’t see where else to go.”
The blank look was changing to one of discomfort. “You have been thinking this for weeks? Is that why you were watching me?”
“Yes. I wanted to see if I could get enough of a handle on you to work out whether I could ask you for help.”
He blushed suddenly, an ugly brick red. “I thought you were judging me when you watched all the time.”
“I was – no! No, certainly not. This is about me, not about you. Oh hell, look, forget it, it was a stupid thing, forget about it. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“No,” he said slowly. “It is not stupid. Tim and I have learned, quite recently, several lessons about asking for help when you need it. And you have the right.”
I shook my head. “What you told me doesn’t confer any rights on me.”
“No, not for that, but because you are one of us.”
Now I was bewildered. “Sorry?”
“Why do you think we all came out today to search? You are Fran’s man, and therefore you are one of us.”
“You came out for Fran’s sake?”
“Nee, not exactly. If Fran had a. . . a casual lover, then it would be for Fran’s sake. But you are not casual, are you? You and she, it is serious. So you are therefore one of the family and your needs are our needs.”
I drank some more coffee and considered that. “You mean I’ve acquired a. . . a. . . a set of in-laws and nobody mentioned it?”
“Ja. More or less. Fran is my sister, you are Fran’s man, you are my brother-in-law. Tim is my partner, Phil is my brother, Piet is Phil’s partner. You have a full set of in-laws. You had not realised?”
No, I bloody hadn’t. What on earth did I make of that?
“And we can any of us ask the others for the help we need.”
“Like what?” I asked, suspiciously. He grinned at me.
“Ach, we will not ask you to cancel our parking tickets. But when you need bodies for a search party, we will come, and we will call our own friends and ask them to come too.”
Right. In-laws. They couldn’t be worse than Kate’s family. Could they? More coffee. Intravenous caffeine.
Only I didn’t know how to get back to the original subject, so I just went in boots and all.
“Right. I need help, please. I need information.”
Hansie sighed. ”I think I am not the right person for this. You should talk to Fran.”
“I need to talk to another man.”
“Then you should talk to Piet.”
“To de Vries? Why him? He’s a Top. What would he know about. . . um. . .”
“He is a Top, ja, and an experienced one. There is very little he does not know about how it works.”
“No. Not de Vries.”
Hansie looked at me, consideringly. “Perhaps not,” he conceded. “Not if you still call him by his surname. O.K. I will try. I make no promises but I will try. What do you want to know?”
And put that simply, I didn’t know. Eventually, he helped. “You said something about what you do being different to what I do.”
“Yes. Yes, start with that.”
“Well, you do not switch, for one thing, do you? Fran is always Top. But I am not. Is that what you want to do?”
No, definitely not. “But. . . you said, before” (a glance to see that he wasn’t too upset at the mention of that time at his house) “that punishment is important. And I don’t get that. Do you mean that Tim. . . what do you mean?”
“Punishment was perhaps the wrong word. Absolution is better. Tim and I have a. . . quarrel, maybe. Conflict. I am in the wrong and this is our way of making it up. We say: Hansie did this and this and should not have done. So it is paid for this way and all is over. No quarrel. This is not what you do?”
He frowned a little. “But I have seen you, with Fran. You push, you brat a little. The sharp comment, whatever. The failure of courtesy. And she looks at you so, and you subside. She does not punish this?”
“It isn’t real. The – what did you call it? The bratting. It isn’t real and Fran knows that.”
“Aaaaah, ja, I see. So she does not punish; it is all play.”
“Yes,” I said with huge relief. “That’s exactly it. Is that usual?”
He looked sideways at me. “This is a field in which you expect ‘usual’? O.K., I know now where you are. You are where I was at nineteen, when I thought: oh, God, I am a complete pervert, this is all wrong, this is not how it is supposed to be. There has never been anyone as complete a weird as me.”
“Weirdo,” I said absently.
“Ja, thank you. O.K. You are no odder than any of us. You play only. I believe that is very common.”
“But how common is it to want to do more and more?”
“To want punishment as well?”
“No, I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s it exactly. I don’t want to end up with Fran judging my decisions or. . . hell. This sounds. . . I’m not saying that it’s wrong for you, Hansie. . .”
He waved a dismissive hand. “That is understood. You are not me, your needs and desires are different. The punishment is not for you. But you are looking for extreme play, perhaps?”
“I’m scared of it.” There, that was the difficult confession. “Not scared to do it, I don’t mean that. I’m scared that I’m not scared.”
“Now I do not understand you.”
“Fran does a little more each time. And she wants to know each time what was good for me. She goes on about safety and safe words and the rest, and all I can think is, no, never mind that, more, more, more! It’s addictive. I think that’s what I’m scared of, that I’ve smoked my first reefer and before I know it I’ll be hiding in doorways and sharing needles and mugging old ladies to pay my dealer.”
“Ja, I see. But there is not just you. Look, I have never done this, played in the clubs and so on, but Tim has, and when we first met Fran and knew what she did, he asked around. She has a good reputation as a safe player. So you tell her what you have told me, that you fear – escalation, would you call it that? – and therefore she will be aware that it is a risk. And you agree that she is Top and that therefore the decision about the stopping point is hers and you may choose to stop sooner but never to overrule her and go on.”
“Can I do that?”
“It is play, and in play you may do what you will. You make the rules which work for you both.”
I shut my eyes for a moment. “But there’s something else. Something which isn’t play but I don’t think it’s punishment, either. I don’t know what it is.”
He frowned. “I will need more to work on, I think.”
I struggled. “Look, this case I’ve got. The children. Five dead children. Three white, one black, one Asian. All different ages, all taken from different places. One from an inner city slum, one from a stockbroker garden, three from ordinary middle class households. I can’t see the link. I don’t even know if there is a link. If there isn’t a link, then this man (it is a man, Hansie, definitely, but we haven’t let that piece of information out, so keep it to yourself) is picking them at random and the locations aren’t about them, they’re about him. I don’t know who or what he is to be in such diverse places and to be so bloody invisible. He’s like G K Chesterton’s postman, you know the story? Except that he’s up and down the country.” I stopped and took another mouthful of coffee.
“But somebody somewhere knows. And I could know. I must know or more children will die. The profiling people say he won’t stop and he may escalate too, just like me. It’s my responsibility to stop him.”
I looked up. “Intellectually, I know it’s not my fault those children are dead. Intellectually. My head knows it. My heart doesn’t believe that and nor does my gut. They tell me if I could do my job properly, if I was any damn good at it, four of those children would be alive. And those children and all the other cases I’ve got, and every – every disaster where I’m running to keep up, they make this huge noisy carnival in my head. If I could make them all shut up, I could hear what’s going on. I could be a better detective if I could – could disengage from it. From them. And sometimes, with Fran, I can. Sometimes she can make it so that my body silences my head. When she hurts me” – I still can’t believe I said that so clinically, except that Hansie was nodding, he understood – “I can use the noise of my body as white noise to drown out the other stuff. It’s like Fran gives me permission to put down all the excess baggage I’m carrying. Afterwards, I think more clearly. I need that. Not often, I don’t think, but I need it and I don’t know how to get it. Does that make any sense at all?”
“Oh, ja,” he said soberly. “That I know. With me it is guilt. When I have done something truly dreadful, the guilt shouts at me just so. And the pain cancels it and then it is gone. So you need to ask Fran to do that for you sometimes.”
“How?” I asked despairingly. “That’s not play for her, that’s something purely for me. And I can’t say: Fran, I want you to. . .” I gagged, even saying it to him.
“You must. You must say it once, explain to her as you have to me. Then you have a signal. That is easy. Like a safe word, only in reverse, hey? And why should you not ask her? She would not be forced to oblige you if she did not wish. Do you not do things for her that you do not care for? Not just” a gesture “not just these matters of your relationship. But you go with her to a film that does not interest you, you let her choose Indian takeaway although tonight you would prefer Chinese, that sort of thing. Ask her. She knows about giving people what they need as well as what they want. When she. . . Oh. She will not have told you that, either.”
“Told me what?”
“That she has topped me.”
Second shirt of the day dead. That one I put on after I had been in the river has odd water marks and I’m not sure I want it back. This one was covered in coffee, and coffee stains don’t come out.
“It was nothing that you would think improper.” That came very quickly. “It was a pure punishment with nothing. . . Look, I had been very stupid. Very, very stupid. I had all but killed myself by being thoughtless and careless. Tim was in America, Piet and Phil were away, and I was stupid. And I felt so. . . well, you know. My guilt shouted in my head like your demons. I could not cope, not even a little. So Tim arranged with Fran that I needed a punishment, and Fran did it. And you will not ask, but I will tell you anyway – I had my shorts on throughout, for all the good they did me.”
God, men are competitive. The question slipped out before I had realised that I had thought it. “How does she compare with Tim?”
He laughed at me a little. “Less long term effect but more immediate bite. She is damn effective, hey? I had the marks a good long time. But she made my head right again; if that is what you need, explain it to her and she will make your head right too.”
Fran topping Hansie; Fran topping. . . “I think I want a drink. There’s some brandy here somewhere.”
We drank quite a lot of it in the end. And then we rang Tim, so that he could drive Fran here and take Hansie home.
“To my doom,” said Hansie, cheerfully.
“Is it likely to be doom?”
“Throwing a punch at you? Ja, that will cost me a dozen, I should think. I will not die of it.”
“Don’t tell him. I won’t.”
He stared. “That is not how it works. I should not have done it. I could see that you were stressed, and I am quite old enough to know how to turn away a quarrel. So I will tell Tim and that will be that. I will not have to wake up tomorrow, thinking: Hansie is an adolescent fool who picks fights with policemen. The whole business will be over as far as my guilt is concerned, and you may arrest me or not as you please.”
“Well, but that’s not fair. I picked the fight.”
“And I won’t be punished for it.”
He shrugged. “Because you do not need to be. You can say: I made a mistake, foolish of me, I will not do so again. I cannot do that, Nick. I need – what is that word the Americans use so much? Closure. Tim will give me that. You achieve your own closure.”
“That’s not fair, though!”
“And perhaps that is your problem, hey? That life is not fair? That it is your task to make it fair? To fight on the side of the innocent and the vulnerable, to even up the odds? If you do that, every day, I am impressed. Do not go looking for more trouble than you must. Ja, I will go to bed tonight with a sore arse, but it will pass and it will not trouble me overmuch. It will certainly not trouble me that you do not.”
“It bothers me, though.”
“You do feel the guilt?”
“No. Not that. I don’t need to have Fran judge my actions and punish me for whatever I shouldn’t have done. But. . . it’s more like balance. We were both in the wrong, so if you pay for it, I should too.”
“Then that is what you must tell Fran. Whatever makes it work for you. Just do not blame me later if you do not like what she does to you!”
I would have enjoyed my afternoon with Piet and Phil and Tim much better if I hadn’t been fretting over Hansie and Nick. Any fool could see that there was something wrong between them, and Nick had a bruise coming up on his jaw when he arrived back at the station. I notice that sort of thing – I notice differences. He might have hit his head while he was searching, but I didn’t think so. I didn’t say anything about it, though. Tim plainly had his suspicions too, but if he hadn’t seen the bruise I would leave well alone. Piet, of course, sees everything, and Phil is so emotionally. . . aware? Is that the word? literate, perhaps, that I would have been very surprised if he hadn’t a notion of what was wrong, but there was no elephant visible to any of us. Or not one that we mentioned, at least.
Tim drove me home when Hansie called. He and Nick were sitting in my living room and from the look of things they had gone through several pots of coffee and quite a lot of brandy. That was definitely a bruise on his jaw, and he moved awkwardly when he got up, and Hansie seemed to be favouring his left hand. I glanced sideways and Tim nodded at me. He had seen it too.
“Are you ready to go, Hansie?”
“Ja, fersure. Fran, I will see you soon. Nick, tell Fran what you told me. I promise you, that will be best.”
I lifted an eyebrow at Nick when they had gone. “Tell me what?”
He hesitated. “Hansie thinks I need to tell you stuff.”
“And you don’t agree?”
“I do, but I don’t know how to do it. It’s. . . about us.”
I think my face may have closed up a little. That sort of statement usually comes as the preliminary to one party leaving the other. I’ve had my share of that; I don’t know anyone who hasn’t. Nick saw that: he came across the room to kneel at my feet. “It’s something I want you to do for me. If you can. Maybe you can’t, but. . . but Hansie thought you could. He said you knew about the way stress shouts in the head.”
Well, I know about the way it does for Hansie, and I knew it did for Nick, although not quite the same way, I thought. This was going to be something important, I could tell that, and something which would change the tenor of our relationship. And Nick was struggling to tell me. I wriggled back on the sofa and made room for him, the way I have always found best with a novice Bottom who needs to tell me what he wants and what works for him. Sit him in front of me, leaning back against my chest, head back on my shoulder, eyes shut, and let him tell me without having to look at me.
It wasn’t that hard, I don’t think, once he managed to get going. It’s a stress thing for him, obviously. He likes to play, and I think he would play in the clubs if he weren’t so nervous about it getting known at work (I’m not complaining, I quite see his point), and the punishment thing isn’t him at all, and nor is bratting, although he bratted a bit a couple of times to tell me he wanted to play. I’m not even sure it’s the pain for him which is the important factor. I think it’s the submission to me, giving up control, because he gives it up like dropping a loaded tray, all at once and with an audible crash. I suspect that in a situation where pain wasn’t an option, I could make him hit headspace with any sensation that occupied his mind completely. He needs to let his mind freefall, clear of his demons, and Hansie was right: I can do that for him.
“Please. Do I need to come up with a reason? I hit Hansie.”
“That will do if you want a reason. If you don’t you don’t have to have one. I’ll tell you what, Nick. Later, we’ll have a look on the internet and find you another collar, a different one. The one you’ve got is for play, and if you put it on yourself, or if I order you to put it on, that’s play. When you want this. . . whatever, this head-clearing thing, you bring me the other one. I’m never going to suggest it to you, you bring it to me. But I’m going to insist on you having another safe word.”
“Another one? Why?”
“You’ve got two physical panic buttons already. I want you to have an emotional one, because I’m going to take you places we haven’t even looked yet. If you put on the new collar, I’m not just going to take a strap and leather you; I’m going to teach you how to give all the crap in your head up to me and let me take it away. I’ll teach you to submit, and you need to be able to tell me that you’re scared or unhappy or not ready or whatever. Choose something.”
He thought. “Hales Henley? Or just Henley?”
“Good enough. Now, do you need a reason to be punished?”
“Not exactly. I told Hansie it was balance. He said he would be in trouble with Tim for hitting me – a dozen, he said.”
I was a little cautious. “Hansie's used to that. He won’t like a dozen but he’s had it before.”
“He told you that, did he?”
“Yes. And if he can, I can.”
“It’s not a competition, Nick. You’ve never yet had more than four, and Hansie's been doing this for years. And anyway, it’s different in his head, he needs punishment. You don’t. He’ll accept the punishment aspect of it mentally, and that will be how he accepts the pain. So you’ll have what I decide to give you, and no more. Is that clear?”
“But Fran, I. . .”
“Dominic, is that clear?”
“Yes, ma’am. Quite clear.”
“Good. Go and fetch the cane.”
She had never done that before. Never made me complicit by sending me to fetch the whatever it was. Suddenly I could see why she wanted the third safe word: this was frightening, although I couldn‘t have told you why. She must have seen that in my face when I came back, because she touched my face and asked gently, “Trust me?” Not the first time she’s asked that, but the first time I’ve had to think about the answer. That didn’t seem to faze her; she waited perfectly patiently until I was sure. “Absolutely.” And I handed her the cane.
“Right then, get them down. We’ll have you over the back of the armchair. I expect Hansie is getting his just about now, so we’ll maintain the balance. You don’t move until I tell you to. And you use any of your words as you need them, right? This isn’t play, Nick. This will hurt, and I need to be able to trust you to tell me if it’s too much. Are we agreed on that?”
I thought she was making a lot of fuss about not very much, to tell the truth. All right, the most I’d had was four at once and those had hurt, but it wasn’t that serious, was it? I mean, six of the best was the standard school punishment with a dozen for repeat offenders, so I was expecting something sharp but. . . well, if you must know, I was expecting to want some more afterwards. I learned better quite fast. I learned, for a start, that what Fran had already given me with the cane hadn’t been at anything like her full swing. The first one brought me right up onto my toes, and knocked all the breath out of me. The second filled me with air again in one agonised whoop. My God, that hurt! And suddenly I was anticipating the third and not in any pleasant way; she made me wait for it. And wait, and when it came I squealed. Twelve? I would be lucky to make six! It felt like she was cutting me in half. Four. Hell, did Hansie do this? Five, and sod Hansie. Sod them all. There was only me, and Fran, and nobody else in the world, nothing else but this pain. Six and I yelled.
Fran stopped and came up close, lifting me off the chair. “Breathe, Nick. Slowly. Steady yourself.” She rubbed my back comfortingly and I scrubbed a hand across my face. It hurt, hurt, hurt. “Ready to go on?”
My head – well, no, my backside – said no. Something else said yes. I worked myself slowly back into position.
“Do you remember all your words?”
“Saintfield. Poison. Henley.”
I could remember those. I couldn’t remember anything else. My whole world had shrunk to the rub of the upholstery against my bare thighs, and the knowledge of Fran behind me, and the incandescence she was causing on my backside. I didn’t want those words. “Go on.”
And she did. Another six, placed slowly, and carefully, and with excruciating accuracy. I have no idea how I stood it, except that. . . how can I explain it? Except that I surfed on the wave of pain, running ahead of it through the sea of stress and finding myself afterwards in safe shallows, stretched out on the sofa with Fran half under me, her arms tightly round me and my face pressed into her neck. It was too warm to be comfortable, even if I hadn’t hurt too much to be anything even approximating to comfortable, but her skin smelled of cinnamon and sandalwood, and the pulse in her throat throbbed under my cheek, more slowly than the thump of my own heart. I didn’t think. I didn’t think at all, I simply felt. Pain, yes, but the endorphins kicking in and warmth, care, security. Fran knew what I wanted. Fran knew what I needed. I could come home to Fran, and nothing could touch me. Nobody else needing me. Nobody needing what I could do. Nick was not required to save the world this afternoon, not unaided.
Hansie had been right. Damn him.
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