Copping Off

Now look, obviously I know and you know that heterosexuals really grow under gooseberry bushes or something, and that any idea that they do, well, you know, mucky stuff, is just a nasty rumour. But just in case you are of a delicate disposition, in this - ahem - fantasy - of Cobweb's, she chooses to pretend that to the contrary. So be warned. G.

My poor Nick, he was such a mess. The bruising lasted and lasted; I don’t know if that was because he’s so thin or just that it had been such a severe injury, but it was weeks going. He had filthy headaches; his back and ribs hurt so that he could neither stand nor lie in any comfort; the only good thing was the speed with which his vision came back to normal. But there was no question of him being fit to go back to work: doctor after doctor looked him over and wrote him another sick note. Piet helped there: he asked the club physio to make some enquiries, and got us the name of someone good to sort out the muscular problems of his back and hip, and for a wonder, the insurance paid for it. But they told him: another six weeks minimum, and more likely two months, and at least one more scan and vision check before he could go back to work.

He was bored. He disguised it well, but he was bored. There were too many things he couldn’t do: I held back on my panic when he wondered aloud about getting on with some of his DIY projects, but Hansie didn’t – Hansie had a fair bit to say on the inadvisability of a man with suspect eyesight using power tools, and when the shouting was over, Nick sighed and gave way.

But he was stressed to hell. It was an effort for him not to play with his food, although it helped that Phil turned up at least once a week with Red Cross parcels – we told him not to, but I don’t think we can have sounded convincing, because he just laughed at us and took away the empties from last time. He didn’t sleep – that’s always a problem for Nick. I didn’t comment when he produced, rather shame-faced, a Mothercare night-light. He’s always tended to wake in the night and if he didn’t like coming to in the dark, I didn’t blame him. He had nightmares; so did I. If he had a nap in the day, he woke with a headache and backache and then he didn’t sleep at night; if he didn’t sleep in the afternoon he was overdone by nine o’clock.  His temper wasn’t the best, which is not at all usual for Nick. We had to go and spend a weekend so that his parents could see he wasn’t dead; while he was there he had a snippy turn and quarrelled with his sister while his brother in law and I pretended not to see it. They made it up later; Miles and I pretended not to see that either. He wasn’t happy. He was frustrated. He’s not a fool: he knew he wasn’t fit to go back to work and he wasn’t arguing about it, but his life was so circumscribed that I’d have been amazed if he hadn’t found it stressful. Sometimes not doing a stressful thing is more stressful than doing it.

It was obvious to me what he. . . I won’t say ‘what he needed’. He didn’t ‘need’ it exactly. He’s not an addict, whatever he says. What he wanted. He wanted to feel anchored, grounded, in control, and who would blame him? It’s just that his means of feeling in control is to give up control completely, and right at the moment, that wasn’t an option open to him. He’s a natural submissive and although not necessarily just a physical one, that’s the submission which comes most easily to him, and the one he wants to offer me. I can fix him in the moment without hurting him, and I did, more than once. I borrowed a book of poetry from Phil, who, please God, will never work out what I wanted it for, and occupied Nick for an evening by making him learn verse after verse of stuff, not by reading it, which would be easy for him – he has a visual memory – but by repeating it after me. There were rewards when he got it right, never mind what. Another evening we did the same thing with mental arithmetic and word games. It worked, after a fashion, and he slept better afterwards, but the catch was that there were rewards for doing well but no serious penalties for doing badly and it was a second best for both of us. When he’s that stressed, I’ll take him to the club, or we’ll play hard at home, and either way, he’ll sit with extreme caution afterwards for some considerable time, to the great satisfaction of both of us. Neither of us was happy, though, with the notion of him going to the physio with his usual selection of strap marks. I mean, not a polite thing to do to someone who might be shocked.

He was doing his best. I noticed it particularly when the flyer came in from Mortimer’s. He opened it and glanced at it, and then he crumpled it up sharply and flicked it towards the waste paper basket before he looked at me. “We’re not missing anything. This week’s is ‘Double Detention’ – we can skip that.” So we could. ‘Double Detention’ is what it sounds like, a school-themed evening, and we don’t generally bother with it; it was also, I was reasonably sure, a lie. The theme nights come round on a fairly regular cycle, and well, as a woman, regular cycles I can keep in my head, O.K.? I was almost certain that this week wasn’t ‘Double Detention’, it was ‘Welts and Belts’ and that’s Nick’s favourite. I didn’t call him on the lie; I knew why he’d done it. We couldn’t go and play; if we went and didn’t play, people would ask why not and want all the details of the ‘accident’. He doesn’t deny being a policeman, but he doesn’t advertise it either. If he wanted me to believe that he wasn’t bothered about not going, then I would go with that.

But he was fidgety and managing not to be snappy only by an extreme exercise of will and good manners, and it was my responsibility to do something about it. I couldn’t give him the severity he wanted, so I had to find something else to give him. I couldn’t make him stop thinking – so I would just have to control what he was thinking about.

Fran is not a morning person. I’m the one who gets up and makes coffee, and I don’t ask her or tell her anything important until I’m sure she’s started on the day, which usually takes an hour or so. We’ll drink our coffee in decent and companionable silence. Friday morning, though, I left her half way down her cup and went for my shower, and was a little surprised – although definitely pleased – to have her ease into the water behind me and start to wash my back.

“Aren’t you at work today?”

“I’m afraid so: I’ve got three appointments before lunch and two after.”

Oh well, never mind, but an armful of wet naked woman right now has a lot going for it. She slipped away sooner than I would have liked, though, wrapping herself in a towel and turning to clean her teeth. Now you tell me – how does a Top establish herself as a Top when she’s enveloped in a fluffy blue towel and she has wet hair? I stepped out of the shower myself – and she Looked at me.

“Bend over, hands on the side of the bath, keep still.”

At seven in the morning? Oh, O.K., then. My God, that bath brush is evil, I’m telling you. She wasn’t putting enough effort into it to do more than redden me up, but I was wet, and that bastard really stings! Still, if I looked sideways I could see her in the mirror door of the cabinet, and the view when the towel came undone – everything moving – was worth a smarting backside. Which was what I most decidedly got: no marks that would last more than an hour or so but enough to make me extremely interested in cutting breakfast and going back to bed. Fran shook her head.

“Oh no, mister, you can wait. And hands off. This,” with a stroke and a twist, “belongs to me and I say when you can touch it.” Yes, well, I’ve been bored. There have been days, I admit, when I’ve gone back to bed with a. . . do we need the detail here? I’m a man. I can always find a means of amusing myself for half an hour. I tucked my hands tidily behind my back and looked imploringly at Fran; she laughed.

“No! Not until I say. Put some clothes on and come and have breakfast.”

I did my Muttley impression but it did me no good: no morning sex. Still, before she went out, Fran sent me to fetch the little leather paddle, and spent a few minutes bringing me back up from pink to scarlet again.

“Keep that with you today. I don’t care where you go or what you do, you’re to have that with you all the time. It’s to go where you go. And like I said,” and this with a grind of her hips against mine, “hands off. Mine. Don’t touch.”

It’s in my head, obviously. Being told that I couldn’t go back to bed to take care of things meant, naturally, that there was nothing else I wanted to do. Still, I washed the few dishes and took something out of the freezer to defrost for the evening, and I made the bed and started the washing machine and did half a shopping list and ran the vacuum cleaner under the sofa.

Then my phone chirruped at me: a text from Fran. Neither of us bothers much with text-speak: this was clear enough. Meet me here lunch 12. Not a bad idea.

The phone went again 10 minutes later. Bring paddle. Or else.

I couldn’t think of a snappy answer to that one; it made me laugh. I wondered how much time she would have before her first afternoon appointment, and if I could persuade her to hurry lunch and come back with me for half an hour. I took the paddle downstairs and slipped it into the pocket of my coat.

It sat up, looking – looking exactly like a paddle in a coat pocket. Conspicuous as hell. It wouldn’t fit in the inside pocket. I ended up finding a leather folder I use when I go to court, and tucking the paddle inside that. Then I picked up my phone and my wallet and headed for the bus stop.

The phone chirped. I’m going to spank you before we go out so that you can feel it all through lunch. Right. Thank you, Fran, that ensures that I have a 30 minute bus ride with a hard-on. I still haven’t been cleared to drive again and it’s not the quickest thing to get to Fran’s new studio at Piet and Phil’s by bus, although I’d done it a couple of times, visiting them to fill in a dull day: two buses as far as the riding school, and then, at first, ring the house and Piet or Phil came down for me in the car; later, when I was able to walk that far, ring to say I was coming and walk up the bridleway which passed the little trading estate. Phil had explained genially that if I didn’t ring so that he knew how long to leave it before coming to look for my unconscious body, he would have a go at topping a straight guy and we would both be unbearably embarrassed afterwards.

I was quite pleased, though, to get as far as the business units and find that I wasn’t out of breath. At this rate, I might be able to start running again soon, although perhaps the treadmill at the gym would be a safer idea than going out. Fran’s got the big corner unit and I was interested to see somebody coming out of the one two doors away – it would be good for Piet and Phil to have more of those in use. He locked the door and turned – and I saw him check just as Fran came to the door of her unit.

“Inspector Maitland, isn’t it? You can see, I took your advice.”

It took me a moment to place him. “Mr. . . Qureshi. My advice?”

He smiled brightly at me, a rotund middle aged man, and Fran asked curiously, “You two know each other?”

“The Inspector was most helpful when I had a break-in at my last premises. It was he who advised me to move.”

“Not quite that,” I demurred. “But Caxton Place isn’t somewhere I would recommend for a business where the owner isn’t actually present all the time.”

“No, indeed; this is much better,” he agreed. “After all, my business is almost entirely by post or over the internet; I don’t need to be on the High Street.” That was true. He was a dealer in rare books and spent a lot of his time at book fairs or auctions. His face fell comically. “I trust you’re not here in a professional capacity?”

“No, no, we’re just going out for lunch,” I assured him, laughing. “I’ve been on sick leave – back trouble – and I get bored at home on my own.”

He looked from me to Fran and back. “Ah, I see, yes. I hadn’t realised. Milton is your professional name, then? You don’t refer to yourself as Mrs Maitland?”

“My business here predates my relationship with Nick,” said Fran smoothly, after only the slightest hesitation.

He nodded. “It’s quite common now, isn’t it? My daughter’s a doctor and she didn’t change her name when she married. I wondered if she would, for the sake of her patients – Qureshi isn’t the easiest name to spell and there are several variants – but her married name would be McClannachan and she feels it would be no easier and involve too much explanation. Now, I mustn’t keep you. Miss Milton, I shall be away until Monday; you see, Inspector, we’re being good neighbours. We each make sure the other knows when the shop will be empty.”

“Good idea,” I agreed, and we waved him off. Fran was trying hard not to laugh. I made a face at her. “Well, Mrs Maitland? Or shall I be Mr Milton? I notice you didn’t deny it?”

“I wasn’t sure how he would be about us not being married, actually. Anyway, enough about him – we have something to do before we go for lunch, don’t we?”

“Do we?” I asked innocently. She frowned at me.

“I sent you a text telling you what to expect.”

“Oh, I don’t think I got that one,” I said blandly, flipping my phone open and gazing at it.

Her expression – a slow shift from threatening Top to a mild panic – was a joy to behold as she scrabbled for her own phone and checked her outgoing messages. “But it went out. . . oh you!” as I couldn’t keep a straight face any longer. She chased me inside the door with a slap, letting the lock catch behind her.

“You sod! I’ve been texting Piet as well as you this morning, I thought I must have sent that one to him, not you! God knows what he would have made of it!”

“He’s a polite man, I expect he would have done as he was told, but I can’t see him liking it, and Phil would never have spoken to you again.”

“Well, you can add on something for that. Where’s your paddle?”

I retrieved it from the folder and held it out mutely, and she took it and led me through the office and towards the studio door. The studio – it’s a fancy name for it. It’s one big room, massive windows, and Fran has had sliding shutters fitted so that she can cover any window completely. She pulled all the shutters into place, and flicked the switch to leave a single spotlight on the chaise longue which had been a lucky buy when a local furniture shop closed down; the neutral brocade was an inconspicuous background to many of her recent photos. It was currently draped in another of her props, a long piece of some dark green soft piled fabric.

“Trousers down, please, and over the end.”

Quite brisk and businesslike, hardly toppy at all. She took a moment to examine my backside. “You’re not even pink any more. That won’t do. I think that tomorrow we’ll experiment.”

“Experiment?” I enquired, turning my face against folded green velvet.

“Weekend tomorrow and nowhere we need to be. So I think I might try the effect of spanking you every hour, on the hour. Just enough to keep you warmed up all day, you know?”

I didn’t know, but various bits of my body thought that it sounded like a damn good idea and that I ought to know. I squirmed against the velvet.

“And we can manage now, and three or four more times today, I’m sure.” Oh God. What I really wanted was the strap, hard, or even some of the things which she likes and I don’t – the lexan paddle she bought in Scotland, or the heavy cane. Maybe another assault on the dogwood. But we couldn’t, we couldn’t, not without leaving me explaining a complete new set of marks to the physio or the doctor. I do love that little leather paddle, I’ll pick it every time to play with, but I like it as a starter or a final act or both, round something heavier – which I couldn’t have. Still, if you don’t fancy any of the main courses on the menu, nothing wrong with having two starters, is there? Or even three? And there was certainly something very appealing about the notion of being kept just stinging all day. Very appealing. I squirmed again.

“Now,” she said softly, “in the matter of text messages. . .” and she brought the paddle down.

Ow. Not nasty ow, just a good strong burn when she let me up, a steady hot smart covering all my backside and halfway down my thighs, enough to have me a little breathless and terrifically turned on. I reached for her. “Please, Fran. . .”

“Oh no. Not yet. Show me what you can do for me first.”

Oh well, that sounded quite promising, I thought. ‘First’. Not ‘instead’.

“Make it good. Or else.”

And did ‘or else’ mean ‘or else I’ll spank you some more’, or ‘or else I won’t’, I wondered muzzily, working her shirt out of the waistband of her trousers and peeling it over her head. She was warm, and when I kissed her throat, her head tipped back a little; I slid a hand down her back and round her waist to struggle with the unfamiliar catch of her trousers, and then eased them off her hip and investigated the fine silky fabric beneath. It was damp; she was enjoying this at least as much as I was, and it was an effort of control not just to wrench the remains of her clothes off and demand entrance.

But a good sub doesn’t do that. A good sub is gentle and careful and coaxes his mistress to lie down, before offering kisses to throat and breast, to stomach and hip, to thigh and. . . other places. The other places are particularly good, in my opinion – Fran gurgled, I can’t call it anything else. She doesn’t moan – do you know, I don’t think I’ve ever slept with a woman who did. I wonder if it’s an urban myth? Or just that I’m not doing it right? But she shifted awkwardly for a moment, and I paused; it’s like just at first it’s uncomfortable for her, and then her back relaxed and her hips rolled invitingly and no way am I refusing that invitation. The skin right at the top of her thigh is delicate, finely shaped across the tendon, hollow above and below. I teased it with my thumb, and kissed gently and she purred aloud. So I purred back, vibrating against her, and she jumped and gave a squeak of amused interest.

“Do that again?”

What? This? And she jumped again and murmured something vaguely encouraging, so I was duly encouraged. I’m a copper, I know about doing my duty and this wasn’t even a distasteful duty. Shut up and don’t snigger. All things are relative and I like it. I’ve always liked it and frankly I’m good. I can call an ex-wife and several ex-girlfriends as witnesses. . . preferably one at a time. What? Why should I not be proud of my abilities? I’m getting to believe that I’m a good Sub, and when I go down on a woman, I’m good at that too. Take that look off your face.

I was, I admit, a little surprised at how quickly I had Fran pushing back at me and giving that little hitch of her breath that tells me she’s nearly there. Seemed like she had been looking forward to this as much as I had. I didn’t keep her hanging, she doesn’t like it and it doesn’t work for her: keep her too long on the edge and she simply loses the ability to come at all. But she arched against me, and gasped and steadied, and her hips slid between my hands as she relaxed back onto the green velvet. I managed to wait until her breathing was a little less ragged before I – well, it was closer to a whine than was perhaps dignified.

“Fra-aaaan! Please?”

She propped herself up on one elbow, her hair all anyhow and her eyes sleepy and satisfied (I told you, I’m good), and scrabbled beneath the couch for her trousers, producing a familiar foil packet while I hastily kicked off the rest of my clothes. I scrubbed my forearm across my face (nobody said good sex was anything other than messy) and, well, things proceeded in a remarkably satisfactory manner thereafter.

It’s a good chaise longue and more comfortable than the floor, but it isn’t really wide enough for two, so the aftermath was limited firstly by the need to get up and dispose of the evidence (straight into the studio waste paper basket was probably not a good idea) and secondly by the fact that the velvet was slipping to the floor and I was slipping with it. Mind you, when I got up, my knees trembled and I wasn’t any too steady on my feet as I headed for the tiny cloakroom in the corner.

“I like the look of you that way,” Fran commented sleepily; I glanced back and caught my breath. Wanton wasn’t the half of it: God, she still had her shoes on, and since when did Fran wear killer heels at work? But that was all she had on, and she didn’t care, sprawled loosely across the dark cloth. “But it’s too pale. Another dozen before we go out.”

Ah. Ow. Beforehand? Love a spanking. Love it. Afterwards? Now that’s different. Hurts more and differently, somehow. I decidedly don’t like that when it’s happening – but as usual I get a terrific buzz from doing what I don’t want, don’t like, because she tells me to. I can’t explain how it works and I’m beginning to get that I don’t have to. It works for us. I think if she did it often, maybe I would feel differently, but she’s too smart for that.

“Wash your face,” she called after me. “We’re going out.”

But not until we had got ourselves tidied up. Not until I’d had my extra dozen, and yes, they did hurt, and got my clothes on again, while Fran took her turn in the cloakroom. By the time she emerged, I’d turned her shirt right side out for her and found her bra which I had cheerfully hurled backwards over my shoulder earlier. She ignored me and simply picked up her coat, a lightweight knee length affair, shrugging it on and looking round for bag and phone.


My jaw dropped cartoon-style. “Are you. . . do you mean. . . are you going out like that?” I sounded as scandalised as somebody’s mother.

“Yes. Just like this.”

Right. My legs followed her to the door; my brain shut down all operations and my body, which I would have sworn was not ready for another round, smarting bum or not, decided that I was mistaken, because Fran was wearing her coat and her shoes and not another stitch.

“Let’s go to the Fox.”

Fran’s got nothing on under that coat.

“Unless you would prefer the Bell?”

She’s got nothing on under that coat.


She’s got nothing on. . . “Hnnnh?”

“Would you like to go to the Fox, or the Bell?”

“Yes. Yes, sure.” Fran’s got nothing on under that coat!

We probably went to either the Fox or the Bell; I’m sure we did. The Fox, I expect; it has hard wooden benches, not padded chairs, and I can’t see Fran letting that one go by. I have no idea what was in the sandwich I ordered; I only know it was a sandwich because I remember that she leaned forward to speak to me, and the neck of her coat gaped, and I missed my mouth completely and got mayonnaise up my nose. I know, it’s shameful for a respectable cop who’s worked Vice: she was perfectly adequately dressed from breastbone to knees and all I could do was gibber that she had nothing on under that coat.

She tells me that she chatted cheerfully through lunch and that I said ‘yes’ at intervals; I had at least a partial revenge on the way back.

“I think I should have a vasectomy.”

“You know, Nick, I love you dearly, but conversationally, your timing sucks. A vasectomy? What brought that on?”

“I hate condoms. Always have.” Kate had been on the Pill when we were married, and given the ease with which she had fallen pregnant when she married Ian, it was no bad thing.

“Do you? You never said. Well, I could go to the doctor. . .”

“Not really, Fran. I mean, you don’t want to be messing about with the Pill – ” I hesitated just before I could say “at your age” which rarely goes down well, but she forestalled me.

“They’re not going to be keen to start me on an oral contraceptive at my age, no, but there are others. . .”

“Not as good. I mean, you never really hear of anybody using coils or caps any more, do you, and what does that leave us? I have an idea that they don’t like any of the hormonal ones in a woman over 40.”

“Well, no, but. . .”

“Fran, I can read the evidence. The evidence is that you would still be capable of falling pregnant. I don’t want that, and I don’t think you do. . . unless. . .” I hesitated. “Do you feel the clock ticking?”

She shook her head, negotiating the double bend and avoiding a cyclist. “I have done, but it never ticked loudly enough that I couldn’t shut it up. If it’s a choice between my work and a baby – and it would be, I wouldn’t be able to manage both – I’d rather have my work. So I’m not against the idea of sterilisation, but it could be me rather than you.”

“Major surgery for you, higher risks. At least I think it is. I’ll make some enquiries.” She was right, actually, my timing sucked. This was an odd conversation to be having with a woman naked under her coat, while my backside throbbed slowly and comfortably. I let it drop, and Fran turned the car, stopped outside the studio and turned to look at me.

“Come in for a moment. I’ve got an appointment in 20 minutes and another after that; do you want me to run you back to the bus stop?”

“Don’t bother, I’ll walk it. Give me a call when you’re leaving?”

She nodded, and reached into her bag for the studio keys, which caught on something and then came free in a rush of small bits and pieces; Fran swore.

“Here, hold this a minute.”

I held her bag; I didn’t offer to help pick things up. I can’t do bending and straightening yet, my back won’t stand it. Even getting up from the chaise longue had involved some pushing, and the second time, Fran had been obliged to help.

“There’s an expression typical of the married man.”

It was Phil, damp hair flat to his head, shirt dark with sweat, chest heaving with effort. Fran looked up from her crouch.

“What is?”

He nodded at me. “The man who’s been given a handbag to hold. Grips it slightly away from the body with a distinct expression of ‘this isn’t mine, you know’. Unmistakeable. How are you both?”

“Fine, thanks,” I answered. “Been running?”

“As you see. I’m on my way home. Are you about for a bit? Want to come up?”

I glanced at Fran. “Why not? If you’re sure you’re not busy?”

“Not at all. What about you, Fran, are you working?”

“Fraid so. I’ll come up for him later. Although. . . you go on, Phil, before you chill. I’ve something for Nick here, and he can walk up after you.”

“’Kay. I’ll leave the kitchen door unlocked; if I’m not there when you arrive, it means I’ve finished my stretches and I’m in the shower, but I’ll put the coffee on first.” He set off again at what he would no doubt call cooling-down speed; I couldn’t manage even that yet. Fran picked up the last of her belongings and found her keys just as a car containing a young couple and a baby, obviously her next appointment, pulled up.

“Mrs Barker? I’m Fran Milton. No, not too early at all, no problem. Have a seat, I’ve got one small thing to sort and I’ll be right with you. Come through, Nick, for a moment.”

She shut the studio door firmly behind us, and slipped out of her coat, snatching at her abandoned clothing. “Pick up the velvet, Nick, and shove it in that bag, can you? I’ll bring it home to be washed tonight.”

Just as well, I thought. She crossed the room to me in three long strides and pushed me against the wall, fastening her mouth on mine fiercely. “Saved by a client arriving early,” she breathed into my mouth. “I’d meant to give you some more.” She pinched my nipple, hard, and I jumped. “But you won’t get off free – I’ll just save it for later. You can leave the paddle with me for now. But you’ll take something else.”

My body responded as easily as it always did when she spoke to me in that tone. “What?” I asked soundlessly. She peeled herself off me and opened one of her camera cases, removing a small box and coming back to push her knee between mine. The button of my trousers stuck and then freed, and she pulled the waistband loose, and then worked trousers and underpants off me in a rough concertina. Her free hand pulled my chin up. “Don’t look. Shut your eyes.”

I obeyed, and heard her open the box, and then I felt something cool and awkward. My eyes opened involuntarily. “Fran. . .?

“Ah-ah. Naughty. I told you to shut your eyes. I’ll punish you for that, later.” This in an almost inaudible undertone which melted my bones. “All right, you can look now.”

Oh, I recognised it, although I’d never seen one, not a real one. I’d seen pictures often enough. Gates of Hell, a steel and leather version – she was adjusting the straps on me as I glanced down. “There. That should keep you in order through the afternoon.” The last strap slid through a double ring, to which she was attaching the sort of tiny padlock that comes on a teenager’s diary. She pulled my clothes back into place and zipped me up neatly. My mouth fell open.

“You expect me” (I dropped my voice in response to her amused sshhhing) “to walk up the hill, to go and have coffee with Phil wearing that?”

She produced a tiny key on one of her own promotional keyrings, and let it swing in front of my face. “You’ve got it. You’ll wear it because it pleases me, won’t you, Dominic?”

I whimpered. When she calls me Dominic and asks me things in that tone, my brain closes down. She pushed the keyring into my hand.

“If it’s just uncomfortable, you wear it. If it actually hurts you, if you would safe-word at home if you were wearing it, then you take it off, get that? I don’t mind seeing the marks of it on your skin, but I don’t want to see that it’s rubbed weals or anything. If I would take it off, you take it off. If I wouldn’t. . .”

“I wear it,” I agreed into her mouth. She rubbed me teasingly and I swallowed a groan. She stepped back, picking up the abandoned box and hiding it in the waste paper basket inside a plastic bag.

“Off you trot then. I’ll come by and pick you up later.”

Right. That wasn’t the easiest walk I’ve ever had. The thing wasn’t, in and of itself, particularly uncomfortable. It was just that it made it extremely difficult to think about anything else – which was presumably what Fran had intended in the first place. Oh yes, I knew what she was doing and my God, did it work. Did it ever? It was like being 17 again, the way I’d described it to Phil, except that I could get far enough away to find my own responses amusing.

There was a woman in the courtyard when I turned the corner. I nearly fell over her, actually: she was kneeling on the ground doing something to a coil of hose. I might have fallen over her anyway; she was tiny, a little slender thing composed in fairly equal proportions of work boots and. . . I wrenched my gaze upwards. More than once I’ve told male colleagues off for staring at the Superintendent’s breasts. I had more sense than to do it myself. But, well, you know that woman on the gardening programmes, the one who doesn’t wear a bra? This one was a lot narrower in the back and a lot bigger in the . . . in the front. She was also better provided with foundation garments: when she stood up, nothing shifted. No, I wasn’t looking but I think I would have noticed.

“Are you Nick?”

I admitted it.

“Phil says to go in.”

“Right. Thanks. And, sorry, who are you?”

“I’m Jazzer. I do the garden here.” She stood up and lifted the coil of hose, swinging it to her shoulder; it looked to weigh about as much as she did. I opened my mouth to offer to carry it for her, caught her eye, and closed it again. If that one wanted me to carry something, she would ask me. I watched her out of the courtyard and turned to the kitchen door.

There was a wonderful smell of coffee inside, and I heard Phil thundering down the stairs.

“Have you poured the coffee? Get the milk out, will you?”

“I didn’t realise you had a gardener as well as a cleaner. Quite the landowner, aren’t you?”

“We don’t employ her directly, but we haven’t time to garden, even if either of us felt any inclination. Tony the estate guy found a company which would come in, cut the grass, look after the bit of the garden which we care about, and so on. They sent us Jazzer. She’s amazing, actually. I haven’t yet found anything she can’t do. She built my herb garden, dug the foundations, did the brickwork, planted everything, she put soft fruit in the bit behind the barn and she picks it and brings it in every week when Mrs W’s here. If I’m home, I deal with it, and when I’m away, Mrs W puts it in the freezer for me. She says I can have a proper kitchen garden next year.” He slurped his coffee. “I’d like that. Fresh fruit and veg.”

“We’ll all be counting on you for a box scheme,” I said. “Obscenely shaped carrots and parsnips.”

He made a rude gesture at me lazily. “I got into such trouble with Piet over Jazzer.”

“Do tell?” I invited.

“It was when they sent her first. We didn’t know who it would be, just that somebody was coming and what time. But we’d made it clear that there was quite a lot of heavy work at the beginning – I mean, that lawn was mostly builders’ rubble, the patio wasn’t walled, the whole site was a mess. It was a couple of guys who came out and inspected and then Jazzer came for the first few weeks with a boy – well, not a boy, I suppose he was 20. But she was in charge, you know? Only Piet didn’t see her, he saw the boy a couple of times. He was a nice looking lad but thick as shit, even by my standards. Anyway, Jazzer started to talk to me about what I wanted, and I suppose I raved to Piet – Jazzer’s going to make me a herb bed, Jazzer says we could grow asparagus, Jazzer thinks we could get a vine to take here, and somehow,” he grinned wickedly at me, ”somehow, it seems I never mentioned that Jazzer is a woman. So Piet was looking out of the window at this pretty boy with his shirt tied round his waist, all rippling muscles and outdoor tan, shifting flagstones, and deary me, he came over all suspicious. Then he came home one day when the lad had gone, and found me and Jazzer drinking coffee and talking about the respective merits of wild rocket and American land cress. . . and did I get it when Jazzer had gone, for winding him up that way!”

He sounded a little wistful and I just wondered. . . “You and Tim, did you get yourselves sorted out?”

He jumped. “Oh! Oh, yes, that was weeks ago. Yes. Yes, we did, thanks.” He leaned forward to pour more coffee. “You were right, you know, it was just end of season jitters making me get everything out of perspective. No, we’re fine now.”

I nodded. “You’ll be seeing them tonight then? I’ve just thought, Hansie left his sweater in the car, I could leave it with you.”

“Actually, you’d be better to hold onto it yourself. We’re not seeing them tonight, Hansie’s got something – I think he said it was a committee meeting for the Flower and Produce Show, of all things, and then next week, I’m away. You’ll probably see him before I do.”

“That’s not like you,” I observed; “you always seem to be joined at the hip.”

He shrugged. “We’re all a bit busy at the moment, I suppose, and like I said, I’m away next week. I’m doing a spot for ‘At Close Range’.”

“What, the cookery programme?” I shouldn’t really have been surprised, but I suppose I’m not accustomed yet to having a famous friend. ‘At Close Range’ was this season’s TV hit, halfway between a competition and a celeb show, and contriving to pull a sizeable audience even among people interested in neither celebrities nor cookery.

“Yes. I’m going back north. You know it’s attached to the ‘Keep It Local’ campaign? I’m doing Lancashire.”

I considered. “I didn’t see them all, but I saw the singer from Wales: she was nice but I didn’t feel any urge to eat what she’d made. And that writer from Devon, but he was dull.”

“The best one so far was Lady Brockshill, you know, who used to be an MP? Did you see that one?”

“I met her once at a police conference, when she was still serving on some security sub-committee. She was a very persuasive and intelligent speaker.”

“And makes a damn good curry, from the look of it.”

“I missed the start of that one. What was her reasoning for calling a curry ‘local’?”

“The Balti Belt, mostly, and her discovery that although she thought of her parents as Asian and herself as British Asian, her children see themselves as Asian British. She said that for anybody living between Leicester and Birmingham, a decent curry is British cuisine now. That thing with chickpeas looked fabulous and I wouldn’t have minded trying the spiced fish either.”

“So what are you cooking for them?”

“Don’t ask, or I’ll make you take one home. Piet’s getting the same meal every second night, and I’ve got I don’t know how many versions in the freezer.”

“Ah, the glories of domesticity,” I grinned; he made an odd face at me.

“Nick, can I. . . can I ask you something? It’s a bit personal, you can tell me to fuck off if you like.”

I put my coffee down suspiciously. “What?”

“Why haven’t you and Fran got married?”

I must have gawped a bit, because he peered into his own coffee cup. “No, never mind, sorry, it’s none of my business.”

I shrugged. “We’ve never really talked about it. I suppose. . . well, I suppose I feel that I’m pretty committed just as things are, with the house and so on. Neither of us is religious, which might prompt us to formalise things, and we don’t intend to have children which is the other big trigger. . . funny, we were talking about that just now. Actually, I think it’s more Fran who’s doubtful than me. I enjoyed being married – well, I enjoyed most of it. Being divorced didn’t scare me off: I would get married again, but I don’t think Fran’s bothered either way. I – we’ve just never talked about it.”

He was running his finger round and round the lip of his mug, lashes lowered and his gaze solidly on his hand. His left hand. As inconspicuously as I could, I slipped my own left hand behind my right elbow and out of sight. There’s still an indentation from my wedding ring, despite the length of time I’ve been divorced. When I raised my eyes to his face again, though, he was looking knowingly at me.

“I can’t, you see,” he said gently, with such frustrated longing that I shivered. “I want to and I can’t. All that stuff in the papers about Civil Partnerships? But Piet and I both reckon that if we did it, I would just slide out of the national squad – oh, nothing deliberate, I’d stick for a while but the next time I was injured, I wouldn't get my place back. Or it would just become obvious that if I played, some other people wouldn’t. It would be headline stuff either way, with half the journalists claiming that I’d only been picked out of political correctness and the other half claiming that I’d only been dropped out of prejudice. And then my other stuff? I don’t know what my sponsors would make of it and I can’t afford to find out. Nor the editor on the Gazette.”

“But when you stop play?”

He shook his head. “Don’t know; we’ll have to wait and see. But again, what am I going to do? Write for a paper? TV or radio commentary? Coaching? That would almost certainly be a non-starter. We’ve always said we would come out as a couple when I stop playing, but I’m not even sure that. . . well, it might involve a lot of balancing up pros and cons.”

He looked down again. “And I want to be married.” He shook himself like a wet dog. “Well, we can’t always have what we want, I suppose, and I have more than most. I shouldn’t complain.”

“But Phil. . .” I struggled. “You and Piet are more married than anybody else I know. The rest of it is just. . . a piece of paper and a big party.” I considered again. “No, it’s not, is it? It’s the right to say: he’s mine.” And that, presumably, was some of what was at the back of his objection to Hansie and Tim hanging on Piet: the fact that he couldn’t put up a formal ‘this is Phil’s’ sign.

“And to say so in a public place,” he agreed. “Usually, it’s just a minor niggle. I can’t have rugby and marriage. I can have rugby and Piet. Usually it’s enough.” He gave me a hard stare. “And don’t tell me that a Civil Partnership isn’t marriage. I heard all of that debate on the radio.”

“So did I,” I agreed. “Semantics. Marriage it is. But if Fran and I were to get married. . . do you think Hansie would want to be my Best Man, or Fran’s Matron of Honour? He’s too old to be a bridesmaid in a green frilly frock. Have to be green with that hair.”

Phil snorted into his coffee; I went on. “Perhaps not. I can’t picture any of you in drag – well, you maybe, for a fundraiser. Do rugby players automatically go into drag for charity things, the way coppers do? Every police fundraiser involves 16 stone St Trinian’s schoolgirls with hairy legs and bad wigs and stubble.”

He was staring at me like a rabbit at a snake; I was surprised. I wouldn’t have expected him to be so taken aback: when Pieter had denied the possibility of drag, it had got a big laugh, except from. . . except from Tim, I remembered. Tim had winced. I rearranged those pieces in my head, added in a couple more observations, and a light went on. I don’t know if he saw me work it out; I hope not. It’s not my business. I went on firmly, “No, I think we should just make him responsible for the stag party instead. But do you think I should maybe ask Fran first?”

Phil laughed. “She’s Top, isn’t she? So don’t you have to manoeuvre her into thinking that it’s all her idea?”

“Yup,” I agreed. “And that I’m not keen to put a ring on again.”

“Well, it needn’t be a ring on your finger, I suppose,” hinted Phil slyly; I froze. What had he noticed?


“She could just put one through your nose, like she hasn’t already.”

I looked down the aforementioned nose. “Are you calling me a pig? You’re not the first, mind.”

His turn to snort. “Well, just bear in mind that if you get married and don’t allow me to do the catering, you will simply never hear the end of it.”

Fran came in for a cup of coffee when she arrived to take me home, snatching the opportunity to grope me maliciously while Phil was out of the room. He glanced suspiciously from one of us to the other when he came back, so I suspect I was as flushed as I felt. I had my revenge about a mile down the road on the way home.

“Fran? How would you feel about getting married?”

She didn’t answer me for a moment or two, and then she said carefully, “You do remember, Dominic, that I’m only a player? I don’t punish?”

I didn’t see the connection, frankly, but I agreed meekly that everybody knew Fran didn’t punish.

“Well, I think under the circumstances, I may have to go against my instincts. When we get home, you can go straight upstairs, get your trousers off and wait for me, and I’m going to warm your bottom very thoroughly indeed just to get it through to you that you are not to spring these lifestyle questions on me while I’m negotiating the Barchester bypass in Friday rush hour traffic.”

Right. Now I could feel the effect of that cage thing. She glanced sideways at me.

“And after that, we can talk about getting married.”

Idris the Dragon

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