I would never have imagined that I could have had a perfectly serious conversation in a public place with a woman I had never seen before and would, in all likelihood, never see again, on the subject of the thong as an item of clothing. We were both trying unsuccessfully to attract attention at the bar in. . . well, let’s call it Club Big’n’Scary, because it was. And she had one hand up the back of her miniskirt and was clearly readjusting herself when she caught my eye, and glanced at my collar and said plaintively, “The thong was invented by a Top with a warped sense of humour, I swear it was. Might as well wear a bloody cheese wire and have done with it.”
“I know,” I agreed, equally mournfully. “The only thing to be said in its favour is that it keeps one decent somewhere like this. Otherwise I can’t think of a single good reason why anybody in their right mind would wear one.”
She collected two glasses and I leaned away from the bar to give her access to the ice bucket, and then to give her room to move away. She glanced back at me. “Other, of course,” she said impishly, “than that our Tops say we have to.”
Yes, all right. Other than that.
We were quite a long way from home. Now that we want to take part rather than just to watch, it doesn’t suit me to go to any of the local clubs too regularly. Anyway, they aren’t very serious – and the Tops and Bottoms nights don’t come up that often. So we drive to the city, not too frequently: it’s a hundred mile round trip, not something we do just on impulse. In the city there are three or four clubs and our sort of nights come up with corresponding regularity. Fran has contacts; it had taken her a couple of phone calls to discover what went on where and when, and then we came out to play.
We had spent an evening in Club Slightly-Rougher-Than-We-Quite-Liked, and come away without participating. We had played one evening at home in Saintfields – that was the night I learned that I wanted to do this, I wanted to play other than in my own bedroom. The thrill was something I wanted again, but the underlying anxiety of meeting someone who knew me took the edge off it. In public, yes, that’s electrifying, but not the risk of being caught by someone I know – well, to be exact, someone from work. I know that does it for a lot of people, but not me. Now we were trying Club Big’n’Scary, and I was feeling. . . not out of my depth, not exactly, but perhaps that the ground might suddenly fall away under my feet.
I think that’s where it started to go wrong. In retrospect? Oh well, 20/20 hindsight and if I had only had the sense to listen to what Fran was telling me, and had been telling me for months: that I didn’t have to do anything, that there were plenty of places we could go, that if I didn’t take to any of these clubs we could go further afield, that there was another city no further away in the other direction. That there was no hurry. Only I was so keen on all of this that I went at the whole thing like a bloody bull at a gate. I was so anxious to do Something that I didn’t have enough sense to work out what the Something I wanted to do was. And as a result, there was a trap, and I walked right into it. Idiot.
Well, I bought our drinks, and frankly I would have liked a stronger one than I had bought. But there you are: if we’re staying home to play Fran will have some wine; if we’re out she drinks no alcohol at all, partly for the play and partly because she drives us. I’m smart enough to know that one drink will relax me and a second might make me careless, and I’d had one so I wasn’t having another. I wanted it though. I had reached – this far after the event I can see it quite easily – I had reached the point at which I was desperate to play just to get over the feeling that this was another wrong place for us. I was tired of ending up in clubs we decided we didn’t like, and I suppose I let impatience get the better of me.
Anyway, Fran had managed to find herself somewhere to sit so I set down the glasses and said, as you do, “I’m just –”. Yes, sure, there are things I ask permission for when we’re out, but a cloakroom visit isn’t one of them. It was on the way back that I got caught.
Literally. A woman caught hold of my wrist and pulled me round to have a look at me. Smaller than Fran, rounder, prettier, probably, but. . . wearing the gear. All of it. The tight laced top, the leather skirt, the high heeled boots. The make-up. Actually, if you ask me, it was too much. Fran does the heels and the leather trousers, but with a plain silk shirt. She could wear those clothes in the street and not attract that much attention. Her lipstick is plum, not scarlet. And still, she looks more toppish dressed that way and with nothing in her hands at all and a single strap clipped to her belt than this woman did with an acrylic cane swinging from her wrist. I’m beginning to get this: it’s the way she stands, the way she walks, the way she thinks. The way she is.
“Well, hello,” she purred at me, eyeing me up and down. I can see why women object to being looked at that way. Meat market. Merchandise. Nonetheless, I knew what was expected of me. Quite apart from anything I do with Fran, I’ve done a lot of undercover work. I know how to watch and copy.
“Good evening, madam,” I said gravely.
“Are you out on your own, little boy?”
Now I hate that. It makes my skin crawl. Still, she couldn’t have been expected to know that, and as a Top, she presumably wouldn’t have cared anyway.
“No, madam. I’m with my Mistress.”
“Pity.” She let go of my wrist. It’s not considered good form to play with somebody else’s toys, not without their permission. I waited to be dismissed. Fran and I don’t do this stuff, but when in Rome and other such clichés. She didn’t dismiss me, though; she walked round me and I was struck by a sudden notion that I had seen her before. Not recently, not at another club, at least I didn’t think so, but I was concentrating on that, so that when she grabbed my arse, I jumped. She liked that; she came round in front of me again and this time she grabbed at my groin. Well, I wasn’t having that, so I caught her wrist and twisted away. Her other hand cracked across my mouth, not hard, but sharply.
“You stand still, boy, when a Mistress touches you!”
“My Mistress doesn’t share,” I said coldly and started to pull away again.
“How dare you? Do you know who I am?”
“You’re Christine Sheffield.” And I suddenly realised that I had said it out loud and that it was a mistake. Even if I did know, the proper answer is ‘Mistress Christine’ or ‘Lady Christine’. There are first names or surnames in the clubs, or aliases; very few people are confident or, I suppose, out enough for full names. And since she didn’t know me, the answer should have been ‘no’ anyway. Her eyes narrowed and I saw her doing what I had done, mentally stripping away the collar and picturing me away from the club to place me. I saw the instant when she did it.
“Sergeant Maitland. Well. I wouldn’t have expected you to turn up here. So what is it? Looking for people doing something they shouldn’t?” It was a little too loud: people were beginning to turn and look.
“Looking to spend some time in a club with my Mistress.” It wasn’t much of an answer but it was the best I could do.
“Oh yes? And you expect me to believe that? Or are you hunting to see where you can hang an obscenity charge?”
I opened my mouth to deny it, and Fran’s voice behind me said calmly, “I believe that’s my Sub you have your hands on.”
I saw the recognition pass between them.
“Christine. It’s been a long time. I’m sorry, but this Sub is spoken for; he’s with me.”
“Frances. A long time indeed; tell me, did you know your Sub is a police detective?”
Oh God, well, that does it, I’m right out now. That was loud enough that they probably heard it two streets away.
“I did know, thank you. Dominic, here.”
I disengaged myself from Christine and stepped to Fran’s side.
“Not like you to have a Sub who doesn’t know his manners.”
Fran’s eyebrows rose. “What has he been doing?”
“He was impertinent when I touched him.”
“He had no business allowing you to touch him at all. He knows perfectly well that I don’t permit it.”
I opened my mouth to say indignantly that I hadn’t permitted it and felt Fran’s elbow in my ribs.
“Nice to see you, Christine. Dominic, come.”
She got me round a corner before she asked, “How does she know you?”
“A case. God, years ago, before I was promoted. Business fraud. I questioned her several times and she didn’t like it.”
“Do you want to go? Since somebody knows who and what you are?”
I thought about it. Well, no, I didn’t think about it, not half enough. I just reacted. “No. Look, Fran, this was sure to happen sooner or later. That’s why we came up here rather than staying closer to home.”
She looked a bit doubtful, but this one was plainly my call so she let it go – but it was the wrong decision, I think. I think. Maybe. Hell, I don’t know. Maybe not. Maybe I was right and I had to address this at some point and it might as well be now? I don’t know. Maybe there isn’t a right answer: sometimes there isn’t. Anyway, we did the rounds for a bit, but I was unsettled. I began to push a bit at Fran, to brat at her. I wanted to play, but I wanted to play for the wrong reasons. I was asking for trouble all right and I got enough to go round and some over. Eventually, Fran found some space on a bar and I got mine: nothing very severe, just that little lightweight strap, but it nips. For once, though, it didn’t settle me. Oh, I enjoyed it, never doubt that, but, well, the next time Fran suggested that we go home, I agreed and I think we both knew that we wouldn’t be back. Another dud club.
We were halfway to the door when we saw Christine Sheffield again. Unfortunately she saw us too.
“Taking him home, Frances? Probably wise. Once people realise that he’s spying on them, that he doesn’t belong in the scene, it’s not going to work, is it?”
I’m glad Fran doesn’t look at me like that. I know it’s a Top’s look, the ‘you are slightly less desirable than a black beetle’ one.
“Not like you to hang about with someone who doesn’t go the distance. Can’t take it.”
Oh, for heaven’s sake. I won’t see 40 again, not even close. I’ve had a responsible job for 20 years and I’ve progressed upwards through it. No, you don’t start as a detective. I’ve done traffic; I’ve done crowd control at football matches; I’ve done security at political conferences, lost dogs, stolen bicycles. I’ve talked to schoolchildren about Stranger Danger. I’ve typed up pages of notes for my own Detective Inspector, and – oh, you get the idea. Losing my temper isn’t something I do normally. So maybe that was why when I did lose it, it was lost beyond recovery.
“At least my Top is a proper Top, who can recognise a Sub when she sees one. I could take anything you could hand out, and come back for more. That’s why I’m with the best.”
I know. Stupid, stupid, stupid, and Fran’s fingernails met in the flesh of my arm to tell me so. “That’s enough, Dominic. Get out. I’ll deal with you at home.”
But it was too late. Christine must have been laughing. She’d set me up for that one and she hadn’t even needed a second try – she held out the bait once and I took it.
“Do you think so, little boy? You think you could take what my sub takes? Let’s try, shall we? You come to me and my sub can go to Frances and we’ll see which of you is serious.”
Fran’s “No” was drowned by my “Yes”. Shit, I can’t imagine what came over me except plain Class A testosterone. I wasn’t even thinking about what Christine was saying: I wasn’t taking on board that I was volunteering to submit to another woman, that I was doing it without Fran’s permission, that I was doing it with a woman who plainly disliked Fran and who had cause to hate me. And I already knew what Fran thought about competitive BDSM, didn’t I?
And that was how I ended up in an alcove looking across a table at Christine Sheffield, who was beginning to look smug, and her Sub. I don’t know where she had produced him from. Fran took my hand and dragged me round by brute force – she’s a lot stronger than she looks.
“Will you LISTEN to me? Do you know what you’re doing? You don’t have to do this. I can forbid you and we’ll get out, come on. She’s a heavy Top and. . .”
And I ignored her. I ignored her. That’s not just something that the intelligent Sub doesn’t do, it’s something that a well mannered man doesn’t do. I lose all round. If I wanted to demonstrate that Fran had a well trained Sub, this was not the way to do it. I felt her give in; nothing as obvious as throwing her hands in the air, but she might as well have done. I admit, in the immediate aftermath, I didn’t get why she didn’t simply announce ‘no, we’re not doing this’ and drag me out. I got it later and then I was even more ashamed of myself.
“What shall we say, Frances? Top chooses the implement, and we keep going until the Sub safewords? Or. . . no. Let’s have them ask for the next. Ten seconds to ask.”
Fran looked bleak; if I had been faced with the pair of them, without knowing them, I think I would have chosen to go with Christine.
“We’ll want an independent observer.”
“Don’t you trust me, Frances darling?”
That was an eye opener too – you don’t generally hear somebody being quite so uncompromisingly rude.
“As you like. But do you still know anybody on the scene? You’ve been gone such a long time, you know.” And Fran laughed, loudly enough for people to turn and look. A moment later I was approaching. . . well, by the standards of fantasy and fiction, a most improbable looking Top. A small man, 5’ 6” at most, balding, middle aged, a little overweight, and unremarkable except for his eyes. When I came up to him, he looked at me and I got a sudden shock of Viper de Vries. Even if Fran hadn’t had a warning tone to her voice when she gave me my instructions, I think I would have known to address him respectfully. As it was, I found that the style of my message, a century or so out of date, came perfectly naturally.
“Mistress FeLine’s compliments, Master Carlyon, and would you do her the honour. . .”
That was as far as I got.
“FeLine? Frances? Where?”
I gestured towards the alcove and hastily got out of his way.
“Frances! Frances, darling!”
I glanced inadvertently at Christine Sheffield; she looked faintly sick. I might not know who Denis Carlyon was, but patently she did, and his introduction into the situation was a complication she didn’t relish. Fran picked herself out of his embrace and turned to me. “Dominic, Master Carlyon is a senior Top. Should he see fit to command you, in anything short of disobedience to me you will obey him.”
I looked calmly at Denis Carlyon, who looked calmly back at me, but I could see a hint of amusement.
“Yes, ma’am. Sir.” I felt no doubt that if there had been the slightest chance of him ordering me to do anything I wouldn’t like, Fran wouldn’t have said it.
He nodded in acknowledgement and turned back to Fran in mock displeasure. “A senior Top, Frances? I’m the senior Top. This is my club, didn’t you know? Well, this and Mortimer’s. Frankly, darling, I’d have thought Mortimer’s would be more your style, but it’s members only. Listen, I’ll send you a card if you’re coming back into circulation. Are you still at that horrible little studio?”
“For another month, but I’ll have a forward on my mail. Thank you. But Denis, Christine here” oh, the contempt in that! “has challenged my Sub, and we want a referee.”
“Oh, of course, of course. What are your rules?”
“Top’s choice, ten seconds to ask.”
“And are we starting fair?”
Fran glanced at Christine. “Dominic has had a dozen already.”
“My boy’s been paddled.”
“Let’s see,” ordered Carlyon, suddenly all business, and Christine’s boy – I don’t like calling him that, he looked maybe 28 but I never heard his name – dropped his trousers (he had nothing underneath) and turned to display himself pink but not bruised. I hastened to follow suit, hot with embarrassment. It’s different with another man watching. Yes, I know, it was a club, I had done it before even if not very often, other men had watched, but he was the first I had felt was specifically looking at me. The minute he nodded, I dragged my trousers back up.
“That’s fair enough. And what are you choosing?”
Christine lifted the acrylic cane and I fought down a shudder. I’ve read about them. Nonetheless, the adrenaline was still hot in me; I wasn’t backing down. I could take anything the silly bitch could give out. Fran looked at Boy, and steadily unfastened her belt. It’s a heavy thing and it hurts, take my word for it. She rolled the buckle end round her hand, arranged it to a length she liked, and looked at Carlyon.
He produced a coin; Fran lost.
“Over that table, little boy.” Of course she wanted to go first. That way her Sub knew what he had to beat, so to speak. Still, I didn’t see why I had to make anything easy for her: she wasn’t my Top. I didn’t move, other than to turn my head towards Fran, in an ostentatious enquiry for permission. I saw Denis Carlyon smile, but Fran still looked very cold and angry; she gestured at me to do as I was told, and my stomach churned a little – not at the thought of what Christine Sheffield was going to do, but because I was beginning to grasp that Fran was angry not only with her but also with me. I dropped my trousers again and settled myself across the table, wrapping my fingers tightly over the edge. For all my bravado I was nervous and I had no illusions that this wasn’t going to hurt and hurt a lot. Fran came down to one knee beside me and spoke very softly in my ear.
“When you’ve had enough, say so; I don’t care about winning or losing.”
But I did. I don’t know if that’s a male thing or an adrenaline thing or just the effect of too many nights in the wrong clubs and of having come to this too late and not had a chance to work up to it. I cared enormously. I had no intention of losing. Fran wasn’t going to lose face on my account, not because she had a Sub who didn’t have the miles on the clock. Not because she was having to break in a beginner. Not because it was Dominic who didn’t know what he was doing. Just Not.
The first stroke caught me off guard, simply because Fran always touches me first. The breath hissed between my teeth, but I was steady enough to say, “Thank you, ma’am. May I have another?” God, but that sounds stupid when you say it. We never do that. Fran sometimes asks me if I want another – and sometimes she means it and sometimes she doesn’t, and sometimes I say yes and sometimes no – but we don’t do it, and I don’t have to count aloud either. I’ve seen people doing it and it seems to work for them, but I don’t like it. I felt a total prat repeating her damn catchphrase, but I did it, and she was pleased to oblige me. So I asked for a third and had a sudden terrifying thought of: if I wasn’t counting, who was?
Denis Carlyon was, apparently. My request for a fourth came over his voice, saying “Three.” Right. So that wasn’t my problem; I was glad to put that aside, and to reach inside my head for the place where I can do this.
I don’t know if I can explain this so that anybody else will make anything of it: if Fran’s doing anything severe, then unless she’s worked up to it slowly, I have a moment or two of thinking ‘what the hell am I doing? I don’t like this!’ before I can relax. I don’t know how it works, but I’ve heard other people talk about Sub-space, and I don’t think that’s it. They talk about floating, about something like an out-of-body experience, about a state almost of deep hypnosis. The word ‘flying’ gets used a lot. Well, I don’t get that. That’s not what I feel. I’m always there while it’s happening; the endorphins come later, with the rush of pain remembered, not pain being experienced. The buzz is ‘see what I did’ with a side order of ‘for you’. While it’s happening, I’m working hard at ‘I can do this’ again with a sub-text of ‘for you’; so I got ‘I can do this’ – and the ‘for you’ didn’t happen. Not for Christine. I wouldn’t cross the road for Christine Sheffield, this was for Fran, it was always for Fran. I concentrated, as much as I could concentrate with having to keep enough of my mind free to keep saying, “Thank you, ma’am, may I have another?”, and all that came to me was that the hand at the other end of the cane (I had been right, that acrylic cane was a bitch) wasn’t Fran. I could see Fran if I turned my head. This was for Fran, only Fran hadn’t wanted it.
It hurt. It hurt worse than that bloody toy of Hansie’s, not physically but. . . in my head? Can you understand that? I was hating it. It was most decidedly not a turn-on. And the adrenaline was running thin and cold and all I could think of to do was look at my white knuckles on the table edge and listen to my voice saying coldly, “Thank you, ma’am, may I have another?” I don’t think I had ever wanted less to have another, but since I had manoeuvred myself, and Fran too, into this position, I would win for sheer cold pride, there being nothing else to win for.
I surprised myself. I was amazingly glad that I didn’t have to count because I couldn’t have done it: once it got into big numbers I stopped thinking about them, I just thought about ‘one more. I can manage one more.’ Carlyon went on counting them in threes and I heard his voice but I didn’t absorb what he was saying. My requests were coming more slowly, but still well within the ten seconds allowed.
“Thank you, ma’am. May I have another?”
“No.” Two of them together, Fran and Denis Carlyon, and Fran stepped forward urgently. It was Carlyon, though, who rested a warning hand lightly on my back, keeping me still.
“The skin’s broken here. That’s enough, he’s proved his point. We’ll take your Sub like-for-like, Christine, and if he can take the same then it’s a draw, honours even. Get up – what’s your name? Get up, Dominic. Well done.”
It cost me something to stand up without wincing and I literally didn’t dare look over my shoulder at my backside. It took me two attempts to work my trousers back up, and I found myself shaking quite suddenly, because this was so wrong, this was absolutely not the way we did it. I ought not to be standing there just looking at Fran, I ought to be touching her, at least. She should be the one satisfying herself that I was all right, rather than Denis Carlyon, who produced a Sub of his own, a tall willowy woman half his age, and sent her to the bar to bring me a drink of something highly sugared for the physical shock. Fran should be smiling at me with that look of collaboration, not arranging another man to her satisfaction across the edge of the table.
And dear God, when she settled him, quite automatically, hand on his back the way she does it to me, I could taste the jealousy in my mouth like blood. I had known this wasn’t the right thing for us to be doing, known it in my head: now I felt it viscerally. I saw the first lick of Fran’s belt across his backside, and he didn’t wince but I did. I wanted so badly to be done with the whole thing, to be out of there, to be going home. It was surprisingly unsatisfying that he took only a little more than half of what I had done before he couldn’t manage the request in the time allowed.
We couldn’t get out fast enough; Denis Carlyon wanted us to stay, wanted to introduce Fran to some more people, wanted (I could tell) to know about me too. We had collected a sizeable audience by the time we were done, and there was a fair amount of interest, and all I could think of was how desperately I wanted to be somewhere else, and never to see the damn place again. Never.
Then we quarrelled in the car. Well, no, that’s not quite right. In the car park, Fran demanded my collar, in a tight voice, looked at it once, and dropped it in the nearest litter bin. The shock of that shut me up fairly comprehensively for the first ten miles during which she told me what she thought about the whole thing. There were quite a lot of words to make me wince: ‘manipulative’ was about the kindest of them. I didn’t say much, except ‘sorry’ a couple of times. I was sorry too, mostly for myself. I hurt. Sitting in that car was plain murder, even without Fran letting me understand that she had hated the entire escapade at least as much as I had. My backside hurt, my back hurt, presumably from the way I had been bracing myself to avoid moving, the table edge had left a weal across my palms and I could feel a headache coming on. This was not how I had wanted to spend Friday night.
It didn’t get any better. When we got home – and that was nearer one o’clock than midnight – the light was flashing on the answer-phone. I can’t ever afford to leave that. It’s always the bloody station: it was again. It was Bateman.
“Sir. Sorry to call you so late but we couldn’t get you on your mobile. We’ve got a lead on the fine art thefts, a tip-off that there’s a consignment going out through Folkestone either tonight or tomorrow morning.”
I put the phone down and looked at Fran, who was still thin-lipped and white-faced. “I’m sorry, I must go. I’ll leave you the car, Bateman’s going to pick me up in half an hour. I don’t know when I’ll be back, probably not tomorrow. I’ll call you when I can.”
She shut her eyes for a moment and then sighed and her shoulders dropped. “Go up and change. That shirt is sodden.”
And I wanted different underwear too. I had a bag packed, I always do, that was no problem, but I needed a shower before I went anywhere. When I went back to the bedroom, Fran had the first aid box.
“You’d better take the paracetamol with you, you’ll want them tomorrow. Turn round? You need a plaster on that.”
“Is it bleeding?”
“No, just weeping, but your clothes will rub. Here, I’ll do it.” A touch of Savlon and a big plaster, the huge one that comes as standard in the mixed pack and never gets used in the search for coverings for cut fingers. I dressed hastily, lacing my shoes from an uncomfortable perch on the edge of the bed. Whatever adrenaline and endorphins had been occupying my bloodstream were long gone; Fran was right about the paracetamol. She stood at the window, looking down into the street.
“He’s here; you’d better go.”
It was stupid – I didn’t know how to leave her. She didn’t turn her face away, as I had feared, but nor did she help me: I kissed her clumsily, feeling her shoulders tense under my hands. I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I said nothing and went.
It was Tuesday before I got back, and I came back to an empty house. I’d expected that: we hadn’t even managed to speak on the phone. I had left messages on her service, she had left messages on mine. All of them had been awkward, as if we were overheard. She knew I would be home on Tuesday morning, early, and I knew that she was photographing 25 toddlers at a pre-school in the morning, and 7 primary school classes in the afternoon. I can’t have missed her by much: I was home by half past eight, and the kettle was still warm. I could feel her absence in the bedroom when I unpacked my bag.
I couldn’t bear it; the rain was still coming down steadily as it had done for 24 hours. I wanted to run but the morning was dank and depressing, so I went to the gym for the sake of dry air and bright lights, laid claim to a treadmill and began to jog, forcing myself to warm up properly before I set the thing to a speed which would be an effort for me. I wanted to have to work, but if you had asked me if I wanted space to think, or to work my body so that my mind couldn’t think, I couldn’t have answered you.
“No, howzit, Nick?”
It was only familiarity with the treadmill which kept me on my feet; I slowed it before I looked round.
“Sorry, boet, I thought you had seen me.”
“Hansie. I was miles away. What are you doing here on a weekday?”
“I worked a lot of overtime last week; I am having a day off. I have not seen you here before?”
“No, well, I suppose you usually come in the evenings? Have you just come in?”
“I was in the weights room, I am finished. Have you much more to do?”
I stepped off the treadmill. “Hadn’t decided. I just wanted. . .”
He looked at me more closely. “You don’t look well, boet. Is your work going badly?”
“Oh God, Hansie, everything’s going badly and I don’t know what to do. I’m in such a mess.”
“So you want to come and have a cup of coffee and tell me about it?”
I hesitated – and leaped at the chance.
“So come, I need a shower, and then you will tell me what’s wrong.”
The changing room was empty, fortunately; if there had been anyone else there I couldn’t have risked a shower. As it was I primed Hansie.
“If somebody comes in, sing, or something.”
“I’m marked. Badly.”
He gave a snort of amusement, and allowed me the cubicle furthest from the door; I didn’t linger in the water. It wasn’t the hottest, and Hansie wasn’t much behind me in getting out.
“So what has happened?”
I was at a loss to know where to begin, so I pulled my towel clear and turned to show him.
“Eina, boykie! How old is that?”
“Friday. Four days.”
“You have gone bosbefok?”
“Probably. If I knew what it was.”
He waved expressively. “Over the top. Berserk. No, it would be more that Fran has gone bosbefok.”
“It wasn’t Fran.”
His face changed at once, from half-admiring amusement to cold disgust.
“No! No, Hansie, not that. Fran was there, she knows about it, I wasn’t. . . I wouldn’t do that.”
“So it was what?” He was still on the chilly side; I wrapped my towel back around my waist, sat down cautiously on the bench and gave him the bald outline.
“What does Fran think of it?”
“I don’t know. She was spitting tacks Friday night.”
“Fersure, I believe you. Ach, put some clothes on, and we will go somewhere better to talk. And maybe more comfortable to sit.”
“It’s going to mark,” I said miserably, spitting out my greatest fear in a panicked rush. His head emerged from his towel and he looked at me enquiringly.
“What, you mean permanently? You think?”
“I scar easily. Look, see this? That was stud marks from school football 30 years ago. This was a punch from a man I was trying to arrest: he had a ring on and it scratched me. Barely drew blood but you can still see the line of it. That damn cane will leave a mark, I know it will.”
He put the towel down and came over. “Show me.”
I turned again, pulling my own towel away, and he dropped to one knee to look, and then glanced up at me for permission before he touched me lightly, pulling the skin taut.
“No, I – ”
Fortunately the changing room has double doors round a little lobby, like they usually do, so that you’re not left displaying your all to the corridor outside when somebody comes in. Equally fortunately, Hansie heard the door before I did – I’ve never seen anybody leap off his knees and to the far side of a room with quite that degree of dispatch before. The man who came in didn’t give either of us a second glance, just loaded his outer clothes into a locker and went off with his water bottle, while I crouched awkwardly on the bench with my towel in my lap and Hansie dried his hair pointedly. As the door shut again, he collapsed into giggles, and so, helplessly, did I.
“Nick, for the love of God, get your trousers on and let’s get out of here before we are both thrown out, hey? I can see the headlines already.”
“So can I,” I choked, reaching for my clothes. “They think I’m a disgrace to the force already, that would just about put the lid on it.” That last didn’t come out quite right and Hansie shot me a hard look, and started to gather his belongings into his bag.
“No, come on. You are not yourself. Are you ready? Where shall we go, your house or mine?”
“Mine’s closer. Fran’s. . . Fran’s working, she won’t be there.”
I made tea. I was beginning to feel that my stomach wasn’t quite right and coffee was a bad idea; Hansie said he didn’t care. We took it into the living room.
“So you tell me Fran was very angry?”
“Fran was steaming. I don’t blame her, either, that was such a stupid thing to do.”
He sipped his tea and frowned. “I do not altogether understand why, if she disliked it so much, she permitted you to do it.”
I hadn’t thought of that; well, I had, but not to any useful purpose. “No. If she had simply refused to go along, I suppose it would have fizzled out with a squabble between me and the Sheffield woman. I don’t know. But it’s done now, Hansie, it’s done and it’s the consequences I have to live with.”
His mouth quirked. “You think you will be in trouble when the marks go down?”
“I think I won’t.”
He nodded once. “You play but she does not punish. So you must make up your quarrel another way. That is a problem?”
I considered. “I don’t think so,” I said slowly. “I mean, it doesn’t come into the making up. I’m in the wrong, and we both know that. I’ll acknowledge it and. . . and we’re both adults, we’ll behave like adults and we’ll move on. I need to apologise and I’m not stupid enough to do it again. The ordinary bits of the relationship, I know how to manage those. But she threw away my collar.”
“Your. . .”
I explained about my collar. About both my collars.
“That is not good,” he agreed soberly.
“If I’ve blown it, Hansie, if she doesn’t want to do that with me any more. . .”
He shook his head. “I don’t think that is likely. You said yourself, this is not just what she does, it is what she is.”
I twisted my mug between my fingers. “But I don’t know if it’s what I am. I told you, I hated it and I don’t know why.”
He pursed his lips in thought. “I think. . . I may ask you about your marriage?”
I nodded, surprised.
“You were married how long? Ten years? And for most of it, you were happy? And. . . this is none of my business, you don’t have to tell me, hey? Were you faithful?”
“As a matter of fact, I was. I. . . suppose I think that if you commit, you commit. Kate only.”
“Ja, that is what I would have expected of you. You have had other relationships, though, before her, and after the divorce.”
I nodded again, confused.
“And they might not have been very serious, but while they lasted, you were faithful within them?”
I was beginning to get a glimmering of what he was saying. “Yes. One at a time. You think that’s significant?”
“Ja, I do. And tell me, Kate was not a Top?”
“None of them were. Well, I suppose Kate was the only one where the relationship was intense enough that I would even have asked. I hinted a couple of times with her, and she wasn’t keen, so I didn’t push it.”
“Then I think that is it. It is the relationship which is more important to you than the. . .” he waved expressively, looking for a term, “than the activity. You are – I don’t know the word in English. You are a one woman man, hey? Kate did not wish to play, so you let it drop. It was not part of why you broke up?”
“No, didn’t come into it.”
“And if Fran said she would play no more with you, would you leave?”
“No!” The answer came without me having to think about it.
“And when you thought of it before – ach, this is awkward, I don’t mean to pry, but when you thought of play, did you think of more than one partner?”
“No, I see what you’re getting at. No, my fantasy was always one woman. Maybe not private – I do like the clubs, but I don’t want to be handed around.”
“And in a relationship with a different woman, would you want. . .”
I thought about it. “No, I see. Not necessarily. Maybe but not definitely. So you think that’s why I couldn’t get my head right? Literally, because it wasn’t Fran?”
“Well, I cannot say so, I am not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, but it seems to me that you are Fran’s man and that you do this with Fran and for Fran and not anyone else.”
“And now I’ve fucked it up.”
“As to that I cannot guess. I think – I think that in the matter of your second collar, and what you told me before about stress, I think she will not deny you. Fran understands about what a man needs rather than wants. The other, I can’t say.”
I thought about it for a moment. Then I forced myself to look up at him. “There’s more and you’ll hate me for it.”
“I will? Me specifically?”
“I think so. I hate myself well enough. It was. . . while I was away at the weekend. I had Sergeant Bateman with me; you know about him? Yes, I thought you did. Well, he knows about me.”
“He knows – about you?”
I explained about Bateman, as tersely as I could. Hansie nodded. “Ja, I see. Well, that cannot be helped.”
“No, but. . . we ended up in a police station in Folkestone, in one of the interview rooms. They aren’t exactly the pinnacle of comfort. You know, those stacking plastic chairs? And I sat down incautiously and winced, and Bateman saw.”
“Ah. And he will think worse of you. But how does this affect me?”
“No, you don’t understand. He passed some comment about ‘I hope I didn’t disturb Miss Milton when I rang up.’ It’s not me he thinks worse of, the fact that I’m good at my job will keep him on reasonably good terms with me. No, it’s Fran he despises, and the only thing that would have made it worse would have been if I had said that it wasn’t her who did it. So I held my tongue. He won’t talk anywhere else, that was a little dig at me and he doesn’t generally do even that, but he doesn’t think well of Fran. Hasn’t done since he found out about the sort of pictures she takes. But there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“And that,” said Hansie heavily, “is to my address at least in part. No, I see. It is simply one of those things that goes down like dominoes. The first step and then all the others are inevitable and I agree, there is nothing you can do but trust to his discretion. Live it down. But you must, I think, tell Fran.”
I knew that. “I’ve got to talk to her about all this. I’ve got to let her see that if she wants. . . if she doesn’t want to do it with me any more, I won’t nag her to. I wish to God I had never done it, and if that cut does mark. . .”
“But you must have known that was a risk, all along? If you cut as easily as you say?”
I looked at him wretchedly. “If it was Fran’s mark, I wouldn’t care. I’d wear her mark and it would be Fran’s mark, like. . . I don’t know, like another man would have his wife’s name tattooed on his arm.”
He smiled. “You don’t go for tattoos?”
“Not of names, no. I don’t see the point of them, specially not of having your children’s names. I always thought that if I had children, I would be able to remember their names without having to write them on my arms.”
“I had never thought of it quite that way.”
“Well, I would wear Fran’s mark and not worry about it. But I really don’t want to wear Christine Sheffield’s mark.”
“So ask Fran to. . . to overprint it. To mark you herself, unmistakeably.”
I coughed into my cold tea. “What?”
He raised his eyebrows.
“But – Hansie, you’re talking blood play. I don’t do that. Fran doesn’t do that.”
“Do not talk to me about what Fran does not do. Fran doesn’t punish, Nick, she only plays, and she plays where she is in a relationship, and she plays only with straight men, hey? And yet, when I deserved punishment, she bent me over my own kitchen table and striped my arse so hard that I couldn’t sit afterwards. I tell you, Fran understands about what people need. She could do that for me because she loves me and she saw what I needed. You are her man; why would she do less for you than for me?”
I looked at him quizzically; he coloured a little and said, into his own cold tea, “I know I have not always handled it well, but I can admit that Fran loves us both, differently. Ask her.”
He didn’t stay after that, said he was meeting Tim for lunch; actually he asked if I would like to go with them, but my stomach was churning and my headache was growing so I stayed where I was and opened a tin of soup, and then I made some more tea and sat down to watch the lunchtime news. The reception, I thought, wasn’t particularly good, and I channel-hopped inattentively, coming to rest at the snooker. Not that I like snooker much, but it was there. It was only when I realised that there were two pink balls on a table with a decided bend in the middle that I admitted to myself what was happening and stood up to go and look for painkillers – and bolted frantically for the bathroom, making it only just in time. The soup and the tea came up, and I spent another ten minutes kneeling on the floor before I thought I might be able to manage my injection.
And then I lay down flat, closed my eyes, and gave myself up to the pain.
I picked up my messages mid morning, when the pre-school staff brought me a cup of coffee; Nick was home. I thought about ringing up to speak to him, but if he had been up all night he would have gone to bed and it would be unkind to wake him. It was a perfectly good excuse but my conscience said ‘coward’. Not loudly enough to make me call – I went from the pre-school to the primary and it was past three o’clock when I went home.
The television was chattering to itself, and there was half a cup of cold tea in the living room, and dirty dishes in the kitchen, but no sign of Nick. I mustered my courage and went upstairs, stopping in the bathroom. The cabinet was open, and Nick’s Imigran stood on the sink.
He was flat on the bed and he looked like death warmed over, but he tried to open his eyes when I came in.
“Sorry,” he said thickly. “Better soon.”
“When did this come on?”
I didn’t get an answer; he rolled off the bed and a moment later I heard him retching miserably. By the time he came back I had drawn the curtains and brought up a tumbler and a jug of water, and as an afterthought, a basin, and was pulling back the duvet.
“Come on, clothes off and into bed.” I had to unbutton his shirt for him, he couldn’t do it himself.
“Fran, we need to talk.” Even the dim light from the curtained window was making him wince.
“Not now. Later.”
“Important. Talked to Hansie. Told him. . . he helped. But we need to talk.”
“When you’re fit, we’ll talk. Do you need anything else? Have you had your injection?”
“Yes. Can’t have another. Sleep it off.”
“All right, get in, there. Look, you’ve got water, O.K.? Can I do anything else?”
“Go ‘way. Sorry. Please. Quiet.”
I went away. I went right away. I went all the way to Haydon’s Farm, to Unit 5. It’s mine, as far as a rental ever is, and I’ll be there from the start of next month. I’ve been moving the contents of the office and the lorry up there in stages, and I went into town, filled the car with another couple of boxes of files and set off again. At the studio, I spent the late afternoon putting up bookshelves and rearranging my filing. It was beginning to get dark when I heard the door open.
I came round the door. “Phil, hi.”
“I saw the lights on and I thought I’d better check it was you. I wasn’t sure if that was Nick’s car.” He was dripping; obviously he had been running, for he was mud halfway to the knees and his hair was slicked to his neck. “Are you nearly finished with your moving?”
“All but. Another couple of carloads will do it.”
“Right. Is Nick here too?”
“Ah – no. Nick’s at home. He’s got a migraine and all he wants is to be left alone. I thought I’d better come away.”
“Poor sod. He gets those when he’s overdone at work, doesn’t he? Has something happened?”
I hesitated a little too long. “No, I don’t think so, but he was away all weekend again. Too much to do, I suppose.”
He nodded at me. “Come up to the house, why don’t you? Come and have coffee with us.”
“I won’t, thanks, Phil. I want to get this finished before I go home.”
He didn’t try to persuade me, just apologised for dripping on the floor and went on at a brisk trot up the path. It wasn’t more than 15 minutes before I heard the car.
“In here, Piet.”
He was carrying a vacuum flask and. . . a cake tin?
“How are you, Frances?”
“I’m fine, thanks, Piet, how are you?”
He looked at me carefully. “No, that is not true. Phil is right; he has armed me with coffee and cake and sent me to see you. I forget what he calls the cake; it is the one with marzipan in the middle. He made it for Easter.”
“Simnel,” I said, ignoring the first part of what he said.
“Yes, that is right. It is very good. Here. And some coffee.”
We sat in a companionable silence for a while.
“So, are you going to tell me what is wrong, or do I have to go home and confess to Phil that there is no support association for Tops?”
I gave a snort of laughter despite myself. “Is that what he thinks we are?”
“He says something is wrong with you and that you would not tell him but that you might tell me. Have some more cake.”
It would be a relief to tell somebody, and Piet, of course, would understand.
“The first part, I think, is that Nick has a migraine, and he has not had one for some time, and Phil seemed to think it was not to do with his work.”
“It’s not.” I gave in. “It’s to do with us, with him and me.”
“So do you wish to tell me? I will not pass it on to Phil without your permission, and he will not ask, you know that.”
It was an ugly little story. “I was so angry, Piet, and not really even with him, but with myself. It’s my responsibility to keep him safe when we play and I didn’t do it.”
He frowned. “I do not see that. You gave him several opportunities to back out. In fact, you did everything short of forbidding him to do it. Why not that?”
“Because I knew what he wanted. He worries so much about this, Piet. He worries about being a novice and me being experienced. He worries that he’s going to let me down, that when we go out, I’ll, I don’t know, I’ll lose face somehow. I mean, do you know the clubs?”
He shrugged. “In England, no. I visited one or two in Germany once, where I thought I would not be known.”
“Then I expect you know what they can be like for status. They’re all different, of course, that’s why we’re trawling round them trying to find the right one for us, but in that one, everything is to do with who’s top dog. Whose Top is harshest, or most imaginative or whatever. Whose Sub can stand the most punishment. The people who go there are desperate for status. I don’t care about that, and I think if Nick can just get his head around the fact that I don’t care, he won’t either. Competition isn’t the right thing for him – for us! – at all, although exhibition might be. At the moment, though, he’s trying so hard to make me look good that. . . And see, if I had stopped him, the one to lose face would have been him. I had to choose between humiliating him and risking Christine hurting him, and I chose wrong.”
He considered this seriously. “You think you chose wrongly?”
“She bloody cut him!”
“But Fran, he had the means to stop her, and he did not. He had your express permission to say he had had enough and he did not. You had a third party to watch for his safety, this man Carlyon, and in fact he did watch, and Nick has come to no real harm, has he?”
“No, but. . .”
“And this woman, you say she is a heavy Top, but is she actually dangerous?”
“Christine? No, of course not. I really wouldn’t have let him do it if I’d thought that. She would play on further than I would, but I wouldn’t accuse her of, I don’t know, of not respecting safe words or anything. Well, she wouldn’t be playing in Denis’s club if she wasn’t safe enough, he wouldn’t have it.”
“In health terms, you mean.”
“Yes. She’ll have taken that thing home to bleach it once she broke skin, she won’t use it on anyone else.”
“So you chose between two bad options, between allowing Nick to be hurt physically but keeping his self-respect – which was his desire – or humiliating him in public. Those were your choices, neither of them good, yes?”
“I suppose so, but I can’t help feeling that I could have turned the whole thing off if I had managed it better.”
“I do not see how. Ach, come, Fran, it was simply a bad situation. The woman does not like you for whatever reason, and does not like Nick for a different reason, and neither of those things was foreseeable. So you chose – or to be more precise, you permitted Nick to choose. Now you manage the consequences. The collar I understand very well. You will give it back to him? “
“Of course. I was thinking, somewhere I’ve got one of those books of how to make your own kit, and I thought I would get him to make his own collar and refuse to play until he’s done it. That would take him long enough that he’ll have healed.”
“Indeed. And it will make him take time to think about what he is doing. That is a good idea.”
We sat a little longer.
“Fran? What is the real problem?”
“Really, I suppose it’s that we haven’t had a chance to talk. Debriefing, Nick calls it. We always talk after we do anything new, so that we can sort out what works for each of us.”
“And that is because he was called to work.”
“I think that’s the trigger behind the migraine. That we’re not right with each other. That was just bad timing. In fact the whole damn evening was bad timing.”
“Yes, it sounds like it – but again, neither predictable nor preventable. Not, I think, your fault. Nor his. I cannot find any point in your narrative where I think: no, I would have done that differently.”
I picked the marzipan slowly off another piece of cake. “We’re both trying too hard, I suppose. I mean, any relationship between a Dom and a Sub is compromises and accommodations, even when we pretend it isn’t. Balancing up what he likes and what I do so that we both get enough, even if we don’t get it all.” I looked up at him. “Same as every relationship between two people, no matter what sort. Personal. Business. You give way on some things and not on others.”
“Indeed. I have no time for this modern notion that we are all entitled to be happy all the time with no effort. Any relationship requires, as you say, compromises. There is the myth of happy ever after and I do not know where it has come from, but it leads to hell.”
I smiled. “I know. After Cinderella marries Prince Charming she’s in for a big shock. She’s going to discover that he’s actually no more than Prince Reasonably-Well-Mannered-In-Public. I’ve got a couple of friends divorced and whatever cause they cited, the actual reason was excessively high expectations. Any relationship has bits, places, that aren’t what you want, but grown-ups get over them. There are no bluebirds round the house, but there might be wasps in the loft. The wasps are real, so deal with them.”
“And you have identified your wasps, and now you can deal with them.”
“If Nick agrees that they’re wasps, yes.”
He broke the marzipan-less slice of cake in two and offered me half of it. “You think he will not?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know if. . . I don’t know.”
There was another half cup of coffee in the flask. “Frances, you tell me you have played in these clubs before. You have had, then, a quarrel with a Sub before, over what he has done or not done.”
“And you have sorted it. You have decided that it was serious or not. Of course you have. So why, this time, have you lost your confidence in what you do?”
“I suppose, because this time it matters, Piet. Because it’s Nick, and I – I know how to do the topping stuff, that’s no problem, I know how that works. But I’ve never had a relationship like this. I’ve had relationships which have lasted a year or two, but when they ended, it wasn’t the end of the world. Well, not for more than a couple of weeks. I’ve never thought, if a man said he wanted to leave me, that I wanted to do anything other than let him go gracefully, even if it hurt me. There was never one I would have fought to keep. Until Nick.”
He smiled at me. “Be careful. This sounds suspiciously like bluebirds.”
“It does, a bit. Only I don’t know how to do bluebirds. I don’t know how to manage a long term relationship.”
“You have just told me that you do. Compromise. Make accommodations. Feed the bluebirds when they visit and keep an eye out for wasps. And Nick was married after all; do you know the grounds for his divorce?”
“What do they call it? Irretrievable breakdown? Irreconcilable something? Technically it was his unreasonable behaviour, which basically was never being there because he was at work, but that was just to push it through.”
“He speaks of his ex-wife without bitterness.”
“I’ve met her, did you know? At a party at Christmas. She’s actually very like me, not physically, but in her character. And her second husband is like Nick, only less nervy. If we had met differently, I think I would like them both very much. She and Nick aren’t combative at all, they seem to be able to get on perfectly well now.”
Piet leaned back in his chair to consider that. “You know, Fran, that is very interesting. That suggests to me that he knows what he wants in his partner and he was not far wrong in getting it before – and he has identified the problem he had before which was his work, too. How does he deal with that? He cannot, presumably, work less?”
I thought about it. “No, but I think I care less about that than Kate does. She was talking to me about lighting and colour – I think. . . she works fairly hard herself, I think, she’s in the Civil Service, something quite high-powered, and I got the impression that her relaxation is domestic. You know, that she does ‘House and Garden’ stuff and makes a perfect home. And a perfect home has a husband and children in it to share it. I don’t much care where I live or what it looks like and nor does Nick, he wouldn’t want to be fussed with too much of that. And he doesn’t like to be tied to arrangements, because so often he has to break them. That doesn’t bother me, I’m used to going places by myself, so it won’t upset me if he has to cancel.”
“So he has, at its crudest, exchanged a relationship where Kate could not accommodate his needs, and equally, where he could not accommodate hers, for one where the compromise comes more easily on both sides.”
I’ve seen him do this before, I’ve seen him do it in a training session when I’ve been taking photographs. He lines up the evidence and waits for his players to draw conclusions. “What you’re saying is that I know how to top and I can run that side of things but he’s the one with the experience in living together so I should follow his lead.”
One thin eyebrow lifted. “I am not saying anything, Fran, that is what you are saying. I will agree with you. I think that the reason you are upset that one occasion of play in a club went wrong, and not badly or irretrievably wrong, is that you have not before played so with someone about whom you care the way you care about Nick. And because you care, and because he cares – he must care, he is making himself ill with worry about it – you will both adapt a little, adjust a little, and all will yet be well.” He got up. “And now I will help you with this last box and you will go home to Nick, yes?”
Seemed like a good idea. He walked out to the car with me, through the rain. I pulled his head down to kiss him. “Tell Phil that’s a wonderful cake, and that he’s a good man, and that Tops Anonymous has done the deed. Tell him as much of it as you like; Nick talked to Hansie, I gather, although God knows what he said, or what Hansie will make of it. Thanks, Piet. You helped a lot. I really didn’t know what was wrong or what to do about it.”
“No, that is not true, for I did not tell you what was wrong, I merely asked you, and you told me. You already knew. The important bit was done: Nick came home to you and you were there. You would have managed the rest yourselves anyway.”
“You think so?”
He turned up his collar, his car keys jingling in his hand. “I know so. You forget, Frances – I am placed as you are. Before Phil, there was no man I would have fought to keep, either. And now I will go home before I am wet through. Goodnight, Fran. Drive carefully.”
It was about half past four when I woke up, and believe me, I felt like shit. My head was still throbbing, although only with a normal headache – the aura and nausea of the migraine had passed, and I ached all over, but not with the crippling pain of earlier. I was beginning to think that I wanted to live after all, although life could still be a good deal better than it currently was. Painkillers. At once. I rolled over – and Fran wasn’t in bed. That panicked me for a moment and set the trip hammer in my temple going double time. I couldn’t think about this until I’d had a painkiller. Not just an Anadin, either, I needed one of those prescription things.
Turning on the landing light made me flinch again and I didn’t bother with the bathroom one, just hastened to swallow my tablet and get back out – and Fran was there.
“Were you sick again?”
“No,” I said stupidly. “It’s going off.” She didn’t look much better than me; she doesn’t do well with interrupted sleep. “You weren’t in bed.”
“You were very restless when I came up; I was afraid of waking you. I went to sleep in the spare room.”
Really? Not just that she didn’t want to sleep with me? My voice was a little uncertain. “Come back now?”
It had been cold on the landing; I started to snuggle up, and then had a kick of apprehension, but Fran reached back for my hand and drew it round her ribs to its accustomed place. Then she sighed and was instantly asleep again. Headache or not, that was the point, with her fingers across the back of my hand, and the warm yielding weight of her breast rounding into my palm, that I knew we were going to sort ourselves out. That whatever we decided about play, about clubs, that we, Fran and I, would be O.K.
I dozed a bit more – well, I’d been asleep just about 12 hours, I wasn’t going back to sleep completely, and woke up for good at half six with that horrible purged feeling you get after illness. Fran was still sound asleep so I went down for tea, and risked a couple of pieces of bread, and then I picked some clean clothes out of the airing cupboard and went for a shower. I wanted to be dressed by the time Fran got up: I didn’t want to start the day with her seeing the way Friday’s disaster was expressing itself like a colour chart across my backside. Time enough for that after we had talked.
I suspect she thought the same way, because she didn’t comment on it when I took her coffee and toast in bed.
“How are you feeling this morning?”
I made a face. “Jaded. Can we go out somewhere? I need some fresh air, I think. Or are you working?”
“Nothing that won’t wait until tomorrow. Tell you what, let’s go and see your Christmas present.”
Even the thought of that made me smile. We went to the zoo. We took about an hour making our way round the various enclosures and at some point Fran’s fingers brushed mine and I risked taking her hand. On a cold weekday in school term, the place was all but empty, and the picnic tables by the penguin pool were deserted. There was a refreshments kiosk with a rather lonely teenager inside; his surprise when we stopped for coffee was palpable.
“Which one is yours again?”
“One of the little ones with the spotted shirtfronts and the black and pink feet. Pink eyes. Look, that’s one.”
It was a Christmas present from Hansie and Tim. They had sponsored a penguin for me at the zoo – typically, Hansie had chosen the sort that lives in South Africa. They said that I worried too much about Stuff, and that nobody could watch a penguin and be stressed at the same time. It’s true, I think – we drank our coffee and the penguins shot to and fro in the pool below us, and by the time I said, tentatively, “About Friday. . .” we were both smiling.
“Go on, then. About Friday.”
We were on our third lot of coffee, and we had stopped several times to walk around the penguin pool, to the absolute fascination of the boy in the refreshments kiosk, by the time I had explained, haltingly, about what I had thought and said and done, and Fran had painfully answered about why she didn’t stop me and what she had thought. By then, I had a firm grip on her fingers, although we were both talking to the grain in the wood of the picnic table, rather than to each other.
But eventually it was too cold to sit any longer and we got up and began to stroll on. If the penguins are where I always end up, Fran’s favourites are the bats, and the bigger they are the better she likes them. She would sit in the false dusk of the bat house and watch the fruit bats for hours. It was only because it was half way dark that I managed to tell her about what I feared, and what Hansie had said.
“Is that what you want?”
“I. . . I don’t know. I don’t want you to have to do anything you don’t like. Anything more you don’t like. I don’t want to carry Christine Sheffield’s mark, but, well, if that’s the cost of a fuck-up, then it is, and I can live with it.”
“Umm. Let’s go home and have a look.”
At home, I kicked off my shoes and my jeans, and peeled my briefs halfway down my legs. Then I lay down and buried my face in the duvet. I knew what it looked like – my arse was a mess.
“Have you been putting anything on this?”
“No,” I muttered to the pillow.
“I think it’s going to peel. I’ll find you some cold cream.”
Her fingertips were warm and very gentle as she explored by touch until we both felt the rasp of the little scab. “You know, Nick, I don’t think this is going to mark.” She tried the place again with the edge of her thumb.
“Are you sure?”
“No, not sure, but I don’t think it will. Does it really bother you?”
“It’s just. . .”
“Truthfully. Tell me the absolute truth. Does it bother you?”
“Then we won’t chance it. Kick those off.”
She was looking under the bed in the box, and she emerged with the short riding crop.
“Fran, is that. . . will that one. . .”
“This is just to give me a marker. I’m going to give you four, Nick, to be sure of getting the line. Do you trust me?”
I turned back to the pillow. “Do it.”
I didn’t expect what she did do. She stood at the foot of the bed and laced me three times vertically, three stripes at intervals of an inch up and down my right cheek, and on top of the bruises I had, they hurt like fuck. I cried out each time, but I didn’t move. Then she went back to the box under the bed for the schooling whip. It’s wickedly thin and it’s got a thing like a 6 inch nylon lash on the end. A popper, Fran calls it. She’s used it, but very carefully, and a couple of times when she’s wanted to use it hard, she’s put a pillow at my right hip to stop the popper wrapping. This time she didn’t. She took several minutes, tapping and checking and getting her line, and then, without any warning at all, the thing hissed across my backside. I bucked, and squealed, and collapsed back onto the bed, and the burn in my bum died a little, enough for me to realise that the blow had landed almost entirely to my left, and that only the popper had seared a horizontal line bisecting each of the welted verticals. When I twisted to look, I could see what she had done – there was a tiny break in the skin at each of the three intersections, and on two of them, something like a blood blister was forming. As I watched, a single drop of blood grew at the third, swelled, and spilled. One drop, precisely where Christine Sheffield’s cane had cut.
“I don’t believe it,” said Maria. “They’re too fragile.”
Fran shook her head. “Not for a really good Sub.”
Maria leaned forward and set down her glass. At the end of the leash, her own Sub shifted slightly. “All right, I’ll buy it. Let’s see, Frances. I’ll buy the next round if he can do it.”
“You’ll lose, Maria,” said Carlyon, lazily.
She glanced enquiringly at him. “Have you seen him do it?”
He shook his head. “No, but I’ve seen him in action. He’s good.”
Mortimer’s was definitely more the sort of place we liked. Smaller. A lot quieter. Not, I hasten to add, any less serious – I had been rather anxious at first about the amount of noise being made by the tiny woman whose Top was about the size of Viper de Vries, but I had seen her later proudly comparing welts with a friend. No, the whole attitude was different, more controlled, more substance, almost, less obviously to do with clothing and props.
Which didn’t explain why we had gone for props. Not toys: the strap on Fran’s belt was heavier than before, and she had the short crop as well, nothing more, but she had a new silk shirt, a deep rich green. I had complained and grumbled when I discovered that I had matching underwear. I’m a Sub: I’m allowed to grumble. That doesn’t mean Fran has to pay any attention to me, and she didn’t, only told me that my choice was to wear what she had provided or to go without. No thanks. I’ll display my backside, no problem, but I don’t want to display anything else and she knows that. Green silk thong it was. Cheese wire.
No, the real prop was a Victorian silver cigarette case in my pocket, very beautiful and horribly expensive. I’ve never smoked, but I was learning the stylish turn of the wrist which would open it and just flick the contents so that one or two would slide free of the restricting band. Not cigarettes but the same sort of size – those tubular wafers which they put in ice cream in pretentious restaurants. Sugar curls. We had practised with raw dried pasta to begin with, and then with a variety of biscuits and chocolate fingers (those made a dreadful mess) and cheap wafers; these were the expensive Italian ones, and they broke at a careless touch. Fran took two, and handed one to Maria.
“Snap it. See how fragile it is.”
Maria shook the crumbs into the ashtray and returned her attention to me. I turned my chair sideways, unfastened my trousers and let them drop. Doubled over the chair and waited.
“Strap or crop, Maria? He can manage either.”
“Then mix and match. Without telling him.”
Ooh, that was clever. Nasty. Different effects – the crop bites and makes me gasp, the strap throws me forward against the chair.
“Eyes front, then, Dominic. Here.”
She offered me a sugar curl, presented it the way a rider presents the bit to an unbridled horse. I opened my mouth and she slid the wafer across my jaw.
“Don’t drop it; don’t break it.”
And her hand smoothed down my back and over my backside. Pale, unmarked, no sign of acrylic cane or schooling whip. No evidence that I had ever done this before. I was ready. Just as well: I had no further warning. If I squinted upwards, I could see Maria and Carlyon pointing to choose between crop and strap on each stroke, only Fran changed hands so I couldn’t predict it. Seven with the strap, five with the crop, and then she coaxed me up, put her hand to my face, and I dropped the curl into her palm. Her other arm came round my waist, holding me while I caught my breath. It’s not just the effect of having my head down, because it happens even when I’ve been lying on the bed, but after Fran deals with me I’m light-headed, the way you get when you’re running a temperature, or when you’ve had one drink too many and you stand up too fast. She waited while I refastened my trousers; it’s not her style to ignore her Sub, we’re partners in this, accomplices, co-conspirators, equals. Then she turned to Maria and held out the sugar curl on the flat of her hand. Denis Carlyon leaned over to look too.
“There isn’t even a toothmark in it. Drinks, Maria. I told you that you’d lose. Well done, Dominic, that’s impressive.”
I didn’t see the secondary effect until later; when Fran and I moved around the room, people got out of her way: well, she’d been with Carlyon and Maria, so she was identifiable as a Senior Top, and the story of the sugar curl had made it rapidly round the Subs. Several people had asked me about it: was it difficult? How had I learned to do it? Naturally I didn’t mention the half pound of sugared crumbs which we were still picking out of the carpets at home, just looked as inscrutable as I could, and shared Fran’s amusement. No, the side-effect came when it was my turn to go to the bar – and I was served at once, over the heads of several people who had been there before me. Apparently it’s one of the perks of being a Senior Sub.
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© , 2006