Simultaneous Equations

Ross is always very gentle, very tender with me in the aftermath of a proper tanning and this time was no exception. We have a routine, of sorts. A lengthy cuddle. A chance for me to catch my breath and settle myself against his chest, and be petted back to calmness. The reassurance that, whatever the crisis was, it has passed without permanent damage to our relationship. That time is important to me, always has been. Usually, afterwards, we make love. It isn’t because of the spanking itself – although when I let Ross spank me just because he wants to, the sex afterwards is explosive and fun – no, it’s an affirmation that we’re sorted, we’re O.K. It’s always slow, and gentle, always aimed more at my pleasure than his, always him topping.

No, he doesn’t always, not otherwise. We both like it both ways. That’s not relevant – after a spanking, we settle ourselves back to how we should be, and that’s how we do it. But before that, there’s love, reassurance, getting comfortable emotionally despite any physical discomfort.

And this time, I was curled with my head on his shoulder and perilously close to tears. That is not by any means usual; I don’t cry easily. It’s one of the reasons I coped so badly with the break-up with Vic – I cried all the time and the plain fact that I couldn’t stop upset me. Certainly Ross has been known to make me cry with a spanking, but I can’t think of more than three occasions in all the time we’ve been together, and that’s not what it’s for: it’s not done to make me unhappy, it’s done to. . . I’m not going to be able to explain this without using the word ‘closure’. The spanking clears off whatever I’ve done, allows me to feel that it’s all in the past, and that I don’t need to concern myself about it any more. But this – this was just too much for me to handle and Ross was still making little wordless soothing sounds into my ear and rubbing my back, and I was still clinging to him.

I sighed, and turned my face against him, still searching for comfort. We both were: little butterfly kisses on temples and cheekbones, slow fingertips lightly tracing the curve of a bottom still hot and tender, wordless murmurs of affection and reconciliation, which deepened into purrs of pleasure as we set ourselves right again.

Afterwards, though, with our relationship rebalanced, with our bodies tangled and sated, I said softly, “Not again, Ross. I really, really don’t want to go through that again. Please don’t make me do it again.”

He shifted against me. “No. I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you that much, not willingly, I promise. We’ll put the cane away. We don’t care for it.”

No. We didn’t. He was going to have the marks for a week.

There was nothing in the fact that the phone rang to make me at all uneasy. Afterwards, I found myself wondering if I had been anxious before, if I had been worrying, if I had known there was something wrong – but I hadn’t. Ross wasn’t even late, particularly; he had been working the early shift and I expected him home about three. Nothing to be concerned about. Just the phone ringing.

“Jerry? I need you to come and fetch me.”

“What’s the matter? Won’t the bike start?” I was already searching my pockets for my keys, and wondering vaguely where my mobile was.

“No, it’s not like that. . . it’s. . . Don’t come on your bike, Jerry, come in the car. I’m on the bypass.”

“On the. . . what on earth for? What’s happened?”

“I’m O.K., I’m not hurt, but I’ve had an accident. I need you to come and fetch me. Please, Jerry, don’t ask any more questions, I’m honestly not hurt but I want you to come and fetch me. I’m just past the motorway junction: if you go up to that you can go round the roundabout and come down onto this side. I’m on the hard shoulder. There’s a police car and a paramedic’s car and a lorry and all sorts, you can’t miss us. Just come.”

“I’m coming now. I’ll be fifteen minutes at most.”

Do you know, there were a lot of things which surprised me later when I thought about them. A lot. One of them was that I didn’t make more of a fuss on the phone, insist on details, want to know what had happened. Well, I did want to: you listen to your lover say that he’s had an accident and you want every reassurance going, don’t you? A police car? A paramedic? And Ross had sounded most unlike himself. He’s terrifically placid, generally; almost nothing puts him badly out of temper, nothing worries him. Not like me, I get in a complete fizz about the stupidest things. But this time, he sounded perilously close to losing it, and for once I had a grip on everything. He said he wasn’t hurt; he wouldn’t lie to me about something like that. He said he needed me and I was going to him. Car keys, wallet, phone, and I didn’t need anything else. Oh, coat. And I picked up Ross’s coat too and threw it in the back. He had his leathers but. . . I was carefully not thinking that if he had come off the bike, the leathers were probably not as good as they had been, and then I raced back to the filing cabinet which lives incongruously in a corner of the sitting room. Paper copy of driving licence, insurance documents. Paperwork in the house is my job, and if it were left to Ross the walls would be bowed with undealt-with paper. I’m a complete fusspot about paper and I can lay hand on official documents at once. Take those two. Get out of the house.

Let’s not talk about speeding. I wasn’t much over the limit, but I was over it. Ross was right, I couldn’t miss them: police Range Rover, paramedic’s car still with the light flashing, German container lorry. I didn’t actually spot the bike at first, not until I was out of the car, and then I saw it, still twisted under the front corner of the lorry cab, and very, very obviously dead. My stomach heaved and I felt the panic rise in me until I spotted Ross, sitting on the grassy bank and talking to a policewoman.

He was very white, but in fact the one wrapped in the paramedic’s reflective blanket and having his pulse taken was the lorry driver. I came up beside Ross and knelt down. “What happened?”

“I got side-swiped. The bike’s a write off, but I wasn’t touched. The paramedic wants me to go to casualty anyway, just in case, and then I’ll need to go to the police station and make a statement, and get. . . I don’t know how it works, there’s a reference number or something, isn’t there, for the insurance?”

That was aimed at the policewoman, who nodded. “There shouldn’t be anything to worry about. You’ve been breathalysed and it’s clear, we’ll need to see your documents just for the record, we’ve got three witnesses that it wasn’t your fault, and the lorry driver has admitted liability. As long as you get his insurance details, you shouldn’t lose any more than your no-claims bonus, and you can sue for that. There will probably be a charge of driving without due care and attention, but if he pleads guilty you won’t even be needed as a witness.”

“Foreign driver, foreign insurer, foreign employer,” said Ross, miserably. I thought it time to take a share of the conversation. “That’s not so unusual these days. Your own insurer will deal with it. I’ve got your documents in the car, so we could do that now?” That was aimed at the policewoman, who shook her head. “Bring them to Cannon Street police station tomorrow. The insurer will want copies of our reports and you can pick them up at the same time. Look, Mr Ashcroft, why don’t you get your friend to take you to the hospital? The motorbike will be taken to our pound when they’ve freed the lorry but that’s going to be another hour at least. There’s no need for you to stay. We’ve got your details and a phone number, we know where you are.”

“Yes,” I said firmly. “Plan. Are you fit to go? Did the paramedic say you could?”

He came up just then, a bulky middle aged man with a bluff manner, who agreed that Ross could go provided he went to A&E for a neck X-ray.

We sat for bloody hours waiting. That’s what casualty is like, pretty much everywhere, I think. You sit and wait. And wait. And then you wait some more. There’s plenty of time to talk.

“So what on earth happened?”

He looked most unlike himself, an odd combination of dismay and guilt. “I wasn’t paying attention. I was. . . you know. . . you know the way sometimes you’re not driving well and you know you’re not?”

I nodded. Well, we all know that one, don’t we?

“I, well, I had a bad day at work. And then coming home, I cut the lights at the cinema, amber gambling. And I shouldn’t have, I didn’t need to, there wasn’t anything behind me if I had stopped. There wasn’t anything coming, it wasn’t dangerous, but. . . well. It gave me a shock. So I was a bit more careful on the bypass. But I saw that lorry, and I saw what it was, I saw that it had foreign plates. And I know about that, Jerry. I’ve seen the thing in the papers, about the way British right hand drive lorries have to have blind spot mirrors to go on the continent, but continental left hand drive lorries don’t have to have them here. Normally I just wouldn’t do that, I wouldn’t try to overtake one without dropping right back and being damn sure that the driver had seen me. I wasn’t. . . I didn’t do anything actually wrong, not anything that was dangerous in itself. I wasn’t too close, or lane dodging or anything. I just didn’t think that it was a left hand drive lorry and I needed to give him another twenty yards.”

I didn’t quite get this. “But the driver admitted liability, I thought?”

“He pulled out. Didn’t even look. Sideswiped me and spun the bike. I thought. . . Jerry, I thought I was going to die. I really thought I was going to die. I must have been doing 50 when he pulled out and he actually hit me, the side of the container touched my shoulder. I couldn’t hold the bike. I went up the central reservation and back down, and then he touched me again and the bike did a full 360 in front of the cab. Jerry, I saw his face as I went past; he thought he had killed me. And I went over the hard shoulder and up the grass, and the bike lost traction and spun again, and it was like it. . . well, you would understand it better than me, I suppose, the physics of it. At the top of the slope it stopped. Just for a fraction of a second, I expect, but it felt like hours. It stopped and I could feel the weight of it hang on my hands, and just as it began to pull me back down, I thought: when this bike hits the road again the lorry will be just there. And I let go. I threw my leg over and I let go, and the bike skidded away from me and it went under the cab and I fell flat on my face on the grass. And it made the most horrible noise when the lorry went over it, Jerry, it crunched, and some of the pieces squeaked.”

I took his hand. That last had been delivered far too fast and not at all in Ross’s usual tone. I opened my mouth to say something bland and reassuring – God knows what – but at that moment the nurse from X-ray called “Mr Ashcroft?” and he went away from me to the rituals of A&E. So that was the whole of the afternoon and most of the evening gone. It was a long way past dark when we reached home.

“Ross? Go and have a bath. I know they said you hadn't hurt anything, but you’re going to be stiff tomorrow. I’ll get the kettle on, you go on up, and I’ll make us something you can eat in bed, and we’ll just watch TV and vegetate.” My instinct was to shake Ross until his teeth rattled, and to demand to know what he thought he had been doing to frighten me that way – I can be as selfish as anybody else – but he was still white and pinched-looking.

“I ought to ring the insurers.”

“There won’t be anybody there who can deal with anything at this time. We’ll see about it all first thing tomorrow.”

“I’m working tomorrow morning. It’ll be. . . it’ll have to be. . . I. . .”

I gave him a push. “Go and run a bath. I’ll sort it. Who’ll be at the gym at this time? Any of the admin people?”

“There’s somebody in the office all the time we’re open. I don’t know. . . Kerry, or Dave, maybe? Or Jack? I can’t think, Jerry, I ought to. . .”

“You ought to go and have a bath. I’ll sort it. Go on.”

It was Kerry, who was shocked to hear that Ross had come off the bike, sympathetic and helpful. No, of course he could have a day off to sort everything. She would find somebody to cover his shift and he could work an extra one at the end of the month, or if he wasn’t fit in the morning he could ring in sick and it would be covered that way. No problem. I was to give him her love and let them know in the morning how things were.

Actually, the next day wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated. I went to the police station with Ross, and the paperwork was tedious but not disturbing, it being obvious from the witness statements that Ross hadn't been at fault. Then he rang the insurers, who assured him that provided all the paperwork backed up what he was saying, he wouldn’t lose more than his excess, and if the lorry driver’s insurance paid up he wouldn’t lose even that. It would take some time to sort it all out, but as I pointed out, we still had a bike and a car between us, so it wouldn’t be a big problem. Ross was stiff and bruised but not particularly badly, and he was shaky and out of temper, which I put down to shock. I thought that once he got over that, we would settle back to the proper balance of our lives.

We didn’t. Ross had a couple of nightmares – hardly surprising. After reading the witness reports so did I: two witnesses actually said that they didn’t know how he was still alive. He only took one day off, and went back to work, covering Jamie’s Sunday shift, Jamie having worked his. I gave him the keys to my bike, and satisfied myself when we went out with riding pillion. To tell the truth, I rather enjoy that, cuddled up against Ross’s back with my arms round his waist.

No, it was at home that things weren’t as they ought to be. Ross was faffing after me the way he had done after that horrible belt incident; I kept going to do one of my normal tasks and finding he had already done it, already filled the washing machine, usually with something I hadn't been intending to wash until tomorrow, or run the dishwasher despite there still being room in it for the lunch plates, or hoovered a room which I had hoovered yesterday. It drove me halfway nuts. Of course I had no objection to Ross doing housework. It’s work, after all – I don’t feel any need to do it all. But I had a routine for my share of it, and he was disrupting that, and I didn’t know what to make of it. Did he want me to take over some of the things he habitually did? The bike maintenance is his task; he’s taught me enough that I can keep the thing safe on the road, but advanced tweaking doesn’t interest me. I wondered if he felt that when he had no bike, I could look after my own, until I found him sitting on the garage floor doing something arcane with filters. I started a shopping list, and had it snatched out of my hands with a snippy comment about that being his job, thank you very much.

I don’t know how many times I started to ask what was wrong, and shut up again, but eventually I couldn’t stand any more. We were on our way to bed and when I drew the curtains I could see the spill of light from the porch.

“Damn, we’ve left the outside light on.”

“I’ll go.”

“It’s all right, I’m still dressed, I’ll go.”

“I said I would go! Get to bed, Jerry and I’ll do it.”

“There’s no need, I’ve still got my shoes on. . .” but I was too late. Ross, only half dressed and shoeless, ran down the stairs (which were chilly – the heating had been off for an hour) to turn off the light. No, not, of course, a big deal, but just one more example of the way he had been for a fortnight.

In bed, I pushed over to him, threw an arm over his waist, and waited for him to turn off the bedside lamp. Then I just barrelled in, without trying to think about what I wanted to say.

“Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”

“What’s going on where?”

“What’s going on with you. What’s the matter? You’ve been acting all wrong for days and I want to know what it’s about.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Don’t you? Well, what about this? You won’t let me do anything. You won’t let me tidy up, you won’t let me wash the dishes, you keep bringing in treats, you fuss round after me like a hen with a single chick. It’s lovely, Ross, I’m not saying it isn’t but it’s making me nervous. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“You’re imagining things.”

I came up on one elbow. “Excuse me, but I am not imagining anything. How many times have I cooked this week? None. You’ve cooked every time it was your turn and every time it was mine you suggested that we phoned for a takeaway or went out. I dropped the sugar bowl and you washed the kitchen floor. I forgot to phone the people about the boiler and you didn’t even remind me to do it the next day, you just did it yourself. What is going on?”

“I’m telling you, you’re imagining things.”

I dropped onto my back. “Well, if you won’t tell me, you won’t. But I’m not imagining anything, Ross. You’re lying to me, and when I lied to you, I got a spanking for it.” I bit back the comment of ‘that’s not fair’. I’m not a child; the world isn’t fair and never has been, and I at least don’t expect it to be. We lay in silence for about ten minutes and then I heard his voice, very softly, in the dark.

“That’s what’s wrong.”

I pushed a hand across the bed, found his fingers and wound my own into them. “I don’t understand.”

He sighed. “It’s the accident. It was my fault.”

My head snapped over towards him. “It wasn’t! You had witnesses and everything, saying it was the lorry driver’s fault.”

“Oh, I know, legally it was his fault, but I’m telling you, I saw that it was a left hand drive lorry and if I had applied my brain at all I would have known that in all likelihood he couldn’t see me. Ever since you’ve started biking I’ve told you: you have to assume that every other road user is an idiot, because they don’t look for bikes, they don’t see bikes, they don’t pay attention to bikes. You have to do all their looking out as well as your own.”

I rolled towards him. I didn’t really see where this was going. “Well, O.K. So you’re saying that in law, you did nothing wrong but in practical terms you made a mistake. I can see that. What about it? How do you get from there to takeaway pizza?”

“If you had done it, if you had made a mistake that basic, I would have walloped you until you yelled.”

Just that. Flat, and unemotional. And suddenly I saw.

Ross has a real problem with this, you see. With the fact that he spanks me when I do something dangerous because I haven’t thought about it, or when I hurt him, and I won’t reciprocate. I won’t. I absolutely won’t. Two reasons: one is that I think it comes more naturally to him to be in charge. I know I’ve said he isn’t Top – but he is. We don’t use the words because, I suppose, we’ve never formally set out the relationship that way, but he’s top dog. Not just with me, either. He’s a bit. . . I don’t want to say ‘bossy’, because that sounds nasty, but ‘definite’ maybe. Like. . . well, when we go out together, six or eight of us, and we go for a meal, it will be Ross to whom the waiter gravitates to get some sort of sensible list of what we’re all eating when we get to the ‘if you’re having that I’ll have this’ thing, all changing our minds. Ross or James, and we know about James. Ross is just naturally much more assertive than I am and that’s the way things are.

So that’s one reason: the way Ross is. The other reason is the way I am: I don’t want to do it. I simply don’t want to. It doesn’t come naturally to me. I would have real difficulty causing physical hurt to somebody I loved and who loved me, and, well, that’s a given. Ross loves me. I screw up, I get a sore bum, we get over it, that works for us. I don’t feel any need to say: but that isn’t fair and because it works for me it must work for you too. We’ve. . . we tried. Ross offered, after the belt incident, and I turned him down. There was another incident, when he cracked a joke at my expense in the pub one night, and it went wrong – it’s not that I can’t stand being the butt of the joke, it was just one of those remarks which is meant to be funny and doesn’t quite come off. It was hurtful, and Ross saw that I was hurt by it both then and later, so when we were on our way to bed, with me subdued and not quite catching his eye, he pushed me gently down on the edge of the mattress and doubled himself over my lap. “Go on,” he said. “It was a stupid thing to say and I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it, but it was unkind; I’ve earned a spanking.” So I gave him one and it was a complete disaster. By the time we were done, I was more upset than he was – he was smarting and penitent but relieved, I was close to tears. We didn’t talk about it later, which might have been a mistake; we certainly never repeated it. That was most decidedly not how the dynamic of our relationship worked, O.K.?

So there it was. Ross had done something stupidly dangerous. If I had done it, I would have been spanked for it, and deservedly so; he had done it and it would simply be allowed to pass. And he thought that wasn’t fair. I struggled a bit with the idea.

“Well, but. . .” only there wasn’t any ‘well, but’, was there? He couldn’t justify being careless on the bike any more than I could.

“Ross, you had the fright of your life, you had hours in Casualty and at the police station, and on the phone to the insurers. You won’t get a cheque from them until we don’t know when, and most likely it won’t be enough to cover a new bike, and meanwhile you’ve got no bike at all, so if you want to get about you’ve got to take a most uncool car, or ask me for my bike, or make it on your own arched insteps. Do you not think you’ve been punished quite enough for a moment’s carelessness?”

My eyes were adjusting to the darkness; I could see him make a face. “If it had been you, you would have had to put up with all those things and you’d have had a blistered backside too.”

We lay in silence for a few minutes. Eventually, I said, in a small voice, “I can’t do it.”

He wriggled closer and enveloped me in his embrace. “Sweetheart, I know you can’t. I’m not asking you to: I can’t ask you to make me feel better at the cost of you feeling worse. This is my problem and I’ll get over it, but you need to give me a bit of space. If I’m not going to smart for stupidity, I need to pay for it somewhere else.”

I thought of some of the things I had read. Oh yes, I had looked it up, early on. I had wanted to know how weird it was, what we did and what James and Callum did. I gave an unwilling choke of laughter, and hastened to reassure Ross, who was looking a bit shocked. “I was just thinking, should I send you to stand in the corner, or write lines?”

His mouth quirked unwillingly. “If you want.” It was a running joke with us; we both found those aspects of the traditional discipline relationship plain silly. “Can’t I just wash the kitchen floor?”

“I’m not going to stop you, but since I did it the other day, it’s a bit pointless. Surely it would have to be something with some value to it?” We were joking, but it wasn’t a joke and we both knew it.

“Well, you think of something, then.”

I pondered. “A massage for me?”

He stared. “Would you like that?”

“Oh God, yes. Love it. It leaves me all melted and helpless.”

He drew my fingers to his mouth. “You never said; I’d do it any time. It won’t do as a punishment, Jerry; it wouldn’t cost me anything to do that for you. I’d like it too. Why did you never say?”

“Well, it’s work for you, isn’t it? You work at work; I wouldn’t ask you to work at home too.”

He shook his head. “Getting my hands on you? That’s not work, love. I’m sorry, I just never thought. I promise, I’ll do that any time you want, and just because you want me to.”

Really? Life was looking up. Still, it didn’t help us now. I sighed. “I can’t think of anything else.”

“No? Well, then, I’ll try not to be a pain. Just, it’s not fair, you know? I’m conscious of that. I’m aware that I ask you to live up to a standard I haven’t been reaching myself.”

“It’s only not fair if I think so and I can live with it.”

“Then if you can, I must. It will be all right, Jerry, I promise. Just let me get my head round it, and we’ll be fine.”

We weren’t, though. We weren’t fine. It helped that I knew what the problem was, but a day or two passed and we weren’t any further on. Ross was picking at his conscience like a child at a scab, and although he was staunchly working at being reasonable, it didn’t always come off. When he changed the bed I nearly did lose it enough to hit him, because it’s a two minute job with two of us to do it and fifteen if you do it on your own, and he didn’t call me to help. Stupid, I thought. Nonetheless, I held my tongue because I could see that he needed to feel that he was doing something for me. I had my massage and he was right, it wouldn’t do as a punishment, not when I enjoyed it that much. Oh God, did I. Twenty minutes and all my bones were overcooked pasta and all my joints were unfastened and all I could think was: there’s a bit here in front you haven’t rubbed yet and if you don’t I’m going to scream like a steam whistle until the neighbours complain to the Noise Abatement Society. He was right, it was good for him too. If that were a punishment, we would both be inventing reasons for me to punish him.

No, he wasn’t happy, though. He felt he wasn’t treating me fairly, and it nagged at him like a sore tooth, and because of that it nagged at me too, because I didn’t feel that it was unfair. I didn’t really know what bothered me, but something did.

I’ve said before, I’m not good at the touchy-feely stuff. I can’t work out what other people are thinking or feeling. I need a clue, a hint. But there must be something going on in my sub-conscious, because the clue always materialises from somewhere; I could wish it came faster, but there you are.

Puzzles. It was puzzles, this time. When I’m working at home, I need to stop regularly for a break. The work I do is fairly intense and if I don’t get proper breaks, I miss stuff. Heavy concentration for short periods. I’ve worked out how to go about it, and one of the things is that when I stop for coffee, I actually stop: fifteen minute break, away from the table, so that I don’t just go on. I’ve learned not to pick up my book in the break, or I don’t go back to work; what I do is buy those puzzle magazines. Usually, I like the logic ones; this time I hadn’t been able to get the one I usually had, and I’d bought one of the compilations, crosswords and acrostics and sudoku and a mixture of other things. A cup of coffee and a cryptic crossword, hard enough to get my mind completely off what I’d been doing.

And on the opposite page was one of those ‘what’s this?’ pictures. Oh, you know the sort of thing, some ordinary household item pictured from too close and a peculiar angle. I can’t remember what this one was, a potato peeler or egg whisk or something, some kitchen utensil, pictured from underneath, but it took me ages to work out. I went back to work amused at how completely something disguised itself merely by being turned upside-down. Then after a while that nagged at me too. I found myself picking things up and turning them over, with a faint feeling that there was something I had forgotten. It was no more than a tickle at the back of my mind but the tickle became an itch, and Ross noticed.

“Is something the matter?” with an unsaid “Other than things we already know about?”

“I’ve forgotten something, I think.”

“What?” Which is high on the list of stupid questions, and he knew it, because he was laughing as we chorused, “If I knew that I wouldn’t have forgotten, would I?”

“You know how that works. Stop fretting after it, stop chasing it round the back of your head and it will appear from nowhere, probably slightly too late. Something you had to do? Letter to post? Something domestic?”

I shook my head. “No idea. It will come back to me, I expect, and if it doesn’t it can’t have been that important.”

It was important enough to keep me awake, though, to keep me lying in the dark free-associating in the hope of whatever it was coming back to me. Nothing happened, though, until Ross turned over with a sigh and I started thinking about him. Then the niggle at the back of my head became a klaxon. Whatever I wasn’t remembering was to do with him, and with things being upside-down.

In the end I got up and went to boil the kettle. If I was going to be awake anyway I might as well empty the dishwasher and get some good of the time. It was when I found that I was turning cups upside-down (and one of them dripped on my foot) that I rather lost my temper, took my cup of tea and went to curl up on the sofa, demanding irritably of my subconscious, ‘well, what IS it? What’s upside-down and what has it to do with Ross?”

To which, I may say, I got no reply.

Then I did what I should have done before. I applied my intellect. I’m not boasting, but I’m smart. I’ve got brains and I know how to use them; it’s just the empathy/human interaction thing I don’t do. I’m not off the bottom of the bell curve for those either, but I don’t pick up non-verbal clues well. What I do is logical deduction from stated facts.

So deduce, Jerry. You did it once before, perfectly effectively. You took the evidence of Ross’s behaviour and the absence of the hairbrush and you deduced what he was thinking and doing. The evidence this time was obviously something I had seen but not absorbed.

Fact: Ross wasn’t happy. That was, actually, about the only fact in the whole damn affair. If that was all I had to go on, I was going to be making bricks with perilously little straw. Come on, Jerry, you can do better than that. Ross wasn’t happy because he had screwed up and he felt guilty about it. He felt it was unfair that he should get away with it –  (yes, this was the guts of it) – that  there was a penalty on me but none on him.

Well, but wasn’t that the prerogative of being Top? Yes, all right, I’ve stopped pretending. He’s Top. Isn’t the thing about being Top that you don’t have to justify yourself to your significant other?

No, of course not! Set out that bluntly, it was plainly nonsense. Well, I couldn’t say about anybody else’s relationship, but it certainly wasn’t true about ours. Ross didn’t get to do as he pleased in the knowledge that whatever he said was law no matter how unreasonable it was, or whatever he did was right no matter what the consequences; nor did he have to be perfect, actually to be right all the time. He was allowed to make mistakes too. I wasn’t required simply to be obedient with no need to question his decisions or to make value judgements of my own. I had some input here; I had quite a lot of input actually. I had the rights of a partner.

I thought about that for a bit too. We call each other ‘partner’; it’s a fair description of what we are. Well, I thought it was. I thought we were equal but different, and Ross thought. . . Ross thought that me being called, and him not, for bad behaviour meant that we weren’t equals. And that was what was upsetting him.

Nothing to this emotional analysis lark, Jerry. Cold logic is just as good. Actually, I’m beginning to suspect that they’re the same thing, and it’s just that other people do it faster, and without having to write down all the stages, the way I can solve simultaneous equations in my head. Let X equal Jerry and Y equal Ross and then it’s maths and physics and Jerry knows how to do those. . . Get a grip. What next?

What he didn’t see was that ‘equal’ didn’t have to mean ‘identical’. I was getting confident – that’s Ross’s doing too, you know, he has every confidence that I can do things and I’m learning that I can. I can count on him for so much and sometimes I wonder why he stays with me, when I rely on him all the time and there’s nothing going back except that I love him. O.K. Partnership. That was important, I could get that. So – right! That was the upside-down thing! That if what we had was a partnership, then it had to go both ways, and if I inverted what we had then. . . then I ground to an uneasy halt. Ross is Top at least in part because I can’t do that sort of thing. I’m not assertive, I’m more confident than I was, but nobody would call me self-assured. I am not Top and I don’t want to be. Inversion of our relationship made me Top and I wasn’t happy about that. Like Ross had said, all that would do was stop him being unhappy at the cost of me being unhappy. He was Top because that worked for us, because it gave me a safe space in which to become more assured.

I never felt like that about a relationship before. Never felt that, as well as being happier in it than out of it, I was actually better in it than out of it. A stronger person, or – oh, I don’t know. I haven’t got the words for this. It’s sounds horribly pretentious to say that the Jerry who is half of Ross-and-Jerry is a more valuable person than the Jerry who was half of Vic-and-Jerry. No, I can’t explain it any better than that. Nonetheless, the relationship is Ross-and-Jerry, not Jerry-and-Ross, and I’m happy with that. I don’t want to be Top and Ross knew that and upside-down wouldn’t work. Inverting the relationship would not be good for me.

So tough, I told my subconscious. I’ve thought about it and it doesn’t work for me. Now I’m going back to bed, and you can just shut up and let me go to sleep. Ross will have to get over this by himself; I can’t help.

I did go to sleep, so the inner Jerry must have felt that I had done enough for one night, but it hadn't finished with me.

Ross went to work the next day, and I spread my paperwork across the table and set to myself; it was in my second break that my simultaneous equations suddenly solved themselves. I’d had to call Shanna at Calloways to clarify some of the paperwork, and she was on the phone; I said I would hold, and fidgeted the way you do when you’re waiting for somebody to pick up the phone. I don’t doodle, I fidget. Twiddle the pen, link up the paperclips, that sort of thing. I went into my pocket for a handkerchief, and flicked out a coin, and then I sat snapping it into the air, laying bets with myself, heads or tails. Heads. Heads. Heads. Tails. Heads. Tails. Tails. Heads. One up, one down. One up, one FUCK!

I dropped the phone, and picked it up again to hear Shanna’s anxious voice. “Jerry? Are you there?”

“Yes. Yes, sorry, Shanna, trying to juggle too many things and I dropped you. Yes. Right. The Hanrahan contract? I’ve got two separate front sheets, neither one dated, and. . .”

I dealt with that fairly efficiently, or if I didn’t Shanna didn’t seem to notice, and then I put down the phone and looked blankly at the coin. Obverse. Reverse. The other way of thinking about things being upside-down, of course, not what was up but what was down. I knew how the Ross-and-Jerry relationship works for Jerry; I was being damned selfish in not considering how it was for Ross. The corollary to equal rights was (I gulped) equal responsibilities.

Early break. Coffee. Think, Jerry.

Ross was good for me; the relationship was a strengthening part of my life. I had a right not to be bullied or mistreated; Ross had a responsibility to make that so. By a logical deduction, if we were equal partners, Ross had rights too, and I had responsibilities; otherwise, the question I occasionally asked of ‘why did Ross stay with me?’ had either no answer, or an answer I didn’t like much. It wasn't enough for Ross to be good for me, unless I was good for Ross too. I had the responsibility to help him make sense of his life just as surely as he helped me make sense of mine.

It took me a long time to work out what I had to do; then I spent half an hour on the internet. Nobody promising 24 hour delivery. The Yellow Pages suggested a shop; I didn’t want to go there, but. . . well, I was facing my responsibilities. I was quite grown up. I could do this. Probably.

All that got me inside the shop was the fact that the police car on patrol had already passed me twice; I knew I looked ridiculous. The shop itself was discreet, with blanked windows; I don’t quite know what I had been expecting, something much sleazier I suppose, but it was warm inside, bright, and the man at the desk acknowledged me cheerfully. Not a dirty mac to be seen, I thought, hysterically, and looked round in a barely controlled panic. Frankly I had never seen so much leather all gathered together, but the plastic model wearing the thong and the corset wouldn’t have looked out of place in a High Street department store.

“Want any help?”

It was the man from the desk, a pleasant looking individual of about my own age, who had plainly seen my dismay.

“Have you been in before?”

I shook my head mutely.

“Well, it’s all clothing at this end. Books and DVDs are through the door at the far end. Toys and whatnot in the middle. If you want to try anything on, give me a shout, we’ve got a changing room. Anything you want and can’t find, please ask, we can get most things in within a day or two.”

“Thanks,” I said hoarsely, and fled to the middle section. Toys. It would be toys, I expected. Here were toys. What the hell was that thing for? Against my better judgement, I picked up a packet and read the back of it. Oh. There was obviously a great deal about women I didn’t know, and didn’t feel I needed to know. Moving briskly on. . .

Here we were, pick one and get the. . . oh God, they weren’t all the same.

Look, you may laugh, but I was one step off bolting for the door. I had never been into that sort of shop.

“You all right there?” Oh merciful God, this one was a woman, and 40 if she was a day. Somebody’s mother. “I think we’ve got some more in the stock room if you want a particular type.”

I gave in. There comes a point at which it is simply not possible to be embarrassed any more than you are already. “I don’t actually know what I want. What’s the difference between these?”

I might have been asking about saucepans or textbooks for all the surprise she showed. “O.K. This is a junior cane. Lightweight, fairly thin, stingy rather than thuddy. This is the same diameter but a little longer; it’s a matter of personal preference. These ones are senior, heavier, do more damage. Dragon canes, more severe again, a different type of rattan. These ones are man-made fibre, very little spring in them. They’re really for show rather than use, you know, for dressing up. This is acrylic and it’s quite severe. Only really for an experienced user.” There was very carefully no question in her voice, particularly not about which end of the thing I was likely to be on.

“I don’t think we want acrylic. It’s. . . I’ve. . . We don’t have anything like this. What would you recommend for a first time buyer?”

She smiled at me gently. “What about this? Middle weight, you can have the straight or the crook, we’ve got both. And a choice of lengths. What’s your preference, bent over or OTK?”

Dear heavens, I don’t know how I got out of there. I have no idea what I said, except at some point, ‘yes, that one’. She put it in a tube for me, a plain brown thing like you would use to mail a poster.

“Do you need batteries?”

It was obviously a standard question she asked everybody at the till, no matter what they bought, but it did for me completely. I just started to laugh, and then I couldn’t stop.

At home, I unpacked it and looked at it with deep suspicion. A cane. I had introduced a cane into our house; I must be out of my mind. I ran a finger nervously along the wicked length, and then mustered my nerve to pick it up properly. It flexed between my hands and I dropped it again in fright. Oh, for pity’s sake, Jerry, stop being so bloody wet! I lifted it, flexed it again, hissed it through the air. It sounded vicious. Don’t freak, Jerry. You’ve worked this out, don’t bottle it now.

I spent ten minutes trying the damn thing on cushions before I thought to look in the garage for the toolbox and the chalk puffer that you get in a puncture repair kit. (God knows why I’ve still got a repair kit; I haven’t owned a bicycle in ten years.) Then I chalked the cane and tried it again on the cushion. I could be reasonably accurate, but I hadn't the least idea of how hard to swing the thing. Back to the internet.

Yes, you can find a ‘how to’. From the look of things, less is more; the pictures freaked me again, but the descriptions gave me some idea of what I wanted. Well, everybody had to start somewhere.

Oh God, I hated this.

I didn’t get myself into a fizz before Ross came home; I’m quite proud of that, you know. It kept nearly happening, and each time I would say out loud, ‘this isn’t about you, Jerry,’ and get a grip. I wouldn’t say I was comfortable with the situation, but I was in control. When he came in, I suddenly thought how tired he looked. He had been fretting for days, and I could begin to understand how he felt when I did it: presumably he thought that the things I worried about were as silly, as pointless, as I thought this problem of his. Well, he helped me when I did it; I could get him over it.

He came to kiss me, and ask about my day, and I prevaricated, said I had done a lot of work. We ate, because I wasn’t sure we would be fit to eat afterwards, although I wasn’t particularly hungry. It was when Ross reached for the kettle having taken his plate into the kitchen that I knew, with a heavy feeling in my stomach, that my hope that I wasn’t actually going to have to do this was misplaced. Ours is a small kitchen; there isn’t room for two people moving about at once. One of us fills the dishwasher; the other makes the coffee. If he wanted to do both. . .

“That’s enough, Ross. We aren’t going on this way any longer. Go upstairs, please.”

He looked a bit blank, so I held out my hand and he followed me up. I sat down on the edge of the bed and looked up at him.

“Right. We’re both tired of this, so we’ll deal with it and then we’ll leave it alone. You did something stupid and careless and dangerous on the bike; it’s going to cost you.”

He heaved a sigh and ran both hands into his hair. “Jerry, I appreciate it, but we know you can’t do this.”

“I can’t do it the way you do it. I don’t have to. I don’t have a problem with the rules for Jerry not being the same as the rules for Ross, provided we both agree they’re fair. Now you think the way they are at the moment aren’t fair, so I’ll tell you what I think we should do.”

His eyebrows went up. I went to the wardrobe, and took out the cardboard tube, handed it to him. He opened it, curiously, tipped it, and the cane slid out into his hand.


“No, listen. As far as I’m concerned, that’s yours. You’re not using it on me, ever. I’m not going further than the clothes brush, not under any circumstances. But if you screw up, I can use that.” I hoped to God it was true. I couldn’t spank him, that was too personal, too intimate, but I thought I could do this. “That’s for something serious, not for petty stuff.”

Ross pinched the bridge of his nose, always his gesture when he’s stressed or bewildered. “So what about petty stuff?”

“We let it go. It’s not my problem. I told you – we don’t have to have identical rules; you get away with the minor things where I don’t, because you don’t fret about them, but a major fuck-up and you’ll pay for it more seriously than I will. I can live with that if you can.”

He cocked his head at me again. “You don’t want to do it.” It wasn’t a question.

“No. I don’t. I hate the very idea. But I will do it, and that’s why you’ll try not to make the fuck-up, because you know that doing it will upset me. That’s the real penalty: knowing that you’ve made me do something I don’t want to do. I can do it, though, if we both agree that once I have, we’re finished, same as we’re finished after you spank me.”

I gave him time to consider. He made a face at me. “I’ve never been caned.”

“Not at school?”

“No. Some of my friends were, but I’m too young. I was thirteen or fourteen when it was stopped. I can’t. . . I can’t say I’m keen, but I see what you’re doing and, yes, if you can do it, that’s fair. Now?”

“You don’t have to,” I said steadily. “I’ve sprung this on you. We can say that it’s from now on.”

He thought for a moment and shook his head. “No. I didn’t give you the option, first time. Just do it.”

I took a deep breath, and held out my hand for the cane. “Bend over the end of the bed.”

I didn’t tell him to drop his trousers, but he did anyway, braced his arms on the bedclothes and lowered his head onto his clasped hands. He looked so vulnerable and for a moment I was tempted to say I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t do it! Only he trusted me; how could I let him down?

I don’t know what he was expecting, but the first stroke made him jump and gasp, and I watched in some horror as the line rose into view across the pale flesh. He shifted his weight uneasily, but he didn’t try to get up. The second one was a little harder. I was. . . I wanted this over quickly, so I was going to do it fairly hard. Not too many, but hard. I hadn't allowed myself to think about it too much, so although I had known that it would mark – well, how could I not know? – I hadn’t thought about how, about the fact that I would be able to see each stripe (I laid on a third and heard him hiss) develop across his skin. That by the time the fourth elicited a squeak, the first would be darkening from red to blue. That as well as seeing him jump, I would be able to feel the vibration up through the cane. He didn’t try to get up, but the fifth and sixth brought him smartly up onto his toes, and the seventh collapsed his knees for a moment, made him yelp, before he straightened his legs and lowered his head again. I couldn’t do much more. I had intended a dozen, but I couldn’t do it. I had read up about a low stripe to catch the victim sitting, and about barring the gate diagonally, and my hands were shaking so much I had no faith in my ability to do either. It was pure chance that I hadn’t crossed the stripes so far; the eighth did and the yelp was louder, longer. I couldn’t go to twelve. I swung once more, hard, heard him squeal, and dropped the cane, reaching for him desperately.

“Oh, God, Ross?”

We clung together wordlessly, my face in his shoulder, and I could feel his weight shift as he stamped and fidgeted, trying to shake out the pain. His breathing was uneven and shallow and his fingers bit into my back. Presently, though, his grip slackened and he took a deep breath and eased away from me to drag a hand roughly across his eyes.

“I get it. I’m not to take chances on the bike. I – oh hell, Jerry, it’s supposed to be me crying, not you! Here, here, love, it’s all right, it’s done, it’s finished, it’s all over. . .” He was manoeuvring me to the bed, hampered by the trousers tangled round his knees, and we collapsed together, clutching, not knowing, either of us, whether we were comforter or comforted.

The cane is hung up in his wardrobe now; he’s back to his usual placid self. I don’t believe I shall ever need to use it again, for which I’m grateful: the fact that Ross knows it’s there and that if I have to use it, I can and I will, is enough for him. He’ll do anything to stop that being necessary, because he saw how much I hated it.

And yes, I have been spanked since. Once in fun and once for real. It doesn’t matter, not once it’s done. As Ross says, we’re good. Antipodean slang, or English statement of fact, take your pick. We’re good.

Idris the Dragon

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