The wind skipped over the water with a little hiss and rush, writing in a complex alphabet of white foam on the grey-brown swell. It was bitterly cold, a knife of air that blew straight from Siberia to my heart, raising the tears in my eyes that I couldn’t seem to manage any other way. Gordy used to love this place: the wildness of it, the strange drear beauty that hides itself from outsiders, that it took me so long to see. My childhood was spent on the other side of the country, among secret green valleys full of streams, and rounded hills shaggy with ancient woods. It was a long time before I could learn to love this flat, treeless landscape with its bleached grasses, silvery driftwood, and mud that shone like pewter in the ever shifting light. But when I fell for it, I fell for it hard. Just as I did for him.
And now he was gone. I still forgot that sometimes, thought of something I must tell him later, and then came up short, remembering. I couldn’t believe how fast it happened – in April he started getting the headaches, and was eventually bullied by me into going to his doctor, who hadn’t so much as seen him for 8 years. And by September we were burying him, surgery on that type of brain tumour being impossible, and chemotherapy only a stopgap measure to buy time. In the end I had to suggest to him that he stop the chemo. The time he was buying wasn’t worth what it put him through. The relief on his face when I said that to him told its own story.
The hospital were very good – you hear these stories, people being excluded from their own partner’s death bed, all that sort of thing, but they couldn’t have done any more for me if I’d been married to him in church. Even offered to put me in touch with someone who offered counselling, afterwards, but I turned it down. I couldn’t face talking about him, about us. About the way I felt without him, or didn’t feel. It was as if I was hollow, a shell around nothing. It seemed as if I might just crumble and blow away if anyone touched me.
And then there was the paperwork. The Pale Horseman rides with a thousand bureaucrats in his train these days. We had made wills leaving everything to one another, which helped, but there were so many forms that had to be filled in. So many things that had to be cancelled, stopped, notified. So many copies of the death certificate to be sent.
Its not like I didn’t have support, you understand. Family and friends were pretty good. Especially Brian, I don’t know what I would have done without Brian. He was Gordy’s friend from way back, and was one of the reasons that we had ended up here. I used to be wildly jealous of him, because they’d been to University together, and had all this shared history that excluded me. In fact, I was horribly rude to Brian at first, until Gordy put his foot down. No, that isn’t true. He put his hand down. Hard. And repeatedly. On my backside.
Does that shock you? I’m sorry. That was just the way it was between us. Gordy was my Top, as well as my lover. It wasn’t as if it wasn’t something I wanted. When we met I was desperate for someone, anyone, to give me back some stability in my life. Gordy did that. Stopped me from going off the rails. Gave me Rules. Didn’t impose them, that wasn’t his style. Just got me to agree what would work, and then enforced it. Firmly.
And after a while I grew up, and we didn’t really need those Rules anymore, except occasionally, for fun, when I would tease him by breaking one and daring him to do something about it. But less and less as time passed. We didn’t seem to need that. We were happier just cuddling. Towards the end, that was more or less all we could do for each other. He would lay his poor, wizened, hairless, head in my lap and I would stroke his forehead very very gently for hours. He said it helped the pain.
At the very end, even that was lost to me. He was – remote. Travelling very fast away from the world in some direction that I couldn’t see. Too fast. Too fast for me to keep up. . .
“Oh. Hello, Brian.”
“I thought I might find you here. How long have you been out here?” His grey eyes were slitted against the wind.
“I’m not sure. Half an hour, maybe.”
“Two or three more likely. Look at you, you’re blue with cold. You’ll catch your death out here on the Ness in only that fleece.”
I shrugged. Somehow it didn’t seem very important.
“Here, take this.” He drew the sou’wester he was carrying over my shoulders. Heavy, slightly smelly, and admittedly rather comforting. I hadn’t realised just how cold I was.
“Thanks. Isn’t this your lifeboat jacket? Is that allowed, letting a civilian wear it?”
“I won’t tell if you don’t. Come on, come back to the house. I’ll make you some tea.”
I shrugged again. I didn’t really want to go, but I didn’t feel like arguing. Nothing seemed worth that much effort right now. His hand patted my shoulder tentatively then withdrew almost immediately. We strolled back along the seawall in silence, each lost in his own thoughts, with only the bluster of the east wind loud in our ears.
He occupied himself in the kitchen, making tea and toast, retrieving a packet of biscuits I didn’t know we had. I think he knew his way round our kitchen better than I did at this stage; he’d certainly spent enough time there, cooking, clearing up, looking after me. He was good at that. He was good at a lot of things.
“I brought over another jar of honey for you. Have some on your toast.” He was inordinately proud of his bees, which he had added to his smallholding the year before last. The honey was considered something of a prize in the village.
“I – thank you. You don’t have to do all this, you know.”
“I know. I do it because I want to.”
“Well. . . it’s very kind of you. You’ve been a good friend to both of us.”
Something in his face, some expression I couldn’t quite fathom, and then he just smiled wearily. “I hope so. To both of you.”
“Really. That’s why I want to tell you first.”
“Tell me? Tell me what?”
I took a deep breath. I had been wrestling with this for weeks, and I’d just about made up my mind.
“I’m going to sell the house. Move away, start again. There are too many memories here.”
His face – a broad, Saxon face, pure local – his family name filled the churchyard – suddenly froze, the usual smile replaced with shock.
“But – you love it here! Not the house, the landscape. Every painting you do shouts it, Alan.”
“Yes. Yes, I learned to love it. I do love it. It’s something that will always be a part of me, the way that Gordy will always be a part of me. But Gordy’s gone, and without him – it’s not the same.”
He took a deep breath, ran a hand through hair that was still dark and thickly curled.
“But this is really. . .” he began, harshly, then checked, lowered his voice. “It seems – well, it seems terribly drastic, Alan. I could understand moving house, maybe, but this? This is some sort of rebound, some sort of unbalanced reaction to Gordy’s death.”
“Some sort of rebound? Maybe it is. But I need a change. It will be good for the art, too. My work is getting stale. I need new challenges.”
“But where will you go?”
“Spain? Alan, this is madness!”
“No. No, I don’t think so. I’ve found details of a little apartment to rent, in the hills, about an hour’s drive from Seville.” I put my hand on his arm. “Don’t look so shocked. It isn’t the back of beyond. There is a post office. And a telephone.”
“I don’t know what to say,” he muttered, sullenly, shaking off my hand.
“How about bon voyage?”
“This is completely ridiculous,” he burst out. “You don’t even know Spanish. You know nobody there, you’re leaving all your friends behind – this isn’t a new life. It’s a burial alive.” He put his cup down on the table so hard the handle broke, and picking up his coat he strode out of the house, slamming the front door behind him.
I breathed out, carefully. “That went well,” I said aloud.
After a while one can grow very tired of tortilla.
“Carlos, don’t you know how to cook anything else?”
He scowled. He scowled very prettily, I must say, all raven hair and sullen machismo, but one can get a bit tired of that, too. I missed – having someone to laugh with. Someone who knew that life, and oneself, shouldn’t be taken so seriously. Carlos took himself very seriously indeed. His only excuse was that he was young. Young and very good looking, for which much is forgiven. And extremely vigorous between the sheets, yes, although he had to be prompted from time to time that there was somebody else involved whose needs should also be considered.
“Cooking is for women. You are the maricón, you cook.”
I’ve never really understood that thing that some men have – ‘I’m not gay, I just sleep with men who are’. “Considering where you had your mouth last night, Carlos, I’d say I wasn’t the only maricón around here.”
Well, on consideration that may have been a mistake. I didn’t understand much of the stream of Spanish that resulted, but I understood his fist all right. It caught me smack in my left eye, and left me seeing stars. Luckily, he seemed as surprised and scared by the result as I was, and certainly not disposed to take the matter any further. He stared at me a moment, and then stormed out and into his car, which roared off down the track towards the village.
Shortly afterwards I heard him coming back. I admit I was torn between gratification and the desire to bolt the door. But when I looked out of the window, it wasn’t his red Seat, but a silver Renault with the Avis logo on it. Who the hell was this – a lost tourist?
I admit that when the driver got out I was totally taken aback. I rushed to open the front door.
“Alan! Thank goodness I’ve found you, I was beginning to wonder. . . Christ, man, what happened to your eye?”
“I – er – I walked into a door. Ridiculous, isn’t it? Now everyone will think I’ve been in a fight. Brian! This is wonderful. But why didn’t you call, say you were coming?”
He put his hands on my arms and looked at me quizzically. “A door, huh? Well, well. And didn’t you get my letter?”
“Letter – no, I didn’t get any – oh, damn Carlos! He told me there was no post at the post office – I bet he didn’t even go and check.”
He looked upset.
“Carlos? I’m sorry, I didn’t realise. Are you – am I intruding?”
“No, no, don’t be silly. Come in. I just – well, it’s a surprise.”
“I feel really stupid. I wrote to you, and I was assuming that you’d had my letter, and then when I tried to ring I couldn’t get through on the number you gave me.”
“Ah, I’m afraid the phone line can be a bit erratic. Look, come in. Come in. Do you have a case? – you must stay.”
“No, I wouldn’t dream of it. I have a reservation in a hotel in Seville.”
“That’s over an hour’s drive away, and there are no lights on these mountain roads. No, I won’t hear of it. There’s a bed in the spare room, it won’t take me five minutes to set up, and we’ve plenty of food.”
He looked deeply uncomfortable.
“I really don’t want to put you and your partner out.”
“You won’t. I mean he isn’t. . . for God’s sake, put that bag down and give me a hug.”
He smiled, and wrapped his arms around me. Right around me, I’d forgotten how big he was.
“It’s good to see you,” I murmured, and I meant it.
“You too. You too. I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you, too. Hey, sit down and tell me everything. I’ll just open a bottle of wine. Oh, and do you like tortilla?”
It was the third bottle of Rioja that did it. I think if we had drunk less – well, I don’t know. Maybe it would have panned out the same. It was just so good to see him once more, to hear the doings of the village and the people I knew. And to laugh again.
“Your cottage is up for sale again,” he said from the sofa on which he was sprawled.
“Really? The Easons didn’t last, then.”
“I think they decided it was too much effort keeping up two houses in the end. And I think the winter storms put them off.”
I grinned. “I was convinced the roof was going to come off, the first winter I spent there.”
I picked the bottle up, rose, leaned over to refill his glass. His hand caught my wrist.
“Alan, tell me honestly, how did you get the black eye? Was it this Carlos?”
I was so taken aback I told the truth. “Yes. We had an argument, and he hit me. I don’t think he meant to. He was as shocked as I was.”
“But he’s someone who uses his fists in an argument. Do you really think you should be living with someone like that?”
“I – we aren’t living together. He comes and goes. Sometimes he stays overnight.” He raised an eyebrow and I blushed scarlet. I don’t know why, he always had that effect on me. I pulled my hand from his grip.
“I’m not – I don’t have to live like a monk, you know.”
“I know. But you can’t – this is just one more manifestation of what you’ve been doing to yourself since Gordy died. Trying to destroy yourself.”
It was like being punched again. It knocked the breath from me for a moment. When my voice came again I hardly recognised it as mine.
“How dare you! How dare you say that to me?!” My hand swung out to slap loudly against his face. I drew it back to slap him again.
He rose from the sofa like a sea monster from the depths, caught my hand, hard, painfully hard. His eyes glittered, matching my anger with his own.
“I dare because I love you, you stupid fool. I love you, I’ve loved you for years, and I hate to see you doing this to yourself.”
And that took the wind from me a second time. There was a very loud silence. A very long, loud silence.
“You never said,” I whispered at last.
“How could I? You were my best friend’s lover, for God’s sake. I loved him, too. And it was obvious to everyone that you adored one another. And when he was gone, you were so. . . it wouldn’t have been fair. I came – because I was desperate to see you. I wasn’t going to say anything if you were happy, settled. But you aren’t, are you?”
“No.” I had painted nothing worthwhile since I came. Oh, I’d tried, in a desultory fashion, but it came out dead, lifeless. I could probably sell it, but there was no love in it. No need. No spark. Just like me. What was it Brian had said to me: burial alive? That was about right.
I looked at him. The red mark of my hand still livid on his cheek, though fading a little. We hurt the ones who care, because they are there.
I bent, and laid myself carefully across his lap.
“Alan, what the hell are you doing?”
“I’m sorry. I’ve made a fool of myself, and I’ve been unkind to you. Very unkind. I deserve to be punished.”
“Fuck. I don’t – I can’t do that to you.”
“I know that you have done it, because Gordy once told me that you and he would never have worked because you both liked to spank but neither was keen on being spanked.”
“Alan – this is crazy. You’re drunk. I’m drunk.”
“Brian, we both know I deserve it. I need it.”
He laid a hand on the small of my back, rubbed it comfortingly up and down.
“I’ve dreamed about this for years,” he said wryly. “I can’t tell you how many times I wished that I had you in this position. I thought to myself that when you said you were leaving I should have dragged you across my knee and spanked some sense into you. But. . . I can’t, Alan. Not now. Not like this.”
I raised myself up to look at him.
“I think we should go to bed. No, not together,” he added, as I raised a startled eyebrow. “We’re both – emotional. You need time to think. I need time to think. If you still feel this way in the morning, then we’ll see.”
I felt – I don’t know what I felt. Ashamed, a bit. Excited, a bit. Confused, very.
He leaned forward and kissed me, quite chastely, on the cheek. “And drink some water before you go to bed – I take it the water here is drinkable?”
“Oh yes. Yes, quite safe.” And hearing that admonition reminded me of Gordy. He used to nag me to drink water after I’d been hammering the booze, too. It was – reassuring.
Only when I was alone, in the darkness of my bedroom, did I start to wonder what I was doing. Was I mad? Was this really what I wanted, or was it just the attraction of something, someone familiar?
Did I sleep well? Did I heck.
In the morning I popped down to the village bakery very early to get fresh bread. When I got back Brian was up and dressed.
“Oh hi, did you sleep all right? Sorry, that bed isn’t wonderful. I just went to get some bread. And there’s fresh orange juice, and I could cook some eggs if you’re very hungry. . .” my babble slowly ran out as he looked at me in silence, and held out a hand. I put the bread down, and took the offered hand as he led me into the living room.
I took a deep breath.
“You know, when I first lived with Gordy, I was wildly jealous of you?”
He raised an eyebrow.
“I saw how much he cared about you. You had all these stories, all these people you both knew. I felt excluded. I felt afraid, afraid that it was really you that he loved. When I said that to him he said to me: ‘Aren’t I a big enough man to love you both? Love isn’t a way of excluding people, Alan. Yes, I love Brian. But that doesn’t diminish my love for you, anymore than your love of your parents diminishes what you feel for me.’”
He smiled. “That sounds like Gordy. But I was jealous too, you know? Gordy had always been my best friend, the one I shared everything with. And then suddenly he had you. When I first met you, and you behaved like such a pissy little queen it was easy to tell myself that I didn’t like you, that Gordy deserved someone better. It took me quite a long while to admit that what I felt for you wasn’t dislike but lust. Gordy always did have good taste in men.”
“I never knew. I never had an inkling.”
“You and Gordy only ever had eyes for each other. If I wanted to keep my friend I had to learn to live with you. And your manners did improve after a bit.”
“They were improved for me. Painfully frequently. With a paddle.”
He grinned. “That horrible wooden one? Bastard, isn’t it? I brought it back from the States after you’d been particularly annoying and suggested he use it on you. I didn’t realise he’d taken my advice so much to heart.” I stuck my tongue out at him, and he carried on. “After a while, I came to realise that I didn’t lust after you any more. That my feelings had become more complicated. That I had come to know Alan the man, and that I could love him. That was a very hard time.”
I reached out, took his hand, gave it a quick squeeze. “Poor Brian. I – it must have been very difficult.”
“It was. That was when I was doing a lot of travelling – deliberately taking the stories that involved getting away.” He had been working for the BBC at the time. “Being close – was uncomfortable. Bearable, but uncomfortable.”
“What made you change your mind?”
“I missed home. I missed Gordy and you, and the friendship that we could have, even if we couldn’t have anything more. I got a bit older, a bit more sensible.”
“Brian, you were born sensible. So was Gordy. That was why I loved him.”
“Well, partly. Oh, I used to get exasperated sometimes. He was Earth, I was Air. He could be so damned cautious and stolid. But I relied on that. I needed a rock, and he was one. Just as you were after he died.”
There was a silence.
“And could you – do you need another rock in your life, permanently?” he asked softly.
I didn't answer immediately. It deserved a careful reply. I think for a moment he thought I was going to say no, because his face went very still.
“After Gordy died – something in me had died too. All the colour went out of my world, Brian. I’ve been living in black and white ever since. And when I saw you, yesterday evening – it was like colour again. You’re – I care about you a lot. I don’t know whether we can make things work between us, whether Gordy will always be there like a spectre at the feast. But if you meant what you said, then I’d like to give it a try.”
He breathed out, once, hard, like someone who has been holding his breath without realising it. “And you’ll come home? Back to the Ness?”
“Yes. Oh yes. Only – it might take a while. Can we go slowly?”
He opened his arms, and I fell into them, gratefully. “Of course we can. I meant every word,” he said to the top of my head. “I love you, and I have loved you for years. Take it as slow as you need to. And I think that Gordy would give us his blessing, wherever he is.”
I leaned in to kiss him, but to my surprise he drew away.
“There’s just one little thing, first, we need to clear up.”
“What?” I asked bewildered.
“We have some unfinished business from last night.”
“Exactly. Oh. If we are going to have a relationship, then that will be part of it. Are you ok with that? Are you ready for that?” Well, was I? Did I trust him? Did I want things to be right between us? When I put it like that the answer was obvious.
I unfolded myself from his arms, took his hand, then led him over to the sofa and indicated that he should sit.
“Fair enough.” He sat himself down, then patted his knee in invitation. I laid myself over his lap.
“Why are you getting this spanking, Alan?”
“Because I hit you. Because I was unfair to you.”
“No. Not that. Not just that, anyway. It’s because you were unfair to you.”
“Yes, Brian. All of that.”
“Good. So you deserve a good punishment, then?”
“Then I think these,” he patted the seat of my trousers, “had better come down, hadn’t they? Get up.”
I scrambled off his lap, rather pink in the face already. Gordy always used to start off over trousers and work his way down, unless he was very vexed indeed. Brian, on the other hand, obviously didn’t believe in wasting his efforts. His hands went to my waist, unbuckled my belt, then undid my waistband. My trousers slid in a heap around my knees. The big square hands went to the waistband of my underpants, which rapidly followed the trousers. I stood there, naked between waist and calves, my face rapidly getting pinker. He pulled me back down across his lap.
I felt that strange mixture of shame, fear, and exhilaration that I always felt in this position. I suspected that what was about to follow would hurt – I didn’t know how hard or how long Brian intended to spank me, but he had plenty enough muscle to make it felt if he wanted to.
Oww. It seemed he wanted to, all right. And I was out of practice at this particular game, and my goodness I knew it before very long. A long, methodical, granite-handed, old-fashioned spanking of the arse-blistering variety was what I got, and I can tell you that I was whimpering and jumping before he got half way through.
“Ow, Brian, pleeease. . .”
I felt his ripple of amusement. “Didn’t you agree you needed this?”
“I – oww – yes, but I – ah – had forgotten it was going to hurt so much.”
“You hurt me, which I could forgive. You hurt yourself, which I won’t forgive on your behalf. So I’m reminding you. I love you, Alan. I care about you. I’m not about to let you do anything stupid again. Understand? You’re mine now. Mine. To punish when necessary. To cherish always.”
Oh. And suddenly the heat in my arse was matched by the warmth in my heart. I bent my head to kiss his leg, that being the only part of him in convenient reach. He responded with a rapid fusillade of slaps to my smarting rear that made me yell, and abruptly pulled me up, crushed me hungrily to him, and – well, ‘kissed’ doesn’t really do the action justice. Tried to devour half my face, while I responded in kind. It seemed that things didn’t necessarily want to go as slowly as I had thought. In fact they just kind of degenerated from there – a trail of discarded clothes, his and mine, marked our rapid progression from the living room to the bedroom.
And no, I’m not inviting you in there. You’ll just have to use your imaginations. Let’s just say that it seemed likely from our initial trials that the physical aspects of our relationship would be satisfactory.
So the next day we rang a shipping agent in Seville, and found someone who spoke enough English to make my needs understood, and by the end of the week my possessions were crated and ready to be shipped back to England. I had rented this place furnished, so it was only my clothes, my paints and tools, a few things I had bought here and wanted to keep. Not very much. I had travelled here light in possessions, though with a heart like lead. I was leaving light – but light of heart, too.
With every mile that we drew nearer to the Ness from the airport, I felt that lightness expanding, until, as we drove into the village, I felt that if I removed my seatbelt I could fly the rest of the way.
“I feel so strange.”
He swung a swift, concerned glance at me, and I shook my head, smiling.
“No, good strange. Right.”
“That’s because you’re where you should be. Here, under these skies. Here at my side. Where you belong.”
I looked at him.
“Yes. Welcome home.”
He stopped the car outside the house. His house. Our house, it would be now. What a strange idea. Our house. I didn’t expect to have an ‘our house’ ever again. It’s an old building, has been in his family for 400 years. Beautiful. Worn. Cared for. Beyond it stretch the green fields, and the grey-green salt marsh, and the silver sea. The wind sung in my ears, as familiar as if I had never been away, and on the marsh I could hear the twittering of sandpipers, the gentle babble of geese. I could feel the last tension drain away from me at the sound of that familiar music.
It must have been only in my imagination that I heard Gordy’s voice in the wind for a moment. There was a smile in it, as there always used to be. “Welcome home, love,” it said. “Be happy. Welcome home.”
I took Brian’s hand, and let him lead me through the door and into our new life together.
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© , 2005