I wouldn’t have expected him to come to me, and you needn’t repeat that. A Top being surprised by something a Bottom, even somebody else’s Bottom, does? Shocking. But he did come, and possibly more to the point, he came in the absolute certainty that I would help him. Maybe there’s more to this Family thing than I realised.
He turned up at the office, just when I was beginning to think of locking up and going home.
“Fran? Can I have a word?”
“Hello, Phil. Sure, what about?”
He stopped looming in the doorway and came in, looking extremely sheepish and twitchy.
“I think. . . it’s sort of. . . I need to. . . hell.” He dried up.
I raised my eyebrows and waited.
It came out in a rush. “I need to talk to somebody and I don’t know who exactly, only not Hansie because he’ll get upset if he thinks things aren’t right between me and Piet, and not Tim either because, well, because those two are too close, and I didn’t know what to do, and then I thought of you.”
I waved him towards a chair to bring his head down out of the cloudline: a conversation of any length with Phil or Piet gives me a crick in my neck. “Something wrong between you and Piet?”
He nodded, still sheepish, and then hunched his shoulders and looked at his feet. “And I think I need to talk to another Top, and like I said, not either Hansie or Tim. And well, you’re an elff.”
That last was muttered, and my brain processed it as ‘you’re an elf’ and then dismissed that as fay in an un-Phil-like manner.
“I’m a what?”
His head went even lower, and he muttered again, “You’re an elffer.”
“I’m an elephant?” Why the hell was I an elephant? That seemed unnecessarily rude, even for a rugby player.
“An Alpha,” he snapped angrily, plainly hating having to say the word aloud. “You’re an Alpha Top same as Piet so you’ll know what I ought to do. I wondered about Nick, it’s plain to see that you and he play hard and he’s a serious Bottom, but he doesn’t do punishment, does he?”
“Neither, obviously enough, do I,” I reminded him. “It’s not just that I don’t do it with Nick, I don’t do it at all. Never really have. If that’s your problem, Phil, I honestly do think you would be better with Hansie.”
He shook his head, despairingly. “No. Not Hansie. I know you don’t do it, but you know how it works, don’t you? Topping as a lifestyle? I mean you understood it well enough to do it for Hansie.”
I made a face. “I suppose so, although. . . although I can’t imagine ever wanting to do the whole power exchange thing. You know, the ‘Top makes all decisions and Bottom does as he’s told’. ‘You do what I tell you, however stupid or uninformed my decision is, simply because I’m telling you.’ I can see it as part of a BDSM scene but not as a lifestyle. Unquestioning obedience from another human being would creep me out big time.”
For the first time since he arrived, a smile broke out. “Well, you know that’s not what we’ve got. I think if you mentioned my name and ‘unquestioning obedience’ in the same sentence, Piet would laugh until he choked. But that’s what I mean, Fran. You know the rules, you could act as a ref, even if you never played the game.”
“I see. O.K. Look, I’ll ring Nick and tell him I’m going to be late. You fill the kettle and then you can tell me all.”
And even having decided that I needed to talk to somebody and that the somebody was Fran, it was still unbelievably difficult to get going. Where did it start? I think with Astbury, who’s on the Board. Actually, I don’t know him very well, which might have been a contributory factor. Maybe if I’d known him I would have heard what was going on in time to express an opinion and we wouldn’t have gone the way we did. Maybe not.
Anyway, where I came in was a benefit match. The Board as a whole was approached by the Board of the Scorpions about going over to them and playing a benefit for Pete Shuttleworth – well, actually for the Intensive Care Unit at Pete’s hospital, that being, unsurprisingly, his chosen charity. They’ve got a specialist spinal injuries team, who wanted some amazing piece of equipment which the NHS was failing to fund for them. Piet came through to the dressing room to ask for volunteers – the match being outside the normal schedule, he’d take volunteers first, although obviously if he didn’t get his numbers and places, he’d start among the enlisted. Equally obviously, everybody volunteered: all of us who had played in the match last season in which Pete was hurt, and everybody who hadn’t started it too. Injuries, including broken bones, are a fact of life for us, and unfortunately broken necks, while not common, occur frequently enough that those of us still on our feet have ‘there but for the grace of God’ moments, so Piet could choose his team from a full sheet. Besides, Pete Shuttleworth has been around a long time; frankly I doubt if his career would have gone on longer than two more seasons even without this, but he’s a popular guy across more teams than his own.
Rob had an opinion too. “If everybody wants to play, couldn’t we arrange a return match? We’ve got a free Saturday next month too, and if we hauled some people up from the Seconds, and got the Scorpions to do the same. . .”
Piet considered. “I will put it to the Board, yes. On the understanding, you mean, that neither side is putting out its Dream Team?”
Rob nodded. “Enough of the Firsts to pull in a decent gate, and a chance to let some of the Seconds blood themselves in a match which everybody cares about but which doesn’t carry any points.”
I felt he might have worded that better, but it was a sound idea and the two Boards approved it. I played in the first match, which we won by a small margin; I was due to sit out the second, which made me available for Astbury, when he set up a corporate hospitality thing. He’s M.D. of an office supplies business, and he uses the club for most of his entertaining. He wanted the Directors’ Box at short notice for some supplier event; he wanted me as his pet player. Show up, press the flesh, help explain to the punter what’s going on, avoid eating a selection of nibbly things which I could have made better myself, really avoid the club white wine, which I don’t like at all – Hansie’s been improving my palate – generally be pleasant. Clubs manage this sort of thing differently for different players; I’m contracted to do a certain number every year. I get paid for them by the club, not the individual, and I’m not prevented from doing more than I contract for, but I arrange those myself, or through Piet as my agent. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this one, but I didn’t expect it to be any worse than usual.
And it probably wouldn’t have been, except that on the way in, I met Hansie and Alison Hazlehurst, and Roger and Rosemary Kincaid, and a batch of teenage girls – Hansie’s girls – and a rather annoyed looking James Hamilton. Ruth Kincaid squealed at me, so I stopped to say hello to her and Naomi, and one or two of the others whose names I knew.
“What’s this, Hansie? Start of season outing?”
He waved the group on, smilingly, and stopped beside us. “Reward for my girls. You know they took the cup last season, hey?”
“I do. I was there, remember? I watched them win it.”
“So you were, I had forgotten. Well,” and he lowered his voice, “Jim had promised them that if they played well in the final, he would arrange for them to watch a match from the Directors’ Box. We thought this match would suit because it was not a terribly high profile affair; it would be exciting enough for the girls but it would not be a loss of rental for the club with the Directors’ Box being unavailable. And then last night, Jim phoned me to say that we had been – bumped, as you might say, by someone wanting the box for his business. He is very annoyed, thinks that once the booking was in the diary it should have stood, but he has had to give way. He has arranged a block for us in the stand, and the girls are pretending not to be disappointed, but it is a pity, nonetheless, ja nee?”
“It’s a damn sight more than a pity,” I said, shocked. “That’s disgraceful, Hansie.”
He shrugged. “Well, we were not paying for the privilege and the other person was, I understand.”
“Even so, that’s bad practice. Just over-ruling Mr Hamilton because they’ve had a better offer? If they’ve taken his booking, even for a freebie, they ought to stand by it. I could have been doing an interview for one of the sports channels today, and it was good money too, but I had to refuse it because I’d committed to Astbury’s tedious little gathering. That’s what’s bumped you, Hansie. He’s entertaining his bank manager and his suppliers. Bet he wouldn’t have liked it if I’d said: oh well, the other’s better for my career and my bank balance. And to leave it that late to tell you, that’s plain rude.”
“Ach, well, it cannot be helped. Listen, I must go, I will see you later, hey?”
I went on up the stairs, finding myself surprisingly annoyed. Look, I know the world isn’t fair; it never has been, never will be. I’ve had to make accommodations same as everybody else, and rugby is a business, and the point of business is to make a profit. But I wasn’t just cross on Hansie’s behalf, and Mr Hamilton’s and the girls’; I was embarrassed by my club, my employer, behaving badly. I suppose I don’t like to think that the people in the front office, most of whom I like, could behave in such a way. See, club loyalty is more like a family relationship than just a work one. Think about some member of your family doing something really out of order in public and how you would feel. Anyway, I was well pissed off as I went upstairs – pissed off enough that I stopped on the landing and thought about the whole thing. That’s really the important thing, you know. I didn’t just rush in where angels etc. etc., I thought about what I was doing before I did it. Then I did it anyway.
Astbury came to meet me when I opened the door, holding out his hand. “Ah, Phil, excellent. . .”
“Can we have a word?” I drew him outside to the landing. “Did you know the box was already booked for a junior team get-together today? That your group was putting them out?”
“Oh, them? They were some protégées of Jim Hamilton’s, but they were on a free ticket. He’s taken them off somewhere else, I think. Come in and. . .”
“I know he has. They won’t get another chance at the box, will they, not now that the season’s starting. I imagine it must be booked fairly solid?”
He smiled at me, not understanding. “Of course. That’s why I had to push this through for my people, I wouldn’t have got another slot probably until after Christmas.”
“So you knew that somebody else would be put out so that you could get in?”
“My dear Phil, it was a gaggle of schoolgirls on a charity outing. This is business; this is what pays your wages. I’ve told Jim Hamilton to buy them all ice cream or whatever and charge it back to me, but business comes first, you know?”
“Before reputation? Before doing the right thing for its own sake?”
“Oh dear, you really are idealistic, aren’t you? It won’t harm our reputation.”
“How do you know? Those girls have parents, relatives in business. Ruth Kincaid’s mother works for one of the High Street banks, I’ve seen her there. And just because we don’t have a women’s side here, we shouldn’t disregard them. They have brothers who play; where’s our next intake if it isn’t from the amateur clubs? And what if they go to the Scorpions because the club gossip is that the Gryphons aren’t a good place to work?”
“Well, it’s done now,” he said dismissively, and threw the door open again. “Mr Copeland, come and meet Phil Cartwright, he’s our golden boy. . .”
“I’m sorry,” I said clearly, “but I’m not stopping. We’ve had some sort of disaster on the paperwork side of things and I’ve ended up double booked, I’m not very sure how. I knew I was coming up here today, but I was expecting to be with the youth rugby party, I’d committed to them.” I glanced apologetically at the assembled visitors. “Schools rugby is a big thing for me, I try to connect with the youngsters as much as I can. I can’t really let them down. I’m so sorry; I’ll hope to meet you all another time.” And I smiled generally round the room, and trotted back off down the stairs. Astbury came after me.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing? The club booked you to spend this afternoon with me and my guests!”
I glanced back at him. “The club booked the box for the girls’ youth team, and they didn’t keep to it. If it had been an accident or a misunderstanding, I’d have stayed, but it wasn’t, was it? It was you deciding that people don’t matter unless they can do something for you. Don’t worry, you won’t have to pay for my time.”
“Damn right I won’t! And you haven’t heard the last of this, not by a long stretch. You’re in breach of contract, Phil Cartwright, and the rest of the Board will hear about it.”
“Oh, scary,” I said dismissively, and went. It took me ten minutes to spot Hansie and Mr Hamilton in the crowd and I fought my way through.
“Room for one more? Move up a bit, Naomi. How much are we going to win by today?”
I waited for Piet outside his office. It was a fairly long wait, because of course he had all his normal post match stuff to do with the squad, and normally I’d still have been in the Directors’ Box with the visitors, so he didn’t hurry – not that he would have done anyway, I suppose. He won’t short change the squad on my account. Anyway, I waited. The rôle play types would probably have loved it: standing outside the office waiting for the Top? Only we don’t do that, for one thing, and for another, I had a most peculiar mixed feeling about whether or not I’d done – no. No, that’s not right. It wasn’t not knowing whether or not I’d done something wrong. I was sure I hadn’t, or at least nothing that I felt I deserved punishment for, but I was a long way from sure that Piet would feel the same way about it.
He obviously hadn’t heard anything about it when he came upstairs; I didn’t tell him anything except that there was a problem and that we needed to talk about it at home. Curiously, I was the one who took us into his study, despite my conviction that although he needed to know about this, it wasn’t something he needed to be involved with.
He pursed his lips in thought when I’d finished telling him. “You will be, I fear, in quite a lot of trouble. Astbury has every right to be annoyed. I appreciate what you are telling me about the double booking, and I agree with you that it is not an acceptable thing for the club to do; I will speak to James Hamilton and if he wishes to raise it with the Board, I will back him up. I do not even disagree with your arguments to Astbury; you are quite right about the youngsters coming through from the amateur clubs, and just because we have no women’s side now, that does not mean that there will not be one in the future. There are three or four of Ruth’s associates who will be worth seeing when they are 19 or so. Even without that, I think we should always be ready to encourage a love of the game wherever we find it.”
I let out the breath I hadn’t been aware I had been holding.
“Nonetheless, Phil, that was not well done.”
“But Piet. . .!”
“No. You have antagonised Astbury and made him defensive. Had you not, had you fulfilled your obligation to him – and you did have such an obligation, Phil, you had agreed to the meeting – we might have been able to bring him to an understanding of how much we disapproved, and he would in all likelihood have made some gesture to the girls to make it up to them. Now he will insist that by the letter of the law he is right, as he is. What is more, from inside the box, you might have been able to work not only on him but on his contacts, any one of whom might have been willing to assist either here or at the other club.”
I thought about that. “Maybe, but I think I did more good by spending the afternoon with the girls myself.”
“Yes, I can see that you would want to do something to cheer up their day, and I can see also that giving them the famous Phil Cartwright as their companion was a treat for them. Was that your only reason for doing it?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, Phil, that it would be rather vain to assume that it could only be you who would improve things. You knew that there were others around today who were not playing but would perhaps be willing to oblige you by sitting with the girls. Thibault was in the gym this afternoon; so were Tommy and Nathan. Any of them would have given up his time to encourage children, costing you no more than a favour to be returned later. So I ask you: are you sure it was not vanity on your part?”
I opened my mouth to deny it angrily, and hesitated. “I. . . well, I won’t say that there might not be an element of truth in that. But I know them, and the others don’t.”
“I am also aware that you complained this morning that you did not want to spend your time with ‘that boring little shit Astbury and his tedious colleagues’. So I am asking you: can you say truthfully that you were not glad of an excuse to avoid him?”
I thought about that one for quite a long time. “I know I said that and it was true. But I’d signed up for it and I would have gone. . . I meant to go. No, I think I can deny that one. It was just that the club broke its word, and. . .”
“And there is indeed cause for complaint there – but not from you, Phil. At bottom, it was not your business. Hansie might have had cause for complaint, but that would be between him and James Hamilton. James could have objected, and probably will do; he is the aggrieved party, not you. The club breached what we think of as its word, but now so have you done. You are as guilty as whoever in the office decided that the booking need not stand; you had made a contractual commitment which you did not meet. You cannot justify acting wrongly simply because somebody else has done so. I accept that you saw a wrong and wished to put it right; I do not at all criticise your motives. The manner in which you went about it was misplaced, and you merit punishment for it.”
Hell. I sat and pondered that for a bit, and then I looked up at him. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I do.”
Well, we had been there before. Piet never lays hand on me until we’re agreed that what I did was wrong and that I know it, and there have been occasions when it’s taken some considerable argument either for him to convince me that I deserved a walloping, or for me to convince him that I didn’t – and the outcome has been each way more than once. But this time neither of us would give way: he was convinced that I had acted wrongly; even after half an hour I was convinced that I hadn’t. “I know there will be consequences of doing what I did, and I’ll have to put up with them, but I still think they’re the consequences of the world being unfair – and those consequences don’t include your cane, Piet. I” and I gulped a bit, “I did what I thought was right, and I won’t be punished for it.”
I don’t know if I can make you understand what a frightening thing that was to do: to accept that agreement was impossible and to defy him over punishment. My stomach was churning and my voice was unsteady; he simply looked at me for a moment, and then gave that odd little sideways shake of the head.
“Well, if I cannot convince you, I cannot. Shall we go back through?” And he got up from his desk and led me back into the main house as if we had been discussing nothing more contentious than the weather.
It was most disconcerting, though; it left me desperately unsettled. I found myself analysing my motives in odd moments here and there; I thought at first that it was a repeat of the T-Bone affair and what was getting at me was guilt, but it wasn’t. I didn’t have any trouble sleeping, and the more I examined my conscience, the less it troubled me. No, what bothered me was something else.
“What then?” I asked. He hesitated, unsure of quite how to go on.
“See, Fran, we went round this when Piet had chickenpox, do you remember that? When he was going down with it, before we knew he was ill, he got in a real strop with me and in the end he punished me – for something I hadn’t done.”
I was shocked and it must have shown. Piet? Piet punishing Phil for something he hadn’t done? He went on hastily. “It wasn’t really his fault, and I think if he’d intended to cane me I really would have said no, but. . . well, I just took it as part of the deal.”
“Yes, about. . . Oh. I suppose. . . you probably don’t actually know about the deal Piet and I have.”
“Say I don’t. Tell me.”
As it happens, I hadn’t known. Well, there wasn’t really any reason why I should, was there? I had known, of course, that Piet was Phil’s Top – I couldn’t have missed that, not and claimed to be any sort of Top myself – but the base agreement regarding Phil’s rugby, and then the way it had expanded into their private life, no, I hadn’t known the detail of that.
“So Piet as Top came first and Piet as lover later?”
“Only by about half an hour, but yes. And actually, Fran, I think if we hadn’t been lovers, the deal would have fizzled out quite soon. I think – well, I know – that that was what Piet intended. Six months in which I got a short sharp shock every time I stepped out of line, and I rather think I’d have got myself into some sort of order. I hated it. I agreed to it and I knew quite soon that I’d been right, professionally, to agree, but if I hadn’t been involved with Piet, I’d have called a halt fairly sharply. Only once we were getting it together, the reasoning behind it changed a bit.” He was going slower now, working this out to his own satisfaction as well as to mine. I had the distinct impression that he’d never put into words what he understood about their relationship. “We don’t need it now, not the same way. Now it’s more like. . . it’s because we work together. We need a means for a disagreement at the club to stay at the club. It’s like. . . that’s the deal between Cartwright and de Vries but it has nothing to do with Phil and Piet.”
“It’s how you keep your work problems out of your bedroom.”
“Yes! Exactly. And then we expanded it to cover some of the rest of our life, but I suppose that’s not the point here. This is an argument to do with the club, so it’s inside the scope of the deal, I’m not arguing about that. Anyway, after the chickenpox affair, Piet made me promise that I wouldn’t ever submit to a punishment unless I agreed I deserved it. And this time I don’t agree and I haven’t been punished.”
He ground to a halt and gazed imploringly at me. “I’m sorry, Phil, so what. . .? Is Piet being difficult about that?”
“No,” he said despairingly. “Not in the way you mean. But we aren’t right with each other and I don’t know why or what to do about it, and I thought, you’re an. . .” He gagged on the word again and I nodded hastily, not feeling any need to be called an elephant a second time. “You’ll know what’s gone wrong, you’ll help.”
Ouch. I hadn’t the first idea what had gone wrong. O.K., Fran, think not only like a Top but like a domestic discipline Top.
“I mean,” he went on rather shakily, “Can I do that? Can I refuse him without the whole thing coming down round our ears?”
My brain skipped. “What do you mean, can you do it?”
“Is that a usual part of a deal between a Top and a Bottom? It isn’t, is it? I’ve. . . well, when it was all new to me, I went round some of the websites. That’s not how it works. The way it works is that he says when I’m out of order.”
“For pity’s sake, Phil, listen to yourself! What if he said so and he was wrong? You gave way once, you said, and you let him punish you when you were in the right; what sort of relationship would you be in if that could be a common occurrence? Where you had no right to say no? That’s a rape, Phil. An emotional rape, maybe, rather than a physical one, but it’s an assault if you haven’t agreed and that means every single time.”
“But I can’t refuse – well, I can, we know I can, but if we’re doing it right, I can’t refuse in the middle of an argument. I can say when we’re going along evenly, I can say then that I don’t want to do it any more, but when we’re in the middle of a crisis, I can’t say that I won’t.”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “But you did say so, and Piet accepted it.”
He was as frustrated by my incomprehension as I was by his inarticulacy. “But is that what Tops and Bottoms do?”
I suddenly got it. “It’s not what the fictional ones on the websites do, no. But they aren’t real, Phil. Get a grip on that. Somebody made them up, they’re stories. They don’t exist and the worlds in which they live don’t exist either, they’re. . . they’re two dimensional constructs, they’re what authors do with their own agendas. When real people like you do this in the real world, it’s much more complicated. Piet isn’t always right. You aren’t always wrong. Sometimes, there simply isn’t a right or wrong answer, there’s only his opinion and yours. The fictional ones are ‘always right’ Tops, with ‘unquestioning obedience’ Bottoms, and who wants either of them? I don’t buy into the whole ‘you don’t say no to me’ package, I never have. It’s probably got a lot to do with why I’ve never gone that direction in any of my own relationships. It puts far too much power into the hands of the Top, and we all know that power corrupts; it would give me a responsibility I don’t want, to look after my Bottom as if he were a child. Too exhausting and unhealthy. I don’t think it would be good for the Bottom either, to know that in the final analysis he’s not in control of his own life because I’m the one who makes the decisions, even if the decision I make is to allow him to make his own decisions about some things. I don’t believe Piet wants your unquestioning obedience. I think he’d rather have you assessing your world, making your own judgements rather than always relying on his. Knowing better than him about some things. He wants an adult relationship with his equal, I’d bet my life on it.”
Phil made a rather miserable face. “His previous partners have all been intelligent, and then he ends up with me.”
I slapped the back of his hand lightly. “And he says that you are the most emotionally literate man he knows. Don’t do yourself down, Phil. There’s more than one sort of intelligence, and the one that’s to do with judging people, you’ve got in spades.”
“I’m not showing much sign of it now, am I? My own relationship and I haven’t a clue what’s wrong with it.”
I took his hand across the desk. “Don’t worry. You know it’s not right, which is half way to fixing it, and you know that where something is outside your experience, you need to find someone who knows, and ask. That’s smart enough for anybody.”
He wrapped his other hand round mine. “So you don’t think I need worry if the way we do things isn’t like anybody else does.”
“No. Every relationship is different. Even if you’re doing the discipline thing, there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do it. There’s ‘the way that works for us’ and ‘other ways that don’t work for us’, same as in any other sort of relationship. So it worked before and you think it doesn’t now: Piet wanted to punish you; you didn’t agree; he didn’t do it. Is that where we’re starting? So what’s he doing or not doing that’s out of the usual? You say he isn’t on your case to make you change your mind?”
“Not in the least. But” and he blushed hotly, “he isn’t topping at all.”
“No. And I don’t know why not. He stopped before but it was when he was bothered about his birthday.”
I considered. “You know, I can see that if I did punishment, and I’d agreed those terms, if Nick stood to his principles I might well not offer play in case he thought I was trying to slide a punishment in under cover. In case he thought I was changing the rules.”
He gawped at me for a moment. “But I know he isn’t. He’s applying the rules exactly the way he promised he would.”
Not an intellectual, our Phil. A sweetheart but only a 40 watt bulb.
“Just so. He told you the rule was that you could refuse; you refused. That means that you have to sort yourselves out without physical punishment, which is the way the rest of the world manages. And we do manage, Phil. When I quarrel with Nick, we have to find some accommodation between ourselves without involving the cane, no matter which of us is in the wrong. We just have to get over it. What’s changed between you and Piet?”
I could almost smell burning as he thought about it. “Nothing, I suppose. Which means it isn’t the punishment side of things that’s the problem. I thought it was but it’s not, is it? It’s the play.”
God but this was exhausting.
“Have you asked him to play?”
He wrinkled his nose. “That’s not exactly what we do. I hint occasionally that I’m willing enough, but he drives it, not me.”
“So you’re reacting to what he wants, rather than proactive. Play is his thing and you go along, rather than something you both do.”
He gawped again. “I’m keen enough. He wouldn’t do it if I didn’t like it. That’s certainly somewhere I can say no, I’ve always known that.”
“So do more than say yes when he asks. You ask. You’re his equal, Phil. You’re his equal in this relationship so act like it. If you want to play, prompt it.”
“How?” He was despairing again. “I can’t just say, ‘go on, Piet, spank me.’ That so isn’t what we do.”
I sighed. “What do you do? No extreme detail, please.”
He grinned, engagingly. “No mention of throbbing or. . . no, no, I surrender! Either he’ll make up some really silly reason, or he’ll just say it’s because he wants to.”
“So if you say it’s because you want to. . .?”
Another nose wrinkle. “I suppose I could, but. . .”
“Then make up your own silly reason.”
“Do you think he’ll get it?”
I was going to throw something at him in a minute. “Hello? It’s Piet? Of course he’ll bloody get it! Nick does it occasionally, plays at bratting, and I get it. Make it something really silly, Phil. Bratty. Throw spaghetti, or spray him with shaving foam. Or confess theatrically to something that’s a ridiculous variation to whatever he would normally punish you for, something to do with your rugby maybe? You’re an equal partner, remember. If you want to play, you can ask him to play. If he doesn’t want to, he’ll say no.”
He was looking more hopeful than when he’d come in. “As simple as that?”
“As simple as that.”
At the door, he leaned down, and kissed me deliberately on the cheek; I don’t think he’d ever done that before.
Theatrically silly. It was just a matter of picking somewhere I could confess to not having done what I normally would and then getting less and less together – what my mother calls ‘through-other’ – until Piet noticed.
“Phil, is something the matter? You are not yourself.”
“Ah. Yes. Well. It’s not important.” I let that slide into a whine. I don’t usually whine.
“What is it?” He wasn’t there yet, he wasn’t sure what I was about.
“Nothing that matters.” I gave a most ridiculous wriggle. He was getting it now, I could see he was, I know the look of suppressed amusement.
“Phil, what have you done?”
I hesitated, and he was onto it fast enough. “Or should I ask what you have not done?”
I shifted my shoulders artistically. “Haven’t done my homework.”
“You have not. . .”
I relaxed. This was going to go the way I wanted, at least from my side. “My music homework. I’ve cancelled my lesson because I haven’t done my homework.”
Now this actually isn’t unusual. My schedule is so weird that Patricia pencils me into her diary and then if she gets another enquiry I’m the one who gets put off; this makes me feel better about the number of times I have to cancel at short notice. In any event, my music is none of Piet’s business and he never interferes with it.
“What were you supposed to do?”
“Arrange the springbok in the style of Poulenc.” That was whined again.
“Did you attempt it?” Like he would have the first idea of how it should have sounded.
“It was too difficult, Piet.” Very pronounced whine.
“That would not excuse you from attempting it, now, would it? Even if you did it badly? She would teach you better technique if it were not well done, would she not?”
I was all but kicking the skirting board; Piet was hard put not to laugh.
“And what happens when you do not do your homework?” I reckon that was carefully worded – I might have said ‘oh, Patricia won’t mind’ and he’d have let it drop; instead I twisted again, and said sulkily, “I get spanked.”
“I think you do.” And he stood up, and went to the piano, pulling the stool out to the middle of the room and settling himself on it. “Come here, you.”
I went to him; his hands went to my waistband, and there was barely a hesitation before my jeans and boxers were stripped to my knees, and he gave a gentle tug on my wrist to arrange me on his lap. And I’m telling you, if that had been a theatrical confession on my part, the spanking I got was no less theatrical. Talk about full of sound and fury and signifying nothing? I don’t know how he did it; from the noise it made you’d have thought he was half killing me, but I hardly felt it at all. Absolutely no chance of me thinking he was slipping a punishment in disguised as play – this was barely even play disguised as play. I was a bit taken aback at first, I confess, but I joined in, yelping and kicking and squirming in the approved fashion. When he stopped, I could feel the muscles of his abdomen flutter as he controlled laughter (that wasn’t all I could feel either, and I rejoiced), but he said sternly, “Now we will have no more of this laziness, Phil, will we? You will have your homework done by this time tomorrow or I will spank you again, much harder, maybe with the paddle.”
“Oh, it’s in my music case,” I said dreamily to the carpet. “I finished it this afternoon. I only put the lesson off by 24 hours, and that was just because you wanted me to see the physio tomorrow.”
So then he spanked me for lying. Quite hard, actually.
I’ll admit to a certain amount of curiosity, although obviously all I was ever likely to hear was ‘yes, we’re O.K.’ or ‘no, we’re not’ from Phil. I didn’t see him for a couple of days – I tend to catch a glimpse of him coming or going from the house, and he runs along the track which borders the whole estate two or three times a week, and quite often I’ll get a wave from him, but it happened that I was out a good deal, and. . . well, anyway. I’d rather decided that if there had been anything to hear I would have heard it, when Piet came to call.
It was late in the day again; I was just finishing the last of my filing and thinking about locking up and going home, when the bell went.
“Hello, Piet, come in.”
“You are at home to callers? I am not interrupting your work?”
“I’ve just finished, actually.”
“Then you wish to get away?”
“No hurry, if you wanted something?”
He made an odd face. “Only a chat, but if Nick is expecting you. . .”
“Nick’s in Northampton on some sort of course, until tomorrow night.”
“And Phil is in London, so come up to the house and eat with me, Fran, and bear me company. Or we could go out for a meal if you liked?”
“I’ll do either, quite happily.”
“Come to the house, then, and we will see what Phil has left that we can defrost, and we can talk, comfortably.”
I stared at him. “Is something the matter?”
“I do not know, Fran and that is the truth. Sometimes I think there is, and other times I am sure there is not, and tonight I thought: I will take a second opinion. I do not like not knowing; it feels strange to me, and unnatural.”
I reached for my keys. “Is this between you and Phil?”
“Yes, but. . .” He struck comprehension out of the air. “He came here. Phil came here, did he not? We were both rather unsettled, rather out of sorts with ourselves, and then suddenly he was comfortable again although I was not, and I thought that perhaps he had been talking to Hansie or Tim, but that is wrong, is it not? He came to you. Of course he did. Now why did I not think of that?”
I nodded. “He came here, and he asked me for my opinion on – on a couple of things. I’m sorry, Piet, but I’m not telling you what he said or what he asked me; that’s his business. He didn’t specifically ask me to respect his confidences, but confidences are what I think they were and I won’t discuss them without his permission.”
He was very still for a moment, looking at me, and then he gave a snort of amusement, and said, “Very well; and will the same consideration apply to me, if I come to you for help?”
“You know damn well that if I can help you I will, and that I won’t pass on anything you ask me not to. At least I hope you know it.”
“Then come up to the house, Frances, and I will tell you everything, and then you can tell me if I ought to be worrying or not.”
He fed me something he said was Phil’s tarragon chicken, and afterwards we took our coffee and sat at opposite ends of the big settee, and I found that quite automatically I kicked my shoes off, and tucked my feet under me, and said “Tell me all.” And Piet looked thoughtful for a moment, as if unsure where to start, and then said solemnly, “My name is Pieter and I’m a Top.”
“Welcome to Tops Anonymous, Pieter; tell me your experience.”
“I make a joke of it, but it is in fact most serious. I think it is probably the same difficulty that brought Phil to you. . . you could play poker with that face, Frances. I wish only to avoid having to tell you things you already know.”
“I think you should assume that I know nothing. Your take won’t be the same as Phil’s anyway, so let’s have it.”
And he told me his version, and I said ‘Go on,’ at intervals, and passed no comment. As far as the facts went, it was the same as Phil’s; I think Phil had been very careful to be honest in what he told me, and I do think he had tried hard not to spin the story in his own favour. There wasn’t any argument about what had happened, only about the interpretation.
“So he did not agree that he deserved a punishment and therefore I would not punish him. He said he would live with the consequences, but that the consequences were his, not mine.”
Something had occurred to me after I had spoken to Phil. “Have there been consequences? I mean, external ones?”
Piet nodded. “Fersure. Phil was in breach of his contract, and that could not be argued. He lost his fee for the afternoon, obviously; additionally, he had a fine for bringing the club into disrepute, and he has had a formal warning affixed to his file. It will stand for three months.”
“If he had given way to you, could you have prevented any of those? Would you?”
“I would have tried, perhaps. I might have persuaded the Board, by implying that I had punished him also in some fashion such as sending him to train with the Seconds or making him help the kit manager, not to mark his file. The fee would have been lost, obviously, because he did not attend; the fine I think would have stood.”
“Has he ever had his file marked before?”
“Once, I believe, before I came to the club, for some undisciplined behaviour on a tour.”
“Is it serious?”
Piet wrinkled his nose. “Not very, in his case. I cannot think that he will be warned again before that one lapses.”
“So really, the punishment is the fine; if he had given way to you, he would still have been fined. Double jeopardy, Piet. Go on, justify that to me.”
“I cannot. No Top ever can, not really. That is where the whole thing falls down, Fran, and I know it. It is really only reasonable for me to punish him when otherwise he would escape punishment; to make him understand that there are consequences to his actions. I know this: I have punished him when he has acted wrongly in regard to his rugby, on those occasions on which he would have escaped, so that he would not repeat the action and thereby render himself subject to the world’s punishment. I have punished him occasionally because he already knew that he was at fault, and he needed to be able to say: I did wrong and I have paid for it, and I need not concern myself with my guilt. I have on occasion punished him so that the annoyance that I as coach felt with my player did not spill over into the relationship which I share with my lover. What is done at the club needs to remain at the club, and not be brought home. All those reasons are sound enough, I think.”
“If they work for you both,” I agreed. “Which one covers this situation?”
“That last, I would say, but he does not agree with me and I will not force him. My own view is that he was at fault, and quite seriously so, but I am not so set in my opinions that I will not consider the possibility that I may be wrong and he right.”
“Top considers possibility of being wrong! Hold the front page!”
He shook his head at me. “You know quite well that the Top who never considers that he may be wrong is not fit to be a Top at all, and certainly not an Alpha Top.”
“Piet, what is that? Does it actually mean something? Phil used the term and I assumed he meant – well, that I’m just about old enough to be his mother. He was embarrassed at saying it at all; I thought he didn’t like drawing attention to my age, but when you say it, it sounds more like it’s a status thing.”
His eyebrows shot up. “We have never said it to you? It was Tim’s invention first, I think: he called me Alpha Top. It is partly that I am by some way the oldest, but it also has implications of seniority, of experience, of. . . of greater responsibility. It is rare for me to challenge either Hansie or Tim on what they do, but on occasion I have challenged them, and they have justified themselves to me, or they have sometimes come to me (you know this) when they have problems beyond their managing. It is that I am the Alpha male in our pack, I suppose.”
“Right. What Nick calls Senior Top? Top with miles on the clock who can reasonably be expected to know what she’s doing? Only that’s a club thing – I can count myself as a Senior Top in Mortimers, and the Subs are generally expected to defer to me (not physically, of course) in the absence of their own Tops. Come to that, the newer Tops get out of my way too. But you don’t club, so is it the same?”
“Miles on the clock, yes, and a little more. If you saw someone behaving badly in the club, you would step in to protect a Sub not your own, yes? You would think that your duty. But you would not discipline a Sub other than your own simply because you are a Senior Top and you could do it. Yes, I think the main factor is responsibility, if you will take it seriously. Most of the time it is not serious, it is merely a Family joke, but that, at a guess – I know you will not tell me – will have been why Phil came to you: Alpha status. Were you surprised that he came?”
I nodded. “Completely. I would never have expected him to look to me for help.”
“Well, but you are beyond doubt an Alpha Top; I recognised you as such at once, even before I had a name for it. Your Nick knows that, and so does Hansie. Tim, I suspect, pretends that it is not so, as Phil will have done until now, but. . . We get off the point, Fran. Phil and I have a deal, you know this?”
“Tell me how it works.”
Reassuring to find that they agree on the mechanism. “And of course, he learns to play. He enjoys that now, in a mild way.”
“You don’t think this will have put him off?”
“Off play? No, I do not think so. I gave him a little time to make himself comfortable with play, after refusing punishment, but I never doubted that it would happen for him again. No, what concerns me is the deal.”
Well, now, that was most interesting. Phil had been worrying about play and confident about punishment; Piet was comfortable about play but thought the punishment arrangement was damaged.
“What bothers you?”
“I fear that this may be the end of the deal. I have no problem with him giving it up if it is the right time for him to do so, but I do not think it is, Fran. I do not think so. And yet, I cannot insist on it continuing if he wishes to stop. Me, I think it has its place still in keeping him centred, in keeping his attention on what he does. He is very young. . . what?”
I was shaking my head. “By his age I was running my own business. By his age, my mother was pregnant with me. He’s the same age as one of the sergeants who works for Nick. Don’t be fooled by the gap between you, Piet: proportionally speaking, he’s growing older faster than you are. Phil knows what he’s about. If he thinks he’s ready to break your deal, then he probably is. What has he said about it?”
“Nothing, but I think I must assume that he wishes it broken.”
“Why? I mean, you know him better than I do, but he strikes me as a remarkably honest man, and a very. . . everything is in the window with Phil. What you see is what you get. I’d have thought that if the deal was broken, he’d have said so.”
“He has not said anything,” Piet considered slowly, “except that he would not agree to being disciplined.”
“At all? Or just this time? Did he say ‘any more’ or ‘again’?”
“I do not think so. But I read it as that he felt he was in a way now to be free of the arrangement.”
“I could but. . . Fran, there is something in this affair which makes me think that it would be best if we got over it with as little said as possible. If I ask him, he will try to second guess me, to give me what he thinks I want, when in fact all that I want is that he should be happy and fulfilled.”
“Then you let him alone, Piet. If he does something for which you think he should be punished again, then that’s the time to ask him – if you need to. You may well find that by then, you’ve worked out what he’s thinking.”
“You think so?”
“I do. I’m not at all worried about Phil. I am worried about you. This is so. . . not minor, or simple, it isn’t those and I understand that you’re upset about it, but is there something else? Something you haven’t told me?”
He shook his head.
“Then why are you getting into such an advanced knicker twist about it? If I’d put this up to you as a hypothetical case, you’d have told me exactly what I told you. You know how a young man thinks – you know how Phil thinks. Why are you suddenly going all round the houses with him? Phil’s fairly straightforward and I’d have said he didn’t surprise you very often, so what is it now?”
“Frances, at the moment I could not tell you anything about how Phil thinks, and I am at a loss to know why not. I have, as you say, enough experience, for heaven’s sake; if it were Hansie or Tim, I would feel no doubts, and they are both more complicated than Phil. I could hazard a better guess as to what goes on in your Nick’s head than I could about Phil, just at present, and it frightens me.”
“Maybe because Phil actually is growing up? Because your relationship is changing? Piet, I’ve never asked, because it’s not my business, but have you lived this way, in this sort of relationship, before? I know you said that you were like me, this is the Big One, but you’ve been Top at home before, have you?”
He hesitated, rubbed his face and glanced at me sideways. “Not like this, no. Most of my relationships were – the links were loose. To be quite truthful, most of them were to do with sex, not love. Not merely on my part, either, I feel no guilt about them. I did once. . . this probably will surprise you. I had a Brat. A full time Brat.”
Surprise me? I almost fell off the sofa. “A Brat? You had a Brat?”
He was laughing at me. “Fersure. A kick-the-paintwork, stand-in-the-corner, hundred-lines Brat. He was a sweetheart, but the laziest and most manipulative man I have ever met. He had been, I think, around every Top in Pietermaritzburg, because he was too idle to take over responsibility for his own life, and wished to make somebody else do it. It was entertaining for a year, tolerable for another six months, and we split amicably enough before I died of exhaustion and boredom. The boredom was the real factor, I suppose. Frustration at dealing always with someone who had the abilities of an adult and refused to use them, so that I must always be adult for us both. There was no growth in the relationship; it was never going anywhere.”
“And your relationship with Phil is going somewhere?”
It’s a hearts and flowers question but he took it seriously. He took it too seriously. The hesitation was too long.
“Piet! You can’t seriously tell me. . . Why would you think it wasn’t going anywhere?”
He gazed at me, heart-wrenchingly unable to find an answer for me. Think, Fran, quick. This is where you really do have to be an Alpha. Or an elephant, come to that.
“Oh, God, I know. I bet I know. You think that he’s thinking: I’m done with the deal; I’m done with Piet. That’s it, isn’t it? For all you’ve been talking about you and him, you’re wondering if you-and-him is over. Pieter de Vries, if you weren’t such a lot bigger than me, I would slap you! You’re being unbelievably stupid. Look, I can’t tell you – I won’t tell you – what Phil came to discuss with me. But I think I can, in good conscience, tell you that he came to me because he was worried that his relationship with you was injured and he wanted to fix it. He knew it had changed and he wanted to know if the change was damaging. I told him it wasn’t. If a relationship doesn’t change, it stagnates. It can’t just be set, it has to be. . . I don’t know, what’s the word? Organic? It has to be alive. Yours is alive, Piet, I promise you it is. I promise you.” I was leaning forward to grip his wrist. This was so important I didn’t know how to get it over to him.
He wanted to believe me, I could see that. “That may be. . . perhaps you are right and I am not taking in that Phil is growing up. He was a very young 22. He is now quite mature for his years, he has developed a lot in a short time.”
“Then maybe that’s what’s wrong? Most relationships change slowly; it sounds as if yours changes in great uneven bounces? Maybe that’s a consequence of the age gap? That where Nick and I have to work through all the stages, you and Phil just miss some out?”
He considered, nodding.
“See, Pieter, you’re telling me that this is a new experience for you, brought on by Phil taking responsibility for his own actions. But it can’t have been wholly unprecedented, because you’d thought far enough ahead to have agreed a policy for when you couldn’t agree, even if you hadn’t foreseen the consequences of it. That’s a big power shift, don’t you think? But you anticipated the possibility of it. And you obviously meant for it not to be completely destructive because otherwise you would simply have said: I’m Top, I decide. The deal as a whole is plainly independent of any particular episode in it; if I can see that from the outside, I think you may be comfortable that Phil will see it from the inside. And honestly, I don’t think that he would have expected it to change without you both discussing it.”
“Then why am I expecting it? Why am I seeing something different to what you and he see?”
“Same reason that I came unstuck with Nick. Because for the first time it really matters. Do nothing, Piet. Go with the flow. Trust your auntie Fran, it will all be all right.”
That is not as easy as you might think. I had been accustomed for so long to trusting only myself, to being self-sufficient – how else would I find it so easy to identify the same failing in Tim? – that I had trouble enough at the start of the relationship in giving up my trust to Phil. And then I was given the gift of Hansie’s trust, when I had done nothing to deserve it, and Tim’s trust came so closely behind it, and what could I do but give them mine in return? And then Hansie took Fran into his Family – no, that is wrong, is it not? It was not we who created the Family: it was Fran. It was Fran who said to Hansie: ‘Have a new family. Do you want a big sister? Have me.’ I think she did not realise that in claiming Hansie, she would also gain Tim and Phil and me, but she copes very well with the invasion.
In terms of her actions, I trust her absolutely; her advice was good, I knew it was, and she was correct in what she said, that if I had heard the tale from another man I would have suggested precisely what she did, I would have known how things were. My head knew she was right; my heart still panicked. I found myself still wondering what I should do, until in the end I found myself saying as an article of faith: Fran promised me that it would all yet come right. I cannot trust my own judgement so I will trust hers.
I tried not to watch for Phil to make a mistake.
Of course, eventually he did, letting his temper slip with Thibault de Saint-Cyr during a training session.
“For fuck’s sake, you’re supposed to be putting the ball somewhere I can catch it, not just hurling it vaguely in my direction! Didn’t they teach you anything at that last club of yours? No bloody wonder nobody’s ever heard of them.”
With another player, it would not have mattered, but Thibault, although he is settling better now, is not Phil’s friend. They are civil to each other but little more, and he would not let that pass.
“They taught me to keep the ball in play, oui, but I was aided then by someone in the centre who could run fast enough to help me. . .”
And they were both off, snippy remarks at each other, although at least this time there was no suggestion of violence. There was not quite – not quite! – enough there for me to call either of them to account, but I had every intention of telling Phil later that he must be more careful to curb his tongue with Thibault. Not, I discovered, that I needed to: after some half an hour of bickering and bitching, Tommy, who is generally most equable in temperament (and who has taken Thibault beneath his enormous wing in a most satisfactory manner) turned on them. “Give it a rest, both of you, before we all die of boredom.” That silenced them, and I did not interfere.
So training went on, without serious incident, and as we walked back to the dressing room, I was pleased to see Phil approach his team-mate. “Look, I’m sorry if I was. . . Nathan got me on the elbow earlier, kicked me right on the funny bone, and it hurt like fuck. Made me a bit bad tempered. I shouldn’t have said anything about your last team. Sorry.”
And Thibault nodded shortly, and said, “Well, they were not as good as the team here, that cannot be denied, but I am perhaps too much inclined to defend them. It is not easy to change your allegiances, you know?”
And Tommy, who when off the pitch is more often peacemaker than combatant, said something to smooth everything over, and I left my boys to sort themselves out and went to attend to my paperwork.
I knew when I went home that something was not as it should be. At the end of the day, Phil will usually be cooking, not just that we may eat but for his own relaxation, and in general there will be noise from his kitchen. He likes music while he cooks, and since he started the lessons, he takes the opportunity to listen to whatever composer Patricia wishes him to understand this month. Tonight the only sound was from whatever he was doing. He spoke as soon as I came in, without even waiting for me to come and kiss him.
“Can it wait just a couple of minutes? I’ve screwed this up, the sauce, and it’s going to split if I leave it. Let me finish it and get it in the oven and then” he swallowed nervously, “I’ll be right with you.”
There is nothing makes Phil that nervous except punishment. Nothing. He is much better than he was, but the waiting still preys on his nerves. He was expecting to be punished; I had intended only to speak of what he had said, and to remind him of the unwisdom of it. I came up behind him, put my arms around his waist and lightly kissed the back of his neck. “I frighten you so much that you lose your skill at cooking?”
He relaxed a little and leaned back against me, without taking his eyes off the mixture in his pan. “I was annoyed with myself; I wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing and I got the proportions all wrong. It’s recoverable but only if I keep stirring. You know I’m not scared of you, but that was so stupid today; I knew you wouldn’t be pleased. T-Bone and I are doing better together but we aren’t there yet, and if we’re going to manage to get on I’ve got to bite back some of the things I want to say. Specially when I rocketed the guys for getting at him at the end of last season: we don’t want another outbreak of them taking sides, and I can’t afford to have them saying that I tell them off for picking on T-Bone and then do it myself. And I’m supposed to be vice captain, for pity’s sake; even if I had criticism to make, ‘you’re rubbish and your last team was rubbish too’ isn’t exactly constructive, and I shouldn’t have let him needle me enough to keep it going. It probably wouldn’t have mattered with one of the others but it does with T-Bone. That wasn’t what you can expect from a senior player, it wasn’t a good example, and it won’t have done my standing, my authority, any good at all. Petty squabbles aren’t good for the team and I started that one.” He hesitated, and then said rather piteously, “I did apologise.”
“I heard you, koekie, and I was pleased with that. He was not without fault either, but he accepted your apology with a reasonably good grace, and you will start afresh tomorrow. You have done no lasting harm.”
“Doesn’t make it right,” he said darkly, and turned off the gas; I stepped back to give him room as he added his sauce to whatever was in the dish by the sink. It smelled wonderful and I said so, and he slid it into the oven, and turned to me.
“I’m ready now.” He it was who led the way to the study, and stood in front of the desk, eyes down. My heart turned over at the sight of him. “I think we need not discuss this any further; you have told me most clearly why you were at fault.” And he had also told me, without putting it into words, that in his opinion he deserved punishment – and that he would submit to it. It was as Fran had assured me it would be: all of a sudden, everything connected, everything was where it should be, where I knew, I knew it had always been.
“Where do you want me, then? Back of the couch or the desk?” His fingers were on his waistband.
“Do you decide on your punishment?” I asked harshly. He stared at me for a moment; then his gaze fell. “No, sir. You do.”
“Just so. I do. And I say that you do not deserve to be caned for this, Phil.” I came round the couch and sat down. “Come here.”
He came obediently, let me strip his jeans from him, and lowered himself dutifully across my lap. I rested my hand lightly on his bottom, and his shoulders flexed uneasily. “Keep a sense of proportion, my Phil. It was not a serious fault and you did what you could to put it right. Now let us be done with the rest of it, shall we?”
And I spanked him, briskly, enough to leave him smarting and to extract a yelp or two, but without excessive severity. His back and thighs were rigid with the refusal to squirm away from my palm; I kept going only until he could maintain that rigidity no longer, and he gave a little wriggle of dismay. That is when he feels punished, so I gave him six more to drive the lesson home, and lifted my hand from his back.
“There. That will do. Now come here, hart, come here to me.”
He pulled his trousers up, not without a hiss, and came to his place, his weight turned onto his side along the cushions, his head against my chest, his torso safely in my arms. How could I possibly have doubted him? He was flushed, but his eyes were dry, and his breathing steadied quickly as he recovered himself.
“You’re cruel and heartless.”
“And you are disobedient and impudent.”
“I don’t love you, you know.”
“I never thought you did. I am no more than mildly attached to you. I stay with you only because you are a moderately good cook.”
He snorted. “I only let you stay because you’re a fairly good Top. And I suppose you’re reasonably good in bed.”
“And because I pay half the mortgage.”
“That too.” He shifted his weight and snuggled closer, tightening his grip and closing his eyes. We stayed so until the smell of whatever he had cooked insinuated itself into the room.
“Phil? Koekie? Does that need your attention?”
He sighed. “Suppose so, yes. And I should set the table.”
“I will do that. There, get up. All right?”
I meant more than his bottom, and he came back to kiss me, so I supposed the answer was yes. No, I knew it was; I understood him again.
He was quite relaxed and happy afterwards, and when I wished to watch the evening news he came to sit with me, working himself back to his place with his head in my lap. He was not interested in the news stories other than the headlines, and by the time they reached the weather, he had his fingers inside my shirt, and was nibbling at my stomach, which tickled. I shook him off.
“You are impertinent, Mr Cartwright. Insolent. Impudent.”
He flicked a glance up at me. “All the things beginning with ‘i’? Immature?”
“No, I think I can acquit you of that one.”
“What else am I?”
I shook my head, smiling. “I can think of no more beginning with ‘i’.”
“Can’t you? I can. I’m yours. I love you. I know when I’m onto a good thing. Which isn’t now, but if you were to take those trousers off, I could be onto a good thing.”
“And that is you,” I said slowly, “but what about me?”
“What about you?”
“I am in charge, am I not? And I say that we will empty the dishwasher.”
His face fell comically, but he followed me into the kitchen (not without a hasty adjustment to his trousers). When he shook the contents of the filter into the bin and closed up the machine, I was quickly behind him, pinning him against the worktop.
“Now, Mr Cartwright. I am going to make one phone call, and then I shall lock the doors, and set the alarm, and turn off all the lights. After that I shall come upstairs, and” (I let my voice drop to a growl) “if you are not naked, and in my bed, and ready for me, there will be Trouble.”
He threw a glance over his shoulder at me, and I released him; he moved towards the door with an insolent lack of haste. I did not hurry about my tasks, but no more did I delay and when I went upstairs. . . Well, he was in my bed as I had commanded; from the lidless tube on the dresser I could deduce that he was indeed ready. I hooked a hand under his hip and urged him to his hands and knees, taking the opportunity to run my palm over his bottom. It was still flushed and a little warm but there was no wince; I had given him exactly what he had deserved: a painful few minutes, a short period of discomfort and no lasting effects. He had sat down carefully at the table but he had not fidgeted.
“I believe I ordered you to be naked?” I brought my hand down smartly on the raised bottom.
“I believe you did.”
“And I do not think I gave you permission to wear this?” Another slap, a little harder. The tie I had been wearing earlier, which I had looped around the newel post when I came indoors, ready to carry upstairs, was twined round his neck.
“I didn’t ask for permission.”
That earned him two more slaps, hard enough to elicit a wriggle.
“Impudent, I believe I said. And since erotic asphyxiation is neither your pleasure nor mine, I shall reclaim my tie. It is too slippery to use as a blindfold and too expensive to use as a gag, and I prefer not to bind you but merely to command you to be still.” I shifted behind him, dropped a kiss on each pink curve.
“You look very well like that, with your bottom blushing.”
He twisted to look at me. “Nothing there I’ll be able to feel in the morning,” he said provocatively. I raised an eyebrow.
“You want something you will feel tomorrow? I can oblige you. But you are spanked well enough for the moment – I will not have. . .” I leaned over him and growled again, “I will not have this topping from the bottom.” And may heaven forgive me for the lie, but Phil will, for his body surged against mine, the way it always does when I use that tone to him. I started to remove my clothes, not too fast. “I hope that you are adequately prepared, Mr Cartwright; I told you to be ready and that is all the warning you will get. I intend to have you, now, at once, and so thoroughly that you will indeed feel it in the morning. I intend to have you once like this, on your knees, and a second time on your back, and both times slowly.” I felt him shiver beneath me. “And after that, I may – I may – consider asking what you want.”
He dropped his shoulders onto the bed and turned his face clear of the pillow.
“That’s exactly what I want.”
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© , 2006