With what, in hindsight, sounded like a sort of malevolent chuckle, my PC abandoned the spreadsheet I had just spent an hour and a half filling in, in favour of the blue screen of death. The system, it informed me helpfully, has become unstable. Hit Ctrl-Alt-Del to restart, or any key to return to Windows.
My exclamation of despair made everyone in the office sit up. I was working in Resources until September, (which basically meant Finance, Maintenance, and IT), as part of my rotation to familiarise me with the rest of the company, an idea Jim had come up with in haste when –well, you know, when Hansie and I were having a bit of trouble – and had continued to think a good idea even after our personal problems were resolved. And you’d imagine, wouldn’t you, that IT might give some preference to sorting out the problems in their own division? Bloody IT. Bloody Simon. I’d told him last week that my PC kept crashing, and he’d promised to come and look at it, but I hadn’t seen hide nor hair of him.
And I’d meant to save the results as I went along, really I had, only somehow I just forgot, and now most of a morning’s work was down the drain.
I punched Simon’s extension number into the phone with perhaps unnecessary viciousness, given that the plastic groaned under the assault. Good job that I wasn’t working for Hansie any more – he would have given me a hard time for abusing company property.
Laura Jameson looked at me over the top of her half glasses.
“What has that phone done to you to deserve such punishment?”
“Sorry. The bloody PC has just gone down in the middle of filling in those spreadsheet figures.”
“Damn. Had you saved any of it?”
She sighed. “Oh well, it can’t be helped. But while I could understand you wanting to kick the computer, the phone is an innocent bystander, surely?”
“Yeah, I know. Sorry.” It seemed to be my morning for saying that. “I wanted to chew Simon’s ears off. I asked him to come and look at it last week, and he didn’t, and now look what’s happened.”
She frowned. “Simon’s usually very reliable, despite being a bit. . .”
“Flamboyant?” I suggested.
“I was going to say ‘overworked’” she said quellingly. “A company this size really needs more IT support than we have, as I keep telling your uncle. I’m afraid for all his strengths he’s never been entirely convinced of just how central good IT is to business these days.”
I still hadn’t figured out Laura. Sally Braithwaite is straightforward to the point of bluntness, and Jeremy de Souza, Kelly Stanford, and Michelle Harcourt, who were the others in this office, were all nice, ordinary people. But Laura was an enigma, and an enigma who kept wrongfooting me. I couldn’t work out if she was drily amused at me, or thought me a spoiled brat who was cluttering up her department to no obvious end. Possibly both, of course.
I got Simon’s voicemail, and put the phone back down with a sound of disgust, but carefully, given the fact that Laura still had a slightly disapproving eye on me. Then I looked at the dead computer. I got up from my desk.
“I’ll take my break now,” I said. Laura nodded absently, her attention back on whichever incomprehensible series of figures she was making sit up and do tricks. I slipped down the corridor and took the back stairs, three at a time, down to the cubbyhole on the first floor that was Simon’s lair.
He wasn’t at his desk, which was piled high with various pieces of circuit board, devices full of winking lights and digital readouts that looked as if they were props for a Star Trek movie, computer magazines, scraps of paper and Post-it notes with messages on them in Simon’s looping, elegant handwriting, a teddy-bear in chaps and Muir cap, and a vase of plastic flowers. As I stood there irresolute, Martin, who is a quintessential geek type and one of Simon’s henchmen in IT, passed by in manga T-shirt and slacks of a particularly unfortunate design, and saw me.
“Are you looking for our glorious leader?” he asked. “I’m afraid he’s not in today – he hasn’t been in since Monday, actually – some sort of domestic crisis. Was it something I can help with?”
“Er – no. Well, actually, yes: my PC is playing up, and Simon promised to come and have a look at it last week and hasn’t got around to it. It’s just crashed and wiped out my morning’s work. Could someone come up now and have a look at it?”
“Sure. I’ll come up as soon as I finish sorting out the network server, or I can send Ben.”
Ben is the cute young Australian-Italian who is working the summer in IT. No offence to Martin, but I’d rather have Ben bending over my desk any day.
“Yeah, no, um, that’s great – I mean, you don’t have to put yourself out if you’re busy, send Ben up if he’s free, yes.” I beat a hasty retreat before I dropped myself any further in it, leaving a slightly bemused Martin behind me.
Domestic crisis? What sort of crisis? As far as I knew, Simon didn’t have a domestic to have a crisis in. He lived alone. Well, I thought he did, although I’d never actually been there – when we met it was always to go out. He’s been to my house once, but I’d never had a return invitation. In fact, given how much Simon liked to gossip, I was realising as I thought about it that I didn’t really know much about his life at all.
I knew that he came from South London originally, and had spent some time in the States, doing some kind of advanced computing course at Berkeley. I knew that he could tell you all the winners of the Eurovision Song Contest back to the Sixties at least. I knew that he once turned up to Hamiltons’ Christmas do dressed in a full length ball gown and high heels, on the arm of an extremely butch girl in a number 3 crop and a tux and that Jim had asked him to dance, much to Mary’s amusement. I knew that he adored champagne, sushi, and volcanic curries (far hotter than anything I could manage, although Hansie would give him a run for his money – I’d have to set the two of them up in a contest one day, and see who came out top). But I didn’t know where he hoped or feared his life was going. I didn’t even know if he was lonely or content. For someone I called, loosely, my friend, that seemed rather shameful, really.
So it was a much more thoughtful Tim who returned to the office – so much so, in fact, that I didn’t even take much notice when the delicious Ben came up to fix my computer (‘no worries, mate, she’ll be right’). No, I was too busy wondering how I could get Simon’s address out of Personnel. I didn’t have the right permissions to access that bit of the system in my own right, and they wouldn’t tell me if it were just a casual enquiry. Then I had a stroke of genius – the annual letter telling staff of their wage increases went out from this office, and the mailmerge database for that must be here somewhere. . . found it! A quick search, and I surreptitiously copied down the address I wanted: Flat B, 26 Ambridge Road. That was on the outskirts of town, a quiet residential area, a little down at heel. I would have thought that he could have afforded somewhere considerably better, to be honest, since he was earning – my goodness, nearly £7000 a year more than me. He was definitely buying the drinks next time we went out.
I jumped guiltily. “Yes, Lol?”
“Have you re-input all that stuff into the spreadsheet yet?”
“Um, getting right with it now, Lol.”
She sniffed. “Good. Because we need it done by tonight, ideally.”
And that was Tim Told Off, then. I hastily cleared away all evidence of anything else I might have been doing, and re-opened the spreadsheet to begin again the whole tedious business of filling it in again. And this time, you may be sure, I saved what I had done every 15 minutes, religiously.
“Ja, my liefie?” I paused in the task of sorting out the old tins of paint in the garage into the ‘discard’ and ‘box-up’ piles. ‘Discard’ was considerably larger, given that most of the tins contained remnants that had dried into unusability. We did not have a moving date yet – everything took so long! – but the surveys had gone ahead with no nasty surprises, and the prospect of our move was coming nearer.
“Would you mind if I went out for a while? I know I promised to help you box up the stuff in the garage, but there’s something I need to do.”
Well, I know that tone, hey? And I had thought he was rather quiet when he got home this evening. I snagged an arm and brought him up close against me.
“What have you done?”
“Nothing! Well, I hope it’s nothing. Oh –“ he sighed. “I don’t know. It’s Simon.”
“What about Simon?”
“I’m a bit concerned about him. He’s been off work, and he told them it was a domestic crisis, but as far as I know he lives alone.”
“He has, maybe, a new boyfriend?”
“I don’t know. He’s – I wouldn’t have agreed if anyone else had said it to me, but he’s actually a very private person.”
“You are only now seeing this? I told you that long ago, when you blabbed to him about Phil and Piet.”
“I did not blab. I was caught unawares.”
“Ja, right,” I said, with the proper degree of scorn. “I told you then, Simon is someone who keeps secrets.”
“Yes. Yes you did. And you were right,” he conceded. He is getting better at that, at admitting that he can be wrong and other people right, and it is not the end of the world. I suppressed a little smile of pride. No point in giving him a swelled head.
“So, then, what of this business with Simon?”
“Well, I thought I might go round there, check that he was all right.”
“And if he does not want you there?”
“Then he can throw me out. But at least I’ll have tried. Only – you’ll have to carry on with the packing on your own for a bit.”
I shrugged. “Ja, well, it will not kill me to box up the stuff in the garage on my own. I shall make you go up in the attic where it is hot and full of spiders, and do all the packing there, though.”
He smiled rather distractedly. Such a lovely smile that boy has, really. I sometimes wish he were not so serious – but then if he were different, he would not be the Tim I love so much.
“It’s a deal. Really, I’ll make it up to you.”
Ja, and I had a few ideas about that, too, or a certain part of my anatomy did. But if we allowed that free rein, nothing would get done at all.
“Go, go, but don’t be surprised if you get turned away with a flea in your ear.” I swatted him, not very hard, on the backside, and he got.
I spent some time havering, sitting in the car outside Simon’s house. The street was mostly large, old houses that had been converted into flats, apart from one newer block at the top of the road. Children were playing football in the road, someone was washing a car (with an extraordinarily loud sound system), and three teenagers were sitting about enjoying looking miserable on someone’s garden wall. An ordinary evening in early summer, in an ordinary residential area in an ordinary English provincial town. I really couldn’t imagine the exotic Simon living somewhere this – well, this normal. And that was prejudice, pure and simple. Just because Simon was incredibly camp, that didn’t mean that he didn’t have to go shopping, and pay the bills, and do all the normal things that constitute a life.
A vision of Simon answering the door in a vest, with a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, and a voice an octave below the one he used in the office suddenly sprang into my head, and gave me a fit of the giggles. Could that be Simon’s secret – a secret life of masculinity and respectability? Then I shook my head, irritated with myself. Why didn’t I just go and knock and see what the problem was? That was why I’d come in the first place.
I rang the bell.
“Tim? What the – what are you doing here?” I don’t think I had ever seen Simon taken totally aback before – well, maybe once, when we were helping to clear out Fran’s place after the burglary, and Phil and Piet had walked in shirtless.
“Simon, I’m sorry. It’s just that – they said at work you were having problems, and I just wondered – I was worried. I wondered if there was anything we – that I could do?”
He shook his head. “Look sweetie, it’s very kind of you, but this is a bad time, you understand?”
“I – look, can I come in?”
He bit his lip. “Tim, it really isn’t convenient.”
Light dawned. “Oh God, sorry, were you – um – with someone?”
“Ah – yes! Yes, that’s it. So you see, sweetie, much as I’d like a threesome, I’d be mortally afraid that that big South African of yours would come and tear me limb from limb if I so much as let you cross the threshold.”
“I. . .”
“Simon?” A querulous voice. An old voice. “Simon, where are you? Do we have visitors?”
Simon shot me a despairing glance, then turned back into the dimness of the hall.
“Yes, it’s all right, just someone from work.” He swung back to me. “Will you please go! I’ve just got him settled. . . oh no.”
The sound of shuffling footsteps made themselves heard. A tall, stooped, elderly man, with a shock of white hair, and a navy dressing gown that was coming adrift revealing blue cotton pyjamas, gaping alarmingly at the fly, was making his way down the hall behind Simon.
“Please, Daddy, you have to go back to bed,” said Simon. He sounded close to tears.
“Bed? But we’ve only just got up. Haven’t we?”
“No Daddy, it’s evening. Bedtime. See, you’re in your pyjamas, all nice and washed and ready for bed.” He swung to me, then back to the old man, then back to me again. “Please, Tim, just go.”
I looked at him. “Simon – let me help. I can help you get him to bed if you want.”
“No, really, he’s not very good with strangers. Better let us get on with it, there’s a pet.”
“Simon!” said the old man disapprovingly, his voice suddenly strengthening. “Why are you keeping your friend standing on the doorstep? Where are your manners? Let him in and make him a cup of tea immediately.”
Simon looked at me, then just shrugged in defeat. “Oh, come on in then,” he said peevishly.
I stepped uncertainly across the threshold, following the old man and Simon, clucking like a hen as he urged his father back in.
“Simon, I – ”
“Not now, Tim. Please. Let me get him settled again. Sit, sit.” So I sat, uncomfortably, and looked around me. A three-piece suite, slightly worn, a drop-leaf table, some fairly neutral prints of safe subjects, wallpaper – wallpaper, for God’s sake. I couldn’t see Simon in it at all. There was a bookcase too, and I’m afraid I couldn’t help myself. It’s always fascinating to see what someone else reads. A lot of science fiction, by the look of it, but also Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, some Balzac. Several weighty medical tomes on dementia. A whole run of Readers Digest condensed books, which in someone who read ‘Crime and Punishment’ I couldn’t figure out at all. . .
“They were my mother’s,” said Simon quietly behind me. I jumped, caught out.
“Sorry. . .” He made a ‘doesn’t matter’ gesture. Then we both looked at each other, uncertain what to say.
“Simon, I – none of us had any idea. That you were looking after your father, I mean. That he was – er – ill.”
“Gaga you mean.”
“No. No, not at all. Is it Alzheimer’s?”
“Yes. He isn’t bad, most of the time.”
“Still, managing on your own, it must be difficult.”
“Really, it’s not that bad usually. But he gets more difficult when his routine is disturbed. He doesn’t like me being at home during the day, gets his times all mixed up.”
“So how do you manage the days then?” Surely he didn’t leave the old boy unsupervised?
“Normally he has a full-time day-care nurse, but there was some sort of mixup this week, and by the time I’d found out there was no-one free to cover. That’s why I had to take time off work.” And of course that would be where all the money went. Day-care nursing didn’t come cheap.
“Oh, Simon. You must be run ragged.” He looked exhausted, there were big blue shadows under his eyes.
“No, really, I can manage,” he mumbled, and then gave a convulsive swallow as a tear welled up to run silently down his face. I reached out a tentative hand, uncertain as to whether he would throw it off, but he turned to me gratefully, flung his arms around me, and began to sob helplessly on my shoulder.
“Oh, T-tim, it’s soooo awful, seeing him like this.” I could imagine. It must be very hard not to resent someone for going away and leaving only a body that so cruelly resembles the person who has gone. I wondered how Simon managed it, or if he did.
“Shh, there, it’s all right, Simon, let it out, I understand.” I rocked him, making soothing noises, as he soaked the shoulder of my blue shirt. A faint sound made me look up. The old man – I could see something of Simon about the eyes, now I looked – was standing in the doorway. For a moment there was a flicker of unutterable sadness, lostness in his face. A ghost of the man who once was, perhaps, and was now, surely, dead.
The old man shuffled forward, patted his son on the back very gently.
“There, there, lad. Don’t take on so.”
“Oh Daddy!” Simon raised a tear-stained face to the intruder. “What are you doing out of bed?”
“Bed? But we’ve only just got up, haven’t we?”
Simon sighed, wiped his eyes. “No, Daddy,” he said gently. “It’s evening now. Time for you to rest.” He turned to me. “Tim, I’m sorry. Oh,” and with a faint glimmer of his usual camp sparkle, “and look at the state of your shirt, petal, all soaked in fairy tears.”
“It doesn’t matter, Simon. But please – if any of your friends can help, let us.”
He shook his head, firmly. “It’s my job. I owe him. I love him. He looked after me when I was small, now it’s my turn to look after him.”
“Of course, but you don’t have to do it entirely on your own, do you? I mean, what are friends for if not to help when you’re in trouble?”
He looked at me. “I was never entirely sure if you regarded me as a friend,” he observed, and thinking about some of the things I had said about him in the past I reddened in a way that would have done Hansie proud.
“Well I do,” I said. “And I mean it. We will help, any way we can. If you need someone to talk to Jim about more flexible hours. . .”
“If I need to talk about more flexible hours I can do it myself,” he said sharply.
I took a deep breath. “Simon – I recently learned a painful lesson about being able to ask for help. It doesn’t diminish you. Don’t make my mistakes – I nearly lost the love of my life over them.”
He dropped his gaze, then raised it again.
“Yes. I’m sorry, Tim. I shouldn’t be so defensive. And thank you.” The old man made a strange whining sound. “Yes, OK Daddy, we’ll get you to bed right now. Tim. . .”
“It’s all right, Simon, I can see myself out. Please call if you need anything. Anything.”
I heard the front door slam, and the sound of Tim’s footsteps racing upstairs. I had finished the packing in the garage for the moment, bar a few things that I needed to ask about, and was just pouring myself a glass of Chenin Blanc.
I heard him come down, and called out:
“In the kitchen. Want a glass of wine?”
He sidled in, looking serious and sheepish at the same time. In his hand was the paddle we bought last Christmas, the one he doesn’t like when he gets it (though he is ready enough to use it on me).
“Ja, what is this? What have I done now?”
“Nothing. It’s what I’ve done. Hansie, I need – I need you to punish me.” That last in a very small voice.
“Because I’ve done what you punished me so hard for before – I’ve taken one of my friends for granted. And I’m ashamed of myself.”
I swallowed a healthy slug of my wine – I had a feeling I was going to need it.
“Kom, then, come in the living room and you can explain yourself, and then I shall see what I think you deserve.”
I sat in the armchair and made him stand before me, like a contrite schoolboy. Stumblingly he explained what he had discovered at Simon’s house.
“Ach, I am sorry for him. I did not know either, I think no-one did. Not Personnel, certainly, or this would have come up before.”
“He didn’t want anyone to know. You were right, he keeps secrets. And it’s so silly – no-one would think any the less of him if they knew.”
“Perhaps, my liefie, he thought that he would be seen to have failed in his duty, to care for his parent, if he asked for help? But still – I have heard this, and I cannot see why you feel guilt about it. As you said, he kept it from anyone.”
“But I’m supposed to be his friend. I should have known. And he said – he said that he wasn’t sure if I regarded myself as his friend, and the truth is, Hansie, he embarrassed me. I liked him, but I didn’t want to be seen out with him too much, because he was so camp.”
“Ah, now we come to it. Is it not that you feel guilty for, rather than the fact that you did not know about his problems?”
“No. Yes. I don’t know, maybe.”
“Well, my skat, I am not sure that it is such a great failing. You are, perhaps, a little less nice than you would like to be. So are we all, except saints, and I have heard that they are hard to live with.”
“But I feel like such a heel.”
I understood of course. How could I not? I did not think that he deserved punishment, to be honest, but I knew how it was to feel that way, and that it would be no kindness to leave him unspanked. He had helped me with such feelings often enough, it was no hardship to give him what he needed. No hardship at all, for, (I may have mentioned this before), his little bottom is extremely cute when bright red and bucking across my knee.
“Very well then. Remove your trousers and your underpants please.”
He let out a big breath, as if he had been holding it, and complied, quickly and efficiently, with no attempt to make the process seductive. It was, of course – an attractive man stripping at my command, about to put himself in my power, to allow me to punish him? Oh yes, it was seductive enough. But he, he wanted punishment, not seduction.
I put the paddle at my side in a convenient position, pulled him down over my lap, steadied him in position.
“Twenty four strokes of the paddle, Tim, to remind you that you are not to take your friends for granted, or ignore their needs. And then a spanking, for general unkindness to Simon. Do you understand?”
A muffled ‘Yes, sir,’ from somewhere near the floor.
“Good. You will count the strokes, thank me after each one, then ask me for the next.
I rubbed the paddle over the skin of his bottom, gently, tapped a little and watched the firm flesh respond, a tiny ripple. Then: SNAP!
“One sir, thank you.” The tiniest of pauses, and: “Please may I have the next stroke, sir.”
I was happy to oblige. The shape of the paddle was clearly delineated in red on the white skin. A sharp intake of breath. I was not sparing him. I did not think he would be happy with me if I did. “Two sir, thank you. Please may I have the next.”
And so, and so. By the eighth the intake of breath with each stroke had become quite clear; by fourteen his voice had become ragged and the pause before he asked for the next stroke markedly longer. Not too long, though – it was clear he was determined to get through this and take his punishment. The words were coming through gritted teeth now. “Ah! Eighteen sir, thank you.” He was wrong, it was nineteen. I should have made him start counting again after the first dozen, it becomes hard to keep track. Now I could not call his attention to it without the natural consequence, which was to start again at one. He would just have to take the extra stroke.
“Please may I have the next stroke, sir.” I made it as light as I dared. His whole backside was deep red, with a few dark lines that marked where the edge of the implement had bruised the skin. “Nineteen sir, thank you. Please may I have the next stroke, sir.” Two, rapid, in succession. “Ahhh. Twenty and twenty-one, sir, thank you.” A pause to cope with the pain, then the request. “Please may I have the next one, sir.” Two again, one, two. His breathing was very ragged, and there was a long pause before he asked for his final stroke. I put some force into it. The last stroke should always be memorable. “Ah-ah! Twenty-four sir, thank you sir.”
I stroked the fiery flesh, running my fingernails gently over it in the way I know he likes, while his breathing settled again to something more normal.
“So, my Tim, are you properly punished for your misdeeds to your friends, then?”
“Good. So we shall hear no more nonsense about feeling guilty, then? That is my job, not yours.”
A tremor of laughter in the body over my lap. “Yes, Hansie.”
“Good. Then, I promised you a spanking, did I not?”
A faint sigh. “Yes, Hansie.” Resigned.
“Well then.” I brought my hand down on his bottom, not hard, in counterpoint to my words. “Don’t. Be. Unkind. To. Simon. Again.” I ran a hand gently over the curves of the buttocks, up to the firmness of his back, back down to the silky softness of that skin between the thighs. “There now, it is done.”
“Done, I say. We will see what we can do to help Simon, if he will let us. At the very least you must mention that there is a problem to Jim, I think. He likes to know when there are issues with his key staff, as I think you have cause to remember.”
He lifted his head, gave me a rueful grimace. “Too right.”
“So. But for now, the matter is done, and the evening is ours. Up then, my boy, and bring your lover another glass of wine. This one is empty, and I find I have a thirst from my exertions.
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