All that spring, while the year was blossoming, I saw life as if through a darkening veil. Every colour was muted, every joy half-hearted, every irritation and sorrow that much deeper. The trees were all in fresh leaf and the parks full of blossom, but in my heart there was only ash. After a time, even pain fails; too much empty grieving for no cause burns away the emotions, and only a wasteland remains.
In that unsparing place, free of the bright illusions that we wrap around ourselves to keep out the chill, I could see myself with a cold, dispassionate eye. I was thirty-six years old, plain, and boring. And alone. Very alone. I had had someone, but I had stupidly thrown away my chance, and he was gone. There would not be another. I had hoped to make it as a writer, but my talents were inadequate, and at a time when publishers were all chasing the latest hot new 16-year-old wunderkind, my age was against me. I had wasted my opportunities, pissed away my life. Just another nobody.
Step by step, inexorably, each error and folly had brought me here. To Mordor. To desolation. To standing on this bridge, in the harsh, unflattering orange glow of the sodium lamps, looking at the black waters of the river below and wondering. Wondering whether it would be quick. Whether the need for rest, for relief, would be sufficient to overcome the body's desire to struggle.
I rested my hands on the parapet.
"It's a long way down," said a voice, softly. I looked around to see a stranger behind me.
No. Not a complete stranger. Someone I knew, actually. A doctor at the local hospital, Steven something, a colleague of - of the person that used to be important in my life. He'd been to dinner a few times when we were together.
I turned away again and resumed my contemplation of the river, waiting for him to give up and go away.
"It's really nice to see you again," he said. "Why don't we go and have a drink somewhere ? Or something to eat. You look like you could use a meal."
Just GO, I thought helplessly. I don't want anything from you but that. Stop distracting me, muddling me, talking to me.
His hand closed on my wrist.
"Really," he said firmly. "I think you should come away."
My voice seemed to come from very far away, croaky with disuse.
"Please leave me alone," it said. "I just want to be left in peace."
He pulled me round to face him. He was surprisingly strong. I vaguely recalled that he played in the hospital rugby team.
"Look at me. Look at me," he said. I obeyed and flinched back, abruptly. Where I had expected some sort of vaguely sloppy concern, or perhaps pity, I saw - anger. A furious, copper bright anger blazing in his eyes and face.
"You were, weren't you ? You were getting ready to jump."
I shrugged. I was too weary for argument. I couldn't even summon up a matching anger of my own, the energy to tell him to fuck off and mind his own business.
"Well, I'm not letting you. You're coming with me."
"Yes. If I have to carry you, I will." He probably could. I'm not that big, and he was tall and broad shouldered.
"Just leave me," I said again.
"No. My car is around the corner. I'll take you home and we're going to have a little chat."
"I am so tired," I said. It seemed to be as much as I could manage.
So I went with him. It seemed the easiest course. The river would be there, afterward, after he had gone. Or there was the multi-storey car-park. I know death has ten thousand several doors . . . What price a few more hours ?
We didn't speak in the car, other than for him to say "Fasten your seatbelt" when I got in. It wasn't a long drive - fifteen minutes at this time of night, when the roads were nearly empty. He made me go first and kept close behind me all the way up the stairs to his flat - I think he thought I might bolt and run.
It was a nice flat - tasteful and calm and uncluttered. A very expensive hi-fi unit. A vase of slightly wilted flowers on a low table. A couple of interesting paintings. Black leather armchairs and sofa.
"Sit," he said.
I sat. "Well ?"
"Well, why are you thinking of throwing yourself off the bridge ?"
"I don't want to talk about it. Look, just say what you feel you have to say and let's get this charade over with."
"Charade ? Is that all this is to you ?"
"I didn't ask to come here. I told you, I'm too tired . . ."
"Tired of life ?" he asked shrewdly.
"Yes, if you must know." A flicker of irritation stirred in me. "And it's nothing to do with you, so just get your lecture over with and let me get on with dealing with things in my own way."
His own anger flared up again to new fervour.
"Well you haven't done too well at dealing with things so far, have you ? Since you and David split up, I mean. For God's sake, look at you. You obviously haven't eaten properly for weeks, your clothes are dirty, your hair is a mess. And your answer is to kill yourself."
"You know nothing about it," I hissed. "Nothing. It's my life, and my right to do what I like with it, even end it if I want."
"It is not ! It is NOT ! Listen - I've had three patients die on me in the last two days, for no fault of their own. One was only nine years old, for Christ's sake. And I'll tell you something, they fought, they fought down to the last for their lives. And you, you want to throw yours away. God, you make me angry."
"I can't help your anger," I said. "I've had enough, Steven. I've just had enough. My feelings are all burnt away, and there's just this grey, howling waste inside me. I don't care any more. I don't care about my life, I don't care if it makes you angry. I don't feel anything anymore. I don't care."
"Then I'll make you care," he shouted. " 'Don't care was made to care.' " He grabbed my arm again, pulled me to him, then putting one foot on the seat of the chair forced me across his outthrust knee. His hand came down with all its considerable force on my backside.
I cried out, and began to struggle, and was rewarded with a fusillade of slaps across my buttocks.
"So it seems you can feel something after all," he said with grim satisfaction.
"Get off me !"
"Oh no. You think you can't feel. I'm going to show you you can."
"I didn't mean that sort of - OW ! No, what are you doing ?" He was wrenching his tie off with his right hand while he held me pinned with his left. I began to struggle more furiously.
"Now listen to me. I'm bigger than you, and stronger than you. So you'd better co-operate, because the more you struggle the worse you'll be sorry, believe me."
"NO. No, please don't . . ." I went limp, resistless, as he tied my hands in front of me. He released me and I stood, bound. We were both breathing heavily.
"What are you going to do to me ?" My voice shook. But for the first time in a long while I was feeling something - a fear that had my heart knocking thunderously in my ears.
"What do you care ? Your life is worthless to you, so what does it matter ?" He undid my belt and then my waistbutton, unzipped my flies and pulled my jeans down about my ankles. I swallowed, convulsively. He was mad, I was going to be raped and murdered. Then, in a bitter bilious rush I thought: well so what ? He's right. Embrace the dark. I raised my head and stared at him steadily.
"There's nothing you can take that I haven't given away, you bastard," I said. I put as much contempt into my voice as I could manage.
"You little fool." His voice shook a little, but he didn't stop undressing me, until I stood there in T-shirt and briefs and socks. "Now let's see if you're as brave as your words." He pulled my pants down about my knees.
Despite myself I couldn't help giving a little cry of alarm, shrinking away from him. But he pulled me to him as he sat himself on the couch, pulled me down across his lap. His hand came down across my bottom in a stinging slap. It hurt a lot worse, a whole lot worse, without the protection of clothes.
I would not cry out. Would not. I bit my lip as his heavy hand worked its way methodically across my helpless backside. Damn him. I wiggled despite myself as a particularly hard and fast salvo concentrated on my sit spot.
"Am I getting through to you ?"
I refused to open my mouth, refused to answer. My arse burned and tingled.
"Very well." He stepped up the pace. I couldn't help grunting and gasping with pain as his hard hand smacked me again and again and again.
"At last. At last a real response. Do we have a breakthrough here ?"
"Please stop," I said again quietly. Tears of pain were running down my cheeks.
"All right," he said. "I'll stop spanking you." He eased me up off his lap, stood, and grasped my chin in his hand, turning my face to look at him. Then he nodded, once. And from somewhere he produced a wooden paddle, about 40 centimetres long and maybe a centimetre thick.
"W-what are you doing ?"
"I promised to stop spanking you, and I have. Now I'm going to give you 6 of the best with the paddle."
I was amazed at the blaze of anger that woke in me. How dare he trick me like that ! How dare he lie !
"No ! It's not fair !!"
"I'll decide what's fair," he said coldly. "Go and bend over the back of that chair."
I stood still, refusing to move.
"Do I have to warn you again what will happen if you defy me ?" he said. "That spanking will seem like a lovetap, I warn you."
Seething, I walked over to the armchair and bent over the back of it, burying my face into the soft aromatic hide. My legs shook, despite my best efforts to stop them. He came and stood behind me, very close. I could feel his body heat. He kicked my feet apart, spreading my legs.
There was a sharp crack. Pain blossomed across my bum. My whole nervous system seemed to ring like a bell with the intensity of the pain. I yelled, half rose, but he pushed me roughly back down. The paddle came down again. The weight of the thing ! It was like being hit with a plank. And again. I yelled into the chair back, cursed him and his immediate relatives, only to get two more in quick succession. One caught me low, at the top of the thigh - a new spike of pain through the general intensity, and my anger was building, building like a furnace ready to blow. White hot. If I was shaking now, it was not with fear but with an anger that would sear the whole world to blackened cinders if it burst from the shell of flesh that held it. Crack ! Crack ! That was more than six.
"You said six, you fucking bastard," I yelled.
"Three extra for not obeying quick enough. You've had one. Here comes another."
I yelled and screamed and cursed, but the paddle came down anyway. Oh Gods, the fire in my arse. And again ! I leaped up, unprevented, and turned on him, beating at his chest with my tied hands so it resounded like a drum and he fell back a step, two. The tie, never really much more than a gesture, came undone as I hit out blindly.
"Bastard, bastard, bastard," I was crying, while the tears of grief and rage streamed down my red face, and my nose ran snot, and I shook with the intensity of feeling so my voice came out all funny. And he, he was - he was taking the blows, and holding me, and patting my back, and saying:
"Yes, yes, let it all out, let out all that anger that's poisoning you, you don't have to turn it against yourself, you're OK, you're OK, there, there," and he was holding me then as I sobbed and sobbed on his shoulder, holding me tightly, holding me -
Yes that was the word. I was feeling safe. As if I had been swimming in deep water and suddenly felt solid ground under my feet. I hurt like fury - I certainly wouldn't be sitting down any time soon - and I was no doubt a complete sight with my arse purple and my face a mess from crying, but I didnít hurt in quite the same way inside. And I didn't feel like dying, not just at the moment. Something had changed, inside, suddenly, momentarily. Maybe it was the endorphins, or something.
I tilted my face up to look at him. His own anger had worked itself out, too.
"I'm sorry," he said.
"For spanking me ?"
"For spanking you while I was angry. I might have lost it. But you were so far gone, all that anger and despair inside."
"Heroic measures for an extreme case ?"
"Something like that."
He smiled down at me. Somehow it seemed quite natural to reach up and pull his head to mine. I kissed him, felt him respond with growing enthusiasm. My own response was obvious, naked as I was.
He lifted me up. He was right, he could carry me.
"Let me show you the bedroom," he whispered.
There was a time, afterwards, when we lay together in the darkness. Sated. My head on his breast, his arm curled around me, heavy and reassuring.
"Did David tell you that I had a spanking fantasy ?" I asked.
"Err," he sounded embarrassed, "well, it did slip out. After the two of you split up, we toured the bars one night and had a long drunken chat together. He was pretty cut up about it, you know. But he wouldn't say why it had happened - why you split up. Only that 'maybe I should have spanked him after all'. Of course, my - ah - ears pricked up at that."
"You like doing it."
"Yes. Always had a thing about it, from a kid. I used to spank the boy next door when we were both ten. I told David he was mad to let you go, that if you'd been mine I would have spanked you raw and then fucked you silly."
There was a long pause while we both thought about that, about the fact that that was exactly what he'd just done. Then he said, very tentatively:
"So why did you ? Split up I mean."
I couldn't answer for a while. Even now, that one hurt. But I felt the answer bubbling up in me as he waited patiently for my reply. It helped, being in the dark, not having to see his face.
"For a long time, we had stopped talking, really talking I mean. There were things we couldn't say to each other, things we both needed to hear. Eventually, when he was away, I - had a fling with someone. He found out."
"And he left you."
"No. No, not exactly. He would have forgiven me, taken me back, but . . . I couldn't bear his forgiveness. If he'd been angry, hot angry I mean, not coldly angry and upset the way he was first, then maybe . . ."
"If he'd given you a good spanking you mean ?"
"Perhaps. I don't know. I don't know. But I couldn't bear to play the forgiven sinner, always watched, always doubted. So I broke it up, told him it was over."
"My God, he was right about you."
He didn't reply immediately, and I dug him in the ribs.
"What did he say about me ?"
" 'Proud as Satan', was the phrase, I think. 'Can't bear to admit he's wrong'."
"I . . ." I paused. "I suppose I don't like to be wrong."
"Well you were. You have been. And if you go wrong again - just come to me. I'll sort you out."
My hand reached down in the dark and found him ready to do just that.
In the morning, the sunlight came through the windows and filled the room with light. I rolled onto my back and winced as my bum reminded me of what had preceded last night's fierce, fantastic lovemaking. I looked up at the ceiling, enjoying the sleepy warmth of his body beside me. I had missed that. I had missed a lot of things. Perhaps they were still there to be found, somewhere.
No-one journeys out of the dark in a single step. There would still be a lot of bad days and nights to travel through. I didn't know what would happen now, but I thought that I might not have to make the journey all on my own, after all, although that might mean that I made it with a certain amount of - well - discomfort. Still, just for now, this moment was enough.
Somewhere outside the window, a bird was singing.