Authorís note: This story is dedicated to that wonderful writer Ranger, whose 'Nick and Damien' stories made me wonder what it would be like to be living with perfection . . .
I reached out in pure reflex and stopped the alarm just as the first ring began, and it subsided with a half-strangulated 'ktangk'. I was already awake as it happens - I invariably wake up before it goes off. I lay there another minute or two, listening to the distant grumbling of the boiler in the warm, comfortable darkness. Steve stirred slightly beside me, muttered something in his sleep, and relapsed, down into a deeper blackness than a mere December morning could offer.
I slid carefully out of bed. Despite the central heating, the bedroom air raised goosepimples after the shared warmth of the duvet. I hurried to the bathroom, where the outsize radiator guarantees warmth even at 5:30 am in one of the coldest winters for years.
By 6 o'clock I was shaved and showered and ready to face the world, or at least breakfast. Today was going to be a busy day, so although I normally just grab a half bowl of muesli I decided on toast and proper coffee. I loaded the resultant debris into the dishwasher, and then laid out the stuff ready for Steve's breakfast when he came down. Eventually. My Dearly Beloved is not one of life's early risers, but then as a successful writer he doesn't have to be.
I, on the other hand, hit the office at 7:15 and had my in-tray demolished by the time my secretary came in at 8:30, because I knew I wouldn't have time afterwards. The whole morning was taken up with internal meetings and briefings with my team and the board, although I did manage to find the time to ring home and remind Steve that he needed to get milk and some green peppers in Sainsbury's, because I knew that otherwise he'd forget. The really important bit, however, and the reason the morning was so frantic, was the (carefully scheduled) post-lunch meeting in which, to everyone's relief, we managed to complete a deal with an important client that should see the company's finances finally become pretty healthy.
I admit I did have half an hour's break from routine at that point, to engage in half a glass of champagne and a mixture of congratulations and flattery with the rest of the team - well, like I say, it was an important contract. And I couldn't help feeling pretty good - the client had taken me aside and said, in as many words, that if I ever got fed up here and felt I needed a larger arena for my talents . . .
So when Darren's secretary had said that he wanted to see me I assumed that as CEO he wanted to congratulate me, maybe even offer me a bonus, or a promotion.
"Shut the door, Rich," he said. I did, smiling, then noticed that he wasn't smiling back. In fact, he looked kind of - well, grim-faced.
"What's the problem, Darren ?"
Then he laid something on his desk. "This," he said. "Someone stuck it up on the noticeboard in the gents."
It was a letter. Well no, not a letter, a mock-up of a newspaper page, with the logo of one of the best known tabloids splashed across the top, printed on a colour inkjet. I started to read it, felt the world sway like a cheap stage set, darken and narrow down to the sheet of paper in my hands. The words started to go in and out of focus, kind of blurred, and I realised that my hands holding the letter were shaking, uncontrollably.
'EXECUTIVE'S KINKY SEX GAMES' the paper said. 'Popular Mr. Perfect, Richard Ellison, seems the model of a dynamic young executive. But his success hides a secret twilight life of sado-masochistic sex games. Ellison uses canes, whips and belts to beat his sexual partners before indulging in sexual orgies. His gay lover, well-known fantasy author Steve Keyes . . .'
"For God's sake sit down," said Darren, worriedly.
"I . . ." My voice failed. My knees didn't, not quite.
"Is it true ? No, don't answer that, I don't care. Your private life is your own business. What I mean is, are there likely to be - can he - can it be, um, substantiated ?"
Oh thanks, Darren. Never mind anything else, is this going to appear in the tabloids and damage the company ?
"Why do you assume it's a he ?" I said dully.
"I just thought," he blushed, "it must be someone you, um . . ."
"Someone I'd gone to bed with ? Someone I'd played these sort of games with ?" I could feel my voice rising. It wasn't really Darren I was angry at, of course - well, only partly. But he was there, and convenient.
"For your information," I said, "I have had one partner since I was 23, and I have never been unfaithful to him. Never." I stared at him hard, knowing full well that he was on his third marriage and his fifth affair, and he had the grace to look abashed.
"Look, I didn't mean . . . Everyone knows how important Steve is to you, we can all see that the way you are together. You know I don't have any problem with that, at all. This is a completely preference-blind company. Completely. It's just this stuff in the letter, it's a bit . . . I'm sure it's all nonsense. Entirely unfounded." He was recovering now. It shook me a bit to realise how shaken he had been. Our unprejudiced, 'preference-blind' CEO had his own limits, it seemed.
Well, I suppose we all do. And maybe I was more shaken myself than I realised, to let it get me so angry.
Still . . .
"No," I snapped. There was a distinct smell of bridges, merrily ablaze.
"Sorry ?" he said, confused.
"No, it's not entirely unfounded."
"I - er - so you do - um ?"
"My partner and I do have a relationship that involves corporal punishment, yes," I said, as coolly as I could. Actually, I'm amazed that I managed that without even a tremor in the voice, because the rest of me was shaking with anger. I don't think I've ever felt that way, before or since, a cold, cold anger that made me feel a hundred feet tall. In that mood I could have razed cities and destroyed whole populations and not have felt the slightest remorse.
Darren seemed to shrink a little into himself.
"Oh, I see," he said faintly.
"I don't know who is responsible for this poisonous little stream of filth," I continued, "although I have one or two suspicions. I can, however, tell you that it bears no resemblance to what actually goes on between us, nor to the motivations and feelings that bind us together. And that is all I'm prepared to say on the matter."
"Oh, I see." Fainter still.
"Would you rather I resigned ?"
There was a pause, the faintest of hesitations, before he said:
"No, no, of course not."
I looked at him.
"Darren, you never were a very good liar." In fact, this was true - it was why, for one thing, we generally kept him out of high-level negotiations like today's, only wheeling him in when handshakes and champagne were called for.
"I don't want you to go," he said peevishly, because he knew I'd caught him out. "It's just that if this, this blackmailer goes public, if this really ended up in the red-tops, it would be very bad publicity. Look, take some holiday, a leave of absence. You probably need a break anyway. Then we can come to this with cooler heads."
"Yeah, right, sure," I said sarcastically. The last struts of those bridges, gone, blackened, into the stream and away.
I turned to go, then turned back and grabbed the poisonous thing off his desk, left his office, walked to my own (ignoring all the smiles and "well-dones" along the way), picked up my coat and a few personal things from my desk and headed for the door.
"Rich, where are you . . ." asked Denise, my secretary as I walked past her, but I couldn't speak, couldn't say anything just then, not even "goodbye".
In the car-park I just sat in the car for a while, quite a long while I think, maybe 15 minutes. I know that when I sat up at last there was a mark on my forehead from the centre of the steering wheel where I had been resting it. I looked at myself in the steering mirror, marked, like Cain.
From the top of the world to bottom of the heap in one afternoon. Quite a rollercoaster ride, that.
I started the ignition, pulled out and had to stop abruptly as someone jumped out in front of the car. Denise.
"Richard Ellison, what is going on ?"
My secretary is 5' 7", maybe 5' 8" in heels, funny, smart, black, completely outrageous, and totally gorgeous. If I was straight I would have asked her to marry me. Actually, I have, several times, but she says she'll only settle for polyandry. I had to look that up, the first time.
Right now she had her 'don't mess with me' look, the one you ignore at your peril.
"Denise, don't, please. I don't want - oh no !"
It looked like half the office was following her out into the car-park: Brad, Marise, and Sue from my own Development team, two or three people from Marketing, that slimy oik Gerry from Finance . . .
"Please, let me get out of here !"
"Not until you tell me why the person who just saved the company's butt seems to be suddenly out on his own !"
"Please," I said, very quietly. "I'll call you. Sometime. Just now - I can't talk. Really." I could feel the tears welling, unbidden, hot with anger and shame and other unnameable things, and I'm not sure which of us that shocked more.
She stood aside, bewildered and unhappy, reached in through the open window to touch my arm, gently.
"Go on then, darling," she said. "Get out of here."
I pulled away just as the rest of the mob approached, had to slow down to pass them. Gerry smirked. That helped, actually. It brought the anger back. I gunned the engine, brought the car a little closer to his feet than I should have, made him step back.
"Ooh, looks like someone's going to get a spanking, from the look on his face," he said to the guy next to him, loud enough for me to hear. Christ ! That hadn't taken long to get around the office. And trust that poisonous little shit to be the one spreading it. We'd never got on. I couldn't quite figure out why, unless it was just that he was one of those gay men who like to put other gay men down.
I was sorry I hadn't run over his feet after all.
By the time I was halfway home I had a headache like a band of red-hot metal around my cranium. And then there was Steve. What was I going to tell him ? I realised I was talking aloud as I drove, trying to get things straight in my head, but I couldn't seem to think clearly, and everything was going around and around in my mind without resolution. This could affect his career too, if it came out. I needed to stop, clear my head before I told him. Almost without realising it, I found I had turned off the main road into town and the direct route home, and along a narrow B-road, eastwards.
Eastwards. To the sea; or at least to the broad, meandering tidal estuary where I grew up.
A cap of blue cloud lay over the steely water and the broad, dun-green saltings and wiry, bleached-blond grass that hissed in the east wind. The low afternoon sun struck under the cloud, amber, submerging everything in that strange, subaqueous coastal light I remember from childhood. There were cows cropping noisily in the rough grazing on the landward side of the sea wall, and gulls wheeling out above the long, grey dinosaur backs of the mudflats where they rose above the low water. The Brent geese were out there, too, a scattering of salt and pepper far out in the middle of the estuary, their gentle babbling calls drifting on the wind.
I turned off the road onto a track, set about with dire warnings about privacy and no-through-road, all of which I ignored. Finally I came to a gate, which I had to get out and open (and then close after me, of course) and the track plunged straight out into the tidal water and became a causeway (or "corzy" as they say round here) scarcely distinguishable from the surrounding mud except for the line of poles that marked its borders.
I drove straight out onto the island. Actually, that makes it sound rather more dramatic than it is; the island is only about ten or fifteen feet from the shore and is only a couple of acres in extent. The centre was occupied by a large cottage, boarded and black tarred, with a couple of extensions added at various times, and a well-kept garden behind a hedge of stunted thorn and holly that defied the salt and the bitter easterlies that come all the way from Siberia.
I rang the bell.
Jack opened the door and smiled, a silver-haired teddy-bear, the deep creases around his eyes and mouth deepening still further.
"Rich, what a pleasant surprise. I'd give you a hug but my hands are all over flour. You caught me in the middle of baking."
I just looked at him, exhausted. I opened my mouth and nothing came out, and then the world was reeling again.
I have a vague recollection of being enfolded in a pair of surprisingly strong arms, and half-walked, half-carried into a warm, spice-smelling space where a fire was dancing in the grate and lute music was playing on the hi-fi - Dowland, I thought. I was plonked unceremoniously into the embrace of a large, battered, and well cushioned sofa.
"Lie there," said Jack firmly.
"I'm sorry," I managed. "I didn't know where else to go. What to do." I started to get up. A gentle hand pushed me back, leaving a white, floury imprint on my best Armani, and I didn't even react, which shows you how far gone I was.
"Tell me all about it," he said.
There's something incredibly restful about Jack. You could tell him the world was coming to an end and he would just take it in in that same calm, unjudgemental way, then say or do the one thing that was so obviously practical and appropriate and right that you would wonder how you hadn't thought of it yourself. I've known him since - oh, forever. He was a friend of my mother's, and the first person I came out to, partly because he was always open about being gay himself, but more because I knew I could rely on him not to freak out, whatever I said. And that's why he's one of the very, very few people, apart from Steve himself, that I would trust with the full details of our relationship.
So I told him, the whole thing. When I showed him the letter he frowned and said "Oh, my dear," very sadly, and touched my shoulder, which made my eyes fill again.
"Have you told Steve ?" he asked, when I'd finished.
"Not yet. What can I say ? If this gets out the tabloids will be after him too. It could affect his sales. Maybe his publishers will even drop him. And it's my fault."
"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realise you'd written this blackmail letter yourself."
I stared at him.
"Of course I didn't !"
"No, and neither did you force Steve into your current lifestyle. You both chose it freely. You share equal responsibility for it. I know you like to carry the world on your shoulders but this one is not yours to carry. Not alone."
"I suppose." I didn't really believe it, of course but it was nice to hear. I reached up to hug him but he fended me off, laughing.
"Your suit is floury enough as it is," he said. "Look, I am going to pour you a glass of wine, which you are going to take upstairs and have a long relaxing bath."
"That sounds like a good idea," I started to say, then suddenly thought. "Oh no, I'd better not. I really ought to get back to Steve before he starts to wonder where I am."
"Too late for that, my dear," he said quietly. "The tide covered the causeway a little while ago. I'm afraid your car, and therefore you, are stuck on the island for the night."
"Go and have that bath," he said. "I'll bring you the wine up. And I'll call Steve, tell him you came to visit and got stuck here."
"But . . ."
"Go !" He waved me away with a mock glare, and I gave in, meekly. That's not very like me as a rule, but it was just nice not to have to think for a while. And not to have to explain things to Steve, not just yet.
The bath was warm, and the wine when Jack brought it, in an enormous glass that was never intended to be filled as much as he had, was a rich, dark, ruby that glowed inside as much as it did in the glass. At some point I must have drowsed because I heard a sudden bang that sounded like the door and jerked awake. Had Jack gone out to the barn for something ? Then I heard, I was sure I heard, voices, and footsteps.
The bathroom door opened.
"Steve ! What are you doing here ?"
"Nice to see you, too," he said calmly. "Jack keeps a boat moored on the far side."
"I . . ."
"You, my boy, are in big trouble."
I got up, dripping warm water and suds.
"You don't know the half of it," I said.
"I don't mean about that nasty little blackmail attempt," he said, holding up a towel. I stepped out of the bath, let him wrap the towel around me, and his arms around that.
"Jack told you, I suppose. Did he say that Darren wants me out ? And if it gets out, what will your publisher . . ."
"Screw the publisher. Screw your job. Screw all of them." His voice was low, taut. I've almost never heard that tone from him before. I realised that he was really angry, not just irritated or upset.
"Steve, I'm . . ."
"Shut up. I am incredibly pissed off with you. You have really, really done it this time."
"The letter isn't my fault."
"Of course it isn't, you fool. That isn't what I'm angry about."
I did a double take.
"Then - what are we having this conversation about ?"
"Why didn't you call me the minute this happened ? Why did you leave the office in such a state that Denise phoned me convinced you were going to end up in cinders by the roadside ? Why did you leave it so long to get in touch and then leave it to poor Jack to phone me ? Is that how we do things in this relationship ? I don't think so."
"I . . ." I didn't know what to say.
He just waited. He's a lot more patient than I am.
"I couldn't cope. I brought all this on you and I can't think of any way to protect you." It all came out in one rush.
"And I was ashamed. When I read that letter . . ."
"Whatever was in that letter has nothing to do with us. People may laugh, they may point fingers, they may even feel disgusted. So what ? What do they know ? How do you feel about it ? What is it about ?"
"C-caring. Feeling safe."
"Yes." His arms tightened around me. "And that's the point they'll never understand. That it can make you feel looked after, safe." He squeezed me so hard I thought my ribs would crack. Because I'm taller and because Steve tends to wear loose baggy clothes (trackpants and a sweatshirt if he can get away with it) people are inclined not to realise what a big guy he is. He used to play rugby as a back at junior county level, and he still has the muscles to prove it.
I began to laugh, helplessly.
I couldn't speak for a moment, laughing. Nerves, really, as much as amusement.
"The letter - how could they have got it so wrong, thinking I spanked you ?"
He stared at me for a moment then began to laugh himself.
"I suppose it's understandable," he grinned. "I mean you're such a bossy, take-charge kind of character, someone could assume that you're the top. But that must mean that whatever slimeball wrote it doesn't really know you that well."
"Because they obviously never stopped to consider how irritating it is to live with - what was the phrase ? 'Mr. Perfect'."
"Oh go away."
"I'm serious. When the rest of us poor mortals finally struggle through and work out what to do, you have it done half an hour ago and have moved onto something else. You're always on time, except when you're early, you think rings around most people, you're creative, witty, and you look good. Do you have any idea how annoying that is ?"
"Well it obviously annoyed whoever wrote that thing." Abruptly, my mood plunged again.
"Oh Steve," I said, "what am I going to do ?"
"You," he said heavily, "are not going to do anything. We are going to do something, if anything needs doing. But first, I am going to remind you that there are two partners in this relationship, and if you ever, ever, shut me out like this again when you're in trouble then what is going to happen to you now will seem like a lovetap in comparison."
"Steve !" I said, shocked. "For God's sake, Jack is just downstairs."
"Yes," he agreed. "He gave me this and told me to go and have a long talk with my partner." This, it seemed, was a large wooden hairbrush. I gaped, horrified.
"More to old Jack than meets the eye, isn't there ?" said Steve. "Now come with me."
He took my arm firmly and led me out of the bathroom into the guest bedroom. The towel slipped to the floor along the way, and I tried to grab it, but he just grunted "Leave it - you won't be needing it."
Naked, still damp, he dragged me over those massive thighs. I didn't try to fight - not that I could have, he's a lot stronger than me. No, he was right, I did have this coming.
Jeezus F CHRIST ! I changed my mind. No-one had this coming. It was like a meteor strike on my backside. And he didn't stop to let the effect dissipate, either. No, SMACK, SMACK, SMACK, SMACK, the hairbrush tore into my backside like the wrath of God. I was yelling and struggling before the tenth blow, but I might just as well have tried yelling and struggling with a mountain. He held me down and carried on with that terrible, fiery, cascade of blows. It went on and on and on.
I don't very often cry during one of Steve's spankings - well, all right, red eyes and a sniffle or two - but I was bawling my eyes out before too long with this one, in between strangled pleas for mercy, yells, and promises that I'd never do anything again he didn't want, never, if he'd only OW !
Oh God, it hurt, it hurt so badly.
At last he stopped, and ran his big hands over my sore, sore, bottom. I was crying softly, easily now, like a child. Somehow, despite the pain, it felt better, as if some kind of festering poison had been washed away by the tears, like lancing a boil.
"Have I made my point ?" he asked softly.
"Good. Because I don't ever want to have to deal with you like that again, hon." He helped me up, enfolded me in those massive arms again and let me snuggle my head into the hollow of his neck, snuffling.
"Shh, shh," he said soothingly.
"I love you," I whispered fiercely. "I love you so much."
"I know," he said. "And I'll always admire you and be proud of you, as well as loving you. You don't need to be perfect for that, you don't have to try to protect me or solve all my problems as well as your own. You just need to be, to be here with me. And to be open with me. Keep the mask of invulnerable perfection for the outside world if you need to. Not me. Never for me. Never be afraid to show me all of yourself, always."
"Good. Now, I think Jack has dinner under way." He tapped my bottom lightly and I winced.
"Brute," I said ruefully. "I'll have to eat standing up."
"You'll sit like a civilised human being," he contradicted me firmly. He's death on not sitting down to dinner properly - a tray in front of the TV is a treat I have to reserve for when he's away.
"But Steve . . ."
"I'm sure Jack will have a cushion," he said.
It was two cushions, as it happened, already piled onto the seat of one of the chairs around the scarred old kitchen table. There was crusty, home-made bread, a crisp green salad, and a vast, steaming bowl of penne cooked with artichokes and bacon. The wine flowed freely and so did the talk and the laughter. Outside there was darkness, winter, wild water and cruel, spiteful people. But inside there was a warm place that none of those could touch.
My bum still hurt, despite the cushions.
But my heart didn't.