The day after the memorial service I was going through the wardrobes deciding what to send to the charity shop when I found it, in a plastic bag inside an old suitcase full of stuff I hadn't worn for years. A big, sloppy black jumper - too big for me, even now. It was too big for the person who used to wear it, too. I buried my face in it, feeling the scratchy warmth, remembering, trying to decide if it was only my imagination or did it really still smell faintly of his aftershave and perhaps, even more faintly, of him.
Grumpily I got up, opened my front door and went out into the hallway. My flat and the upstairs flat shared what used to be the hallway of the house, in the days before they had converted it into our two flats. My post had been tucked behind the pipe in the hall by the guy upstairs on his way out, and I picked it up before I opened the door.
"Sorry mate, I wanted John, but he isn't answering," said the guy on the doorstep. I'd seen him before, actually, going in and out of upstairs, one of the parade of young men that John seemed to attract without apparent effort. Like most of them this one was blonde, muscular, rather tough looking.
"Er, I think he's out," I said.
"That's all right, mate, I'll wait for him."
I didn't really want to let him into the hall, but I didn't feel that I could say anything after having opened the door. Besides, I was just a little bit intimidated. He was very - forceful, I suppose was the word. Not threatening, just as if he didn't expect to be disagreed with. So I shrugged ungraciously, turned away from him, and walked back down the hall to my own front door. Just as I was shutting the door, it stopped moving. He had put out a hand and held it from shutting. God, he was strong, it felt as if the door had hit a rock.
"'S all right," I said, and shut the door.
I hope he's not going to break in to John's place and turn it over, I thought, I'd practically be an accessory.
He really was quite strong. I'm lucky I didn't decide to have an argument with him on the doorstep.
He's actually rather tasty.
I was a bit rude, I thought . . .
"You can't wait out there for him - he might be away all day," I pointed out. He was sitting on the floor in the hall, his back resting against John's front door, his legs - nice, muscular legs inside his rather tight jeans, I couldn't help noticing - stretched out in front of him.
"Nah, he ain't at work," said the blonde. "He knows I'm coming round, it's all right - there won't be no trouble or nothing."
Hmm, that was me sized up pretty quickly.
"Look, do you want to wait in here ?" I heard myself say. "At least you can sit down properly and have a cup of tea."
The smile that lit up his face was worth waiting for - I can only describe it as roguish. As if we were in on some great joke on the rest of the world that only we knew.
"Thanks mate, I appreciate that. Danny."
"Oh. Chris. Christian."
"I'm Church of England meself."
"No, I mean my name's - oh."
He chuckled. "I thought you'd say you'd never heard that one before." He walked in, surveyed the living room like a conquering prince and flopped on the settee.
"Oh, smashing," he said. "That floor's a bit hard on the bum. And cold." He grinned again. "And a cold bum's not a thing you want, is it." There was just a bit too much emphasis on the 'you' for my liking, and the way he said it wasn't like a question.
"I'll go and make the tea," I said, blushing, and fled the room.
Then of course I worried that he might be pocketing stuff while I was in the kitchen making the tea. Still, on the whole it seemed the lesser of two evils.
By the time I'd made the tea I had myself under control again.
"Ooh, that's a bit forward when we've only just got acquainted, innit, honey."
"Very funny. Do you take sugar ?" At least that time I knew I was being teased.
"Two spoons please. Don't take no notice of me, I'm just a clown."
I smiled politely.
He leaned back. He really had a nice body, and apparently no inhibitions about showing it off. The red T-shirt and faded jeans both clung as if sprayed on. My eyes kept straying to the rather impressive bulge of whitened denim between those widely spread thighs and then skittering off like a pond skater.
"Nice," he said. I wasn't sure if he meant the room or the tea.
"Thanks," I said. "Have you and John - er, have you known John long ?"
"Oh, we aren't together," he said. "I mean, we've fucked but he's not like my boyfriend or anything."
"Oh," I said, completely taken aback. That was a little more open than I was ready for.
"What about you, Chris, you got a boyfriend ?"
I choked on a mouthful of tea. "I don't, I'm not, that is . . ."
"Oh, leave it out. I know what a Gay Times envelope looks like, and I've seen it in your post."
"I am gay," I said. "I'm not trying to pretend I'm not." Yeah, right. "Anyway, what are you doing going through my post ?"
That roguish grin again. "Not going through it. Just putting it up behind the pipe, nice and tidy, like a good neighbour should. And I recognised something else, too. I think you might be a bit of a bad boy on the quiet."
"I - " My voice rose to a squeak. "I don't know what you mean."
He laughed. "I can recognise an envelope with the return address for 'Spanking Contacts' on it too."
I felt my face crimson.
"'S'orright," he said, shaking his head in amusement. "I enjoy a bit of that myself. How else would I know the address ? It's nothing to be ashamed of."
I couldn't look at him. A hand grabbed my wrist, pulled me irrestibly around to face him.
"Look at me. Chris, look at me." He put a finger under my chin, tilted it up.
"Look, I'm sorry, I didn't know you were so sensitive about it. Told you, I'm a clown, ignore me."
"I just - I get embarrassed." I said. "I don't find it easy to talk about."
"How do you get guys to smack your bum, then ?"
"What makes you think I get spankings, not give them ?" I was annoyed by the assumption.
He just looked at me.
"I er - I write it all out in the letter beforehand, so they know what I like."
"What do you like ?"
"This is getting a bit personal," I said, about 10 minutes too late.
"Yeah, well I've been watching the way your eyes are stuck to my packet like flies to shit, so I reckon you wouldn't mind getting a bit more personal." He flexed his hips, thrusting obscenely. "I know I wouldn't."
I had the strongest feeling of things getting out of control.
"So what do you like ?" he asked again, this time with mock sternness.
"I don't think we should be getting into this," I said, worried. "I mean, John will be back soon . . ."
"Relax. I told you, I'm not his property or anything. Now, I won't ask you a third time. Maybe I should just pop you over my knee and beat it out of you."
"I like spanking, just spanking," I said hastily.
"Bare bum ?"
"Y-yes. Eventually." I was scared and excited in equal measure. I guess in every control freak there lurks, somewhere, the small, secret wish to watch everything slide out of control towards apocalypse.
"Hmm. Do you know what I'd like ?" He got up and came towards me. I shrank back, then relaxed a little as he knelt in front of me. He put his arms around me, pulled me into an embrace. He licked my ear and I squirmed. This was all going much too fast for me, but part of me didn't want it to stop - never wanted it to stop.
"I'd like to pull your pants down and spank your cute little bum till it's bright red," he growled breathily in my ear, answering his own question. "And then I'd like to shag you silly." His hand worked its way under my T-shirt, tweaked a nipple - hey ! - then unbuttoned my trousers.
"No, I can't, this is . . ."
"Do you really want me to stop ?" he asked, as his hand found its way into the front of my briefs and did terrible, intimate, wonderful things.
From somewhere, somehow, the truth came.
"No," I sighed.
"I was right then - you are a bad boy. And we know what happens to bad boys, don't we ?" Abruptly he stood, pulling me up with him, our bodies pressed together. His mouth fastened on mine and devoured me.
Quite suddenly my pants and trousers were down in a heap around my ankles and he was pulling me over his lap. His hand came down, hard.
He just laughed and smacked me again, on the other cheek, equally hard. He began a methodical, unhurried spanking that soon had my bum hot and stinging. Then it got harder - to my surprise, because I hadn't realised he was holding back. I writhed, my bottom on fire under his hard palms. And it was wonderful ! It hurt, yes, but I was so turned on that the pain was good, good. I felt completely helpless and yet I was flying, free as a bird. I know that doesn't make sense, really, but it was exactly how I felt. He was totally in control, and that freed me to do nothing but feel. Nothing but be.
"How about that, bad boy ?" he asked from somewhere far away, pausing to knead my scorched flesh.
Too far gone to care about anything anymore I heard myself cry "Oh please, Danny, fuck me."
"You bet I will," he growled.
Afterwards we lay side by side on my bed, my head on his chest. A bar of light sneaked in the side of the curtain and picked out the little hairs on his arm like fine gold wire. The sex had been - explosive. I felt drained, and sore, but good.
"First time I saw you, you know, I said to myself - 'I'm gonna have him'," he said, running a now gentle hand over my hair.
"I - what ? You mean . . . ? Was this all a set up ?"
"Nah, not exactly. But I saw my chance."
"What would you have done if I hadn't weakened and asked you in for a cup of tea ?"
"Knocked and asked for one, of course. Your type is much too polite to say no, even when you really don't want to."
"What do you mean, 'my type' ?" I said indignantly, and thumped him lightly on the chest. He caught hold of my fist and pulled it up to his mouth, kissed it.
"Nice middle-class boys dying for a horny bit of rough like me," he said.
"Fuck you !"
"Oh no," he growled, turning like an eel and pinning me underneath him. "Fuck you." And after a while, with a lot of giggling, that was what it came to again.
"Wotcher Chris, how about a little drive ?"
He motioned towards the dark blue BMW cabriolet in the road, its passenger door open, its engine running.
"Come on !" He grabbed my hand, pulled me after him towards the car.
"Wait, this is . . ."
"Come on, it'll be a laugh." He shut the door behind me and vaulted into the driver's side.
"Danny, are you drunk ?"
"Not yet, mate." And he pulled away with a squeal of tires, up to the junction with the main road, and away.
He passed me the bottle. "Have a drink."
"No, thanks. Anyway, I don't like it on its own. Christ, watch that Vauxhall on the inside lane . . . !"
"Relax, I've got it. God, you aren't half a worrier. Take a slug of that vodka, it'll relax you."
"I told you . . ."
"Take it !" He seemed in such a strange mood that I thought it was better to go along with him. The spirit burned all the way down, the way his hands had burned on me.
"Look in the glove compartment if you'd rather have something else," he said.
I began to obey, but another thought struck me.
"Danny, is this your car ?"
He just laughed. "Did ya look in that glove compartment ?" he said.
I opened it. It held an A to Z, a dirty chamois leather, and a small plastic bag with a lump of something brown and resinous.
"Fuck, that's hash," I exclaimed. "Are you mental ? If the police stop us in a nicked car, and find the driver liquored up and hash in the glove compartment they'll throw away the key."
"Better hope they don't then," he said, cool as a breeze. "Look, there's one of the filth over there. Shall we give him a wave ?"
"Christ !" I sank down into the seat as Danny swerved into the inside lane and blew a kiss at a uniformed officer walking along the pavement. Luckily, the man just gave us a hard stare.
"Stop this car and let me out," I demanded. "Now, Danny, I mean it."
He put his foot down.
Shit, I was being kidnapped by a madman. I did the only thing I could and took another hefty swig of the vodka. The first slug was beginning to kick in now, a pleasant warmth in my stomach and in my head. The wind tossed my hair and Danny slipped his hand off the gearstick to squeeze my thigh, hard.
I started to laugh, nerves really, I suppose.
By the time we'd gone another twenty minutes we were both singing.
We eventually stopped at a layby in Epping Forest. The last vestiges of light gilded the grass, and outlined the trees against a sky of saffron, terracotta, eau-de-nil.
"That blew the cobwebs away," he said, grabbing the bottle out of my hand.
"You're fucking mad, you know that, don't you ?" I said, shaking my head.
"That's the second time you've got lippy with me this evening, my lad," he said. "I think you need your manners mending."
"What ? Oh, no way. Danny, this is public, anyone could come by."
His eyes gleamed.
"Yyyesss," he agreed slowly. "They could. Quite a show, that'd be."
I started to get out of the car, but he vaulted out of the driver's side and chased me, laughing, several times around the car until he caught me and bent me unceremoniously over the bonnet.
"Don't move," he warned me. "Otherwise you'll really be for it." There was the clink and slither of a belt being unbuckled.
I stood up abruptly. "Wait a minute, I don't do belts . . ."
"You do what I say. And I said 'don't move'. Now I'm going to have to take your jeans down boy." His hands went to my waist, unfastened the jeans and jerked them down.
I was standing on a public road by owl-light in my underwear while my boyfriend - was he my boyfriend ? That idea had sneaked in under my radar and caught me by surprise - while my boyfriend prepared to take a belt to my arse.
He bent me back over the car.
Damn ! It hurt. It wasn't like a spanking - quite a different sensation, especially when the tip curled round and caught me at the side. And he laid it on hard and fast, until I was wriggling and jumping under the blows, and asking him to stop, begging him to stop.
A car went past, slowed, hooted its horn twice in a derisory fashion, and then sped on.
"Fuck !" One end was as crimson with embarrassment as the other no doubt was from the punishment.
Danny chuckled in the half light. "Learnt your lesson ?"
"Yes," I said in a very small voice. Then because I wanted to be absolutely sure, not because I was being cheeky, I added: "Er, what lesson ?"
He smacked my left cheek hard. "Ow !"
"The lesson," he said grimly, "is don't argue with me, and don't give me lip."
"Glad you've got it. Hop in, we'll ditch the car somewhere then go and get a Chinky and some beer and go back to your place for some fun."
He drove a lot slower going back. I sat a lot more uneasily.
"I - I'd love to," I said, surprised. He was never very forthcoming about his family. I knew that he lived with his mum and two older brothers, and that his dad 'wasn't around' as he put it. I had the idea that they lived on one of the big council estates. "Am I going to be vetted by the in-laws then, to see if I'm good enough ?"
"Nah, nothing like that. Just, I have to take something round to her, and she was asking about you."
Another surprise. I had no idea Danny's mum even knew I existed.
"Does she, er . . . ?"
"Know that I fuck you ? Well, I haven't shown her the polaroids, but she knows I like boys, so I guess she knows what the score is."
"You're out to your mum ?" I couldn't imagine telling my own mother, let alone my father with his rigid Army bigotries about 'queers'.
"Since I was fifteen. She asked me what was wrong, so I told her."
"What did she say ?"
"She said: 'Thank God, I thought it was drugs'," he said, and we both laughed.
We showered (not together, because we'd learned from experience where that would end up) and got dressed, and then we got the bus down to the SilverLeas Estate. A gang of thin, hard-faced teenagers were standing by the entrance to the stairwell of the block Danny made for, but they faded out of our way when they saw him.
"How many floors ?" I asked as we tramped up the graffiti-ridden stairs.
"Only four," he said. "Lift's usually out and it stinks anyway. Come on, I'll race ya."
Puffing, I caught up with him just as he was opening the door of one of the flats.
"Hi Mum !"
"Oh hi, love," she said.
It's funny how you get a picture of someone in your head. I had some greying East End matriarch in mind, a big tough woman like the one who sold vegetables in the local market and took no nonsense from anyone. Instead there was this tiny, exotic bird of a woman, with a hawk nose, curls of dark hair piled up on her head, and the brightest, shrewdest pair of black eyes I'd ever seen smiling at me from a nest of wrinkles. Big silver hoop earrings glittered in the light when she moved her head. Danny towered over her as they embraced.
"And you must be the famous Chris he never leaves off talking about," she said. "Come in, come in, make yourself at home." She ushered us into a small kitchen and sat us down at a table with a yellow melamine top.
"Cup of tea ?"
"Yes please, Mrs Prescott."
She laughed. Her laugh was like Danny's.
"Call me Connie, love," she said. "Everyone does. When people call me 'Mrs Prescott' I look over my shoulder for my mother-in-law."
The tea was hot and strong. I sipped it and ate some of the biscuits that I reluctantly accepted. ("You'd better have some," said Danny, "otherwise she'll be forcing a fry-up down your throat.") I kept quiet except when I was asked a direct question and watched the two of them together. I could see some of Danny's force of personality in her, but more - nurturing, I suppose. Gentler, if equally hard to resist.
The door banged. A big guy, in his late twenties. The facial resemblance to Danny was clear, though his hair was brown, so I guessed this must be one of the brothers.
"Finally bothered to show up, have you ?" said the newcomer.
"Piss off, Mick," said Danny.
"Language, Daniel Prescott," said his mother sharply. "And you, Michael, mind your manners. We have company."
Michael gave me a cool look, nodded, then went to the cupboard for a cup. "Any tea left in the pot, Mum ?"
"If you freshen it," she said. "Here, sit, I'll do it." She got up from the table.
Danny grabbed her wrist, gently.
"Let him do it himself, Mum. Even Mick can make himself a cup of tea."
She wagged her finger at him, and got up anyway. Mick sat and stared at me in a rather disconcerting fashion. A mug of tea, strong and orange, was placed in front of him with a triumphant smile by Connie Prescott.
"What about yours ?" asked Danny.
"I'll take it through to the living room," she said. "You boys finish yours up."
Mick watched her leave the room before turning to me.
"So you're my brother's bum boy, I take it," he said in a low voice. "Tell me, do you really enjoy it when he's up your arse ?"
I flushed. Danny blazed. He said nothing, just got up. Mick did likewise, and for a moment the air between them seemed to crackle. But it was the bigger, older man who backed down, turning away with a sneer, picking up his tea, and stalking out.
"Fuck," said Danny, bitterly. "Fuck." He sounded as if he was near to tears.
I reached out a tentative hand, half expecting him to angrily fling it away. As usual he surprised me, grabbing it and holding it to his cheek like something precious.
"I'm so sorry," he said. That was one of only two times I ever heard him apologise.
"It's not your fault he has trouble with gay people," I pointed out.
"He doesn't. He has trouble with me."
"With you being gay ?"
"With everything I do. He's just like my old man. Well, I stopped taking any nonsense from him, from all of them. They just know to leave me alone, or else . . ."
"Has Mick gone then ?" said Connie, breezing in.
"Gone to his room," said Danny.
"What must you think of us, Chris," said Connie, "all going off like this and leaving you. And you with such lovely manners as well."
"We have to go, too, mum," said Danny. "I only wanted to bring that magazine round for you."
"Well, if you must. You won't be home tonight then ?"
She sighed, then smiled and hugged him. "Well, take care of yourself then."
She turned to me, and hugged me too. I put my arms around her too, a little late, a little uncertain. I can't remember my own mother hugging me since I was small.
"Come again soon, Chris. You're always welcome here."
"Thank you," I said.
"I mean it. He's - well, I've never seen him like this over anyone. I think you might be good for him."
She laughed. "Go on then, I'm sure you have more exciting things to do this evening than talk to an old woman."
The door closed.
"Well," I said, "I love your mother."
He pulled me to him, kissed me hard (scandalising an old boy who was just putting out his milk bottles) and said something I'd never heard in anyone's mouth before.
"And I love you. I love you."
And I smiled and hugged him, and said nothing. Because I wasn't sure what that word meant. Not sure at all.
"Did you lose your key again ?" I asked exasperated. Then I saw that he had a suitcase with him. And he was crying.
"Danny, what's the matter ?"
He shook his head, and swallowed hard and said "Can I stay here ?"
I looked at him bewildered. "Of course you can."
"No, I mean can I move in ? Live here."
There was the tiniest pause while I digested this.
"I - yes. Yes, of course you can. But what's happened ?"
"My old man's out."
"Of the nick."
"Yeah. I've told Mum he's no good for her, but she always believes him when he says it'll be different this time."
"So you don't want to be around."
"Look mate, if I stay him and me'll end up killing each other. And it tears mum apart, see."
Actually, I did see, all too clearly. I'd had a taste of it with his brother. What was it Danny had said: he takes after my old man ?
He had a bag of things with him, although half his clothes and his shaving stuff and everything were already in the flat anyway. I went and cleared part of one of the wardrobes, and hung up his shirts and the leather jacket he loved.
"So this is it then," I said. "Happy families."
"I'm really grateful," he started to say, but I laid a finger on his lips.
"We're together," I said. "We come as a pair. We share stuff, even the bad stuff. This is your home. You don't get grateful because someone lets you into your own home."
He held me so tight that I could hardly breathe. "I love you," he said again. "I really love you."
I patted him on the back. I knew he wanted me to say it back, knew that that was what he needed now.
"I love you too," I whispered. I wasn't sure, even now, if it was true. But oh, how I wanted it to be.
It was funny, the way that he would introduce some new piece of sexual adventurousness into the conversation, and I would think: ewwww. But after a little while the idea would become fascinating, then exciting. I would end up wanting to do these things, not because they were good in themselves, but because it was Danny. I mean, when we met I was even a bit squeamish about oral sex. Within six months I was licking the sweat from his crotch and rimming him and actually enjoying it. In the same way my spankings - oh, yes, there were plenty of those, believe me - graduated from hand, slipper and belt to including wooden paddles and the cane.
I met John in the hallway one day as I was picking up my post.
"I gather Danny has moved in," he said. This was a tricky subject. Despite what Danny said, I think John had been a bit put out when he transferred his affections to me.
"Err, yes. I'm sorry, have we been making too much noise . . . ?" I know I was yelling the house down when he gave me a dozen with the cane the other night.
"No, no, it's fine."
There was an awkward silence, and deciding that he had finished I turned away to go in.
"Look, just be careful, all right ?" John burst out, suddenly.
I turned back. "What do you mean ?"
"He's - Danny's a lovely guy, but he's not all that stable, if you know what I mean ? It's not that surprising given his background, but . . ."
"I don't know what you mean, and I don't think it's any of your business !" I interrupted as coldly as I could.
"I don't want you to get hurt. Either of you."
"We'll be the judges of what we should or shouldn't do, thank you very much." Glaring at him, I shut the door on him. How dare he !
"Who was that ?" called Danny from the bathroom where he was shaving, obviously having heard voices but not, thank God, the full conversation.
"Just" - your ex-boyfriend calling you a nutcase - "John saying hi."
"We ought to ask him to one of your dinners some evening."
"Never ask an ex-boyfriend to a dinner party," I said firmly.
"Is that one of those rules of etiquette ?"
"No, it's a rule of me."
He emerged from the bathroom bare-chested and gorgeous and smelling deliciously of watermelon soap. He grabbed me and nibbled my ear. "Remind me to point out to you this evening that it's me that makes the rules round here," he said.
"I mean it, Danny."
"So do I. Must be too long since you were last paddled."
Ee-ouch. That was me sleeping on my stomach tonight. And he never forgot, either. Probably spent all day fantasising about what he was going to do to me, the brute.
Sure enough, when I got home that evening, two wooden paddles and a short leather tawse were sitting there on the living room coffee table.
"Oh, Danneeeeee . . ."
"Shower and change," he said sternly. "Then come here. And don't keep me waiting too long."
Despite this admonishment I wasn't particularly motivated to hurry to my doom, so I was just rinsing the last of the shampoo out of my hair when a hand appeared and yanked me out of the shower cubicle.
"Your time is up," said Danny grimly.
"But I'm all wet," I protested as he dragged me, leaving a trail of damp footprints, into the living room.
"Then this is really going to hurt, isn't it," he said.
That was no lie. He bent me over his lap and began spanking me. I realised my mistake immediately. It stings a lot worse when your bum is wet, I mean a lot. It obviously stung his hand too, though, because he very shortly changed to the tawse. I was squawking and wriggling and his left arm clamped down like a steel band around my torso to hold me still as those nasty little tails sneaked round and bit.
A pause. My bum felt as if someone had poured hot chip fat all over it. He ran his fingertips, his nails, very lightly over the scalding skin. Then he blew on it, which made me shiver, although it felt delightfully cooling and not a little erotic.
I felt him reach forward for something. Oh no, not . . .
BAMM. The wooden paddle came down like a meteor strike, and I went into orbit. A dozen, a dozen hard strikes from that thing, and I was crying, really crying. I could feel the blisters raising on my bum.
He reached down, grabbed my left ankle, and pulled me around. I scarcely knew what was happening as he manhandled me round, pushing my torso down between his parted thighs, my own legs forced wide on either side of him. I was upside down, helpless, my arse spread and exposed, nothing hidden. It was a position that practically said: "take me", that said: "spanking is sex; sex is spanking".
He brought his hand down again, on my welted flesh. And again. And again. Then he began tawsing me again, using it the way it was supposed to be used, from over the shoulder and straight down. The wicked little thing bit like a viper. Snap. Snap. Snap. Snap. Snap. Snap. Snap-fuck ! The tails curled in between my cheeks and caught a very sensitive spot. A second strike to the same area proved that the first had not been an accident.
"Who makes the rules ?"
"You do, Danny." But there was something I had to say, even though my butt cheeks clenched in anticipation as I said it. "But not about inviting ex-boyfriends." Not about a lot of other things too, but red-eyed and red-arsed as I was, I wasn't about to risk saying that.
"He wasn't my boyfriend." Snap. Snap. Oww.
"Can we just agree that we won't invite him ? Please ?" I begged, from my contemplation of the carpet.
"All right. All right," he agreed with a sigh. "I know when to give in." He smacked me on the bottom twice more, for form's sake, and hauled me up into his arms. My bum throbbed from that horrid paddle, and when I touched it it was so swollen it felt hard and shiny.
"No, not really."
And I wasn't. Actually, I realised, I was angry. The punishment hadn't been fun, it felt - unfair. If he'd known why I didn't want to invite John, I'd never have got whacked. But if I'd told him what our upstairs neighbour had said, there would have been a nasty scene, with Danny hammering on John's door and threatening violence, all of which would only have confirmed John in his prejudices. I'd saved Danny from all that, and what had the bastard done ? Paddled me, when he knew I hated that wooden paddle. Of course he didn't know all this, because I hadn't, couldn't tell him. Still, I resented it.
Looking back I wonder if that was when the serpent entered Eden.
He waited outside till his Dad came back from wherever it was he'd gone and the two of them had a fight which ended with the older man with a broken jaw.
"Oh my God, so what happened ?" I asked, as I dabbed TCP on his scrapes.
He turned a face swollen in equal measure by tears and bruises.
"She told me to get out. To get out and not to come back until I was ready to apologise for hitting my own Dad." He grabbed my hand. "How could she do that ? How could she stand up for him against me, after everything he's done to her ?" His voice was plaintive, confused - a little boy lost.
"Danny - people don't think straight when they love someone. It must be hard for her, too, stuck in the middle between two people she loves." I put my hand on his.
"I'll never apologise to that bastard, never," he said. He got up abruptly, threw my hand off, and stalked out of the bathroom, leaving me to stare after him, wishing I knew some magic words that would make it better, lance his pain. But I didn't. All I had to offer was the silent language of touch, my touch that he had just rejected. After a moment the front door slammed.
I waited and waited but he didn't come back until about half-one in the morning. I heard his key in the lock, and then after a long pause the door click shut. I was lying in bed, in the dark, unable to sleep. I waited for the familiar warmth of his body to slip in beside me, but it never came. I must have drifted off, because the next thing I knew was the grey dawnlight creeping under the bedroom curtains.
I got up and went into the front room. Danny was sprawled, face down, half on and half off the sofa. He smelled of stale beer and cigarette smoke, and the bruises on his face were growing livid.
"Oh Danny," I whispered. He smiled - or maybe grimaced - in his sleep, a faint echo of that roguish gleam that had so entranced me the first day.
I shook his shoulder, gently. He stirred, mumbled, and curled back into the sofa away from the light. I shook him again.
"G'way mum, it ain't time for school," he muttered.
"Whaaaat - oh shit my head feels like crap."
I held out a glass of Alka Seltzer. He half rose on one elbow, took it in a hand that shook a little, and swallowed it, pulling a face at the taste.
"I have to go to the bog," he said, giving me the glass back.
"Be my guest. Then I suggest you take those clothes off and go to bed. I'll ring the garage and tell them you're sick."
He stumbled off towards the bathroom. He was in there a long time, and eventually I had to knock on the door and ask him to come out so I could get ready for work.
When I left, he was lying on the sofa, nursing his head, with an expression that clearly said he didn't want to talk. I kissed him on the top of the head and went out.
When I came back, he was in exactly the same position. The only indication that he had moved was a scattering of dirty plates, empty crisp packets, and cups on the floor around him. He had a bottle of vodka in his hand - that was half empty too, but he was obviously working on correcting that.
"Don't you think you had enough last night ?" I asked as neutrally as I could manage.
I suppose I should have been more tactful, but I was tired and the place looked like a pigsty.
I expect they heard the shouting down the street. We both said some things we shouldn't have, I guess, but it was me that ended up on the floor, with my hands to my cheek where he had just punched me and knocked me down.
For a moment he stared at me, horror and, yes, despair etching his face down to the skull beneath, and I had a glimpse of how he would look as a very old man.
Then he turned and ran, ran like a man pursued by demons, out of the house.
Much later, the phone rang. I was sitting alone in the dark.
"Chris . . ."
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." It was the only other time I heard him say that.
"I know. Come home."
"Do you want me to ?"
"I said it, didn't I ? Come home. We'll talk."
But we didn't. When he came in, he just put his arms around me, very gently, as if I was something fragile and infinitely precious, and I held him while he sobbed. I wept too. We were mourning, I suppose, mourning the loss of something that we had had all unknowing and maybe didn't have any more.
That seemed to break something in him. After that even quite trivial incidents could lead to him using his fists.
He took to staying out at nights. I deliberately refused to ask him where he went. To be honest I felt a sort of relief when he wasn't there. When he was at home he was often morose, and he was drinking far too much. Sometimes the atmosphere was so tense I wanted to go into the bedroom and scream into the pillow. I'd stopped arguing though - it was too risky. I'd had a couple of black eyes that were difficult to explain away at work.
One day I found myself standing in the hallway outside the front door, wondering if he was at home. Wondering if I wanted to go in. Unable to bring myself to put the key in the lock. I must have stood there quite a while by the time John came down to take out some rubbish and found me, took one look at me, and marched me upstairs.
There were three other guys up there, all, like John, in their thirties or early forties.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to intrude . . ."
"You didn't - I brought you in, remember. Now sit and get this down you." This was a large glass of wine - good wine, too.
"Gerry, Mike, Alan - this is Chris, my downstairs neighbour."
We smiled and exchanged ritual courtesies. I admit it felt good to be in a home where those things mattered.
"Chris, join us for dinner."
"Well I . . ."
"Danny's out, if that's what you're worrying about," said John shrewdly. "I saw him go about half an hour ago." I gathered that my upstairs neighbour had a fairly clear idea of what was going on. I'm not surprised, really, those floors aren't any too well insulated for sound.
"I suppose . . ."
"Good, that's settled then." And so it seemed to be, and much to my surprise, once I got over my lingering feeling of gatecrashing someone else's party, I had a great evening. It was a long time since I had enjoyed such civilised pleasures. Gerry, in particular, the banker, was charming and cultured and we got on like a house on fire.
I lingered over a brandy when the others had gone.
"Thank you," I said. "For this evening. You'd be entitled to say 'I told you so'."
He smiled. "Love is blind. It was silly of me to forget that. But if you need a listening ear, I'm available."
"Things aren't working out too well between us at the moment. He needs - something, I don't know what, but something I can't give him."
"He needs time, and a hard think. About who he is and what he wants to be. And you need to do the same."
"It takes two to end a relationship, as well as to make one. What do you want, Chris ? Is the excitement of living with Danny worth all the miserable nights and the fights and the bruises - oh yes, I saw you with that shiner the other day, and I saw the way you were walking last week."
"What do you mean ?"
"Like a man with bruised ribs. You'll end up in hospital if things go on this way."
"He didn't mean to."
"No. But he did. Danny has a lot of anger and hurt to get rid of, and you're a convenient target. So you have to decide - are you going to go on soaking it up ?"
I couldn't answer. I hadn't put the question to myself so baldly.
When you live with someone violent you shrink into yourself, you try to become small, so that you won't provoke them. If I carried on doing that would there be room in what was left for me, the real me ? Can a man vanish inside his own skin ?
Was that what I wanted after all ?
"I know," I whispered to the empty air. "I loved you too." Then I crumpled it up, and threw it away.
Six months after that I moved in with Gerry, the banker.
We had a good life. He was everything that Danny wasn't: comfortably off, cultured, gentle. We had a roomy Edwardian house in a leafy suburb, full of light and space and beautiful things. We had a big garden which quickly became a cherished passion, a wide circle of friends with whom we shared dinners, nights out, picnics at Kenwood or occasionally Glyndebourne. We travelled widely, laughed often, made love sometimes. The sex was pleasant, and passionless, and undemanding. The wildness and hidden darknesses in Danny that spoke to the same deep-buried qualities in me were wholly lacking in Gerry - what you saw was what you got. And what you got was a good man. A safe man.
He never once raised so much as his voice to me.
We were together for 17 years, and then, one bright December morning, he smiled at me, lay back in bed, sighed, and died.
Just as he had done with his life, Gerry had made careful plans for his death. As it happened, that was just as well because I was so shocked at his sudden death - an unsuspected aneurysm the doctors said - that I was on automatic pilot, so just following the meticulous instructions laid out in his will made life a lot easier. He was cremated just before Christmas. His sister (with whom, thank God, I had always got on really well) and I were the chief mourners together with about a dozen other relatives and close friends. The following March, when the world had settled down into a curiously flat and colourless normality, we held the service of thanksgiving for Gerry's life.
There were maybe 150 people there, work colleagues, friends, people from the local operatic society and the charity groups he did a lot of work for. I hadn't realised before quite how many people's lives he had touched. As he had touched mine.
Afterwards, outside the church, a handsome blonde man with a young and rather unsuitably dressed young woman on his arm came up to me.
"Hallo, Chris," he said.
For a moment nothing registered and I gave him the bland smile I give to strangers, and then something about him, about the way he carried himself, resonated deep within me.
"Been a long time, hasn't it ?" he said. "You look well."
That must have been an exaggeration. When I looked in the mirror these days I saw hints of my own mortality. I didn't look in mirrors much.
He, on the other hand, had matured into a very hot guy indeed. Maturity suited him.
"I - yes, it has been a long time. My God, Danny, I can hardly believe it."
"I heard about your partner. I just wanted to - well, see that you were all right, I suppose. I won't bother you any more."
"No, no, don't be silly. We're going back to the house for some food, those that want to come. You'd be very welcome, you and . . . ?" I indicated the girl.
"Oh, this is Debs." He squeezed her arm affectionately. She couldn't have been more than 18, and looked, to be honest, bored. Well, I suppose I would have been at a stranger's funeral service when I was 18, too. "No, she's got to scoot along, haven't you darling, and I've got to see her back."
"Yeah, sorry. Nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you, too, Debs."
"Just go back to the car, love," he said. "I'll catch up with you in a moment."
We watched her go. I admit a rather gossipy friend of Gerry's had told me years and years ago that Danny had gone straight, but I was a bit disappointed in his taste.
"Errm - she's very young, isn't she ?" I said.
He laughed. The laugh was the same as ever. "Young enough to be my daughter, you mean," he said.
"She is my daughter," he said, softly. "Sixteen and a half years old, and bright as a button. She came with me because - well, I was a bit nervous to tell you the truth."
I wasn't sure which of these revelations hit me hardest.
"Your daughter ?"
"Yeah. I had a - after we split up, I went out with her mum for a while. She got pregnant but she didn't want anything to do with me after someone told her about you and me."
"Not your fault. It wouldn't have lasted anyway. I wasn't cut out for being straight."
"So - are you, er, with anyone now ?"
"No." To my surprise, my heart gave a little leap. Who would have thought it, after all these years.
We were interrupted by two of Gerry's distant relatives who couldn't come to the house and wanted to say goodbye.
By the time I got away from them, Danny had faded away. I felt - well, I wasn't sure what I felt but I was sorry he had gone. I had so many more questions I wanted to ask.
The following day, I went on trying to get on with the rest of my life. I had been doing rather well, I thought, but in the aftermath of the memorial service I felt unaccountably restless and unhappy. I started going through the clothes, deciding what should be thrown out. I should have done it months ago, but I hadn't the heart, and I wouldn't let anyone else do it, though Lisa, Gerry's sister, had volunteered to do so.
That was when I found, bundled up in those old things that had come with me from my flat and never been looked at since, Danny's old jumper.
I discovered that I still had plenty more tears left to cry. I cried for my lost loves, both of them. Cried for my lost youth. Cried for me, and what I had made of myself.
Eventually, of course, I ran out of tears. A long bath, and a long gin, made things seem a little more bearable. If much was lost, something still remained.
And the next day, Danny phoned, having, it seemed, got my number from John at the service.
He was a bit cautious until the obvious warmth in my voice reassured him, and then it was the old Danny, confident and masterful, if a little smoother and more tactful.
We ended up going out for a drink and a meal. I thought it might be a disaster, but it wasn't. In fact, we both enjoyed it enough to do it again. And then last night, when we parted, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to kiss.
It was quite a long kiss, as it turned out. Rather too long for Bromley High Street, and it earned us a few stares and a mouthful of abuse from two lads in a white van as they passed.
I don't think either of us cared.
"Are you sure ?"
He laughed. "You're on. Shall I bring a paddle to punish you for that little scene last night ?"
"Danny ! I haven't been spanked for seventeen years."
"Past time then, isn't it ?"
"I don't know . . ."
But the idea, so long locked away, ignored, given way to only in secret fantasies that I hardly acknowledged even to myself, set me trembling. Not with fear, but excitement. The same excitement that robbed my protests of any force.
So I don't know if he'll bring it. Or if he'll use it. Or what the rest of the night will bring, let alone tomorrow. We've both changed, and I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. I don't know if he's changed enough, or I've changed too much. What I do know is that you can't bring back old love. Neither of us is twenty any more, with a world of unbounded horizons to explore.
But as I said, it seems that beyond loss, beyond grief and ageing, something still remains. If you can't bring back old love, you can try to kindle a new one. It's a risk, but the time for playing it safe is gone.
The doorbell is ringing . . .