My oldest friend sprawled lazily in her chair before the fire and remained in that comfortable silence so often present when we were in each other’s company. It had been twelve years since we had last seen each other and, as is so often the way when an ocean separates friends from one another, the correspondence that had started so enthusiastically, and with many vows on the subject of forever remaining in contact, had gradually reduced from a deluge, to a trickle, into…
Fiona’s email, telling of her arrival in the old country for the first time since she had left with her Bostonian husband had delighted as much as it had surprised me; given I had no idea she was even aware of my online presence. We had much to catch up on and, as is so often the case, absence had led to no diminution of our feelings for each other. Quite the contrary. An enduring status quo, in fact, that gave me no qualms in offering the use of my home for the duration of her one-month visit.
Though I did wonder how receptive she would prove to the secret I was about to drop upon her unsuspecting head.
A secret that had been languishing beneath us in the secure space below stairs she, as yet, had no idea existed for the length of her stay up until now.
I was also not to know that she had a secret of her own that was not a million miles from the situation shared by the occupant of my basement.
But that would come after the divulging of my own.
For now, though, here we were, on the third night after her arrival, seated in my Heacham Beach home as the fire sang in the chimney and two large cognacs warmed both our cupping hands and our appreciative throats. A salt spray from the Norfolk Wash peppered the front room windows as we spoke and the effect was one of great comfort and cosiness. The previous two days had been full of the obvious taking in of old sights and shared experiences in Kings Lynn and Norwich – she, like me, had lost her parents and had never been much taken with her extended family – and now we were sat before the fire, replete from an excellent meal in the village pub and with tongues loosened by the chianti we had chosen to accompany it. Both of us ready for a more intimate and revealing catch-up and heart-to-heart.
Fiona had seen the picture before, I must tell you – this was her third day in my home after all, and, as it hung so prominently above the fireplace she could hardly have missed it. But only now, I could tell, with the aid of the vino and the cognac, was she ready to comment upon it more… fully. Her still fresh and unlined face, bathed in the flickering warmth of the fire, assured me the depicted scene was making a profound and indescribable impression upon her.
It was a large pastel for which I had commissioned a talented but – surprise, surprise – cash-strapped art-student. It’s sensuous, some would certainly say ‘depraved’, subject matter in no way diluted by the softer medium and, if anything, adding something of the erotically ethereal to the already decadent scene it depicted.
I studied her expression as she in turn studied the pastel and assured myself there was more in the way of appreciative curiosity than the usual judgemental distaste one has come to expect from… the little people. In truth, despite the gap between our last meeting in the flesh, I had been confident the above appreciation would prove the case. Though I did have some small doubts as to her reaction when the story behind the pastel was hers in full.
A haughty and coldly attractive woman, wrapped in diaphanous silk of the purest white, and with a self-involved smile upon the sculpted but angular and severe contours of her face, raven black hair tied into a classical knot, was resting in classical repose upon an ottoman. Her chin was supported by the elbow of her left arm and it was plainly obvious that she was naked beneath the flowing folds of her gown.
But that nakedness alone did not supply the pastel with its decadence.
And neither did the rather obvious fact she appeared to be missing that the woman herself was me.
For a large part of that particular honour was owed to the lash with which her right hand toyed.
But, even then, it was another aspect of the study that lent the pastels such a sexually… disturbing… air.
For where her bare foot should have rested upon either rug or carpet, it was placed carelessly and without self-consciousness on a man. Resting upon the top of his head as if he were of little more account than an over-trained canine, the creamy sole of her foot keeping the side of his face pressed to the patterned weave beneath it. And yet, despite the woman’s undeniable insouciance and untroubled air, there was in the handsome and well-formed lineaments of this man a kind of brooding melancholy that did not sit comfortably with the obeisance he was being forced to make turning out to be… willing.
Even more puzzling to my friend, I told myself, must have been the fact that this handsome man was a decade or so older in years than the female he was allowing to show him such… contempt.
“Your tastes in respect of men haven’t changed in the intervening years, I see?” she said, following her comment with a sip of cognac; no trace of her second country discernible in her accent and reassuring me that she remained the no-nonsense girl she had been when we both shared rooms and studied Business Economics at Lincoln.
I simply smiled.
So obvious an observation must surely be rhetorical – especially as she had yet to realise the haughty woman in the pastel was – if a somewhat idealised version – her friend.
“Still plagued by the same old fantasies we shared in college, Wanda?” she asked in a somewhat one-up and irritating tone, switching to an approach that required answering.
“You think you’re looking at a fantasy?” I asked her, feigning bemusement before her immediate puzzlement fetched amusement to my lips.
I gave her a tut-tut.
“You always knew I was serious in my tastes, Fiona” I told her with just the mildest hint of rebuke for a tone that, while it had not been judgemental exactly, had seemed ever so slightly superior. “As I recall, the prospect of virtually indenturing a man of your own didn’t seem too trivial at the time either.”
Her face flushed as she recalled some of her own and more outlandish flights of fantasy she had decided to share with her best friend at the time.
Though she recovered herself swiftly.
“Please, Wanda. We were no more than girls. Not fully formed. They were just silly adolescent dreams.”
“Perhaps, but I seem to recall you getting quite worked up over them, Fin,” I reminded her, using the diminutive I’d always substituted for her first name.”
She shrugged; embarrassed, no doubt, by her former reactions to some of the literature we had shared with each other.
“And besides,” I went on, “some of us prefer to dream with our eyes open.”
Her eyes narrowed at this quote from Masoch and I waited for the expected interrogation.
It followed on the back of her finishing off her cognac and offering her glass for a refill.
“Are you saying this picture is…”
“Real,” I finished for her. “Posed for in front of the art-student I commissioned – and much to my ‘male model’s’ reluctance and humiliation, I might tell you.”
“But…” She looked at the pastel version of me more closely and then laughed and shook her head playfully. “You’re sending me up!”
Then, less confidently:
“No,” I agreed, straight-faced. “My beliefs and what I wanted back then are – refined by age and wisdom, of course – exactly what they were then. Nothing since has really showed itself to me that looked likely to prove superior.”
“You mean…?” She stared at me as if I’d sprouted another neck, though it struck me that there was something in her expression that was… excited.
“That’s right, Fin,” I told her. “The ‘male model’ below me on the rug is not modelling at all.”
Her vibrant and cobalt blue eyes grew wider.
“He is there because it was what I wanted and I have trained him to such a level of obedience that to refuse was unthinkable to him. Even though he hated every second of having to pose in such a way before a young woman less than half his age.”
“A…? A woman painted it?”
“Twenty-three and in her final semester of a four-year course in the fine arts at Norwich.”
“Did…? Did she…?”
“Know it was real?” I finished for her.
It was her turn to nod.
“She did by the time it was finished,” I said. “Seemed quite taken with the idea too. Broadminded young woman, obviously.”
“Obviously,” Fiona parroted back at me.
There was a brief silence between us and I waited for her to sample yet more of the cognac before breaking it.
“Are you shocked?”
She thought about it, pantyhosed and still shapely legs pressed together at the thighs telling me that even if she was taken aback by my admission she was no less excited for the fact.
“I’m not sure I believe you, Wanda,” she told me eventually.
“You’ll meet him soon enough.”
“He is on his way to the house?”
“He is already here.”
“He was here when you arrived and has been here the whole time.”
My friend’s eyes darted about the room as if he was hidden in a corner of it.
“Don’t worry,” I told her. “He is all safe and secure in his quarters – they’re self-contained, by the way – and he will stay there until I think you’re ready to meet him.”
Fiona looked at me as if I had just pronounced myself clinically insane.
“His quarters?” She looked about her for dramatic effect. “And just where would they be? And how could I have missed them after having been here two days already?”
“Think upstairs, downstairs,” I told her, referring to the old show she had so enjoyed seeing repeated when we were at uni together.
“You’re kidding me.”
“He’s right below us as we speak. And that’s where he’ll stay until I decide otherwise.”
I caught her look of worry and smiled.
“And yes, he has food, water, and even his own laptop down there. So it’s not exactly a great hardship.”
“So, he’s a masochist,” she said as a statement of fact, tone a tad dismissive. “You always maintained you were only interested in men who weren’t that way. Something about not being prepared to ‘give the bastards what they wanted’ as I recall.”
She smiled at the memory while I remained impassive.
“Though I also recall you saying their masochism wouldn’t bother you so long as you were the one who had introduced the concept to them.”
I nodded, recalling that particular conversation very well.
“In case you have forgotten, Fiona, I just got through telling you that he was humiliated to have to appear at my feet like the chattel he is in front of a young woman as she captured his shame. Hardly the reaction of a masochist… Or not, at least, one who was born with the inclination.”
“I can’t believe it, Wanda. Why would any man who isn’t that way suffer such an indignity?”
“If men are broken in correctly there is nothing you can’t achieve with them.”
“For heaven’s sakes, Wanda. You speak of him – whoever he is – as if he’s an animal.”
Acclimatised as she was to the dubious joys of matrimony and motherhood, and the narrow avenues of respectability by which those conditions were defined, she was trying to take some kind of moral high ground. But I knew her too well. Her thighs remained clamped together and I knew the gusset beneath them would be sodden. The life she led back in New England may well be one of respectable and by-the-numbers domesticity, paradise even. But the “strange” continued to compel her just as it had when we were younger.
“That, Fiona, is exactly how I see him. As an animal. My animal. But an animal with far more uses to the owner who has the imagination to use him correctly.”
“And what about love, Wanda?” she asked, though it seemed to me she was going through the motions because her position as a wife and mother demanded she do so. “What of companionship and children? Does your imagination supply these necessities?”
“And what of excitement and fulfilment, Fiona? The satisfaction that comes with knowing one is the captain of one’s own ship and is free to steer a course of one’s own choosing?”
She had no immediate reply and I continued:
“I live in a home I own, now that my parents have passed, and in an area I love. My services as an economic analyst are, without sounding boastful, much sought after, and I work when I choose. Added to this, I have my very own man to take care of all those irritating chores that come with the maintenance of a home. Does love, companionship and child-bearing supply that?”
A redness at the cheeks told me I’d hit upon a tender spot.
“Because, if it does, then I’m pleased for you,” I went on. But, if it doesn’t, then there is not the slightest chance I would even consider swapping my own life for yours. Though I care for you enough to truly hope your excitement, in its own different way, is a match for mine.”
“I love my husband,” she said defiantly; despite the fact I had not questioned her feelings in regard of him.
“I should hope that you do. Sincerely. I also hope that your life is everything you wish it to be. I’m simply saying that, unless it contains the elements of personal freedom and control present in mine, it is not for me. No implied criticism, I can assure you.”
She looked away, unable to meet my eye.
“Be truthful with yourself, Fin,” I urged in a soothing voice. “Is there not something in the situation I’m just beginning to describe that you find… exhilarating?”
“Well, if you enjoy living in such an off-the-wall relationship – and I’ll believe it when I actually see it – that’s your business. But we’re no longer teenagers and I’d appreciate it you don’t lay down your life-lessons for me.”
“Is that what you think I’m doing? Trying to convert you to my lifestyle?” I asked with mock hurt. “Only, I was under the impression I was simply explaining my life to my closest friend on the planet. A friend I last saw some seventeen years ago. Forgive me for believing I could still confide in you in such a way.”
She looked guilty on the instant, and I sensed for the first time that there were matters troubling her; though I remained silent on the subject and continued upon the same line.
“And why shouldn’t I treat him as an animal? Have your views changed so much over the years that you forget the vile shit the beasts attempt to lay on us from time to time? Remember how we used to quote Goethe?”
I could see her making a vain attempt at recall and refreshed her memory to save her the effort:
“‘You must be hammer or anvil’,” I reminded her, not quoting the German Goethe but the Galician Masoch, again. “Remember?”
Her eyes flashed with cognizance.
“Did we not find those words absolutely appropriate – even if they did originate with a male – to the relations between a woman and a man? Didn’t we always insist that our power rested in man’s passion for us? That the trick to making something civilised and useful of these base brutes was to use that power wisely?”
I could see Fiona’s expression taking on something of the animation it used to hold during our lengthy discussions on the subject of womanly superiority and male failings, and realised that, perhaps, her subsequent marriage and child bearing had not changed her views so much after all.
I also sensed even more strongly that something was amiss in her personal life and that maybe not all was flowers and roses in her Stateside day-to-day.
Though I also sensed she would prefer to introduce the subject under her own steam rather than have me prod her to do so.
“Nothing has changed for me since our time at Lincoln, Fin,” I continued. “Hammer or anvil. It is the only choice available to us if we are not, ultimately, to find ourselves used and abused by the brutes – no matter how charming and attentive they might prove in the beginning. That’s our choice. To be the slave or the tyrant.”
I allowed her to think about it, then:
“My choice is to use my knowledge of his passions to bring him to the point of surrender. And then, just as soon as he gives in, to place his neck under my yoke and make him accepting of my right to supply the lash… Should his performance in my service fall short of my standards, that is.”
“And what of equality?” Fiona asked in a voice chock full of emotion; much of which was sexual, though I could tell she was struggling not to acknowledge it as such. “You don’t believe a man and a woman can share equal footing in a relationship? Even if they happen to love each other?”
I answered her question with one of my own:
“You know my answer to that. But what’s your experience? How has equality worked in your loving partnership?”
Her nostrils flared and for a moment I thought she was about to take me to task for what she probably perceived as flippancy on my part.
Instead, she sighed.
Then, in a voice so small I had to struggle to discern it:
“Not well, if you must know, Wanda.”
She let out a huge sigh that contained much pain in the expulsion.
“I said ‘love’ when it would have served more truthfully to have said ‘loved’,” she confessed with a strained expression.
My silence was sympathetic in nature and certainly not of the “I told you so” variety.
“The bastard’s cheated on me almost from the time we first set-up house together,” she went on, anger growing. “Before my pregnancies. After my pregnancies. Even during them. That’s why I’m here. I’m divorcing the bastard. By the time I return it will be all over bar the shouting. The boys have said they want to go with their father and, to be frank, the older they get the more they become like him, so it’s not as big a loss as it might have been.”
Her eyes were moist but I knew the look of determination in them and was grateful for it.
A positive outlook would bring her through it all, just as it had in the past.
“So now you know,” she finished. “You always said he was a sleaze at heart and I wish I’d listened to you. If only the heart itself had ears, eh?”
I left the comfort of my chair and crossed over to give her a hug.
No words were necessary.
Leaving her, I stepped into my study and retrieved a small printed manuscript from my desk.
“There,” I said upon my return, plopping it down on her lap.
“What is it?” she sniffled.
“Some bedtime reading to take your thoughts from the shitbag you married.”
The eyes scanning the manuscript’s cover were puzzled.
“The story of how I pretty much indentured my very own man.”
Her eyes came up from the cover with wonder.
“In my own words,” I told her.
The eyes staring up into mine were already brimming with a curious excitement that was banishing her surprise and I felt sure would reduce her domestic situation to that of a bit player.
For at least a while, anyway.
“There’s no need for us to rise early,” I reminded her, so take all night if you want. Read it in front of the fire with a cognac or in your bed. Your choice. You’ll find he is handsome and, as we so often used to envisage, older than us in years.”
A sudden colour in her cheeks I knew had more to do with arousal than embarrassment, told me I would soon have her thinking of something other than the divorce from a faithless husband and two ingrate children awaiting her when she returned back across the pond.
“You’ll also find,” I informed her, “that he is every bit as docile and subdued – though he hates his human bondage even as he finds himself helpless to escape – as we pictured our captive to be back then.”
I leaned in to kiss her forehead.
“Afterwards, if you find what you’ve read to your… taste… I told her, “it might be time to introduce you to my manservant…”