Story from Februs 36.
The Perfect Match
A short story by Tim Starfield
'You two, you're just made for each other. You're the perfect match.'
That casual comment, spoken only a few hours earlier, stuck in Eliza's brain as she lay in bed. Katharine had said it, in the kitchen, while she was "helping" to wash up, after the dinner party. Helping, as far as Katharine was concerned, consisted of standing idly by with a dishcloth, nattering nineteen to the dozen, pausing occasionally to smear some new thumb marks onto Eliza's best crystal glasses.
The party had been a success. As ever. Everything in Eliza's life was a success. Her fabulous job, with its fabulous salary, fabulous car, home and lifestyle. Her fabulous figure, unspoilt at twenty-nine by children, rigorously dieted for, maintained at fabulous cost and vehement effort in the fabulous gym she patronised three times a week. Her fabulous wardrobe, her exquisite taste in books, music, and food. And of course, her fabulous boyfriend.
It was, as it is often, the contrast that made them so perfect for each other. Where Eliza was type A, go-ahead, dynamic, quick, cynical and extrovert, born to make snap but unerring decisions, and see them through no matter what, taking no prisoners, Paul was laid-back, easy-going, almost devil-may-care in his approach to life. You'd have called him a slob, except Eliza had him well trained. When she said hoover, he hoovered. When she said peel the potatoes, he peeled. Clean the car, go to the supermarket, mow the lawn... but, of course, Eliza never bossed. She asked. Nicely, if she could be bothered. And he was always there. Safe, solid, reliable. Happy? She thought so. His own career as an itinerant jazz musician, picking up odd gigs here and there, every now and then, with the emphasis on then more often than on now, seemed to give him the creative outlet he needed, leaving him free the rest of the time to enjoy the world and take it as it came. He was kind, he was good, he was above all a gentleman. A gentle man. And he was lucky to be with her. They both knew it, although it remained unsaid. Her own high-powered job financed a much higher standard of living than he would otherwise have afforded.
Chalk and cheese, people said. But it worked. They seemed to thrive on one anothers' company. The jokes flowed with the wine and they had that halo of contentment about them that seems to cling to successful couples. So often, that can get right up your nose, but with Paul and Eliza, it didn't. They seemed at ease with their roles and their relationship. It was obvious she wore the trousers. But that's been the way of the world for thousands of years, even if it was only recently that the women's movement managed to convince us all that it was OK in principle as well an in practice.
The last guests had left at about half-past-midnight. It was now getting on for two. They'd cleaned up, sorted the recycling from the rubbish and put another black sack in the wheelie bin, reminded each other what a brilliant cook Eliza was, polishing off tasty leftovers to prove it, and solved, in absentia, the social and psycho-sexual problems of most of their friends. They'd agreed that Katharine was drinking too much, and decided that she needed a man. One like Paul, in fact, would be ideal. But too bad, there's only one, and I've got him.
A hug, a brief kiss, then teeth flossed, and to bed.
To sleep? Well, yes. Paul had sort of tried to instigate a sort of cuddle.
'Christ no, Paul,' Eliza had snapped. 'Look at the time. And I've got a breakfast meeting.'
Paul had merely shrugged, and rolled over. He didn't seem to mind much. He never did.
Perhaps he was getting used to it. Perhaps they both were. The truth was, they hadn't made love for, how long? Six weeks? Three months? Since Christmas? It wasn't that the attraction had worn off. After four years, each was still the other's idea of the perfect partner. But the drive was missing. The spark had gone. In the first flush of the partnership, they would have had athletic sex for an hour or more, then slept exhausted, curled up like sweaty spoons.
Now? Now they each rolled over, leaving that tell-tale cold space in the middle of the bed, where the wet patch used to be. And separately, discretely, in different worlds, went frustrated and unfulfilled to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream?
Eliza is a soldier in an army somewhere. The details are hazy. The uniform is vaguely communist, grey non-descript fatigues and forage caps. She imagines she's probably an officer but it doesn't seem to make much difference to her plight.
She has done something terribly, disastrously wrong. Led a platoon the wrong way into an ambush or failed to blanco the webbing on her boots, she can't be sure, but retribution is on its way. Hauled into a hollow square of fellow conscripts, she is being harangued by a large and frightening Sergeant Mayor. His face seems hazily familiar. The chin and the hair could be Liam Neeson, or Joseph Stalin, but the glasses and the smile are definitely Paul.
The hot jungle sun beats down on her as she stands, head bowed, listening to the rant. An overwhelming feeling of guilt floods through her, but somehow it combines with an enormous wave of warm relief. She had tried to get away with it, flown too near the sun but mercifully had been found out in time. She's for it now. For it, in a big way. And although the fear is palpable and exciting, it's also strangely reassuring.
She moans gently in her sleep and without knowing it parts her legs a little to let a cool hand stray between them.
Paul, who had left school himself at sixteen and under something of a cloud, having hated and resented the place and its stupid rules and petty regulations the whole time he was there, would be the first to react with astonishment if you woke him from his dream and told him, 'you're a Headmaster.'
But he is. And facing that most awful dilemma of a Headmaster's life. One we all know so well and cherish. His (strangely mature, supermodel bodied but angelic looking) Head Prefect has been caught smoking a cannabis joint. So often it happens. What can he do? He doesn't want to expel her but surely it's the only solution. Here she stand on the other side of his desk, pushing a guilty toe into his carpet, not daring to look him in the eye, incessantly twining a blonde pigtail in her nervous fingers. Her reddened face, red with blushing and smudged with the effort of recent tears, seems oddly familiar, but, of course, without the guile, without the years of hard-won worldly wisdom, it's Eliza.
He mutters a few tentative pompous phrases. In his heart of hearts he knows he should call the police, call her parents, call in the Deputy Headmistress who was at Roedean for years and will know what to do. But he doesn't.
He proposes a solution to their joint dilemma. She gasps, then gulps, then nods. On feet of lead he walks slowly to the cabinet in the corner where old McGregor, his predecessor, kept the cane. In the days when it was allowed. In the days when it was the only answer to every problem. He unlocks the glass door and allows his hand to stiffen into a powerful grip around the long, pliant, rattan tool of his total authority.
Sighing softly, his hand stiffens into a powerful grip.
* * *
Eliza to ordered to strip. Reluctantly, slowly, her heart hammering with shame and excitement, she peels off her tunic, unclips the grey scratchy sports brassiere. Let them see her tits, she's proud of them...
Wait a minute – am I the only woman in this entire army? Hardly daring to look around, she does so, furtively. Yup. Seems so. A sea of male faces is following her every move, licking lips and salivating as her nipples harden in the humid breeze. Another warm flood of humiliation trickles through her as she unbuckles her belt, lets the heavy grey combat trousers fall to a puddle around her ankles.
Hardly able to move now, she shuffles towards (Paul) the bulky Drill Sergeant as he stands, impatiently tapping the riding crop along the top of the gym horse. Wearily, she leans across it and reaches with her hands for the gravel on the far side. Stretching her fabulous body taut, like a big letter A with her superb arse as its apex.
Rough fingers scrabble at the itchy fabric of her uniform briefs. They are pulling her knickers down to her knees, baring her bottom for the onslaught of her dreadful punishment. She will faint with the shame of it... but no, she mustn't, she must stay conscious for the first stroke of the appalling lash.
Taking more than her fair share of duvet (as ever), she twists onto her front, bringing her knees up to her belly and arching her back.
Headmaster Paul is having trouble with his gown. His gown? Christ, I suppose Headmasters have to wear gowns, don't they? It won't stop flapping open, hindering the free swing of his caning arm. And that's another thing. Why does this suit appear to have no fly-buttons? It was bad enough to have his star pupil kneeling in tears before him, beseeching him not to punish her, promising him anything, if only he'd let her off, without having certain thoughts raising their ugly head... as it were. 'Well I am the head girl, Sir...' Of course, he declined her offer. Afterwards, maybe, when she's well and truly learned her lesson... and Jesus! I'd better lock that door right now: can't have God-knows-who barging in... today St. Ethelburga's High School, tomorrow The News Of The World!
But, panic over, he was, with a masterly (even Head-masterly) display of self-control, dissuaded young Eliza from her disgraceful Plan B and got her lying supine across his leather-topped desk. Skirt up round her ear-lobes, panties at half-mast, her lithe but provocatively rounded bottom the perfect target... if only he could stop this wretched gown from flapping about...
Grunting slightly with the effort, he plucks feebly at the edge of the duvet, eventually managing to wrap a tiny portion of it (mostly cover) around him.
Captain Eliza feels the rush of cold air on her defenceless exposed bottom as the full enormity of her awful situation dawns on her. The ruthless bear of a Sergeant-Major bellows some dire imprecation about counting strokes and through the haze of her fear and arousal she can dimly hear the sharp intake of breath from the surrounding cohort as the terrible leather whip is raised and swished through the air. Army-style, for a couple of agonisingly close practice swipes. She can practically feel the imprint of its cruel impact on her naked rump already. She shivers with a guilty, yearning, anticipation.
Clumsily, almost furtively, Headmaster Paul swishes his cane through the air. He can see his victim blanch and visibly clench her tight young buttocks as she hears the whoosh of the fearful rod. Yet strangely she seems more composed than he is. Resigned to her fate, she lies helpless before him, the slight sway and swell of her girlish hips almost daring him to do his worst. Only the agitated drumming of one standard issue plimsoll on the parquet floor betrays her anxiety.
How does one manage this thing? It seems to have a mind of its own. And it would be just hopeless to be too gentle with the first stroke... on the other hand, don't want to have to send the girl bleeding profusely to Matron or to Casualty.
Come on, man, pull yourself together. Play up. School!
Oh yes. One more thing to say. His own throbbing excitement setting the blood pulsing through his body so fast that he can hardly breathe, Paul manages somehow to utter the essential phrase about this hurting him a lot more than it hurts her, then with new and deadly resolve, pull back his powerful arm, takes careful aim, and launches the vicious cane – splat! into the centre of the tempting target.
With an animal howl of pain and shock, Eliza buckles over the wooden horse as the eyes of a hundred cadets watch the livid red weal rising across her pearl-white arse. Grimacing and grinding her teeth, she steels herself for the next implacable stroke... and the next... and the next...
And so we leave them, in their oddly symmetrical harmony. Two people in one bed. So near, and yet so far.
Leave them to dream. To sleep, fitfully.
To awaken, somehow unsatisfied.
She at six, to the power shower and the power dressing and the power meeting. To brazen her way through another day barking orders, needling subordinates, charming the pants off superiors. Achieve, achieve, achieve and it's a slap in the face for the builder who wolfwhistles, no tip for the taxi driver who calls her 'love'.
He, at ten, to grope his way to the toilet, bent double with a hard-on the size of the Eiffel Tower and spend the first agonising minutes of his day trying to persuade his prostate to pee. And then to shrug, smile, wonder fleetingly what all that was about and make himself a nice cup of herbal tea. And stretch and yawn and see the note reminding him to pick up the dry-cleaning or else and smile again, foolish but cheerful.
Oh yes, they're the ideal couple all right. Made for each other. Everyone says so. They know it themselves and tell each other so.
They're the perfect match. They just don't know why.