Story from Janus 44.
The Voice at the End of the Line
by Julie Holmes
The telephone rings. I cross the room and lift the receiver, reciting the number automatically, annoyed at being disturbed, not even suspecting what's about to happen.
'It's time for us to have a chat,' a disembodied male voice rumbles. 'We need to discuss some misdemeanours that have come to my attention.'
'I don't understand – who are you? What do you want? I think you've got the wrong number.' I can hear my voice rising – a mixture of fear and confusion – and struggle to remain in control. 'I'm replacing the receiver now,' I tell him.
'No you're not: you're going to listen to me and do as I say.' For some reason I feel compelled to listen rather than follow my instinct to end the call and disconnect the phone. There's something vaguely familiar about the voice; something about the tone. But it's huskier and more impersonal than anyone's I can think of. I think of old films with clandestine calls being made with handkerchiefs held over the mouth-piece. If I weren't so shocked, I'd find the image amusing.
'What do you want?' I ask again.
'To talk, to settle accounts. To make you realise the truth about yourself.'
'I don't understand. Who are you?'
'You ask too many questions,' the Voice replies. 'Your task is to listen, to answer truthfully when I ask you questions and to do exactly as you are told. Do yon understand now?'
I'm so shocked and scared I don't realise I've been asked a question, so don't respond. 'Do yon understand now?' he repeats, louder this time, quite threatening.
'I think so,' I manage to mumble.
'Good. But speak up. Right, you know why I'm calling, don't you?'
'No. No, I don't. Who are you?' As soon as I say it I realise I've asked another question and for no obvious reason my hands tremble and I gasp and start to stutter an apology.
'Quiet!' he raps. 'Tell me what you are wearing.'
'My housecoat,' I reply.
'Just your housecoat? Anything underneath? Any shoes or slippers? Tell me everything you are wearing,' the Voice persists.
'I'm wearing my housecoat. It's long, dark blue, some sort of velvety material. It has long sleeves with buttoned cuffs and a high mandarin collar, only the top couple of buttons are undone. The buttons go right to the hem, but I've only fastened them to my knees. Underneath I'm wearing a navy blue low-cut bra; it's front-fastening. I also have very small matching panties and I'm wearing flesh-coloured tights.' It seems silly, but it's almost a relief to have managed such a fully detailed answer. I stand straight and prepare for the dialogue to continue.
'Any jewellery? Any shoes? Are you wearing make-up? How are you wearing your hair?' He's impatient. I feel like a dunce in the classroom who's failed to give an obvious response to a simple question.
'I'm not wearing any footwear. My hair's tied back with a rubber band; I was putting on my make-up when you called. I still have to put on my blusher and lipstick. I've got a choker around my neck – it's about an inch wide, navy velvet – I wear a lot of navy blue – with a Victorian brooch at my throat. I'm wearing a gold watch.' I pause, realising that I've told him all this to cover up my nervousness. 'And a couple of rings.'
'What sort of rings?'
'A dress ring – sapphire – on my right hand. And a gold band on my left.'
'Your left hand? A wedding ring?' His tone is harsh. I take a deep breath.
'Yes. A wedding ring. I'm married.'
'Why are you half-naked at seven o'clock in the evening? Why are you putting on so much make-up?'
'I'm going out. For a meal. With somebody.' Why am I answering him and why do I let myself feel so afraid?
'Are you going out for a meal with your husband?' he enquires and from the sound of his voice I can tell he knows I'm not.
'No,' I tell him. A pause. 'I'm going out with a colleague from work.' A longer, more eloquent pause. 'A male colleague.' Then in a rush: 'My husband's working late and, anyway, he doesn't mind. He knows.'
'Does he? Did you tell him?'
'No. He just knows. It's okay. Anyway, it's none of your business. What do you want?' I'm almost screaming, from fear and indignation.
'SHUT UP!' he yells. I feel my body tremble, feel tears of fear creep into my eyes. I breathe deeply and listen for his next question.
'Which room are you in?'
'The living room.'
'Close the curtains. Take the mirror off the wall and prop it on the sofa so it rests on the arm furthest from the telephone. Do it now, then pick up the receiver again.'
'How do you know the layout of my flat? Who are you?' I am so scared now: is he a friend, a neighbour, a burglar?
'Just do it,' says the Voice, deep and threatening. If only I could identify that elusive voice: I'm certain now that it must be a fairly intimate acquaintance. I try to imagine the voice in a different situation, but still I cannot quite place it. It sounds as though he's speaking through a mouthful of cotton wool. I do as he has told me and say so when I retrieve the telephone receiver.
'Now,' he continues, 'hold the phone in your left hand, unbutton your housecoat from your knees to your waist with your right hand. Have you done that?' I tell him I have. 'Good. Now keep listening to me while you remove your tights with just your right hand. Put your hand inside the waistband and pull them down slowly. Very slowly. Keep your hand flat against your belly as you do it. Feel your flesh, the way a lover would. Come on now, don't linger too long. You're not supposed to enjoy it that much! Get those tights right down; down your thighs, over your knees – feel them baggy at your ankles; take them off over your feet. Ready?'
'No. I can't manage one-handed. I can't get them over my bottom,' I moan.
'DO IT!' he yells. They come off but get ripped by my nails in the process. 'Just do as I tell you, when I tell you,' the low tones rasp. 'Take the elastic band out of your hair and shake it loose over your shoulders. Just with your right hand, of course.'
The band's tight and some of my hair is tangled in it but eventually I manage to do as he says. Tears slip silently down my cheeks: at the same time as I try to work out who this man is and how he manages to exert such influence on me. I worry about the effect crying will have on my make-up, so carefully applied only a few minutes ago. What is happening to my world? 'I'm ready,' I tell him submissively.
'Good. Stand with your feet apart, about shoulder-width. Now tell me about your date tonight.'
'It's not a date. I'm just having dinner with a colleague. There's some business we need to discuss, there wasn't time at work.' It sounds feeble even to me, although when I said it on the phone to Paul, my husband, this afternoon it sounded perfectly plausible. Paul certainly accepted my tale although, to be honest, I made a point of calling when I knew he'd be busy and wouldn't want to talk. In any case, he's out most evenings himself. That's partly the trouble: if he were at home more I wouldn't be looking around for distractions like Donald. I'm not sure I even like Donald all that much. My mind wanders but is brought to heel again by the Voice.
'Don't bother lying to me. I know about Donald Danvers and the quick business talks over drinks and meals. They take place at his home where very little is eaten and I suspect not much talking is done, although probably drinks are consumed and as for business – well we don't want to get vulgar, do we?' There's an evil, malicious tone to his voice now.
'Look, you've obviously been spying on me. I don't know who you are or why you're so interested in me but just leave me alone. Hang up and stay out of my life!' I shout.
'Take your knickers off.'
'What? Didn't you hear what I said?'
'Shut up and get those knickers down now,' he says coldly. 'Just the one hand remember.' I hate him; I loathe myself, but I find myself obeying his orders. I feel almost like an automaton, under his remote control.
'Now take your breasts out of your bra, but don't undo it. Lift the left one out first, then the right. Take your time. You can enjoy it if you want to,' he adds, almost friendly. He doesn't know me that well, then: I hate wearing a bra with no panties. I don't know why but it makes me feel uncomfortable, even if I'm on my own. I always put my briefs on first and take them off last when getting dressed or undressed. I know I'm blushing as I carry out his commands. The cups of my bra dig uncomfortably into the underside of my breasts which are fully exposed and pushed unnaturally high, like some fantasy illustration in a men s magazine.
'Now spread those legs wide. Wider than your shoulders. It's a good job you've got central heating, isn't it? I'd hate to think of you standing in a draught.' Central heating or no, I shiver and my skin prickles with goose-pimples. My nipples harden. 'Tell me about Donald,' he says.
My throat is dry and once again I'm close to tears. It takes a great effort to find my voice and keep it steady.
'My husband's gone off me. He comes home late. He ignores me. We don't...' I try again. 'We don't have sex very often. I met Don at work. We get on okay. It's something to do. That's all.'
'What would Donald say if he saw you now, posing almost naked for a stranger? What would your husband say?' Ridiculously, he sounds genuinely interested.
'I don't know how Don would react. I don't know him very well really. Paul would probably be angry,' I tell him.
'Only probably? Aren't you certain? Tell me exactly what you think he would do,' the Voice persists.
'He'd be angry with me, that's all.' I hate discussing my husband like this more than anything else this monster has made me do so far. I don't have time to analyse what my feelings are – guilt, embarrassment, anger, shame? – but I'm in terror of what is to come. How much longer can this go on? What more can he do to me? I don't understand what kind of satisfaction he gets from this situation. I want to scream, to refuse to go along with him any longer, but am unable to resist the urgings of the Voice.
'Tell me what he'd do exactly. Would he hit you for instance?'
'Oh no. He'd never do anything like that. He'd just be annoyed that I'd gone along with you. He'd want to know who you were. I suppose he'd assume that I knew you and had chosen to have an erotic telephone conversation with you.' As soon as I say it, I realise my error.
'So you find our conversation erotic, do you?' I can hear the contempt in his voice and I shiver.
'That's not what I meant. I only meant that Paul might interpret it that way. Wrongly, of course.'
'I don't think he'd be wrong: I think you are enjoying our talk. If not, you'd have hung up by now. You are enjoying it aren't you? Standing there naked except for your choker and the bra pushing your tits out. Are your legs wide apart? Open them wider.' He pauses. 'Are you enjoying our conversation, Julia Holmes?'
The use of my name is a shock. Although he obviously knows a lot about me and has been to my home at some time, somehow, as long as he didn't call me by name, I could distance myself from him. I mumble that I'm not enjoying it at all, but as I say it I wonder if that's entirely true.
'I'm growing tired of this conversation. I disagree with you. I do excite you. All men do. You're just naturally promiscuous, Julia, and Paul knows it. You are a wanton, easy slut and need to be brought into line. Do you understand?' His tone has become sharper, authoritative, like a Victorian master addressing an erring scullery maid.
'No I don't understand!' I bluster.
'Stop lying! I don't like women who lie. And, as I said, I'm getting bored with this conversation. Let's get down to business. You've been behaving like a whore ever since you got married, and probably before, but I won't concern myself with that. How many men have you slept with since marrying Paul?'
I'm beyond lying or arguing. 'Five,' I reply. 'Or six. I'm not certain. Six I think. Yes, six.'
'Six! And you think Paul doesn't know?' He sounds incredulous.
'I'm sure I've been discreet. Anyway, he wouldn't mind.'
'Wouldn't he? Well, I mind! It's obscene the way modern women flout their wedding vows. They mock the institution of marriage itself. Just because you go to work, it doesn't mean you can forget your station in life. You're a woman and your function is to serve and respect men in general and support and obey your husband in particular. You seem not to understand this, Julia, so I'm going to help you learn. Go and put some shoes on. The high-heeled navy blue mules, since it's your favourite colour. Go and fetch them, then tell me when you've got them on. Put them on in the bedroom and walk across the living room to the telephone with them on. Quickly!'
I don't argue. Absurd though the idea is, I'm half-convinced he can see into my flat. I put the receiver down next to the telephone on the coffee table and run to the bedroom. I scrabble around in the wardrobe, but can't find the shoes he's described. Finally I locate them under the bed, put them on and walk back to the telephone. I feel ridiculous. I'll never wear these mules again.
'I'm wearing them,' I tell my caller. 'What now?'
'Getting impatient? Calm yourself. Pick up the telephone and put it in the corner of the sofa at the opposite end to the mirror, between the arm and the back. Have you done that?' I tell him when I have.
'Good. Now continue to hold the receiver to your left ear and tell me what you can see in the mirror. Go on.' I comply.
'The mirror's not very big. I can't see my face or below my pelvis. The arm of the sofa would block the sight of my legs anyway. I can see the choker, with the brooch glinting; my hair's falling over my shoulders, covering my bra straps. I can't really see my bra because I've pulled my breasts out of the cups as you told me. It makes my breasts look bigger than they really are and pushes them up high. My nipples are quite pale so they don't really show in the mirror, apart from the tips because they're a bit darker and slightly hard. It's a bit cold without my clothes on. My tummy's rounder than is considered fashionable but it's not flabby. My pubic hair is a sort of light brown.'
'Look over your shoulder. Tell me what you see now.'
'I see my hair hanging below my shoulders. I see my bra crossing my back. I see my hips and my bottom. There's a slight line across my bottom showing where my panties were. It's quite firm and high and my thighs are in good shape. I belong to a health club, so I'm quite fit and I have an all-year, all-over suntan.' I realise I'm starting to sound quite boastful and wonder if that's wise.
'Bend over the arm of the sofa: be careful not to disconnect us. You can rest your elbows on the seat. I want you to look in the mirror. Put your feet close to the sofa so that your arse is high and you can see it in the mirror. And spread your feet wide.' It's amazing how quickly even the most bizarre situation comes to seem normal. I no longer find it strange or repellent to obey the Voice.
'Now I'm going to go through with you the punishment your terrible behaviour warrants. Even if Paul chooses to ignore your infidelity and disrespect, someone has to bring you to heel. You make your husband a laughing stock and act like a bitch in heat. It's time you learnt some humility and self-control. Spread your legs wider. Let your arms and belly take the weight. I want those legs really stretched and that bum wide open and displayed. That's good. How many of your lovers have seen you like this? You're really quite an exhibitionist aren't you? I'm sure you're enjoying our talk more than you'll admit.' I groan; I'll admit nothing to this pervert.
'You are an immoral slut and are about to be suitably chastised. Stay still. I'm taking off my belt. It's wide; thick leather made supple by age. It's got a very heavy buckle. Take your punishment well and I won't use the buckle end on you. I'm stroking the backs of your legs one at a time, from your knees upwards. Feel it? Feel it stroking you? Are you afraid of what it's going to do? Tell me what you feel.' It's true, I can feel the aged leather moving up my thighs. I shiver with anticipation and tell him so.
'Good. You are right to be worried. My belt is going to warm up that backside of yours. I think six strokes, one for each of your lovers. Here comes the first; I'm lifting my arm high, the belt's rising high; now it's coming down, fast and hard. It strikes right across the centre of your cheeks. You flinch but you can take it, can't you? Hm, there's a nice pink band where it landed. Does it sting? Can you take the rest?'
'I can take it,' I mumble. I'm surprised to realise that I really felt the lash of the imaginary belt and my buttocks have tensed in anticipation of the five still to come.
'The next one's going to be high up. Keep looking in the mirror: watch yourself finally being treated the way you deserve. I'm raising the belt. Here it comes, on the top of your bum cheeks before they divide. That one will bruise. Was that you gasping? Good. That shows the punishment's having the right effect. Number three's going to be low down. The top of your thighs where the crease of your bottom crosses. Keep those legs long, straight and wide apart.'
We live through the third spectral stroke together. My breathing is getting heavy; my face is flushed. The choker is digging into my neck but I can't get into a more comfortable position.
'The next two are going to criss-cross your backside. They're coming close together, top right to bottom left, then top left to bottom right. Here's the first. Now the next. Just one more to go. Nice and simple, I think. Straight across the middle of your bottom, just above the first. Now!'
I'm shaking and sweating and there are tears making my mascara run. I feel exhausted. 'What now?' I moan.
'Now? Now we move on. Have you ever been caned?'
'Caned! No, of course not.' Once again, I'm caught completely by surprise.
'Well you're going to be now. Stay in position. Be sure to keep the telephone receiver pressed to your ear. I want you to hear me clearly. I think another six, don't you? And each one will land on one of the stripes made by the belt. Get ready. Here comes the first.'
I hear a swish, what I imagine a cane would sound like slicing through the air. He must have a cane that he's flexing near the telephone. That first ghostly swipe cuts into my bottom as he said it would, highlighting that original track from the belt. Imaginary though it is, I can feel the difference between the two disciplinary implements: the belt gave a hot, even band; painful, but not unendurable. The cane is sharper, thinner. It stings and makes me dread the five to come.
'Here's number two. It's going to be high, remember.' I hear the sound of the rod ripping the air and shriek as my mind feels it land not far below the base of my spine. A violent flame of pain scorches the top of my arse. The realism is phenomenal.
I stand upright and start to massage the area with my free hand. 'I hope you haven't moved,' I hear the Voice warn and lower myself over the sofa once more, replacing my arm on the seat. Sticking my bottom out to the very best of my ability.
'Okay. Here's the low one now. Keep those legs perfectly nice and straight.' My teeth clench as I feel the bamboo inflame the delicate skin, crazing me intimately. 'Look in the mirror. Tell me what you see now. In detail.' I look and feel mortified at the sight, gasping from the shockwaves of the cane.
'My hair's all messed up. My eye make-up's smudged. My bottom's raised high and I see a broad pink band with a bruise starting and in the middle of this band there's a thin raised weal. It hurts like bloody hell! I can just see the start of the two belt marks that I know cross over my bottom. My chin's resting on my right forearm and my left hand holds the phone to my ear.'
'You're very articulate, Julia. I bet you were glad to have a rest weren't you? Well, you've three more stripes to come yet. Here comes the top right to bottom – pardon the pun – left.' I hear the whine and experience the sting, but before I can react its corresponding blow strikes in the opposite direction. Fighting the impulse to scream I console myself with the knowledge that I have only a single stroke left to come.
'Just one more to go,' the Voice echoes my thoughts. 'I'll count to ten to give you time to think about your punishment and why you deserve it.' He counts slowly. I listen to the ascending numbers, brushing tears from my face with the back of my hand. As the Voice says 'ten' I hear the cane's journey upward, then down and sob uncontrollably as my tense cheeks flinch under the hallucinatory whipping stroke.
'I think you're learning your lesson quite well,' the Voice coaxes. 'Now show me you understand why it had to happen. Tell me what you've done that's so bad.'
I struggle to regain control of myself. 'I've slept with other men since I got married; I've not respected my husband,' I recite.
'And what do you deserve?' he asks.
'I deserve to be punished physically and to be humiliated. I need to learn that my husband is in control and my life must fit into his and he deserves my respect simply because he is a man and especially because we are married.' One part of my mind finds this liturgy totally natural, while the other is surprised that I can even think these words, let alone say them to a stranger. I know that the second, sceptical view is societal brainwashing, the falseness-at-large that wars inside me with my contrite self-knowledge.
'Describe the punishment you deserve and have just undergone,' he persists.
'I deserve to be made to strip and display myself as I have been told to do,' I say in sincere humility, my better self winning at last. 'I deserve to be strapped and caned on my bare bottom, six strokes of each, so that I am forced to reconsider my behaviour.'
'You know,' he says, ominously chatty, 'you really are a quick learner. That makes me a bit suspicious that your contrition may not be genuine. I think the lesson needs to be reinforced.'
'Just by chance,' he chuckles evilly, 'I have a tawse here. Do you know what a tawse is? It's an instrument used in Scotland to punish errant schoolboys. It's a leather strap about two feet long, a couple of inches wide and almost half-an-inch thick. It's cut down the middle from one end to more than halfway along so that each stroke has the effect of two. I think you need a good all-over bum-warming from my tawse, just to finish off. I can't decide how many strokes you deserve, so I'll keep laying them on and you count them and we'll see how far we get.'
'Here we go.'
Again, I can hear the sound of the strap being raised and then come crashing down through the air, so I assume he really does have one. Two strokes have gone by before I realise I've not been counting aloud. 'Two!' I shout.
'Too late,' he says. 'We'll have to start again.' Now I count each one as my mind and body tell me it's landed. My legs ache from their strained position in the high heels and my back aches from being stretched over the sofa arm. The bra cuts painfully into the soft underside of my breasts and my eyes and throat burn with crying. The cheeks of my bottom twitch every time an imagined whack lands; I'm certain it's all swollen and bruised. I'm crying so hard I can barely make my voice work, but my counting keeps pace with the strokes of the tawse.
'Eight... Nine... Ten...'
'Ten! There, I think that should be enough this time. Now, listen very carefully. I'm going to leave you for a while, but don't hang up. Keep that position and watch yourself in the mirror. Don't get up or rub your bottom. Just stay exactly as you are until I tell you to move. And think about what a good husband you have and how you can atone for your past behaviour. Contemplate long and hard, Julia.'
I hear a sound which I presume to be his receiver being placed on a table. I gaze at the mirror and barely recognize my reflection. Where is the confident, rising young career-woman now? Have I really treated Paul so badly? Why did I go along with that stranger on the phone instead of simply cutting him off? In fact, why am I still co-operating with him?
Too late I hear the main door to the flat open. There are footsteps in the hallway, and then the living room door opens slowly. Still I maintain my position. In the mirror I see my husband standing behind me, a long thin cane and a heavy tawse in one hand. With the other he is removing his old leather belt.
'I think six strokes,' he says in the voice I couldn't quite place on the telephone. 'One for each of your lovers.'