John and Richard ~ Chapter 5: A Matter of Trust

It had seemed like a blessing in disguise when I got on the train to come to Bath. I was desperate to get away and in other circumstances I might have just done a runner. But this trip had been booked for months and so I was able to say goodbye to my partner, John Hamilton-Smythe, without raising any suspicions.

I’d been looking forward to attending this conference which was taking place in one of my favourite cities. I hadn’t been to Bath for some years so I was hoping for the opportunity to visit the newly refurbished Roman Baths. At the very least, I thought there would be time to take a wander round the splendid Georgian city. But after the events of the previous week, I found I’d lost all interest in sightseeing.

I was a delegate at one of those medical conferences sponsored by a major drug company, so I knew the accommodation and catering would be good. But having sat through the first presentation without taking anything in, I slipped away to my room during the coffee break, only to find that the luxury accommodation felt like a prison cell.

It doesn’t seem to matter where you are, rooms in big hotels are always the same, aren’t they? A couple of armchairs with a strategically placed coffee table, a large print on the wall of an unremarkable view in pastel shades, a desk and chair in front of the mirror, windows locked shut and the air conditioning making the room feel slightly chilly.

I made a hot drink using the kettle and teabags provided for guests but the tea went cold while I sat in one of the armchairs trying to decide what to do. Actually, I wasn’t really thinking straight at all. Having finally got some time and space to myself, I found my mind was in a whirl. Delayed shock, I suppose. I was certainly in no fit state to derive much benefit from the conference sessions although I was fully entitled to be there. The hospital paid for me to attend the training which formed part of my ongoing professional development. True, I was suspended from duty but I was still on the staff of the hospital. I needed to keep my skills up-to-date, even if I wasn’t going straight back to work.

Looking at the conference programme, I realised I should make an effort to attend the session after lunch and take proper notes. The speaker was a renowned authority in his field and it would be a criminal waste to miss hearing the outcome of his most recent research. I thought if I could focus on his lecture it might help me forget about my own problems for a little while. In any case, I couldn’t sit in the hotel room fretting for the next two days. I needed to go down to lunch and talk to some of the other doctors. I needed the comfort of human company, although in truth there was only one person who could give me the comfort I really needed just then. And he was a hundred miles away.

It’s funny how the mind goes on working on a problem even when you’ve stopped consciously thinking about it, isn’t it? The afternoon session was fascinating and the speaker held my attention throughout so I can’t tell you when it was that I took the decision to contact John. But when I got back to my room around 4.00pm I knew with absolute certainty that I had to let him know that I was in serious trouble. I still hadn’t sorted out in my own mind how I was going to explain any of it but I could no longer deny, even to myself, that the worst aspect of the whole situation was my determination to keep my partner in the dark while I effectively ran away from the problem.

I can honestly say that I wasn’t afraid of how John would react. I was just bitterly ashamed that I'd allowed things to get so out of hand without telling him. I could say that he had been very busy with a heavy caseload and I hadn’t wanted to bother him when he was having so many tiring days in court. I could say that, but it wouldn’t cut any ice with John. We’ve talked about this so often. He insists on knowing when I’m under pressure and struggling at work. I understand that. John has made his views on the importance of being honest with him very clear and, when necessary, he has reinforced the message firmly and forcefully. For an intelligent man, you’d think I’d be a quick learner but it seems that this is a lesson which I never master. And this time the scale of my failure was monumental. I couldn’t see a way forward and all I could think was that John would be so disappointed in me.

By the time I picked up the phone I was already close to tears. I didn’t have a very clear idea of what I was going to say and it was a relief, after listening to the phone ringing back home, to hear the answer phone kick in and John’s measured tone invite the caller to leave a message. I was in such a state I hadn’t even considered that John was highly unlikely to be home so early. However, it made a dreadful task slightly easier. Instead of having to speak to John directly I could stumble through my confession at my own pace without having to respond to his rigorous questioning. I couldn’t now tell you what it was I managed to say except I have since had occasion to listen to that dreadful, garbled message whilst facing John’s relentless gaze and, as a result, the words are etched on my memory.

‘Hi, John. It’s me, Richard. I’m in Bath. I’m sorry, I should have told you. I mean, you know I’m in Bath but there are things I should have told you before I went to Bath. I just needed some time. You know, some time on my own to think. Except I haven’t been able to think at all. I don’t know what to do.

‘John, I’m in such trouble. I’ve been suspended from work. I didn’t do it though. I didn’t. You have to believe me, even if no one is going to believe me at the hospital. I’ve been such a fool and there is evidence against me. You’re going to be so angry. I don’t know how I let myself get to that point. Oh God, what am I going to do? What shall I do, John? I’m so sorry.’

The end of the message gets rather obliterated by my crying. I’m not proud of leaving that message. It was a beastly thing to do to John. What was he going to make of that when he got home late at night? It was worrying, distressing and uninformative. What could he do other than lie awake all night worrying about me? To my credit – John says I need to give myself credit for this – when I calmed down I realised that I couldn’t let matters rest there. If it had been feasible, I think I would have rushed home there and then to delete the message before John got home. But, given the distance involved, it was slowly borne in on me that only one course of action was now possible.

This time I thought more carefully about what to say and then waited until I was sure John would be finished in court before ringing his mobile. He greeted me cheerfully and asked how I was enjoying myself in Bath but he picked up immediately from the tone of my response that there was a problem. Even then, when it came to the crunch, I couldn’t bring myself to repeat the words I had mentally rehearsed. Instead I just told him that I was in trouble and had left a message for him on the answer phone at home. To be honest, I was surprised he didn’t press me for more information there and then but I think he sensed I would be incapable of rendering a coherent account of my problems. After a few moments silence he just said very firmly that he would access the message remotely and ring me back shortly. I had forgotten it was possible to listen to messages on our answer phone when away from home. I expect it’s possible to delete them as well if you know the code. One day I’ll ask John how to do it.

After John ended the call I waited in a state of breathless trepidation clutching the phone tightly in my hand. It was only a few minutes before he rang back.

“When were you suspended, love?” he asked calmly but firmly.

“Last week. I should have told you. I’m so sorry.” Despite John’s neutral tone, I was beginning to get agitated as I considered how much I had deliberately concealed from him.

“Don’t worry about not telling me straightaway,” he said reassuringly. “We can deal with that later. Let’s just focus on the immediate problem. What are you accused of?”

“A batch of prescription forms has gone missing. They were issued to me and it seems they’re being used to obtain drugs illegally. It’s all been reported to the police. I’ve been suspended while the hospital conducts an investigation but I’m likely to be accused of professional misconduct.”

My explanation came out in a rush and John interrupted my panicky recitation.

“Hang on,” he said. “It sounds as if these forms are now in the hands of criminals. You can’t be accused of misconduct if the forms were stolen.”

I don’t know why but there was something about John’s calm, considered manner which angered me. “It’s not as simple as that,” I shouted. “You just don’t understand.”

I’m surprised he ignored that outburst which did not reflect how I was really feeling. I wanted John’s help. That was why I’d plucked up the courage to contact him, so I don’t know why I was reacting so badly. I think I was just uncomfortable at being in the wrong, and in my case that tends to manifest itself as anger. There was no way I could tell him the whole awful story over the phone. Perhaps he realised then that there was more to this tale than I was letting on. He always knows just by looking at me when I’m not telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I suppose he can employ that same insight just by listening to me. Whatever the reason, he backed off and changed tack.

“I think you need to come home, love. Do you want me to come and get you?”

I calmed down a little when John made that suggestion. I realised I couldn’t face the prospect of spending the next two days at the conference with all this hanging over me. But the thought of him starting that long drive up the M4 after a tiring day at work was more than I could cope with.

“Yeah, John, I want to come home. But you mustn’t think about driving to Bath at this time in the evening, to say nothing of us getting home in the early hours. I’ll speak to the conference organisers in the morning and then I’ll get the train back.”

“What will you do this evening?”

“Well, I’m meant to be changing for dinner and there’s an after dinner speaker tonight so I reckon I’ll be ready to fall into bed by the time I get back to my room.”

“Will you be all right? I don’t want you to get into a panic and do something stupid.”

“Don’t worry, John. I’ve already done all the stupid things I’m going to do. I’ve behaved unprofessionally at work, I’ve hidden my problems from you and then, when the whole house of cards came crashing down, I effectively ran away. How much worse can it get?”

I was beginning to get tearful again so John’s bracing reply helped to steady me. “It can only get better now, love. Whatever it is you’ve done, I promise we’ll sort it out together. I love you and you’re mine. Nothing else matters but that.”

‘I love you and you’re mine.’ John’s words became my mantra. When my mind drifted back to my problems during the course of the evening I silently repeated those words to myself. When I woke in the night and the situation seemed even more desperate than it did during the day, I reminded myself that I would not have to face it alone.

If I’ve learned anything from the ups and downs in our relationship, it is that John will always be there for me. In the early days I worried that he would get fed up of me stressing out over work. He seems to cope effortlessly with his own punishing schedule and so I tried not to disclose the extent to which l agonised about my patients and worried about problems with colleagues. John has worked hard to convince me that he doesn’t want me to keep all those worries to myself. He says that a problem shared is a problem halved and somehow, once I’ve confided in John, I do seem to suffer fewer intrusive thoughts.

The trouble is that we’re both busy professionals and, when problems arose, work seemed to have taken precedence over our private lives. There had been staff shortages at the hospital and I was working very long hours with some unsociable shifts. John had been concentrating on a very complex and time consuming legal case and he was finally appearing for the prosecution in court. When we had some precious time together, John always made a point of asking me how things were going at work, but I didn’t want to burden him with my worries when he was so busy himself.

We normally try hard to make time for ourselves and for each other and we’ve learned through bitter experience that our relationship needs to be nurtured by our openness to one another. It was just that there hadn’t been much time in previous weeks for serious conversations and we were both so tired when we got home, we did little more than collapse in front of the TV before going to bed. It was probably my fault that I didn’t realise soon enough how bad things were getting. I kept thinking that I could manage on my own and by the time it had all got out of hand, I didn’t know how to tell John what a mess I was in or how to ask for his help.

I spent the journey home the next morning trying to work out how I was going to explain everything to John. By the time I had spoken to one of the conference organisers and checked out of the hotel it was well after nine o’clock in the morning so it was nearly midday by the time I put my bag down on our front door step and fumbled for my key. As I walked into the house I was immediately conscious that the heating was on and then I heard the radio from the study which confirmed my initial impression that John was in the house. That was unexpected and I had to take a deep breath before I could summon up the courage to shout a greeting which brought John into the hall to welcome me. He wasn’t fooled by my casual demeanour either. He grasped me in his arms and pulled my body against his own for a tight embrace which overcame my half hearted attempt to behave as if all was well. I leaned into his warmth and strength, resting my head briefly on his shoulder, and I knew that I was finally home and safe.

John had prepared a light lunch which we ate together at the kitchen table. Once I sat down I realised I was hungry, having eaten very little at breakfast. John took things slowly and initially I was the one asking the questions.

“What are you doing home? Surely the case didn’t collapse.”

“No, the case hasn’t collapsed, not after all that work I put in to assemble and present the evidence. I’m home because I wanted to be here when you got back. I popped into work this morning and briefed the second member of my team. He’ll be conducting the cross examination today.”

“Oh, John, this case was so important to you and I’ve dragged you away.”

“It wasn’t so important, Richard, that I needed to neglect you. I think that’s a truth I’ve lost sight of in recent months. I’m so sorry, my love, that I wasn’t there for you when you clearly needed my time and attention.”

“John, this wasn’t your fault. Please don’t blame yourself. You weren’t to know that I was having problems especially when… when… you know… I deliberately kept things from you.”

“Actually, Richard, I don’t really know what you’ve kept from me or precisely what you’ve done. I think it’s time you were totally honest with me, don’t you?”

Actually I did think so but now the moment had come I balked a little when John stood up and indicated that I should accompany him to the sitting room. He stood aside to let me pass in front of him out of the kitchen. I kept my head down and steeled myself not to swerve past him. I didn’t think he would take advantage of my proximity to administer an admonitory smack on my bottom but I wasn’t one hundred per cent sure I was safe.

However, he just placed a comforting arm on my shoulder as we entered the sitting room and drew me down to sit beside him on the sofa. We sat in silence for a while. Perhaps John was giving me the opportunity to begin but I was too wound up to speak so in the end he opened the discussion by focusing on the one indisputable fact which I had already disclosed.

“So you were suspended last week. When exactly?”

“On Tuesday.”

“Is this suspension the outcome of a disciplinary process?”

“Oh, no, John. I would have told you if I’d been subject to disciplinary proceedings, honestly I would. It was made quite clear that I’ve just been suspended while the hospital conducts an internal investigation. There will be a hearing later on and I’ll be able to put my side of the story.”

“Okay, so tell me your side of the story.”

“Well, like I said, a batch of prescription forms issued to me has gone missing. They’ve been used to obtain controlled drugs which have been sold on the street. The police are involved and they contacted the hospital.”

“Why didn’t you report the loss of the forms yourself?”

“I didn’t know they’d gone missing, John. I’ve been so busy. My paperwork got in a mess. It’s all such a mess.”

“Calm down, love. It’s not a criminal offence to be disorganised. In fact, I can’t understand why the hospital has suspended you. None of this seems to have been your fault.”

“Well, there is something else… the problem is that I used some of those prescription forms for myself.”

“For yourself. You mean that you were self-medicating. Isn’t that against the medical code of conduct? I seem to remember that the rules were tightened after the Shipman case.”

“Yes… but I was so busy, John. I didn’t have time to see our GP. I knew there’d be problems at the pharmacy though if I used my own name so… I… um… I used an alias.”

“Oh, God, Richard. What were you thinking?”

“I don’t know, John. I wasn’t thinking at all. But you can see how bad it looks when those prescriptions have come to light along with ones for diamorphine and methadone.”

“And you had nothing to do with the illegal supply of controlled drugs?”

“Of course not, John. How could you think I would get mixed up with anything like that?”

“I’m sorry, love, but I had to ask. I need to know exactly where we stand. Is there anything else you need to tell me?”

That was the point when I was offered the opportunity to make a clean breast of the whole sorry affair and I dodged it. I had not consciously intended to lie by omission. It was a snap decision, quickly made and almost as quickly regretted. I said nothing and justified my silence with the hasty thought that the nature of the medication was an irrelevance. I thought it would make little difference to the outcome of the hospital investigation. But it made all the difference in the world to my relationship with John. He needed to know that I was under such stress that I had resorted to taking a benzodiazepine. Not only that, I had been making sure that I had access to a constant supply and I knew I was in danger of becoming dependent on the drug.

When John tried to reassure me by promising support throughout the hospital investigation, I was in no state to listen. I was already beginning to regret my hasty and thoughtless impulse to conceal the full facts from him. He recognised that I was distracted but I think he mistook the reason for my agitation. He assumed I was just apprehensive about my imminent punishment and it was true that I knew without doubt I was facing a spanking. Even without the complication caused by self-medicating, I should have told my partner that I was suspended pending investigation by the hospital authorities. I should never have used the trip to Bath as an excuse to get away and avoid having to face up to unpleasant realities.

When John moved on to express his disappointment that I'd failed to confide in him, I was able to agree with his judgement. I even managed to stumble through a recitation of my own mistakes and failings before acquiescing to the prescribed spanking. I stood up as directed to unfasten and drop my trousers before bending over John’s lap. He got himself settled comfortably and shifted my upper body to bring it closer to his own before pushing my shirt up by back and pulling my underwear down to my knees. I couldn’t help tensing as I felt his arm lift to administer the first sharp slap to my naked buttocks and as the spanking grew in intensity it must have shaken something into place in my befuddled brain.

Suddenly I knew with certainty that this spanking would not deliver any solution to our problems. I would gain no absolution for my misjudgements and mistakes. John and I would never recover our mutual trust while I continued to conceal one pertinent fact. I stiffened as I realised that the punishment couldn’t go on. Then quietly but decisively I told John to stop.

And he did.

I’m not quite sure why. I’ve shouted and screamed at him to stop before now. I’ve wailed and I’ve begged and it has never deflected him in the slightest from his resolve. But this time, when I knew the punishment was wrong, he responded immediately to my instruction. I suppose once I realised that I had to issue such an instruction I should have used my safe word. There is nothing to say I can’t use my safe word during a punishment but I never would, and we both of us know it. Now I’m wondering if I really need a safe word if John can read me so well.

Once the spanking stopped, I struggled to get upright but a firm hand on my back indicated that John might have desisted for the time being but I was most definitely not off the hook. I lay across his lap for a few moments considering my options. There weren’t many to consider. I knew I was going to have to talk or I’d be left in that embarrassing position until I was finally forced to tell the truth.

When your partner is setting light to your bare backside there is no time to consider the embarrassment of your upturned position but when the onslaught ceases your mind inevitably turns to your inelegant and humiliating posture. I swallowed down my mortification and rapidly found my voice.

“There’s something else I haven’t told you, John.”

“I thought you weren’t being totally honest with me. When I started spanking you, I just knew it. Come on then. Let’s hear the whole truth this time.”

I struggled once again to right myself but John was having none of it.

“No you don’t, my lad,” he said. “You’re staying exactly where you are until I’m satisfied that I have all the facts.”

Actually, once I got started, it was easier to make a full and frank confession without having to make eye contact with John. I managed to tell him that I'd been writing myself regular prescriptions for diazepam. It was more difficult to explain that diazepam is commonly used to treat anxiety and that I was becoming dependent upon it to cope with the stress and the heavy workload at the hospital. When he asked me why I hadn’t told him that I was struggling to cope at work, I hesitated, only to receive a couple of encouraging slaps which helped to loosen my tongue.

“You’ve been so busy at work yourself, John. I didn’t want to bother you with my problems.”

“I thought we’d established that I don’t regard your problems as any bother. You promised me that you wouldn’t let things get on top of you at work again without telling me. Why did you break that promise, Richard?”

I considered claiming that I was unable to give a reason but I decided that John deserved better from me. I lay still as I tried to reconstruct my thought processes and this time John didn’t hurry me. It was painful to question my own motives and the insights I was gaining were not pleasant.

“You seem to cope so effortlessly with your own heavy schedule, John. I don’t like having to admit that I can’t manage as easily as you. I suppose it’s a matter of pride.”

“And trust, Richard. When things like this happen to us, it’s usually down to a failure of trust. You haven’t trusted me to look after you.”

“I do trust you, John,” I protested. “It’s just that we’ve both been so busy and there hasn’t been much time for us to talk.”

“Okay. I’ll grant you that we haven’t had much time together recently but if we need to make time for one another I can always rearrange my schedule. Why do you think I’m here with you today? But I’m not a mind reader, Richard. You do have to be prepared to share your problems with me and to trust that I can sort things out for you.”

“I’m sorry, John. I know we’ve been over this before. I don’t really know why I let things get so out of hand without telling you. I’m just so sorry.”

“So am I, love. So am I. But I’m going to teach you the importance of confiding in me. And if that lesson has to be learnt the hard way, so be it. I need to be sure that you will never again use prescription drugs as a way of coping with stress and anxiety. You bring your problems and worries to me. What we need is something that will act as a long standing reminder of that rule, don’t we?”

I took that as a rhetorical question and made no attempt to reply. John clearly felt the discussion was over as he helped me to my feet whilst explaining that he needed a bit of time to come to terms with all I had told him.

“I need to think about this, Richard,” he said, “and I need to decide on an appropriate penalty. Go and stand in the corner while I calm down and give the matter some thought.”

That didn’t sound too good. I self consciously stepped out of my underpants which had got twisted round my ankles during the spanking and walked obediently over to the corner of the sitting room. Time always goes very slowly when facing a blank wall and my mind went as blank as our neutral decor. I listened to the sound of my own breathing and the occasional rustle as John shifted his position slightly on the sofa.

I suppose it was partly the cold and partly the shock of having to confess embarrassing secrets but after a while I became aware that I needed to relieve myself. As the discomfort increased I reached down for a surreptitious squeeze but, of course, it’s impossible to do anything discreetly with John in the vicinity.

“Do you need to go to the bathroom?” he asked pointedly.

“Yeah, I need a pee,” I replied with some embarrassment.

“So why didn’t you ask? If you don’t trust me to respond appropriately over such a minor bodily need, no wonder you don’t trust me with anything more important.”

The reproof was said quietly and sadly but it came as a body blow to me. When John had been speaking about trust it had felt like a lecture I already knew by heart. It took that simple rebuke to show me the extent to which John felt betrayed by my lack of trust in him. I realised too that trust is a two way process and I’d also betrayed John’s trust in me.

I took a lot longer than I needed in the bathroom but John didn’t come looking for me. I washed my face in cold water and then rested my forehead up against the cold bathroom tiles. With sudden resolution I opened the medicine cabinet and reached behind the bottles of cough medicine and discarded aftershave for the pack of diazepam which I kept hidden. Returning from the bathroom I walked straight over to John and handed him the unused blister pack of tablets.

“It was just that I needed to know I had access to them,” I tried to explain. “I’ve been managing without them but I know I mustn’t keep them and I should have told you I had a secret supply. Now you really do know everything. I’m so sorry that I kept information back from you. Please deal with it, John. Don’t make me wait any longer.”

It seemed that John had had long enough to make up his mind. He just nodded and then sent me through to the study to collect the paddle. It was an implement we rarely used. I think John still feels uncomfortable about the time that he gave me the thrashing of my life with that paddle and I then left him. As with all the crises in our relationship, the fault was mostly mine but I know that John still blames himself for that particular disaster. However, he had clearly overcome any reservations about paddling me and, as I took the leather implement out of the desk drawer, I felt a surge of apprehension.

Returning to the sitting room I handed the paddle to John and then moved to bend over the end of the sofa but he caught my arm and pulled me over his lap. When he wants to swing the cane or the paddle he usually likes me over the arm of the sofa where he has a bit more space so I was rather surprised to be upended again over his knees. This time he made no move to shift my torso forward onto the sofa and so I found myself with head and shoulders tipped close to the ground. In that position the breath was squeezed out of my lungs and the blood rushed to my head so I reached forward to brace myself on the floor, spreading my fingers on the carpet.

I think John was aware of the discomfort of bending so acutely because he caressed my back as he once again pulled my shirt well away from my bottom.

“Don’t worry,” he assured me. “You won’t be here long.” I think I detected a slight element of amusement in his tone which I found strangely comforting. It signalled the recovery of his customary good humour and it confirmed the fact that my partner knew exactly what he was doing.

In the event, however, he took things quite slowly. He paddled powerfully and steadily, ensuring that the implement covered the full width of my buttocks with each blow. It’s a wicked thing, that leather paddle. Neither of us had had any experience with paddles until John ordered this one on the internet. It must have been more luck than judgement but he selected one which packs a real punch. In no time, I was rolling in pain on John’s knees, kicking my legs back and gasping for breath as I tried to absorb the intensity of the sting. I couldn’t control my movements which were a pure reflex reaction to each searing blow but, to begin with at least, I managed to take my punishment without crying or shouting.

As my body jumped uncontrollably John steadied me with a firm hand across my back which shifted slightly every time he lifted his other arm to deliver the next thwack. The sound of firm leather connecting with my backside and thighs was explosive but I could also hear John’s breathing becoming slightly laboured with his exertion. Despite the pain of the spanking, I was intensely aware of his close physical presence and powerfully reminded of the emotional connection between us. Maybe John knew how I was feeling. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had chosen to tip me over his lap precisely to reinforce my sense of dependence upon him.

There was something cathartic about that spanking, much as I hated it. It felt like I was paying a longstanding debt and doing something positive to restore shattered trust. Somehow the punishment seemed right this time and when John finally stopped and helped me slide off his lap onto my knees, I was able to muster a watery smile through my tears and assure him that I was all right.

Not that I recovered immediately from the paddling. When my legs felt less shaky I struggled to my feet and willingly accepted the proffered comfort of John’s strong and loving arms. Even as I rested my head on his shoulder I occasionally stamped one foot on the floor in an attempt to dispel the lingering sting. Eventually I drew away from John and took to walking up and down the room whilst vigorously rubbing my bottom and the backs of my thighs, heedless of the ridiculous figure I must have cut. John showed no inclination to laugh though. He gathered up my discarded clothing and, when I finally stood still, he helped me dress and then got me settled as comfortably as possible on the sofa. I think it must have been the combined effect of a restless night followed by the trauma of the punishment session when I got home, but I eventually drifted off into a fitful sleep. When I woke, I found myself covered with a blanket and I sat up to find John comfortably ensconced in the armchair as evening fell.

I blinked as John turned on the lights and pulled the curtains to create a cosier atmosphere in the sitting room. We talked at length about my problems and worries as the evening wore on, making up for the weeks when there hadn’t been much communication between us. John showed me nothing but concern and compassion and I was able to contribute to the conversation without any reservation or hesitation. John was particularly interested to establish precisely how many hours I'd been working and what my shift pattern had been. He insisted that I contact the HR department the next day and request a printout of my working hours over the previous three months. I was reluctant to get in touch with the hospital at all while I was on suspension but he explained that I had every right to gather the evidence I would need for my defence. I was too tired that evening to even question how my working pattern would contribute to my defence.

It all became clear some days later when I was summoned to answer questions before the board of enquiry. I'd been sent an invitation to attend, together with a brief description of the process to be followed and a statement concerning my rights. I scanned it briefly but panic prevented me from taking in the essentials. John read it carefully and explained that the investigation was an informal process which meant that neither side would be legally represented. I was, however, entitled to be accompanied by a friend. My fear was that John would not be permitted to attend because he was a barrister. He patiently explained that he would not be able to represent me legally at such an enquiry anyway. He wasn’t my lawyer and he could only act professionally when instructed by a solicitor. He would be there solely as my partner, albeit a partner with a fund of legal expertise and a specialist knowledge of employment law.

The advantage of John’s skills became apparent very early in the proceedings when the questioning inevitably turned to my self-medication. As advised by John, I told the truth fully and readily, acknowledging my fault. John then intervened by requesting precise details of my work schedule. I could see that his request flustered the board members as they did not have the information to hand. John, however, was now in possession of the hospital’s own record of my working hours and he used it to ask questions of his own about the stress and pressure I had been placed under at work.

When he started citing case law which regulated an employer’s duty of care for its workforce, the chairman intervened to ask whether or not John was my legal representative. I have to admit that things got rather out of hand at this point. Actually, it’s more honest to say that I allowed my own temper to overcome my better judgement. John had responded politely and accurately to the chairman’s question.

“I’m not present as Dr Evans’ legal advisor,” he explained. “I’m his partner.”

“Business partner?” asked the chairman with what I’m certain was a sneer.

“Sexual partner, actually,” I interjected angrily, my voice rising in deliberate challenge.

John reached across and placed his hand gently over mine. He squeezed my fingers and I turned to look into his smiling eyes. This was no warning gesture but an act of reassurance and proud acknowledgement. He didn’t shift his gaze from mine as he quietly corrected my statement.

“Richard Evans is my life partner, my love and my best friend. Whatever trouble he’s in, whatever problems he faces, I will always be there for him.”

There was a moment of stunned silence before the board returned to the business in hand with no further reference to John’s status. I missed the next ten minutes of the proceedings as I sat regretting my uncouth outburst and marvelling at John’s calm recovery of the situation. In my anger I had thoughtlessly insulted John and belittled our relationship. I determined there and then to apologise to him at the first opportunity. However, my regret did nothing to negate the warm glow I experienced as I thought of John’s declaration. To be claimed so firmly and so publicly was a new experience and I was surprised at how powerfully it affected me. I suppose I hadn’t been in many situations where John had had to introduce me as his partner and there was still a delightful novelty to the title.

When the board had completed its investigation John and I were invited to adjourn to the waiting room as a decision was to be made immediately. In the event I had nearly two hours of nail biting uncertainty during which time I imagined that I would be reported to the General Medical Council and struck off the register. When we were invited to return to the meeting it was immediately clear, however, that the board had fully accepted my version of events and I was not being held in any way responsible for the misuse of stolen prescription forms.

The board did have words to say, however, about the unacceptability of self-medication. My suspension was upheld and set at two weeks although the chairman made it clear that the time was to be used for rest and recovery. I think John’s words about the legal responsibilities of an employer for the health and welfare of the workforce had struck home. I could only accept the decision with good grace although the second part of my penalty was most unwelcome. It seemed I was required, as a condition of my return to work, to undergo a course of counselling. The consultant to whom I would be referred was, inevitably, one of my colleagues. I suppose I could have insisted on seeing someone unknown to me but as that would have entailed travelling a considerable distance, I accepted the penalty with poorly concealed distaste.

As soon as we got home we sat down over a cup of tea to discuss how it had all gone. By that point I was just feeling relieved that the enquiry was behind me and I wasn’t facing a disciplinary hearing before the General Medical Council. Nonetheless, I made a point of apologising straightaway to John for denigrating our relationship with my uncouth and intemperate language. He accepted my apology kindly and brushed aside my faltering acknowledgement that I deserved to be punished. Surprisingly he was much more unhappy with my response to the requirement to attend counselling. I tried to argue that he himself gave me all the support I needed and there was no way I was going to open up to some shrink.

It was a mistake to voice my hostility to counselling so forcefully. John merely pointed out that attendance was a requirement if I wished to return to work. The issue was therefore not up for discussion. If, however, I was suggesting that I would attend the sessions but refuse to cooperate with the consultant, then John would be forced to come with me to ensure compliance. At that point, I tried to backtrack but John could not be persuaded to change his mind. Indeed, he went on to tell me how worried he was that I had been taking diazepam without his knowledge and that he felt ill equipped to cope with my dependence on prescription drugs. He felt that we were both in need of help and he intended to take full advantage of the support the hospital was providing.

So it was that a week later we both arrived for the scheduled appointment. My colleague was surprised to see that I was not alone and when we were both seated in his office he made it clear that he usually conducted his sessions on a one-to-one basis. He turned to me and asked whether it was my desire to have my friend present for the consultation. I was being handed a cast iron excuse to get John out of the room. I looked at my lover and I swear, if he had glowered at me or indicated in any way that I was to respond in the affirmative, I would have taken advantage of the opportunity to see the consultant in private. But he smiled at me with such warmth, shrugged and just said, “It’s up to you, my love.”

I thought of the rescheduling he had done at work so he could be present with me that day. I remembered what he had said about needing help and advice himself. Above all, I recalled his joyful acknowledgement of our relationship when challenged at the hospital enquiry.

“John Hamilton-Smythe is my partner,” I said proudly. “I want him present, if that’s all right with you. I’ve got into difficulties at work because I don’t cope well with stress and I need John to help me get back on an even keel. I’ve been self-prescribing diazepam and I recognise that I’m on the verge of dependency. We both want your help to sort this out.”

I sensed John’s approval and it made me feel that, though awkward, it had been worthwhile to openly acknowledge my own difficulties. It also got the consultation started without any beating about the bush. I wasn’t required to lie back on a couch and describe my earliest childhood memories. Instead the consultant talked about doctors’ misuse of prescription drugs and he answered some of John’s questions about diazepam. It put us both at ease and when the more intimate questions arose about my insecurities I was able to respond honestly.

I was also able to forget that I’d been to the gym with this colleague. The friendly rival on the squash court was replaced by a caring and incredibly astute doctor who very quickly grasped the essential dynamics of our relationship. He didn’t appear in the least judgemental. Indeed, he seemed to view John’s dominance in our partnership as a positive factor in my rehabilitation. He didn’t tell either of us what to do but he left us with ideas to think about and strategies which might prove helpful. I was surprised at how quickly the initial consultation was over and I left feeling very positive about the future.

It seemed only right to acknowledge to John that I had found the counselling session useful. He didn’t go back to work after the appointment so we had the luxury of a long evening together at home. When we were sitting side by side on the sofa I broached the subject with a rather shamefaced appeal.

“Please don’t say I told you so!” I begged and then held up my hand as John started to ask the obvious question.

“Don’t say I told you so,” I repeated, “but the session today wasn’t too bad.”

When John failed to respond I prompted him, “Well, what did you think?”

“You told me not to say I told you so. So I’m at a loss for words.”

I punched him on the arm and he surprised me by moving very fast and grabbing me, pulling my whole body across his own so he could reach behind me and deliver a couple of sharp slaps to my backside. I writhed and twisted, trying to reverse our positions and manoeuvre his body under mine. He’s a bit taller than me and more agile but I’m heavier and probably stronger. We’re quite evenly matched when it comes to a wrestling match and neither of us could really get the upper hand before we fell off the sofa and landed on the floor in a tangle of arms and legs.

We lay still for a moment, both of us panting from the exertion of the contest. Suddenly I took advantage of John’s momentary relaxation to throw my weight across his chest and pin his wrists to the ground.

“Submit?” I offered.

“Never,” came the challenging retort as John managed to free one wrist and start tickling me.

“Cheat,” I shouted. “You’re disqualified. Tickling isn’t allowed.”

“Nor is sexual arousal,” he replied, shifting his hand down to grasp the incontrovertible evidence of his claim.

“There’s nothing about sexual arousal in the rules. You just made that up,” I gasped as I pressed myself against his cupped hand.

“Okay, I made it up. So do you want to go on wrestling or do you want me to take care of this?”

“I can’t go on wrestling. I’m disqualified,” I amended hastily, struggling to push my clothing down over my hips in order to offer my lover unimpeded access to my erection.

He started by just flicking his tongue across the tip of my penis and then gently licking the sensitive underside. The sensations were delicious and left me groaning for more. Just as I was beginning to think I would have to make this a hand job, John pre-empted any move on my part by taking my straining erection deep into his mouth, pressing his lips firmly up and down the engorged length. He repeated that manoeuvre a few times until I thought I would die from sheer pleasure. I was now leaking clear fluid which John used, along with his own spit, to lubricate the shaft of my penis which he began to rub firmly and quickly. It didn’t take long before my breathing hitched and my body convulsed as I came all over his hand and my belly.

I can honestly say that I had been looking forward to providing equal pleasure for John but it was all I could do not to fall asleep on the floor where I lay. When I had recovered somewhat, John urged me to my feet and manhandled me up the stairs and into bed. I mumbled something about us making love but John quieted me with promises for later.

When I woke in the morning I found myself alone in bed. It was Saturday and from the muted sounds coming from downstairs, John was already in the kitchen making breakfast. In normal circumstances I might have tempted him back to bed but he would never be persuaded to abandon a cooked breakfast. As the delicious smell of fried eggs and bacon wafted upstairs my thoughts also turned to food and I hastily grabbed a dressing gown and went downstairs to gorge myself on a thoroughly unhealthy but delicious meal.

When we'd read the papers, showered and dressed, John called me into the sitting room and sat down with a serious expression on his face. I made a hasty examination of conscience but truly felt that all my misjudgements and misdeeds had been dealt with. I was able to turn innocent and questioning eyes to meet his steady gaze.

“All this business with the board of enquiry and the counselling session has made me think we need to do something to put our relationship on a proper footing,” John announced.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, on both occasions I felt there were questions raised about my right to accompany you.”

“But you dealt with them well enough, didn’t you,” I responded a trifle anxiously.

“And so did you, my love. Don’t think I didn’t appreciate what you said about me to your colleague at the counselling session. I was so proud of how you conducted yourself at that consultation.”

I glowed with pleasure but said nothing as John continued, “I just feel that we really should put our relationship on a formal footing so that no one can question our rights and responsibilities towards each other in future.”

“Oh, you mean we should reactivate our plans for a civil partnership ceremony.”

“I would be proud and honoured to enter into a civil partnership with you, Richard, but don’t let’s get bogged down again in all that planning for a huge ceremony.”

“…which I derailed when I left you last Easter.”

“Hey, we’re not in the business of apportioning blame for events which are gone and forgotten. But, in any event, I was as much at fault over that as you were. No, I was just thinking that it might be nicer to arrange something simple with just a few friends and immediate family.”

“I’d like that John. Could we invite Geoff and Martin as they helped us get back together?”

“Oh, I think they definitely have to be on the guest list.”

“They wore matching morning suits when they entered into their civil partnership. Can we do the same, even if it is a simple ceremony?”

“We’ll wear whatever you want, my love. But I think there is one very important thing which we’ve missed. Perhaps that’s why all our plans went haywire last time.”

I looked questioningly at John but he didn’t elaborate. Instead he shifted off the sofa and solemnly knelt on one knee in front of me, took my hand in his own and said, “Richard David Evans, will you marry me?”

I had never in my wildest dreams expected to be the recipient of such a request. You see formal proposals in films but never expect them to take place in real life, do you? If I’d been told in advance that John would ask me to marry him like that, I think I would have regarded it as a joke. But I had no inclination to laugh as I looked down into my lover’s serious eyes which registered a flicker of doubt when I didn’t reply. In truth, I was so moved that for a moment or two I was lost for words and I felt tears prickle behind my eyelids. I couldn’t leave him in suspense for long though. I leaned forward and took his other hand in mine.

“John Hamilton-Smythe you are the love of my life and it’s my dearest wish to be married to you.”

Our lips met in a gentle kiss and then John rejoined me on the sofa where we sat for a long time, our fingers entwined, planning our future together.