A Place of Safety ~ Chapter 6: Online Testing

“My office, now, Mr McAvinchey,” ordered the boss in a tone which usually betokened no good for the person on the receiving end.

Dominic got hastily to his feet and followed Mr Merrow into the office. Although he attracted a few curious glances from colleagues at other workstations, he walked into the lion’s den serene in the knowledge that his conscience was clear.

“I’ve just been called in to speak to the Divisional Director,” announced Mr Merrow without preamble. “It seems there was an irregularity in the conduct of one of our professional examinations last week.”

Dominic’s stomach contracted with shock and he found himself gasping for breath at the dire implications of that statement. Yet, even in this unforeseen predicament, he noticed with detached interest how his body had reacted instantly to the unspoken threat before his brain had fully digested its import. One moment he hadn’t a care in the world and the next moment he was hit with the sickening realisation that he’d made a terrible mistake for which he was going to have to pay a high price. He hastily banished pointless reflection on his physiological responses, cursing his own irrepressible curiosity about irrelevancies, and focused all his attention on his boss, waiting to hear the worst.

“I would have staked my reputation that you would never cheat in an exam, least of all in a computing exam. In fact, I have just have staked my reputation on it with the Divisional Director.” He looked searchingly at Dominic. “It seems I lost the wager,” he added dryly.

“I… I didn’t know… I mean, I wasn’t cheating.”

“No?” Mr Merrow queried with a touch of exasperation. “You get someone to impersonate you in a public examination. What were you doing if you weren’t cheating?”

“I was out shopping.”

“Shopping?” repeated Mr Merrow incredulously. Despite the fact that they’d been together for nearly six months, Dominic had not lost the power to amaze him.

“Yes, I’d forgotten to buy a card for Mum’s birthday and I wanted to go Smiths and choose something special. I had to go that morning so I could post it in time. I didn’t think it would matter if I asked… a friend… to sit the paper for me.”

“So that explains why the signature on the documentation doesn’t match yours! I take it this ‘friend’ is a Semdar employee. I must say, that comes as something of a surprise. I thought you claimed not to have any friends at work apart from Sarah and I can’t imagine her entering into such a crazy scheme.”

“Well, yes, I needed someone who would pass the exam for me. So I asked someone… not a friend precisely. I offered to pay him…” Dominic faltered at the expression on Jude’s face but then he recovered himself and continued with a hint of defiance, “You know it’s just a formality, that exam. I really didn’t have the time to sit there all morning filling in answers online.”

“So you thought it acceptable to ask someone to impersonate you?”

“I didn’t think anyone would notice. Mr… er… my friend looks a bit like me and I gave him my driving licence for identification. The invigilators at the testing centre never check very carefully.”

“You may be interested to know, Mr McAvinchey, that you were not reported by the invigilators; it was the mark which first raised concerns.” Dominic looked baffled. “Yes,” Mr Merrow continued, glancing down at the printed list on his desk. “On the first two tests you scored almost full marks. The result of last week’s examination was a bare pass. That triggered an enquiry by the chief examiner — an enquiry which was referred to Semdar which is sponsoring you.”

“I didn’t ask the company to sponsor me,” said Dominic with a touch of truculence.

Dominic’s attitude did not escape Mr Merrow’s notice and he responded in an icy tone which froze the young man to the core. “It may have slipped your memory, Mr McAvinchey, but your continued employment at Semdar is dependent on you passing a series of professional examinations. The company pays for your study materials and examination fees and, in exchange, it is able to claim that all its managers possess full professional qualifications in their respective fields. Your dishonest conduct has called into question your employment at Semdar, to say nothing of the difficulty we are now experiencing with the continued use of the local testing centre.”

Dominic swallowed. All the fight had gone out of him and he could barely find his voice. “What are you going to do?” he whispered.

“My first task is to apologise, on behalf of the company, to the professional examination board and to the testing centre. We can’t afford to be blacklisted as so many of our employees are registered with them. My second task is to try and prevent you being banned from retaking this examination. In other words, I’m going to try and salvage your career. If I’m able to pull that off I will need to square things with the Divisional Director. Then and only then, will I turn my attention to the penalty to be imposed for this serious misconduct. That is all for now, Mr McAvinchey.”

There was no possible response to such a comprehensive dismissal. Dominic turned and walked miserably towards the door, knowing that he was in for a long and anxious wait. With his hand on the door knob he paused and turned. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said. “I know it doesn’t mean much to say that now, but I’m so sorry. I just didn’t think of the implications of what I was doing. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. I didn’t realise I was making such trouble for the company… and for you.”

“You’ve made trouble for yourself,” said Mr Merrow, grimly. “That’s what I’m worried about. I don’t want you to have this on your employment record, that’s even assuming that you keep your job with Semdar.  Let me get on and do my best for you and we’ll work this out together.”

There had been no appreciable change in Mr Merrow’s speech or demeanour but Dominic now understood that beneath the severe tone and uncompromising manner there lay a deep concern for his future and a fierce determination to save his career. Dominic went back to his desk filled with remorse for his foolish and dishonest behaviour and seriously worried about the implications for his future prospects. The only thing he felt absolutely sure about was that his relationship with Jude Merrow would survive the crisis unscathed. Whatever happened at work, Jude would remain his lover, his top, his life partner and his best friend.

He knew that Mr Merrow had obtained a special dispensation from the directors, soon after they became a couple, to continue as his line manager. It was obvious to them both, however, that the company would find it very difficult to transfer Dominic to a different manager, given the way their skills and responsibilities meshed in the office environment. Neither of them had envisaged that their arrangement would cause any difficulties for the company, though. Dominic was such a conscientious and capable employee it was all but inconceivable that he would be involved in any serious disciplinary issue at work. While Mr Merrow was allowed to remain as his line manager, there was one change which seemed eminently reasonable as it had implications for Dominic’s salary; his annual appraisal would not be conducted by his boss. Instead Mr Merrow would be responsible for providing a written report on Dominic’s performance to the designated appraiser. All those arrangements were now thrown into question by Dominic’s thoughtless and dishonest conduct. He couldn’t begin to speculate what the likely penalty would be, even supposing that he kept his job.

In his misery he didn’t hear Sarah Powell walk up to his desk. She had to rest her hand lightly on his shoulder to get his attention.

“You in trouble with the boss, Dominic?” she asked quietly.

“I’m in trouble with the company, Sarah. I could lose my job over this.”

“What have you done? You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” she added hastily.

“Something so stupid, so thoughtless; I can’t believe I did it. Sit down and I’ll tell you.”

Sarah pulled a chair up close to Dominic’s so they could talk without being overheard. “Don’t upset yourself, Dominic.  Whatever you’ve done, I’m sure Mr Merrow will sort it out. It’s not as though he’s going to be tough on you, of all people. You’re still together, aren’t you?”

“Yes, of course we’re still together. I moved all my stuff over from the flat months ago. We’re a couple, even if we try not to make it too obvious in the office.”

“Well, that’ll make things easier, won’t it?”

“No, Sarah. It makes it much worse. Don’t you see? It makes it much worse.”

Sarah considered for a moment. She had a happy knack of being able to see things from another’s point of view and she quickly realised how unpleasant it would be to make a mistake at the office and then have to be dealt with by one’s partner.  However, she could not know that Dominic was considering the issue of living in a discipline partnership at home when his top was also his line manager and he’d just committed a disciplinary offence at work. Much as he was worrying about his future with the company, his major regret was that he’d caused a dreadful problem for Jude and he wondered how that would be resolved between the two of them at home.

“Yeah,” said Sarah thoughtfully. “I can see that it’s going to be embarrassing for you.”

“That’s the least of my worries, Sarah. I’ve created an embarrassing problem for Jude. He’s going to have to go out on a limb for me and I shouldn’t have put him in that position. Actually he’s already affirmed my innocence with the Divisional Director and now he’s having to go back and retract his statement…  Oh God, Sarah. What was I thinking of?”

“Calm down, Dominic. Let’s get out of here. Come on. We’ll go over to Starbucks and get a coffee and a muffin and you can tell me all.”

“I can’t leave the office, can I? What if Jude comes back?”

“Are you expecting him in the next hour or so?”

“I don’t know how long it’s going to take. I suppose he’s got a lot of people to talk to on my behalf.”

“And you’re allowed to take an early lunch break. He hasn’t shackled you to the desk, has he? Come on. You need to get this off your chest.”

Sitting over a large latte and listening to Dominic’s shamefaced recital, Sarah could hardly credit his version of events. For such a formidably intelligent young man, Dominic could be remarkably stupid at times. Sarah couldn’t understand what had possessed him to get someone to impersonate him in a simple online IT examination. He was so clearly distraught at being in trouble that she disguised her incredulity and tried to comfort him but Dominic was not ready to accept comfort.

“Don’t you see?” he asked urgently. “I had to get a nice card for Mum. There wasn’t any other time I could go to buy it. Those online exams are so slow and the questions are so stupid. I just didn’t have the time to sit there and work through it all.”  What Dominic wanted was understanding but Sarah wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of approving of his behaviour.

“It’s a public examination, Dominic. You must know that getting someone to impersonate you is a breach of the regulations.”

“But the answers are obvious, anyone could do it. It’s just a formality. The company wants the piece of paper. That’s all.”

“I’m not going to argue with you, Dominic. I think you know the rights and wrongs of this just as well as I do.” This was said with affection but it broke through Dominic’s defences. He sank his head into his hands and rubbed his finger tips firmly across closed eyelids as considered the truth of Sarah’s blunt statement.

“What’s wrong with me?” he demanded with sudden fury, lifting his head to look intently at his companion. “Why didn’t I think it through at the time? Getting someone to do the exam for me just seemed like a good solution to my immediate problem. I swear to you, I never even considered I was cheating until Mr Merrow spoke to me this morning.” Dominic shuddered slightly at the memory of that conversation.

“Did you explain your reasoning to him?”

“Sort of. I don’t think he was impressed.”

“I’m not surprised,” Sarah said with a laugh which Dominic did not take amiss. Whereas other people often confused him, he knew when Sarah was teasing him.

“I thought you were supposed to be comforting me,” he countered with mock petulance.

She saw with relief that he was recovering from the worst of his despair and judged it an appropriate time to get down to the essentials of the problem. “You said you could lose your job over this. Does Mr Merrow really think that’s a possibility?”

“He said he’d do his best for me but it’s a condition of my employment that I complete all the relevant public examinations.”

“Can you not make arrangements to resit the examination?”

“I may be banned if I’m found to have cheated. Jude is going to try and square things with the professional examination board and with the local testing centre.”

“Well, it won’t be the first time he’s pulled off a spectacular rescue! I wouldn’t give up hope quite yet.”

“I know he’s out there doing his best for me, Sarah. That’s what makes me feel awful. But no matter what happens, even if I lose my job, this won’t come between us.”

“I envy you your security, Dominic. You’ve got a wonderful man there.”

“I know, Sarah, and I’m not proud of letting him down. But I know Jude will work things out and I know that he and I will be okay in the end.”

“Best show willing then and get back to your desk.”

“Goodness. Is that the time? We’ve been here over an hour.”

In the event Dominic had a much longer wait to hear his fate. Sarah occasionally glanced towards him throughout the afternoon and she reckoned he didn’t get much work done. Mr Merrow walked through their open plan office a couple of times on his way to see the Divisional Director. The rest of the time he spent in his own office with the door closed making phone calls. When he had done as much as he was able to do in one day he telephoned Dominic who picked up the receiver on his desk with some trepidation. There was only one person he was expecting to contact him on the office number and that man didn’t need to introduce himself.

“I’ll see you now, Mr McAvinchey.”

“Yes, sir.” Dominic didn’t know whether to feel relief that the waiting was over or trepidation about walking to his doom. Sarah gave him an encouraging smile as he passed her workstation but he didn’t respond. She doubted whether he’d even noticed.  He hesitated just a second before knocking on the boss’s door and then walking straight in.

“Sit down, Mr McAvinchey.” Jude clearly intended to keep things formal. Dominic didn’t know whether that was a bad sign but suspected it might be. If Jude had to impart bad news he might want to keep a distance between them at work and save the comfort for when they got home. However, Jude had no intention of keeping Dominic on tenterhooks. He waited until his young lover had taken a seat, sitting bolt upright on the edge of the straight backed chair in front of his desk, and then he immediately got down to business. “It seems you may have escaped serious repercussions for your dishonest conduct. I think I’ve managed to work something out with your professional body and the company is willing to deal with this as an internal disciplinary matter. You won’t lose your job although you may receive an official reprimand.” Dominic’s shoulders dropped noticeably as some of the tension left his body. His wide eyed gaze remained fixed on Jude’s face as he concentrated on the rest of his boss’s pronouncement. “The testing centre has proved more difficult to placate. They’re not willing to accept you as a candidate in future and I’ve had to go along with that in order to protect our other employees who need an easily accessible venue to sit professional examinations. I think, however, I’ve worked out a solution for you.”

“Thank you,” Dominic breathed. “I’m so sorry you’ve had to go to so much trouble on my behalf. And I’m really sorry for what I did. I know…”

Mr Merrow held up a hand to silence Dominic. “We’ll deal with that later. Let’s just concentrate on putting things right for the moment and we’ll come back to your culpability later.” Dominic read a world of meaning into that utterance.

“What do you want me to do?”

“I think the first thing to do is to write to your professional body and apologise. I couldn’t think of any way to excuse your conduct so I think you’ll just have to tell the truth. If they let you resit the exam then the very best way of proving that you were innocent of any intent to deceive is to score the highest marks you are capable of. No one in their right mind is going to get someone to impersonate them in an examination in order to perform less well than they could do themselves. Apart from you, that is!”

There was a certain exasperation, tinged with amusement, in the final comment which gave Dominic the courage to ask, “Will you help me write the apology, Jude?”

“I think if you ask tonight, you might get a bit of help with that, and with an apology to the company which had better be addressed to the Divisional Director.” It was clear that Jude was making a clear separation between home and work.

“Thank you, sir,” said Dominic, acknowledging that separation with the formality of his answer.

“As for re-sitting the examination, or rather sitting it yourself this time, I’ve found a school which is a centre for online testing. Some of the Sixth Form are doing the entry level IT examinations and the school is prepared to host external candidates. It’s a bit of a nuisance to get to and the examinations start at 9.00 am but it’s the best option I can come up with.”

“When can I take the exam?”

“How long do you need for revision?”

There was a long silence as Dominic considered the most politic response before deciding that he really should stick to the truth. “I don’t do any revision,” he finally admitted.


“The questions are straightforward and the answers are obvious. There’s nothing I need to revise.”

“Have you worked your way through the study materials?”

“I’ve glanced at them, yes.”

“You’re going to do a hell of a lot more than glance at them, Mr McAvinchey. You’re going to go through them methodically. I want there to be nothing in that exam which comes as a surprise. If it’s all so easy for you then I’ll expect a one hundred percent score. Is that clear?”

Dominic winced. He hadn’t managed to score full marks on any of the tests to date. There had always been one annoying little question which had foxed him or something which could be interpreted in a number of ways.  Online tests allowed for no alternative interpretations and they were marked electronically. The perfect score was elusive and the company only required a pass. It seemed Mr Merrow had other ideas, though, and he was expecting compliance from Dominic. The young man pulled himself together and responded as he knew was expected of him, “Yes, sir. That’s perfectly clear.”

Dominic got home first that evening and went straight to his laptop to begin working on the two letters of apology which he’d been framing in his head during the train journey back. He was confident that Jude would help him later that evening but he also knew that he would have to do most of the work himself and help would only come in the form of advice and suggestions. He was seriously in need of both when he heard Jude’s key in the door. He felt he’d got the essentials down in writing but it was proving difficult to combine the points in an elegant way to convey an appropriate degree of contrition and a positive commitment to future trustworthiness. He hit save and got up to go and greet his partner, stopping shamefacedly in the hallway until Jude held out his arms and Dominic walked gratefully into that warm and comforting embrace.

“Tough day at work, eh?”

“The worst ever… and I’ve only got myself to blame.”

“Don’t waste your energy blaming yourself. That’s my job! Let’s get something to eat first and then we’ll sit down and work on those letters you have to write. Everything else can wait until we’ve got your career back on track.”

“I’ve made a start with both of the letters.”

“Well done.”

“Wait until you see what I’ve written. I’m really struggling with the tone and the content.”

“You could do with a break then. Come and get changed out of that suit. You’ll feel much more relaxed in home clothes.”

Dominic trailed Jude upstairs and dug out a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt to wear for the evening. He carefully hung his suit on a hanger in the wardrobe and rolled his tie in the approved manner. He was aware of Jude’s eyes on him and he didn’t want to do anything which might attract censure. Although reassured by the embrace he’d received on Jude’s return, he was feeling uncomfortable and unsure how to behave towards his partner, knowing he was in such trouble at work. Jude could not fail but be aware of the young man’s tension but he made no comment, aiming to defuse the situation by acting normally rather than by employing language which was unlikely to get through to Dominic in his agitated state.

In the kitchen Jude assigned simple tasks to his partner and Dominic bent his head assiduously over the job of peeling potatoes and chopping vegetables. There were some burning questions he wanted to ask and it was easier to do so with his hands occupied and his eyes averted. “What’s going to happen about all this?”

“I thought I made that clear at work. You’re going prepare properly for the examination and then sit it, in person. You’re going to send letters of apology to your professional body and to your employer. We’ll get those finished tonight. You’re not going to lose your job over this, although you’re likely to be the subject of an official disciplinary process.”

“What does that mean?”

“In practice, it’s likely to result in an official warning on your personnel file and possibly the loss of next year’s bonus. In normal circumstances, the decision would be up to your line manager but, given our relationship, you’ll be dealt with by someone senior to me.”

“But what about us?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know. At home. What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to help you get those letters finished and I’m going to supervise your study for a couple of hours a night until you sit that exam.”

“And?” Dominic asked, looking up with trepidation which Jude had no difficulty in interpreting.

“Don’t push me, Dominic. You must know how I feel about your behaviour but you’re going to face a stiff penalty at work. We agreed we’d try and keep our working lives separate from our private lives and there’s no way I want to see you punished twice over.”

“I remember what we agreed, but that was before I caused you so much of a problem at work. I can’t just ignore that at home. I feel dreadful about the difficulties I’ve made for you today. I’m not going to feel comfortable until I’ve paid for that.”

Jude took a moment or two to consider Dominic’s admission of guilt. He’d already come round to the view that Dominic deserved a spanking, if for no other reason than to give the thoughtless young man the most forceful reminder of the risk he’d taken with his career. However, he’d intended to wait until matters were resolved at work before he administered the final penalty. He wanted to make sure Dominic understood that there was no way he was being punished by the boss for a screw up at work. In Jude’s mind the issue to be addressed was the need for Dominic to be open about his difficulties and not to resort to deception when faced with a problem. Jude could hardly credit the fact that the lack of something as simple as a birthday card had caused Dominic to put his whole career on the line.

However, it didn’t sound as though this fault was weighing too heavily on Dominic’s conscience. He seemed far more worried about the problems he’d caused for his boss at work. Jude was touched by the concern but he had no intention of letting Dominic wallow in guilt because he’d created embarrassment and a lot of extra work for his partner. Jude was utterly undaunted by the amount of time and effort he’d had to expend on Dominic’s behalf to ensure he kept his job with Semdar. Not only was he willing to do whatever was necessary to protect Dominic’s interests, he was relieved that he’d been in a position to minimise the ill effects of his young lover’s misjudgement.

Jude decided he would have to act at once in order to make plain to Dominic the precise reasons for his displeasure and to provide a powerful disincentive should Dominic ever consider doing anything so foolish in the future. “Okay,” he said finally, in response to Dominic’s request for retribution. “Let’s get this casserole in the oven and then you and I can sit down and have a serious talk.”

Dominic nodded, not knowing whether he was feeling relief or apprehension but fairly convinced that he wouldn’t be sitting down for long.  As soon as he took a seat on the sofa where Jude directed, his nervousness pushed him at once into rapid and barely coherent speech. “I’m sorry… I didn’t think… I didn’t mean to cause you all this trouble… I wasn’t…”

“Be silent, Dominic.” The instruction was given calmly but so firmly that Dominic’s teeth snapped together in shock and he looked nervously into the eyes of his partner who was seated directly opposite him in the armchair beside the fireplace. What he saw in the depths of those eyes seemed to reassure him and his breathing steadied. “Calm down and listen to me,” Jude continued. “I don’t want to hear your apologies. You haven’t caused me any extra work I wasn’t very willing to undertake in order to get you out of trouble. I want you to start thinking now about why you got into such trouble in the first place.”

“I didn’t…”

“Thinking, Dominic, not speaking.”

The silence dragged on and eventually the turmoil in Dominic’s mind began to settle into coherent order. Jude watched his partner’s body relax as the young man ceased trying to apologise for his conduct and began to review his actions. For such an intelligent individual Dominic was capable of crass stupidity at times, but problem solving was one of his strengths and Jude intended to utilise that skill to teach Dominic an important truth. When he judged that Dominic had had sufficient time for silent reflection he spoke again. “I want you to go over to the desk and bring me what you find in the top drawer.”

Dominic got up uncertainly. He had a shrewd suspicion as to what might be lurking in the desk drawer and he opened it gingerly, expecting to find the implement to be used on his own backside. Instead he could only see a pile of cards and envelopes which he picked up doubtfully and held up for Jude’s approval. “That’s right,” said Jude. “Bring them over here and have a look through my collection.”

Dominic sat down and began sorting through the cards on his lap. It took him only moments to work out the purpose of this exercise and a slow blush crept up his cheeks as he grasped Jude’s intention. There was an assortment of cards, most of which would be suitable for a birthday. None of them were specifically for a mother, and Dominic realised with a stab of compassion why not, but there were a couple of very lovely birthday cards, either of which he knew his own mother would have been pleased to receive. He took a deep breath and looked up. Jude was not going to let him evade responsibility here and he knew he was going to have to say the words himself. “I should have told you I had a problem. I might have known you had a readymade solution,” he added ruefully.

“Had you forgotten my years as a boy scout?” Jude enquired with gentle humour which took some of the embarrassment out of the situation.

“I think I forgot everything… including my own common sense,” responded Dominic with new found calm.

“What do you think I’m most displeased about?”

“That I cheated in an exam and placed my career in jeopardy over something which could have been sorted out so easily if I’d just told you what the problem was.”

“That’s it in a nutshell. What a shame you didn’t things through more clearly in the first place.”

“I wasn’t thinking at all. I swear to you, it never even occurred to me that what I was doing was cheating in an exam. I really thought I’d just hit on a convenient way to save time.”

“I do know that you wouldn’t deliberately set out to cheat, love. But, really, would you have considered paying someone to sit one of your finals papers at university if the timing of the examination had been inconvenient for you?”

“Of course not,” replied Dominic with vehemence. “Finals are different.”

“How?” enquired Jude with deceptive simplicity.

Dominic realised he’d backed himself into a corner. “They’re not different, are they?” he finally conceded. “I cheated in an exam. There’s no getting away from it and I’m not proud of myself for doing it. I won’t ever do it again.”

“I intend to make very sure that you never even think of doing it again. You could have lost your job over this and I don’t know who would have employed you afterwards with such a question mark over your integrity. I want you to understand that the only reason I’m going to punish you is because you did something dishonest which placed your whole future in jeopardy. This has nothing to do with our relationship at work and everything to do with us being partners. I only want the best for you and I’m disappointed that you let yourself down by making such a poor decision.”

“I understand that, Jude, and I’ll take whatever you think I deserve.”

“Let’s get this over with then. Get up and go and stand behind the sofa.”

Dominic did as he was told without question although he was uncertain as to what was coming. He was expecting to be spanked and in the past that had always involved being turned over Jude’s lap. He watched out of the corner of his eye as Jude went over to the desk, slipped his collection of cards back into the top drawer and then opened the bottom drawer and reached to the back to withdraw a short, yellow cane which Dominic hadn’t seen before. The sight made his stomach turn a somersault and his buttocks clench involuntarily.

“Have you ever been caned?” asked Jude conversationally as he returned to the sofa.

“No, sir,” replied Dominic, very respectfully.

“Well, it’s a quick and relatively impersonal punishment. Somehow it seems the appropriate penalty for an offence which is, in part, work related.  We may have promised one another to keep our working and private lives separate but they seem to have collided over this affair. There is also something memorable about a caning and I want to make one hundred percent sure you’re not going to forget the reason for this penalty.  I believe six is the traditional number of strokes. I wouldn’t want to break with tradition so that’s what I’ll give you. Have you got anything in your pockets?”

Dominic stared at Jude uncomprehendingly, his brain failing to process a question which seemed such a non sequitur. “Your back pockets,” Jude elaborated. “Turn them out.” He held out his hand and Dominic fumbled hastily to retrieve his mobile phone, his wallet, a couple of elastic bands and some crumpled receipts, all of which he deposited on Jude’s outstretched palm. “Bend over the back of the sofa, please,” was the next instruction and Dominic leant forward to comply. “Right over, if you please. Get your forearms and head down on the seat.” That was more of a stretch and Dominic found himself tipping forward with only his toes left in touch with the ground. His sense of vulnerability was further heightened when Jude gently tugged at the waistband of his jeans to tighten the fabric across his upturned bottom. Then, after passing the palm of his hand across Dominic’s taut buttocks in a gesture which felt like a caress but was, in reality, designed to smooth out the odd remaining crease, Jude stepped back and lifted the cane. Dominic sensed rather than heard the movement and he took a deep breath and held it, tensing all his muscles and grabbing hold of the seat cushion to steady himself. He had the briefest of waits before the unmistakable swish gave him a millisecond’s warning of what was coming before a line of fire erupted across his backside. The breath he’d been holding came rushing out in one unbroken exhalation of shock and pain, although he made only the slightest sound.

Jude waited just long enough for Dominic to come to terms with the sting and then he raised the cane and administered a second stroke, just an inch below the first. This time Dominic was unable to prevent himself uttering a small grunt of pain which he stifled in the sofa cushions. Even as he struggled to remain in position and take his punishment in silence, his busy brain was registering how all external considerations had been subsumed in the overwhelming effort it was taking to get through this punishment with his dignity intact. All sense of embarrassment at being bent over the back of the sofa had been banished. All sense of guilt about behaving so badly at work was being wiped out as he paid the penalty he knew he deserved. The one extraneous thought which crossed his mind was gratitude that he’d put on his newest pair of jeans, the thick denim of which was absorbing some, but by no means all, of the cane’s wicked bite.

Jude appeared utterly confident and competent in the use of the implement. None of the strokes overlapped and they were laid down in even, parallel lines which enabled Dominic to accurately gauge where the next searing cut was about to land. In the pause between strokes he found himself tensing every muscle in his body while his brain screamed at Jude to hurry up. Jude continued to administer the punishment with maddening deliberation, finishing with a final stroke across the top of Dominic’s thighs which finally drew a yell, caused as much by surprise as by pain, although Jude had deliberately put a bit more force into the final blow.

Jude stood still for a moment and then went to put the cane back in the desk drawer, leaving Dominic still prone over the back of the sofa. The young man was panting as though he’d just run a hundred metre race and he was frantically scrubbing the dampness off his cheeks with the heel of his hand.  He didn’t want Jude to think he’d succumbed to tears when it was merely a case of the sting causing his eyes to water.

“Up you get,” encouraged Jude as he returned to help his partner lever himself off the sofa.

Dominic pulled himself stiffly upright and stood jiggling his legs and rubbing his buttocks in an effort to dispel the burn which didn’t seem to be diminishing. He raised his eyes with some embarrassment to Jude’s face and then said a touch accusingly, “That hurt!”

“What did you expect?” responded Jude, unmoved. “It was meant to.”

Dominic slipped his hands inside his unfashionably baggy jeans and ran his hands over the bare skin of his backside, registering with shock the slight ridges scored into his flesh.

“I’ve got lines across my bottom,” he wailed. “I can feel them.”

“They’re welts,” explained Jude calmly. “They’ll be gone by the morning and you won’t have a mark left. I went easy on you.”

“Easy! You call that easy! I’m never going to be caned again.”

“That’s entirely up to you, love. I’m not going to use the cane unless you do something potentially dangerous or damaging to yourself. And I’m pleased to hear you’re never going to render yourself liable to such a penalty again.”

“Never again,” echoed Dominic with feeling.

Jude experienced a moment’s unease as he heard the finality in Dominic’s tone. He placed his hands on Dominic’s shoulders, stilling his partner’s rhythmic movements so he could look closely into his upturned face. “Are you telling me you’re withdrawing your consent to this form of punishment?” When Dominic didn’t immediately respond Jude added quietly but with a directness which Dominic couldn’t ignore, “You know you can always tell me that you don’t want me to punish you in this way again. I’m never going to act without your consent and if you wish to say no, this is the time to do it.”

Dominic ducked his head in shame and replied so inaudibly that Jude pulled him closer and asked him to repeat his answer.

“I’m not saying no,” he whispered, his cheeks flaming with embarrassment. “I know I deserved this and you’re right; it will make me think twice about taking illegal shortcuts in future. I was just saying that I don’t want to be caned again, not that I… not that I would refuse.”

Jude hugged him. “Don’t look so ashamed, love. That was a brave answer and I’m proud of you. It means our agreement stands and you’re going to do your very best not to land yourself in a position like this again. Now, do you think you could sit and eat some of that casserole you helped me make?  You can take one of those cushions for the kitchen chair if you think it’ll help.”

Dominic had been hungry earlier in the evening but now he wasn’t sure if he could eat anything. Nonetheless, he dutifully picked up one of the cushions from the sofa and followed Jude into the kitchen. He noticed gratefully that Jude only gave him a small portion but the appetising smell of the meal soon overcame his initial reluctance and he found himself tucking in and accepting a second helping. The blaze in his backside seemed to be settling to a more general soreness, helped in no small part by the cushioning effect of the well stuffed pillow he’d selected. His comfort, however, was fully restored by Jude’s reassuring manner and deliberately bland conversation which made no further reference to the traumatic events of the day.  It was only after dinner that they returned to the subject when Dominic went to fetch his laptop and hesitantly showed Jude the first draft of his letters of apology. Jude’s positive reaction was immediate and unfeigned and Dominic couldn’t help but be cheered by his partner’s praise. The letters were honest, clearly expressed and overflowing with a simple and sincere sense of regret. Only Dominic’s customary self criticism had condemned them as unsatisfactory. They needed little revision before Jude insisted that Dominic save them to his site at work and then turn off the laptop. After that Dominic was not surprised to be sent upstairs to take a shower and make ready for bed.

The pattern of his evenings for the next week or so was boringly predictable but Dominic knew better than to make any negative comment. After dinner he was parked at the kitchen table with the study materials for his forthcoming examination. He was able to power through chapters at speed, as Jude very well knew. Jude also had no doubt that there would be little in the books with which Dominic was not already fully conversant, but he oversaw Dominic’s study time as an exercise in discipline and application. Each evening he required Dominic to present him with a brief handwritten synopsis of his reading at the end of the allotted two hour’s study period. It was highly technical stuff which he didn’t have a chance of understanding, as Dominic undoubtedly knew. However, he trusted Dominic to complete the task conscientiously and, as he scanned the pages of closely written, elegant script, he realised that Dominic was making a significant effort to render concepts which were self evident to him in language which the layman could understand.  He accepted without comment this simple demonstration of Dominic’s willingness to co-operate and he read every word carefully before he sent Dominic up to bed. Dominic too was mindful of Jude’s requirement that he score full marks in the forthcoming examination. He had the feeling that maybe Jude hadn’t meant him to take the instruction literally but he wasn’t about to ask if he had any leeway; he’d set himself the target of achieving the perfect score.

The night before the examination he couldn’t sleep. The alarm clock was set for six o’clock in the morning to allow for the difficult journey to the school where he was registered as an external candidate. Knowing he had to get up so early was, in itself, a cause of his restlessness but whenever he fell into a fitful doze he was disturbed by anxiety dreams. Eventually Jude put on the light and sat up, pulling Dominic onto his chest.

“What’s the matter, love? Are you worrying about this exam?”

“No. It’s stupid. I’m sorry I disturbed you.”

“How can it be stupid if it’s keeping you awake? Tell me what’s worrying you.”

“I keep dreaming… well, not really dreaming… just imagining, I suppose, when I’m half asleep…”

“What?  Tell me, Dominic. I can’t help you if you don’t share this with me.”

“I don’t know where I have to go in this school tomorrow,” Dominic said with apparent irrelevance. Jude said nothing, sensing that if he remained silent Dominic would go on to explain the reason for his distress. “I won’t know where anything is.”

When Dominic said no more Jude had to ask, “Is that what’s worrying you? Getting lost? You’re not the only external candidate, you know. There’ll be signs to the examination room.”

“I suppose so. It’s just… I won’t know where anything else is, like… like the toilets. And it’s a long exam, two and half hours. What if I need to go?”

Jude released the breath he’d been holding and clasped Dominic tighter, understanding all at once the worries behind that halting admission. There would have been a time when Dominic wouldn’t have given a second thought to the location of the toilets but after his experience with Wilkins and the humiliation of being forced to wet his pants he’d been left with anxieties which tended to surface when under stress. Jude wasn’t even sure whether Dominic himself knew why he was worrying about such a relatively minor issue but he decided that, rather than allude to Dominic’s captivity, he would focus all his efforts on reassuring and comforting his partner.

“If you’re worrying about where to find things at the school, how about I come with you in the morning?” From the immediate relaxation of the tense body in his arms, Jude knew he’d made precisely the right suggestion.

Dominic laughed and said, “That’s ridiculous. I can’t have you take me to school like some infant. What will people think?”

“People can think what they like. You don’t have to explain yourself to anyone. I’ll drive you to the school. I’ll come in with you and we can locate the cloakrooms and the examination room. Then I’ll wait outside and take you home when you’ve finished. How does that sound?”

It sounded wonderful to Dominic but he made a half hearted protest. “You can’t wait for two and a half hours. What will you do?”

“I’ll take my laptop and a pile of reports I need to read. I have a whole morning’s work to do. I won’t get bored, I assure you. Now how about we both get some sleep? We’ve got an early start and you’ve got an exam to pass.”

“I thought you wanted a lot better than a bare pass!”

“As long as you sit the exam in person, love, I’ll be happy.” Jude knew that Dominic had reached the stage when he could take gentle teasing about his misdemeanour.

“And as long as I score full marks, so will I,” replied Dominic with fierce determination as he drifted off to sleep, safe and secure in his lover’s arms.