The Hermitage Museum, housed in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, is one of the great museums of the world. It is said that if you were to spend a minute looking at each exhibit on display in the Hermitage, it would take you eleven years to see them all. Most visitors, however, opt for the half day guided tour which takes in the treasures by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Rembrandt, as well as the museum’s superb collection of Impressionist paintings.
For Mikhail Galayev the attraction of the Hermitage Museum that morning had nothing whatsoever to do with his love of art. The vast building, with its interconnecting galleries and corridors, provided a refuge in which it would be very difficult for anyone to find him. Having fled the technical rehearsal in despair at his own poor performance he had not, on this occasion, run very far from the Mariinsky Theatre. Instead of his usual aimless and headlong flight when uncontrollable panic set in, he had at least found a hiding place which was not only warm but also offered refreshments and a comfortable place to sit down.
Not that Mikhail was in any condition to sit still and have a much needed drink. Instead he walked hastily through the galleries until he came upon the Raphael loggias. There he found the space to continue his agitated pacing up and down the vaulted gallery without casting a second glance at the famous copies of the Vatican frescoes which adorned the walls. The enormity of what he had just done was finally beginning to dawn on him. Nobody, but nobody, would walk out in the middle of a technical rehearsal with less than a week to go before the opening night. Unless, that is, your name was Mikhail Galayev and you were dancing the lead in The Prodigal Son, a short ballet in a programme of works originally choreographed by George Balanchine.
There had been some surprise expressed when Victor Nikolaevich Pavel, the respected ballet director at the Mariinsky, had cast a relative newcomer in a leading role, albeit in a short Balanchine piece. The surprise turned to admiration when the company witnessed the dedication and flair Mikhail brought to the role, fuelled, as in all his important undertakings, by an excess of nervous energy. He was determined to justify Victor’s faith in him and Victor was prepared to spend many additional hours working with Mikhail in the practice studio to perfect his performance. And now, just as their preparation was about to come to fruition, Mikhail had thrown it all away, letting down not just himself but the director, dancers and technicians who were relying on him to give of his best at the technical rehearsal.
Mikhail could hardly bear to think about what must be happening back at the theatre, although he dimly registered the thought that his understudy must have stepped in. What would Victor Pavel be thinking and, more to the point, what action would Mikhail’s partner, Alexey Baranov, be contemplating? Mikhail was unsure whether Alexey had actually witnessed the moment when he had given up in despair and run out of the auditorium back to the dressing room. He had pulled his clothes on hastily over his dancewear and fled, knowing that if Alexey had been watching from the wings he would be hot on his heels. His own disappointment was hard enough to bear; he couldn’t face seeing that disappointment reflected back at him from the depths of Alexey’s brown eyes.
Alexey had been so delighted for Mikhail when he was first chosen to dance the role of the prodigal son. Alexey himself had already been given the opportunity to take a leading role on the famous stage of the Mariinsky Theatre and he knew it was his lover’s greatest ambition to do the same. The day Mikhail got the part they had gone out to dinner together to celebrate. But first of all Mikhail had made an excited telephone call to his mother to share the news which he knew would soon be the talk of their neighbourhood back home in the Ukraine. The next day he started to plan for mama and grandpa to come to St Petersburg to see him dance on the opening night.
Alexey soon noticed a greater maturity in his partner as Mikhail gave more attention and commitment in dance classes in an effort to perfect his technique. Mikhail also stayed behind after rehearsals some days in order to put in extra practice on his own before working with Victor on his solo role. Alexey would sometimes wait for him to finish, noting his sweat soaked body and trembling limbs as he peeled off his unitard, having put every ounce of his strength into the part. Sometimes he needed to sit down for a while after his shower to summon up the energy to walk home.
Alexey wasn’t worried about the physical demands of the role. As dancers they both knew the level of fitness and strength required to produce the seemingly effortless fluidity of movement on stage. But as the opening night of the new season drew closer Alexey became conscious of Mikhail’s rising tension. It manifested itself at first during the night when Mikhail’s restlessness began to keep them both awake. At two o’clock one morning, held firmly in Alexey’s strong arms and shielded by the darkness, Mikhail had, reluctantly at first but then with growing relief, confessed his fear that he wasn’t up to the demands of the role.
“I keep having such awful nightmares as well, Alesha. I’m on stage and I keep tripping up and making mistakes. Everyone starts laughing. It feels so real. I’m getting really worried about the opening night.”
Alexey did his best to reassure his trembling partner. “That’s a very common dream, Misha. You’ll find that most performers go through this. We all have our first night nerves. That fear and tension will drive you to give the performance of your life. You’re a natural in the role. I’m so proud of you and so much looking forward to your debut.”
Mikhail calmed down for the time being but his fears did not go away. Increasingly Alexey woke in the night to find the space in bed beside him empty and cold. When he went in search of his lover he found him either pacing the sitting room in agitation or sitting at the kitchen table in the dark, clutching a stone cold mug of tea. Alexey would sometimes coax, sometimes order his partner back to bed; he used whatever tactic he judged would work best. But always he focused on building Mikhail’s confidence, reassuring him about his ability and talent, promising him that his performance would be a triumph.
In the Hermitage Museum, Mikhail was now remembering the many encouraging words which had been whispered to him as he lay in the enveloping comfort of Alexey’s arms. After pacing the galleries for what seemed like hours, he'd finally succumbed to emotional, if not physical, exhaustion. He made his way to the museum café and bought a large mug of hot chocolate, taking it to a corner table where he could sit on his own and try to think rationally. He knew that Alexey would never lie to him. Maybe Alexey was right and he just might have been able to give the performance of his life. On the other hand, he was so exhausted with worry and lack of sleep it was no wonder he was incapable of performing well at the technical rehearsal. Things could only get worse and so perhaps it was all for the best that his impossible dream had ended right there. Better to break down at the technical rehearsal than on the opening night.
Mikhail tried to focus on his present situation and think about what he should do next. The trouble was that every train of thought ended in rising panic and all he could do was repeat in his head, ‘Oh, God…Oh, God…Oh, God…’ to block out the full horror of his predicament. He found himself focusing on the inconsequential things, like getting a refund on the flights to St Petersburg he had booked for mama and grandpa, just to avoid thinking about his appalling unprofessionalism in running out of the rehearsal. But the unpleasant questions kept resurfacing in his head. How could he face his colleagues after this? Would he even be allowed to remain a member of the corps de ballet? Did he want to be a member of the corps de ballet if all his hopes of becoming a principal dancer with the company were at an end?
Finishing the hot chocolate which had warmed and rehydrated him, Mikhail was no closer to forming a plan of action. Instead, he walked slowly but aimlessly back into the galleries where eventually his attention was caught by an enormous picture which seemed to be a highlight for all the tourist groups. He sat on the bench opposite to study the painting which he now remembered had featured in the initial presentation Victor had given to the company to help them understand the story of the prodigal son. Victor had probably told them that Rembrandt’s famous interpretation of the parable was to be found just down the road in the Hermitage Museum but Mikhail had either not registered or not remembered that fact. Neither had he appreciated that the picture, which he had seen as a small reproduction, did in fact show the figures almost life size.
Having received an entirely secular education, Mikhail was only vaguely aware of the famous story told by Jesus which provided the inspiration for Balanchine’s ballet. But reading the story with Victor he had been excited to think he could portray the wild exuberance of the boy who goes off to spend his inheritance. He also felt able to adopt a very different dance style to render the deep contrition of the young man returning penniless to beg his father’s forgiveness. It was a challenging role but in the beginning Mikhail felt that the part was made for him. Now he looked again at Rembrandt’s painting of The Return of the Prodigal Son which showed the young man kneeling to utter the words, “Father, I have sinned before heaven and before you…” only to feel his father’s comforting hands on his shoulders as he is wrapped in a forgiving embrace.
Until that moment the story of the prodigal son had been an academic study for Mikhail, one aspect of his employment with the Mariinsky Ballet. Now the profound truth of the wonderful parable hit him forcefully. The story had personal relevance once he found himself in the position of the young man who had lost everything, whose only option was to go back and confess what he'd done wrong, with no expectation of receiving anything in return. Mikhail sat gazing for some time at the picture trying to come to terms with its message which, for him, meant going back to the theatre and facing up to the consequences of his actions.
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the first time he'd had to make a humiliating apology to Victor Pavel and he didn’t think he could face that ordeal again. The last time he feared that his career with the Mariinsky Ballet might be over; this time he was virtually certain of it. But Rembrandt’s painting was mesmerising and the message it conveyed could not be ignored. There was also one enormous difference between Mikhail’s situation now and his circumstances when last he faced Victor Pavel’s anger. Now he had Alexey who would always be there for him, who would always help and support him, who would be worried to death about him now, desperate to know where he was hiding.
Mikhail got rapidly to his feet. He couldn’t see his way forward in the long term but he knew with certainty what he needed to do at that moment. He made his way, with one or two erroneous turns, through the maze of galleries back to the main entrance to the museum which brought him out on the embankment beside the Neva River. There he switched on his mobile phone and, without checking for messages, he immediately dialled the stored number for Alexey’s phone which was answered at the first ring.
“Where are you, Misha, my love? Tell me where you are and I’ll come and get you.”
“I’ve been in the Hermitage. I’ve been thinking. But I’m coming home now. Are you there? Are you at the apartment? Don’t come out. I’ll be back shortly.”
“Yes, I’m at home. I love you, Misha. Don’t worry. We’ll sort this out. Promise me you’ll come straight back here.”
“I’m coming. I’m sorry, Alesha. I’m so sorry.”
Alexey was standing on the pavement outside the apartment block watching for his brat’s return. He breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief when he saw the much loved figure trudging towards him. As Mikhail got nearer Alexey held out his arms in the timeless gesture of welcome and acceptance. Hand in hand they climbed the stone steps to their third floor apartment where Mikhail sank down on the sofa and finally gave way to the tears of remorse and despair which had been threatening to overwhelm him ever since he ran from the theatre.
Alexey wrapped a comforting arm around Mikhail’s shoulder and pulled him close, saying nothing as he waited out the storm of tears. Then, when Mikhail’s breathing began to steady, he urged his lover to stand up and took him to the bathroom where he helped him take off his outer clothing and then peel off the sweat stained dancewear which had dried against his body. When Mikhail was standing under the cleansing and refreshing flow of hot water in the shower, Alexey slipped out of the bathroom to make a quick phone call to Victor Pavel. He just said that Mikhail was home safely and that he would ring again to make arrangements when he'd had a chance to talk to his partner. He then went into the bedroom to lay out clean underwear, a tee shirt, jeans and a jumper for Mikhail. Walking into their bedroom a few minutes later with a towel round his waist, Mikhail picked up the clothes without comment. His mind was so overburdened with worry that he dressed mechanically without noticing what had been chosen for him.
It was the same story in the kitchen where he accepted without protest a steaming bowl of cabbage soup which Alexey always made with diced beef and served with slices of black rye bread. It was clear that Mikhail hardly tasted the warming and nutritious meal, his mind was fully occupied with worry about his current situation. Alexey made no attempt to capture his attention until they were drinking their coffee and then he spoke very gently to tell Mikhail that he had telephoned Victor. Mikhail’s head jerked up in alarm but Alexey reassured him.
“He is so relieved that you came home safely. He said that as long as you’re safe and well, nothing else matters.”
“Of course it matters!” Mikhail’s tension caused him to shout but Alexey ignored the aggression, knowing it was borne of panic.
“I ran away. I can’t perform. I’ve let everybody down.” Mikhail’s voice was lowered now and it trembled with emotion. “Oh, Alesha, what’s going to happen? What am I going to do?”
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, Misha. But I do know what we’re going to do. We are going to sort out what went wrong for you today and then we’re going to find a way forward.” He spoke with a calm assurance which he could see was having its effect on Mikhail who struggled to regain his self control.
“In a moment I’m going to ring Victor back,” he continued,” and I’ll invite him to come over here so we can tackle this together.”
“Oh, no, Alesha. I can’t face him now. I don’t want him to come here. No.”
“I’m sorry, Misha, but he and I have already agreed that we'll deal with this together. You’ve created a massive problem for him with the opening night just days away. You owe it to Victor to face him and explain yourself, and the sooner the better. You can’t put this off indefinitely.”
Alexey steeled himself to remain adamant as Mikhail raised terrified eyes in mute pleading but he added more kindly, “Victor wants to help you. You’ve every reason to trust him. If anyone can find a way out of this mess, it’s Victor. I’m going to ring him now and tell him to come over.”
Mikhail lowered his head and did not argue further. When Alexey returned to the kitchen table Mikhail had a question for him.
“Were you there when I ran off stage?”
“No. If I’d seen you I would have followed. You would never have got out of the theatre, let alone escaped to the Hermitage!”
Mikhail recognised the attempt to lighten the mood and he gave his partner a wry smile.
“Well, it wasn’t entirely a wasted a visit. I did get some guidance there.”
“Really? Who did you see?”
When it became clear that Mikhail was not going to elaborate, having lapsed once more into silent introspection, Alexey decided not to probe. Instead, he mentally filed away the enigmatic answer to discuss with his partner at a later date. He asked no more questions, to spare Mikhail having to repeat his answers for Victor, but quietly set about clearing the table and washing up after the meal. Every time he walked behind Mikhail’s slumped figure, he passed a reassuring hand across his back or caressing fingers through his hair. Mikhail was dimly conscious of the loving attention which kept him from giving way to despair but he jumped up in dread when the doorbell rang.
Alexey guided his terrified lover into the sitting room and then went to let Victor into the apartment. When the three of them were sitting together, Victor took the lead in questioning Mikhail, but in a most unthreatening and non-judgmental manner.
“What went wrong this morning, my boy?” he asked gently. “Why did you run out on us like that?”
“You saw! I couldn’t do it. I was dreadful and I’m not up to dancing a leading role. I should never have accepted the part.”
Alexey put his arms round Mikhail to calm his agitation but Victor’s reply was just as effective in suppressing the young man’s rising panic.
“I’m the one who decides whether or not you are capable of dancing a leading role. Your opinion on the matter is irrelevant. The part of the prodigal son could have been written for you and I have no doubt about your ability, despite a somewhat lacklustre performance today.”
“Oh, come on. We both know why I was cast in the role and it’s got nothing to do with my ability as a dancer.”
Both Victor and Alexey were taken aback by the virulence of Mikhail’s response, as well as being totally baffled by his meaning. Alexey got in first.
“What on earth do you mean, Misha? Why do you think you were offered the role?”
“Because I’m the only one in the company slight enough to be easily lifted by Boris in the final act,” he retorted with bitterness. “Don’t patronise me by suggesting that it had anything to do with my talent as a dancer.”
Victor held up a hand to forestall Alexey’s response. He then leant over and took both Mikhail’s hands in his own and, overcoming momentary resistance, he drew them into his lap.
“Mikhail Ivanovich, look at me.”
Mikhail reluctantly raised his eyes to Victor’s but, when their gaze locked, the seriousness of Victor’s expression convinced Mikhail that the ballet director was about to speak the truth.
“From the moment I saw you audition, I knew that I would eventually put on a production of The Prodigal Son just to showcase your talent. Yes, you have the physique and the looks for the part but you also have the fire, the spirit and the insight to bring the role to life. You seem to have an instinctive understanding of what it feels like to live for the moment, without thought for the consequences. Am I right? Yet, it looks like the weight of the world is on your shoulders in the last act. When you crawl across the stage, back to your estranged father, everyone watching the rehearsal goes silent at the intensity of the moment. You are going to be a sensation when the season opens.”
There could be no doubting the sincerity of Victor’s reassurance. Tears rolled down Mikhail’s cheeks: tears of relief and tears of distress. He truly had not known that his dancing had elicited this reaction from spectators. Plenty of congratulations and words of encouragement and approbation had come his way but typically he had discounted them and relied on his own misapprehensions. His worries had intensified as the opening night drew closer and he had been losing a lot of sleep. That, in turn, had made it more and more difficult for him to see the situation in perspective. His exhaustion had turned his fear of failure into a self fulfilling prophecy at the technical rehearsal.
“I didn’t know! I just didn’t know whether I would be any good. I’m really sorry, Victor Nikolaevich. I’ve been so worried and I’m so tired, I just couldn’t dance today. The thought of the press preview and the opening night was just too much. I had to get away. I’m so sorry. How did you cope without me? What did everyone say?”
“We managed without you… but we’ll manage much better at the dress rehearsal with a properly rested and confident dancer in the leading role. And no one had the time today to talk about you. As far as the company is concerned, you were taken ill and Alexey took you home. The two of you will take tomorrow off and relax. And maybe,” he added pointedly, “you could spend some time discussing the importance of asking for help, rather than running away, when things get too much for you.”
Mikhail blushed and hung his head but when the silence went unbroken Alexey nudged him and he bravely lifted his eyes and spoke with sincerity.
“Victor Nikolaevich, I want to apologise for my conduct today. I do realise what an inconvenience it must have been to the technical crew and the other dancers when I walked out. I know I shouldn’t have done it. I’ll take any punishment you impose… and I suppose the theatre management will dock my pay. Thank you for coming round here tonight and for being so kind to me. I don’t deserve it after today but I promise I’ll do my best in the role of the prodigal son. I want to make you proud of me.”
“I am proud of you, my boy. And I accept your apology. I’m looking forward to seeing my faith in your talent vindicated with a splendid performance on the opening night. That will set the account straight for me. I have no intention of disabusing the theatre management of their belief that you were suddenly taken ill at today’s rehearsal. If there is any punishment due for your conduct I am sure that Alexey will provide what is necessary.”
Mikhail always found the subject of Alexey’s punishments acutely embarrassing but as Victor was the one person who knew the precise nature of their relationship, Mikhail acknowledged his suggestion with a rueful smile. But after Alexey had finished thanking Victor for coming over that evening, and had returned from showing their visitor out of the apartment, he made no move to administer any punishment. That left the younger man with rather mixed feelings. He was so wrung out by the events of the day he really didn’t feel he could take anything more just then. However, now that his worst fears about a failed career had been proved false, he was awash with guilt for behaving with so little regard for others, not to mention the cardinal sin of running away from his problems rather than asking for help. He knew just what view Alexey usually took when he failed to share his worries and fears and more than anything else at that moment he wanted to know that Alexey had forgiven him.
Alexey showed no signs of disapproval though. He turned on their flat screen television and then sat back down on the sofa to watch the football, drawing his brat close. By the time the match was well into the second half he felt Mikhail’s body begin to lean more heavily against his and Mikhail’s head slip down onto his shoulder. Alexey, smiling in satisfaction that his lover had relaxed enough to fall asleep, continued to watch television until the Russian national football team was knocked out of the first round of the World Cup. Then he gently woke Mikhail and guided his sleepy partner into the bedroom where he helped him undress and fall into bed. Within minutes Mikhail had sunk into a deep and dreamless sleep.
In the morning Mikhail slept late, his body catching up on weeks of sleep deprivation. By the time he joined Alexey for a late breakfast he was feeling refreshed and relaxed. He recognised that a huge burden had been lifted from him and he was feeling much more positive about the dress rehearsal scheduled for the following morning. There was just one remaining worry though and he took a deep breath and then raised the subject which his top seemed to be avoiding.
“So what are we going to do about my punishment then, as you can’t spank me?”
There was no need for the two men to discuss the fact that Mikihail couldn’t take a spanking. They both knew that the costume for the prodigal son was too scanty and revealing for them to take any risk that red marks might be visible at the dress rehearsal when publicity photographs would be taken. He would be wearing the shortest mini-kilt imaginable, split to the waist at both sides, with a miniscule pair of flesh coloured briefs underneath. Alexey privately thought it was the sexiest outfit he had ever seen his lover wear and he found himself hoping that the first night audience would not be too distracted to appreciate the quality of his dancing.
Alexey had, nonetheless, given some thought to the question of Mikhail’s punishment. He had lain awake, while Mikhail slept that night, wondering whether his lover had suffered enough and whether this was an occasion to just forgive and forget. On the other hand he suspected that Mikhail was waiting for him to impose a punishment that would help him forgive himself and move on.
As if to echo that thought Mikhail said, “You know how I hate being spanked and now, when you can’t spank me, I find myself wishing you could. Stupid, eh?”
“It’s not stupid, Misha, my love. You’re obviously feeling guilty. How about you tell me why? Then we can discuss what can be done to put matters right.”
“Oh, we both know the reason why, Alesha. I never seem to learn. Getting myself all worried and worked up and not telling you about it. And then running away when it all got too much. I’m pathetic.”
Alexey interrupted Mikhail’s self recrimination, “Hey, you’re not pathetic. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You did talk to me about your concerns and your first leading role is bound to cause some sleepless nights. I just wish you had voiced your misgivings when you were first offered the part. If you had spoken to Victor then, a major cause for your self doubt would have been removed.”
Mikhail took some time to absorb this but then said in a small voice, “I shouldn’t have run away though.”
“No, you shouldn’t. And I’m really disappointed you did that again, Misha, and at such a critical time too. It could have cost you your career. This isn’t the first time you have Victor Pavel to thank for rescuing you. And if I can do anything to prevent it, this will be the last time we have to turn to him to extricate you from a crisis of your own making.”
Alexey spoke in the firm tones to which Mikhail always responded. He had given the matter a lot of thought during the night and he knew exactly what he was going to do. Mikhail was not going to like the decision Alexey had come to but he was going to have to take the punishment his partner had fixed upon.
“Go into our bedroom, Misha, and wait for me there. I’ll be in to deal with this in a few minutes and then we’re going to have a relaxing and enjoyable day together.”
Misha turned and walked without argument into the bedroom. He was conscious of very mixed feelings: relief that Alexey was taking a firm line with him and fear of the imminent and unknown punishment.
When Alexey joined him a few minutes later he was carrying a long wooden ruler and Mikhail knew at once what was coming.
“Oh, no Alesha, I can’t take that. I won’t. I’m not a kid. Please.”
“I think you’ll find, Misha, that there’s nothing childlike about this punishment but if, when we finish, you find it's been insufficient, please tell me and I can add further penalties as necessary. Hold out your hand.”
Mikhail had clasped both hands behind his back when he first saw Alexey holding the ruler. It took all his reserves of courage to drag one hand forward and present it to Alexey, palm up and fingers outstretched. Alexey briefly rested the ruler on Mikhail’s hand as he measured the distance and then brought it down with a fearful crack across the vulnerable palm. Mikhail gasped at the intense sting and he raised hurt and humiliated eyes to his partner.
However embarrassing it was to take a spanking bent butt naked over Alexey’s knee, at least the position afforded a degree of privacy. He could grimace and grit his teeth without Alexey seeing and if his eyes filled with unshed tears he could try to blink them away unobserved. Standing facing his partner, Mikhail felt his cheeks suffuse with shame under Alexey’s close scrutiny. He tried to take his punishment without revealing how much it hurt but he was unable to suppress a wince as each stroke burned a searing path across his hand and tears soon overflowed down his cheeks.
Alexey worked his way slowly and accurately down Mikhail’s palm and across his fingers until he had laid on six hard strokes with the ruler. Afterwards, Mikhail could not prevent himself from squeezing his burning palm under his armpit in a vain attempt to counteract the vicious sting. However, Alexey immediately ordered him to put his hand down to his side and requested that the other hand be offered up for punishment. Mikhail had expected no less but could not suppress a shuddering sigh as he stretched out his unmarked palm for another six stinging blows, by the end of which he was sobbing freely. This time Alexey allowed him to fold his arms and squeeze both hands as tightly as possible into his armpits. The relief was short lived, however. After a minute or so Alexey guided his still sobbing partner into the entrance hall and placed him in the corner, pulling his hands down to his sides before leaving him to go and sit in the living room.
Eventually, when silence, interrupted by the occasional sniffle, indicated that Mikhail had calmed down sufficiently to listen to instructions, Alexey returned with a handkerchief and suggested he blow his nose.
When Mikhail could breathe more freely he asked in pleading tones, “May I come out of the corner now, please?”
“No, I want you to stand here quietly for another twenty minutes and do some serious thinking.”
“You mean I have to reflect on the error of my ways!” Judging by the slightly resentful tone, Mikhail was recovering his equilibrium.
“Oh, no, kid. That would be far too easy.” Alexey broke into a good natured laugh, knowing how readily his partner gave way to self recrimination.
“No. You’re going to spend the first ten minutes reflecting on everything Victor said about your dancing last night. We both know his praises are hard won so you can be very proud of everything he said to you. Think too of the tributes you’ve received from your fellow dancers… and from me Misha. How often have I told you how impressed I’ve been with your dancing and how proud I am of you. Just think of all the people who admire what you do and have faith in you. Concentrate on believing what you’ve been told about your talent.”
A dismissive groan escaped Mikhail’s lips; it was not well received by Alexey.
“I mean it, Misha. Do as I tell you. If you start tormenting yourself about tomorrow, thinking that you’re not going to be able to perform well, then I warn you, I will take active measures to focus your mind on more positive thoughts.”
With that he laid the ruler down with deliberation on the hall table, just within range of Mikhail’s peripheral vision. Mikhail glanced nervously at the implement which Alexey knew would provide powerful aversive conditioning to destructive thinking. Nonetheless, Mikhail responded in a challenging tone.
“You won’t know what I’ve been thinking about.”
Alexey ignored the challenge. His reply was calm and very assured.
“Oh, I’ll know Misha. Believe me, I’ll know.” And he walked out of the entrance hall leaving Mikhail to the task.
‘This is ridiculous,’ Mikhail thought. ‘I can’t stand here thinking how good I am when I messed up so badly yesterday.’
It wasn’t a deliberate act of disobedience on his part, but his brain just started running a scenario in which he made mistake after mistake at the dress rehearsal. He registered a familiar lurch in his stomach and his heart started to race as panic set in. He risked turning round to see if Alexey was watching him from his usual seat in the living room but there was no sign of his partner. Instead Mikhail’s gaze fell on the ruler on the hall table and he was conscious of an even more powerful reaction. Whatever fears the dress rehearsal held, it was scheduled for the next day, whereas he was practically inviting another session with the ruler while his hands were still smarting from the earlier punishment.
It was enough to turn his thoughts very rapidly in the direction required by Alexey. In truth, he hadn’t given any further thought to what Victor had said and now, when he recalled that Victor had planned to cast him in the role of the prodigal son from the day he saw him audition, he felt a glow of pleasure. Victor had said he would be a sensation. He couldn’t remember Victor Pavel ever before using such extravagant language. It was very gratifying. He tried to remember rehearsing the end of the third act and knew it was true that a silence had fallen on the spectators and crew in the auditorium. Now, at last, he knew why. Even the professionals had been moved by the emotion of the moment, an emotion generated by his dancing.
Mikhail jumped at the gentle touch of Alexey’s hands on his shoulders; he hadn’t heard him walk back into the entrance hall. Alexey turned his lover round and, seeing the sparkle and wonder in his eyes, knew with total certainty that he had now absorbed the full significance of Victor’s words. Nonetheless, he inquired whether Mikhail had done as he was told. He did not need to wait for a reply when he saw the guilty expression which flitted across Mikhail’s face and the apprehension which dulled his grey eyes.
‘Damn it,’ he thought. ‘I didn’t want to have to do this.’ He picked up the ruler and turned to Mikhail.
“How long did you spend worrying about making mistakes tomorrow?”
Mikhail gasped at yet further evidence of his partner’s mind reading abilities.
“Only a couple of minutes. I couldn’t help it, Alesha. My brain seems operate independently of my will. When I got myself together I did enjoy doing what you told me to. Really I did.”
“I know that too, Misha, my love. So just a couple of swats for your couple of minutes off task! Hold out your hands.”
Mikhail held out trembling hands and Alexey brought the ruler down swiftly and firmly on one reddened palm and then the other. The sting took Mikhail’s breath away and he had to take a number of rapid, shallow gasps to cope with the pain and recover his composure. Then he raised contrite but smiling eyes to Alexey.
“Sorry,” he whispered.
“For saying that you wouldn’t know what I was thinking about,” came the embarrassed response with just a telltale hint of amusement.
Alexey put his arms round Mikhail and pulled him close, burrowing his face into his lover’s thick, sweet smelling, blonde hair. The two men leant against one another, each drawing comfort from the embrace, then Alexey pulled back.
“Are you ready to start your second ten minutes of corner time?”
“This time I want you to indulge in a fantasy.”
Mikhail looked up eagerly.
“No, not that type of fantasy. Save your erotic imaginings for later, please. I really want you to give this your best shot. I promise you there will be rewards if you do as I ask… but no punishment this time if you don’t.
“I want you to imagine the first night. Start with you getting ready in the dressing room. Imagine how excited you'll be before you make your debut as a leading dancer on that famous stage. Think of the ballet: the audience gasping at the elevation of your leaps and holding their breath at the emotion of that final scene. Then, as Prokofiev’s wonderful music draws to a close, the eruption of applause and cheers, flowers thrown on the stage and congratulations from Victor Pavel and the company at the first night party.”
Alexey did not need to say any more. He could see from the faraway look in Mikhail’s eyes that he was already living the fantasy. He gently turned his lover to the wall and left him to do what all the sports psychologists recommend. ‘Our national football team might do better if they psyched themselves up for victory like this,’ he thought wryly. Knowing how the power of suggestion worked on Mikhail he had no doubt that his lover would make the fantasy a reality, once he had completed the assigned confidence boosting exercise. Alexey checked his watch and then went off to put the finishing touches to arrangements for a special treat he'd been busy preparing for Mikhail.
He had already stripped the bed in the spare bedroom and now he laid out towels over the mattress cover and single pillow. He pulled the curtains and turned off the main light, leaving just the softer glow of the bedside lamp, and finally he put a bottle of massage oil to warm on the radiator which he'd turned up to maximum. Then he went to rescue his lover from a restriction which Mikhail had not found at all boring, immersed as he had been in scenes of his own triumph.
Released from his corner, Mikhail was intrigued to be invited into the spare bedroom and then very pleasantly surprised when Alexey began to undress him, promising him a massage. This was a first in their relationship but when he was lying naked on his front feeling Alexey’s strong fingers easing the tensions and cricks out of his neck and shoulders, Mikhail discovered that his lover was a talented masseur. He relaxed totally and gave himself up to enjoyment of the firm kneading and gentle caressing which rendered him boneless with pleasure.
Alexey too was enjoying the experience of ministering so intimately to his lover’s toned and muscular body. As his oil slicked hands ran down Mikhail’s long back, his thumbs came to rest in the two dimples positioned on either side of his spine. Below them Mikhail’s bottom swelled into two perfect white globes which Alexey stopped to caress and admire. Then, spreading Mikhail’s legs slightly, he concentrated on massaging the powerful thigh and calf muscles, running his fingers through the soft golden fuzz of hair which covered Mikhail’s lower limbs.
Eventually Mikhail had to be roused and persuaded to turn over. Alexey was then able to oil and work on his toes and feet which had the flexibility to form the perfect profile when pointed in the steps of a dance. Gazing along his lover’s prone body, Alexey admired its soft contours and lithe strength. His loving gaze came to rest on the taut skin of Mikhail’s scrotum and his thick penis which emerged from a bed of light brown curls to curve across his thigh, the foreskin bringing his flaccid member to a narrowing tip. Alexey’s sexual response to his lover’s naked body, when it was displayed for his pleasure, was usually immediate and all consuming but this time he just enjoyed admiring Mikhail’s beautiful form as he lay in repose. Mikhail was certainly well endowed but Alexey thought how childlike and vulnerable he looked, lying trustingly on his back with his eyes closed and his breathing slowing with the onset of sleep.
Alexey picked up his lover’s hand and examined the reddened palm and puffy fingertips, each of which he kissed. He then repeated the process with the other hand, deciding that the punishment had not been too severe. He was sure the marks, as well as the swelling, would both be gone before evening and Mikhail’s deep breathing indicated that the smart was not keeping him awake.
Alexey picked up the duvet he had removed and, deciding that their bed linen could be sacrificed, he spread it over Mikhail’s oiled body. Immediately, Mikhail turned onto his side in his sleep and curled up in his favourite foetal position. Alexey turned out the bedside light, happy for his partner to get some extra sleep during the day. Properly rested and with his confidence restored he would be ready to give of his best at the dress rehearsal the following morning. Alexey knew his partner well enough to be sure that if the dress rehearsal and the press preview night went well, Mikhail’s dedication and professionalism would ensure that the first night would be the sensation predicted by Victor Pavel.
On Sunday morning Alexey woke early feeling rather stiff after a night on the sofa. He had insisted that Mikhail share the double bed with his grandpa while Mikhail’s mother currently occupied the spare bedroom. They had all gone to bed very late after the first night party at which Mikhail had been the guest of honour. Alexey had enjoyed watching his lover’s shy but proud response to all the congratulations and his pleasure that mama and grandpa were there to share in his triumph.
The high spot of the party, however, came with the quietly worded praise from Victor Nikolaevich Pavel, “You were a sensation and I’m so proud of you.”
Alexey got up and took a shower, dressing in the clothes he had laid out the night before so he wouldn’t have to disturb the occupants of the master bedroom. He then set out to walk to the shops to buy fresh bread, cheese, buttermilk and eggs for breakfast and to collect the morning papers. On the return journey he flicked through the Leningradskaya Pravda to find the arts page and his attention was immediately caught by a large photograph of Mikhail in mid leap, his muscular legs revealed to full advantage by the scanty costume which, Alexey thought, was barely decent.
However, it was the headline which galvanised him and he broke into a run in his haste to get home and show Mikhail.
A NEW STAR AT THE MARIINSKY